In and On your Business

You work for yourself and you run a business – even if you also work for someone else and your writing or other creative business is currently a sideline. This is just going to be a very quick thought but it’s something that was pointed out to me and which has been pinballing around my head for about three weeks now.

Every day you spend in your business is a day you’re not spending on it.

Follow. I often go into schools now and it is huge fun but it is almost always a day. If I’m on a deadline writing for you, that’s certainly hours, probably days, maybe weeks. None of which I would change but all of which means I physically can’t work at planning my business or developing my business.

I’d not seen it in this way but I had seen that on the odd occasion that I’ve taken a day off to try finding new commissions, I’ve found them. Usually quite easily and sometimes they’ve become the most enjoyable work I’ve ended up doing.

So I’m going to spend more time doing that, I’m going to deliberately and consciously take more time specifically to work on my business. Do the same, will you? I mean your business. You can work on mine, that’s fine.

Is this good? Musicians become venture capitalists

How do musicians make money today? Album sales are down 14%, single downloads are down 11%, and only the streaming services are up, 28%. Technology has forced music artists to completely rethink the way they approach their businesses. We’ve all had to adapt.

The most successful artists in this new landscape have begun to look at new business models and new industries to strengthen their existing brands. They’re extending their brand into areas like technology, gaming, fashion, and lifestyle content — essentially becoming entertainment platforms.

What Happened When Linkin Park Asked Harvard for Help with Its Business Model – Kiel Berry, Harvard Business Review (23 June 2015)

It’s a detailed and absorbing read but also a bit depressing. In order to keep going as a band, Linking Park long ago became a business. There’s nothing wrong with artists being business people, it’s even good that this is necessary, yet surely there are limits, right?

Linkin Park even sounds like an industrial estate.

Read the full piece.

Working in and on your business

There’s a difference. I’m a freelance writer but over the last few years that’s meant more than sitting at my desk from 5am to 5pm typing. I’m out of my office a lot, I’m running workshops and giving talks, I have books that I’m publishing, I have lots of what are officially not writing jobs but they are to me. It’s all the one thing in my head, all the one writing and communicating thing that I enjoy so much, but it doesn’t look like one thing from outside. And I’ve been getting advice about this.

So far the conclusion-in-progress is that I’m either spinning a lot of plates or working with a 1,000-piece jigsaw, but whichever it is, I was given one piece of advice about it all that chimed with me:

Each day you spend in your business is a day you’re not spending on it

Follow. If I go into a school for myself or the Writers’ Guild or the Royal Television Society, that’s work and that’s great, but it is a complete day. I can’t do anything else in those working hours. That’s fine, that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’m here for, that’s why I’m a freelance, but freelancers also take every day’s work they can. It’s what we’re like.

And if every day is taken up like this, you are spending no time planning for the future or managing your business. The person who gave me this advice also pointed out that the fee you get from going into a school is money today, not money tomorrow.

I find it hard focusing on the cash instead of the work or even – I’m going to say it, you can’t stop me – the art of what I do. But without cash, I don’t get to continue doing this. I need to be planning ahead, I need to be setting aside some time to work on my business.

So you know what I’m thinking now, don’t you? So should you.

New book on Blackberry is a lesson

I’ve said this before: what really makes the technology industry interesting is that it is like every other business played in fast forward. You can see familiar rises and falls but so fast that you can genuinely see them: it’s no longer a business school exercise, it’s today’s news.

A new book concentrates on the fall of Blackberry and specifically how the iPhone effectively and dramatically ended what was the most beloved phone company in the world.

From Amazon and the publishers’ description, this is Losing the Signal:

In 2009, BlackBerry controlled half of the smartphone market. Today that number is less than one percent. What went so wrong?

Losing the Signal is a riveting story of a company that toppled global giants before succumbing to the ruthlessly competitive forces of Silicon Valley. This is not a conventional tale of modern business failure by fraud and greed. The rise and fall of BlackBerry reveals the dangerous speed at which innovators race along the information superhighway.

