Thursday, December 27, 2012

Financial Reflection: Linear Time and the Willingness to Change

The variable that I rarely hear in the discussion of the financial crisis and the issues that plague our economy is that of time. It appears that our society has become reactive, linear, impatient, and unwilling to look outside the immediacy of whatever issue we are dealing with at any given moment. Because we are constantly reacting rather than actively improving, testing, and producing we are unable to see the benefit of long-term planning and the full impacts of the quick fixes we implement. In addition to short-term thinking, it seems that we forget that the economy and financial systems are of our own design and that we have the power to change not only our actions, but the interconnected system in which we operate.

When I first think of my own role in the economy, finance, and specifically the crisis, it's difficult to not feel powerless. What could I have done? I don't work in the financial industry, invest in the stock market, or even own a home. I am not a shareholder of any corporation. Yet, all of these actions and reactions affect me as a United States citizen and as a global citizen. I am then reminded of the variable of time and the interconnected systems we live in.

When I think about time, especially in regards to financial systems, I am reminded that we all perceive it differently, especially during moments of crisis. Our ability to think about long-term productive solutions to the issues we face is reduced when we exist in a volatile political climate. For example, the most recent "fiscal cliff" crisis has completely swept aside conversation about climate change (and the long term financial effects of a reliance on fossil fuels), our strongly divided dual-party political structure, and even violence in America. This tendency towards distraction during crisis is, I believe, true for those of us deciding how to stimulate the economy as well as those of us who are deciding how to feed our families over the next week. Whether we are desperate for jobs or desperate for food, the immediacy is the same. Collectively, we believe that we need to do whatever it takes to find a solution (now!). And yet, the fiscal cliff will be followed shortly by the Farm Bill Cliff and the deficit cliff... as Maureen Dowd of the New York times describes, "Once you start with the cliffs, you can fall into cliffinity-- with endless cliff riffs on the horizon."

We are living in a paradigm of revolving crisis where the discussion is not about long-term improvements but of short-term fixes. When we only feed the immediacy of now, we fail to see opportunities for long term societal health.

When I think about the interconnected systems we live in, I am reminded of how important it is to break free of linear thinking. If one party is right, then the other must be wrong. If we have this, then we cannot have that. We are in a constant state of compromise where there are clear winners and losers. Does anyone stand to gain when some of us lose, or at least perceive to have lost?

The 2008 financial crisis was the result years of increased government deregulation of the financial sector and the prevalence of complicated financial products such as bundled securities that leveraged bank assets at an alarming rate. For example, banks sold mortgages to Americans to buy homes. Because of the high rate that homes were being purchased at, home prices rose. Banks that lend, before deregulation, were not legally allowed to sell high risk investment products but because of deregulation of the banking sector, the very banks that sold mortgages were (and are) able to bundle these mortgages and sell them as securities to other investment banks. This allowed lending banks to turn a profit quickly and not wait for homeowners to pay off their mortgage over time. This short-term payoff caused these banks to relax their standards of who they sold mortgages to, meaning that, many, many people who could technically not afford to pay back their loans were given them anyway. Options on these bundled mortgage securities were then sold meaning that some banks (and investors) stood to gain whether these mortgages were paid back or not, whether Americans were able to make their payments and keep their homes or not. When people began to default on their mortgages, the chain of investments that leveraged and releveraged other people's "real wealth, fell apart.

Over the years that led up to the crisis, those who who sold these highly leveraged financial products made an incredible amount of money by being rewarded for their risk taking. Those who leveraged people's long term investments to make a short-term gain were rewarded with cash. As David Korten says, phantom wealth was created by leveraging other people's real wealth. Phantom wealth being money that is created by accounting tricks and real wealth being productive uses of money in such things as homes and infrastructure that helps people meet basic needs and increase the capacity of even more people to do so. As phantom wealth increased for a few, real wealth diminished for many. Whether those who gained understood how their actions and risk taking affected others in the system, they did nonetheless.

In order for us to truly "fix" our economy and ensure that our financial systems perform in a way that helps many people meet their needs and increase our collective capacity to do so, we must think with long-term stability and productivity in mind and appreciate our ability (and responsibility) to adapt the systems we use.

Joel Solomon, a responsible investor from Vancouver British Columbia, once explained the power that each of us has vote with our money. This sentiment is something I now live by. No matter how big of a player we are in the financial system, every dollar we spend has the ability to be productive. Change will take time and there is no one way to fix the economy but by understanding our own role and our own power to influence the systems that we design, we have the opportunity to create financial systems that allow us to thrive.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

If You Are Willing...

