Monday, December 29, 2003

At Least the Protagonist was an Engineer

In is what probably my last December movie review, I will comment briefly on Paycheck, the new Ben Affleck movie which opened at number four this weekend and looks like will sink fast in the theaters.

The movie starts interestingly enough - Affleck is a "reverse engineer" who has the ultimate Non Disclosure Agreement: his memory is wiped every time he finishes a job. Most of his jobs are a few weeks, but he is hired for a job that will last for three years. After he is done and his memory is wiped, the adventure begins.

It's an interesting plot, but some of the details require suspending reality. That in itself is not a problem - that's the point of a lot of movies - but this movie is ruined by "Hollywoodization". I was sucked in for the first 30 minutes but by the time The Big Chase Scene (TM) ensued, the movie had become formulistic. (Why do they always have to have a chase scene? Hasn't everything that CAN be done in a chase been done?)

Two out of Five Stars, or in other words: Rental.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Western Stars in Japanese Commercials

During my numerous trips to Japan, one of the things that always amused me (among many others) were seeing major American stars shilling for products, something they would never do in the U.S. (this is the topic of the movie Lost in Translation, which unfortunately I haven't seen yet). I remember seeing Jody Foster's mug all over subway stations, Harrison Ford in beer commercials, and other major stars. In fact, I think I saw more American actors in commercials than Japanese actors (interestingly enough, I HAVE watched Monday Night Football in Japan, and no, they don't translate it into Japanese).

These commercials are produced with the stipulation that they cannot be shown outside Japan, but thanks to the power of the internet, you get see them here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Executive Christmas Party, or The Art of Small Talk

The Wall Street Journal today talks about the pitfalls of holiday parties and saying the right thing (it requires a subscription, so I won't link to it here), but their advice is to keep it easy on the alcohol, don't stick your foot in your mouth, and especially don't get carried away and start groping that girl from accounting or you might find yourself unemployed by New Year's.

I would add that there are certain items you don't talk to the boss about - religion and politics. Even if he has a picture of the President in his office (mine does), you never know what land mines you might step on, so it is best to leave politics at the door, even if you think you might agree with him. Ditto on religion.

So that means learning the art of small talk, or talking about things without really talking about anything. Safe topics always include sports (golf in this case), recently released movies, vacations you have been on. Kids are usually safe, unless someone happens to have one in jail (this actually happened to me about a decade ago. I asked a manager about his kids, and one was in prison), so stick to YOUR kids and see what else is volunteered. Inevitably the topic usually turns to work since that is usually about the only thing everyone in the room has in common, which it did last night.

I had to keep Mrs. Director from checking her watch every ten minutes, but we made it through the evening keeping up three hours of small talk. In all I think the people who WEREN'T invited to the party got the better deal.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The Virtual Consulting Company

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from an outfit that wanted to "sign me up" as an "as needed" paid consultant. I would fill out a form giving them the segments, companies and products I was an expert in, and when they had a client that needed to pick my brain, I would be contacted to set up a phone consultation. After the call, I would fill out on-line forms to get paid based on the time I spent on the phone, and sometimes for any prep work. (They contacted me via Monster, which has my resume, but not my name, so they knew my specialties, but not who I was).

I was a bit skeptical, figuring this was some sort of scam, sham, or spam, but I decided to fill out their form and see what happened. Worst case they would have my name and email, and lots of Nigerians already have that.

Turns out they're legit. The company is Gerson Lehrman Group and their virtual consulting practice is called The Councils of Advisors (which I will shorten to COA). COA uses the power of the web to create a pool of talent in various segments: tech, healthcare, energy and other segments. When a client needs information on a segment, COA acts as marriage broker, linking the two parties together. The "consultant" tells COA what their hourly rate is, and I assume COA bills the consultant out at "rate+$100" or something along those lines.

