Sunday, December 21, 2014

One of My Wild Neighbors, "General" Solomon Lowe

General Solomon Lowe (1782-1861)
Every so often on one of my morning runs I feel energetic enough to pass by the Harmony Cemetery in our little town of Boxford.  I've known for many years that there's a certain General Solomon Lowe (1782-1861) buried there, and that he had either three wives (and a mistress, one story goes) or four wives--each of whom presumably he loved with all of his heart in life--but whom he used as kind of decorative ornamentation around his grave in death.

Today, looking for a reason not to finish my Christmas shopping, I finally stopped by to check out the General.  It turns out, back in 1901, a travel reporter for The New York Times had a similar idea.

I leave the story, 113 years old if a day, to him.

At a place known as Boxford, about ten miles from Andover, Mass. far, far from the madding crowd, there is as curious a burying ground as can be found in all New England.  As a matter of fact, Boxford is just a section of country, beautiful country at that, but there is no village or gathering of habitations which could be dignified with the name of town.  The quiet farmspeople go their peaceful ways utterly oblivious to the odd humor to be found in their old burying ground.

I might point out that there's a little city-slickerism going on here, and throughout the article.  Boxford is still today no booming metropolis, but the town had a "center" in 1645 (the same year Manhattan was just being deeded to the Dutch), a railroad stop in 1854, and by 1901 both an East and West Boxford Village.  It also had in 1901 a rather substantial match factory.  It's fair to say, however, that if Route 95 hadn't altered the town's quaint ambiance in the late 1950s we might still have only 600 residents, about the number the Times reporter found in 1901.  

He continued:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mount Auburn Cemetery Redux: More Dead Entrepreneurs

I returned to the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown/Cambridge last weekend, my second visit this year.  (See here for the June 2014 post, I See Dead Entrepreneurs.)  I don't generally spend this much time hanging around cemeteries, but Mount Auburn is a very special place, and one full of folks worth meeting--nearly 100,000 at last count.  The leaves also happened to be turning and--while I sound like a old, doty leaf-peeper writing that--Mount Auburn is a world class arboretum.  And sometimes it is fun to indulge my inner National Geographic photographer.

In my last visit I was collecting entrepreneurs, and I was interested this time in adding to that list.  But it's worth saying that Mount Auburn itself is also one of the most interesting social innovations of the 19th century: go visit King's Chapel graveyard in Boston and then head out to Mount Auburn.  It's hard to be more innovative than changing the way people think about death and remember their loved ones.

Below is King's Chapel on a summer day in 2009.

Monday, November 3, 2014

When Fortune Accidentally Lands in Your Mailbox

I am fully capable of playing Mickey the Dunce on most any occasion, but multitasking is my forte.

A few weeks ago I tried to purchase a 1954 Saturday Evening Post on eBay.  Unfortunately, I was also answering email, booking a trip, and trying to figure out why the cat was tormenting me.  Needless to say, last week I received a Fortune magazine from 1952.  Brilliant.  Wrong magazine, wrong year.

And now that I think of it, I haven't seen the cat for a while, either.

There is a silver lining to my tale of woe, however: this particular edition of Fortune magazine turned out to be absolutely fascinating.

I wasn't alive in April 1952, but it wasn't exactly the Dark Ages, either.  We now know the American Baby Boom was in full swing, life expectancy in the US was almost 69 years, Bill Clinton and George Bush were both well out of diapers, I Love Lucy (in one memorable evening) attracted 10 million viewers, and a killer fog descended on London resulting in the first use of the term "smog."  That all feels pretty modern.

Though--and I write this with some surprise--there's nothing quite like a big, fat, colorful magazine from 1952 to remind us just how far we've really come.  David Lowenthal said famously that the past is a foreign country; with that in mind, let me take you for a quick tour of America in 1952.

First of all, where did Fortune get this picture--a 1933 Christmas Tree Shop?  Was this really the best example of the average American consumer in 1952?

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Lessons of History: A Few Takeaways

History has had its share of prolific authors, sometimes astoundingly so.

Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Cambridge professor and philosopher of history, published 22 books on history, the history of history, and the histories of science, religion and international relations.  Fellow knight Sir Arthur Bryant's (1899-1985) vast output included eight "lesser" books and a regular column for the Illustrated London News while he completed his three-book opus on Samuel Pepys; this was followed by 19 books between 1931 and 1944 and 13 more from 1950 to 1975.  

