Category Archives: Web/Tech

Management And the Art of Saying No

Do you recognize this tactic?

I was at the Apple Latin America headquarters in 1984 for an appointment with Hector Saldana, general manager. I arrived on time for a meeting, Hector came out of his office and welcomed me, walked me to the place to get coffee, and left me in a conference room, promising to be back shortly.

He came back in about 10 minutes, we talked for about 10 minutes, and he was gone. Back in another 10 minutes for maybe 15 minutes, then gone, back, gone, etc. Strategy is focus

I recognized the tactic as what the overbooked pediatrician used to do when he had a room full of parents and babies. Hector was holding several meetings at once. I certainly couldn’t complain, I was a consultant and he was my client.

On the contrary, as I watched, I saw management in action. He came into the room, shaking his head. “Tough situation,” he said. “I’m always saying no to people.”

We talked about that, and Hector said: “Management is nothing more or less than knowing when and how to say no.” That may not be original, but that’s the only time I ever heard it.

Since then, I’ve watched. One of the hardest things business owners and operators do is deciding not to do something. It’s the art of saying no.  Particularly for a growing business, the difference between strategy and chaos is knowing when and how to say no.

This is against the background of the fact that Strategy is Focus. Most growing companies want to do far more than they can effectively do. Bright managers want to seize every opportunity in sight, and all at the same time. In the real world, however, displacement is a fact of life.  Everything you do in a business rules out something else that you can’t do as a result. To grow your business you must focus on well-defined target markets, well-defined products and services, building competitive advantage, capitalizing on your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses.

Yes, all of that seems obvious, and the best strategies are in fact obvious. They come straight from the SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknessess, Opportunities, Threats). They are maintained over the long term, meaning several years.  Successful strategies will be copied by competitors.  Better a mediocre strategy consistently applied over several years than a series of brilliant strategies pushed one after the other.

All of which makes focus the key to effective growth strategies.  And, furthermore, focus means exercising discipline in management, not trying to do everything.  Saying No.

The Vital Fresh Look for Business Survival

The artist knows the scene. He lives there. But he closes his eyes, squinting, to get a fresh view of it. Sometimes things get too familiar. 

Back in the 1970s when I was a foreign correspondent living in Mexico City, I dealt frequently with an American diplomat who provided information about Mexico’s increasing oil exports, which were a big story back then. We had lunch about once a month. He became a friend.

Then one day he told me he was being transferred to another post because he had been in Mexico too long. “What? but you’ve only been here for three years,” I said. I was disappointed for two reasons. “You’ve barely learned the good restaurants!” He explained to me that the U.S. foreign service moved people about every three years on purpose. “Otherwise we think we know everything and we stop questioning assumptions,” he said, “that’s dangerous.”

I remember that day still because I’ve seen the same phenomenon so many times in the years since, in business. We — business owners and operators — are so obviously likely to fall into the same trap. Our business landscape is constantly changing, no matter what business we’re in, but we keep forgetting the fresh look. “We tried that and it didn’t work” is a terrible answer to a suggestion when a few years have gone by.  What didn’t work in 2000 might be just what your business needs right now. But you think you don’t have to try again what didn’t work five years ago.

This is why I advocate the “fresh look” at the market at least once a year.  Existing businesses that want to grow too often skip the part of business planning that requires looking well at your market, why people buy, who competes against you, what else you might do, what your customers think about you. Think of the artist squinting to get a better view of the landscape. Step back from the business and take a new look.  Use the standard Know Your Market techniques and content, just applying it to your business, not a new opportunity.

Talking to customers — well, listening to customers, actually — is particularly important. Don’t ever assume you know what your customers think about your company. Things change. If you don’t poll your customers regularly, do it at least once a year as part of the fresh look.  As an owner, you should listen to at least a few of your customers at least once a year. It’s a good exercise.

For creativity’s sake, think about revising your market segmentation, creating a new segmentation. If for example you’ve divided by size of business, divide by region or type of business or type of decision process. If you’ve always used demographics, use psychographics instead.

Remember to stress benefits. Review what benefits your customers receive when they buy with your, and follow those benefits into a new view of your market.

Question all your assumptions. What has always been true may not be true anymore. That’s what I call the fresh look.


(Note: this was first published here in April of 2006. This version is slightly modified) 

Which is Worse: Making a Mistake or Losing an Opportunity?