This is a clever business plan that creates a win-win-win situation for everyone. The "consultant" is typically doing some other full-time job, so this is a way to pull in a few hundred bucks on the side by allowing someone to pick his brain on stuff he already knows. The client gets the information he is looking for, so he's happy. And COA creates a low overhead consulting company since they don't have a full time "staff", but people who just manage the consultants. They have been around since 1999, so I assume they are doing well after being in business for four years.

Obviously there are a few caveats and ethical considerations for people doing the consulting: don't give out any information about your current employer (if employed), don't release any information that is covered by non-disclosure agreement (NDA), and other common sense measures.

I have already been contacted for two consultations. The first one I had to turn down since the segment was outside my areas of specialty, but the second one is right up my alley. COA gave the client my name and email, and he contacted me to set up a consultation next week. I hit HIS web site, and it is a mutual fund company, so everything seems kosher at that end as well.

I'll update here on how the whole billing/payment process goes.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Marcomm Hints

I got the following email today from a fellow marketing manager whose company is about to get funded:

What are some of the strategies you use to raise the awareness of your company and the product or service you sell? Currently I own outbound product marketing. I've been doing the monthly PR and getting our editorial calendar for 04 lined up and also tradeshow/conference track. But, what else can I really do to get some good lead generation and excitement about our company?

This area would fall under the area of Market Communications, which is not my particular specialty, but I worked with one of the best in the industry - I'll call her Cal Blonde (she would appreciate this appellation and unfortunately does not blog).

Cal Blonde and I worked together with Rorschach at a start-up that blew through $15MM in two rounds. We had INCREDIBLE visibility and awareness - over 100 articles were published on our company within our first 18 months of existence. Our competitors couldn't announce a product without us being quoted in the article. So how did our Marcomm Manager do this?

1. Have an Easily Understood Vision - One of Cal Blonde's strengths was that she was NOT an engineer, but worked at an engineering company. So when the geeks like the engineers and marketing people ran up and told her about the electron noise level of our particular widget, she would give us a blank stare and say "So what!"

Low electron noise level is not a vision. How many wanuzits or klampters you have on your gizmo is not a vision. You need a vision that is easily understood and gives benefit to the layman.

Part of this, of course, is spin. The layman doesn't care or understand the difference between 802.11a vs. 802.11g and which one has the fastest bit rates. What he cares about is FAST, WIRELESS CONNECTIVITY ALLOWING YOU TO DOWNLOAD MOVIES TO YOUR LAPTOP WHILE ON YOUR PATIO! You get the picture.

1a. Be First - Oh yes, you need to be out there first with your vision. If you just copy someone else's vision, you are a "me too" and will always be in the shadow of the leader. That was another reason we were quoted in press articles on our competitors: we were the leader. So if a competitor announced something, we would be asked what we thought, and we just did a big Yaaawwwn. Been there. Done that. Ended up killing that project since the parts sucked. Nothing else will infuriate your competitors as much.

But here's the main point: by being first with a unique vision, you set the tone of your industry and the benchmarks others will be measured against.

And if you're not first? You will have problems creating buzz. Figure out what you ARE first in, and see if you can spin that into a compelling vision that is easy to sell.

By the way, this is why so many companies announce "vapor ware". The need to be first with an announcement is more important than it actually being ready. Remember: perception is reality so if you announce first, and ship second, it is the perception that you led with the announcement that will be remembered.

2. Make it Easy for Your Trade Press - I am talking specifically about the technical trade press, and let me tell you something: technical reporters are NOT technical. Part of it is just the sheer scope of "technology", which covers too many markets for one person to understand well.

We were very careful to spoon feed the press people on our market, our products and our technology. We kept it simple and at high level what the benefits of our product were (see Vision above). Once they had that down, they would just copy what we gave them for the details on klampters and wanuzits.

3. Be a Source of Info for the Press - in other words, network with the important press people in your area. If there is a particular reporter that covers your space, identify him/her and keep them up to date on what is going on in your market, even if you are not involved in the story. What you want to become is a primary source to this person for your particular market so they start calling you up for quotes when your competitors announce something, or find out something you didn't know.

