Archive for December, 2008

Passion, Idealism and Gross Domestic Happiness in 2009

December 31st, 2008

There is a sweet spot for companies (and individuals) between the profit motive and the idea of making the world a better place.  Milton Friedman notwithstanding, most corporate managers hope to do more than line shareholders’ pockets.

Glenn Kelman, CEO of online real estate company Redfin, has a post about the “mercenaries” vs. the “idealists” in business.  He makes two insightful, tightly intertwined points:

1)  Many top-performing companies get that way- in part- by pursuing an idealistic goal.  His best example was of Alcoa chasing a specific, hard-nosed figure.  It wasn’t cash-related, though.  It was reducing the number of employee work-related injuries, which improved morale and reduced labor costs, one of Alcoa’s biggest expenses.

2)  We frequently work the other way too- caring deeply about something and then figuring out how to make money from it.

Glenn’s point is that the green-eyeshade types will miss the boat by focusing only on the numbers.  It takes ideals- focused ideals- to build a really successful business.

Jumping threads only slightly, one of my goals for 2009 is to focus on my family’s equivalent of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index:

GNH, like the Genuine Progress Indicator, refers to the concept of a quantitative measurement of well-being and happiness. The two measures are both motivated by the notion that subjective measures like well-being are more relevant and important than more objective measures like consumption.

Here’s to a year of economic and personal well-being in 2009.

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A Twitter Name Conflict Resolved in Record Time

December 28th, 2008

Steve Poland’s open letter to Evan Williams last week hit Techmeme and apparently got widely read.  Another Twitter user name “dispute” sparked, caught fire and went out all in one Saturday- yesterday- on what is probably one of the slowest weekends of the year.

The Dispute
A school teacher named Colin adopted the user name @room214, which also happens to be the name of a social media agency.

I think the episode started with this tweet from the agency, using the name @room_214:  room_214

Colin responded that he likes the name and uses it in other places as well, so no.  From what I can tell the agency did not file a complaint with Twitter itself, though it sounds like someone might have sent Colin a nastygram threatening to do so.

The Speedy Resolution
The episode ended about 12 hours later when the co-founder of the agency posted a note saying that the note came from an overeager employee, and that the agency itself had no desire to push Colin off the name.

The name itself is totally banal- @room214.  There is no practical way for anyone to know that it is also the name of a business, and there is nothing famous or proprietary about it.  Twitter’s terms of service have two sections that might allow them to change a user name (“You must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users”; and “We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames”) and Colin violated neither as far as I can tell, so by my reading the agency would be out of luck.

The Conclusion
This episode ended up a whole lot of nothing.  It does show that people get attached to their names and are starting to wonder how much to rely on them.  Steve’s suggestion is to create paid Twitter premium accounts that “protect” user names like telephone numbers or domain names.

Twitter is the biggest network that uses unique user names to identify users (I think) rather than email addresses or Facebook-style numerical identifiers, but the issue goes beyond just Twitter.  I probably have accounts as @park3 on 20 different services.  I would not pay money for that name on most of them, but I might pay a very small amount on 3-5 or so- probably not more than $10/year or so since I don’t make money from any of them (and i’m cheap!).  Would I use fewer services if I knew I had to pay to be guaranteed my preferred name?  Would I search harder to find a really “unique” name?  Probably not on both counts.  Do I just need to start a user name-reservation-and-arbitration business?   Hmm.

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Twitter Username Conflict and Password Function Creep

December 22nd, 2008

My friend Steve Poland blogged a few days ago about the experience of losing his @celtics Twitter account.  The story got picked up on Techmeme and made the rounds on the Internet, which was a wondeful thing.  It sounds as though the Boston Celtics decided they wanted to try out Twitter, saw that @celtics was taken and successfully petitioned Twitter to yank it from Steve.

I feel bad for Steve not so much for the fact that the name was taken from him as for the way it was done.  He posted the notification email from Twitter and it was blunt, unsympathetic and offered no recourse to someone who believed he had been wronged.  There are good ways and bad ways to convey a message and if ever there was one likely to inspire a rant this was it.

