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The sugar cane machine

A small island grows sugar cane. Many people harvest it, and one guy owns the machine that can process the cane and turn it into juice.

Who wins?

The guy with the machine, of course. It gives him leverage, and since he's the only one, he can pay the pickers whatever he likes–people will either sell it to him or stop picking. No fun being the cane picker. He can also charge whatever he likes to the people who need the cane juice, because without him, there's no juice. No fun being a baker or cook.

But now, a second machine comes to the island, and then three more. There are five processors.

Who wins?

Certainly not the guy with the first machine. He has competitors for the cane. He can optimize and work on efficiency, but pretty soon he's going to be in a price war for his raw materials (and a price war for the finished product.) Not so much fun to be the factory owner.

And then! And then one cane processor starts creating a series of collectible containers, starts interacting with his customers and providing them with custom blends, starts offering long-term contracts and benefits to his biggest customers, and yes, even begins to pay his growers more if they're willing to bring him particularly sweet and organic materials, on time. In short, he becomes a master of the art of processing and marketing cane. He earns permission, he treats different customers differently and he refuses to act like a faceless factory…

Who are you?


A toddler wants what she wants, now. That's a win.

A little later, when we're more mature, we might define winning as getting what we want at the expense of someone else. I win when you lose. And yes, winning still means now, not later.

A demagogue cares so much about winning that he'd rather wreck the system itself than lose. It's okay, he believes, to root for the failure of the republic or to destroy civility or democracy if it leads to something that could be called a win.

What happens when you define a win as getting closer to someone who wants the same thing? Or when you define it as improvement over time? Or in creating trust?

What if the win is the ability to give a true gift?

BACO and your career

Brian Trelstad and his team at Acumen have had great success using a metric they call BACO (the best alternative charitable option). They can compare the results of the development and investment work they do to the results that direct aid or charity would generate instead. In short: when you understand the alternative, it's far easier to not only measure your work, but value it.

If you are familiar with a great restaurant just down the street, that raises the bar for a new restaurant to get your business…

If you live in a one-company town and have but one skill, you don't have a lot of options. The boss tells you what to do and you do it. On the other hand, if you're a world-class Ruby on Rails programmer with a reputation on Stack Overflow, you have plenty of options, and as a result, your boss treats you with more respect… and you can be a lot more choosy about which projects you take on (realizing, of course, that you stake your reputation on everything you do.)

Call it your BAPO… best alternative professional option. It changes your posture when you have an option. If you've got another client more interesting or better paying than this one, you can confidently act that way–it raises the bar in the way people treat you. When St. Luke's was the hottest ad agency in the UK, they made the decision not to grow–in order to take a new client, they had to fire an old one. What do you think that did to the behavior of the current clients?

Corporations and organizations brainwashed generations of people to believe that they had no option. Go to school, go to the placement office, get a job, do what you're told. The amazing reality of our time is this is no longer true. And yet. And yet few people are developing their alternative, building an external reputation and yes, even moonlighting on the weekends. When you have the option, not only does your confidence change, your work does as well.

Validation is overrated

If you're waiting for a boss or an editor or a college to tell you that you do good work, you're handing over too much power to someone who doesn't care nearly as much as you do.

We spend a lot of time organizing and then waiting for the system to pick us, approve of us and give us permission to do our work.

Feedback is important, selling is important, getting the market to recognize your offering and make a sale–all important. But there's a difference between achieving your goals and realizing your work matters.

If you have a book to write, write it. If you want to record an album, record it. No need to wait for someone in a cubicle halfway across the country to decide if you're worthy.

Do you have the right to be heard?

I'm not talking about the ability to be heard… we solved that problem a few years ago. It used to be logistically impossible to make it easy for the masses to speak up and to sort and respond to the feedback. Now, though, that part is easy.

I'm wondering whether marketers, politicians and leaders have an obligation to treat everyone's input equally. Sure, you have the right to speak, but what does it take to be listened to?

Does the CEO of HP have the obligation to listen to a loony one-share shareholder with the same attention he focuses on a significant investor? Does a consulting firm have an obligation to study every RFP that comes along?

In most situations, I'd argue, you earn the right to be heard. If there's a sick person on the plane, the doctor in 3b has the right to speak up, the hysterical person behind her does not.

