National Hardware Cup

The National Hardware Cup

The regional finals of the National Hardware Cup were in DC the other night—a business pitch competition for hardware startups looking for fame, fortune, and funding for their burgeoning enterprise. Here’s what went down.

About the cup

The National Hardware cup is a funding competition for hardware companies started by Pittsburgh based startup accelerator alphalab gear. Anyone with a startup focusing on a physical product can enter one of nine regional competitions. From the online pool of applicants, six are chosen to pitch their idea to a panel of local VCs and market leaders who will select one to go to the national competition. This is the second year that it has been held.

Last year’s winner was Curb, a smarthome power management startup. A rundown of the regional winners and their ideas from 2015 can be found on the Pittsburgh Tech.co blog.

The DC Regional Finals

The DC event was well over the capacity in the TechShop Arlington meeting room reserved for the occasion. A sizable spillover crowd watched remotely from the lobby as the event began. TechShop had food and drink at the ready for those who chose to brave the semi-plowed streets and crazy DC traffic to attend. A late start to allow all attendants to prepare enabled some pre-game networking. The crowd was a mix of specialists from hardware, business, software, finance, and general technology. Pretty chill, some great conversations to be had.

The evening was split into two parts. The first was a panel discussion about building successful hardware startups. This was followed by the pitches—each of which was limited to 4 minutes—followed by 5 minutes of questions by the local expert panel.

Building a successful hardware startup

The discussion panel was comprised of Bob Coggeshell from Small Batch Assembly, Kathleen Hale from Rebel Desk, Keaton Gray from GE Ventures, Mohana Ravindranath from the Atlantic, and Greg Toth from IoT Dev Labs—a sub set of the DC judging panel.

What’s exciting you right now in IoT or hardware entrepreneurship?
  • Better information coming out of supply chains. Sensors and systems are relaying better and more meaningful data to core products that enable faster decisions and greater efficiency.
  • Some of the things DHS is doing with wearables—look for an evolution of fitBit like devices that track the environment as well as deeper biometric information. Cool stuff with biometric authentication here as well.
  • The new form factors enabled by flexible electronics.
  • Hardware alternatives to software interfaces. Things like Amazon Dash or Echo.
  • Augmented/Virtual Reality systems.
So, you have an idea, you built a prototype, what’s next?
  • Talk to your customers. Pre-sell if you can. Establish clear product/market fit.
  • Know what your marginal cost is over time and what your product evolution looks like along with estimates for that cost.
  • Get your business model worked out and test it as much as you can.
  • Mind the gap between an OTS solution (arduino, rasp pi) for prototyping and the final product form factor. It’s often bigger than you think.
  • Prepare for the inevitability when you’re competing on price. It will always happen eventually.
  • Think about working with a small run group or joining an incubator. It’s more about the expertise and network than the financial help.
What are some of the specific risks associated with these ventures and how can you avoid them up front?
  • Risk of Competition: strong IP strategy, good partnership management.
  • Legal/Regulatory Risks: actively pay attention to what’s going on, hire a good firm, know your markets and their rules before committing to them. Over-test for compliance and document everything.
  • Product/Market Fit: good segmentation, testing, and networking.
What’s the difference between pitching a journalist for a story and pitching an investor for money?
  • Build relationships and partnerships with journalists well ahead of time—well before you have a story.
  • Know your audience and focus your pitch.
  • Develop a network of journalists for whom you can answer questions, provide briefings on background.
  • Honestly, it’s not all that much different!!
What does the DC ecosystem offer product based entrepreneurs?
  • Three unique spaces dedicated to makers: TechShop, NovaLab, and HackDC.
  • 1776 and other incubators, tech groups, and meetups. An extremely rich area.
  • Access to associations and lobbying efforts along with great legal representation.
  • Rich network of facilities for compliance testing, especially in biotech.
  • An extremely highly skilled workforce.
  • Great VC and angel opportunities for the right companies.
What are the biggest barriers to IoT adoption?
  • Security and privacy.
  • Compliance.
  • User acceptance. There’s an uncanny valley here.

The pitches

Printless Plans

The Problem: Paper construction plans suck. They’re always out of synch with design, they are weak, version control is a nightmare. Too error prone.  Other digital efforts have failed because tablets and laptops are relatively fragile on a construction site.  Plus, small form factor.

The Solution: A flexible, tiled array of e-ink based display panels that are rugged enough for job sites, large enough to communicate well, and digitally savvy enough to always be up to date.

The Benefit: Save money by lowering mistake costs, hardware replacement.


Visybl

The Problem: Asset tracking or management with RFID requires two pieces of equipment, near proximity, and is limited in signal bandwidth or data transmittal.

The Solution: BLE pods that can transmit data without a query/handshake, a centralized reporting system (cloud node) that works 24/7/365 to provide real time information on location, status, or deltas in any variable proactively in any environment, even remotely.

The Benefit: Better information leading to shorter decision cycles, greater utilization of infrastructure, and operational efficiency.


Contraline

The Problem: Men don’t take a strong lead in contraception because their options result in discomfort or less than optimal sexual experiences.

The Solution: A non-hormonal, non-surgical, long lasting, semi-transmissive, temporary plug inserted into the vas deferens.

The Benefit: Effective, long-term contraception for men as an alternative to surgery.


New Ridge Tech

The Problem: Signal testing and monitoring in optical data systems is expensive—requiring outsized and unsupported machines.

The Solution: Cheaper, smaller, custom testing and monitoring devices that save time, money.

The Benefit: Lower costs, improve system efficiency.


Rorus

The Problem: Access to drinkable water is difficult in many areas of the world due to safety at source and transportation problems. Current filtering and safety measures are error prone, slow, or unwieldy.

The Solution: A low cost, easy to deploy, simple to use water purification and transportation mechanism in the form of a large hydration pack with included filter.

The Benefit: Clean, transportable potable water for more people.


Senseware

The Problem: Building systems are either dumb or aren’t integrated with each other requiring frequent physical inspection and on-site data collection.

The Solution: A platform of device sensor integration devices that collaborate and communicate on a central reporting and management system.

The Benefit: Better information leading to operational efficiency, better decisions, and lower staff costs.

The winner(s)

Audience Favorite: Rorus

DC Regional Winners: Printless Plans

Key insights

This was one of the more mature and well thought through group of pitches I’ve witnessed in the last few years. Going to DC Tech and other meetups is great to hear pre-angel or seed investment ideas, but once companies get past that point, the public doesn’t often get in the pitch cycle.

TechShop is really damn cool. I knew these spaces were popping up in the area, but I rarely make it out to Crystal City, so I’d not been been over to check it out yet. If you need on-demand access to cutting edge prototyping equipment or processes, this seems to be a good option. Also, classes. While I was less impressed with the “make a belt” class in leather works, there was a tig welding class that caught my eye and imagination. If nothing else, I now know where to go when I want access to a CNC machine or high end 3D printer.

The winning product had the best pitch. They had a product that solved a clear, niche problem in a large industry in a unique way that was unlikely to be copied by large players who have similar products but more capital and capacity to move into the space should it be lucrative. It provided a clear benefit to the customer and was in field tests with pre-orders in the mix.