In this country, Allan Nevins (1890-1971) authored over 50 books including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Grover Cleveland and an eight-volume series on the Civil War.  Men like Sir Winston Churchill, George Bancroft and Theodore Roosevelt turned out copious amounts of superb historical writing in between running countries and saving Western Civilization.  There are many other historians who are awe-inspiring in both their literary volume and its quality.

Few, however, equal the breadth and prodigious output of Will (1885-1981) and Ariel (1898-1981) Durant.  Their 11-volume Story of Civilization was researched, written and published over a period of forty years and is still the most successful historiographical series ever. (For those of you seeking a writing project, the last completed volume was The Age of Napoleon.  The Durants left behind notes for The Age of Darwin and an outline for The Age of Einstein which would bring the series up to 1945.  That would leave only The Age of Aquarius and, perhaps, The End of the Civilization As We Know It and we'd be fully caught up to 2050.)

Fortunately, Will and Ariel also left behind The Lessons of History, a 167-page summary of their magisterial series.  Lessons, which distills decades of thought and thousand of pages to their essence, can be read in an evening or two.  

Below, I've highlighted a few of the Durants' conclusions that resonated with me--though some challenging and not what we necessarily want to hear--and help to explain what we see everyday as our own history unfolds in real time.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ground Zero of the American Industrial Revolution: Slater Mill

Last year, the Committee on the Theft of American Intellectual Property released a report that estimated annual theft of American IP at about $300 billion, an amount comparable to the current level of U.S. exports to Asia.  This unintended foreign subsidy was termed the "greatest transfer of wealth in history."

While it's perhaps only small comfort, history suggests that Americans themselves are some of the best in the world at corporate espionage and theft, and have been since the American Revolution.  (Wouldn't it be interesting to net out the purloined IP we gather in each year, just to see what our "balance of theft" looks like?)  Among the very first beneficiaries of stolen technology, and still one of the most important in American history, was the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Slater Mill is a kind of "ground zero" for the American edition of the Industrial Revolution, the first place where English factory technology--the latest system for mechanized textile production--was firmly planted in the New World.  Financed by William Almy and his father-in-law, Moses Brown--and just up the road a piece from the Brown family's namesake university--Slater Mill was the first successful cotton factory in the United States.

This is the Blackstone River, which has several names as it flows from Worcester to Providence.  The yellow structure to the left is Slater Mill with the Pawtucket Falls in the foreground.  The Art Deco building (dating from 1933) in the center of the picture is the Pawtucket City Hall.  I managed a 90-minute visit to the Mill site a couple of weekends ago.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Business History, Shaken Not Stirred

There's a digital billboard that makes the rounds on LinkedIn every six months or so featuring wisdom from Henry Ford that looks something like this:

This quote goes right to the heart of Henry Ford's genius: He led the American consumer into the 20th century.  If it weren't for Ford, Americans would still be bumping along on dirt roads in horse-and-buggies.  It's the kind of disruptive innovation modern entrepreneurs dream about bringing to market.  This particular quote usually elicits 20 or so "Likes" and a couple of attaboys from appreciative LinkedIn members.

The problem with the quote, of course, is that Henry never said it.  (For a good discussion, see here.) One reason he likely never said it is that he would have known it to be wrong: Karl Benz was mass-producing automobiles by 1888 and many other Europeans and Americans had joined in by 1900--well before Ford began production--all with the idea of replacing horse-drawn transportation.  The automobile consumer existed well before Henry Ford, even if he and she could not yet afford one of the new contraptions.

Monday, September 1, 2014

When the Two Richest Americans (Ever) Met

"When Commodore Vanderbilt began the world he had nothing, and there were no steamboats or railroads."

So begins one of the seminal pieces of business journalism, Henry Demarest Lloyd's Story of a Great Monopoly, published by "The Atlantic" in 1881.  "When he died," Demarest continued, "railroads had become the greatest force in modern industry, and Vanderbilt was the richest man in Europe or America, and the largest owner of railroads in the world.  He used the finest business brain of his day and the franchise of the state to build up a kingdom within the republic."

