Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Milken It: Part One

I flew into Los Angeles last night, and I have a crazy week of Southern California ahead of me.

I spent today and will spend tomorrow at the Milken Institute's Global Conference. John got invited, wanted to go, couldn't make it happen, and sent me in his place. The plan is to learn as much as I can about whatever I can: the more relevant to Acorn, the better.

And I'd like to get the blog involved somehow, so I'll pull some questions out of my notes and throw them up here. If anyone has any answers or feels compelled to share thoughts of any kind, I'd love to hear them.

In no particular order:

-Is it a good thing that credit cards are going to start offering (already do offer?) rewards programs that give away carbon offsets? It's definitely good to purchase those offsets and enable reforestation and stuff, but doesn't earning offsets through consumption kind of defeat their purpose? Aren't offsets meant to raise the price of carbon-intensive goods and services to disincent their purchase and thus disincent carbon dioxide release?

-Word from one of today's panelists is that employees and customers don't want to be controlled. Did we used to want to be controlled? Have we been controlled in the past? Are we still controlled? To a certain extent, right? Against our will? Are we hypnotized? And we're just breaking out of that on a large enough scale to matter? Why? Why now? How did we catch up to the marketers' clever tricks?

-Iceland is trying to attract data centers. They think companies like Google would be excited to run their servers on geothermally generated electrons. It's cheap, and it's renewable. It'll make both climate change conscious customers and bottom line conscious shareholders happy. Might a flocking of data centers to Iceland be the start of some industrial reorganization? Might the geographical sources of the least expensive renewably generated electrons become booming industrial centers?

-There is huge income allocation to education in Asia. It's the number one household expenditure in Korea. It's the number two household expenditure in China. Am I the only person worried about the fact that a huge amount of this investment is WASTED on Confucian-rooted, standardized testing based systems that stunt creativity and churn out cookie cutter scholars that learn to solve problems in innovative ways only after they're liberated from school and get a chance to unlearn? Should we consider this another efficiency crisis? An efficiency of capital allocation crisis?

-Will big private investors push the US government to incent renewable technologies? GE has USD 6 billion to invest in cleantech. They want the best returns they can possibly get, so they want to invest in technologies operating in friendly regulatory environments. Should the US government fear that that capital and much more will flow overseas if it doesn't create an a regulatory environment that incents renewable technologies?

Note: When we were little, my sister's best friend's father worked at a research center called the Island Institute. My sister's friend often misremembered the name. She referred to the building in which her dad worked as the Instant Islandtute. No institute has ever been the same to me since.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Simply Not Simple Enough

Ludovic, the man that originally pushed me to seriously pursue the brand comparison startup project, has been begging me for a real live website. He's sick of talking about the project, seeing people get excited, and then having nothing but a dummy site to show them.

He's right. We've been working on this for quite a while now. We should have something up and running that people can actually USE.

I think the big reason we don't is that I made a rookie mistake in the initial development process last fall and winter.

I didn't strip the idea down to its barest bones.

When I put together the first round of technical specifications, I didn't hold back nearly enough. There were pages I didn't draw and functionality I didn't describe, but I left levels of complexity in the requirements that simply weren't necessary to a concept proving prototype.

I described to the developers what was basically a fully functional site, and I assumed that, despite their other commitments, they could get the whole thing done in three months.

The couldn't, and I take the blame 100%. I distracted them with unnecessary details and caused them to neglect some aspects of the fundamental user experience.

I was overoptimistic. I was careless. I was unable to see my own lack of focus.

I see it now, however. It's frustratingly clear. We we have a prototype site that, while hugely useful for demonstration, interest piquing, and feedback gathering, is just simply not ready for users.

We're working on that, of course. We're considering the possibility of a rebuild using different technology, and we're considering the possibility of making renovations to the foundation we've already built and turning it into something usable.

It's a bummer to have to be operating this way. I'd much rather have a couple of hundred friends banging on an oversimplified site and complaining about what it can't do. But what's done is done. I made a mistake, and I have to live with the holdup I've created.

Hopefully I've learned something. Hopefully there's a moral to the story. Maybe this will only apply to my own personal weirdness, but here goes:

If you think you've simplified an idea, you probably haven't. Simplify it again, radically.


The fact that Wiley and I built a usable first version of twodaddy.com in 10 days tells me I'm making progress. Wiley will no doubt tell you I'm still a huge pain in the ass, a wealth of totally unnecessary ideas. I'd be surprised if he wouldn't concede, however, that I'm much more tolerable than I was six months ago.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Satisfaction?

I'd never thought about human evolution in a serious way before I read The Third Chimpanzee. I'd never thought about agriculture in a serious way before I read Guns, Germs, and Steel. I'd never thought about forest and fishery management in a serious way before I read Collapse.

And I'm just now, after reading this, starting to have serious thoughts about the psychology of state administered justice.

It's the story of Daniel, a man that took responsibility for and succeeded in exacting vengeance on the man that killed his uncle. And it's a quick and preliminary but terrifying and fascinating exploration of the psychology of revenge.

