Saturday, May 22, 2010

The End of a Journey....

...and the beginning of a new one.

After 225 posts, I've decided that it's time to put an end to this blog. Last week our WFU SOB Exec2009 MBA class had their official "Hooding Ceremony" at Wait Chapel, and with that I'm going to wish a fond farewell to something that truly changed my perspective on work and how I interact with people.

More than anything else, I want to thank my family for the incredible support they gave me over the last two years. We knew it wouldn't be easy, and there were times when we questioned if it made sense. But in the end it turned out to be invaluable in helping my future career, and I am forever thankful to them.

When I started the blog, I had just completing my first semester in the program and I felt like my mindset was too focused on the mechanics of learning, on the results (grades), and not enough on the learning process. It was at that point that I decided that I wanted to make my MBA experience more social, more focused on the application of the learning.

As I look back on the blog now, I'm proud of how it evolved and what it taught me about the use of social media, expressing ideas and concepts succinctly, and making a commitment to using the fundamentals of the program as a model for future learning. If I had to make a list of lessons learned, it would go something like this:

  • Get in the habit of writing, everyday if possible. Even if you don't post everyday, it forces you to take an idea from a scrambled thought to something that you feel confident communicating in public.
  • Look for linkages between concepts and ideas. I tried very hard to find examples of topics from one discipline (eg. finance) and show how it was linked to another discipline (eg. marketing). This forced me to put myself in the shoes of the business owner and example how actions in one area effect many other areas of the business. 
  • Look for analogies between industries. Far too often we repeat the mistakes of the past because we only look for answers within our own industry. Often times there are analogies from other industries that can be examined and applied to help solve problems in your industry. 
  • Don't be afraid to explore a "crazy idea", some interesting things might happen. The Internet has become so social (and searchable) that you'll often find complete strangers will offer suggestions or comment about similar thinking they've had. You may also "shelve" the idea now, but find that you come back to it again a few months later after the dynamics of an industry change (or the global economy changes).
  • Even though it's "just blogging", learn how to use the digital tools of the Internet to measure how your blog is doing. You'll be amazed at what you can learn about your readers using free tools (eg. Google Analytics). So just like a business owner, it's important to listen to and understand what your readers are doing around your blog (eg. commenting, visiting for xx minutes, reading specific topics more than others, visiting because of certain keywords, etc.)
  • Write about things that you talk about more than once. You don't need a master strategy for blogging or a novel full of ideas. Just write about topics that come up more than a couple times in your life (or MBA experience). 
  • Create your "personal brand". A blog is a great way to show the world your way of thinking, the depth of your analysis, your sense of humor or your interests. It enhances a boring resume and makes you findable by future job recruiters.  
Thank you to anyone that has ever read the blog, made a comment, or forwarded it along to a friend. It became an extension of my MBA experience, and I'm glad I took the chance to get started 225 posts ago.

- Brian

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Business Models, New Blog and Missing Links

It's been a few weeks since I've posted any updates here, but for good reason. I'll tackle the title of this post in reverse order, so bear with me on where this is going.

Missing Links - For a while, I was using Fridays to post a set of links that I thought pointed to interesting topics that had relevance back to topics we covered in the MBA program, or pointed out future trends I thought my classmates would benefit from.  I've gotten behind on the weekly posts for a couple of reasons: [1] work has kept me busier than normal (not a good excuse, everyone is busy), [2] I'm finding that between Twitter and RSS feeds (mostly blogs) that I am starting to read and consume content in much different ways than just a few months ago and it's not as convenient to aggregate links. Too many concepts and ideas build off the other. I'll do my best to keep the links coming at least bi-weekly.