The consensus from around the Internet agrees here, and says that while everyone understands intellectually that Twitter owns user names (unlike phone numbers or domain names) there should be a fair review process.  Steve has a great example in @STP, his personal Twitter account and also the name of a brand of motor oil.  Steve never Twitters about motor oil that I am aware of, so by Twitter’s own rules there is no “impersonation” happening and Twitter should not be permitted to take the name away.

But what if it does anyway?  And what if Steve also has “STP” accounts on 17 other social media sites (or every one listed at Username Check)?  As the social media business figures out how to charge people for services I wonder if someone needs to step up as a global user name mediator so that individuals and companies don’t end up fighting the same battle in multiple forums simultaneously, where they might well win some and lose some.

Twitter seems to have jumped way up in the public consciousness recently.  I imagine they are dealing with a lot of these issues right now.  I bet they wish they could hand them off to someone else as well.

And as long as I am on the subject of Twitter growing pains,  I am fervently looking forward to the day I don’t have to give my Twitter password to every site that wants to plug into my account.  Erik Heels recommends changing Twitter passwords regularly, probably for this very reason.  I am going to have to write down all the places that have my Twitter credentials so that I can start doing that.

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The World’s Longest-Running Trademark Dispute

December 18th, 2008

I don’t know for a fact that the fight between Anheuser-Busch and Budejovicky Budvar NP over the marks “Budweiser” and “Bud” is officially the oldest continually active trademark dispute in the world (Erik?), but it must be close.

The Budvar brewery was founded in 1895.  The beer was named for the Germanized version of the city in which it was founded, Budweis (České Budějovice in Czech).  Distribution was extremely limited until the second half of the twentieth century.  Anheuser-Busch was founded in the 1850s and introduced the Budweiser brand in 1876.

For decades the two brands existed in parallel, using very similar names and script for their logos, but not directly competing on a large scale.  That changed when Anheuser started selling Budweiser in Europe in earnest and the two companies have been playing a real-world version of the game Risk ever since, locking up trademark rights country by country.  Budvar obtained first rights in Czechoslovakia, France and Austria and Anheuser had primary rights in the US.

Anheuser won in Australia, New Zealand and 23 or 27 EU member states, among others.  Budvar won in Japan, but seems to be losing the war.  This week, though, a European Union court denied Anheuser’s move to register the Budweiser mark across the EU.

It may not be much more than a symbolic victory for Budvar.  One has to think that the cost of litigation is a much bigger issue for tiny Budvar than for giant Anheuser, now owned by mega-giant InBev.  The multi-jurisdiction chess match is fascinating to watch, though.

[Full disclosure: I once carried a six pack of Czech Budweiser home from Prague]

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Have Your Social Benefit and Work off that Excess Energy

December 17th, 2008

A friend of mine turned me on to a company called One.  They sell bottled water and donate all the profits to a foundation that build playground-water pumps in southern Africa.

What on Earth, one might ask, is a playground-water pump?  It is an extremely clever device that harnesses a nearly

Image courtesy www.playpumps.org

Image courtesy www.playpumps.org

inexhaustible supply of energy to pump clean water from deep wells by turning the pump “engine” into a playground-style merry-go-round for kids.

This is very clever.  If my kids are any measure, this pump will have enough energy to run for hours on end, and at the same time the kids’ natural energy can be channeled to good effect bringing clean water to people who need it.

When my kids get hyperactive I threaten to install a giant hamster wheel in the house and putting them on it for an hour or so, but I’ve never followed through.  PlayPumps has done just that- in a much smarter way.  Kudos to them.

Image courtesy of www.playpumps.org
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Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay

December 7th, 2008

Plenty of mashups have ended up in copyright disputes and litigation over sampling rights. Here’s one that runs things in the other direction.

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Joe Satriani sued Coldplay last week for plaigiarizing his song If I Could Fly in Coldplay’s Viva La Vida.  Someone made a mashup of the two songs after the suit was filed to show the similarities, reversing the normal order of these things and making a case of life imitating litigation.

