Thursday, September 10, 2015

Food Foolish Files #4: Can AgTech Really Save the World?

Earlier this week, a Silicon Valley investor wrote an excellent article entitled “The Next Food Frontier: How AgTech Can Save the World.”  (See here.)

In it, he discussed some of the problems facing Big Agriculture in America.  For example, corn farmers in Iowa are feeling the effects of increased costs for seeds, fertilizer and herbicides.  Environmental costs are also growing, especially greenhouse gas emissions.
The solution, we’re told, lies in low cost sensors, improved computational capabilities and advanced machine learning techniques.  “The advancements,” the author wrote, “are enabling farming to be run as efficiently as a Silicon Valley tech company—with precision, data-driven decisions and automation.”

Some of you may have gulped hard thinking the standard of excellence for efficiency is a “Silicon Valley tech company,” but we get the point.  Efficiency can and should be improved on corn farms in Iowa.  Precision farming is one good solution.

Others problems the article noted are a decrease in yields, and improving options for more health conscious Americans.  Solutions include genetically engineered microbes for improving seeds and soil, computational biology, tissue engineering, and automation.  From this we can create things like biofabricated meats to replace traditional, often inefficient animal-based proteins.

Again, all promising and cool ideas.  (Though when it comes to cutting into a big slab of biofabricated beef—you first.)

“Technology is the answer,” the author concludes.

As I said, it's a thoughtful article and features a number of real companies working on real problems.  It's not a surprise, of course, that a Silicon Valley investor would conclude that technology was the answer--in TechCrunch's hyperbolic, clickbait title--to saving the world.   

But we also might just chew on that for a moment.  Could it be that Silicon Valley’s vision is far too U.S.-centric, far too BigAg-based, far too driven by the sexy technology at hand, far too influenced by the valley next door--and because of this, likely to have only a limited impact on the problem of global hunger?

As Einstein said (or not, as the case may be), if he had an hour to save the world, he'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem.  I propose we spend just 90 seconds reframing how we might save the world, or at least try to feed it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom: The ABC’s of Google

Readers with children of a certain age know Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.  In fact, if you’ve read it once, you’ve probably read it a million times.  Even now, some 15 years after my final heartfelt performance, I can still recite the book (mostly) by heart.  

Chicka is designed to teach young children the alphabet.  The plot (spoiler alert!) is thus: The letter “a” challenges “b” and “c” to meet him “at the top of the coconut tree.”  That’s followed by a stampede of the other 23 letters racing up the tree.  Soon, as you might expect, they all come crashing down.  Consonants are bruised.  Vowels are maimed.  Many phonemes will never be the same.

On August 10 Google unexpectedly announced that it was reorganizing itself under an umbrella company called Alphabet.  Mind you, this was an act that involved moving boxes around on a piece of paper and assigning new names to old projects.  It wasn’t quite the invention of a time machine, or even a Romulan cloaking device. 

Though, given the stampede up the coconut tree, it might have been.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Food Foolish Files #3: Summer 2015 Update

I call it the "Diaper Syndrome." It works like this.

You get married and are going along just fine when one day your wife announces she's pregnant.  On your drive to work the next day you see a billboard for diapers.  First time everMust have been erected the night before.  Then a bus goes by and it has a diaper ad on its side.  Weird.  And then there's a lady at the park who is diapering her baby.  Do people diaper babies outside? 

Then, of course, you make the mistake of typing “we’re going to have a baby” in a Gmail to a friend and you are inundated with on-line ads for diapers.

Been there?  Who knew anyone thought about diapers that much?

Well that's exactly what’s happened with Food Foolish.  John Mandyck and I researched and wrote about food waste and its connection to hunger and climate change.  Now, everywhere I look, I see, well--food waste.  Or more importantly, people, organizations and countries trying to solve the issue of waste food. 

I've been keeping a log of clippings, and here's just a few you might find interesting.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What Really Makes an Entrepreneur Successful?