New Blog - While courses like Organizational Behavior and Leading Change were some of my least favorites during the program because they felt very theory-centric and terminology-centric, I'm finding their applicability to be some of the most important in my current business.  For example, in the IT industry there is a significant interest in a new paradigm called "Cloud Computing". Cloud Computing allows companies to continue to utilize computing and application resources to service their business needs, but it offers the ability to migrate IT from a CAPEX burden to a OPEX cost model that better aligns usage with needs. While most of the IT industry is debating the technologies to enable Cloud Computing, very few people are diving into the organizational changes that will be required to make this model a reality. So for that reason, I've decided to start a new blog called "Clouds of Change" to focus on the people and organizational elements required to make Cloud Computing successful for businesses. If you're interested in the discussion, or how it may impact your business, I invite you to visit the site.

Business Models - As I've mentioned before, one of my entrepreneurial projects is a new business called Gracely Girl Designs.  This is a business that my wife leads, focused on fun, unique, handmade clothing for children aged 1-10 years. The business is still only 6 months old and is a hybrid between an online eCommerce store and a physical store.  30 years from now, after I've retired, I will remember two distinct things from B-School: (1) In the long-run, it's very difficult to sustainably make $1 in profit (or any amount), (2) There is a HUGE difference between creating a great product and creating (and executing) a great business model.

The reason I bring this up is that we tend to get three types of comments from people at shows we attend. From shoppers we get lots of, "those are so cute, we love your designs". We also get plenty of, "do you think you could make me a ?"  From other vendors we often get, "hmm, do you make those yourself?" (wondering if they could make similar items).  We love the compliments and do create custom orders for unique sizes and color combinations, but we often find ourselves having to refer customers to other sources (eg. Etsy) for items that are outside of our target market. Those orders don't fit into our business model (for various reasons). And for other vendors we simply say "yes". Being a hybrid (online/physical) may or may not be the optimum business model in the long run, but we're using it today to allow us to build up the customer base in our local market. Our customers are often mother's of small children, a social network that lives to make recommendations to friends and accept new ideas. We also hope to leverage that to expand our footprint over time, which should drive the online portion of our business. We'll see, it may or may not work out as planned, but the size of the business allows us to rapidly experiment and adjust the model as customer demand changes.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Weekly Links (Feb.1, 2010)

How to Craft a Killer Elevator Pitch - A very good set of tips for an elevator pitch, a new concept/idea pitch, or most presentations.

Crowdsourcing New Product Ideas (Fred Wilson, A VC- For all the people in class that wanted to bring a new concept to market, but were not exactly sure how to bring the right people, skills, technology together. Fred Wilson introduces Quirky, social product development.

What Makes a Great Teacher (The Atlantic Magazine)- This one is partially for Matt Kirk, but it's helpful for anyone trying to leader a teach via education. Some good tips on matching your style of leadership to proven models to teach and lead people.

Monday, February 1, 2010

An Example of Incremental Thinking...

Three or four years ago, when I was still working at Cisco Systems, I was involved with a number of projects looking at next-generation communications and collaboration. At this point, we were well past the early technologies that we created in 1998. We were spending much of our time thinking about the new ways that people were interacting through Social Media, Interactive 3D worlds, and through Contextual Content. We thought about Mobility and Video and how this would change the thinking about a workspace and interactions with co-workers and customers.

And then one day, we went to a meeting with the group focused on new communication devices. The "next-generation" of IP Telephones. Throughout the meeting, they tried to tell us that they were creating new types of "end-points", but the focus kept coming back to telephone functionality. We tried to tell these engineers, designers and product managers that they needed to stop thinking about the device as phone-centric. We told them to think about it as being a communications portal, where voice was just one of the things it could do. Thinking about it as primarily a phone would only lead to an incremental set of features.

Much to my dismay, I saw this today as I surfed the Cisco homepage. After three years of engineering, and at least two years of watching the iPhone change the communications landscape, they still produced a phone.

Somewhere I'm sure there is a Product Manager with a spreadsheet showing a justification the ROI for making incremental changes. And that spreadsheet is probably right next to this new device that looks eerily similar to my Asus Eee PC netbook. And as Steve Jobs reminded us last week, "a netbook is not better at anything...".