In 2007 the New York Times published a graphic showing the thirty or so wealthiest Americans, their accumulated riches measured as a percentage of the economy.  On the Times list, Vanderbilt is shown as the second richest American ever, topped only by one John D. Rockefeller.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why I'd Get Fired at Dunkin Donuts

Here in New England, there's a Dunkin Donuts on every corner.  A stop at Dunkin is a morning ritual for many commuters.  Work at Dunkin has become a ritual for many high school and college students who get their first exposure to the Great American Consumer from the microwave-and-mop side of a Dunkin counter.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with some of these young folk.  I was surprised and sometimes appalled by what their interactions with American consumers reveal.  If what they say is true, I would last about two shifts at a "Dunks" before my supervisor would politely ask me to go home. And stay there.

Here's some of what I heard, and how I might respond.

1. Spare us your guilt.  Nobody cares why you're having a donut.  Really. We don't care if it's the first time you've broken your diet in two weeks.  We don't care if you "never eat junk food."  Don't apologize to us.  Please, just order your donut and move along.  There's a customer right behind you who never eats donuts, either, waiting to order.

2. When you place your order, please stop talking on the phone and texting.  Speak directly to us.  Give us 10 seconds of engagement so we can get things right.  Stop being a complete and total techo-boob.  Here's the truth: If you were so important that you couldn't stop conducting business for ten seconds to order, you'd have an assistant getting your coffee.  You're not that important.  Trust us.

3. And please, techno-rock-star, please say "thank you" when you snatch the bag from our hands.  Most customers do, so when you don't it really sticks out.  It's so incredibly rude.

4. Enough already with the "cream cheese scam."  There's a dozen ways you try this, but here's the basics: You order a bagel with butter.  After you've paid and just as we're handing you the bag you ask "Can I have some cream cheese with that?"  You know cream cheese costs about a buck and we know you're trying to get it for free.  It is the feeblest, slimiest scam going.  If our supervisor is there we have to charge you.  If not, we might give it to you, but not because the scam worked.  Not because we like you.  Because we're really busy and it's the fastest way to get a low-life out of our sight.  For a buck?  Save your pennies and order the cream cheese next time, like a real person.  Preferably somewhere else.

5. This is not a life and death experience.  Really.  Once we ran out of lemons.  That's not good, we know, but ordering lemons is way beyond our pay grade.  Most people were nice about it.  One woman, however, announced at the top of her lungs: "That sucks.  You might as well have run out of coffee!"  We smiled and said how sorry we were.

Here's what we would have liked to say: Really?  Running out of lemons is like running out of coffee?  That bad?  Maybe as bad as we're all dead from the Ebola virus?!  Here's an idea for you, Dragon Lady: There's a Stop and Shop right around the corner.  Go get your own flippin' lemons. And while you're there, see if they have "a life" for sale.  Cause you need one.

6. Finally, never, ever, ever order "a donut, a coffee, and a smile."  It's not funny.  It's not cute.  It's obnoxious.  We're generally pretty happy, and happy to smile.  But not on demand.  So here's the deal: Get back into your car, look in the rear view mirror, and smile.  Happy now?  And, pal, there's no charge for that.

I know with this kind of lousy attitude I'd only last a shift or two at Dunkin.  But--here's a scary thought--how long do you think I'd last as a barista at Starbucks, where the truly self-absorbed, massively entitled, triple-venti-soy-no-foam-latte-at-120-degrees Americans drink?

An hour?  And I'd take the under on that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Picture Tour of the Saugus Iron Works

Dozens of these b&w signs were placed along
Massachusetts roads in 1930.  Many have since
disappeared, though some remain.  There's a
great photo collection here and a book about the
project here.  This one is preserved in the
museum of the Saugus Iron Works.
Last November when I visited the Lowell Mills I noted how special it was for someone interested in the history of technology to live in New England, the epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution.  In fact, I probably haven't taken advantage of location the way I should; in particular, I still need to head west to the Springfield Armory, south to the Slater Mill Museum and the American Clock and Watch Museum, the north to the American Precision Museum, just to name a few.  But last weekend I was able to sneak over to the Saugus Iron Works, a full 18 minutes (not including the 25 years I've lived here) from home to spend a couple of hours visiting the first successful, integrated iron works in the New World.

From 1646 to 1668, "Hammersmith" (as it was called) produced cast and wrought iron products for the American colonies in a state-of-the-art facility along the Saugus River.  When the company disbanded, the site was abandoned and eventually buried by time and the river.

