Monday, March 29, 2010

Mr. Change?

Ha! And you thought this entry was going to be about the sitting president. Actually, it's about me...or my blog rather.

You may have noticed a change in my blog. Specifically, the title has changed from its previous value to what it is now. The reason for the change came in the form of a Cease and Desist letter that I received on Friday in the mail claiming that I was improperly using a trademarked expression of the client of the law firm sending me the letter.

Google made it easy for me to see that the expression was indeed in use. Being the upstanding citizen that I am, I immediately changed the title of the blog and faxed over a response indicating that I was in compliance with their request. But then something funny happened...

...a number of years ago, I was jilted out of a substantial amount of money owed to me as an independent contractor by the company that placed me at the company where I was working. During the back and forth between the placement company and I, I contacted a cousin who is a lawyer for a prominent law firm who agreed to draw up a legal sounding letter based on what I told him. Even though what I said to him was in actuality true, he required no documentation proving it before writing the letter and mailing it to the other party.

Fast forward to the present: remembering how I got my cousin to send a letter as someone who claimed to be my legal representation, I wondered if something similar was happening here, i.e. not everything was "on the up and up." I visited the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and found out that the expression was indeed trademarked...but not by the business being represented by the law firm that sent me the letter.

In good faith, I am keeping the new title since a) a web search at the USPTO isn't a guarantee that the results are 100% accurate and b) someone owns the trademark whether it is company A or B. It isn't me, in any case. But I sent back a second letter tonight with a request for documentation supporting their claim, with the added statement that I may take legal action against them for "wrongful claim of infringement," recourse that is afforded people like me in situations just like this.

I have no problem with legal compliance. It is not my intention, after all, to use what is not mine or to cause possible harm to the brand of another company in these mindless wanderings that I call a blog. However, I do expect a minimum degree of honesty if you're going to demand anything of me and - as of this writing - it seems that minimum standard was not met. So en guarde Miss O'Conner because the ball is back in your court, and I've just upped the ante.

What does this have to do with business? The answer should be obvious, but here it is spelled out just in case.

There is nothing wrong with embellishing the truth to favor yourself. In fact, sales people often do just this, i.e. tell the truth without being accurate or while being intentionally misleading. I can remember one sales presentation where it was said "30% - 70% of your time is spent doing this." Hello? That's a 40% swing, and right in the middle of the Gaussian bell curve at that. What that message said was nothing short of pure bunk, but that's the fun of sales.

While it is expected in certain situations that you are going to view yourself with rose colored glasses, it is another matter entirely when you are going to try to claim something is true; that the government, your boss, your spouse, etc. is going to back you up; and you are lying. If the person calls your bluff - and they have every right to do so if you're making demands of them - then not only will your lie be exposed but you will have lost a huge amount of credibility.

Trust is not something that should be taken lightly, especially in a business sense. Toyota (a-Ha! I knew I could find a way to tie this in with the last two blog entries!) has found this out the hard way, but there's no reason why you should too.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Toyo...duh!

Last week's blog entry seemed to resonate with the precious few readers that I have. In addition to the lone comment that was posted, I received a number of emails that said how "spot on" the message was.

To re-emphasize the need to take responsibility for one's actions, it should be noted that there is now a shareholder lawsuit that has been filed. In the article on MSNBC.com, it was reported that this is a response to the recalls and the seemingly deliberate, misstated reasons for the safety issues in the first place. To put it another way, Toyota is accused of knowing full well that the reasons they initially gave for the cause of the problem were nowhere near what they were saying internally. To quote the article:

"...top Toyota executives have known for nearly a decade that faulty electronic throttle controls caused vehicles to sometimes careen wildly out of control but covered it up to protect the company's reputation for safety — and its stock price."

This lawsuit should not be a surprise to anyone unless you've had your head in the sand during the past month or so. Reading the hemming and hawing by Toyota to the American public and Congress quickly left me with the impression that either they were hiding something or were incompetent. But you don't have the top selling mid-sized sedan for 8 years if you're incompetent so you do the math.

