Digital guilt

Kodak are laying off 600 people in the UK because of digital cameras. Now I feel really bad about finally going digital. It’s easy enough to damn a big firm like Kodak – they should have responded differently to digital, they should have repositioned as a service business for digital consumers, they should have dumped analogue sooner, they should have bought this company or that… but these giant, technological or social changes are almost impossible to respond to with panache.

Kodak’s survival into the digital era is now uncertain – the analogue generation is aging faster than we expected, middle class families want the immediacy of digital and the next generation of photographers won’t know how to load a roll of film. There’s a reasonable chance that Kodak won’t make it, that the business will be carved up by opportunists or fade away entirely. A few weeks ago, Ilford, venerable UK supplier of B&W materials, went into administration for the same reason. Only the nimblest of companies could manage a transition as dramatic as analogue-to-digital and these businesses are not, by any definition, nimble.

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My new thing

Some Thinner Media business cards on the kitchen table
So I’m up late making some improvised business cards for my new thing – which is called Thinner Media (and which doesn’t strictly exist yet and certainly doesn’t have a web site so don’t ask). I’m going to hand the cards out at tomorrow night’s ‘An Internet Decade’, one of a string of ‘the net is ten’ events over the next few months. This one’s organised, as far as I can tell, by the DTI, NOP and e-consultancy. 100 of us (of uncertain pedigree, for sure) are to be ‘honoured’ for our contribution to the UK Internet over the last ten years. We are to be addressed by Tim Berners-Lee, our only authentic grandee. Ivan will, inevitably, be there…

I’m entertaining a fantasy that, once we’ve all had a glass or two of warm white wine, we’ll be taken out into the alley and given a good kicking – “and that’s for the ridiculous online petfood store, and that’s for the stupid lawn in the middle of your fucking office and that’s for sticking .com on the end of your name in a pathetic attempt to boost your share price and, you bastard, that’s for the string of major league baseball teams you bought with the money you looted from my pension fund!” Think I’ll stay at home.

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Happy birthday Easynet!

David Rowe, CEO of Easynet Group, at the Company's tenth anniversary party
This wild-eyed man is Dave Rowe, founder and veteran CEO of business ISP Easynet. Dave was our first landlord at Webmedia in 1994 and last week he invited me (and Ivan, naturally) to Easynet’s tenth anniversary do – and very nice it was too.

On meeting Dave this time I asked (like you do) “what’s new?”. Dave didn’t say “not much” or anything like that. He proceeded to give me a dazzling five minute summary of the state of the networking and telecoms business – from local loop unbundling to VOIP and from broadband to Frame Relay. Wish I could remember a word of it…

Click the small pic for a bigger one.

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Anti-corporate sneakers

A Blackspot anti-corporate sneaker
Business baiting is back in fashion. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in hassling corporations mercilessly until they meet their obligations – to societies, communities and economies – but I’d like to see some balance and maybe a less dogmatic appreciation of the benefits of the corporate model too.

Sure, if you eat nothing but McDonalds for a month you’re going to get ill (in my follow-up I’m going to eat nothing but lettuce, get malnutrition, win a Golden Bear and single-handedly bring down the evil salad cartel) but when was the last time your local macrobiotic cafe gave $5M to UNICEF to combat neonatal tetanus? Starbucks may be big and boring (I mean really boring) but how many microcredit loans to South American smallholders were underwritten by your favourite independent coffee shop last year?

There’s a serious point here: businesses like McDonalds, Nike, Starbucks are not islands. They are continually changed and deflected by outside forces, including shareholder and customer activism (a fruit Happy Meal?). In fact, businesses are better able to respond to these forces than almost any other institution. Businesses are good at change – it’s what they do best. The structure of the modern corporation organises resources and capital to produce maximum change (new sources of excess profit) while protecting income from long-term assets (property, ideas, people). A business is really a machine for holding in balance constant change and necessary stasis. Compare the rate of change at your bank or telephone company to that in, say, a Government department or a church or a charity, all of which have a much greater investment in staying the same than any business. Compare Nike now, after decades of pressure from the sweatshop campaigners (and now competing, anti-corporate sneakers), to the bad old Nike of lowest-cost production and child labour.

I’m not arguing for a more forgiving attitude to business – constant pressure from activists and Governments is a vital driver for this new kind of business, part of the contemporary consumer landscape – but I do want us to at least notice when businesses do good things for the environment, promote social change, support communities or improve the circumstances of their workers.

If we can celebrate the good companies as much as we condemn the backward, damaging and greedy behaviour of the bad ones, we might harness the immense potential for change that business embodies and, while we’re at it, trigger the kind of virtuous circle that produces more corporate responsibility and improves things for everyone.

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Two kinds of business insight

Here’s a really fascinating peek inside the Movable Type machine from Mena Trott. Like a lot of inventors, she’s giving up the CEO role in favour of a more experienced operator. People usually keep schtum about this kind of thing… While I’m posting business stuff, a terrific piece from Business Week about the decline of Sun and Scott McNealy’s heroic mistakes. Incidentally, these two pieces are a good illustration of the difference between blogging (high concept) and journalism (high production values). Trott’s blog entry is an immensely valuable insight into her business and the way business is done now – from her own, properly subjective, perspective. The Business Week piece is a big budget production – written by a team. Forty Sun executives, past and present, were interviewed for the story. No blogger will ever be able to throw that kind of resource at a story. A recipe for coexistence, if you ask me…

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A car for cartoon villains

The finger for a HummerHummer H2 bling
I can’t tell you how much it cheers me up to learn that the number 2 result for ‘hummer h2‘ at Google is a marvelous bit of brand mischief called Fuck You and Your H2. So far, 845 people have taken the trouble to give the finger to a Hummer, take a photograph and upload it to FUH2. How’s that for engagement with the brand? It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the H2 is the world’s stupidest car: 3,500 kilos of bog standard 4×4 wrapped in a brutalist pseudo-military suburban assault vehicle skin that resembles the original Hummer, as popularised by macho celebrities after the first Gulf War.