Hammersmith was rescued in 1946 by a grass-roots organization called the First Iron Works Association.  With funding from the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Association hired archaeologist Roland Robbins (also known as the man who found Thoreau's cabin at Walden and who excavated Shadwell, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson) to investigate and reconstruct the site.   His work is fascinating; this 15 minute video, worthy of dimming the lights and a bowl of popcorn, shows Robbins in action.  You'll be able to compare what he accomplished (at the end of the video) with what's happened to the site since then in the pictures below.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 9: Where's Our Vision?

The hens were all gathered in the coop for the evening.  Rooster was checking ESPN scores on his smartphone.

Brown Hen leaned over.  "Rooster, do you have a Vision for the barnyard?"  She scratched.  "Every management Svengali says you need to have a Vision for your organization."

Rooster looked up.  "Well, Hen," he started.  "I guess my vision is to make sure the marinated corn feed crumble arrives three times a day."  And then he thought, "And that Black Rat and his friends don't eat it all before we do."

Brown Hen sighed.  "That's your Vision?"  She sighed again.  "A Vision is supposed to provide guidance and inspiration.  It's supposed to create an attractive future destination, one we're all marching toward.  Together."

Rooster leaned into his smartphone.  The Sox were up by 1 run in the ninth with two down.  Man on third.

"Crumble three times a day," clucked Speckled Hen.  "Sounds like a formal summary of aims and values."  She scratched the dirt.  "That's a Mission Statement, if you ask me."

Rooster looked up, thinking to himself, "Is there still a lefty they can bring in from the bullpen?"

"You're both wrong."  Red Hen rose from her nest.  "What we've got here is a Purpose Statement.  Three good meals a day--that's my purpose."  Then she chuckled.  "Vision Statements are just so 20th century.  They went out with the hula-hoop."

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 8: Just Like Magic

Rooster glanced across the barnyard.  Brown Hen was jumping up and down, a huge cloud of dust all around her.  She didn't look happy.

"Are you ok?" Rooster asked, trying to avoid the dust as he strutted over.

"Does it look like I'm ok?" Hen answered.  She stomped the ground as hard as she could.  Rooster saw the problem.  Hen was stomping on her smartphone.

"What's wrong with your phone, Hen?" Rooster asked.

"What's right with my phone?" she shot back.  "For the first month it worked perfectly, just like magic."

Speckled Hen happened to be wandering by and overheard the conversation.  "Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  She beamed, feeling very wise.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Culture to Die For

One hundred years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.  Nobody much cared for the arrogant Archduke, whose funeral was small and poorly attended.  Assassination was a gruesome if regular part of political life in the Balkans: Empress Elizabeth had been stabbed to death in 1898, the governor of Galicia shot in 1908, the governor of Croatia killed in 1912, and the vicar-general of Transylvania also assassinated in 1914.  Americans themselves had suffered the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.  British magazine Punch published a cartoon with one anarchist asking another, “What time is it by your bomb?” 
Hungry for territory, the old, rotted Hapsburg Empire fiddled for a month and then declared war on Serbia.  Five days later Germany made its declaration of war on France.  The guns of August had erupted. 
We still scratch our heads over the start of WWI: A very small number of very small men, disconnected from their people and out to prove their machismo by territorial expansion, plunged the world into catastrophe.  The aggressors believed they could win a swift war but, as George Orwell wrote, the only way to have a swift war in the 20th century was to lose it.
Culture in Battle
One acknowledged chestnut from WWI is that the technology of firepower had outstripped communications and mobility.  Wireless was available but undependable, railroads inadequate, and countless broken-down automobiles were abandoned on the sides of impassable roads.  Generals were left wielding million-man armies by dispatching riders on horseback.  By the end of 1914, this mismatch of fierce 20th-century firepower with Dark Age communications and mobility resulted in a return to that most basic of all technologies, the shovel, and the rise of trench warfare.
The other powerful lesson learned in the first year of WWI is that new ways of killing demanded that the very culture of battle needed to change, swiftly and radically. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

I See Dead Entrepreneurs: A Visit to the Mount Auburn Cemetery

I had the opportunity this past weekend to visit the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge/ Watertown, about a mile and a half outside Harvard Square.  Authorized on this day in 1831 by the Massachusetts legislature, Mount Auburn was America's first landscaped cemetery and the first large-scale green space open to the public in North America.  For nearly two centuries, visitors from all over the world have come to experience one of the finest examples of what is known today as America's rural cemetery movement.