There was some surprise that the audience favorite wasn’t the winner, but that’s the trick of these competitions. What sounds like the best product to the crowd isn’t always the best investment opportunity for capital growth. Your heart wants clean water for everyone on the planet—the benefit is clear and easy to understand. But what if the product is risky from a regulatory perspective, might be easy to copy, and adoption is dependent on making a much more compelling competitive value proposition than the one we heard? Faster water filtration isn’t that big a deal, is it? If not, can you really charge that much more for it? If you can’t, then you’re competing on price and you better hope it costs less to produce your product than the competition.

I was a bit surprised (on hindsight) that there weren’t any consumer facing products (other than male contraception, though that’s already questionable as a physical product in my book) leveraging IoT, VR, AR or other new(ish) tech. It would seem that the DC area is far more B2B than much of the rest of the country. Or maybe these type of competitions attract that kind of business model.

Either way, the scene is a lot more active than I though it was. I’m looking forward to the next IoT meetup.

LCD vs Phish

Getting the Band Back Together

Today James Murphy published a lengthy blog article giving background to the recent announcement that he and the rest of LCD Soundsystem would be headlining Coachella this year. Fan responses have been mixed which is frequently the case once a band says “Goodbye”—especially one that did it so dramatically with a series of New York concerts in 2010 ending with a nearly 4 hour long show at MSG featuring every song they’d ever released.

So why am I so excited about referring to them in the present tense again after 5 years when I’ve been so reluctant to return to another band I used to love (Phish) upon their return following a similar goodbye concert? Naiveté?

Beginnings

The first and only time I saw LCD Soundsystem in concert was on a double billing with MIA at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. My wife was quite pregnant with our first daughter (who’s now 10) and we’ve always joked with her that it was her first concert. She doesn’t think we’re as amusing as we find ourselves.

To be honest, while I liked them at the time, I was more excited for MIA. That all changed when they started playing. It didn’t take long before they were one of my favorite bands.

The first time I saw Phish was during the summer between my junior and senior years of college in 1993. I had a good friend who was a huge fan and excited to share them with me. The show was just outside of DC at a venue called Wolf Trap—an outdoor performing arts venue that’s part of the National Park Service. It’s a beautiful place to see a show in the summer and this concert was no exception. It was the first of a run of twenty+ Phish shows I’d see over the next ten years and it’s still one of the best I’ve seen.

Want to see a list of the concerts I’ve seen?

5 or 10 Years

I saw Phish play in New York City, Hampton Virginia, Prague, Penn State, Washington DC, Oswego NY, at festivals (they don’t headline, it’s all Phish, all day) clubs, arenas, and college auditoriums. There was something about their instrumentation, the rhythms, and the sheer joy they conveyed when they played that was contagious. Their music seemed complex and rewarding—musically challenging by one measure, simplistic and silly by another. I was never attracted to the scene, it was always the music, the groove. I listened to a lot of other bands at the time, but these guys were on heavy rotation.

In 2004, ten or so years after my first show, Phish held a festival in Coventry, VT. We bought our tickets and made the pilgrimage. We had been to a few festivals in the past and we were going with our friends who were pros at the whole thing at this point, so we felt prepared for anything that we were going to have to deal with.

Except, perhaps, two solid weeks of rain that turned the entire festival grounds into a mud bog more appropriate for rice farming than parking cars or, say, walking.

festival grounds

Now, you may be thinking that every festival has a run-in with mud. Yes, they do. The singular difference here was that the band had leased farmland for this festival. Farmland that was soft, and rich, and full of… well, you know what they use to help plants grow, right?

We were some of the lucky ones who got into the festival before they started turning people away—if you consider having your car towed to the middle of a mud pit by a farmer in an oversized tractor because that’s the only way they can park your car “lucky.”

We found a relatively dry spot to set up our camp and made the best of it.  We were better prepared than most having a camping shower, the right footwear (we heard rumors of trench rot over the weekend), and enough food and water that we didn’t need to go anywhere or buy anything.

And then we went and listened to the most mediocre sets of music any of us had ever heard the band play.

We all knew at this point that the show was a goodbye. Trey had announced an official end to the band following years of intermittent haitus so we all knew it was over.  It was sad, but part of me felt like it was time. The band didn’t have that joy anymore, and neither did I.

After we left, I would occasionally pull out a show to listen to or throw on a scratched copy of Nectar or Farmhouse, but I had made a mental shift away from jam music for the most part, and they were the last jam band I was interested in.

One of the new bands I started hearing about was LCD Soundsystem.

I got that first double CD because Pitchfork made such a big deal about it and frankly, it sounded awesome. During one of my Tower Records music binge nights (Tuesday new releases!), I picked up my copy and it became a quick favorite.

We attended the aforementioned show, and they became even bigger. Their presence was huge. They filled the 9:30 club like no band I had ever seen. Their music was enormous, it was infectious, it was raw, it was danceable, it didn’t take itself too seriously, and it was exactly what I needed right at that moment.

Over the years as our daughter grew and we had a second, my career progressed, and we worked on making our house a home, new music from LCD Soundsystem was always a highlight—something we could both get excited about. Concerts were difficult, and the band would sell out before we could get tickets. We never saw them again live, in-person.

And before it was time, or rather before I was ready, they were hanging up their coats and calling it a day.

In 2010, the band announced that they had written all they were going to write, that they didn’t want to get any bigger, and so they’d go out with a bang: a big blow out at Madison Square Garden.  Of course I wanted to go. First tour, last tour… perfect bookends. Besides, they had essentially sountracked the prior 5 years of my life. How could I not?

Apparently I wasn’t alone.

Due to the overwhelming desire for tickets and the utter incompetence of the responsible ticketing agency, few got their golden ticket. So more shows were announced leading up to the big one. I tried to get seats for any of them and was unsuccessful.

The final show was broadcast over the internet, and we watched much of it’s terribly pixellated, awful sounding stream the night it happened. It was bittersweet. I really didn’t want it to end yet.

The Comeback

If you followed the Phish saga after that final show, you probably know that one of its members ended up with some drug problems that put him in rehab for a stint. Each of the members began solo careers or new bands. None of it really spoke to me. Partly because I was over Phish (kinda mad at them, but that’s silly), and partly because I didn’t really like the music they were producing all that much. I’m sure it’s great stuff, just not my thing.

In 2008 they announced a reunion tour for 2009. They’d be playing Hampton Coliseum, a mythic venue for Phish fans, and one I’d been to a few times. My friend called—did we want to go?

Nope.

If you followed LCD Soundsystem since they broke up, you’d have listened to Museum of Love, The Juan MacLean, or James Murphy remixing tennis matches for IBM.

Yesterday it was announced that they were playing Coachella. Today the band announced they have an album they’re working on and that they’re going to be doing more than playing Coachella—they’ll be doing a full tour.  Am I in?

Hell yes.

But Why?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think it boils down to a few things.