Innovation is difficult. But I've found that breaking the mold of Incremental Thinking is even more difficult.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts on the iPad

A few weeks ago, I made some predictions on what might be announced with the Apple tablet device. I tried to include a mix of new technologies, new usage models, and new business opportunities for both Apple and consumers. To a decent extent, I was in the ballpark on most of my predictions, with some of them still being possibilities at a later date.

Like many people, I read the comments from journalists and "experts" after the launch party. I made a mental checklist of items that appeared to be "missing", and features that appeared to be unique. The technologist in me was driving my evaluation. But then I went and watched the keynote by Steve Jobs. As he sat in the chair, surfing the web, it dawned on me that this would actually be the "Internet & media consumption" model of the future. While it was obviously staged, the experience of watching Jobs lose himself while he experienced the world offered a glimpse of the future. The experience appears to be a preview (or 1st generation) of the experience where the activity and the computing device begin to blur, and the computer no longer gets in the way. Marc Cuban seems to agree.

It doesn't do everything that previous devices do, but it does appear to do certain things uniquely well. The definition of a disruptive technology. It will get significantly better over time, just as the iPhone did between the 2G and 3GS models.

Sitting on my couch, typing this blog on my MacBook laptop, I wish I was using an iPad instead. My legs are too warm from the laptop, and the power cord keeps getting in my way. Yes in deed, it's time for a new device and a new paradigm.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Weekly Links (Week of Jan.25, 2010)

This week's links are somewhat Internet-centric, but I've also tried to mix in some interesting ones on leadership, sustainability, quant/statistics and Internet marketing/measurement.

Role Models - (Fred Wilson, A VC Blog, Jan.2010) - I had a conversation with my wife (@GracelyGirl) the other day, as we're starting to see interests from our daughters in various topics. My point to her was if they are interested in things we don't have expertise in (science, art, etc.), we should find someone that can give them guidance and insight. Giving people a role model early in life is so important, especially someone in a nearby age-group, as it helps them understand that their passions and goals are obtainable.

Will the Internet F* with Wall Street? - (Chris Dixon Blog, Jan.2010) - I haven't written about this theme in a little while, so here goes. This article does a nice job of highlighting the difference between doing things differently with technology, and technology being the differentiator to truly disrupt an industry. The article highlights a company called Square (@square), created by the founder of Twitter, which is focused on creating a new way for SMBs and individuals to conduct monetary transactions. Square doesn't disrupt the previous financial industry, but it's thinking like this that could open the doors to new interaction models for the economy.

Will Amazon be the New Wal-Mart? - (GigaOm - Jan.2010) - while companies like WalMart and Best buy have been highlighted for their sustainability initiatives, maybe the company to begin focusing on is Amazon. With Amazon's revenues growing faster than their competitors, should they be driving the next stages of consumer/retail sustainability? Do they have any inherent advantage in this space because they are fundamentally virtual, as opposed to the huge physical footprints of Amazon and Best Buy?

How to Measure the Internet? - For anyone that is getting involved in a business that may drive revenue from online advertising, or will gain share because of online visibility, here are some interesting reads to get a deeper understanding about how the Internet is measure by external agencies. It also highlights how the measurement of the Internet has moved from a sampling-based model to a more direct measurement model.
How to Measure ROI - (Fred Wilson, A VC Blog, Jan.2010) - A quick Entrepreneurial refresher course for anyone starting a business and having to negotiate with investors (Angel, VC, etc.)

Re-examining the Value Chain - Apple Table (The Logical Idea - Jan.2010) - A nice look at how the recently announced Apple iPad show not be evaluated on it's technology, but on it's potential ability to change buying habits of readers of eBooks (or other reading-centric content). A strategic analysis of how it may help or hinder the publishing industry. (note: Some of my pre-announcement and post-announcement thoughts on the iPad)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Weekly Links (Week of Jan.18, 2010)

Find a Bright Spot, and Clone it (Fast Company, Jan.2010) - An excerpt from the upcoming book "Switch" by the Heath brothers (authors of "Made to Stick"). I highly recommend the book to all my classmates that are faced with leading changes in their business or their lives.