What a great thought: how people approach failure is a key to success. That comes straight from Why Failure Drives Innovation, an article by Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing, published in the Stanford Graduate School of Business news page. Consider this:

“Failure” is a dreaded concept for most business people. But failure can actually be a huge engine of innovation for an individual or an organization. The trick lies in approaching it with the right attitude and harnessing it as a blessing, not a curse.

In his article, Prof. Shiv pits fear of making mistakes against fear of losing opportunities. 

He says most individuals, managers and corporations live with fear of making mistakes:

In this mindset, to fail is shameful and painful. Because the brain becomes very risk averse under this line of thinking, innovation is generally nothing more than incremental. You don’t get off-the-charts results.

The entrepreneur, however, is more worries about losing out on opportunities: 

Places like Silicon Valley are full of type 2s. What is shameful to these people is sitting on the sidelines while someone else runs away with a great idea. Failure is not bad; it can actually be exciting. From so-called “failures” emerge those valuable gold nuggets — the “aha!” moments of insight that guide you toward your next innovation.

I like that a lot. I’ve written often that one of the most important traits for entrepreneurs is being able to live with mistakes. This makes perfect sense to me.  

Backroom Backbiting Will Bite You Back

There’s a coffee shop in the Portland (OR) airport with the tagline “good coffee … no backtalk.” It’s hard to see in my picture here, but there it is. 

What I make of this is a reminder about a fundamental business practice that way too many business owners forget. You can’t, simply can’t, let your employees get together and amuse each other by telling stories of how annoying the customers are. 

Seems obvious. But it happens all the time. Criticizing somebody else is the best ice breaker between strangers. When you sit beside a stranger in a plane, does conversation start with how wonderful air travel is? Or does it start with how bad the airline, how late the flight, how small the seats? We criticize. It’s who we are. 

But don’t let it happen behind your scenes, backstage, in your business. Don’t let your employees do it. 

I have no data to prove it, but I’d bet that the the annoyed and self-righteous tone of the petty bureaucrat and counter minder starts behind the scenes, with people sharing stupid questions and annoying traits of the customers. 

Don’t let that happen to your business. 

(Image courtesy of Shelley’s Coffee Notes)

The Thin Line of Fremium Strategies

It’s not like I’m going to say “poor Tripit.” Tripit was purchased last year for $120 Million in cash and stock. So I presume it generated a collection of happy founders. But the pressure on so-called fremium sites, like Tripit, must be tough. I’m getting emails now offering enticements to upgrade. 

I like Tripit. I’m a happy user. I forward those confirmation emails I get from United and Hertz and Hilton to a Tripit email and they keep track of them for me, confirmation numbers, times, the whole collection of trip information. But — and here’s the problem — I don’t like it enough to pay for it. I’d rather keep track of conformation emails than pay for the “Tripit Pro” upgrade. 

And yet I do pay monthly fees for some web apps. I’d give a quick example but the one that comes to mind competes with one I’m involved with, so I’m mentioning neither. But I do, I promise.

And there are also some I’d pay for if I had to. Evernote and Dropbox, for example. Both are free for me but (don’t tell them) if I had to pay they are so useful that I would.  Within reason, that is. 

And there are some I won’t pay for and will stop using before I pay. Like Tripit, which has my sympathy today because of the emails they’re sending me trying to get me to upgrade. 

Specifically, my condolences go out to the people who have to decide how to sort features between free and premium versions. That’s got to be a really tough think line to walk. Tightropes come to mind. I’ve had some brushes with problems like these, which in my case were about light versions and free trials, and I didn’t do well with any of them. Tripit people, good luck with that. 


Some Suggestions for Family Business

I’ve done business with my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and various mixtures of those. Of course the classic advice on this is not to mix business with family.

But people do. I read somewhere that 62 percent of the gross national product of the Western world is produced by family businesses.

Furthermore, I don’t believe (much) in general rules or best practices.

But here are some suggestions that might help you manage the mix between family and business relationships.

