Friday, May 29, 2009

Green with Envy

On Tuesday I got together with a friend to talk governance and board roles. Important but mundane stuff. While we were together, he updated me on the progress of his new venture.

To me, PickupPal first sounded like it might be an on-line dating service (Plenty of Fish?; PickupPal?). It's not (maybe that's just me).

PickupPal is a ride share program. Carpooling. As in - you drive, I ride shot gun. We save the environment, talk celebrity gossip, kill some time and split the gas.

What's fascinating about this venture is the unexpected relevance, logic, and great execution that makes ride share and PickupPal something way more intriguing than I first imagined. Carpooling is cool? I kind of missed that one.

For those into green, social media and getting from a to b, it really is.

Here's PickupPal's website. You go there, sign up and create a profile. Using Facebook Connect it takes no time. Profiles can be created without using FB but a FB profile adds credibility and reassuring background to someone you may end up spending three hours in a car with.

When you want a ride somewhere in North America (or you're going somewhere and want company), simply post the details of your trip. Find a match (location, interests, timing) and fasten your seat belt.

Makes sense?

It's gets bigger and better when you add Groups. Think Church. Concerts. Companies. Colleges and universities. Anything with lots of like minded people going to the same place, same time.

One that got my attention was rock concerts. You don't think concert promoters aren't aware of the green impact, publicity and perceptions that bringing 50,000 people to the same venue has? Through it's partnership with Reverb, PickupPal is the ride-share sponsor for acts like the Dave Mathews Band, The Dead, Crowded House, Fall-out Boy, Kelly Clarkson and many more.

Marketing-wise, PickupPal has an active biz dev effort that is forging key relationships with green organizations, ride share users and partnerships all over North America. Following developments is easy on Twitter.

Talking to my friend, I suggested that perhaps the only thing better that could do is get more public exposure. Yesterday he sent me a copy of this email (details omitted to protect the innocent, but you get the point):

My name is ------ and I am a producer with ------(big news channel). I
am based in our Big US City Bureau and am hoping to connect with someone
from Pick-up Pal. We are interested in producing a feature story on the
website and service. Please call me at your convenience at -----.
Guess I'm not the only one who thinks maybe PickupPal is onto something interesting.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hunkering Down and Competing

There's lot's of soul searching going on right now as businesses hunker down to make it through the downturn. Most CEO's seem to be coming to grips with the notion that a turn-around isn't imminent and more, stronger action is likely necessary in order survive/thrive.

If survival is the priority then cash flow and cost containment are imperatives.

Cash flow starts with getting receivables in fast and payables out carefully. For many that surely seems like a no-brainer. However, experience suggests many CEO's would be well-advised to sit down with their CFO's and make sure everyone is on the same page - that there is a daily effort to collect - and a clear, formal strategy around who, what and how fast to pay.

Cost containment starts with strategy. What are the operating priorities in the downturn (marketing? sales? people?) and how will those priorities be protected? From there, managers can identify spending that isn't currently consistent with the operating priorities and cuts can be made.

My observation on cost containment is that it's seldom done well. Frequently, strategy is lacking and some cuts hurt more than they help. Cuts that could be made but aren't hurt the most. Obvious misses send the wrong message on priorities. Finding and implementing process efficiency gains can sometimes have big upfront costs. Careful analysis is required if this is the case to understand the financial benefits and cash flow implications.

Lots has been written about the extended downside of laying off people to save money. I get it. To a point. Lay-offs aren't free and it would seem the cultural, expertise and overall disruptions to the business could be both significant and lingering.

In actual fact, I've seen few companies suffer extensively from downsizing. Creating fat and straying into luxuries is wide-spread in good times. Being forced to refocus on core priorities, businesses, people and customers isn't necessarily a bad thing. Laying off the wrong people and cutting into muscle is a mistake so knee-jerking into a lay-off strategy is dangerous. But a thoughtful, proactive and strategic approach is a good thing for lots of businesses.

Lots of companies are struggling to maintain sales momentum through this downturn. Decision and spending paralysis is widespread right now. With fierce competition for every deal, CEO's are getting a great opportunity to understand the true competitiveness of their organizations. How's your organization batting on competitive deals? .100? .250? .500? When this is over, will your organization have lost or gained market share?