Whether or not you agree with Jared Diamond's conclusions, I think this article is evidence that he is truly one of the most culturally open-minded journalist-authors out there.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Moles Without Secrets

When John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan published The Power of Unreasonable People, they celebrated social entrepreneurs and predicted that they would be the key drivers of big, important change in the future.

The Economist disagreed:

The greatest agents for sustainable change are unlikely to be the well-intentioned folk described in this book, interesting though they are. They are much more likely to be the entirely reasonable people, often working for large companies, who see ways to create better products or reach new markets, and have the resources to do so.

I thought at the time that it was silly to argue about which change agents were the greatest.

Apparently, however, there was never really an argument. The book just hadn't finished its thought.

Elkington and his colleagues at SustainAbility have just released a new report on worldchanging behavior, and it focuses on exactly those people about whom The Economist wrote. It even gives them a fancy name: social intrapreneurs.

Social intrapreneur, n.
1 Someone who works inside major corporations or organizations to develop and promote practical solutions to social or environmental challenges where progress is currently stalled by market failures.

2 Someone who applies the principles of social entrepreneurship inside a major organization.
3 One characterized by an ‘insider-outsider’ mindset and approach.

The report is called The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers. You can read about it here on the SustainAbility site, and you can download it by clicking this link.

I've given it a preliminary flip through, looked at the pictures, and read the bits that caught my immediate attention. I like it so far. I give the authors points for the silliness of the field guide theme, and I give them big points for the animal metaphors.

I have an objection, though. The report is a pdf, and I'm done with pdfs. I want an interactive website instead. It is, after all, the '90s; we're ready to evolve beyond pdf culture.

I don't want to download and print a 60 page document. I don't want to have to reformat weird broken and disorganized text when I copy quotes and paste them elsewhere. I don't want to clutter my desktop or file a new document.

Put The Guide online. Break it up into sections. Give readers a web interface from which we can navigate to the material that interests us most. Build bio pages for the featured social intrapreneurs. Let us leave messages for them. Let us post questions. Let us answer questions other readers have posted. Let us think and interact and give feedback. Let us help you grow The Guide and make it better.

What do you think, SustainAbility? Is there an intrapreneur among you ready to lead a revolution against the tyranny of static, download-based publishing?

Note: I spent all day yesterday surrounded by coal industry lobbyists in Harrisburg, PA at a mini-conference called The Future of Coal. That's an industry that has a big need for some intrapreneurs. Man. Talk about stalemate. You should see coal people talk to enviro NGO people. No trust. A little bit of politeness in the conference setting, but absolutely zero trust.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Votes, Cheesesteaks, and the New Yeoman

The internets pour buckets of info on me all day, so I almost never watch TV news, but yesterday was Primary Day; I'm in Pennsylvania; it's the silly season; and I couldn't help myself.

I had to see the early returns. The up to the minute analysis. Who said what as the polls closed.

I was looking for something silly, and, sure enough, I got it.

There was a solid two minute piece on last night's NBC Nightly News about the cheesesteaks that both Hillary and Obama had eaten in Philadelphia yesterday afternoon.

Apparently both felt that the best way to endear themselves to the state of Pennsylvania (and the rest of the country) was to eat a big, greasy, messy, meaty sandwich.

Ok. But wait. One question...

What if one of them was a vegetarian?

I think it's quite possible that we're not ready to elect a vegetarian president.

Now maybe this isn't important. It certainly isn't as important as the fact that we might not be ready to elect anything but a white male president. But I think it's kind of crazy nonetheless.

How would people react if a candidate said he didn't eat chicken because he thought industrial chicken cages were inhumane? How would voters react if a candidate said she didn't feel right supporting cattle farms because of the outrageous amount of methane they emit? What would we think if a candidate made a personal commitment to buying local and in season and from sustainably managed farms?

I lean pretty far in the optimistic direction most of the time, but I don't think we're ready. Low environmental impact houses are main stream enough. We're reasonably comfortable with people that drive hybrid cars. Buying carbon credits for plane flights doesn't bug anyone. But not eating meat or criticizing American industrial agriculture? We're not there yet.

Michael Pollan wrote an article in last weekend's NY Times Magazine, however, that offers a pretty cool path to a new culture. A culture that, among other things, embraces green leafy foods and agricultural responsibility.

He asks that everyone grow a little something to eat. One tomato plant. A pot of basil in a windowsill. Anything. And see how you like it. Pay attention to a plant as it grows. Measure it. Smell it. Taste it. Notice that you save a few dollars. And notice that it's fun.

Who knows. Cheesesteak culture's roots are deep. Maybe a few herb gardens won't affect anything. But I like Pollan's idea nonetheless. And I'd love to see us achieve a level of collective open-mindedness that would make it possible for a vegetarian to become president.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Not About Bikes

I mentioned a few posts ago that this was going to happen, and it did. I gave a speech.

Brad and Oliver from Verrico Associates invited me to contribute to an Earth Day Eve celebration that they and Sovana Bistro, one of their clients, put together. They asked me to talk for five minutes to about 150 people about what I'm doing personally and professionally to save the world. It was a pretty serious assignment, but I told them I'd do my best.

As you'll soon see, I didn't really follow instructions, but I think I made a little bit of sense. Here's how it went down:

They gave me (and the other four presenters) two slide maximums, so I decided to get a little weird and have my first slide be a picture of a bike.