There’s one round the corner from our house – black with black glass, natch – sporting a set of bling bling chrome wheel rims that keep spinning even after you’ve stopped the car – perhaps the most childish aftermarket car accessory in history – “Look! My wheels keep spinning even after I’ve stopped! It looks like I’m driving along really fast even when I’m at a red light!”

Anyway, the H2 must surely represent the high water mark for the 4X4. Although it’s been a big hit and is already spawning clones from half a dozen manufacturers (and they’re assembling the damn things in Russia now), sales of the three-and-a-half tonne school run device are down by a quarter since the invasion of Iraq.

The H2 and its ilk are the contemporary equivalent of the muscle cars of the early seventies – killed off by that other oil crisis – only with less charm. Steve McQueen could drive a Mustang in Bullitt and Warren Oates a GTO in Two Lane Blacktop but only a cartoon villain (Emissions Man?) would drive a Hummer. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a lot to answer for.

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Why don’t more cars look like this?

Two Nissan Figaros on a Radlett forecourtA promotional pic from the Figaro's launch in 1991

Saw the two Nissan Figaros in the top pic on a forecourt round the corner – someone’s obviously developing a specialism. Why, meanwhile, in the ocean of car choice, is there so little real variation? The design vocabulary of cars is so restricted and advances so slowly. What are the keywords on the mood boards at the car designers these days: sexy, aggressive, practical, safe, sporty, flexible, successful, family, active, fun? Other designed goods have a much wider vocabulary – what’s wrong with: ‘eccentric, cheeky, brassy, edgy, funny, baroque, playful, green, chintzy, daft, alternative’? Why are clever cars like the 1991 Figaro stuck in a sort of experimental ghetto? Are we so inflexible, so blinded by decades of auto engineering convention that we can’t imagine ourselves in something new?

Ivan points out that what we actually like about cars might be different from what we tell the manufacturers in those focus groups – for instance, in the latest brilliant Peugeot 407 ad, the car I really want is the oversize wooden baby toy and not the very dull 407 itself.

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Making things in a deflationary climate

Argos' amazing ?9.99 barbecue
The economics of making things is all over the place these days. I guess I understand how Argos can sell this really handsome steel barbecue for £9.99 (that’s how much it costs if you visit a store) or John Lewis this beautiful six colour photo printer for £49.95 (likewise, it seems to be cheaper in-store than on the web site) or Dell this amazingly good PC for £369.00 (including delivery) but what I don’t get is what happens once the margins have been driven out of the system entirely.

Presumably someone in Argos’ supply chain is actually making some money on those barbecues but this continuous downward pressure on prices must mean that, in the end, once all the profit has been flushed out and passed back to the customer (this is a good time to be a customer), no one makes any money at all… Then what?

Links: The Economist and Paul Krugman, famously, on deflation and how to prevent it. Tesco saw deflation in non-food products in the last quarter. So did Japan (again).

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Simpson of Piccadilly

Waterstones, formerly Simpson's of Piccadilly, June 2004Original Simpson's handrail, June 2004
Simpson's Lower Ground sign, June 2004Simpson's stairwell, June 2004
Simpson's curved glass windows, June 2004Simpson's lift, June 2004
Dropped into the lovely Simpson of Piccadilly yesterday – now no longer a classy clothing department store but a giant Waterstones book shop. When I got my first proper job I used to get my shirts there (I seem to remember you could buy a shirt from them and they’d repair the collar for you every time it wore out for nothing – can that possibly be true?). The shop was built especially for Simpson (home of the Daks brand – ready-to-wear innovators at a time when men still had their suits made for them) in 1936 and Waterstones have retained most of the important detail (I suppose they had no choice) – including the tiny lifts, the handsome curving handrails in the six storey stairwell and the genuinely beautiful curved glass windows on the Piccadilly side.

That other retail shrine in Tottenham Court Road – Heal’s (also a Victorian design pioneer) – had similar windows but I guess they’re a dreadful waste of retail space and now they’re gone. I’m certain removing them was a false economy since they do beautiful things for the stock on display – canceling glare entirely even on a sunny day. Simpson was an innovator in its time – pioneering mass produced style and industrial-era marketing techniques – so I guess it’s appropriate that modern innovators Waterstones should be there now.

(Click the small pics for bigger ones).

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Middle management anarchists

My NotCon sticker, June 7 2004
Notcon was, of course, splendid. I didn’t see enough of it to provide much of an overview (so you might want to read these guys: Wired News, David Brake, himself, Will Davies) but I so enjoyed the two presentations in my own session (the.. erm… ‘business’ strand) that I wanted to link to them for you. Tom Dolan’s ‘Shit I’m a Manager‘ was a handy primer for new managers but it was engaging principally because Tom has obviously really enjoyed learning about managing people and projects. I think he’s probably an excellent and inspiring manager. Pete Windle‘s highly sarcastic ‘Mediocraties of Scale’ ran to about four minutes but his idea – we need to industrialise software production sharpish – was clever and almost certainly correct (Oops. Pete’s presentation doesn’t seem to be online).

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