I worry that many organizations will see an upturn in the economy before they fix the lessons from this downturn. High tides float all boats and survival for many will feel like success. Short term it is. But CEO's who merely hang on risk jeopardizing their businesses longer term. Question: what have you learned about your organization's ability to compete in this downturn and what do you need to do about it? Changes that increase success now will have significantly more impact when things turn. Is your organization just hanging on or are you taking advantage of the current situation to implement good long term changes?

Check out this YouTube video for more thoughts on managing through a downturn and succeeding long term.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Toronto Gas Prices

With retail gas prices rising again to almost $1/litre I did some quick digging to try and understand how that compares to crude pricing and margins in the past. What the #'s say is what we're all feeling - compared to a year ago, current retail pricing is being inflated significantly beyond the price of crude.

Some simple numbers.

This year 2009, retail prices/litre were 2.87 x the price of crude/litre in January, 2.84 x in February, 2.24 x in March and 2.27 x in April.

For the same four months last year, retail prices to crude prices were 1.71 x, 1.75 x, 1.6 x and 1.56 x the price of crude.

So, in January 2009 retail to crude prices were 1.16 x more expensive than in January 2008, 1. 09 x more than in February 2008, .64 x more than in March 2008 and .71 x more than in April 2008.

That's what you're noticing at the pumps.

Interestingingly, taxes on gasoline have only varied a couple of cent's/litre from 2008 to 2009 - which given the difference in retail prices, seems surprising but reflects the system of taxation.

In January through April this year 2009, the average taxes/litre in Toronto were 28.65 cents on an average retail price of 82.5 cents (34.7%).

In January through April 2008, the average taxes/litre were 29.82 cents on an average retail price of 106.75 (27.8%).

To increase margins, gas retailers have all the incentive in the world to increase prices - which seems logical. However, that doesn't mean more $ to government, especially if demand drops.

Interesting business. Oil companies are doing really well.

Keep bending over.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fortune Teller

Reading the May 11, 2009 issue of Fortune - aka the Bernie Madoff Special. All sorts of interesting stuff.

Page 12. 'Gun Money'. Bizarrely, the gun and ammunition business in the US has exploded (sorry) over the past year. Remington just announced a backlog of almost $300 million. Up from $115 million a year ago. Smith and Wesson shares are up 338%! There is a backlog of 1.3 people waiting for background checks to purchase firearms. WTF? Should we all be worried that the bottom line is more prematurely dead people?

Page 13. 'Golf Gets Handicapped'. Great first sentence - "ever since the roster of PGA tour sponsors started resembling the list of TARP recipients....". Yeah, point is, sponsors are a LITTLE tougher to come by for the PGA. Poor Tiger.

Page 16. 'Chuteless in Detroit'. Applauding Rick Wagoner and GM for doing the right thing - not building Rick a golden parachute. According to Fortune, poor Rick may come away with almost nothing after taking GM down. Fortune seems to be in agreement with itself that that seems appropriate. For once.

Page 18. 'Can My Boss Eliminate My Bonus?'. Fortunately, I don't have a boss. The answer is yes. Unless it's part of an employment contract. Which most aren't. You may want to get on that.

Page 22. 'Trouble in Travel Land'. Guess what? Class action lawyers are trying to f. up cheap travel by going after on-line travel companies like Travelocity and Expedia. Their beef? That these OTC's haven't been paying enough local occupancy taxes. Go ahead. Put Travelocity out of business. Collect some back taxes. And watch travel to your crappy little burgh (even your not-so-crappy big one) drop even more.

Page 25. 'Viewpoint' by David Gergen, the CNN dude who worked for a bunch of US Presidents on 'How Can Business Stand Tall Again'. His advice for building a positive perception and keeping the feds a little more at bay:
  • business should acknowldege it's role in the current mess
  • get back to fundamentals - like tying pay to performance, and meausuring performance over something longer than 3 months
  • work for, not against social reforms - like global warming and health care reform
  • embrace the concept of corporate management becoming a true profession, like lawyers and doctors.
Um. Question. Will making executives more like lawyers really improve their public perception?