Other famous rural cemeteries include Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor (Maine), Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands (New York), Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit and Holly-Wood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Mount Auburn Cemetery covers 175 acres, 98,000 burials, 60,000 monuments, and 9,400 trees and shrubs representing over 1,250 taxa--part living memorial (with 600 burials a year), part history and part renowned arboretum and botanical garden.  "Rather than depicting the horror of death," Mount Auburn's literature says, the cemetery's "picturesque landscape. . .was designed to provide solace and comfort to the bereaved and public alike."

The horror of death (and source of an unhealthy local water supply) could be found aplenty in the typical 17th/18th-century urban churchyard cemetery, full of carved skulls and graves dug nearly on top of one another.  Here are a few pictures I took in 2009 on a pass-through the King's Chapel Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston--precisely the ghoulish congestion Mount Auburn hoped to improve upon.

By comparison, this is what Mount Auburn looked like in its opening decades.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 7: Hit With the Rich Stick

Big Pig was tweeting again, and it had the entire barnyard talking.

Nobody doubted that Big Pig Ventures was a success.  It sprayed start-up money in every direction like a giant pinwheel.

And nobody doubted Big Pig was famous, especially among the impressionable pullets.  He had recently backed the Duck's ethanol plant, which was the talk of the barnyard.

But on Twitter, Big Pig seemed to have an opinion about everything.

"RATS SHOULD HAVE UNFETTERED ACCESS TO FERMENTED CORN FEED CRUMBLE" Pig had tweeted that morning.  Brown Hen was incensed.  "What does Pig know about fermented corn feed crumble?" she demanded of Rooster.  "Or rats?"

"He did fund the ethanol plant," Rooster responded, trying to soothe her.  "That uses corn."

"And I stepped in my water dish this morning," Hen answered.  "I'm not tweeting about synchronized swimming, am I?"

Red Hen strutted over.  "But Big Pig has a degree in Computer Science.  And he is really rich," she said.  "Really rich people who can write software are really smart about everything."

"Until Twitter," Speckled Hen added, "we just didn't know it!"

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 6: Failure is Success

Rooster was surfing the Web when he stumbled upon a picture of Black Rat.  Rooster clicked, clicked again, and suddenly froze.  "Black Rat is an entry in Wikipedia?!"  

Brown Hen walked over to peer at the screen.  "Well, he did found two start-ups," Hen suggested.

"But neither was ever funded," said Rooster.  "They both failed."

"He was an Evangelist for Nosehole, too."  Hen grimaced.  That wasn't going so well, either.

Rooster responded, "That's it?  Is that enough accomplishment to be listed in the world's online encyclopedia?"  He read on.  It turns out Rat had also done a famous TED Talk.  "Once You're Unlucky, Twice You're Serial: The Immutable Laws of Failure," he read aloud.  "He gave a lecture about failure?" Rooster asked.

"Failure is good," Hen smiled.  "Fail fast, fail often," added Speckled Hen.  "I read that all the time on LinkedIn."  White Hen perked up.  "I think of my failures as a gift!  That was in the Harvard Business Review so it must be right!" she added.

"Failure is practically a cottage industry at TED," Speckled Hen pointed out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 5: A Lesson in Business History

Rooster glanced at his phone. 10 a.m.  He looked up from the pit. 80 pullets were sitting expectantly in the classroom.  This was nerve-wracking.  He should never have agreed to guest-teach at his old business school.

Rooster took a deep breath.  At least he'd prepared an icebreaker.

"I want to take a little poll." This got the pullets' immediate attention.  Thanks to social media, they were good at taking polls. "Who do you think was the greatest business leader of all time?" Rooster asked.

A speckled pullet in the front row announced without hesitation, "That's easy.  Mark Zuckerberg."  Affirmation rippled through the class.  Three pullets in the back began chanting "Zuck, Zuck, Zuck."

A wing shot up to the right.  "Yes?"  Rooster acknowledged.  "If you mean all time ever," another pullet announced, "that has to be Steve Jobs."  She smiled.  "He was the God of Leaders."  The three pullets in back who had been chanting "Zuck" suddenly stopped and began chirping "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs."