  1. Beware of the crossover. The cause of most family business problems is the crossover between different relationships. You don’t mix boss and subordinate relationships with parent-child or siblings or husband-wife. People who are successful working with family separate the roles so you don’t get into family behavior when you’re talking about business. You have business discussions and personal life, and never the twain shall meet. That’s really hard to do, but it’s also vital.
  2. Use physical location to help. Make a rule not to talk about business at home and not to talk about home and kids and relationship problems at the place of business.
  3. Use physical presence to help. Don’t talk about business in front of the kids. Or the parents.
  4. Recognize communication triggers. Often what started as business discussion is suddenly husband-wife or sibling-sibling or parent-child, stop. Call time out. Have a signal. Adopt a safe word. We spend years in patterned habitual behavior based on the family relationship so stopping it for business is hard. We have to work on it.
  5. Don’t forget to acknowledge the advantages of family business. You are working with people you know and trust who care about the same things you do. You share the problems. You share the rewards.
  6. Don’t pretend it’s all arms length and objective. Family factors influence decisions. It’s naive and distracting to pretend they don’t. Try to be aware of how and when they do and manage the long-term objectives accordingly.
  7. Never stop learning.

My wife and I didn’t intend to build a family business. I was on my own consulting and building products and she was (still is) my advisor and confidante. We grew older and our children grew up. People who were once preteens spending Saturday mornings putting sticky labels on plastic software disks grew up and became interested in the business. We never pushed them to, but never tried to avoid it either.

We did employ a family business counselor for several years. Her name was Bonnie Brown Hartley and she was good for us. We met once a month for a session she ran. At one point that was me and my wife and a son, and later our son left but we had two daughters and their husbands involved. The family meetings were a useful format.

The best thing Bonnie did for us was insist on a written family business code of conduct. I won’t pretend we never broke it, but it was a good idea.


The Paradox of Profits

We take it for granted. One of the main goals of a business is making a profit. Right?

Maybe not.

Answer this question: What makes a business more valuable? Is it profits, or growth? Or future prospects?

And then this question: Don’t you have a straight trade-off between profits and growth?

Assume you have money still in your bank account after you’ve booked costs and expenses.

  • That money could be booked right then as profits. 
  • Or you could spend it instead on marketing or product development to enhance future growth. 

Reinvesting profits really happens before the month is closed and that discretionary money is booked as profits. Once it’s down on the accounting statements as profits, it’s almost always going out of the company.

If you can, reinvest your profits before they become profits. 


The New JOBS Act, Crowdfunding, and Shoes Waiting to Drop

It’s less than three weeks since the new JOBS act opened the door to exciting new crowdfunding initiatives. This could be a sweeping change, an end to antiquated laws requiring startups to get investment mainly from so-called accredited investors. And it could be another deregulation causing a lot more problems than it solves. 

For the curious, here’s a quick reading list I’ve compiled, full of excitement, eager anticipation, fears, contradictions, and contention.  

  1. Gene Marks has a good summary in Drilling Down: What Small Business Should Know About Crowdfunding on the New York Times. This one is positive and optimistic. 
  2. For a scathing indictment of the whole idea, how it’s actually more of the deregulation that caused the great recession, try Why Obama’s JOBS Act Couldn’t Suck Worse, by Matt Taibbi on Rolling Stone. (Don’t you love the title? Nothing ambiguous about that.)
  3. For a more long-term academic/intellectual view, try Yale Professor Robert Shiller’s Democratize Wall Street, for Social Good, also on the New York Times. 
  4. Jason Calacanis, founder of and a very well-known and vocal successful entrepreneur, raves about the underlying idea of crowdfunding in The Two Most Important Startups in the World, posted a couple of months ago, before the new bill passed. 
  5. Bob Rice, New York venture capitalist, posted Forget Crowdfunding: Why JOBS Matters on the blog. A couple other posts on the subject on that blog — which is the major platform for angel investment — are Antone Johnson’s train wreck post, in which he fears the worst from crowdfunding before the bill passed;  and then his somewhat-relieved revision in his back on track post a week later. 
  6. Last but not least (since we’re on my blog at the moment) is my What Worries Me About Crowdfunding on the Huffington Post. What worried me then, before the bill passed, still worries me now. 

I could go on with the reading list, but it’s already too long. 

So which is it? All hail the new era of startups let loose from the nasty bureaucratic constraints? Or the opposite, run for the hills because chaos is coming? Obviously somewhere in between the two. Also obviously, a lot will depend on who does what in crowdfunding, and how quickly, and how well. If this new world starts with some very visible unsuccessful but popular deals, for which a lot of people lose money, that’s one scenario. If the regulations manage to control the scams and somebody builds a good crowdfunding site with some reasonable precautions, then that’s another scenario. 

So I’m waiting for that the shoe to drop. 