I've channeled my inner-Galileo over on Ascent's "Investing Edge" blog here.  Thanks to Matt and the guys for their support.

Food Foolish has been getting some nice press here, and we've added guest posts from chef Barton Seaver and explorer Philippe Cousteau here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Food Foolish Files #2: The Magnificent 7th Banana (A Parable)

In chapter 4 of Food Foolish, John and I write about the magnificent banana.  It happens to be the world’s favorite fruit.  Americans eat 27 lbs. of bananas on average each year.

Me, I eat a banana most every morning.  I talked myself into thinking that bananas stop my legs from cramping after I run or bike, but the truth is I just like them.   I figure at 300 a year, I eat about 936 ounces (@ 4 ounces each less 22% for the peel), or about 58 lbs. of banana.  That makes me very close to an expert on the topic.  A 58-Pound-Gorilla, so to speak.

Bananas come in bunches.  (You can quote me on that.)  So when I buy a bunch I might get, say, seven bananas.  (Remember, this is a parable.)  The first banana on the first morning is kind of hard and not real sweet.  The third and fourth morning’s bananas are perfect.  And the last morning?   Well, sometimes it’s not pretty.

But first, skip ahead in Food Foolish to page 125.  (What?  No copy yet?  See here!)  A study done in 1939—in the midst of the Great Depression—determined that the average UK household wasted about 3% of its weekly groceries. 

A recent study pegged the average weekly UK household food waste at about 25%.  What happened?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Modern Air Conditioning 113 Years Later: It Smells Like a Spring Day

Brooklyn, NY.  Now an artist co-op.  In 1902 it housed
the printing presses of Sackett & Wilhelms--ground zero of
modern air conditioning.
July 17 is the day we celebrate the invention of modern air conditioning, courtesy of entrepreneur Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950).  His first installation was at a Sackett & Wilhelms printing facility in Brooklyn, New York, in 1902.  

Our story of this seminal event and the extraordinary impact of modern air conditioning appeared in 2012’s Weathermakers to the World, part of the 110th anniversary celebration of modern air conditioning.   See Amazon for the book, or here for an interesting timeline and samples from the book.  I also wrote blog posts called Behind the Scenes, Visiting Ground Zero, and Taking Weathermakers to Basel.  And this is the video we did with CBS This Morning back in 2012.

Meanwhile, my Food Foolish co-author, John Mandyck, posted some thoughts on the 113th here.

It’s hard for most of us navigating through air-conditioned homes, cars and offices to comprehend just how miserable life was before a/c, even in temperate regions of the world.  And it’s also a measure of the pigheadedness of our ancestral grandparents that they were perfectly willing to cool a textile mill or bakery--but a front office or their home?  Never.  After all, what was life without a little suffering?

How Did We Cope?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Food Foolish Files #1: It's a Panacea

A panacea.  Not.
In Food Foolish we try to deliver two simple messages.

First, when we waste food, we harm people, damage the environment, deplete our land and water resources, reduce national security and slow the growth of livable, sustainable cities.  That's the bad news--and we spend considerable time in Food Foolish detailing where and how some of this harm is occurring.  (As Einstein said, or should have said, "If I had 60 minutes to save the world, I'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem.")  

But the second message, and the really good news is this: We don't have to waste food--at least not at the astonishing rate of one-third of everything we produce today.  Food Foolish profiles work being done by good people all around the world to improve harvests, enhance distribution, and change buying and eating habits.  

In a world where 800 million people are hungry and millions malnourished, food waste is one of the truly "big problems" facing humankind.  What makes it an especially compelling issue, however, is that reducing food waste is a panacea.

Panacea.  That's a word we don't get to use that often.  It means universal cure.  Elixir.  Wonder drug.  Magic bullet.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say. . .(July 4, 2015)


Here's one hour and nine minutes of history, music and virtuosity to extend your July 4th holiday.  And it's worth every second.  Walter Isaacson interviews Jon Batiste and Wynton Marsalis at the Aspen Institute 2015 Ideas Festival.