Shareholders vs. Stakeholders vs. Communities (January, 2010) - A follow-up to a case study in Global Strategy II, looking at the challenge of pharmaceuticals in emerging markets. This specific item looks at the trade offs between shareholder value, crowd-sourcing Intellectual Property and giving back to communities that can benefit from their older R&D.

New Pampers giving P&G Diaper Rash (January, 2010) - Following up to our Crisis Management discussions with Rick Amee, intertwined with the speed and power of Social Media. This looks at the mistakes P&G made in introducing their "new" Pampers without properly communicating to their customers about the changes and benefits. Plus this article seems especially relevant to teammate Portia Mount and her newborn baby :)

Pepsi Brings in the Health Police (Business Week, Jan.2010) - The current Dean of the Wake Forest Schools of Business hired current Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi. It's interesting to see how an international CEO is taking such dramatic steps to shift the company from US-centric lifestyle foods (soda, chips, pizza), which are less healthy, to a more International-centric approach to nutrition.

Will Walmart's "Sustainability Index" Really Work? (Fast Company, Jan.2010)- An initial look at the impact that Walmart's "Green" initiative is having on their suppliers, their product mix, and the future of supplier relations. It also looks at the difficulties of creating a universal "sustainability index" and labeling model across a breadth of products.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Weekly Links (Week of Jan.11, 2010)

Tonight our class will get back together to receive our diplomas at a ceremony in Winston-Salem, but before I make the two hour journey west on I-40, I thought I'd post a few links that I found interesting and relevant to recent areas we analyzed in class.

Best Buy Wants Your Junk (Fortune: Dec.2009) - A look at how Best Buy not only leverages the "green" movement as a mechanism to drive reputation, but also offers a glimpse into the concept of companies moving from product-centric to service-centric. Towards the end of the article, Best Buy talks about their vision of being directly involved with the recycling of customers old products as part of the overall "eco-value chain".

Can Farming Save Detroit? (Fortune, Dec.2009) - Having grown up near Detroit, and constantly seeing the abandoned houses (left over from the 1968 riots), I always wondered if that space would ever become productivity or useful again. The signs of problems have been visible in Detroit (and Michigan) for many years, with all their eggs in the automotive basket, but it's still amazing to see how quickly things have declined. While this concept is controversial, I am hopeful that it gets traction and begins to be a catalyst for other positive things in the area. It's going to take radical ideas to change a culture that has been embedded for 75 years, but some many incredible things have come from the area that I still hold out hope.

And in honor of our graduation tonight, I'll end with this link from Seth Godin, highlighting the most important aspect that each of us should have taken from the last 18 months. It seems to touch on one of the critical elements that we'd hear if we had a cool graduation speaker.

Stay hungry, Stay foolish my friends...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where Middle Age and The Internet Collide

I've written before that one of the interesting aspects of an Executive MBA program is the challenge that student face between pursuing that "next big idea.." and existing obligations to family, debt, etc. In more cases than not (unfortunately), people tends to stick with something comfortable, a known entity. Forget the fact that the world doesn't reward people for security, and that the world moves faster now than ever before, but it seems to be the nature of many people to take the safe path.

In watching the drama at NBC unfold over their late-night schedule (Jay Leno, Conad O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon), it's interesting to see a similar set of decisions being made. On one hand you have the incumbant, NBC, acting like a middle-aged adult that doesn't want to deal with the new rules of life. Being protective, being predictable. On the other hand, you have newcomer Jimmy Fallon understanding that "Time doesn't matter to me...We're in a different age now." (reference to Internet video, DVRs, etc), being willing to explore the new rules of the game and accepting that things don't need to match the old behavior to be successful.

In a parallel thread, I've just started reading "Linchpin" by Seth Godin. I've written about Seth's influence on me during my MBA many times, but this book is really hitting home for me. The theme of the book is that greatness is the only thing that matters in business anymore. Everything else will be repeatable, and hence replaceable. So each of us need to look at ourselves and find that area of greatness, of passion, or uniqueness and pursuit is with reckless abandon. If you don't, then any short-term security you think you have is probably flawed and could disappear when the next down economy forces your company to rethink your role.