With unprecedented access to key players, senior executives, directors and competitors, Losing the Signal unveils the remarkable rise of a company that started above a bagel store in Ontario. At the heart of the story is an unlikely partnership between a visionary engineer, Mike Lazaridis, and an abrasive Harvard Business school grad, Jim Balsillie. Together, they engineered a pioneering pocket email device that became the tool of choice for presidents and CEOs. The partnership enjoyed only a brief moment on top of the world, however. At the very moment BlackBerry was ranked the world’s fastest growing company internal feuds and chaotic growth crippled the company as it faced its gravest test: Apple and Google’s entry in to mobile phones.

Expertly told by acclaimed journalists, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, this is an entertaining, whirlwind narrative that goes behind the scenes to reveal one of the most compelling business stories of the new century.

Losing the Signal blurb on Amazon

The book is released 26 May and can be ordered now from Amazon.

Your ramshackle company may be just fine

Harvard Business Review just shook down what it calls the myths of great companies: the things we all think the very best companies to work for do all the time. Curiously, none of the myths it examines include money. Hopefully this means it isn’t a myth that the best companies pay well – and hopefully you and I will find this out through personal experience.

If that’s an odd omission, the five points that are included are interesting. Here’s number 4, which is one I particularly want to talk to you about.

Myth 4: They Hire for Cultural Fit

Organizations no longer select job candidates solely on the basis of their skills or experience. They hire those whose personality and values are consistent with their company culture. Among the more vocal proponents of this approach is Zappos, the online shoe distributor. But lots of other companies have extoled the virtues of hiring for cultural fit.

The idea holds intuitive appeal: When employees share similar attitudes, they’re more likely to get along, and more likely they are to produce. Right?

Not necessarily. There’s a point at which too much similarity can stifle performance. For one, similarity fosters complacency. We get stuck doing things the way we’ve always done them because no one is challenging us to think differently. Similarity also breeds overconfidence. We overestimate the accuracy of our opinions and invest less effort in our decisions, making errors more common.

In a 2009 study teams of three were asked to solve a problem with the help of a new colleague who was either similar or dissimilar to the existing group. While homogenous teams felt more confident in their decisions, it was the diverse teams that performed best. The newcomers pushed veterans to reexamine their assumptions and process data more carefully—the very thing they neglected to do when everyone in their group was similar.

5 Myths of Great Workplaces – Ron Friedman, Harvard Business Review (5 March 2015)

Read the full piece for a little more on that plus the other other apparent myths. But I’ve seen this business of cultural fit and it’s been less about slotting you in to a similar environment than it has been about bosses hiring people who are like themselves.

If they do that and their new recruits also only hire people like them, in ten minutes you’ve got a whole company of boring white middle-aged men.

Women are the reason some teams are more productive than others

Part of me doesn’t like this. I believe that the differences between us as individuals is more important than the differences between our genders. That I am me and you are you regardless of our sex. But then as a writer and hopefully decent human being, I am also conscious that women are preposterously badly treated in the workplace. Don’t believe me? You’re probably a man. Not going to complain about it to me? You’ve noticed I’m not a woman.

Seriously: a woman writing what I just did would on average get more criticism than I’ll see. And if you genuinely doubt the maltreatment of women in business, go compare some salaries.

So there is a great part of me that rather likes research saying women make teams smarter. This research is saying that, while there are some other factors that come in to play, those are not the ones you’d predict about charismatic leaders or high bonus pays:

Instead, the smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.

First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.

Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.

Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mindreading” than men.

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others – Anita Woolley, Thomas W Malone and Christopher Chabris, (19 January 2015)

Read the full piece.

Take a year off every seven years

So there’s this fella named Stefan Sagmeister, right, and every seven years he closes his design business for the next 12 months. The obvious first thought is that this is nice for him, a second obvious thought is that you hope it’s nice for his staff if he has any – he’s not all that clear on this point – and maybe a third obvious thought is that this idea is bloody expensive.