Thank you, Sarah Green, Associate Editor at HBR, for tipping me off to an opinion piece that I missed last week in the New York Times.

The piece, "The Go-Nowhere Generation," by Todd G. Buckholz and Victoria Buckholz, a critique of the millenial generation, is an incredible display of two of the biggest challenges (also known as opportunities) of our times: One, the disillusionment of an entire generation with almost every current system in place, and two, the seeming obliviousness that older generations have to a movement and an economy that is being developed right under their noses.

Another opinion piece that ran recently in the Times also points to the challenge of disillusionment.

Christy Wampole's critique of hipsterdom and all its irony appears at face value to echo the sentiments of the Buckholz's piece; our generation needs to grow up and start taking things seriously. Wampole believes that hipsters somehow feel nostalgic for times they never actually lived. By growing mustaches, raising chickens, learning to pickle things, and filtering their digital photographs to "look old" they are living in irony because, how could and why would they ever hark back to a time they never actually experienced? The answer is because we are a generation with a dearth of living role models and we are a generation collectively going through paradigm shattering change where every system we know is falling apart.

I'll frame this disillusion with a personal story.

On September 11, 2001, I turned 18. I was a senior in high school from rural Western Massachusetts preparing to apply to college. I felt privileged to come from a supportive family and community and was raised to be aware of the world outside and those without privilege. Until that day, I viewed the world as full of opportunity. I knew there was war, poverty, atrocities, and many, many people in the world who did not feel this same way as I did, but because there was the promise of opportunity, I felt optimistic about my role in making the world a better place.

Things shifted after that day. My perspective of my role in the world changed. Rather than operating on optimism, the world (I knew) began to operate on fear. Purse strings tightened, along with security and trust. My friends who had signed up for the National Guard with the promise of tuition and higher education found themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. My friends who applied to college with the promise of employment, found themselves feeling dismal about their prospects upon graduation. There was a collective shift from, "what can't I do to," to "what the hell can I do."

Disillusionment is not the same as apathy. If we are speaking in generalities, my generation is not apathetic, we are disillusioned and fed up with what we have to deal with. Staying home to save money and using technology that connects us is not apathetic just as learning to pickle things and developing other self reliant skills because of the realization that the economic system we were born into may not exist in the near future is not ironic. If we were apathetic we would be pretending like the world around us has not changed. We would be doing things your way. The combination of this generational awareness of the need for systemic change, our increased global connectivity, and new (old) skills that allow us to meet our basic human needs actually gives our society a chance to adapt and survive. Apathetic we are not.

Calling an advertisement an advertisement, within an advertisement, may be ironic. It may also be a sign of disillusion with a medium within a broken system. I see the irony too. More disturbing than hipsters wearing trucker hats, when they've never actually driven a truck, is that the only mainstream media figures telling the truth about our pathetic government are doing so on Comedy Central. Perhaps turning to irony is not an aversion to risk but a collective strategic attempt to hold up a mirror and show the generations who built the broken systems that we've inherited how ridiculous everything they did before us was. If I sound disillusioned, I am. The great thing, is that my tone in this post is both a symptom of inheriting a broken system and of my deep belief that my generation is seizing this opportunity and is in the process of harnessing our collective disillusion to create real long term change.

Christy, I appreciate your humility and self critique as well as your frustration with irony. And, please remember that everyday is an opportunity to live in sincerity.

The second challenge, this lack of awareness that older generations have to the changes they cannot see or measure, also provides great opportunity. Let me hold a mirror to a couple of the questions and points I heard in the Buckholz's article, and again, I'm speaking in generalities.

Why don't you get off your ass, hit the road, and find opportunity?

I if I may, why didn't you value community and sense of place enough and bust your ass to make your hometown a better place for the next generation?

I see a great movement toward a deeper respect for place and community. I have friends across the country working to make their communities, many of which have high unemployment, better places for the people that call them home. Even in Portland, OR, where I live, the epicenter of hipsterdom and the DIY economy, (where young people come to retire), I see a generation of young people who genuinely care about this place and are actively prototyping scrappy business that can thrive in a new economic paradigm.

You're not even buying bicycles. Even further proof of your sedentary lifestyle! (What?) 