Rooster looked around.  He could see mental gears turning.  Zuck or Jobs?  Jobs or Zuck?  It was obviously a profound question for this class.  "Anyone else have an opinion?"  Silence.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 4: The Chief Evangelist

Rooster looked across the barnyard and saw Black Rat standing by the chicken coop.  He had a small audience, never a good sign.  Rooster strutted over to see what was going on.

"I'm an evangelist," he heard Rat saying.  As Rooster drew closer, he could see that Rat had a strange plastic cone over his nose held in place by an elastic band stretched behind his ears.  He looked a little bit like a clown, but the disquieting kind that make balloon animals at children's birthday parties.

"What's that?" asked Brown Hen.  "What's an evangelist?"

Rat smiled.  "That's someone with passion."  Then he pointed to the strange cone on his nose.  "And I'm passionate about this!"

The hens fluttered.  Brown Hen was unmoved.  She scratched the dirt.  "Are you marketing something?"  Rooster drew in closer.  He wasn't sure he liked where this was going.

Rat was appalled.  "Marketing is so 20th century," he exclaimed.  "Old rats did marketing.  Dead rats did marketing.  I am a Chief Evangelist!"

Rooster chuckled.  A few months ago Rat had been a Serial Entrepreneur.  It was hard sometimes to keep up with titles.  He stuck his head up.  "What are you evangelizing, Rat?"

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 3: Think It and Be It!

Rooster sat hunched over the computer screen deep in thought.  Just then Brown Hen strutted in from the sunny barnyard, a cloud of dust settling behind her.  "Whatcha doing?" she asked.

Rooster sighed.  "Trying to freshen up my LinkedIn profile.  It's not easy."

Hen clucked.  "Not easy?!" She fluttered.  Not easy??  Why, you can be anyone you want on LinkedIn!"  Then she laughed.  "Remember Red Hen?"

Rooster grimaced.  Red Hen was a pullet who had upset the whole barnyard with her antics.  She had been a menace to the workplace.

Brown Hen beamed.  "She's a Life Coach now!"

Rooster sat up, clearly disturbed. "A Life Coach?  What's that?"

"Oh, they're big," Hen gushed.  "Thousands of them."  Rooster had a sudden flashback to his old nightmare of being stuck in a Tony Robbins seminar over a long Memorial Day weekend.

"Check out her LinkedIn profile," Brown Hen added.  "And her blog.  Red Hen is guiding other hens to fulfillment and happiness.  She's helping them find their true passion.  She's even written two books!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 2: Passionate Disruption

The animals were atwitter.  The final night of Disrupt! Barnyard was about to start.  
Rooster was nervous.  He had been asked to judge but felt out of place.  Last year's winner of the business plan contest had been an app that reminded cows to chew their cuds.  Rooster knew more than he cared to about cows, but he was pretty sure he couldn't have dreamed up that business in a million years.
Fortunately, Horse and Big Pig were also judges.  Horse had written a thousand articles about tech and knew his stuff.  Pig had made his name last year investing with two ducks in an ethanol plant.  ("Corn wants to eat the world" had become an important investment thesis at Big Pig's firm.)  Maybe Rooster would luck out and one of the final plans would involve corn.
Black Rat was up first. The crowd settled back, ready to be dazzled. "Hello everyone."  Rat looked nervous.  The crowd cheered, even the crows in back who could be counted on for a heckle or two as the night went on.  "I am a serial entrepreneur and tonight..."
Rooster stopped listening.  "Serial entrepreneur?" he whispered to Horse and Big Pig.  It didn't seem that long ago he had been chasing Rat out of the shed with the fermented corn feed crumble.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 1: Predicting the Future

Horse sauntered across the barnyard, heading toward the pig pen.  He had a clipboard strung around his neck and a stick tucked behind an ear, just like he'd seen the farmer do with his pencil.  The three pigs were rooting around in the mud for scraps, discussing an app they'd been pitched yesterday that reminded cows to chew their cuds.

"I really liked the team's focus," Middle Pig offered.  "But is the service a must-have or only a nice-to-have?  We are talking about cows, after all."

Just then Horse swung his head over the pit.  "May I have a word?"  He was the slightest bit hesitant.  The pigs had a well-earned reputation for being difficult.

The three barely paused, obviously irritated with the interruption.  They didn't have much use for the horse, who had, in the six months they had known him, never brought them so much as a rancid corn cob, much less a killer social media app.

"This is about celebrity," Horse added.