I said the presentation wasn't about bikes.

I said I was showing a picture of a bike because a bike was my primary means of transportation when I lived in Beijing.

Generally speaking, however, I'm too big for Chinese bikes, and the ones I rode were constantly breaking.

I had a big need, all the time, for bike mechanics.

Luckily, there are heaps of bike mechanics in Beijing. Heaps.

I employed the services of many of them, and, with varying degrees of success, they fixed the things I had broken.

As the months and years went by, I developed loyalties. There were a handful of mechanics to whom I'd bring most of my business.

I liked them. They treated me well. They treated me fairly. And they had compelling stories. They would tell me where they were from, why they were in Beijing, what their plans were for their bike mechanic businesses.

And I kept going back to them and felt good about it every time. It was enjoyable for me to SUPPORT their businesses.

And that's what we do every time we buy anything. We SUPPORT the business that makes that product or offers that service.

And, here in the developed world, here in the States, almost all markets for all products and services have an important similarity to the bike mechanic market in China. Buyers have lots and lots of CHOICE.

What can we do with that choice?

I think we can start by asking ourselves two questions: What do I want from the businesses I support? Which businesses are doing the things I want businesses to be doing?

For me, in Beijing, I wanted my bike mechanic to fix bikes well, treat me well, and be willing to share his or her backstory with me.

Now, back in the US, if I'm buying running shoes or toothpaste or a mobile phone, I want to support businesses that are radically socially and environmentally responsible. I want zero greenhouse gas emissions. I want no toxic materials dumped anywhere. I want products build of either biodegradable materials or materials that are infinitely recyclable and conveniently recycled. I want all employees, part time laborers included, to be treated with respect, have dignity in their work, and earn a fair wage. I want huge philanthropic generosity. And I want radical transparency.

I'm not going to get all those things, of course, but I want to support companies that show me that they're moving in that direction and committed to getting there.

Which companies are on that path? I know what I want. Now I want to know which businesses I should support.

And here's the problem: I don't know.

I don't know which businesses are doing what good things for the world. I don't know which businesses are moving toward the radical responsibility I want.

Information about companies and their processes practices is hard to find. It's not organized. It's inconsistent. It's quite likely disputed. We have a hard time finding it and often don't know what to make of it.

We have an education problem. An enlightenment problem.

We need a market similar to the Beijing bike mechanic market. Similar not only in its abundance of choice but also in its transparency.

How do we get there? How do we educate? How do we enlighten?

Bringing what we do know into schools and classrooms.

Writing books and papers about intensely focused research.

Talking to friends, and working as small communities to figure things out.

Giving five minute Earth Day Eve speeches.

Using the internet, it's connectivity and speed and flexibility.

I'm taking the internet route. I'm far from the only or most impressive show in town at this point, but I have started a bit of a conversation on the blog, and I'm working with some programmers and building a brand comparison website.

I showed my second slide, a black background with white letters saying www.moreperfectmarket.com, told people to come talk to me later if they wanted details about the startup project, took a couple of questions, and wandered back into the crowd to rest my brain and watch the other speakers speak.


And they were great. The people that came to talk to me after were a lot of fun. And Sovana Bistro was a wonderful host.

The speech is a work in progress. I hugely appreciate Verrico and Sovana giving me an opportunity to try it out, and hopefully I'll get a chance to give it again soon (or give a revised or expanded or simplified version of it soon).

If anyone has any thoughts after reading the recap and seeing my two gorgeous slides, I would love to hear what you have to say. Comment or email (moreperfectmarket at gmail dot com) or Facebook or LinkedIn or however you like to communicate.

Note: Those of you that met me at the event last night and are now looking at the blog for the first time, I'm sorry to do this to you. I ask you to come visit, and the first thing I give you is a story you've just heard. I'm apparently not the most gracious online host.

I wanted to go back through my presentation notes today, and I thought the friends and colleagues that weren't at the restaurant last night might want an update. I figured I could accomplish both goals by writing out loud.

You were the victims of my need to review and gather feedback. I'll try to get you something new soon.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Future of Spam?

Not enough people read this blog for me to have anything close to a spam problem, but I do occasionally get emails from people asking me to feature their sites or companies or nonprofits on the blog.

My tendency has been to send a quick reply to those emails, ask for more information, and engage only if the reply to my reply catches my attention. Something about one email that came in last Thursday, however, spurred me to respond a little differently.

The note came from the email address of Mark Hexamer, one of the founders of Swaptree, a site that lets you trade the books you've read and don't want to keep for books that other people have read and don't want to keep. It was a reminder that for every trade made on Swaptree on this coming Tuesday, they'll be donating a dollar to the Sierra Club. It asked me to spread the word.

What was remarkable to me about the email was that it wasn't well produced. It came from what seemed like a real email address (not an info@ or marketing@ or no-reply@ email). It didn't have files attached. It wasn't written on a fancy email template that only reveals its true glory after I click the display images below button on Gmail. And one paragraph was even a different font size than the rest. It felt real, human even.