There is an entire economy that is being built based on meeting human needs, living within systemic means, and building productive and real wealth. Craigslist, or, selling the stuff you don't want anymore to people who do want it, is just an example of how we are shifting from an economy based on consumption and growth to an economy that meets the needs of people and within the systems means of the planet.

It's not that our generation doesn't care, in general, it's that our generation doesn't care about the only way you know how to do things. So, it's no surprise to us that you explain what you see with cynicism and poor logic.

The irony of the Buckholz's piece is glaring. The only thing more ironic than pointing to rebels and risk takers who shunned the status quo and who were misunderstood by the generations who came before them, to prove their views about our generation, is their use of targeted cynicism and passive tough-love to shake us out of our disillusionment of the cynical, fear-based, and passive systems they perpetuate. The fact that they are using cynicism, shallow data, and a lack of long term systemic thinking to sell their books, proves the sentiment of our generation. If you want us to be like you, all we ask is that you change. Until we see that change, we're going to assume that it's business as usual. A business with practices that have left our country with a mess that our generation is stuck with cleaning up.

If you're willing, perhaps the greatest opportunity to build a high performing society and a strong resilient economy is to match your experience, resources, and knowledge of current systems with our ambition to change. I have the absolute privilege and honor of working with authentic, passionate, hard working leaders from older generations. Because of these people I have hope that the shallow cynical thinking I read in pieces such the Buckholz's  and this one in Forbes (from four years ago) that essentially calls social entrepreneurship a cute fad and likens it to "cuddling up to Barny," is on its way out.

If you're unwilling, please step aside.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Open Solutions Society - Greg Dees - Portland - November 9, 2012

On Friday evening, Greg Dees, professor at Duke University's Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and who many call the godfather of social entrepreneurship, introduced a group at the Pacific Northwest College of Art to the concept of what he calls the open solutions society. The concept, which I believe will soon be laid out thoroughly in book form, is an all hands on deck approach to collectively solving the issues we face.

The lecture (more of a conversation) was hosted by PNCA's Collaborative Design program and Portland State University's Impact Entrepreneurs. Prior to the conversation, there was an open house at the Collaborative Design space where we learned about three projects that current graduate students in Don Harker's Social Entrepreneurship class are working on. Three groups presented their projects that proposed collaborative design solutions to the opportunities of urban connectivity in East Portland Neighborhoods, the re-purposing of tsunami debris washed up on Oregon shores, and the introduction of systems thinking to the education of our educators.

Dees framed the conversation of the open solutions society with the economic notions that: (1) The world's history is of constant adaptation. (2) Entrepreneurs, risk takers, innovators, must be able to test new ideas. (3) There must be institutions and systems in place for new ideas to be supported and absorbed.

So what does an Open Solutions Society look like? Greg Dees posed the following questions to spur the conversation.







































What do you think?




Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Scrappy Shall Inherit the Earth

The Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of the word scrappy is: having an aggressive and determined spirit : feisty

The definition I prefer is one that I found on a slightly less official source, yet a source that, I believe, more accurately represents the way people use the word currently. 

Urban Dictionary, more specifically the user skippy88, defines scrappy as: "seemingly small and unthreatening but shockingly able to kick your ass and anyone else's." Here's how it reads in a sentence: "Look at that scrappy lil dude over there. He just beat the crap out of those punks."

The young Hebrew David hoists the head of the Philistine Goliath -
Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Nilofer Merchant recently wrote a series of blog posts for the Harvard Business Review laying out the new rules of doing business in what she, and many others, are calling the social era. The social era is defined by our society's move toward social media to connect and how our ability to be so connected and in contact is shaping our expectations and experiences. She states that the new rules of the social era are based the fact that companies must now be fast, fluid, and flexible to thrive. Rather than gaining superiority through size, companies now must be lean; rather than linear (like Porter's value chain model), the social era is fluid and conversational; and, rather than telling customers what they need, companies must share and collaborate with their community.

I agree. I like to think of the companies that will define the new economy as scrappy and these rules paint a high level picture of how a company can best thrive in it.

So, what does product innovation look like in a scrappy economy where to thrive our companies must be lean, conversational, and collaborative?

I work for an organization who's model of problem solving (design) is based on collaboration. We know that we are nothing without the communities we serve. This approach has allowed us to build trust with our stakeholders and grow and learn with our community as they grow and learn with us.