This brought the rooting to a sudden halt.  Celebrity was one of the few things besides slop (and killer social media apps) that could get the pigs' attention.  Horse knew his business.

"What is it?" Big Pig asked.  "And this better be good."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Outsiders: The One Thing CEOs Need To Do Well

From time to time I've sat on endowment committees with truly smart investors.  I don't pretend to be one of those myself, but quarter after quarter I watched with them as the money managers came and went, the stocks and bonds went up and down, the markets rose and fell, the pundits huffed and puffed--and I listened really hard to what these investors inevitably and consistently said:  Most of the value in a portfolio is created in the allocation of assets.  In other words, the very first thing we did as an endowment committee was to set a risk profile and chose our asset classes.  That turned out to be the single thing that drove the most value long term.

You'd have thought it would have dawned on me that this powerful idea applied to operating businesses as well--the GEs, GMs, and Apples of the world--but no, sometimes it takes a sledgehammer.  And that's what I got hit with last weekend when I read William N. Thorndike, Jr.'s terrific 2012 book, The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success.  (Thanks to my friend, Henry Ames, for gifting this great read to me.)

Thorndike opens with a simple question: "Who's the greatest CEO of the last fifty years?"  Some people might answer (incorrectly) Steve Jobs; others (like me, who are old enough to be a little confused on his dates: Alfred Sloan).  But the consensus answer is undoubtedly Jack Welch.  Welch ran GE for 20 years, achieved an annual compound return of 20.9%, and outperformed the S&P by 3.3 times.  Welch also played at business like Lawrence Taylor played linebacker (ok, for those of you who picked Steve Jobs: Ray Lewis) with a kind of high-energy, smashmouth style that got him magazine covers and lots and lots of press.  Welch was a hard-charging, gifted CEO, but compared to a guy named Henry Singleton, Thorndike says, Welch "wasn't even in the same zip code."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Education of a (Diminishing) Baby Boomer

One of my favorite books is The Education of Henry Adams, published at Adams’ death in 1918 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Henry was born in 1838 and witnessed a steady parade of innovation during his lifetime, from the railroad and telegraph emerging around the time of his birth to the electrical grid, telephone and automobile so pervasive at his death.  Adams grew up in a country half-slave and about to be torn asunder but died in one that was a unified, world power.  He saw factories in old age beyond anything he could have imagined as a child, and a nation of disconnected farmers turned into a mass market of connected cities.  These changes were so dramatic, Henry believed, “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap” and something brand new had been created over the course of his lifetime.  “At the rate of progress since 1800,” Adams concluded, “every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.” 

We know better, of course, but were Adams to return and play with a smartphone, surf the Web or visit an automated factory, he might very well think we had arrived.

For me to have the same 79-year time horizon as Henry Adams, it would need to be 2036.  For me to have the same perspective I would need another 20 or 30 points of IQ, and it wouldn’t hurt to have grown up the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents.  Or, as Henry was, be a brilliant writer and historian.  Still, on the off-chance I don’t make it to 2036, I thought it would be worth surveying my own ash heap—or more properly now, my Municipal Solid Waste Landfill-- to see in 2014 what’s been tossed of my old world, and at the same time, what’s been created anew.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Keeping the Human Touch in Big Data

When I was growing up, people believed that there could never be a computer smart enough to beat a human being at chess.  Now, we know there may never be a human being smart enough to beat a computer.

What nobody anticipated, however, is that the very best chess "player" happens to be a combination of man and machine, or what the chess world calls Freestyle.  Man + computer beats computer.  There are several reasons for this, one being that humans can see where different computers disagree--not unlike a weather forecaster looking at three or four storm models--and work within the variations to achieve a better result.

Of course, if chess is ever fully "solved," like checkers is today, than the machine is fine all by itself.  But then, fully-solved problems have never been things human beings spend a lot of time worrying about.

Another example where human touch applied to data improves the solution is genealogy.  In the old days before the Web, it took a Herculean effort to build a credible, well sourced family tree.  Research dead-ends could be easily encountered just three and four generations back.  Data was hard earned, sometimes involving plane trips and convincing priests and town administrators to grant access to their precious archives.

Today, Big Genealogy is moving toward a single world tree, with all seven billion of us connected globally.  Seach your name and birth date and, voila, there's your tree.  It's not hard to envision the day when the act of building a tree will be among the least important tasks a genealogist undertakes.  (Even as I write this, a 23andMe email is chirping that it's found me a "4th cousin, with likely range to 3rd or Distant cousin.)