If you're Toyota, it's easy to understand why you would want to hide the scope of the problem. But in the end you have a moral obligation to do what's right, namely: a) disclose everything that you know and b) devote every possible resource to the task of figuring out the problem. Apologizing for not doing this after the fact does not resurrect the San Diego Patrol Officer whose Lexus accelerated on its own and eventually killed him and three family members.

Instead, they fret and fear about public reaction if their weaknesses were made public. And they aren't alone either. This past week, a Chinese graduate student in Engineering found out he's a target in the scope of Congress. His offense? He published a paper that discussed the vulnerabilities of the American electrical infrastructure and how a terrorist could possibly take out the entire electric grid for the U.S.

Here's a hint to Congress: if you're so damned worried about publications that describe infrastructure vulnerabilities then fix the vulnerabilities so that there is no risk in the first place. Let's take some of the bank bailout money and put it to good use instead of allowing the larger financial institutions to take a slap on the wrist without actually affecting the standard of living of their highest officers. Alan Greenspan noted this (the link goes to the NY Times article reporting on his recently released 48-page analysis on the financial meltdown) when he said the following:

"To be sure, the senior officers of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers lost hundreds of millions of dollars from the collapse of their stocks...But none to my knowledge filed for personal bankruptcy and their remaining wealth allowed them to maintain much of their previous standards of living."

If you aren't going to use TARP to fix the vulnerabilities in the financial system, use it to fix them in the electrical infrastructure. (Or maybe we should address the continued gouging of the American public by the oil companies. Don't even get me started on that topic...)

And if you do fix the big problems looming in a variety of areas, be sure they are fixed instead of deluding yourself into thinking the problem will go away simply because you click your heels together three times while repeating, "There's no place like home." Stock traders seem to be doing this right now by saying that
, "steadying home prices are good enough for now."

Wake up people. You're starting to sound like Mary Meeker during the Dot Com bubble in the late 90's. Home prices are not good enough for now. They aren't even close and won't be until the backlog of foreclosures that have been intentionally stalled by the banks themselves gets cleared.

Let's recap, then: be upfront about what you know; fix the problems; and then be sure they are fixed before declaring victory. Toyota is finally learning this lesson the hard way. Maybe, then, we can avoid looking like idiots (as I reported last week) for simply observing the errors of others instead of looking at ourselves in the mirror to ensure that we aren't guilty of the same problems.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Spectacular Event

(Due to the launch of the Musicians For Haiti [M4h] website on Friday, this blog entry has been intentionally delayed to allow more time for the important blog entry heralding its arrival.)

Edit: updated to include the skepticism that Toyota and others have about the incident in San Deigo.

We are all witnesses to a spectacular event. All of us will one day be able to tell our grandchildren, "I was there when Toyota got flushed down the toilet like yesterday's fast food." And yet to be observers only would be a disservice to ourselves, for it is always easier to learn from the mistakes of others than to repeat the same mistakes ourselves and look like idiots as a result.

Toyota has failed on several fronts, but there are two that I'd like to highlight.

They failed to be true to their vision. I remember the days when Toyota was the car to beat. The Camry has been the best selling car until this fiasco occurred and had been for the prior seven years. Instead of realizing that being in a position of superiority makes you a target for every other automobile manufacturer, they rested on their laurels and allowed the quality to of their products to wane.

They failed to be honest. When the problems first surfaced, they had a moral responsibility to tell their customers what they knew; what they were doing to alleviate the issues; what the current status of the testing of their proposed solutions was; and what the expected time to resolution was. Furthermore, they owed it to their customers to not do this once, nor twice, but weekly until they were 1,000% certain they had fixed the problem completely.

Instead, they attempted to stem the loss of revenue by doing just the opposite. Specifically, they claimed that they a) knew the cause of the acceleration and b) had a fix that worked. But as the 61 year old driver of a Toyota Prius recently found out, neither of these were true. In that article, he tells how he was turned away when he brought in his Prius as part of the recall because supposedly his car wasn't affected.

