Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Idea Man

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Idea Man” by Paul Allen, published in 2011. This autobiographical ebook’s author is best known as the co-founder of Microsoft, and one of the world’s wealthiest people.

This is not exactly a career memoir, because he gives only an overview of his eight years with the company– from which he withdrew as an employee– and the rest of the book is devoted to his other life experiences. It appears that the amount of information he chose to provide on his short tenure with the software company is insufficient to fill an entire book, so he supplements with his: investments in sports teams, stadiums and communications and aerospace companies; his medical problems; travels; musical encounters; and philanthropic endeavors.

Allen, a ten-grader in 1968, describes eighth-grader Bill Gates’ physical appearance: “…pullover sweater, tan slacks, enormous saddle shoes… blond hair all over the place…”

The two youths took full advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime to learn the craft of programming in the computer room of a private school in Seattle. They had endless capacity for the extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive brainwork required. When he had yet to turn twenty years old, Allen’s experience spanned “…ten computers, ten high-level languages, nine machine-level languages, and three operating systems.” Pretty good for a college dropout.

In the late 1970′s, affordability was a major requirement for selling personal computers, an industry in its infancy. “Today’s laptop is thirty thousand times faster than the machine [the PDP-10] I was lusting after, with ten thousand times more memory.” At that time, memory was expensive and lack of it made machines glacially slow. Today’s base iPhone has four million times the memory contained in BASIC– the programming language that ran on Altair, one of the first computers sold to businesses and consumers in the late 1970′s.

Allen said Gates was a thrill seeker, enjoyed driving fast. In the early 1980′s, “Bill got so many speeding tickets that he had to hire the best traffic attorney in the state to defend him.”

The author discussed how a technology company must always be on the qui vive for the Next Big Thing, and introduce it before its competitors in the right way with the right people, or perhaps suffer significant financial losses. In 1982, DEC came late to the party by selling the high-quality Rainbow 100. Unfortunately, the minicomputer was behind the times– running on the old 8-bit CP/M system, while a 16-bit system was already on the market.

Suffice to say on most of his investments, Allen was a Warren Buffett wannabe. He deserves credit for freely admitting to his epic losses. Nevertheless, it was just another case of redistribution of wealth among the wealthy.

Read the book to learn the details of this billionaire’s life stories.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

This blogger skimmed “Madboy” by Richard Kirshenbaum, published in 2011. This ebook is mostly a name-dropping brag-fest.

Granted, the author does have bragging rights as an adman and did provide numerous tips on acquiring clients and maintaining good client relations, and described what it was like working in the ad industry in the 1980′s and 1990′s. But the first anecdote about a major business decision that resulted in a large financial loss, appeared almost halfway through this book. The author did gloze over a few mini-fails prior to that. However, this blogger thinks a career memoir need not put a happy face on every negative story, as though the author is in a job interview. He should be more introspective. Kirshenbaum seemed a tad insecure, and both he and his wife seemed easily starstruck. This blogger is not impressed that he has met and worked with dozens of celebrities in the last few decades.

The author recounted one amusing anecdote involving indecency during a camera shoot in Mississippi. He also made a few rather unfortunate statements:

  • Witty ads for his agency’s first client mentioned politicians famous in the 1980′s, that he said, “…captured the public’s attention, as it hadn’t seen this kind of creativity in the advertising business before.” Doubtful. There is nothing new under the sun.
  • About social networking: “…where now consumers actually control the conversation about brands and have honest and controversial conversations about a company’s brand preferences.” See http://educationanddeconstruction.com/?p=4180
  • Kirshenbaum believes American consumers are fiercely brand-loyal and “…the rise of social media (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) influence them.”  Again, see http://educationanddeconstruction.com/?p=4180

Read the book to learn of some of the big-name people Kirshenbaum met through the years, the campaigns and entities he spearheaded, places to which he traveled, what he learned from whom, and what became of his agency.