If you're lucky enough to have a family tree, though, you know that far too many of the names and dates are just that--bits of data.  These real people lived long, full, interesting lives but are now reduced to a few dates and places.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Entrepreneurs Escape Their Generation (and an occasional French brig-o’-war)

Nathaniel Silsbee
In William Strauss and Neil Howe’s entertaining book, Generations, the authors characterize Americans born around the time of the Revolution as the “Compromise Generation."

“The lived an awkward lifecyle,” the authors wrote.  “Compromisers were coddled in childhood, suffered little in war, came of age with quiet obedience, enjoyed a lifetime of rising prosperity, and managed to defer national crisis until most of them had died.”  I chuckled when I read this summary; imagine, a lifetime of peace and prosperity, sandwiched between the Revolution and Civil War.  Such awkwardness for this coddled cohort!

In 1792, the trading ship Benjamin departed Salem, Massachusetts, loaded with hops, saddlery, window glass, mahogany boards, tobacco and Madeira wine.  The ship and crew would be gone for 19 months, traveling to the Cape of Good Hope and Il de France.   All the while they bargained hard from port to port, flipping their freight several times “amid embargoes and revolutions,” naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “slipping their cables at Capetown after dark in a gale of wind to escape a British frigate; drifting out of Bourbon with ebb tide to elude a French brig-o’-war.”  In 1794, the Benjamin returned to Salem with a cargo that brought 500% profit to its owners. 

The ship just happened to be captained by Nathaniel Silsbee, 19 years old when he took command.  His first mate was 20 and his clerk 18. 

Of course, these three daring (and soon-to-be wealthy) entrepreneurs were members of that awkward and coddled “Compromise Generation.”

Just in case you are wondering how to feel
Does it feel sometimes that we place too much emphasis on a generational view of Americans?  We seem extraordinarily concerned, for example, that we now have four generations coming together in the workplace—Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials.  There is a huge amount of ink and pixels expended on defining the expectations of each cohort, and recommendations for how we can all live together.  (See here, here, and here for typical examples.  A Millennial reflects here.  A group of Gen Ys reflect here.  Gen X traits defined here. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Four Young Women: Wondering How Much We've Changed in a Century

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, with young ladies Europe and
America flanking the entrance.
In 1907 the "World's Greatest Custom House" opened on Bowling Green at the former site of Fort Amsterdam, the center of Dutch Manhattan.  As the New York Times reported, it was the place "where all the world comes to be taxed"--perhaps not happily, but at least now splendidly.  Indeed, in a land before Federal income tax, the collection of tariffs was the single greatest revenue generator in America.  Now the country had the best of all worlds, an architectural wonder that also churned out nearly $200 million annually.

Today, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House hosts the National Museum of the American Indian (very cool and worth visiting), the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York (not cool, don't go there), and the National Archives in New York City.  But when I visited over the holidays, I was particularly interested in the four Daniel Chester French statues that look uptown from the front of the Custom House, my interest piqued after watching David Hartman and Barry Lewis take a fantastic "Walk up Broadway"--see here.)

French, born in New Hampshire and European-trained, is perhaps best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, but for New Englanders he's also famous for the Minute Man at Concord and The John Harvard Monument at Harvard Yard.  (His works are spread around America, however, including the Marshall Field Memorial in Chicago, Alma Mater at Columbia University, James Oglethorpe in Savanah, and Thomas Starr King in San Francisco--see here for more.)

In 1902 French won the competition to design four prominent statues intended to be allegorical representations of the four trading continents, Asia, Europe, America and Africa.  The young ladies that the sculptor envisioned, each to be carved of Tennessee marble, would serve as greeters to the many nations entering the building.  The ideas and forms would be his, but approved by the Federal government.

I think it's fair to say that no sane sculptor would take on such a task today.  How could it possibly come out well?  What allegorical tale could an artist tell about an entire continent that wouldn't get dragged across the comments section of the online Post, crucified by Rush Limbaugh or pilloried in The Economist?  (See my post on memorials, donuts and statues here.)  Yet, 1902 was a different place in America, and Daniel Chester French was happy to characterize the continents in a way (one presumes) that reflected the general sentiments of upscale, commercial America and its government.