(Of course, immediately I wrote this entry came the flood of stories including this one attacking the credibility of the driver. There are factually accurate statements about dishonest activities and significant debt incurred by that person, so perhaps his story doesn't hold water after all.)

The net result is that the losses they will now suffer are going to be far worse than had they simply owned up to the responsibility they owe to their customers. Instead of admitting that they do not have all of the answers yet, they lied and now their credibility is sinking faster than the Titanic.

I'm not naive - I know that, in business, image is everything. How you are perceived has a direct impact on your career, financial well-being, etc. Yet there must be a recognized line in the sand where we realize that we cannot hide from the responsibilities we must accept for the actions we do. At that point, we simply must admit to the failures at hand and "let the chips fall where they may" (as my father once said); let ourselves be judged by the court of public opinion; and then make the necessary adjustments to ensure that we don't make the same mistakes again.

Renowned psychiatrist Frank Pittman once stated that infidelity is not "whom you lie with. It's whom you lie to." While he was referring to infidelity in relationships, we must apply this to our lives as professionals and representatives of the companies for whom we work. You can lie with the Spirit of Slothfulness (when it comes to producing a quality product or service; excelling as an employee; etc.) but don't lie to those that have a vested interest in the fruits of your labor if things do not go the way you intend them to.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Musicians for Haiti"

On Tuesday 12th of January, 2010, an earthquake struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti. It was the worst in two centuries, and thousands have died so far.

We are a group of friends and colleagues who are sharing with you our music and lyrics in response to this disaster. Haiti.bandcamp.com is a container for our efforts, and, following the steps of the rebuilding of the nation itself, will be a work in progress, a place to return to as new pieces get composed and uploaded.

And so Musicians for Haiti (M4H) was born.

In the weeks after the earthquake, a frenzied level of activity was clearly visible on the audio production website where people wrote and recorded music; provided feedback to these tracks; or simply offered words of encouragement. And now, on the two month anniversary of the earthquake, M4H is pleased to announce the availability of several, original tracks that were written by us specifically for the rebuilding effort in Haiti.

"We are quite happy with what we've been able to put together in such a short period of time," says Glyn Powell who initiated the project from his home in London following the quake and contributed to a number of the songs. "To have several quality tracks available in various genres is not something any of us imagined when this started. Better still, we already have commitments for at least four additional tracks to be released next month so people have every reason to circle back every few weeks to see what has been newly produced by the group."

There are several tracks currently available for download including the following:

Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child - this hymn, from one of the darker times in U.S. history, is an expression of pain and suffering that felt especially fitting given the situation in Port Au Prince.

Haitian Overture - an instrumental arranged for a full orchestra, this song changes in mood from melancholia to hope and finally ends on an uplifting note (pun intended).

Hunger - upbeat and uplifting, this song declares with horns a blarin' our thanks for all of the things people have done already and admonishes us to continue focusing on helping others in need.

This truly has been an international effort: the songs above represent the U.S., U.K., Amsterdam, and New Zealand. More songs - and more represented countries - are in the offing (and are in various stages of completion) so we implore you to not stop by once only. Instead, we hope that you'll drop by every few weeks to see what other music has made its way there.

All money collected will be donated to Partners In Health, a relief agency with over 20 years of experience operating in Haiti and who has made that country the primary focus of their efforts during recent years. Furthermore, they have a very low overhead percentage, which was important to us since we wanted as much money to go to help the people rather than pay for administrative support.

M4H can be reached via the website, email (haiti.musicians@yahoo.com), our Facebook fan page, and soon to be launched YouTube channel.

Thank you in advance for your support!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Good Money, Bad Money

It's no secret that Apple's iPad product announcement (and now a specific availability date) has been met with as much yawning as there has been excitement. Personally, the commercials look enticing, and anyone who owns an iPhone or iPod is probably drooling at having such a large surface to play with. I will avoid rehashing my questions regarding the lack of certain, "must have" features or the price of the device since I've already written about these two things in a previous entry.