I've written about Wynton Marsalis here--one of my favorite stories about how improvisation applies to life.  I also keep Marsalis's Moving to Higher Ground around for a little inspiration on those days when I've forgotten to order King of Joe for the Tassimo.

If you're interested in the history of New Orleans Jazz, there's an abundance of outstanding material.  One of my favorites is Samuel Charters's beautifully written A Trumpet Around the Corner.  And don't miss Donald Marquis's In Search of Buddy Bolden.  As for Louis Armstrong, just listen to the first 15 seconds of West End Blues.  (Yes, you can make it your ringtone; nobody will mind.)  And then listen to (the controversial) Livery Stable Blues and tell me you don't hear a bass drum.

But first, watch Marsalis and Batiste.

Happy 4th+!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Sonnet to the Cold Chain: Shakespeare Doeth Sensitech

I've written over 400 posts for The Occasional CEO and don't believe I've ever made more than a passing reference to Sensitech, a company with which I've been happily associated for 20 years.

Sensitech monitors and tracks perishable products as they move around the world--everything from tomatoes and ice cream to vaccines and biologicals.  It's the kind of business that does both good--by protecting the stuff that feeds us and keeps us healthy--and well by protecting customers' brands and profits.

In 2006 Sensitech was acquired by Carrier Corporation, part of United Technologies.  Here's how it all looks on the web:

Knowing this, you'll now fully appreciate the startling discovery made by our oldest daughter (who just happened to graduate college recently with a degree in English and Creative Writing).  She's been helping out around Sensitech doing some rewrites of corporate literature and the website while networking for a publishing job in NYC.

Much to my surprise, she stumbled upon--in the 16th-century archives of the company, no doubt--a sonnet composed by William Shakespeare celebrating Sensitech and the cold chain.  She emailed it to me today and I wanted to share it with you fans of the Bard, especially those of you with a true appreciation for the beauty of the cold chain.  Herewith, Shakespeare:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Tao of Dress Shoes (or, How Did Marketing Get This Complicated?)

In my world there are three kinds of black shoes: black high-top Keds I used to wear as a kid, black wingtips I wear with suits, and black dress loafers for everything else.  The biggest decision I face around the issue of black shoes is whether to get tassels on my loafers, which some years seems wild and crazy and others not so much.

That is the sum total of thinking I do about black shoes.

I found the other day that my old black loafers were looking shabby so I ordered a new pair online from Johnston & Murphy.  The shoes arrived on schedule, looked great and fit fine.  Good on you, Johnston & Murphy.  Finding my mind-share for black shoes fully exhausted, I chanced to glance at the cover of the shoe box.  Stuck underneath was a black billboard, or bumper sticker, or broadside; I think it was supposed to be sitting on top of the shoes when I opened the box.  Anyway, I pried it out and this is what I read:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Exceptionalism in a Tube

"Lucky young Americans!" proclaims a full-page ad from the May 1943 Saturday Evening Post.

In fact, look below at the ad and you'll see our lucky young Americans gazing intently into the face of Abraham Lincoln.  He is a part of their "Glorious Past" while they are "Part of a Brighter Future."  As you read the ad, you'll also discover that the glorious product in question happens to be Ipana Toothpaste.  This work is undoubtedly the brainchild of some bright Madison Avenue executive, shaping wartime patriotism to the needs of capitalism.  In fact, we're told, if young Americans massage with just a little extra Ipana each day, their gums will take on a "healthier firmness" (and Ipana a healthier profit, one presumes).

And why is gummy firmness so important?  Because these two young Americans, the ad explains, have such an extraordinarily bright and promising future.  "Nowhere else in the world could they have so many advantages to help them fulfill a destiny of greatness."  Read on:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Trolley-Problem Variations for Entrepreneurs

By now you’ve probably tried the trolley problem.  Wikipedia describes it as a thought experiment in ethics that goes something like this: 

There's a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks. Ahead on the tracks there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

There are all kinds of variations to extend the problem, including throwing large people off bridges to stop the train.  It makes for an interesting and often surprising discussion, the kind where your spouse isn't sure she wants to ride in the same car with you anymore.
Recently in McSweeney’s, Kyle York wrote a brilliant, laugh-out-loud send-up of the trolley problem.  I don’t know Kyle, but I now consider him my inspiration for the following variations, designed to test your meddle as a modern entrepreneur.