Page 27. The 'Investing' section. 800,000 properties received foreclosure notices in the first quarter of 2009. That seems big.

Hang on, there's more.

From the Technology section. Page 37. 'Who's on Deck in Tech?' Nobody. Very few of those great tech companies like Google, Apple, Dell, HP, IBM, etc have identified a successor to the CEO. Reminder again that governance is a nice concept.....seldom practiced.

Also in technology. Page 39. Last one.

'Apple Apps Store Thinks Small'. An article about Apple going after small business and entrepreneurs with the i-phone. I'm biased on this one. I don't believe any serious business person will ever use an i-phone. For one simple reason: you can't type on it. And there....last sentence of the article. In Fortune. "I use my i-phone to reactive to information, but not for active tasks" says Robin Dhar. "Typing on it is really hard."

Case closed.

By the way, the Bernie article is good reading too. Buy your own Fortune.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Prezi. Not Your Kids Powerpoint.

Experimenting again.

A few weeks ago I came across Prezi, a web 2.0 'scalable' presentation software. I was intrigued.

Unlike Powerpoint (at least my Powerpoint) it's fun, interactive, unpredictable. So, I started trying it.

Here's my first output. My CV or whatever the right term for it is. Prezi zooms in and all over the content below to make for a fairly different presentation experience.

Just click on this link and you'll go to Prezi. Open it, and the arrow keys, right bottom should get you going. Use the arrow key to scroll through. For auto play hold the forward arrow down and choose time (go with 2 secs). Once on auto, the only way to stop it is to close the presentation (I think).

Some thoughts on Prezi. I think it's cool. I've showed it to a few people and they were intrigued. It definitely takes some getting used to. The interface is simple but getting the spacing and scaling right took a lot of time. I wish I were a designer. In fact, I'd love a designer to crack at it.

Something else. There's a 'blerp. excuse me!' button top right of this blog. Experimenting with that too. Great way to leave comments, post-it notes, etc. Any thoughts, maybe leave them on blerp?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Get a Job Already

This month my son graduates from University. So do a big bunch of his friends.

None of them (ok, maybe one - and I picked her early) have jobs. Many are graduating from decent business programs at good schools - like Queen's, McGill, Dalhousie.

None of them seems particularly perturbed about graduating without work (results from the parent survey may differ). It makes sense that there's a certain comfort (and dangerous reinforcement?) when everyone around is in the same boat.

What few seem to have, is a plan - or perhaps more accurately - a serious plan. Vague notions of 'working for my dad' (ok as a summer job, sucks upon graduation), traveling (is there any more room in Australia for Canadian students?) and going back to college to become a PR person or fashion designer seem to top the list of short term options (oh, along with "I'm just going to golf this summer and get serious in September", which is just about guaranteed to turn any dinner conversation into a lecture on walking 10 miles to and from school, naked, in the snow, uphill both ways).

Having now been forced to put some of my own brain time towards the 'what next?' question, here's some of the ideas I've come up with. Seriously.

1. Start a business. You have at least one thing going for you that you will only really appreciate 10 years from now when your kids are 2 and 4 and your $800,000 mortgage has you wishing you'd sold to Google. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE. This is the only good time to start a business. And fail. And learn. And start again. And succeed. And get rich?

Oh, and one other thing. Take a look around you at the talent pool you're surrounded by. Your friends aren't losers (ok, one or two are, but they've got perfect sales personalities). Sure, it would be nice to have more experience but that's where successful, experienced moms and dads would be happy to weigh in (honey, that doesn't mean you're fat, it's just a term for helping). Seriously, I'm contemplating starting a company with your friends - you should too.

2. Build your brand - learn to lever the internet. Stef got lucky, but she got it right. Those crazy Facebook videos got her the job with Britney in New York. What's the learning?

Remember the drives to Myrtle Beach and those goofy 'South of the Border' billboard ads starting somewhere south of Buffalo and ending at that rest stop in SC? We stopped, right? That's you. And your highway.

Facebook is only one of the billboards. Times are changing. You need to get with it.

You need a blog. NEED. Then, start figuring out Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and a bunch of the others. Ever heard of Friend Connect? Linkedin? What does your Google profile say? You think you've done everything you can to get noticed? To differentiate yourself? Would you believe that you've barely started?