It was clearly a cut and paste job, but the fact that it was an imperfect cut and paste job that spared me bells and whistles got me wondering.

I responded. After poking around Swaptree for a few minutes, I read the email again and sent a quick little rave back to Mark about minimalism, personalization, and PR cold calling in the blogosphere.

For me, in this particular case, minimalism worked, and, in order to work, it needed only a touch of personalization. It needed to have my name. It needed the words "A More Perfect Market." It needed to come from a human-looking email address. And it gained heaps of credibility for lacking slickness.

It's quite possible that I'm a totally unrepresentative marketing target. That has been known to be the case. But, who knows, maybe my weirdness has set me teetering out on the cutting edge somewhere, and maybe Swaptree is on to something big.

That email did, after all, lead me to mention Swaptree and its Earth Day promotion in this post.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sharing the Beanstalk

Of all the feeds dumping into my Google Reader everyday, CNET's Green Tech Blog is the one that's most consistently relevant to Acorn.

Smart grids vs. smart thermostats. Coal leadership calls for efficiency improvements. Lack of cleantech entrepreneurs. Etc.

I caught up on this week's posts yesterday, and I discovered that the Green Tech Blog is relevant to the brand comparison project as well.

On Monday, Elsa Wenzel, one of the Green Tech Bloggers, posted about social media sites and their potential roles as greenwash filters. She didn't give any predictions about which sites she thought would do the job most effectively, but she did take a whole lot of links and string them together into a nice little "industry overview" narrative.

I have always wanted to post about "the competition" up here, but, apparently, I've needed to post about heroine addicts, free-roaming cows, edible insects, and swamp coolers instead.

I'm glad I wrote about all that. It was on my mind, and now it's publicly available and maybe a little embarassing. But, now that I've read Elsa's overview, I feel another urge to write about competition in the responsible consumption/sustainable business/green living space.

Maybe I'm crazy to feel this way, and maybe I'm even crazier to say it out loud, but the fact that there are heaps of smart, savvy, and well-funded people out there working on projects either similar to mine or seeking to accomplish similar goals to mine makes me happy.

Obviously, it's nice to have a business idea validated by the fact that lots of other people have had and continue to believe in that same idea.

But, more importantly, it's reassuring to me that we're trying a bunch of different approaches at this. Enlightening consumers and creating a more perfect market is a big and complicated undertaking, and, as someone that wants to get enlightened and participate in that market, I don't want all my eggs in one basket.

I want very badly to be able to quickly and conveniently figure out what brand of running shoes I should buy. I want to make a tiny little baby step positive impact on the world every time I get a new tube of toothpaste. I want to choose to support the car company that's pushing fastest and most creatively toward sustainability. I know it's possible to create the tools to help people make those choices, and I know they don't exist at the moment, so I'm taking a stab at building them.

The conversations I've had with some of the other entrepreneurs in the space and the reading I've done about others has led me to believe that they feel the same way.

The vision is solid. The vision is shared. There are a whole lot of great implementation ideas out there. But nobody knows who has the magic beans or the ability to make them grow.

We're all looking at our beans, our soil, our water, our garden tools and wondering. We're watching what other people are doing. We're tinkering. We're reading manuals. We're digging holes and pulling weeds and adjusting shade and sunlight. And we're all feeling good about our chances of sprouting the first beanstalk.

Magic beans are finicky though. Unpredictable. Notorious heartbreakers. So we're all a little scared too.

If we zoom out from the experimental bean garden, however, and have a look at the big picture, we should be excited about what's going on. There are a lot of beans in play, a lot of soils, a lot of farmers, and I think that makes for some good odds that a beanstalk will in fact grow. Hard to tell from which of the little bean plots will come the explosion, but, regardless of whose beans find their magic, we all get to do some climbing.

That's been my goal: finding the beanstalk and climbing it. When I first realized I had that urge, I looked around to see if a stalk already existed. It didn't, and that bothered me, so I got some beans started learning how to plant them. It'd be extra special fun to watch a beanstalk grow from my own beans, but, honestly, give me a stalk I can climb, and I'll be happy.

Note: This metaphor actually doesn't really make sense, come to think of it. It was kind of a last minute improvisation. The plan was to compare the competition to a chili cookoff after which all the cooks get to share the big pot of blue ribbon chili. But beans and beanstalks hijacked my brain, I guess. Sometimes metaphors get away from you, and sometimes you just gotta live with that.

Another note: A couple more projects you won't find on the Green Tech Blog. Citizens Market. Thought and Memory. Excellent people behind both. Sparkly looking beans as well.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

For What It's Worth

Something nudged me in the direction of biofuels yesterday, and, while I was catching up on some ethanol reading, I bumped into this sentence:

The basic problem is that the Amazon is worth more deforested than it is intact.

Simple. Powerful. And downright terrifying.

It made me think about northeastern Australia, its little strip of rainforest, and an ongoing discussion I've been having with my grandfather about a land value situation over there...

In the early 1970s in Darwin, Australia, an illegal undercover drug bust brought the knuckleball to Australian baseball, made my uncle Kim a local celebrity, introduced him to the coastal rainforest in North Queensland, and gave him the opportunity to buy some very very cheap and very very beautiful land.