Play on.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

"Old Oliver" & "A Nation of Entrepreneurs" Podcast

I'll be speaking at the annual Ames Family dinner on May 9.  "Old Oliver" Ames is one of the "Revolutionary entrepreneurs" featured in my A Nation of Entrepreneurs (in draft, still unfinished, no publisher yet, so-called) book.  I'll be highlighting his earliest years at the Springfield Armory (the "Google" of 1800 America) and more generally what it was like to launch a business in the Early Republic.  Some of the adjectives I'll be using include dirty, violent, sick and drunken. . .

Thanks to Bill for making it easy.  The link to the podcast is here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

20 Observations from Just Wandering Around, 2015

1. It's better to have a good reputation than a good brand.

2. Alcohol, war and the Web are three things that make us more of what we really are.  That's kind of scary when you think about it.

3. Luck is still regularly confused with talent.  Talent is still regularly confused with money.  What never changes is this: You know it when you meet it.

4. Passion isn't dead, it just smells funny.  (Tip of hat to Zappa.)

5. Once upon a time a CEO had to know about selling, distribution, finance, marketing, (often) manufacturing and, of course, how to make money.  Today, a CEO can be wildly successful with (almost) no knowledge of any of those things. What we now call companies used to be called product development.

6. Once upon a time CEOs were taught that shareholder value was the only thing.  Thankfully, that's over now.  (My favorite recent story is here.)

7. When we all learned in Economics that people knew what made them happy, we couldn't have been any more wrong.

8. The two best pieces of life advice to come out of social media: Don't read the comments.  Don't feed the trolls.

9. Email is the new snail mail.

10. When I total up the Web, with its incredible access to knowledge, entertainment, and community on one side and Gamergate, revenge porn, Silk Road, trolls, bullies, scams, sexting, government abuse, misogyny, hate, theft, wasteful start-ups and social media self-destruction, I'm not sure if we are ahead.  Truly.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Miss Conduct to the Rescue: A Case for "Big Narrative"

Chillicothe, Missouri, paved and tidy for the automobile,
was also home of the first sliced bread in 1928
It’s relatively easy to measure the speed of technology adoption. We know, for instance, that there were 8,000 automobiles on American roads in 1900 and about 25 million in 1950.  Both quantitatively and intuitively, that’s rapid growth.   Likewise, U.S. smartphone penetration in 2005 was 20.2% and in 2014 was 50.1%, another technological blur.

What’s harder to measure is the speed at which technology changes our behavior, or our ideas about how the world should work.  Speed, penetration and adoption are a function of numbers and can be charted.  Behavior is a function of opinion and emotion, and for that we need narrative.

In 1950 journalist Clyde Brion Davis (1894-1962) wrote a colorful biography, The Age of Indiscretion, about growing up at the turn of the 20th century in Chillicothe, Missouri.  Davis’s folksy story of the coming of the automobile provides a textured narrative for how one small Midwestern town adapted.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Innovator's Dilemma, 1972 Style

I was reading an article in the November 1972 Harper's Magazine and came upon this advertisement for a Hermes typewriter.  It reads like an early recipe for Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma, a book not due out for another 25 years.

"We've always made big, fancy-featured" typewriters, the ad says.  "Then we realized. . .the secretaries hardly ever used the fancy frills we put on the machines.  And what they really needed was a typewriter that could do all the basic things well. . .Best of all, the clever Swiss engineering that makes our typewriters just half the size of the usual office clunkers, also makes it about half the price."

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Motivates an Entrepreneur? (Can I Get Some Help?)

