Category Archives: Business

Comedy voicemail service prospers

Spinvox, the service that translates your voicemails into text messages, has raised a wheelbarrow-load of money from various top-drawer sources for international expansion. I like Spinvox and the company’s continued success shows that it’s clever to hang out where voice and data meet. Machine translation – especially in noisy environments like mobile – is hard so it’ll continue to produce opportunities. Until translation is an embedded function, until every operator offers it as a standard (and invisible) feature of voicemail, Spinvox will prosper.

The thing about Spinvox, though, is that I’m still pretty sure there aren’t any machines. People who’ve visited the firm will tell you that there’s a roomful of… well… people translating those messages. And any user will provide plenty of evidence from their own inbox of human fallibility in the call centre. I keep a small collection of genuinely hilarious Spinvox mistranslations.

From a work contact: “Hi Steve. Beats me in the arse. Please give me a call when you’re available”

From a BBC Manager I know vaguely (and whose name is not John Arthur): “Hi Steve. It’s John Arthur here. I do love you very much, though. Can you please give me a call”

From my wife: “Call ham Steve”

Also from my wife (whose name is Juliet): “Hi Chloey. This is Joey”.

If the heavy lifting at Spinvox really is still being done by people, why do they continue to talk about their awesome software? If the software is steadily taking over (which is the most likely explanation) where are these errors coming from: the software or the people? Speaking for myself, Spinvox’s comedy mistranslations are the main reason I continue to subscribe. I do hope they don’t get that software working too soon.

The smug interrogating the incompetent

Is it just me or was there something nauseating about watching a gang of smug, know-nothing MPs with their jackets over their chairs and their hands behind their heads grilling Northern Rock executives about a shocking practice (selling money market-backed mortgages) that they’d almost certainly never heard of six weeks ago?

If I’d been one of those executives I’d have been sorely tempted to ask the committee some questions myself. Like “if selling mortgages backed by wholesale debt is such a bad thing why have you never examined it before in the history of your committee?” or “when was the last time any one of you asked a question in parliament about money market-backed mortgages?” or even “since when has buying cheap, selling dear and pocketing the difference been a crime?”

Northern Rock’s ‘crime’ was to acquire debt cheaply on the International money markets and resell it at a profit to home buyers in Britain: a perfectly sound business practice and the logical outcome of the deregulation and globalisation of financial markets. The FSA obviously thought this an acceptable way of funding mortgage lending. Likewise the Bank. Neither had ever (as far as I can tell) run any kind of investigation of the practice and neither rang any alarm bells in the run up to the credit crunch.

Were Northern Rock’s management complacent? Even incompetent? Possibly. Should they carry the can for the damage to British banking’s credibility? Do they warrant a kicking from clueless point-scoring legislators? No.

More Japanese corporate history

I love these Japanese corporate history sites – in fact, I’m becoming a bit of a connoisseur. Nikon‘s is a treat, and all the better for the wobbly translation:

I, the author of this article, used to work in Nippon kogaku’s designing department, felt a bitter feeling when asked by a sales representative of an electronic parts company “Isn’t Nippon Kogaku K.K. going to make a “Continuous Shooting SLR”?”

A site like this is a testament to the depth and breadth of a business like Nikon and a tribute to its people. Do businesses here, in Britain, honour the creativity and diligence of their people and the historic value of the things they make in this way? No. They don’t.

The eBay effect

As I keep saying, eBay makes a previously illiquid asset (the contents of your loft) marvellously, improbably liquid. According to a report from a consultancy called The Centre for Economic & Business Research written up by the FT, in fact, the average household could easily free up three grand by unloading all that old junk on eBay. This could produce the same kind of boost to the overall economy as the building society demutualisation windfalls of the nineties and might, one hopes, help to counter the grisly retail crunch that’s ripping up the High Street right now.

This is how they make business myths in America

If I remember the sequence correctly, plucky little Pipex (Britain’s first proper, commercial ISP) was bought by UUNet (America’s first proper, commercial ISP). UUNet was subsequently bought by MCI (America’s Maverick number 3 post-break-up telco), scouting round for an entry to the strange, new world of unmetered bits, which was subsequently bought by Worldcom (America’s most dynamic, most Wild West telco) in a classical boom-era, equity-driven acquisition. This is how we, here in the British telecoms backwater, got a bit part in the amazing story of Bernie Ebbers, Worldcom’s bouncer-turned-gutsy-entrepreneur-turned-desperate-fraud. Wow.

Wolves and loss adjusters

A young wolf at the Anglian Wolf sanctuary in Bedfordshire
Today, to our house, came a loss adjuster. You’ve met loss adjusters – they’re the lone wolves who tell the insurers to settle your claim or not (fingers crossed for that flood damage claim, people). Anyway, the wolf thing is not an excuse for a cheap loss adjuster gag. Our loss adjuster turns out to have a fascinating hinterland. Weekends he looks after wolves. Real, live (Romanian) wolves adopted by a conservation charity called Anglian Wolf and living in Bedfordshire.