He's lived there, in the jungle, for more than 30 years now. He has an orchard. He cuts a couple pieces of timber every once in a while. He beats back the edges of the forest when they creep too close to his house. But most of the space he owns is untouched.

He thinks his tiny bush community could use another good neighbor or two, and he needs some cash, so he wants to do a little subdividing and sell some land.

Some crucial laws are in flux, however, and he's struggling to make the subdivisions and sales happen. Five years ago, he could have broken off a 25 acre piece and sold it without any trouble. But the Aussie government and civil service has been greening and greening and greening, and there are an increasing number of influential people that think it's important to keep rainforest subdivisions from happening.

To the "greenies," that forest shouldn't belong to my uncle. It's an essential, life-sustaining element of our world that we can't afford to buy, sell, or exploit in any way. It's a resource, but its value as a resource is as a system intact, not as slices for consumption.

To my uncle, however, the land is his savings account, his retirement fund. He doesn't want development. He doesn't want logging. He doesn't want pastures cleared for cattle. He doesn't want to kill cassowaries or bandicoots or waterfall frogs. He wants to preserve the habitat, for the habitat is his habitat too.* But, at the moment, he needs the money.

And, as I mentioned, he's having a tough time making it happen.

Hal, my grandfather, is raging about it. He considers it totally unacceptable that the Aussie government is devaluing people's property without compensating them. And he blames it on the "greenies."

I love the "greenies." I am (or at least aspire to be) a "greenie." I know they're trying to do the right thing. But watching Hal's reaction makes me think they're making a huge tactical mistake.

Taking people's property away is a harsh thing to do. It scares them. It makes them angry at the government. And it makes them anti-green.

And that's really scary.

I don't know much about how these things work, but maybe some kind of partial value compensation would be smart. It would not only be thoughtful and generous, but it would also be strategic. If the goal is to save the rainforest, wouldn't it be smart to sympathize and make friends with the people living there?

Hmmm. Maybe we don't have time for generosity or friendliness or politics or whatever you want to call it. Maybe alienating a few thousand landowners in North Queensland won't have any ill effect on the movement, its reputation, or its credibility.

But think of that little Northeastern Australian rainforest as a small scale Amazon: land that has serious monetary value to its owner only when it's no longer rainforest.

That's a problem. And it's a problem we can try to fix with heavy government hands, risking landowner alienation and turning emotionally involved bystanders like my grandfather anti-green. Or it's a problem we can try to fix with valuation and compensation. We can decide what that rainforest is worth long term, and we can listen to Homero Pereira, head of the farm bureau in the soybean heavy Brazilian state of Mato Grosso:

If you don't want us to tear down the forest, you better pay us to leave it up!

Feels a little apocalyptic, but it might be the pragmatic thing to do. I should probably read The Ecology of Commerce again before commenting further...

*Note: I mean this in a more serious way than people that don't know Kim can probably imagine. As he wanders farther and farther from the depths of the jungle, he operates less and less gracefully. We joke that he's gone feral.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Drooling Greyhounds

I heard about The Point yesterday on NPR, and, as I was messing around on there today and thinking about the ways it might connect to the brand comparison startup project, I stumbled into a silly little metaphor that I think might lead to a silly little name idea or two.

The Point is a tool people can use to coordinate group action. Users plan collective actions, set support milestones, recruit participants, and then, as a group, follow through on the plans. One of the common formulas is: if A people agree to do B, then C will do D. Another is: E must do F or else G people will do H.

People can make ultimatums, raise money, organize boycotts, do lots of fun stuff. The site tells us to "use The Point to arrange a tea party, or bring a multinational corporation to its knees." Funny funny.

Anyway, I was cruising through, seeing what people were demanding of brand name companies, and I noticed that, in addition to starting campaigns to get something done or changed, members of The Point community can also submit "problems." The site advertises...

Have a problem, but can't think of a campaign that will solve it? The Problems area is a place to brainstorm with others when the target, tipping point, and/or action are unclear.

So I figured I'd post a problem and see what reactions or ideas The Point's community might offer.

I wrote, as I often write, about the fact that we don't dangle big enough carrots in front of companies to urge them to do the right thing.

I wanted to end my rave with a sentence or two about creating a race to the top, and I wanted to communicate consumers' role in that race. We need to set companies off on that race? Get them to join it? Urge them along? Drag them kicking and screaming toward the race's finish line? Something. Something to show that consumers have to actively participate in making the race happen.

I thought of greyhounds and the mechanical rabbit they chase around the racetrack.*

Consumers need to be that rabbit. Companies already drool over our deliciousness. They'll wander, hypnotized, wherever we lead them. If we position ourselves a few steps ahead of them and take off full speed, we can pull the whole racing pack of companies in whatever directions we see fit.

I like it, and I wonder if we can get a website name out if it. This little episode only happened within the last couple of hours, so I certainly haven't come up with anything brilliant, but, for those of you that are superstitious on the first of every month, tibbartibbar.com is available.

*Note: I actually have no idea if this is a real thing or not. I think I saw it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon when I was little.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bob's Greatest Hits

We just launched a website. It's called twodaddy.com, and we're using it to build a book.

