Monday, April 16, 2018

Just Fade Away: Fleeting Memorials to the Boston Marathon Victims (2013)

This post was originally published on April 21, 2013.

I was in Boston on Saturday morning to attend a meeting just a block away from one of two "spontaneous" memorials to the Marathon bombing victims.  This first memorial had sprung up from the ground at Berkeley and Boylston streets.

Boylston was still cordoned off and deserted except for a half dozen lab technicians hard at work a half mile away, small white-coated shapes moving back and forth across an eerie urban landscape.

Historians have watched the rise of these stunning, organic, makeshift memorials over the past few decades.  "As physical objects they are ephemera," writes Michael J. Lewis of Williams College, "but as a mass cultural phenomenon they are quite extraordinary, and they testify to a deep human need for memorials." These powerful if fleeting statements "look for widely understood symbols," Lewis adds, and "they yearn for resolution and closure."

The Marathon-bombing memorial at Boylston and Berkeley Street was sad and moving, filled with fresh cut flowers and stuffed animals, American flags and photographs.  Many people stopped by while I was there--fittingly, many runners who paused from their Saturday morning workouts--and everyone to a person was respectful.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Theranos: Knives Out, Razors In


The knives are out for Elizabeth Holmes.  If my social media feeds are any indication, the young entrepreneur, who recently settled charges of massive fraud by the SEC, should already be in jail.  It’s a kind of crowd-sourced Schadenfreude directed at the one-time, youngest-in-the-world, self-made female billionaire whose company is today one secured-loan away from bankruptcy.

In the world of virtual knives, it’s a Twitter melee.  And in the world of razors, the SEC action suggests Holmes and her company are best described by Occam’s advice: The simplest explanation is usually the best.  In other words, Theranos was nothing less than one giant scam.

But there’s another razor, Hanlon’s, that shaves in a different direction, advising never to ascribe to maliciousness what can be explained by ineptitude.  In other words, assume stupidity before assuming evil.  This explanation doesn’t excuse fraud, and Holmes (despite not admitting wrongdoing in her SEC settlement) probably won’t ever squirm off that hook.  But there’s a reading of the Theranos saga that might be more satisfying if we couple charges of massive fraud with an equally massive dose of incompetence.  And not just by Holmes, but by the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem that’s designed to support and protect young entrepreneurs whom we encourage to be bold, take chances, and put a dent in the universe.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes a typical plane crash as the result not of a single, catastrophic event, but of seven factors, most of them small and benign in themselves: slightly poor weather, the plane being a bit behind schedule, a pilot being tired, two pilots never having flown together, and the like.  The conventional commercial jetliner, Gladwell writes, “is about as dependable as a toaster.  Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.”[1]

So let’s tell the tale of Theranos with Hanlon and Gladwell in mind.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Once-In-A-Lifetime, Cookie-Cutter Experience

Last month, my wife and I had the opportunity to cruise for a week in the Galapagos.  By any measure, even those of the jaded world traveler, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

On Thursday of our cruise week, we were anchored in the harbor of Santa Cruz, one of five populated islands in the chain.  After chasing Darwin finches and hanging out with giant tortoises during the day, we were entertained onboard ship that evening by a local Galapagon band and native Ecuadorian dancers, a special treat.  After about an hour of singing and dancing, it was time for dinner, and I found myself the first one downstairs in the dining room.  Steve, our friendly, spic-and-span steward, stood patiently behind the serving line, waiting for my fellow guests to arrive.

“We’re going to be a little late tonight, Steve,” I said.  “Some of us are still upstairs dancing.”

Steve looked at me, smiled, and came as close to rolling his eyes as a professional steward on board a cruise ship ever dares.  “I know,” he said.  “It happens every Thursday night.”