I suspect that last, least, most unlikely obvious thought is that you’ll do this too or that you could do it too. Still, he’s very convincing about the benefits and actually rather convincing about the necessity too. Enough so that it’s making me wonder whether I’d benefit from closing my business for a minute.

What customers? US store chain fights Apple Pay

I’m not that interested in Apple Pay – a system by which you wave your iPhone at a cash register and have paid for your goods and services – because it isn’t in the UK yet. And also this is the latest of several so-called contactless payment systems and I’m just used to standing in queues behind people making rather a lot of contact as they bang their devices onto shops’ own devices. I mean bang. Loud enough to cover the swearing.

But Apple Pay went live recently in the States and it has two advantages. First, there are a lot of iPhones, this isn’t like trying to light a revolution with an Amazon Fire phone.

Second, it’s got Apple. And the company’s stated aim was to start with the idea of what makes this useful for customers rather than businesses. That sounds like bollocks: this is a gigantic company claiming to be on the side of the individual, the little person, yeah. Only, this is the firm that did the iTunes Store. Now, not everyone likes that but it was so easy to use for customers that it more-or-less, near-as-dammit killed off pirate stores for most people. There is still piracy and still people finding ways to get music that hurts artists and is a bag of spanners over the head to morality, but before iTunes, it was all you could do.

Come iTunes, come a lot of people paying a lot of money. And yes, Apple gets a massive cut. So you can easily, readily see why other firms are unhappy about this. But you can also see the result. Many film studios got together to make a rival to your buying films off the iTunes Store. It’s called Ultraviolet, which is just a meaningless name and it’d be great if that were the only problem.

The only real problem is that these firms aren’t even pretending to be in it for us. For a group with a completely legitimate reason to want to do without Apple, they don’t even seem to be able to get along with each other. This varies and in small ways improves, but it has been the case that to watch a film on Ultraviolet, you had to sign up to an Ultraviolet account. So far, so familiar and so identical to Apple and its iTunes Store. But remember that you go to this to buy a film, one film, and typically you get there because the shiny disc version you bought comes with a redemption code. Okay, so you expect to enter that code and you expect to sign up to the service but you don’t expect to have to sign up again. And, the first time I tried this some years ago, again. There were three separate signups in the process.

Translation: these firms won’t even share their sodding databases.

That’s a group that gets along, that’s a group that is going to stay together. And that’s not a group that is going to agree on anything technical like the ability to get the films to work.

Seriously. You start this process, you begin thinking you’re doing something wrong, you eventually twig how stupid it is yet you’re invested now, you’ve spent a lot of time logging on and it becomes like a crossword puzzle where sheer determination to finish gets you to the end. The first time I did this, I got there, I got it working, and I couldn’t watch my film. Physically could not get it to play.

The second time, I couldn’t even find my film.

All that effort for one movie and when I got to it, it was hidden. As a customer, what I want when I go to buy a specific movie is to see all other films but that one first.

This was the Veronica Mars movie and if you’re not feeling the rant yet, let me give you three facts. The day I heard Veronica Mars would be distributed on Ultraviolet, I knew I’d buy it off iTunes instead. I backed Veronica Mars on Kickstarter so I got a free copy of the film on Ultraviolet and I still bought it off iTunes. Spent money again because I could not get Ultraviolet to work.

And here’s fact number three: Warner Bros, distributors of Veronica Mars, sent me a refund for my iTunes purchase.

So they spent all that effort, all that money, setting up an online store and because it fails to work, they end up spending more money to pay customers for the inconvenience.

Here’s the thing.

We’re going to get it again.

With Apple Pay.

There are companies in the States do not want to work with Apple and, as ever, that makes total sense. But it already looks likely that they’re going to cock it up because they already have. If you were in the States and had an Apple Pay iPhone, you’ve been able to pay for your shopping at CVS, a pharmacy chain. You’ve been able to not because CVS decided to support Apple Pay but because it long ago decided to support Google’s fairly failed rival, Google Wallet.