We have stacks, shelves, and garbage bags full of the writings of Reverend Bob Doss, and we want to splice together a highlight reel of his most inspiring, most influential, and most irreverent stories, sermons, prayers, and poems.

John Moore set the project in motion. Wiley made us the site. And I'm overseeing the editorial process.

John and his family have known Bob for many years, as a neighbor, as a friend, and as the big cheese minister at the Unitarian church in Wilmington, DE.

Bob retired in 1996, but he remains something of a legend in the local Unitarian community. People miss him, and they wish he could keep on speaking to them every Sunday forever. Quite a few of them, John's parents included, have been whispering about getting Bob to publish a book.

The whispers flowed to John, and he decided to make it happen. He talked to Bob. Bob was into it, but Bob didn't want to do it alone. He wanted an editor.

John asked me if I'd do it.

I told him I'm overwhelmed as it is with the startup project and the Acorn work. I told him I don't know anything about publishing. And I told him that (probably more because of than in spite of the fact that I majored in Religious Studies) I'm generally suspicious of organized religions, especially those involving monotheism. But I agreed to meet Bob.

We met, and there was no way I could turn the opportunity down. Bob is the kind of leader the world needs, the kind of thinker the world needs. He's open-minded, curious, questioning, humble. And the man can communicate. I told John I'd give it a try and do the best I could.

Bob and I started looking at the texts, reading and sorting and filtering. Very quickly, it became clear that the filtration and editing process was going to be a lot for two people to handle.

It just so happens, however, that I have user community collaboration on the brain, so I called Wiley, and we did some thinking about how the internets might help us out.

We came up with twodaddy.com (one of Bob's grandsons named him Twodaddy a while back).

Metaphorically speaking
, we're choosing the tracks for a greatest hits compilation, and we want to try something a little different. We want to keep the record label involved and let it make some suggestions (John, me). We want the band to give some input as well (Bob). But we want the fans to lead the decision making process (Bob's parishioners, his friends, his family, you). We want the greatest hits to be the songs that mean the most to the people that enjoy them the most.

So check it out. Go to twodaddy.com, and read the first few pieces we've posted. If you dig it, register on the site, subscribe to the feeds, make comments, and tell us what you love and why. We'll be posting probably four or five new pieces of content every week, responding to comments and suggestions, and keeping track of what pieces people like best.

It's an idea in process, but we think it's going to produce a real live book, and that's exciting.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Swamp Cooler

Another thought about the details and the big vision...

I met last week with Si Hyland (Si is pronounced "sigh"), a friend of a friend that's making an energy efficient home air conditioning unit. Given my curiosity around "green" products and businesses, and given Acorn's focus on energy efficiency, Brett, my old friend and neighbor, figured there was a connection to be made.

We went to lunch, and Si the air conditioner man told his story.

He's part of a quiet little division at Speakman Company, the big plumbing fixtures manufacturer, and his group has spent the past couple of years developing what they think is a pretty exciting new air conditioning technology: the next generation of the swamp cooler.

If you haven't heard of a swamp cooler (which I hadn't before meeting Si), it's basically a souped up version of a fan blowing air over a bucket of water. The water evaporates, mixes with the warm air, cools it, blows through the house, and makes people less hot. You can ask science to tell you why this happens, but I think magic is a reasonable explanation as well.

Anyway, I asked some questions, and Si walked us through a bunch of the details. He talked about the problems with traditional swamp coolers. He talked about patents, design challenges, potential competing technologies. He talked about the plastic plates that pin the water vapor in and transfer the coolness to a dehumidified chamber. He talked about humidity, geographical constraints, energy usage, prices, product distribution, mold.

He explained why his cooler is hot.

And it was great. I had a good time hearing about it. I'm curious about stuff like that. I want to know what swamp coolers are; I want to know how they work; I want to know how a business can be built around them.

But, as we walked away from lunch, I knew that I probably wouldn't be following the project all that closely. It was fun to do a little learning, but I wasn't really hooked on the story.

The conversation continued, however. Si had driven to lunch, and he offered me a ride back to my office. In the car, we didn't talk about details. We talked about the size of the market. We talked about potential aggregate energy savings. We thought about it in terms of reduced demand, coal fired power plants switched off or not built, CO2 not emitted. The vision got big.

And I walked away from Si's car feeling quite different than I had felt when I walked away from lunch. Now I was hooked. I was excited to see Si run those numbers in a less offhand way and send them to me. I was excited to talk to my Acorn colleagues about swamp coolers. I was imagining front page news: Swamp Coolers Reduce LA's Summer Energy Consumption By 30%.

Who knows. Maybe nothing will come of it.

Maybe swamp coolers have horrible environmental side effects that haven't yet been brought to my attention. Maybe Si and his colleagues won't be able to hit that all important competitive price point. Maybe we'll plunge into the next ice age in a couple of years and not need an air conditioner again for centuries. Maybe, when faced with the choice between the newer model of the old standard unit and a fancy new swamp cooler, the don't try new things so you won't get hurt by new experiences mindset will prevail.