Bonus Post

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

This blogger was reminded of two books by Herschell Gordon Lewis (“Direct Mail Copy That Sells” and “On the Art of Writing Copy”) that contain actual facts and excellent advice, after watching this video:

This blogger thinks the above is well worth watching in its entirety.

[Warning:  some language in this video]

Bonus Post

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “In the Name of Profit” by multiple co-authors, originally published in 1972. This depressing set of anecdotes on corporate greed simply reminds the reader that there is nothing new under the sun.

One theme is that through the 1950′s and 1960′s, big manufacturers such as Goodrich and General Motors had constructive knowledge that the products they sold were defective. Purchasers had bad experiences, and were seriously injured or were killed by those products. The companies’ attorneys and their employees rationalized that “‘planned obsolescence” meant progress. “But the meaning is clear: ‘Go cheapen the product so we can make more money.” In the case of drug company Richardson-Merrell, the product wasn’t cheapened, but rather, serious side effects were downplayed or hushed up and the results of FDA pre-approval testing were fabricated. Unsurprisingly, the company and its subsidiaries hired top-dollar attorneys skilled at helping businesses weasel out of legal trouble.

Another topic covered was Napalm, whose evolution began at Guadalcanal during WWII. “The Napalm fire bomb was deliberately designed as an indiscriminate terror weapon for mass destruction and death among civilians.” When people in Vietnam were harmed, Dow Chemical’s legal defense was bolstered by the fact that it had received orders by the U.S. Government to make the controversial product.

This ebook also discussed stock manipulation and corporate takeover. SEC laws were shown to be very lax in the 1950′s and 1960′s, as one particular perpetrator did jail time for various securities violations, but after his release, went right back to his old tricks. One Herbert Korholz repeatedly gamed the system with acquisitions. President of the Susquehanna corporation, he was able to bribe directors and officers in taking over another company with a secret tender offer of a share price higher than what was to be offered to the general share-owning public. “Profit-making firms can cut their taxes magnificently by merging with big losers…” One Maurice Schy, an attorney, attempted to make the government aware of Korholz’s unethical, unlawful and disgusting behavior, by filing lawsuits through the years, to no avail. Government officials were mired in conflicts of interest (favorable to Korholz’s interest) and ruled against Schy every time except one; a ruling was pending as this book was being released in 1972. Schy had finally gotten a possible break only because there was another case brought by another party against Korholz’s companies’ illegal activities.

In sum, we human beings are a mixed bag of evolutionary traits; altruism and greed among them. On many occasions, greed wins out, and we never seem to learn from those past occasions.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the book, “So Far, So Good– The First 94 Years” by Roy Neuberger, published in 1997. This is Neuberger’s autobiography. He was born in July 1903. His father was 52 at the time. He was nine when his mother died and thirteen when his father died. His sister Ruth was twelve years older than he was.

In the winter, he would ice skate on the flooded tennis courts of Columbia University in Manhattan. Neuberger inherited lots of money from his father, who had been a successful businessman. He dropped out of New York University after a year because he felt he wasn’t learning enough to justify staying to join the tennis team when permitted to– in sophomore year.

In October 1929, Neuberger worked to record stock transactions via pencil and paper for a clearinghouse. The market at that time was open for two hours on Saturday. The borrowing power allowed for a margin account in the late 1920′s was 1000% but at the time of release of Neuberger’s book, it was only 100%.

Neuberger & Berman– the investment-managing business started by the author in December 1940– bought a computer in 1967, costing $1.5 million. It needed sixty people to run it, but was worth the cost because in 1970, “… five of the ten largest Wall Street brokerage firms failed, in part because they couldn’t keep up with the volume of trading.” And the market closed at 3pm in those days.