I believe people are increasingly wanting to feel connected to the brands they support and increasingly see purchases as investments, not just in quality products, but in the companies that produce and sell them. This is especially true in the local movement. People want to support their neighbors' restaurant, the farmer they like talking to at the farmers market, and the local retail establishment that goes out of their way to make their favorite products available.

Local businesses (some) are able to innovate at a high rate, in part, because they are in close contact with their customers and other stakeholders. Small local businesses are inherently lean, conversational, and collaborative. Small local businesses are the original scrappers, able to learn quickly, adjust, and innovate solutions as new market pressures and opportunities arise.

In this new economy, to stay relevant, companies must have the ability to innovate products at a high rate. Because the times we are operating in are also increasingly social in nature, collaborative development of products is crucial to the success of companies making and selling goods.

The below graph represents the rate of product innovation increase as new stakeholders are included in the process of the development of new products. Consider the example of a small manufacturer of high-end shoes that has grown from a small local shop to a company selling their products to customers in multiple countries through their website. The founder working by him or herself can innovate at a certain rate, add employees and the rate increases. Enter vendors, and now their working with new resources, capabilities and understanding of the market. Next, to increase the rate of innovation, the company seeks product partners, each invested in the others' brand and success, innovating products together, sharing knowledge and resources. Finally, what does it look like if customers are intentionally involved in the innovation of new products?

Of course, customers are always considered when new products are developed by any company but  consideration is no longer enough. For customers to be truly invested in a company and their products they must feel invested in. Just as customers of small local businesses have always had a voice in the establishments they support, because of technology and the connectedness it brings to society, everyone has a voice that can be broadcast and picked up almost anywhere at anytime. Because everyone has the ability to broadcast everyone has the opportunity to be heard. This connectedness allows for the incredible opportunity to not just consider customers in the innovation process but to collaborate with customers.

This ever increasing interconnectedness allows lean, conversational, and collaborative businesses to thrive. It allows the scrappers to kick some ass.


A high rate of innovation is not the only key to success. Over the coming weeks, we'll explore what else it means to be scrappy.






Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cynicism

"Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic." It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination."

- Excerpted from "Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz." Frank J. Barrett.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Conscious culture change

Every culture changes over time. They change to adapt to new pressures, they change to allow for new opportunities, they change because members of the group leave or enter, and they change for countless other reasons. The change that fascinates me is that which is conscious. How can an organization look inward and not just shift aspects of its operations or reorganize its structure, but change its very core - change the things that seem inevitable, the most subtle of things. Over the next few months, I'll be seeking out examples of such change and I look forward to sharing what I find.

Caleb

Friday, June 15, 2012

Design = Intent



We're all talking about design but what does it mean? And, how important is it to incorporate design into an organization's culture?

John Hockenberry explains that design is more than creative problem solving, using the Adobe suite, or reinventing the pen, it's having intent in what you do - values and focus and being thoughtful in your actions. These traits are crucial to a high performing culture. 


Polarities within self and company

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

I've been thinking about the balance that organizations must maintain to stay consistent and adapt. Just as a first rate intelligence is able to hold two (seemingly) opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, an organization's culture must balance the need for linear logical behavior that maintains structure and consistency with opportunistic multidimensional thinking that allows for growth and adaptation.

Much of the time, this polarity looks more like a struggle than it does a balance. I believe that highly functioning and successful leaders allow for an ebb and flow - a fluid movement between the need for consistent structure and change.



How will the battle in the workplace end?


Dag Hinrichs explains the constant battle between zombies and visionaries in corporate culture. Will it always be this way?

From TEDxDanubia 2011

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

To be high performing...

I've been reading, talking with friends and colleagues, and racking my brain to understand what it means to be, and what it takes to build, a high performing culture.

Below is a causal loop diagram based on my current thoughts of what the relationships are between the attributes, or variables, that define and must be present within a high performing organizational culture. If you're familiar with causal loop diagrams as a tool for understanding systems, you'll see that there are three reinforcing  loops. If you're wondering what the hell that means, I'll explain.

I believe that an organization can root its culture in any one of these attributes but must address them  all in order to build a truly high performing culture. Let's begin our story with trust, something I feel strongly about and while viewing this diagram and reading the explanation, this of the performance of an organization's culture as the vessel that holds this system.