So, here's a quick list of a few ways to earn that right:

  • Be informed
  • Be rational
  • Pay your dues
  • Have a platform where a lot of people can hear you
  • Be an impacted constituent, not a gadfly
  • Represent a tribe of people with similar concerns
  • You've been right before
  • You're not anonymous
  • You have a previous relationship and permission to interrupt
  • Listening to you earns something of value

On a tangential point for the recipients of this incoming flood of noise, you are not a punching bag. Some people will become your customer (or a prospect) merely because it gives them the power to complain. To be heard. To be paid attention to. I'm not sure you need customers like that.

A bias for scamminess

Avoid stamps.com.

How is that a sleepy, conservative organization like the postal service ends up licensing its brand to a company that can't resist every honey pot scheme and opt out technique in the book?

I needed to send a package today and figured I'd try them out. Visited the site on my Mac, got all the way through registration, entered my card to pay for stamps and then (and only then) did I find out their software doesn't work on a Mac. Of course, they knew I was on a Mac but didn't bother to alert me early on.

Now they have my card, but hey, it's the USPS, so I trust them. Just for kicks, I call in to ask about the Mac compatibility issue. It turns out that by entering my card to pay for stamps, I've agreed to pay them $15.95 a month. Forever. And ever. Or until I notice.

I go online to cancel my account and discover that you can't cancel your account online. You have to call them. Oh. (The people on the phone are friendly, for what it's worth…)

Can you imagine this sort of thing happening at a store? Or in a sleepy government office?

They told me that they have 400,000 paying customers. I wonder how many of them are paying a monthly fee without realizing it…

Can I suggest three simple principles for ethical dealings online:

  1. When charging someone, tell them exactly what you're charging them for, on the page itself, not buried in a link.
  2. If you're billing someone monthly, send them an email every month to tell them you're doing so. If that's going to lead to people quitting, the answer isn't to avoid the email, the answer is to make your service more valuable.
  3. It should be as easy to quit something (even a free service) as it is to join it.

There's something about the mechanics and arms-length nature of the web that just begs companies that know better to treat people in a way that they'd be humiliated to try face to face.

What’s included?

This is the pricing question of our time.

First, from the buyer's point of view: when I buy this car/boiler/phone, how much are the services that come with it going to cost me every month, forever?

We stand at the Verizon store agonizing about the extra $34 in posted price for one phone over the other, then sign a contract for $2400 in fees.

We are attracted to a car with a rebate, not caring about the $2000 extra in lifetime gas costs.

More and more, the thing we buy isn't a thing, it's a subscription. The thing might as well be free.

And from the seller's point of view?

When you sell me that low-cost email service, did you also just get yourself on the hook for a lifetime of free support? What's that going to cost you?

When you take her reservation at your hotel, are you prepared to do all the work and attention you need to get a decent review on TripAdvisor? Ready for your CEO to take a call in the middle of the night, ready to comp meals, scramble teams of reps or engage in months of correspondence with that customer? Because that's all included in your marketing costs now, isn't it?

I recently hired someone to do some research and brainstorming. The first stage of what might become quite a bit of work. I was sort of amazed at the end of the short project… he asked me if I was happy with what I got, and I said, 'no.' He said, 'sorry' and walked away.

On one hand, this is dumb marketing, because he'd already done the hard work of establishing a customer, and wasn't particularly interested in turning that customer into a happy referral.

On the other hand, the old school decision to view a transaction as a transaction, time to move on to the next, is getting more and more rare. Perhaps it's an intentional act on his part, a way of doing business in the moment, without investing in or worrying about what comes as a result.

You’re already self employed

When are you going to start acting like it?

The idea that you are a faceless cog in a benevolent system that cares about you and can't tell particularly whether you are worth a day's pay or not, is, like it or not, over.

In the long run, we're all dead. In the medium-long run, though, we're all self-employed. In the medium-long run, the decisions and actions we take each day determine what we'll be doing next.

And yet, it's so easy to revert to, "I just work here."

A car is not merely a faster horse

And email is not a faster fax. And online project management is not a bigger whiteboard. And Facebook is not an electronic rolodex.

Play a new game, not the older game but faster.

Don’t snowglobe me, bro

Snowglobe How important is it? Is it so important you need to interrupt everyone, every single one of your customers?

There are only
a few signs on my way through security, yet there, on the biggest of all, is a warning about snow globes. Snow globes are apparently a big enough threat/cause
for confusion that they get their own sign.

Every time you
interrupt your prospect or consumer, you better ask, "is it important
enough…" Most of the time, it's not. Most of the time, the
interruption is a selfish, misguided effort by a committee that doesn't
get it.

Yes, I know
the TSA doesn't care about customers. But it's a good lesson for anyone
who does.

Don't snowglobe me. Interrupting everyone so you can properly alert one person in a thousand is just silly.