4. Ditto #3 for Analysts - If you have any analysts that cover your particular product space, make sure to befriend them and become a source of info. Analysts can have amazing influence on deciding who is "hot" for a particular product. (For those of you outside of tech, there are investment banks and research companies that follow technology trends).

The whole idea of these little pointers is to keep having your company name come up in the press and analyst reports. When it does, you WILL get hits to your web site asking for info, and I don't think I have to tell you what to do there. It's a long, drawn out process, but if you have an easily understood vision that creates excitement, it really isn't that difficult.

Then, of course, there is the standard Marcomm stuff you should keep up and do - advertising (if appropriate), tradeshows, etc. Here is a standard slide I throw up on this which you might find helpful as well and is self explanatory.

Rorschach, you have any other inputs? Maybe we can get Cal Blonde to give some additional insight?

More Funding For Virtual Keyboards

I first stumbled across "virtual keyboard" technology over a year ago while researching emerging markets. This is one of those technologies that I just think "cool" when I see it. It consists of displaying a keyboard through a laser beam. As you type, sensors pick up your movement and input the corresponding data into your device - cellphone, PDA, laptop, etc.

There are several companies working on this, but Canesta is one of the better known start-ups and just landed more funding.

The technology is currently buggy and has a ways to go before being a mass market feature, but I think this is promising technology since it follows several of my rules of consumer electronics . Namely, it replaces moving parts (keys, input buttons) with electronic input and increases portability and integration. In addition, I think data input technology hasn't kept up with data output technology. We have flat panel displays and high resolution microdisplays, but the mechanical QWERTY keyboard is still the basic template for nearly all input.

There will be several consumer acceptance roadblocks, such as the "feedback" you receive from buttons as you type, and the increasingly important ergonomic issues with repetitive stress, but I think by the end of the decade this will be an accepted technology, most likely in applications we have no clue about today.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

On-Line Christmas Shopping: 0 for 2

I am a fairly regular buyer of goods from the internet, so I thought I would have no problem with on-line shopping this Christmas. Unfortunately, I had two bad experiences: on one I decided to use a "non-brand" retailer, the other I found "seeing and feeling" really are necessary for some purchases.

Consumer Electronics - I have bought all sorts of electronics on-line, and I thought this year's family present of a portable DVD player would be a no-brainer. However, I found a site that carried the model I wanted for nearly $50 less than Amazon, even with shipping. Knowing that I was taking a risk, I decided to go for it (even if one of my best friends works at Amazon).

Well, I got the product, opened it up, and it was obvious it wasn't new. The product was somebody else's return, a floor model, I don't know what - just not new. The good news is that the customer service at this site was actually pretty good. They stated they only sell new products, apologized and offered an exchange or refund. Fearing the worst, I just asked for a refund, so I shipped the product back and got a full refund (verified today). I then re-ordered it from Amazon today (Jim's laughing now). So instead of saving $50 from ordering the first time from Amazon, I ended up spending an extra $15 in return shipping (I still saved on sales tax).

Lesson: Stick to on-line retailers you know and trust, even if you spend a little more.

Jewelry - Again, I knew it would be a risky proposition, but I decided to give jewelry a try this year. As a high-priced item and living in a high sales-tax state, I figured buying on-line would save a bundle in taxes (yeah, I would report it later) and compensate me for the risk.

I bought the product from Blue Nile, which is considered the best on-line retailer for jewelry. I received the product quickly, and it was as described on the site....but it just didn't "wow" me. If I spend that much on a present for my wife, I expect it to knock my socks off, and there were just a few little things that I didn't like.

Like above, Blue Nile was VERY good with its return policy and I sent it back today (another $15 out of pocket). They offered to help me with another selection, but I decided with two weeks left until Christmas that I would buy locally, which I did this afternoon. I ended up spending a little more than I did at Blue Nile, and of course paid sales tax, but I know what I picked wowed me, so I know it will wow my wife.