3. Lever your connections. Dude, as a 6 year old, you were one of the world's best networkers. Then they invented the internet. I've seen you create a date, golf game, party, dinner, card game, movie, whatever in less than 4 minutes. Getting a job may take a little longer (8 to 10 minutes) but the principles are the same. And that expensive private school you went to? I know some of those kids MUST have jobs. And really cool, important parents.

4. Get more education. I'm not a huge fan of this one (because I'm paying?), but let's face it - you've been rammed into a generation that's going to stay in school a long time given the lack of other options. If you're not going to start your own business (and get that education) going back to school will help you stay competitive (although I still find it ironic that College is the new PhD).

5. Travel. I know I dissed this one earlier but, honestly...why not? So long as 'travel' includes 'work' - as in bar tending, serving, liftie, snowboard instructor, personal trainer, dog walker. Hey, seeing the world and experiencing new stuff is great experience and if you can't get experience any other way, then you might as well take off when it doesn't matter as much.

That's all I've got. I'm sure there's more but hey, I have a job! Over to you big guy!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Not a Gossip Girl Fan

Sunday night. Everyone but me is into Gossip Girl. Then those Desperate Housewives.

It's a decent opportunity to reflect on a terrific past week skiing/boarding out west with my two twenty-something kids. Although the timing may seem surprising, spring skiing at Whistler seems like a bit of a hidden gem. This is our third year. No crowds. Amazing conditions (we skied top to bottom every day; the weather was cloudless). Big discounts (passes for the week were $200).

Some observations.

1) We flew Westjet. There were no surprises and the laid-back Westjet approach is pretty easy to take. Having said that, I got the sense of a tiring brand. The jokes were kind of flat. While the crews were friendly and helpful, they too appear to be tiring of the schtick. All in all, I didn't get the sense of much differentiation from the competition. Maybe I'm expecting too much.

2) All week, the endless swine flu pandemic noise felt (and still feels) like a dangerous case of crying wolf. One day, almost without a doubt, there will be a serious pandemic. Scaring the world population now over something that appears to be less lethal than standard flu, probably ensures that when the big one actually hits fewer people will take it seriously.

3) Whistler/Blackcomb knows service. I've noticed this before. The staff everywhere at Whistler/Blackcomb are helpful, yakkitive, polite and friendly. From the kids in the grocery store and the waitresses at Longhorns, to the lifties all over the hill, I don't recall one that didn't seem engaged and feeling pretty good about what they were doing. It's a nice atmosphere. It gets bigger tips.

4) The domestic portion of YVR, Vancouver's airport, is under renovation - still - and pretty much sucks. The lounges are small and the services are limited. A couple of the gates (the ones I've flown out of, my last four times there) are out-of-the-way, down seemingly endless ugly hallways of renovation, far from shops and restaurants, and easily overcrowded. Vancouver is a beautiful city and the airport is a major Canadian gateway. It always surprises me how the domestic portion seems like a second thought.

5) I wonder about the future of Toronto. My kids have both been to Vancouver before. Both had the same reaction again - "this is so much better than Toronto"(we didn't talk gang wars). The next day I saw an interview with a Much Music DJ on some kind of assignment in Paris. His first comment "this city is so much better than Toronto". It's probably just a coincidince to see the same reaction 2x in 24 hours, but it got me wondering whether Toronto can stay competitive with other top cities in the world. Probably it can. Other cities are far from perfect - especially when you live there. But it would be nice to see more dollars flowing to keeping Toronto clean, updating it's infrastructure and revitalizing it's key attractions. A winning sports team would be an unbelievable - and probably unachievable? - bonus.

5) Expedia rocks. I booked the entire trip including transfers to Whistler in less than an hour. The prices were very, very good.

6) Just do it. I was hesitating on this trip for a few reasons. I was crazy. I had the time of my life - again - traveling with my kids. Every time we do this, they're a little older. A little more worldly. A lot more knowledgeable and competent. Our conversations ranged from drunk driving to American torture. From John Stewart to The Hills. We had a bunch of laughs and shared experiences we'll remember forever.

The big question now is where next?

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