  1. I wasn’t ever finished with LCD Soundsystem.
    They hadn’t peaked yet, in my opinion. While I personally felt like This is Happening was a slight step back from Sound of Silver, it still felt like they had a lot to say. The sound was just maturing and for a band who only had 3.5 albums (does that Nike running thing count?) there seemed to be a huge space in which to play. Phish, however, had 10 studio albums under their belt, the last three of which were almost unlistenable to me. To my ear, they peaked at Farmhouse. By the time I went to the last show, I hadn’t heard them release music I was excited about in four years.
  2. Phish got too darn big.
    I’ll be honest here. There aren’t many bands that got as big as Phish who’ve handled it as well as they did. But at some point it became a scene, not a concert. The band seemed to lose their joy in playing. Jams went on in pointless circles, and even the old songs started to feel tired. Maybe they toured too much.  Maybe 20 years is just too long for any band to stay good at being a band. LCD Soundsystem never got that big. Though they ARE headlining Coachella this year… perhaps I have to rethink that assertion.
  3. Phish became a business.
    If you’re that big and you’ve been around that long, it’s probably inevitable. I used to get a crazy newsletter from them called Doniac Schvice once a quarter or so just checking in on the band. Now everything they do is monetized at every turn. (Remind me to see what those old newsletters are fetching on ebay… I still have mine.) LCD Soundsystem always felt like your best friends all started a band together and wrote music about the world you shared. They never outgrew that. For proof, read the article James Murphy wrote about their reunion. It’s honest, it’s raw, it’s like a note from a friend. Perfect.
  4. Phish is a Nostalgia Act.
    I have actually seen Phish play since their reunion. They headlined Bonnaroo the last time I went to that festival in 2009. It was a fun show, I’ll totally admit it. I danced like an idiot just like I did when I saw them in 1994. But it was a total nostalgia trip. I wasn’t engaged or excited by something new—it was the old songs that I knew by heart that got me going again. If LCD Soundsystem comes out with an album that is a rehash of anything they’ve done before, I’ll be a very sad puppy. Something tells me they won’t.
  5. I’m An Adult Now.
    This isn’t to say that if you still enjoy Phish, you’re not an adult. Far from it. But adult me doesn’t get into the same things that college me did. I don’t spend all night in an art studio painting. I don’t hang out in the quad playing hackey sack. I don’t lay back on the hood of my car staring up at the stars debating the meaning of life with a good friend (though sometimes I think about it).  LCD Soundsystem sounds better, feels better, and aligns better with where I am in my life—or at least where I was 5 years ago when they broke up.  I still listen to their music though. One of my favorite songs of all time is All My Friends. If I have a happy song, that’s the one.

How Naive am I Being Right Now?

This reunion is going to totally suck, isn’t it. Name a band who’s pulled this off. It wasn’t Phish. Not James. Not the Pixies or the Breeders or the Feelies. It’s not going to be Guns and Roses at Coachella. So why do I have faith in LCD Soundsystem?

Because I do have faith in this band—along with a dash of hope, some desire, and a basic gut feeling that they whatever they do, it’s going to be interesting, even if I don’t like it.

At least it seems like they’re doing it for the right reasons.

Anyone want to sponsor my ticket to Coachella so I can find out?  🙂

 

Music Featured in this Article:


Top Lists of 2015

The 2015 Top List of Top Lists

As we wind down the last week of 2015 and writers across the globe struggle to tie it all together, readers have two choices: look back and rank order the things that happened last year or look forward and make some guesses on what’s going to happen in 2016. This is the first of those… a look back—perhaps with a sprinkling of the latter.

As I’ve indicated a few times here, I have a lot of disparate interests. This is one of the few posts that attempts to tie them all together. We’ll see how it goes. And now, without further ado, here’s my list of top lists for 2015.

Biggest Business Deals of the Year

In case you hadn’t heard, 2015 broke the record for M&A deals (not adjusted for inflation). With the fed moving to increase interest rates, a solid looking economy, and companies struggling to grow organically, mergers hit a frenetic pace this year.  (click graphic for corresponding article at WSJ)

Most of the top deals were made in High-Tech and Healthcare extending recent trends. Big winners? Investment Banks and SMBs looking to expand into the space left by firms more focused on growth than innovation or service.

Music

There is never a shortage of year end ranking of best albums. I could list five of them here off the top of my head. Rather, there’s this fantastic list that takes all the other lists and weighs them to come up with a sort of master list. Here’s where you find that.

http://www.albumoftheyear.org/list/summary/2015/

It would appear that the consensus runaway hit of 2015 was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a ButterflyI wish I were a fan. I’m sure it’s amazing. Total respect, just not my thing.

I must say I’m surprised by Sufjan’s placement in slot 2. A good album that I largely overlooked this year (bad release timing for me), as beautiful as anything he’s released, but not something I expected to place so highly.

Three of my personal favs from the year round out the top 6: Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (4), Grimes’s Art Angels (5), and Jamie xx’s In Colour (6).

Other surprises are Carly Rae Jepson, New Order, and Florence + The Machine placing anywhere on the list, and the continued love for Adele who still has an amazing voice yet delivered what I feel is one of the most boring records of the year.

I’m still disappointed that Bully and The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die were left off most lists and that Eternal Summers continues to be overlooked.

My personal #1 of the year? Grimes’s Art Angels. I just can’t get enough.

Digital Retail

2015 was the year when everyone finally started taking mobile seriously. I say finally because some of us have been waving frantically about this trend for years. For many brands, the tipping point was 2015 when more than half of their internet traffic consistently came from a smartphone or other portable. Apps started making money—proving that most of the time a native experience beats one compromised for everything if you actually bother to take advantage of the device’s features.

An omnichannel approach became commonplace with more brands taking a more holistic approach to customer experience throughout their retail ecosystem. BOPUS and other bridging tactics broke down walls between inventory stashes.  More retail associates began walking the floors with digital devices and thus faster access to customer or product data. Location based services gave retailers more information and customers better deals.

Social Media became a sales channel. While the ramifications of this are still on the horizon, buy buttons on facebook, twitter, instagram, and pinterest followed wanelo into the clear monetization realm.

EMV confused a lot of people and maybe made in-store transactions safer. The only thing we know for sure is that it made a lot of money for the POS terminal companies.

Big Data and experience personalization got closer to being legitimate game changers. While this can be creepy if done wrong, retailers are inching forward with intelligent systems that add points to conversion rates, bump average order sizes by a few dollars, and build brand loyalty.

Forbes put together their list of the 10 biggest stories in retail for the year. The biggest one in my book was REI’s treatment of black friday and the general yawn that escaped from the public on that once hallowed day in retail. Cyber Monday and Black Friday were clearly huge online with big gains across the board, but in the physical world, it stepped back. Is this a trend? Will we see more companies go the way of REI since digital is clearly a more efficient channel for deals anyway?

I have a lot of thoughts on this looking forward and will put something together soon.

The Indie/Millennial Lifestyle

Paste magazine was once a real print magazine. Its editorial focus was on entertainment with a distinctly indie bent. Think Entertainment Weekly released once a month with better writing, focused on independent movies, music, TV, video games, and the like. I still have a CD booklet full of mix discs from them. Good stuff.

Unfortunately, like many print publications, the medium couldn’t be justified by the readership so they moved online.

They still have the same editorial focus though extended into food, drink, design, and books. Following another trend (the listification of everything) they now seem to organize every article as an ordered list of things. Irritating, yes, but for the purpose of my list of lists, perfect.

Here is their list of their top lists in every category they cover for the year.  It’s pretty darn comprehensive.

They even have a list of the top 20 most memorable soccer quotes of the year.

The Atlantic probably doesn’t consider itself an indie publication but it caters to the same ethnographic audience. They have a pretty killer best of 2015’s best of lists. My fav from the list?  76 Viral Photos from 2015 that were totally fake. You’re welcome.

Clearly not indie, but yet another list of lists from Rolling Stone. From states ranked by their official foods to presidential candidates ranked by their followers’ grammar, a little something for everyone.