But maybe not, and maybe communicating the big vision is key. It worked on me anyway. Pitch me a swamp cooler with details, and I'll think it's cool. Pitch it to me by telling me I can be a part of something big and important, and then I'll think hard about buying one.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Modesty?

Philips makes an Eco TV. It has all the performance bells and whistles of less eco models. It's no more expensive than other gigantic HDTVs. It's ROHS compliant, so it makes the magic happen without (or with a lot less of) those nasty heavy metals. It's intelligent enough to be more energy efficient than other TVs. And, as a little cherry on top, it's packaging and instruction manual are made from recycled materials.

The Consumer Electronics Association gave it an award back in January, but I just read about it yesterday when Triple Pundit pointed out that Philips isn't marketing it. The Eco TV is up on the Philips site, but I challenge anyone to pick it out of this lineup and find the description of the power saving features on the spec page. I admit that I haven't been out TV shopping, so I realize it's possible that Philips does a better job differentiating the Eco TV when its on display in a store. But, still, this is weird.

Philips has put serious time and effort into building something innovative. They've made a significant investment. But they're not telling the story. They're not pushing to convince anyone that what they've accomplished is important.

I wonder why. Why would a company innovate and not promote the innovation?

Does it have something to do with it being an eco innovation?

Has the pre-launch market research shown that people don't care TV econess?

But then why would Philips have invested in the project in the first place?

Is Philips afraid that their Eco TV will compete with their Non-Eco TVs? Maybe the profit margin on the Eco TV is meaningfully smaller than the margins on other models?

Again, why invest in the research, development, and production if the numbers don't work?

Or maybe econess has nothing to do with it.

Maybe the TV simply isn't as fantastically exciting as everyone had hoped, and maybe there are conflicts at Philips that have led to a strange middle path compromise. Happened to us at LanguageCalls. Some of us thought our product wasn't ready for market. Some of us wanted to give it a whirl. So we sort of threw it out there and sort of marketed it and then argued a lot about whether the product could live up to the story sales and marketing was telling. It was far from the right way to handle the disagreement, but maybe the fact that we drifted down such an indecisive path means that Phillips is capable of similarly strange behavior.

I hope no one's capable of being as dopey as we were, but who knows. People (and companies) surprise both with brilliance and idiocy.

Regardless, it's a bummer. I wish Philips was trying to tell people why it's important to buy Eco TVs. The educational reach of such marketing likely wouldn't be impressive, for we are talking about an extremely expensive luxury item, but, still, every little bit of consumer enlightenment counts. We should know about the choices we have. We should know about the Eco TV. We should know the technology exists. And we should make our purchasing decisions accordingly.

If the Eco TV is a good product and meaningfully eco, then you'd think Philips would have a lot to gain from educating us. You'd think.

Maybe the education is coming. It is early yet. I'll be keeping an eye out.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Keeping the Vision Big

My friends at Verrico Associates are organizing an Earth Day event, and they've invited me to give a little five minute speech.

I've been demoing the prototype site like crazy, and I'm constantly explaining different aspects of the project in order to gather different kinds of advice, but I haven't yet done a stand up in front of a crowd presentation, let alone one with a five minute time limit. I could give a one minute broad outline of the project and then show a condensed four minute demo. I've thought about it quite a bit, however, and I think I want my five minutes of Earth Day fame to focus less on the project in particular and more on the big solution we're chasing.

Part of what's pushing me to do things that way is a little trip I've taken inside the mind of John Moore, Acorn's CEO. He has written the beginnings of a book, and, a couple of weeks ago, he gave me a manuscript and asked me if I would read through it and make some suggestions.

The document is a series of connected reflections on entrepreneurship and investing.

At its core is a metaphor. If ideas and technologies are racehorses, big, powerful, unpredictable, but ultimately domesticable animals, then entrepreneurs are jockeys, the small and often overlooked steering mechanisms necessary to any horse's success.

John writes about the great jockeys he has seen in action, discusses the attributes they share, and looks to identify patterns.

According to John, one thing the best jockeys always do is center as much dialogue as possible around their BIG VISONS. They are 100% up on the details; they aren't afraid to talk about the details; and they know to whom they should send people when people really want to dig deep into the details. But they don't get caught up. When they start conversations, they navigate toward the BIG VISION. They talk about big problems and how their projects will be essential pieces of big solutions. They talk about the change the world needs and how they're going to bring it about.

John says a jockey needs to be a fearless spokesperson: he needs to relentlessly challenge the project's core ideas by exposing them to new audiences and collecting reactions and advice. The best jockeys not only evangelize, they evangelize with such urgency that they make instant evangelists out of their evangelees.

If I'm a jockey now, and if I want to get good at being a jockey, then I need to get serious about evangelizing. I need to cool it on the details a little bit and talk more about the grand plan. I've been operating under the assumption that I shouldn't liberate the John Moore style evangelist within until I've built a team and some operational foundations, but I'm starting to think I'm making excuses. Just because the project is small and in process and unproven doesn't mean I get to slack on the evangelizing. Whether or not I'm buried in details and need to address them, I need to be a full time evangelist too.

So I'm going to take my five minutes on Earth Day Eve and focus on the BIG VISION...