Lesson: There are just some things you have to see and touch before buying.

Since I am pretty much out of money, I am done with shopping, so I have done my little part to help the economy this Christmas season.

Business Good News Keeps Coming In

At least for the segments I watch. Two headlines that caught my eye today:

IDC Raises PC Forecast for 2003 & 2004

JP Morgan Raises Semiconductor Capital Spending Forecast in 2003, 2004

A few more articles I found today continue the general theme of a broad based recovery in the tech sector. In my particular product category, we are warning our customers to book early for 2004 orders since we are anticipating lengthening lead times and even shortages as we frantically increase capacity (meaning we are ramping capital investment and hiring). I have a meeting on Friday with a company we have never done business with who wants to lock in a long-term supply contract, and my old customers who used to try to renegotiate their pricing down every month are now playing nice and not talking about price - just about getting supply.

These little data points really make me believe that the economy will not be an issue in next year's election. There can be differences of opinion on other matters, but a "poor economy" won't be a legitimate sound bite.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Business Lessons from the Godfather

"I believe in America" is the opening line to The Godfather. While not uttered by one of the Mafia members (it is said by a mortician looking for a favor from the Don), it could have been spoken by anyone in the Corlione family, for The Godfather is a movie about an American success story: Poor boy comes to America. He works hard and starts a business as a young man, which expands and prospers. One of his sons takes over the business when he gets injured, but is ill suited to run it and gets "fired" after a shrewd move by the competition. Another son picks up the reins and is more successful, but gets into some problems with the same competitors, which he resolves with a "hostile takeover".

Like all good American success stories, the movie dispenses some good advice for getting ahead in the rough and tough business world:

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer - Good political advice for all walks of life. If you are trying to get ahead for a promotion, you can bet you aren't the only one with that goal. Part of politicking means dealing with and working with people who you don't like or are even trying to undermine you. The best strategy to deal with these people is to not let them know you are their enemy.

It's not personal, it's business - A hard lesson to learn, but business sometimes means making decisions and choices that go contrary to friendships and relationships. This can mean reprimanding someone in a meeting on Monday after you had dinner with his family on Sunday or kicking off the board a friend who is incompetent. This is the reason why you hear "it's lonely at the top" - making hard business decisions sometimes means making decisions that go against friendships. And if you think this is harsh, I can point to countless businesses that failed since the people in charge were unwilling to make the hard choices due to friendships or perceived personal commitments.

I'll make him an offer he can't refuse - While taking a gun to someone's head during negotiations is frowned on in corporate America, effective negotiating is still essential for getting ahead. If you can't negotiate well, you will have trouble getting ahead, so learn how to do it.

There are other lessons as well, which is why Forbes put both Godfather movies in the top 10 business movies of all time.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Beware Headhunters

In response to my postings about getting job leads, I received an email from a reader wondering "how to get contacted by headhunters". For those of you not familiar with the term, headhunter refers to independent contractors that recruit people for companies. The term does not apply to internal "corporate recruiters" that work inside a company's HR department.

There are two types of headhunters: contingency and contract:

Contingency guys get paid only if/when some company hires you and are generally not under contract by an employer. These guys work on volume, sending anyone's resume they have to any employers that will accept them, figuring if they just get just a small percentage of hits, they will make money. They are the spammers of the HR world and are to be avoided. If they get your resume into an HR department, and you LATER go interview there based on something else, the headhunter still has a "claim" on you for up to a year after they sent in your resume. This claim means the HR department will have to pay the headhunter for hiring you, even if they were not involved. This is referred to having a "price on your head" and could actually HURT your chances of getting a job. This is why you see Principles Only or No Recruiters in some job ads.

