Friday, March 29, 2013

Mudville at the Movies: There Is No Joy at the Cineplex

Mud season
Here in New England, spring is also mud season.  The snow melts slowly and messily, revealing all the winter’s sad and flattened trash.  Branches are still bare, bulbs are just gathering their courage, and the air turns cold with the flick of a cloud across the sun.  

For movie fans, spring is not a time of growth or renewal.  It is not a season of optimism and anticipation.  Spring is Mudville without the joy. 

Spring and fall are when the distribution companies dump a lot of the films that weren’t suitable for the Christmas holidays, good enough to be Academy Awards contenders, or likely to sell much summertime popcorn.  With the exception of animated films for kids, which always do very well, spring is when the movie schedule looks like an old snow bank—ugly and grainy and rimed with dirt.  We look at what was released this week, check the reviews, shake our heads, and turn on the TV or pick up a book. 

snow bank
Some of these movies will make money.  We all know what P.T. Barnum said about underestimating the taste of the American public.  This weekend is no exception and I will be munching no popcorn tonight. Just look at the current dismal Cineplex selection with their Tomatometer scores.  In alphabetical order (and not counting The Croods):

Th. . . . th. . . th. . .that’s all, folks.  Well, not quite.  Some interesting movies were released and some were even reviewed well but you won’t find those at the Cineplex.  No, sir.  Although many of them have A-list stars, they got stuck in the dreaded swamp of Limited Distribution.  For better or worse, you will look in vain for:
Movie theater
Unless you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you will have to wait a week for most of these to show up.  And even then, unless you want to haul your butt to the cracked and broken seats of your nearest “art house” (assuming there is one), you will have to wait for these to appear on DVD or the TV.  

So the snowdrift melts slowly, the flowers push upwards, and we wait.  Good stuff is coming, we know that, but is anticipation enough for us movie fans?   

Commander Spock once said, “The wanting is often better than the having.  It is not logical, but it is often so.”  When it comes to the movies, I prefer the having.  Wanting doesn’t sell many tickets, or a whole lot of popcorn, either.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Avoid Confusion -- Use the Right Tool for the Task

This morning I got together with my friend of many years, Janet Taylor.  She is doing the marketing for her father’s invention, The Durand, and occasionally I consult on an informal basis.  The Durand is a vintage cork removal device that is designed specifically to remove old or damaged corks from bottles of very good wine.  It’s a devilishly clever design that works in four simple steps to get that problem cork out without it crumbling or, worse, falling into the wine. 

The Durand, vintage cork removal
The Durand
The Durand’s target audience is sommeliers in fine restaurants and wine stewards.  It is also used by people who own significant wine collections and invest in excellent vintages. If they ever brought up a case of wine from the Titanic, The Durand would be the tool for the job. 

Ordinary folks like you and me can make do with a $20 corkscrew.  Although I could be wrong about that.  I mentioned The Durand to someone I know who replied, “That costs less than the bottle of wine I ruined last night.”

It seems to work well because the reviews and testimonials on the web site are outstanding.  Wine experts recommend its use and sommeliers have been known to buy the device right out of the demonstrator’s hands. 

I thought of The Durand a few weeks ago when my husband was removing the cork from a (non-vintage) bottle of 1997 William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay.  At least, he attempted to do so.  Under the ministrations of our $20 corkscrew, the cork crumbled and then broke.  Nothing he did could get it out of the bottle, so he finally pushed it in. 

William Hill chardonnay
I was unwilling to discard such a nice vintage but we also had not yet unpacked any decanters.  So I strained the wine through a fine sieve into the only container I could find—a glass juice bottle—and refrigerated what was left after dinner.

A few days later, my daughter and her family came to visit and see our new home.  When my son-in-law came in the door, he looked frazzled so I poured him a glass of the Chardonnay and put the container on the counter.  We then became engrossed in playing with our two granddaughters.  A couple of hours later, Number One Granddaughter announced that she wanted some juice and her sister perked right up.  The two of them toddled off into the kitchen with their grandfather while I sat and talked to my daughter.

sippy cup
Ceci n'est pas un
verre à vin
Two minutes later, Number Two Granddaughter, also known as Trouble Baby, came back out with her sippy cup in her hand and a very odd look on her face.  I can only describe it as, “I don’t know what this is or why you gave it to me but I don’t like it.”  She handed the cup to her mother, who was puzzled as to what her little one wanted.  Mom took the cup, unscrewed the cap, checked the contents, made sure the lid was screwed on tightly, and handed it back.  Trouble Baby accepted the cup with an expression that said, “Well all right, but I’m still not going to drink it,” and headed back to the kitchen. 

My daughter said, “That’s odd.  The juice smelled like wine.”