Web Design/Development

While a lot of the web looks just like it did in 2014, a lot actually changed in 2015, albeit mostly under the hood.

One of the big surprises for me was the adoption rate of React by so many frameworks and developers. It’s pretty rare to see something new(ish) like this be adopted so quickly. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but the fact that this came out of team Facebook is a bit shocking to me. Somehow I had it in my head that with their php starting point most of the technology they developed to prop up their systems and enhance performance was too specialized to be abstracted for usefulness outside of their system. Boy was I wrong. Even Flux is getting some love these days.

In August, the excellent training website Treehouse wrote a list of their big web dev trends for 2015.

On the design side of the house, the homogenization of websites continued in 2015. A website really only has two or three starting points now, and the end result is only subtly different from the rest of the web. Because so many sites rely on large, heavily branded lifestyle imagery or video on the homepage, there feels like a huge difference, but we seem to have settled on a design pattern that makes sense for 80% of the world. Content site? Use UI pattern 1. Ecommerce? UI pattern 2. Corporate marketing? UI pattern 3. The UX can change dramatically based on color, typography, transitions, image choices, and detail work, but overall the underlying patterns remain.

Coming from someone who started his career in the design world in the mid 90s, this all feels a little lazy. I don’t think the problem has been solved for every case yet. The proliferation of responsive websites designed around built-in framework UI patterns is largely to blame. Let’s face it, they look pretty good out of the box. And the client likes it. Why push for better?

The continued love of calligraphic typefaces is starting to chip away at the dominance of “flat” design popularized by Apple in the release of iOS 7. Textures, lighting, and naturalism all harmonize well with calligraphy and will likely get pushed further over the next year.

99 designs put out a pretty decent roundup of style trends and common tactics that work well within the new world order of standardized UI. Some interesting ways to break out of the same/same with nested interactions that don’t break the world order at the highest level.

Look for more hand drawn or otherwise illustrated yumminess as designers struggle to tell a unique story in a standard box.

Surprises

I was going to write something about each of these, but it feels like they’re pretty self explanatory. I can honestly say I saw none of these coming—at least not in the way that they actually did.

  • Ashley Madison
  • Volkswagen
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Price of Oil
  • ISIS
  • Donald Trump
  • Bill Cosby
  • Brian Williams

Gadgets

I’m a gear geek on top of everything else though it’s really more of a byproduct than an obsession. I love music, so I look for the best sound and features from headphones, digital players, turntables, amps, speakers, etc. I love movies, so getting a home theater setup with great sound and video quality has been an ongoing (as yet unachieved) goal. I’ve been a photographer for as long as I can remember, so we have film and digital cameras for both still and video in a variety of form factors. As a designer/developer for the web and apps, we have lots of hard drives, monitors, computers and digital devices around for testing, creation, and content consumption. Woodworking? Mountain Biking?  Running? Lots of gear. This year we dabbled  with electronics prototyping… So, yeah, gear.

That said, I don’t tend to buy lots of each item. I can’t tell you how my Grado SR80s compare to anything other than my Harmon Kardon NC cans, my Symphonized GLXY ear buds, or my Jaybird BlueBudsX wireless running earbuds.  For the record, they’re the best sounding of the bunch, but I wouldn’t use them in any of the situations in which I use the other ones. And vice versa.

Wired has a list of their top electronics money can buy. I don’t agree with them all, but it’s a decent, if broad, list.

WSJ has a much better list of the gadgets I’d have fun with. Though I’m somewhat disappointed that they felt it necessary to include a selfie stick.

Rounding out the best lists, CNN compiled some interesting things in theirs—like the Theta-S and Wove—though it’s a bit heavy on phones and watches.

Not a lot of new gadgetry on the market, though some solid improvements all around.

Et. Cetera

I didn’t go to town on books because it felt like a weak year in fiction, at least so far as what I read. I openly admit to being a year or two behind the curve in this category though. I’m just now getting to David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks which was released over a year ago. Next year I’ll discover how awesome the Nightingale, the Rocks, or Fates and Furies is, but this year the best books I read were Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I also thoroughly enjoyed Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a great novel. Fun story yes. I read and was disappointed by The Girl on the Train (apparently I’m the only one) The Fold by Peter Clines, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web. You can safely skip the last two.

Here’s a great tool over at NPR that lets you pick something you may like from the 2015 heap of new published words.

I’d cover TV, but I didn’t watch enough of it to have a real opinion. Same with movies. I see most of them a year after they come out. Except Star Wars. Because, Star Wars.

What did I miss?  What did I get wrong? What does your 2016 look like?

The Future Looks Bright

Why PCI DSS Requirements Will Change the Web For Everyone

By June of 2018 all “safe” websites will have to transact using TLS 1.1 or higher. This change over should start this summer as many service providers are required to implement the standard.  The cascade of change as a result could do more to move web technology forward than anything else has in the last 5 years. Why? You won’t be able to use your old browser.  Nobody will.

PCI DSS, Wha?

If you’re here reading this, chances are you’ve purchased something online at some point in your life.

When you made that purchase, you likely paid with a credit card or through a service like PayPal. The Payment Card Industry (PCI), has standards for security that are set by a council and are referred to as the Data Security Standard (DSS). This standard protected that transaction from prying eyes and kept your personal information safe during transmission and storage.

For the retailer to accept your credit card information and not be held liable for certain types of fraud, their entire site has to be certified compliant with this standard.

PCI certification is something that has to be performed every year, and non-compliance is a big deal. It’s easily one of our least favorite yet most critical processes we go through each year—proving that Virid’s ecommerce platform is indeed PCI DSS level 1 certified.

All this matters because as security standards increase, so do the speed of computer processors and the abilities of your average hacker. Over time standards must change and we’re now looking at a roadmap to a new standard. The next standard is 3.1.

Little Green Locks

Most every shopper is trained to look for a little green lock or some sort of validation that the site they’re browsing is using SSL, TLS or other transmission encryption technology. Starting in a couple of years (when I started this post, the date was June 2016—they just moved it on Friday) the standard will become TLS 1.1 per the PCI DSS.

That means that two things have to be compliant: the system serving the website and the browser the customer is using on their device. Both have to support TLS 1.1.

Here’s a handy chart that illustrates the compatibility of most common browser versions.

Notice anything?

Anything prior to InternetExplorer 11 is non-compliant out of the box.

Want to see what your current browser supports?  Go here.

Internet Explorer (IE) and the Modern Web

You want to see a web developer turn beet red and do their best not to explode? Suggest that the site you’re asking them to develop support IE 8 or earlier. Try it. It’s fun. Just make sure you tell them you’re kidding when you’ve had your giggle.

While Microsoft makes fine software and provides excellent services, many of us on the web have been less than impressed with their browser technology and its adoption of standards.

HTML 5 and CSS 3 are at least three years old and as recently as last year, there were parts of those standards that were simply not handled natively by the most current Microsoft browser.

Here’s a chart illustrating the feature differences between the last four versions of IE.

So why is anyone on IE? Or, more to the point, why are so many people still using older versions of IE?

Because upgrading sucks. And in some cases, especially in enterprise installations, it’s an enormous cost. Plus, why fix what isn’t broken?

The big deal

Remember your red-faced web developer? Right now she’s jumping for joy. All those short cuts, cool new features you wanted on your web site that “broke” in certain browsers? They just may not break now.