If there is a high level of trust in an organization, or if level of trust increases, the ability of members within the organization to perform their job in a flexible manner increases. I like to think of flexibility in terms of the ability to bring one's personal strengths, ideas, or work style to a position. As an organization becomes more flexible to allow for individualization and to account for issues that arise, learning within the organization increases, and as we learn, we adapt, which ultimately leads to an organization's ability to last (lastability). The longer an organization lasts, when the preceding attributes are present, the more well being the culture creates for its members and as the members of the culture feel taken care of by its structure and systems, trust increases.

Ah yes, there are two attributes in the diagram that have not been discussed and they happen to be very important.

For an organizational culture to be high performing, it must produce results, as you see, almost all roads lead to results, and there must be some level of collective accountability for the work and the mission.

At this point, this explanation and understanding of what allows an organizational culture to be high performing is based on my own thoughts and conversations with those I respect. What I would LOVE, is your feedback and your thoughts on this. Does it make sense? Is there something missing? What would you add? What do your experiences tell you about what a culture needs to perform at a high level?

We'll continue this conversation in the coming weeks, dive into examples, and look deeper into each of these attributes.

Thanks for engaging!

-Caleb

Monday, April 30, 2012

Late night thoughts on what it takes to build a high performing culture


This image depicts my late night scribbles and an attempt to make sense of my thoughts on what it takes to build a high performing culture within in organization. A second iteration is coming soon.


Monday, April 9, 2012

What is Organizational Culture and Why Does it Matter?


Welcome!

For the next ten or so weeks, I'll be writing on the topic of organizational culture, how culture changes and transforms (within) organizations, and what this means for companies and their multiple bottom lines.

Before we dive in over the coming weeks, let's define organizational culture as something more than just the "culture of an organization."

What?

My first exposure to the concept of sustainability was in a cultural anthropology class that I was taking at a local community college during my junior year in high school. Because the concepts of anthropology have acted as a lens for the formation of my views on both sustainability and business, I will refer to the anthropological definition of culture, which is - the learned patterns of behavior and thought that help a group adapt to its surroundings.

Organization, on the other hand, is defined as - an administrative or functional structure and the people who work within that structure. For our purposes, we will mostly be looking at for-profit businesses.

Organizational culture, therefore, can be defined as - the learned patterns of behavior and thought that help a business adapt within a competitive market. The culture of an organization reflects the collective values and behaviors that contribute to the social and psychological environments that impact the performance and ultimate success of a business.

The fact that organizations have culture probably seems extremely obvious but it is the subtle nuances and vast intricacies of these cultures, how they are constantly changing and transformed by the people and physical environments that influence them, and the ease in which those on the inside of these organizations fail to realize that their culture can be consciously and proactively changed, and how, may not be so obvious.

Why? 

I believe we have the choice to be conscious of the cultures in which we live and work. As we have the  increasing opportunity to align our personal values with our livelihood, our responsibility to take a proactive approach to find innovative ways to improve the structures that make us money and impact the world we depend on, also increases. Our ability to shape the world around us and the success of our ventures depend on our being conscious of and taking responsibility for our collective behavior, our culture.

Looking forward to diving deeper on this topic with you!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Porter's Model Still Relevant? Implications?

There have been two articles over the past month that have questioned the relevance of Porter's five competitive forces and value chain model in the context of all things social. First, Andrew Shipilov questions but ultimately argues that social media does not change the relevance of Porter's forces but more recently, Nilofer Merchant, in Harvard Business Review argues that what she deems the social era (not just social media) does indeed make Porter's model no longer work.

The heart of the question is simply, do companies need to be big to be untouchable?

Merchant explains the social era as being fast, fluid, and flexible, and that gorillas are not the one's being rewarded but rather the gazelles. Prior to the social era, companies had to chase scale to find profit but as it is increasingly easier to quickly shift processes and reach customers through social feedback and marketing channels, it is possible, and even preferable to stay nimble.

I recently read my colleagues blog piece on the recent socent weekend that took place at The Hub Seattle which triggered a question tat I've been working with for years; how can we get more ideas out into the world to be tested so that social change can happen more quickly? The beauty with the social era, is that it is increasingly easier to access the information necessary to take a chance and start a business and the nature of what it takes to be successful rewards those who are nimble, creative, and willing to take risk.

More on this soon.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Politics, Strategy, and the Demise of a Brand



"He's a good man, just in the wrong century."
-Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist.
 
There is no better widely-broadcasted public arena than national politics in the US to witness and study strategy.