Contract headhunters are just that - they are under contract for a particular company for a particular job. They get paid based on their time put it, plus a bonus based on the starting salary once they place a person. Since they want repeat business, they are usually very careful about who they put in front of an employer, so they usually take time to actually do a full interview with you before they even submit your resume with the client. Even if they don't place you, once you talk to these guys you are put into their database, so you may hear from them later about a completely different position. Contract recruiters usually specialize in an industry, geographic location, position (programming, marketing) or "level" (VP and up only , "C" level- CEO, CFO, CTO - only, etc.). Generally speaking, you should cultivate relationships with these guys, but still be careful. I had VERY bad experiences with them during the tech downturn when they felt they could treat unemployed people with contempt (and many of them still do).

Most job advisors will tell you to avoid headhunters and just target the companies you want to work for and do a concerted effort to get into them. Headhunters, however, are useful for finding companies you DIDN'T know about, which is actually how I landed my first job in California (it was a contract recruiter).

Here are some pointers to keep in mind when dealing with headhunters:

1. Don't Publicly Post Your Resume on the Internet - Do not lose control over who has access to your resume. My own resume is on Monster, but listed "anonymously". This means that there is no name or contact number. If anyone finds it interesting, they have to come to me via monster, and still don't know who I am unless I respond. If your entire resume and contact information is out there, then a contingency recruiter can pull it off the site, add it to his database, and spam it out to the world.

2. Always take calls from headhunters - be polite and ask right off if they are contingency or contract (or simply ask if they are calling about a specific job). If it is a contingency, get rid of them, but if a contract, find out more about the position.

3. If you are not interested in a position from a contract headhunter, send them to someone who might be interested - in other words, be helpful. They will remember that and call you back if they have something that is a better fit.

4. Remember that a headhunter does not represent your interests - they are working for the employer. While they may get a bonus based on your starting salary, this is not always the case.

5. If you are in a position to do so, spend money like a drunken sailor on headhunters - Okay, here's the REAL inside scoop on headhunters at the upper levels: If you are in the higher echelon, spend money like there is no tomorrow to contract headhunters to work for your company. I guarantee they will take care of you if you decide to leave or lose your job at that company. (While I have not had direct experience here, I have had several upper echelon people give me this exact advice and have seen it in practice).

The person who sent me the question also wanted to know how to get on a headhunter's list. One way is to get published in some way - as an author or as a quote - in your industry's trade journal since these guys scour the trades for people's name (I have been both quoted and published in my industry rag). In addition, you CAN call some of the contract headhunters that specialize in your area/region and make sure you get into their database. Otherwise, it is really a waiting game to see what comes in.

A good book that covers a lot of this in detail is Rights of Passage at $100,000. I read this a while back before it was updated for the internet and it covers a lot of ground of working with headhunters (its average review is 5 stars).

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

It's The Thought That Counts

Did you know bamboo blooms only once every 60 years?

I learned this from a Holiday Card from a colleague in Asia (and checked it on Google, with most sites saying "25 to 100 years"). Unfortunately, my friend left the greeting in his native language, so I tried using Babblefish to translate it. Here is the picture of the bamboo flower, along with Babblefish's translation:

The large bamboo tree flower which blooms at only 60 years. It shows good fortune and it gives a flower of legend all. Today the good fortune to you. Everybody, the delay which it loves or, tries to send up contents to the friends ~ the good fortune will search even at surroundings minute and it will come!

Okay - I think the general gist of the message is that the bamboo flower, blooming once every 60 years, is a harbinger of good fortune. Its rare blooming should remind us to keep up with friends and loved ones...or something like that. (Anyone else want to take a swag?)

Pretty nice card, really, and will likely be the most unusual this season.

Monday, December 01, 2003

They Always Cancel Shows I Like

This may be old news, but it apparently didn't make anything I read, so I just found out.

I was reviewing my Tivo "Season Pass" listings this weekend (yeah, I had a busy four-day weekend) and noticed that my pass for "Lucky" was still programmed, but nothing had recorded since last spring. A little internet searching today revealed that the show was cancelled in August, after only one season.

I really don't understand this decision since it was a critically acclaimed show. I thought it was an intelligent, if sometimes goofy, program and it was probably the first network show since "Seinfeld" that I actually looked forward to seeing every week.