All of a sudden, our support calls get cut by 15%. Our developers smile a genuine smile (the sarcastic ones don’t count) more than once a week. Clients get the sites they want, and the features we build don’t require testing on 34 browsers, just 7 or 8. Why?

Because if you want to buy anything online, you’ll have to use a modern browser. 

That lingering 2 to 5% of sales coming from customers using outdated browsers (not just IE: Safari on windows anyone?) will evaporate.

And all will be right with the world.

Yeah, it’s probably a dream, but it sure is a nice one.  Too bad PCI delayed full implementation until 2018—I was really looking forward to an exciting summer and getting a leap on new features in anticipation of the switch.

Maybe next year.

Das (re)Boot

When I started this blog three years ago, I had grand visions of reviving long-form content around ecommerce, branding, and the spaces in between (you know: kerning, get it?)

After a few posts it was clear that it was more a labor of love than providing clear value to anyone. So I drifted away and focused on other things that added value.

A lot has changed since then. I’ve gone back to school and graduated with an MBA. Ecommerce has become omnicommerce. I’ve come to terms with how content is consumed and thus how it should be created (Bullets, people, bullets). (The soft kind. Not the killing kind.)  (You know what I mean)…

So this will revert to more of a tossed salad: shorter format, crossed topics from IT issues, business strategy, branding, marketing, entrepreneurship, music, soccer, food, drink, living in DC, and of course, ecommerce and digital strategy for the retail world. Oh, with a continued focus on the spaces between—the ones that provide the context, legibility, connections and beauty in everything we do.

Too much? Probably. But if I’m lucky, someone else out there will find the same joy I find in these things.

Or not.

what do you expect

Promises, Promises

 

This Christmas season was a challenge for every successful retailer—with success comes numerous orders, strains on staff, hardware or software outages, increased fraud, and challenges related to getting temporary staff up to speed as quickly as possible.

There are inevitable lapses in quality, late hours, and frayed nerves.  At the end of it all the hope is for reduced inventory, happy customers, and a big fat bonus check.

So, it turns out the hardest part of that equation (to absolutely nobody’s surprise) is the happy customer.  Is there a key to customer happiness that gets overlooked in the furious insanity surrounding the busy season?  I think so.  I think it’s setting and managing achievable expectations.

I remember a long time ago in the early days of ecommerce I was working with a client who not only wanted to offer overnight shipping on every customer’s order, they wanted to do it for free. They figured out how to average the cost across all orders, and since price engines weren’t quite as ubiquitous as they are today, they figured the marginal price shift would go relatively unnoticed behind the smoke of marketing.

It was an immediate and runaway hit—for about a week.  Turns out customers thought they’d get the product in 24 hours from when they’d bought it and fulfillment alone took this client at least 24 hours. That meant every customer was getting their order in two days—a full 24 hours later than they thought they would.  Expectations busted.

As a customer, I had four significant retail frustrations over the holidays, each of which was resolved differently and has left me either singing the praises of said retailer, or scratching my head trying to determine whether I need to find a new vendor.

The Christmas Card

Like most of my peers, the weeks leading up to the holidays are spent negotiating which family photo or photos will adorn the annual Christmas card we send to family and friends. Once the photo has been agreed upon, a design accepted, the cards are sent to print.

Any of you who’ve done this know that this has become a pretty simple process.  The vendor I’ve been using has a fabulous selection of card designs, great papers, and high quality printing.  Their site is well laid out, easy to use, and strongly branded.  While they don’t make a promise on when you’ll get your cards, from experience I expect it to take a little more than a week.  So I planned to have everything done to give us 3 weeks to send out all our cards.

When the cards hit the floor through our mail slot, we tore open the box expecting to start addressing cards that very evening.  The cards were beautifully printed, card stock was excellent, the photo of our girls was adorable… but wait. Who’s name is that?  Really?  They printed them with the wrong family name and greeting? How does this happen?

Since I work for an ecommerce platform and services company, I’m used to daily stories about how a client will call up and blame us for something that’s frequently something they did wrong. I long ago vowed to never be that client. I diligently went to my account on the vendor’s web site, checked my order, verified that the preview image had the correct family name on it, and promptly became annoyed.

I have zero transparency into their fulfillment or order management system, but I know just enough about on-demand printing to guess that someone threw the database out of synch.  If that’s the case, I’m not the only one who dealt with their failure this season—it probably affected a whole boat of people.

I asked very nicely for help, explaining my situation as briefly as possible and got a very quick response with an apology and a promise that a reprint had already been arranged with the right family name and they’d have them to me by the 17th.

I’m an understanding customer. I know that “stuff happens” and to me, what separates good companies from ones with whom I no longer do business is how they make it right.

In this case, while I had asked for an explanation on how it happened and not received one, an apology and offer of reprint was enough of a resolution to carry me through the holidays.  Even though they delivered my “reprints” a day late.

After the holidays I followed up with their customer service to see if I could figure out how this had happened.  If I was going to use them again, I’d want some sort of assurance that it wouldn’t and that if it did, I’d get more than a simple canned apology.

The reply from the printer was formal, and uninformative.  I was told that they’d forwarded my note of displeasure to the appropriate division and that they already have significant safeguards in place to ensure that these things don’t ever happen.

The Stolen Credit Card

Have you ever finally finished shopping having spent over an hour figuring out the perfect item(s) for your loved one only to get through the checkout line, swipe your card and have it denied? One might ascribe this kind of experience to poor planning on my part (insufficient funds) but that wasn’t the case.  I knew I had plenty of money in my account.  It was a check card. I’d just been paid.

At that point a sinking feeling starts in the pit of your stomach and the realization that someone may have emptied your bank account while you weren’t looking sets in. As it turns to panic, and you have to bite back the urge to whip out your smart phone and quickly check your account balance, you notice the line of tired and impatient customers behind you.  You calmly pull out a credit card and cross your fingers.

Pfew.   It worked.

But now I have a balance on my credit card I didn’t want to put there.

Worse things could happen, right?

As we’re completing the transaction, the cashier offhandedly mentions that this is something that happens all the time.  Apparently this department store doesn’t take any chances with potential fraud and simply rejects most out of state check cards for purchases over a certain amount.

Wait, really?  This is a customer friendly solution?

15 minutes later, my bank calls my cell phone and asks me to verify some purchases.  Apparently a retailer has indicated that a purchase using one of my cards was suspicious.  You know, for my protection.

While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure that this policy is actually for MY protection.  In fact, after my conversation with the cashier, it feels like it’s more for the protection of the establishment.  Not that I can blame them, really.  It’s obviously solving a very real problem they must have since it’s a pretty blunt solution they’ve landed on.

The Tiny Record Store

Those of you who know me in real life know how much of a total music nerd I am. I’m a total sucker for live music and yes, I’m one of the last people on the planet who still buys physical versions of my music—preferably on vinyl.

Over the holidays I visited a very small, very specialized record store. It was one of those places that’s only open during certain hours and is in one of those parts of town you’d never go otherwise. I’d been looking forward to this trip all week since it would be my one opportunity to buy my Christmas present: a couple of (hopefully) rareish albums recorded live on site from some of my favorite musicians.

I wasn’t let down. I rang the bell for entry and my wife and I walked into one of the best examples of unique store and record label branding I can think of.  The cashier was friendly, and there were a couple of other patrons milling about in the small 3 room shop.  I set to work on the ridiculously small collection of vinyl while my wife checked out some of the other attractions.