Given the bevy of people calling this the iFail, iDontKnow, etc. it is surprising to see Nintendo announcing a new product that, like the iPad is in relation to the iPod, is essentially a new device with the same capabilities as before. (In reality, it's not really that surprising that these products are generating buzz since we've seen Blackberry release a huge number of products that essentially do the same thing: send email and make phone calls. In fact, I could still be using the 8830 that I was given 4 years ago and wouldn't notice the difference between that and my 9630 that I have now.)

Why did they do it? Granted the product has probably been under development for quite some time, and you can't simply throw away the R&D that you've done simply because another company's concept isn't necessarily a home-run before it steps into the batter's box. (And Apple has that sort of reputation, no?) Still, how much R&D do you need to produce a DSi with screens that are slightly larger; different pre-installed software; and no other differences?

"Hello Nintendo!" I want to scream. "This is what we call Market Research."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Credit Cards, Regulations, and You

Last Monday, new regulations went into effect that targeted the consumers of revolving credit accounts, a.k.a. credit cards. The idea went like this: make it harder for credit card companies to change their policies on a dime and you, Mr. / Mrs. Consumer, won't be so easily taken to the cleaners with fees, interest rates, etc.

As you probably know consumers still are getting taken to the cleaners because not only are their other ways for the credit card companies to maintain their well established revenue streams (read: us) but other things that they were lackadaisical in are no longer being treated with such apathy by the credit card companies.

So while it is mostly common sense, Sandra Block's article in USA Today listing the ways by which you can use the new regulations to maximize your benefit is quite timely. In her article, she writes as the number one thing you can do as paying off your balance...in its entirety.

My parents, as well as numerous other Americans, maintain a healthy credit card balance. For my parents, the balance lives in the 5-digit range, and this occasionally gets "paid off" via a HELOC (which only transfers the balance to a lower interest rate loan) before getting run up again. I was once like this, albeit with a smaller balance, until I was forced to learn how to live within my means by my ex-wife who is an accountant. It was painful to be sure, but 17 years later I swear by this mantra.

Has it been painful at times? Yes. When I married again, I had credit card bills that were in the 5 digit range, but I paid them off.

Has it been tempting to not pay them off completely? Yes. When I was unemployed last year for 7 months and still maintained a decent standard of living (read: I carried the same balance of $3,500 monthly) I was tempted at times to pay less.

Would I have done things differently now that I look back? No. And my FICO II score of nearly 800 - my Beacon 4.0 score is well over 800 - is the reason why. "What's the connection?" you ask. My claim is that it all boils down to one's mental approach, i.e. once you've accepted it as normal behavior to fall behind on what essentially is a financial obligation to pay back a monthly loan every month then you are just as likely to fall behind on other payments that you have to make. For me, those other payments were a mortgage, homeowner's association fees (not insubstantial), car payments and associated insurance, etc.

And then there is the apartment lease for our current residence as well as a vehicle lease since my wife's previous lease expired. "Why," you ask again, "are you getting a lease for your wife?"

A few years ago, before we were married, she became terribly ill and spent several days in the hospital. As an entrepreneur, she had no medical insurance and quickly amassed medical bills nearing $200,000. She had no choice, as you can imagine, but to declare personal bankruptcy, which absolutely destroyed any vestiges of a credit score. Now she cannot get a loan of any type because of this.

In other words, we know what financial pain is like even though no one has ever adequately expressed the frustration one feels when they can't get a loan for an automobile, a necessity in today's world unless you happen to live in Manhattan or a metropolitan area with a similar mass transit system.

The moral of this story is that it's less about the paying off of your credit card to avoid seemingly random interest rate hikes (prior to the new regulations taking effect) or other unusual fees that can crop up and more about establishing a mental attitude toward fiscal responsibility. It is taking this approach to one's life that can really be a game changer, since there are innumerable repercussions of which you and I will never be totally aware like being able to maintain an insanely high credit score when you need it most.