At times I think we all get lulled into thinking that security is good, and that only the little guys need to really be great or innovative. This is a dangerous trap and one that needs to be avoided in order to survive. The Internet only accelerates the pace at which that false sense of security can turn into non-competitive or non-innovative weakness. And besides, life is too short to not be passionate about the things that comsume so much time in our life.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Some Guesses on the Apple Tablet

This really has nothing to do with our MBA program, but everyone in our class knows that I was an Apple fanboy and spend a reasonable amount of time exploring how their latest strategy was changing various markets (music, communication, mobile computing, application distribution, etc.).

In talking to a colleague at work today, we made some predictions on what might get announced if an Apple tablet does hit the market early this year (rumors of announcements at the end of January). I thought it would be interesting to list some of these for comparison at a later time.
  1. I have a hard time believing that Apple would create a purpose built device (like a Kindle). I suspect they are trying to find the sweetspot between an iPhone and a MacBook. Mac OS / Phone OS has too much R&D to not reuse as much as possible. So a form-factor that is similar to a netbook (8-10"), but multi-purpose.
  2. The device will be more like an iPhone than a netbook in form factor. No need for keyboards, flip tops, hinges, etc. Everything will be wireless (Bluetooth, WiFi and 3G, similar to the Kindle).
  3. It will have two modes. The first (mobility) will be like a big iPhone, where you can sit it on your lap and type directly on the screen. All movement will be via gestures, or voice-recognition or the touchscreen. The second mode will include a docking station, which sits the device at a 45* or 60* angle for viewing, and the virtual keyboard and mouse-pad will be projected onto a flat surface (desk, table, floor, coffee-shop, etc.). All the multi-touch gestures will work on the virtual mouse-pad.
  4. By default it will come with an incredible eReader application (iRead). Beyond the Kindle-like features of great display and easy download, it will make reading a social activity by allowing people to easily discuss sections of a reading with communities of friends and like-minded people. Highlight a passage and see if other people have commented on it, asked questions about it, referenced it in other forums (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
  5. It will allow you to easily do all the things you can do with paper-based reading material today: Highlight passages, added notes and doodles (via text, voice-recognition, finger-gestures), earmark pages, etc.
  6. The future of education could be significantly changed by the social aspects of iRead, as the discussion of topics could be happening at almost anytime, with the full class or a subset. Teachers could introduce dynamic quizes &/or checkpoints into the readings to validate comprehension, discouraging a student from proceeding if they haven't grasped a basic concept before moving to an advanced topics.
  7. Through iTunes, it will introduce a self-publishing service for authors. Instead of having to use a publisher and pay for their overhead, it will offer a service to allow people to create professional quality content and distribute it through major channels. People already know how to do self-promotion today (blogs, Twitter, Facebook Fan pages, YouTube, etc.), but they may not have access to editors, graphic artists, speakers for audiobooks, etc. By offering an ala carte menu of services to authors, Apple could radically change the value chain for the publishing landscape, cutting out layers between the author and reader.
  8. By leveraging their existing customer knowledge from iTunes, and now location-based information (mobile device), combined with their recent acquisition of Quattro Wireless, Apple could potentially offer Apple tablet specific content to readers from sources like The New Yorker, The Economist, or other outlets committed to great journalism, not just chasing eyeballs. Revenue splits between Apple and the journalists could fund this.
  9. The tablet will have unique peer-2-peer networking capabilities to share gaming experiences with 6-8 other tablets within close proximity. New games will get written that provide shared experiences.
  10. One of the complaints about the iPhone is the lack of peer-2-peer video, similar to iChat or Skype. The Apple tablet will resolve this, as well as being a great form factor to watch TV/Videos on the train or bus.
Since everyone feels the need to give the new device a name, I'll throw my hat in the ring. Let's go with iBook, combining the concept of a netbook size with the incredible new reading experience and social aspects for consuming content.