Q&A: What To Do With Those Web App Ideas

This is question I received over the weekend via my Ask Me page at

I have 3 great app ideas that I think many people will benefit from. I am only 18 and I am absolutely clueless on how I am going to turn my ideas in to a reality…. Any sort of advice will be truly appreciated.

I should start by saying that this is definitely not my expertise.  On the other hand, like you, I see what’s happening in mobile apps, it’s clearly a huge opportunity. So I did some investigating. I do know people in the apps business, I’ve talked to several, done some research, so here is my quick-and-dirty summary.


Good news or bad: If you’re going to pay somebody else to do an app, it’s going to cost at least about $75,000. I say at least because it’s often much more. To keep costs down you must be good at managing developers, probably from remote locations; and you have to have good design.

Good news possibly: some of the best apps are do-it-yourself apps by smart people who learned programming and just did it. Do a good web search. There are lots of learn-programming facilities available on the web, for amazingly low prices. Do you have the persistence to stick with it, learn it, and get good at it? Few do. I’d venture to say the ratio of people who start this path to people who finish it is about the same as the ratio of people who start a novel to people who finish one. But it’s there. Start with

And here’s a tip: Go take a look at Take a look at what they do to bring international developers into a project one by one. Look at some of their examples for design projects, then some for development/coding/web projects. (disclosure: I’m a happy customer, I have no business relationship except I’ve paid them money).



I Love These 5 Use-Everywhere Apps

What makes good software? For me, the use-everywhere factor is a big deal. I work with a desktop using Windows 7, a Mac at home and a Macbook for travel, mobile phone and a tablet computer. The more my gadgets spread, the more I appreciate the apps that let me get to my workspace wherever I am. Kindle Reader

  1. Dropbox. Now the files I’m working on, like drafts of documents and slide shows, show up as part of the file system I browse on my Windows desktop and all of my Macintoshes, and are available to me on my iPad and — not that I want to use them on my mobile phone — on my phone too. Its system software manages to work into natural file browsing too, as least on a desktop in Windows or Mac. Nowadays I routinely save documents to DropBox so I can pick them up wherever I left off, from wherever I am. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t pay for my Dropbox, because they are leaving money on the table. I would pay if they made me. As it is, if I don’t use a whole computer’s worth of storage space, it’s free.
  2. Evernote. Every bit as powerful and as useful as Dropbox, which is saying a lot. I can input a note using a keyboard, a microphone, or a screen shot or website. I can get back to my notes from any computer, laptop, iPad or iPhone I use, and I think I could get it on Android as well, probably on Windows Mobile too. Type a note on the computer you’re at, and access it later when you need it. Fabulous software, and this too is free. And I’d pay for it if they made me.
  3. Kindle reader. I have the Kindle software on every device I have. I’m never caught waiting for something without immediate access to the latest book I’m reading, unless I don’t have my phone. Kindle automatically synchronizes to the last page I was reading on whatever device I was reading last. And it’s on phones, laptops, tablets, and desktops. And it’s free … although obviously I have to buy the books. Lately Kindle has also become a document manager too, so that — to cite one example — when I’m reading business plans I can load them to my Kindle and get the documents anywhere I am.
  4. Roboform. I complained three years ago when I switched to Mac at home and couldn’t get Roboform on my Macs. Now I can, and also on my iPad, and on every phone too. Roboform helps me keep track of logins and passwords, and — God help me — I sure hope it’s safe. Roboform is not free, but some of their browser add-ons are, and it’s worth a lot more than the equivalent of a good lunch, which is what they charge. I think I’m glad they charge me, and I hope they invest that in keeping up with security. They do have updates as often as any software I deal with.
  5. Things. Things, by Cultured Code, gets honorable mention here, for the new beta version that synchronizes my to-do list on iCloud so that I can access it, work with it, and massage it from my phone, iPad, laptop, or desktop Mac. That’s not the production version yet, and it doesn’t extend to Windows. But I do like it a whole lot. Things costs $49.95 and it’s worth every penny to me.

Disclosure: Last week I posted here that I didn’t post this one because there’s so much sleazy spammy tactics going on, paying bloggers for plugs, that I worried you’d think I’m doing that. I’m not. Nobody’s paying me a penny to recommend these five apps, and the ones that aren’t free — Roboform and Things — I purchased.

This is just great software. And I felt like sharing.

(Image: a screen shot from the Amazon Kindle download page.)