While we were browsing, we could hear growing frustration behind us at the counter as the cashier calmly took every single card offered by a customer and kept informing him that it seemed like her credit card terminal was having problems, that it really wasn’t his card.  He kept producing more, and to her credit, she kept trying them. I can imagine it would have been far easier to lose her patience and snap at him.

This put a damper on my level of enthusiasm. If the credit card machine was non functional, did that also mean my debit card wouldn’t work?  Was it the machine, or was it the network?

Nevermind.  I threw myself back into digging through the well-organized stacks of albums.

After selecting a few singles and a couple LPs I made my way up to the counter.  It was close to closing time, so either this transaction went through or we wouldn’t be getting these albums.

The cashier looked and me and smiled sadly.  She gently apologized and said that she’d rebooted her terminal twice and can’t get it to work.  If I wanted her to try my card, she’d be happy to, but she was pretty confident it was broken. What she could do is wrap up my selection and put my name on it.  It would be held until I came back tomorrow.  She felt like it was a temporary glitch and should be resolved by the time I came back tomorrow.

I thanked her.  I asked about the price of a couple of items behind the counter, sucked up my disappointment, and we left the store empty handed.

The next day my wife showed up with my albums. They were ready and waiting as promised when she walked in the store.

The Missing Books

I have two daughters who are the most adorable creatures on the planet.  No really.  Far cuter than yours. I have proof… see, here look at these books.

I’m sure the last thing (well, maybe next to being attacked by raccoons) you want to do is spend an afternoon looking at my annual family books spanning the last 7 years of our parenthood.  Cute or not, these are artifacts that capture time that’s meaningful within a pretty small family circle.  Let’s say there are about 7 of us.  4 of us are married couples and can share our books.  That’s 5 books.  Each child gets a book created around her birth year and we have 2 girls—that’s 10 books total.  Each book is $50… well, that’s a pretty big Christmas investment from a single source.

Over the course of each year I diligently photograph major events, small misadventures, hilarity in the back yard, hikes through the woods, first steps, final days in high chairs.  Because I’m me, I shoot everything in RAW format and offload the files to an insanely organized system of folders on my hard drive where they sit until I have time to process them.

That means some time in mid November I realize that it’s been almost a year since I’ve processed photos of the girls.  My how time flies.  Jump forward 3 weeks and you’ll find a red-eyed exhausted version of me swearing off the prospect of seeing another RAW image again in his life.

Each event results in anywhere between 50 and 500 individual shots.  First I do a quick content edit that takes me somewhere around 20-30 minutes that whittles the selection with an average of 1 in 10 shots making the cut.

Then I find groups of images taken under the same lighting situation, select one, process it, and copy those settings to the other ones in the group.  From there I open each file and process it as though it were being printed and hung on the wall.  That means burning, dodging, adjusting horizon, removing chromatic aberrations, color balancing, compressing (or expanding) the dynamic range, and applying the right amount of sharpening to compensate for the softness typically introduced in the offset printing process. I then save out a jpeg for iPhoto and move to the next image.  Each event takes around an additional hour plus to process.

All in, I estimate that it took me 30-40 hours to create the first edit of photos from this year.

From here, I open up my book making software and go to work.  I used a pretty simple system this year… from each event I took at least one photo, usually I did a spread of two.  I went for quality rather than quantity this year… I used exclusively full-page mostly full-bleed images.  I limited myself to 80 pages.  Limits help drive faster decisions which is critical when these things have to get out the door.

After a few more sleepless nights of arranging and re-arranging and haggling over image selection with my wife my books were done.  Oh, and look!  There’s a coupon!  Awesome.  Yes!  I will pay the extra money to guarantee that these books will be in my hands before I leave for the holidays.  Make my books!

Confirmation received.   Awesome.  On to the next thing.

I used to use a different company for my bookmaking.  I’ve been at it for around 10 years.  Actually, this is my 4th vendor.  The first two had issues with black and white images (which I shoot a lot of) that I found unacceptable.  I was very happy with a company for many years until I started getting sad emails from my mother informing me that the binding on my books had started to fall apart. I had also been using them for professional lookBooks as part of our marketing at Virid and been disappointed with the quality of printing I’d been getting from them recently.  So I found someone new and this company had been stellar every single time I used them.

Well, except the last time, though I told myself it really wasn’t their fault.  At the last minute I asked them to change the address of a shipment so it would end up at a tradeshow for my sales team while they were there rather than double ship it.  For some reason the address got screwed up and it ended up at the event a day later than expected and the front desk never delivered it to my team. Enough blame to pass around.

Nothing prepared me for what happened though.  A few days before I was leaving for my trip, I got my ship confirmation. I looked up the shipment on the shipper’s web site and it was listed as arriving sometime the day I left for my trip.

Ummmmm.  No.

I paid extra for it to be delivered the day BEFORE I left.  I still had to break open the box and ship out my books to everyone so they’d be under the tree for the holiday.

I immediately got in touch with customer service who apologized up and down and seemed genuinely at a loss as to why they’d been shipped out late and at a slower rate than required to get my order to me on the promised date.  She proactively got in touch with the shipper and gave me great news.  Apparently she’d been able to have the books held at an office near me where I could go pick them up the morning I was supposed to leave.  They promised they’d be ready by 9 am.

I delayed by departure and drove the 40 minutes out to the office.  I showed up at 9.  They apologized profusely when I got there, yes there was a hold on the shipment but it hadn’t even been logged at the facility yet.  They didn’t have my package.

I left feeling completely dejected, feeling like I let down a significant portion of my family, angry with the bookmaker, and getting the creeping feeling that these holidays weren’t going to be quite so good after all.

We spent a week away and upon returning home, we discovered that the box had been sent back to the bookmaker (no surprise there) and that we’d be waiting an extra long time more for our books to arrive.

I sent a note to the bookmaker who was extremely apologetic, knocked a hefty percentage off my order cost, and told me she’d get the order back out to me using “the fastest shipping possible” the minute it got to their offices.  I should expect my books to be in my hands the following Monday.

I tracked the books back to the maker and waited.  And waited.  After 2 days I got back in touch.  I was informed that the person who had been handling my account would no longer be doing so.  I was curtly told that they’d send my books back to me that day.  Which they did—using 2-day delivery rather than overnight.

Broken Promises

Like I said earlier, “stuff happens.” What separates good companies from ones I no longer do business with is how you handle the “stuff.”

The card company started off strong.  They apologized and reprinted my order no questions asked.  They shipped it to me overnight, and while they promised it would be to me a day earlier than it was, it was obvious they were working at capacity and really couldn’t do much more than they were.

Things fell apart after that though.  The last time I heard from them was 2 weeks ago, and I really don’t expect anything more in terms of an explanation or refund.

They set the expectation that I would get my cards right and on time.  They weren’t right.  They set the expectation that the reprint would get to me when they promised.  It was late.  I gave them an extra opportunity to make it right (a discount, a coupon, something along with an explanation on how it happened the first time) but was rebuffed.

The department store either has a policy in place that rejects debit cards under certain circumstances or it doesn’t. Either way, the cashier told me that it does, so that’s what I have to go on as a consumer. The cashier was nice, but my overall experience with the retailer wasn’t.  I’m left feeling like I shouldn’t ever shop this retailer outside my home zip code. Which is ridiculous.

When I go to a store and you tell me that you accept check cards as a form of payment, I don’t expect that you will choose to honor that only when you’re comfortable with the transaction.  Busted expectations.