Read the book to learn of how Neuberger, along with his contemporaries amassed tremendous wealth and privilege, and a giant collection of fine art.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

“The Big Rich” by Bryan Burrough, published in 2009, is a long ebook that details the lives and times of the four Texas families who became extremely wealthy Americans from the oil business in the first half of the twentieth century. “They… became the country’s first shirt-sleeve billionaires… accumulated every toy of their age…” including lavish residences, private jets, boats, fancy cars and politicians (when they got into politics).

The editing of this book is a bit sloppy in spots. Nevertheless, according to this book, oil was first discovered in Texas in a well that was later named Spindletop in Beaumont, around 1901. The abundant quantity of oil found there caused a price drop that prompted a conversion from coal to oil among railroads and steamship companies. Suddenly, thousands of people sought to get rich quickly from oil, similar to the way people wanted in on the California Gold Rush. The nineteen teens saw a proliferation of automobiles requiring oil.

Read the book to learn all the details about the people, places, politics and peripheral issues (such as professional sports) associated with the oil industry in Texas over the next ten decades.

Work is My Play

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Work Is My Play” by Wallace E. Johnson, published in 1973.  This is the career memoir of a lifelong workaholic.

The author discusses his passion for doing business. In the 1950′s, he co-founded Holiday Inn on the concept of offering an affordable place for families to stay while they were on a road trip, with accommodations and dining that were superior to those of Howard Johnson’s (no relation to the author), the only other option at the time.

The author fondly describes the opportunistic personality of one of his business partners with a memorable anecdote. The partner grabbed his wife before she had finished her lunchtime pie (she was used to that) in order to punctually attend a government auction of land parcels in an undeveloped area. He then proceeded to win the bid on every single parcel because he knew real estate prices would rise in the long term.

Read the book to learn how the author had fun working nonstop and making lots of money.

The Astonishing Mr. Scripps

Monday, January 20th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Astonishing Mr. Scripps” by Vance H. Trimble, published in 1992. This large volume documents the life, among other family members, of Edward Willis Scripps, born in June 1854, the 13th child of James and Julia Scripps. He became the head of the nation’s first newspaper chain by the end of the 19th century.

Prior to journalism, starting at twelve years of age, Scripps was required to assist his father at bookbinding, on the farm and at a sugar mill. He quit school at fifteen. In 1872, after dabbling in a few other ventures, at eighteen, he escaped a life of manual labor to help his 38-year old older brother in the print shop at the Detroit Tribune. The culture was such that journalists had to frequent a bar in order to get good assignments. There was peer pressure to drink.

About five years later, Scripps moved to Cleveland to start another newspaper there. He wanted to sell the paper on the streets, rather than through the customary routes with paperboys. “A newsboy could buy copies wholesale at the pressroom door for half a cent, thus earning fifty cents for each hundred sold.”

The composing room was where the ad and editorial deptartments had a conflict because advertising copy and news stories competed for space so the one that was typeset second got short shrift at deadline time. Scripps’ paper favored blue collar readers. Its rivals were read by wealthy, industrialist readers. Scripps supported trade unionism and opposed the capitalists. He tried to maximize revenue from subscribers rather than advertisers so he could write what he wanted; he thus didn’t have to print what advertisers told him to.

In 1880, Scripps started yet another newspaper in St. Louis– the Evening Chronicle. A competing paper, the Post Dispatch, was bribing the Chronicle carriers to transfer their route customers to the Post Dispatch. That same year, during the presidential election, the Chronicle’s circulation jumped to 13,000 and afterwards, fell back to 10,000.

In early 1881, when James Garfield was inaugurated U.S. President, Scripps wrote, “Hence we are writing the thing up from home [St. Louis], dating it from Washington and putting big headlines over it. Of course it is fraud, but there is no greater fraud than the doubt whether the country ever had a president with a title honestly acquired.”

The four newspapers were losing money, so in 1888, Scripps formed a “syndicate”– consolidated them– to achieve economies of scale and make them profitable. Nevertheless, he still imposed draconian, petty cost-cutting measures on his employees the following year, such as making reporters pay for work-related costs like transportation, pencils, business cards and promotional copies of the paper.