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Every Stupid Thing You Ever Do Will Wind up on the Internet

December 5th, 2008

Until I saw the recent story about a New England Patriots cheerleader fired over pictures posted on Facebook I wasn’t aware of people actually losing their jobs over things posted on the internet.  Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

In the past week I have seen stories about a woman disqualified from an education degree program because of a photo she posted of her teacher-mentor (though it sounds like that may have been the last of many problems), an entire Virgin Atlantic flight crew fired for posting on Virgin’s Facebook group page that planes were full of cockroaches and passengers were white trash (or the English equivalent) and incoming White House speechwriting candidate Jon Favreau embarrassed by a photo of himself groping a lifesize cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton.

The latter article points out that the Obama administration’s screening process includes questions about applicants’ social network profiles, copies of all writings, including blogs or comments on blogs, or sent emails, text messages or IMs that could be a source of embarrassment to the applicant or the administration.

The purpose is clearly to bring out as many skeletons as possible, but the scope of the questions points out the futility.  Drunken camera phone photos will emerge, and in another 20 years they may be pictures of candidates themselves rather than lower-level job applicants.

What I find most interesting is the comments on the education degree article cited above.  A number of readers seem to feel that people should be free to post whatever they like without impact to their professional lives.  I don’t agree- the things a person chooses to post publicly speaks to his/her judgment.  At the same time, context is everything.  Everyone does stupid things from time to time and people shouldn’t be judged solely on them.

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How to Read a License Agreement

December 2nd, 2008

I read a lot of license agreements.  A few of them are concise and simple to figure out, but most are far too long and confusing.

It is not effective to read the agreements straight through from start to finish.  My eyes usually start to glaze over after about page 3, and after page 6 almost anything else within reach seems more interesting than the line I am on at the time.

A better way to read is to take it apart into sections.  Figure out the important points you need to know and go find those first, then go back and see how all the other words come together around the important elements.

I made a checklist to help me do this well.  When I get a new agreement I print out the checklist, then comb the agreement looking for all of these parts.  With that basic information in hand I can go back to the whole thing and pay attention to all the picky details.  As a bonus, once I force myself to find and write down the key terms I tend to understand them much more deeply.

Note that my checklist has lots of extra blank lines.  It is a work in progress and should ideally be modified every time to cover the special attributes of each deal.  Try it out and let me know what other essential terms should be included as “standard”.

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Another Hard Knock for Crowdsourced Securities, and a Glimmer of Hope

December 1st, 2008

I have written a bunch about applying principles of crowdsourcing to securities offerings, including an article last year in Business Week.  The prospects have been dim.  I also met Kiva.org founder Matt Flannery a couple of years ago and asked him if the company would pay interest on Kiva loans.  His response was “No.  We do not want to be regulated like a bank”.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the SEC has told crowdsourced lender Prosper.com that it needs to stop matching lenders with buyers on its site.  Borrowers on Prosper submit loan requests, lenders bid for them, then Prosper packages the loans and manages the borrower-lender relationships.  Borrowers and lenders never know one another’s identities.

The SEC reviewed the facts and applicable law and decided that the operation was really a sale of securities that needed to be registered, esp. based on the facts that the lenders put money in explicitly looking for a return and have essentially no ability to affect transactions- the loans are passive investments intended to make money.

Again, no great surprise here.  There is (still) a lot of capital available in retail-level amounts and it would be great to see Prosper go through the SEC registration process and come out the other side with a vehicle people can use to borrow money and to make some additional income in a novel way.

My guess is that Prosper has known this was coming for some time and was simply building enough business to make the registration process worth the expense.  The SEC reports that it has facilitated $174M in loans, so it could well be there.  I look forward to seeing them register, come back with an SEC-compliant and take a big step forward for crowdsourced securities everywhere.  Fittingly, the SEC registration documents are all public records, so maybe the next company can use Prosper’s process and SEC feedback to make the process a little smoother the next time around.

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