The small record store wouldn’t let me buy my selection when I wanted to.  But they were clear why, apologetic, and set an expectation that they could meet—come back tomorrow and we’ll check you out.  While they had an initial problem, they set a new expectation that wasn’t optimal… but was honest.  It was also clear that the issue was a 3rd party problem.  Even though it was never stated.

The bookmaker?  Where do I start? I expected that my books would be in my hands on time—especially since I paid extra for it to happen.  I expected that I’d be able to pick up my books at the shipper’s offices.  I’d expected that when the books got back to their offices that they’d be overnighted back to me. Absolutely none of these things happened.

While the bookmaker was the most generous with their partial refund, they refused to explain why or how any of this happened and their final communications with me left me feeling like the only thing they care about is putting this horrible experience behind them.

The Ramifications

I will likely never use the card company again.  There are simply too many of them out there with decent products, many who charge far less for the same product.  I don’t feel like they really care about me as a customer, I feel like they care about keeping me from complaining.  There’s a big difference.  And in the world of ubiquitous and instantaneous communication via social networks, damage control often takes precedence over actually caring

I will only ever shop at the department store when I’m near home and I can’t go anywhere else for the same things.  I was never a big fan to begin with, and this kind of thing makes me feel like they only care about money—certainly not me.  So, no, you don’t get my money.

The record store?  I love that place.  I may have been disappointed, but I know it won’t happen again, and if for some bizarre reason something did, I know they’d do their best to make it right.  They keep their promises—as minor and disappointing as they may initially be.

The bookmaker?  This is where things get complicated.  I have a long track record with this company of great success.  I’ve experienced the competitive landscape and found most of them technically lacking.  There are new players in the field and none of them come close to the features or likely the quality of the product I get from this company.  They broke more promises than anyone else here, though they did it with grand gestures, apologies, and (I believe) good intentions.

I think I’ll use them again.  But they have two strikes.  They only get three.

Lessons Learned

Yes, this is a very lengthy posting leading to a very simple synopsis. If you’re going to make a promise you better follow up on it.  And if you can’t, you must be clear on why you can’t and how you’re going to fix it.  If “stuff” happens, you MUST come through on the fix.  No excuses.

Is it that simple?  No, nothing ever is. As I’ve indicated above, I’m an outlier on even my own lesson.  A follow up on this synopsis should remind that every retailer that customers view their relationship with you on a personal level and as a real relationship. If it’s sporadic and impersonal, they’ll drop you in a heartbeat at the first sign of trouble.  If it’s got a long history of great times, amazing experiences, and you’ve done a great job of developing an ecosystem of products, services and brand that the customer has bought into, you may just earn your forgiveness in advance.

Or at least the opportunity to keep trying.

Creating Urgency

The Urgent Trap

Creating Urgency

The concept of the playoff game makes sense, in a way.  You have a league that’s far too big for every team to play each other on equal footing over the course of a season, so you take the top teams from what we call a regular season and have them play a series of games that decide who the top team is overall.

Not all sports force this convention though.  Most notably, in soccer, the English Premiere League (EPL) treats the entire season as a tournament of the 20 best teams with each team playing every other team once at home and away.  At the end, the team with the best record is the winner.

The EPL system is arguably the model for soccer the world over.  Understandably—in the world of sports, there are few leagues with more money, more rabid fans, more game day excitement.  So why is it so different here in the USA?

Let’s look at MLS (Major League Soccer, the premiere league in the USA) since they’re the newest kids on the block.  Currently there are 19 teams competing in MLS split into two conferences: east and west.  If each team played every other team twice over the year, once at home and once away, that would make for 36 matches.  The 2012 schedule has 34, a mere 2 shy of that goal. Regardless, MLS still crowns the top team with the “Supporter’s Shield,” what’s largely seen as a token trophy for the team that came out on top over the course of the entire grueling 8 month season.

Then they take the top five teams from each division and have playoffs. Over the course of the next few weeks, we learn that who wins MLS Cup—the prize positioned as the ultimate goal for every team over the course of the season.

So, in the US model, we have 34 matches which are fought over the course of 8 months all to identify 10 teams (out of 19) who will compete for the championship in a mere 4 weeks.  In the EPL model we have everyone play 38 matches with the winner, well, winning.

In the EPL model, every match is critical. You can count on your team to fight for every touch of every moment in every match.  If they end up in the last 3 spots in the table, they get relegated to the 2nd division creating even more urgency.

In the US model, teams are programmed to peak at the end of the season for the playoffs since more than half the teams are going to make the tournament anyway. There’s not a lot of urgency in early season matches or in the summer doldrums, and it shows in how teams play and the number of fans tuning in or showing up.

Urgency, it seems, is a big driver of eyeballs and as a result, revenue in sports.  MLS has focused on the American attention span of, say, 4 weeks, where the EPL manages to create even tension and interest over 10 months.

Buy NOW!

With so many things competing for our attention, is it any wonder that everyone is playing the urgency card?

Moreover, have we as retailers played it so many times that it’s lost its usefulness?

There are a number of websites whose entire business model is a hack on our seeming inability to make a decision unless our hand is forced with artificial (or very real) urgency.

Woot! Has been around roughly 8 years and one of the pioneers in the daily deal market. Woot! Started by selling overstock or refurbished electronics to web geeks (like me) at incredibly discounted prices.  The catch was you have to return to the site every day to see what’s being sold and you have at most 24 hours to make the purchase unless the product sells out.  This is something that frequently happens with really great deals.

You many not think of ebay using this hack, but in reality an auction is a similar method of trying to maximize sales by creating urgency or excitement around the sale of a item with limited quantities and finite purchasing windows.

When I worked with Tory Burch on their web store, we developed a sister store which was opened and closed for private sales a few times a year.  By invitation only, of course.  Urgency combined with exclusivity and limited quantities at a discount?  Catnip!  To the Tory Burch team’s credit, they resisted the urge to make this a common occurrence as they knew it would change their positioning online.

Perhaps the most classic example of creating urgency is to reduce the price of an item for a short period of time or until the stock is gone.  It’s become so ubiquitous, there are some people who won’t buy products until they go on sale.

Coupons, of course, are yet another way to add urgency, though it’s typically positioned as price cutting. Customers see two things on a coupon: the savings and the expiration date.

Companies like groupon and living social have taken the coupon model to new extremes with daily deals on everything from pet massages to dinner for two.

In fact, at this point I spend a good amount of time skimming past urgent headlines in my email box from companies offering me amazing but limited deals that I need to act on immediately. They’re rarely read.

Urgency obviously works, but has it become such an expectation have we inadvertently created an entire generation of consumers who are completely unmotivated and who won’t make a purchase unless they’re getting a deal or limited edition item?

Rising Expectations

Here’s a personal example of how my behavior changed as a result of marketing and promotions from a retailer.

I’ve been an avid photographer since I was 10 or 11 years old. My mother had a darkroom in the basement of our home growing up and I was hooked. One of my summer jobs was working at a MotoPhoto and I studied photography in college. You could say that documenting my life and creating visual art through photography has become interwoven with my DNA.

Though I’ve finally thrown myself into the digital world, I do still tend to process many of my photographs as black and white images.  You’d be shocked to know how long it took me to find someone who could keep a gray image gray (not blue, not green, not pink, but gray) when printing a photo book.  When I finally found one, I stuck with them even though they cost a bit more than the competition.  Quality was more important to me than price: I was willing to pay $10-$15 more for a book of images that matched my creative intent color for color.