We need a new economy. We need an economy in which businesses have incentives to repair the world, not damage it. New customers, strengthened customer loyalty, and increased market share are pretty good incentives, and each and every one of us can participate in offering those incentives. We are those incentives.

But we're not inspired; we're not educated; we don't know which businesses to what damage and what repairs. And, quite often, we don't really care.

We can care, however, and we know we should. We need inspiration and education.

We can do that in schools. We can write books. We can give five minute Earth Day speeches. Or we can see what we can do on the internet.

However we do it, when we create and mobilize a curious, concerned, and educated market, we will create a race to the top.

And then I'll pause.

And I'll say that the project is committed to making that vision a reality. And I'll tell people to talk to me later if they want to hear about the details.

Hmmm. Maybe. I'll try it out on John and see if he likes it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Language Complicates Things

I watched Chris Abani's TED Talk again the other day. He's been looping through my head ever since.

The talk has some beautiful insight into language and translation: "misreading is the chance for complication and opportunity."

I think mistyping might work just as well.

I got an email about a book yesterday. It was a recommendation, a quick explanation, and a mention of the fact that the author was a "heroine addict."

Lots of power packed into that tiny little "e." I didn't even know heroine addiction existed. If it didn't before, though, it does now.

Abani again:

We often think that language mirrors the world in which we live. And I find that that's not true. Language makes the world in which we live.

I think we could do a lot worse than a world of rampant heroine addiction.

And maybe we're already on that path. Day before yesterday, a friend of mine launched a website. I could be jumping to conclusions after only a preliminary browse of the site, but I think we just coined the term for the One Brave Chick target audience: heroine addicts.

I'm pretty sure the site will do a better job of attracting and retaining members of this untapped and growing market segment if it becomes a space on which heroine addicts can interact with one another and tell stories. But it'll get there. I like its style: a brand building its ideology before constraining itself with products or services. I'll be watching to see where it goes.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

It's Good to Get Busted Sometimes

On March 14, the Organic Consumers Association announced the results of a study they did on how natural "natural" cleaning products really are. They tested for a chemical called 1,4-dioxane, a "probable human carcinogen," according to the EPA.

Of 100 "natural" and "organic" products tested, 47 failed.

Soap makers don't add 1,4-dioxane to their products, but traces of the compound sneak in during the "softening" of harsh detergents. Foaming agents get mixed with petrochemicals. Magic happens at the molecular level. Soaps soften. 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct, and tiny bits of it remain in the soaps.

And, in many cases, those bits are really tiny. Tiny, quite likely, to the point of being safe.

But that's not the point. The point is that a lot of those soap makers misled us. They claimed to be all natural, and they weren't. Petrochemicals weren't ingredients, but they were a part of the production process, and they contaminated the products.

Seventh Generation was one of the companies whose products tested positive. Their dish liquid had lower levels of 1,4-dioxane than any other dish liquid tested (apparently not a single dish liquid passed the test), but the compound was there, and Seventh Generation got busted.

I single out Seventh Generation because of their response. Last week, Jeffrey Hollender, the company's President, blogged about the whole episode. He talked about being the only company that cared enough to show up at the Organic Consumers Association press conference at which the report's findings were publicly released. He mentioned the fact that Seventh Generation lied less than everyone else about their dish liquid. He sounded like he wanted us to feel sorry for him.

And then he did something important. He apologized. He admitted that Seventh Generation had misled. And he promised that the company would improve.

We had had hundreds of meetings and conversations about how to crack the 1,4-dioxane problem. We ran many of our own tests, worked closely with raw-materials suppliers and manufacturers, and celebrated our progress in slashing levels of the compound. We just forgot one essential step: sharing our trials and tribulations with everyone who wanted to weigh in, express their concerns, ask their questions, challenge how quickly we were moving--perhaps even to share a potential solution.

"Forgot" is probably not the appropriate word, but I'll cut the man some slack. I doubt it's easy for him to go in front of his board of directors and ask them permission to take a non-legally-mandated step toward transparency. It appears he's done just that, however, and I'm excited to see how he follows up.

...

It took me a while to process this little drama, but I like the way the story flows...

Companies say they're doing the right thing. An consumer advocacy group comes in to audit. Results show that, while the companies are doing something that is very very close to the right thing, they are not actually doing the right thing. Newspapers print the story and rightly accuse the companies of lying. The companies worry. Conventional wisdom tells them to stay quiet, but some people wonder if conventional wisdom might be getting a little stale, and at least one company doesn't stay quiet. At least one company admits to misleading and promises increased transparency and consumer engagement.

I like Seventh Generation. They make good soaps, and I think they really truly do want to lead us toward a sustainable world. They're not there yet, though. They deliberately misled people, and that's totally unacceptable. Hollender got whiny in his blog post, and that's a bummer. But I'm optimistic.

Seventh Generation made a promise about being "natural." They broke it, but because they had made the promise, people noticed. Now Seventh Generation is sweating. They've had to raise the bar. They've promised to be natural and transparent. Maybe they won't get there. Maybe they'll lie again. But they'll get caught again. And when they do, they'll have to raise the bar even higher.

It's not exactly the most efficient path to sustainability, the best organized race to the top, but it does seem headed in the right direction.