On the home front, Scripps’ wife had gotten pregnant seven times in twelve years. Four children lived to adulthood.

In 1904, Scripps knew it was a conflict to “… pollute its columns with noxious hucksterism. America’s press would never be truly free and honest until newspapers flatly refused to print any advertising matter at all.” Weathy merchants could threaten to bankrupt a paper by not adverstising. Scripps looked for a city where a paper could stay in business through circulation revenue alone. He thought the paper should be an instrument for fighting oppression and improving quality of life: “… better sanitation, better education, better and healthier and more moral amusements, better homes, better wages, better sermons in our churches, better accommodations on street cars.”

The two conditions required for success with an advertising-free paper are: it must be interesting and have prompt and dependable delivery. But for Scripps, the costs exceeded the profits because he had to pay printers, pressmen, reporters, circulators, rent, utilities, etc. This blogger believes that in the 21st century, many online publications have the aforementioned conditions; however, a third condition includes the fact that readers must be willing to pay for the product.

In 1915, Scripps invested in Max Eastman’s radical weekly “The Masses” – ironically named, because the weekly’s focus was not on the downtrodden, but America’s elite. Eastman’s 22 liberal contributors submitted articles for free. The paper still operated at a loss; circulation was stagnant. There is nothing new under the sun.

Scripps wanted his teenage son Bob to work, saying “I do not want to you to be a simple onlooker and student and critic of life…” Around 1913, Bob had an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, just like in the movie “The Graduate” (1967). Only, Bob was under 18 years old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Unsurprisingly, Scripps was a cynic. He was “… convinced, rightly or wrongly, that altruism, which is almost universal, is still almost universally a minor motive in a man.”

Read the book to learn the history of the wire services, how the people at the Scripps newspapers coped with local political corruption, how they shaped policy in Washington, survived natural disasters and wars, company power struggles, and the consequences of the Scripps family’s alcoholism.

On the Firing Line

Monday, January 13th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “On the Firing Line” by Gil Amelio with William L. Simon, published in 1998. In this informative book, Amelio chronicles his short tenure as Apple Computer’s CEO from early 1995 to mid 1997.

Some might say Amelio made a foolhardy decision to take on the challenge of turning Apple around, when he had a secure and promising future as the CEO of National Semiconductor, whose recovery he had spearheaded. Throughout the book, he discusses the series of difficulties he faced and admits his errors in judgment.

Amelio handed grist to his critics on a silver platter because he allowed his employees to talk to the media, which had a field day on many fronts. The media also played him for a fool.

There were numerous factors out of the CEO’s control that also gave him a tough time. His predecessor allowed extreme price cuts on Apple’s products, and the sales team was playing a short-sighted game– a vicious cycle every holiday season, whereby they would give deep last-minute discounts to retailers to move inventory, putting a better face than otherwise on the financial condition of the company, as its fiscal year started on October 1.

Amelio was distressed to find that the corporate culture was fragmented along departmental lines. The engineers worked on products the sales department had no intention of selling. “Apple never had an official statement of strategy – which inevitably means that every executive, and most managers, design their own versions. Everyone pursues their own goals, rowing frantically but each pulling in a different direction.” One reason was that managers knew the company was in dire financial straits and feared their projects were going to be cut.

Some thought Amelio desperate and a sellout for holding meetings with the enemy, Bill Gates, to propose making Apple products compatible with Microsoft products. Nonetheless, he was wary of Gates because Gates was unreasonably stingy in his negotiations.

With Amelio at the helm, performance of the desktop models improved tenfold but sales fell. He attributed this to the presence of a subjective element in people’s reaction to Apple “…irrelevant to product quality, and has … a lot to do with what they read in the newspapers and how comfortable they are with the state of the company.”

Read the book to learn: how Amelio was too trusting when he negotiated his employment contract; about the fronts on which he did make progress, and how he was done in by Steve Jobs.