One of the common theories explaining why people become spies is summarized in the acronym “MICE,” meaning Money, Ideology, Compromise (or Coercion) and Ego.  Find any spy, anywhere, and he or she will be motivated by one or more of those impulses. 

In my research over the last few years I have studied entrepreneurs in a variety of settings across three centuries, from the invention of new agricultural tools and insurance plans to novel street cars, dining experiences, national holidays and cryptocurrencies.  Inspired by MICE, I recently attempted to crystallize the issue of motivation with an acronym that captures the complex impulses which drive entrepreneurs: FECOM.  

As an acronym I know it's clunky; I hope it’s at least accurate.   I’d love to get your thoughts about whether I have covered all the right ground, and (for you English majors and crossword aficionados) offer a challenge for improving on the acronym.  (Even I have to admit that FECOM sounds like a chorus of cats singing on the back fence at 2 in the morning.  In fact, it means something even less attractive.)

Here’s what I mean by FECOM:

Monday, February 2, 2015

Gone With the Hogshead Cask and Demijohn

Over the last week I have breezed through about 20 issues of The Outlook, a national magazine published in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Outlook had broad appeal as a general interest magazine not unlike the Saturday Evening Post, but paid particular attention to the social ills of the Industrial Revolution.  I had a special interest in getting a “boots on the ground” feel for the opening years of the 20th century, and with that in mind, had acquired on eBay a cluster of the magazine ranging in dates from 1898 to 1908. 

It only takes a few hours to get drawn into the old century.  Queen Victoria died in January 1901, the end of an era.  President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo.  The Boer War raged in South Africa.  America struggled with what to do in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, how to deal with Hawaii, and whether to pick up work in Panama on an abandoned French canal.  Reporters also closely followed France’s shameful Dreyfus Affair.  The Outlook detailed the so-called "Japanese problem” and “Chinese problem,” wrestling with how America could assimilate tens of thousands of immigrants whose cultures seemed so different.  The lynching of blacks in the South and West was becoming more violent and pervasive.  Labor and “capital” were at each other’s throats from the mills of Pennsylvania to the textile factories of New England to the mines of Colorado.  There were features on skyscrapers, the nascent automobile industry, women’s education, and the ten greatest books of the 19th century (with the consensus #1 being Darwin’s Origin of the Species followed closely by Goethe’s Faust).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hardware Engineers Are Cool Again

I've got a new post over on Ascent's Investing Edge blog.  See here.  As the son of a Hardware Engineer who spent his entire career at Raytheon, I am, of course, partial.  But being married to an Aero Engineer, it goes without saying that they rock the most.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Recapping 2014, Resolving 2015

This was my seventh year blogging, something about which I might be prouder if the pay were better.

The single best-read post for 2014 was the very first of the "Barnyard of Entrepreneurs" series, Predicting the Futurefollowed by the fifth (A Lesson in Business History). Upon re-read, Future came off as a little crankier than I had intended, but History was more in the spirit of poking fun at how short our industrial and commercial memories have become.  In no event did I even begin to approach the hilarious and creative evil of David Sedaris in his Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, still one of my favorite books of the new millennium.

The third best-read post of 2014 was the sixth in the Barnyard series, Failure is Success.  Failure, which Mankind concluded sometime back in the Stone Age could be a profitable learning experience, has morphed under Big Entrepreneurship to be a badge of honor--provided you eventually attain success.  Stories proclaiming the value of failure by repeated failures are less easy to find. 
By the way, when I wrote the term “Big Entrepreneurship”—hardly earth-shattering, I know—I Googled it and had not a single hit.  So I stuck it in a post here, like planting a flag on a new continent.  (History suggests that if you want to claim territory, an army is better than a flag.) It’s a concept I have developed much more fully in my working (and still alleged) book on the American entrepreneurial experience, now entering its third (or possibly fourth) year of research and writing.  (Though the mills of God grind slowly, the poet wrote, they do grind.) I am hoping in the meantime that Pat Riley does not add it to “Three-Peat” in his stable of dubious trademarks.