The above quote is in reference to Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum who has been making headlines lately for his polarizing rhetoric and a surge in the polls. He has seemingly led the conversation to a religiously charged place where each candidate is jockeying to be the most conservative in the eyes of the public. Santorum is leading the charge to bring religion into the conversation with statements like "separation of church and state make me want to vomit" but is he the one who actually wanted this shift in the debate?

The Obama administration's recent proposal to mandate that religious based health organizations pay for contraception created a fire storm in conservative circles and led to a public discussion on whether contraception should be promoted or even used at all. Was this just another controversial stance by Obama or was this a strategic move to shepherd the republican debate into territory that is only supported by a small number of Americans? All of whom are aligned with an aging political party that is growing increasingly less diverse and seemingly less in tune with a rapidly changing nation.

If the goal is differentiation, the republican party is successfully moving that way, just not in the direction of their ultimate year end goal, to occupy the White House. While each candidate works to position themselves as the conservative of choice, they are moving increasingly farther away from appealing to the moderates and independents that they need to get elected.

We are witnessing the very public demise of a brand, the Republican party. As the world changes and evolves around the party that currently has control of the House of Representatives, they are failing to realize that their rigidity, a core value that their most public figures praise, is what will ultimately be their downfall. Flexibility and the ability to adapt is core to the existence of any brand.

If the Republican party continues to stand their ground, they will soon be left with no earth beneath their feet.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Same Same but Different

In a post back in November, I wrote about an event I attended called the Oregon Imagination Conversation that was hosted at the Ziba auditorium. This event was a focused discussion on the state of imagination in Oregon and how imagination could be harnessed to address issues that the state faces.

This past Thursday, I attended an event at the Ziba auditorium put on by GOOD Magazine called GOOD Ideas For Cities aimed at harnessing local ideas and finding creative solutions to challenges that the city of Portland faces.

Mayor Sam Adams was there.

Where as the Imagination Conversation visibly lacked a strong showing of more than ten people under the age of 35, GOOD Ideas For Cities clearly brought out the millenials in full force. It is within this clear dichotomy that lies a major issue opportunity for Portland and a concept that I've been thinking about for a while now.

How can young energy and ideas be combined with experience and resources to get things done? Or how can we create a super generation of movers and shakers hell bent on finding creative solutions that have legs?

Like I said in November, Portland has a strong creative culture that, in part due to the lack of job opportunities, is proving to be quite entrepreneurial. And on top of being entrepreneurial, this generation in Portland (many of whom have recently moved here from all over the country) want to help solve problems and make their work do good things for the community. Many of them truly love this community and are looking for ways to plug in.

So my next question is, what is community? Is community something we are born into? Is it something that you automatically  become a part of once you touch down in a new place?

The way I look at it, community is whatever we want it to be, it's the collective efforts of people in the same place or with a similar mission. And based on this, Portland has two communities that are awfully close to becoming one based on the fact that these groups of people, young and old, native Oregonian and not, established or seeking solid ground, are in the same western outpost trying to make it a better place.

I knew this was true in November and now seeing another event, in the same space, with starkly different age groups in attendance working to tackle similar issues, it's even clearer that there is a bright opportunity here, who's in?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Economic Nostalgia


Yes, it's true and what does this mean? Is this the way society is headed regardless of whether knitting, canning, and overall self reliance is trending or not?

The culture in Portland seems to heading this way. Underneath the ridiculous trends and all the talk of hipsterdom, there is a an honest desire by many to be more self reliant. Because of this, the economy seems to be cutting out the fat and becoming more lean.

What types of opportunities will come from this shift? We're already seeing the emergence of a world class food culture in Portland, what else?

Monday, January 30, 2012

What Would You Change? - Part 2





I wanted to continue my thoughts regarding the business I started and try to answer the question, what would you change?

We're focused on strategy this week, so let's dive in.

When we launched our space, we knew that it was different. We wanted it that way. We were trying to build a professional space that would spur synergy, creativity, and economic development. Our vision was strong, our strategy, specifically how we positioned the space among competitors was not.

We started the space in September 2008, right when the economy was starting to take a dive. I decided to market the space as "affordable office space (plus)." The "affordable" would get them in the door and the added benefits of co-working would keep them and hopefully change their  perspective of the value they were receiving. From a sales standpoint, this worked well. Inexpensive office space got people in the door, singing leases, and paying rent. But, this strategy led to negative impacts to our brand down the road.