That’s when it struck me: One person’s once-in-a-lifetime experience is another person’s cookie-cutter Thursday night.  In fact, our entire cruise to the Galapagos was actually the practiced craft of a team of trained professionals offering a series of carefully tested, cookie-cutter processes that insured guests were safe, sound, and on schedule as their once-in-a-lifetime experiences unfolded. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Historical Postcards Redux

The most popular post I've ever written dates back to 2008.  It's called "Historical Postcards and the Battle of New Orleans."  It's not my favorite post, or my best written, and I can't explain its popularity.  But it gets at something that still really fascinates me, the question of national memory.  Why do we remember certain events and people (the Civil War, Joe DiMaggio) while others slip away (the Korean War, Stan Musial)?  And what become the indelible images, the "postcards," that are stamped in the memory of a generation?

In the 2008 post, I took a stab at naming the five events that had the greatest impact on my generation (mid-to-younger Boomers): 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the moon landing, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the assassination of JFK.

It's now a decade from that 2008 post, and the Pew Research Center has asked roughly the same question, expanded to include a "series of related events."  As you can see, 9/11 ranks first, followed by the election of our first black President and the tech revolution.

This list, which includes events over some sixty years, can be broken down by generation.  Pew has done that:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Weathermakers to the World: Playing Photo Detective


I was browsing the Hollywood 2018 issue of Vanity Fair when I came across the picture (below) of the New Yorker Theater.  It’s featured in an article by James Wolcott about Manhattan movie revival houses of the 1970s.  These theaters were the Netflix of their time, a chance for movie junkies to scratch their itch before the advent of DVDs, cable, and streaming.

Opened in 1914, the New Yorker Theater was located on Broadway between 88th and 89th. 

Now, check the marquee.


The picture playing the evening of the photo was The Matchmaker, produced in 1958, Shirley Booth’s last film.  (Shirley would go on to play Hazel on TV, and The Matchmaker would be adapted for Broadway as Hello, Dolly!)  The second feature shown that evening, The Hoodlum Priest, was shot in 1961.  It’s about a priest who ministers to delinquents (no, not what you were thinking).  I examined the photo with a magnifying glass and can also see “Red Dust” as an upcoming attraction.  “Red Dust” is a Clark Gable movie produced in 1932. 

So, three films, 1932, 1958, and 1961.  My guess is they were all revivals ("TODAY ONLY"), and the photo was—as the caption suggests—taken in the early 1970s.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Number One Skill of a Successful Entrepreneur

I've now completed about two-thirds of my latest project, a book called A Nation of Entrepreneurs, and have begun to confirm some of my hypotheses about the entrepreneurial experience in America.

For example, if you asked the average American what makes an entrepreneur successful, he might point to the abilities of the entrepreneur himself.  Leadership, brains, grit—that sort of thing.  Let’s call this the Jobian Theory of entrepreneurial success.  It's a perfectly reasonable position:  Smarter, more talented, hard-working people tend to do better in every walk of life, not just entrepreneurial activities.

But then there are those successful entrepreneurs who don’t have many, or in some cases, most of those skills.  I call them “reluctant” or “accidental” or maybe just lucky entrepreneurs, and profile several of them in Nation.  They tend to be minding their own business, making a living, and stumble upon some innovation or novel business model that is so powerful that it appears to carry them to success, despite themselves.

We all know someone like this, someone who we might not trust to order our lunch but who is rich and successful anyway.  Let’s call this the Business Model Theory of entrepreneurial success.

So we’ve got two factors, talent and quality of business model, which seem to determine success.  In the investment world these two elements are sometimes referred to as “jockey and horse,” and inevitably the jockey gets more of the focus and drives more of the investment dollars than the horse.  It’s entrepreneur over idea, so to speak.  I don’t know if this prioritization makes sense, nor am I sure anyone in an industry that only sees returns on about half of their investments knows for sure, but that’s the best current thinking.

My research in Nation suggests, however, that there is a third, related, but perhaps more powerful element of entrepreneurial success than is explained by talent or model, jockey or horse.