Both systems use technology called Near Field Communications (NFC): the phone and the cash register have to be near to each other. CVS has the equipment and now they have two phone systems that will work with it, but it looks like this phone-based payment thing is taking off, it looks like customers are taking to it.

So CVS appears to have shut it down for them.

It now appears that fellow major pharmacy chain CVS is… shutting down the NFC functionality of its payment terminals entirely, a move presumably intended to thwart Apple Pay. Google Wallet services are obviously also being affected by the move.

Multiple reports on Twitter and the MacRumors forums have indicated that CVS has sent an email to its stores indicating that NFC support is to be turned off. It is still relatively early in the day in the U.S., but we are now starting to see reports of NFC indeed being turned off at CVS stores.

The reason behind Rite Aid’s and CVS’s moves to disable unofficial Apple Pay support in their stores is presumably related to their participation in Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX), a retailer group developing its own mobile payments system known as CurrentC. A claimed internal Rite Aid message shared with SlashGear supports this notion, instructing cashiers to explain to customers that Apple Pay is not supported but that MCX’s solution will be available next year.

CVS Stores Reportedly Disabling NFC to Shut Down Apple Pay and Google Wallet – Eric Slivka, MacRumours (25 October 2014)

They haven’t even got their alternative working.

I like Apple and at least in part because they make things that work. I’d rather a world where there were many companies doing things that work, I’m strange like that, but for God’s sake, choosing to stop your customers paying you money is a bit thick.

And you think you’re busy

Assuming you’re not actually overloaded at this very moment, take an hour or so to look at people who are. These are showrunners: American TV producers who have to run their dramas like businesses.

It is truly a phenomenal job in terms of having to be productive – and productive all the time. I remember one showrunner mentioning in an interview that the shock of the job was just how many decisions you had to make in the moments walking back from the toilet to your office.

Decisions that affect the employment of at least dozens, typically hundreds. Decisions that affect the enjoyment of millions and thereby the income, sometimes counted in the billions of dollars, that your studio or network will get.

Weekend read: What went wrong at Motorola?

Apple is the hottest technology firm at the moment but it will die. It nearly did before. They all go. The unassailable get assailed. IBM was the big deal, now it isn’t. Microsoft ruled the world and now it’s more tolerated.

That’s not to say that Microsoft isn’t earning a lot of money. But it’s earning less and the facade that it was innovative hasn’t so much been seen through as turned away from. You don’t expect Microsoft to do anything interesting.

I mean, even if you’re into this stuff, you don’t expect Microsoft to do anything interesting. If you have no taste for technology, I lost you right back on line one anyway.

But I love this stuff and not because it’s technology. All tech does is speed up the process: companies that used to rise and fall over decades now boom up and collapse back much quicker if they are technology ones.

I went to some talk once where a speaker used Dell as an example of a fantastic business success story and a model for anyone who wanted to do any kind of business. Ahem, I said, haven’t you updated your slides recently? Dell really is a fascinating business studies case now because of all this speaker said plus the number of times the company shot itself in the foot and just how well it aimed. It’s no longer the model to follow but it is one to keep an eye on.

Whereas I knew nothing about Motorola. It did phones, I think I had one once, and I knew it made TV sets because there’s a reference to it in A Billion for Boris, Mary Rodgers’ little known sequel to Freaky Friday. Otherwise, zip.

Which makes this Chicago Magazine feature deeply absorbing. How a company became a great success but:

…great success can lead to great trouble. Interviews with key players in and around Motorola and its spinoffs indicate that the problems began when management jettisoned a powerful corporate culture that had been inculcated over decades. When healthy internal competition degenerated into damaging infighting. “I loved most of my time there,” says Mike DiNanno, a former controller of several Motorola divisions, who worked at the company from 1984 to 2003. “But I hated the last few years.”

What Happened to Motorola – Ted C Fishman, Chicago Magazine (25 August 2014)

Do get a coffee and read the whole feature.