When differentiating between our space, a large open plan with 15 work stations, with our competition, which were mostly private office spaces scattered throughout town, we positioned it as "affordable" rather than open, creative, and different. This position led potential customers to believe that our space was affordable because it was open and shared, and therefore was inferior to private office space. When the real estate market worsened and landlords in the town began lowering the rent of their private offices, it made even current customers at the time ask why they would pay the same amount for open space as they would for a private space.

 All that said, due to the timeliness of the launch, I don't know what other strategy would have worked better. The strong economic forces that were bearing down on our small piece of the economy led all of us who were providing space and business amenities to have to adapt very quickly and often.




Sunday, January 22, 2012

What would you change?

For me, this is a pretty strange question. I often don't think about what I would change because I find that there are so many valuable lessons to be learned from diving in head first into experiences like starting a business or...enrolling in grad school.

In September 2008, I started a business. (An excellent time to go into business...) I'm often asked what I would have changed about my business model knowing what I know now. Until recently, I didn't have the context to answer this question with insight outside of my own experiences. Now, I'm starting to formulate news ideas about what I could have done differently.

My business was a 3,500 square foot incubator and co-working office space that I designed and developed with the vision that it would be a catalyst for economic development in my hometown of Shelburne Falls, MA. I envisioned a thriving hub of young entrepreneurs working in synergy and inspiring the community to look ahead. I ran the space for tow years until it was no longer feasible for me to do so. I was not turning enough of a profit to live off of and it was taking up too much of my time to manage. In 2010, I worked with the building owner, a friend and mentor, and transitioned the space into his hands. This allowed me to step out and make an important life change and made it so the space continued to exist and provide value for both the owner and the tenants. When I left there were 15 tenants. There are now 25.

I used to answer that question of what I would change by explaining how I had become a middle man with all the risk. I was leasing a space, making improvements, and releasing it to tenants who wanted to share space and work alongside each other. Because I had no ownership of the building, I had nothing to borrow on and had little control of the expenses of the building.

What I realize now, when thinking about my business model, is that the value proposition was not fully aligned with the existing customer segments within the community. And, I did not have a financial plan that allowed me to bridge the existing needs of the customers with my long term and idealized vision of what the space would be and how it would affect the community.

In a strategy discussion during last month's intensive at BGI we discussed the role of intuition in business strategy. It may have been intuition that led me to build the space, that allowed me to make it something real, and ultimately led me to know that it was time for me to step away. I am thankful for this and I now realize that I put too much reliance on this intuition when starting the space. What is now apparent that was missing were the tools and resources necessary to run all aspects of the  business.

My thoughts are still formulating around this topic so this post is...to be continued.







Wednesday, January 4, 2012

When they Zig...



I'm currently reading a book called Zag, by Marty Neumeier of the Liquid Agency. In it, is the best definition for brand that I have heard. Neumeier defines brand as, "A person's gut feeling about a product, service, or company."

Could it really be that simple?

In essence, yes. Perhaps a company's control and degree of understanding of its own core qualities helps to strategically position itself so that it can survive and thrive. Brand has always been important to a company's success and right now it is more important than ever. Customers not only want a quality product at a good price, they want to align themselves with their choices because they know that our choices, our purchases, are a reflection of ourselves. In a way, the stakes have never been higher for companies to develop a solid brand worth emulating. Neumeier argues that the winning manufacturer is no longer the one with the best product but the one with the fastest supply chain. He quotes supply chain expert Rob Rodin who explains that companies today have no choice but to connect to the "three insatiable demands of business - free, perfect, and now."

How are companies to survive in such a climate, let alone compete?

Zag, simply implies that when everyone else zigs, you must zag.  Neumeier explains that companies no longer have to just compete with other companies to do things in a more cost effective and efficient way, they must compete with the absolute clutter and constant bombardment that the modern marketplace...provides us. Not only must companies stand out from the pack, they must somehow stand aside while the torrent of products and services flow by in a raging torrent. Marketing wise, rather than just yelling louder to be heard, being clever or witty, a company must be so different and confident in its own brand that it shines so (subtly) that nothing else compares. The best brands have always known this and now because of the incredible rate at which ideas and products are actualized  there is even less room for error, or, lack of self awareness and realization.

The question that fascinates me is,  how exactly does a company's collective understanding of its own brand affect its strategy and ultimate success - and - why can it be so difficult for a company to understand itself in simplistic and elegant terms?