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed and ran for the kitchen.  Sure enough, Grandpa, thinking the juice container held apple juice (it was the right color), had filled their sippy cups with Chardonnay.  We corrected the mistake before any damage was done and had a good laugh.

The moral of the story is to use the right tool for the task.  If you have stocked your wine cellar with excellent vintages, follow the experts’ advice and use The Durand.

BTW:  I never did get to drink more than one glass from that bottle.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Big Companies Want to Think Small: Right Idea, Wrong Execution

We learn in today’s Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) that some big companies are trying to get more nimble and creative by sending employees to work in startups.  The article, “Field Trip: Learning From Startups,” by Rachel Emma Silverman, explains it this way: “The hope, managers say, is that workers who spend time immersed in small, emerging firms will bring some of that scrappy spirit back to headquarters and change the way things get done.”

That says in a nutshell why big-company thinking is off base.  The executives of these firms have delegated an important strategic transformation to their employee base.  They expect these lower-level folks to come back and change a company that they, the executives, are being paid handsomely to make productive and profitable.
Light bulb
Don’t get me wrong: it’s possible for transformation to come up from the bottom, but it’s like the joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb.  The answer is: just one.  But the light bulb has to really want to change. 

At one point in my career, I was recruited by a very large technology company ($3.5B) to become part of a new “professional class” of managers.  The company knew that they were not good at management and set out to hire people who were actually trained in management and knew how to do it.  Like the other members of my class, I talked to a lot of people and asked a lot of questions.  The answers were very enlightening.  I observed the company’s Marketing processes and procedures and asked more questions.  I talked to people up, down and sideways in the organization.  I noted where problems existed and figured out how we could fix them.  When I presented my findings and recommendations to Marketing management, I was met with blank stares.  Their response was, basically, “What?  You want us to change how we do things?”

I have worked in big companies, medium-sized companies and a variety of small, venture-funded startups.  On the whole, I prefer the latter because of their energy, focus, teamwork, and unity of purpose.  Those things exist for four reasons that are not mentioned in the article.  They are reasons that don’t come from expecting your employees to drive change from the bottom up.  They come from an environment that senior management has to create and nurture.
  1. Membership: Every employee in a startup is a member of an elite team that is focused on one goal—to make the company grow and become profitable.  That’s done with stock options.  They give everyone, sometimes including the janitor, a piece of the action.  You’re not working for the VCs (although they will profit enormously) or even for senior management (although they will also do very well), you’re working for your own best interests.  If the company succeeds, you will benefit. 
    While exit strategies vary, the company has to amass value before anyone can think of cashing out.  The golden carrot, not management edicts, drives employees to work long and hard. 
  2. Flat structure:  In a company of 10 to 70 people, there’s no room for layers of management.  The @WSJ article quotes a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, who says, “The rule-breaking mindset of many entrepreneurs doesn’t fly when ideas need buy-in from senior executives and several levels of management.”  Ya think? 
    Running an idea up the food chain for approval takes time.  At every level, managers feel the need to add or change or criticize, or run a test, or get more data because they think that’s their job.  And if your idea or innovation challenges his pet project, her plans for getting promoted, or the status of their entrenched product line, forget it. 
    Senior management doesn’t much like “rule-breaking mindsets” either.  They created those rules, remember, and breaking them is a form of unspoken criticism.
  3. Trust:  This goes hand-in-hand with membership.  If you are a member of a small and nimble team, you are trusted to do your job.  You are trusted to make decisions based on information you have gathered and analyzed.  You are trusted to ask questions, offer suggestions, and challenge stale thinking.  You are trusted to meet with vendors, to write plans, and to read and sign contracts. 
    I remember working at Chipcom when it was still private and planning to go public.  Our CEO, the late Rob Held, called a company meeting and stood in front of his team of Chippers to tell us what was happening.  He said that he was going to be transparent about the process and tell us—the Chipcom team—everything.  At the same time, he reminded us that what he would tell us was confidential information and he trusted us to keep it that way.  After a vote of trust like that, who would even think to say anything?  He kept his part of the bargain and we kept ours.
  4. Teamwork:  In big companies, you do your job, keep your nose clean and your head down and hope that senior management is making the right decisions.  In small companies, everyone jumps in to help out.  If someone else in your department—or even another department—needs help, you pitch in.  You ask questions like, “How can I help you get that done?  What can I do to make sure you hit your deadline?  And you do that despite having an enormous workload of your own.  You do it because you’re all on one big team and that team won’t succeed if you allow someone to fail.
Rob Held
Rob Held

The article concludes by saying that @PepsiCo HQ shadowed a startup called @Airbnb Inc. and concluded that, “They are a lot scrappier in the way they approach marketing.  They are more trusting of instinct.”    

Well, yeah.  Small companies honor both trust and instinct.  Maybe it’s senior management who should be getting out of their corner offices and doing internships at startups.  That would be a real transformation.