Did you know that the last British wolf was shot in Scotland in the Fifteenth Century and that the last wolf living wild in England was trapped and killed nearly a thousand years ago? That tells you something about British economic history doesn’t it? Nearly a millennium has passed since any part of England’s landscape was wild enough to support a population of wolves.

Oh God…

At $280 Google is valued at $78 Billion. That’s 50% more than the combined value of all the publicly traded newspaper groups in the US combined. Analysts seem to be happy with this, though, with CSFB forecasting a share price of $350 which would be nearly 75 times projected earnings for this year. Any of this seem familiar? People I speak to (I mean people who are supposed to know what they’re talking about) say this is all cool because Google has so much room for growth in its core business (advertising) and lots of new, as-yet-unimagined businesses lined up ready for launch. It gives me sweaty palms, though. (figures from Breaking Views, by the way).

Businesses I like

The excellent Kall Kwik franchise in Watford
Kall Kwik in Watford. My favourite kind of business: bustling, friendly, helpful, cheap and right, slap bang in the middle of the local economy. Making things happen for other businesses, almost all of them small or tiny. I wonder if there’s a metric for ‘contribution to the local business ecology’? If Watford’s economy is a network (well, everything else seems to be…) then this little business must be a critical node – so many businesses must depend on its existence for their own survival (or at least their sanity). It also happens to be staffed by a gaggle of super-professional, super-friendly ladies who will make you a cup of tea while they run out your print job. Heart warming.

The Algerian Coffee Stores. An Old Compton Street fixture. I’m no coffee expert (just an addict) and I reckon you can get coffee as good elsewhere, but this place has always felt to me like Soho’s dead centre and the place smells like heaven, not least because of the huge range of fragrant odds-and-ends they sell alongside the coffee, like cinnamon sticks and amazing spiced North African Coffee and big slabs of Chinese compressed tea (what do you do with that, then?). They’ve recently fancied up their web site but they still do a charming and eccentric paper newsletter you should sign up for next time you’re in there and they’ll mail order to anywhere in the world.

24 hours in New York

Brad Bowers, Black Inc. Ventures, in NYCMatt Comyns, Black Inc Ventures, in NYC

I know. I know. I didn’t even see The Gates. I was in town to conclude a deal with my new friends Brad Bowers and Matt Comyns from Black Inc Ventures. Brad code-named our joint venture ‘Whiplash’ and, for the time being, that’s all you’re getting…

Matt and Brad took me for a proper American breakfast at The Pershing Square Cafe opposite Grand Central Station and then to a friend’s groovy West Village apartment to sign our agreement (cue Gillette moment: slow motion high fives, back slapping etc…) and get some brainstorming done. It was the first time we’d met, after four or five months of discussions in email and Skype and on the phone.

Of course, I’m pathetically excited by this new opportunity and generally stunned by the Americans’ readiness to trust a virtual stranger to run their precious business – the business equivalent of those women who befriend their death row pen friends and then marry them sight unseen. Anyway, watch this space.

I may have been there for less than a day but I did, you’ll be glad to know, manage to take a couple of hundred pictures.

So long Longbridge

Heart-breaking business reality finally steam-rollers the Rover dream. Having been through one liquidation (a bit smaller, I’ll admit) I feel pretty confident in saying that Rover is tragically but definitely history – its passing will be painfully and pointlessly deferred, though, because the UK Government can’t acknowledge that the Phoenix route may have been the wrong one – at least not until after the election. The sad thing is that I can’t have been the only person who thought Rover was done for five years ago when the Phoenix fantasy got the Government OK and £500M in cash.

What I’m wondering now is: what if some clever and realistic executives (not the ones who just took £30M out of the business, for instance) picked up the assets left behind and turned them into a green transport powerhouse. There are no significant UK manufacturers of hybrid or Hydrogen powerplants, of interesting non-carbon transport tech or of low emissions vehicles in general. Since the Hydrogen war has already been well-and-truly won (in a few years we’re going to be talking about Big Hydrogen and the people behind Big Hydrogen are going to be… Big Oil!) now’s the time to invest in Hydrogen transport tech. Wouldn’t it be exciting if those 6,000 jobs (or a serious fraction of them) could be recycled into a really promising, really long-term business instead of being flushed down the toilet..?

Update: Wired this month has a bunch of interesting green power articles: Brendan Koerner looks at Toyota’s ambition to be the number 1 hybrid/Hydrogen manufacturer, Paul Eisenstein tests all the current hybrids, and there are a lot of them: they’re going to catch on quicker than you expected. Lisa Margonelli reckons the Chinese will be driving hybrid uptake, which is encouraging.