After about a year of using them exclusively for all of my book printing—both professionally and personally—they started sending me coupon codes. As a good little consumer, I reacted positively: I made a couple of books that I might not have otherwise made because 50% off is a really really good deal when you’re buying a $50 book.

The coupons started coming more frequently.  I started to try and time my projects around coupons.

The retailer reacted by limiting the coupons to higher priced items only, leaving out almost all the soft cover smaller editions which is what I used professionally. This kind of made me upset and feel like I wasn’t getting a deal anymore.

And that’s one way you can take a happy customer and drive them away.

I started looking at other options.  I chatted with other photographers on forums and a consensus seemed to form around a competing site.  I tried them out and found equal (if not higher) quality, better base pricing, more professional options, and a more consistent turn-around time.  I haven’t looked back since.

Is Urgent the New Normal?

I’ve watched more than one retailer depress their everyday sales by offering too-frequent free shipping offers.  I’ve heard customers complain that the daily deal they bought won’t ever get used and they’re starting to ignore the emails they get from Gilt, Rue la la, and Hautelook.

It really is starting to feel like urgent is the new normal.  So what’s the next tool we can pull from the bag?

How you position your brand in the eyes of your customer through pricing strategies, product selection, lifestyle associations, and customer experience has a lasting impact on your relationship.  Brands that go too far creating urgency but have a strong relationship with customers built on other branding criteria will have a much higher success rate when they pull back on those promotions. Those who’ve built their business on the cornerstone of urgency are faced with creating it every single day.

For companies like Woot! Or soccer leagues like the EPL who seem to have though that out from day one, it’s not proving to be a problem. For those who were late to the game or haven’t considered its context in a long-term strategy it’s a whole lot of work for relatively small payout.

Fortunately for retailers there are many many many ways to move the needle on sales volume and average order sizes.  For the MLS though, they’re faced with trying to get players, coaches, managers, and fans excited about the regular season by increasing the quality of play and the overall game day experience. It’s going to be hard until every match matters.

 

 

 

facebook gets political

Beholden

I’m checking my Facebook feed a lot less frequently these days and I know I’m not alone.  It’s election season.

Now before you get all up in my face about freedom of speech and creating a national dialog, give me just a minute to present my case.

So what exactly bothers me? Status updates like, “If he could lead as half as well as he can speak, things would be so much better for him and the country” or “I feel weird today.  It’s like 47% of me wants to lie around and have welfare babies and the other 53% is an asshole.”

Why do they bother me?  Mostly because in just about every case it’s parroting back wonkish party-line vitriol in what I believe is an inappropriate forum.  I’d probably react differently if I agreed with the sentiment or if it was an opening to thoughtful debate or dialog, but it’s rarely either.

But herein lies the issue—what’s an inappropriate forum?  Furthermore, who am I to determine what kind of speech should occur on Facebook?

I assure you, not only do I not want any sort of control over the speech of others, I’d hate to build a feature into software that would provide that control for anyone else.

So what’s the solution?  Facebook should allow ad-hoc tagging of anything that shows up in my News Feed and to filter what I see by default on those tags.  Why aren’t they likely to do this?  Because they’re a public company.

There’s already this awesome feature that has allowed me to weed out all the garbage I was getting from things like Farmville, Words With Friends, Bejeweled, or Mafia Wars. In the top right of each of these abhorrent posts you can choose to block the app in perpetuity.  Bingo, they all went away.  My timeline may have gotten a lot quieter, but also a lot more relevant to what I want to use Facebook for.

At the bottom of each entry there’s also the trio of calls to action: like, comment, or share.  I propose a fourth: tag.

Tagging isn’t anything new online, and it really shouldn’t be something Facebook hasn’t already considered. If Facebook allowed tagging, I could, for example, add a “politics” tag to any of my friends’ posts that I thought were political in nature.  Similarly, you could add the tag “barforama” to someone’s post you thought was disgusting.

After items have been tagged, anyone could select the pull down at the top right of each news item and choose to hide all news tagged political or, conversely, show just the political entries in their news feed.

The early users of Twitter saw a need for this arbitrary organization of content and the hashtag was born.  For example, the hashtag #WTF is frequently good for a chuckle. Adding something similar to Facebook is not only a killer way to let users re-shuffle content as they’d like, and discover new (old) friends, but it would likely add a missing dimension to the interface that would result in even longer browsing sessions.

So why wouldn’t Facebook implement this sort of solution? Because it might affect the stock price.  Scary right?  Long term good for customers is bad for the stock price.  Why would they even worry about this when everything they’ve been touting is all about long-term valuations?  Because consumers have a proven track record of removing advertising and unwanted content from the media we consume.  Huge numbers of customers selecting to ban advertising would be bad for business.

Which makes me wonder, why did Facebook go public in the first place?  Why would Mark Zuckerberg, in all his quirky transparency obsessed genius, choose to shackle the innovation at Facebook to the whims of a fickle market? I know I’m not the first to ask this question, and the best answer I’ve heard so far has been that it was the easiest and best way to reward the largest number of investors who’d been with the company for a long time and were starting to get impatient. Oh, and that pesky SEC regulation about the number of shareholders.

Still, I’m beginning to get the impression, especially after having worked at two separate internet tech companies who went public (PXCM, USWB) that going public is rarely good for much other than either the ego or the exit strategy of upper management.  Heck, google went public and still doesn’t know what to do with the proceeds.  Yet every thing they do affects their stock price and they’re beholden to the same whims of short-term investors that recently have defined the strategy at many large corporations. No wonder CEO tenure is flirting with all time lows.

One could argue that anything you do as a company will intrinsically affect the value of that organization, and they’d be right. But the differences are how carefully controlled that value proposition is being made and the emotional state of the potential investor. The second you open your mouth as a public company, your stock will move in anticipation of market reaction. If you can afford to avoid that type of scrutiny and unintelligent oversight, I’d avoid it all costs.

So, until Facebook stock hits $12 a share and Mr. Zuckerberg can start buying his company back from the exuberant masses, we’re stuck in a sort of limbo where Facebook is less concerned with proving its value to an existing user base and more worried about the next killer app that grows the bottom line.

Maybe my dream feature will be ready for the midterm elections in 2014, but I’m not holding my breath.

Welcome to Kerning Pairs

I’ll be your host, Rob Fredley. For the last 20 years of my life I’ve been a designer, developer, and all around web guy.  For the last 11 of those years, my focus has been refined to ecommerce, branding, and developing sites and systems that marry customer needs with retailer desires. In that time, I’ve amassed quite a bit of knowledge, learned and developed best practices, and have the perspective of being one of those people that’s been doing this since the very beginning.

The realization that I should be writing this stuff down came to me about 4 years ago. Unfortunately, I’ve been far too busy actually doing the work to take the time to really sit down a write about it, so what I’m working from here is a bunch of notes, scraps and random thoughts.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that if you’re not going to do something right, just don’t do it—but it feels like I have enough pieces right now at this very moment to try and do this right.  So here goes.

My format of choice may be a little scattered for many of you, but in the long run I think it’ll be far more entertaining and provide important context to the issues we all face on the web—especially the ones faced by retailers every day.

There are (literally) thousands of sites dedicated to lists, how-tos, and quick-fix answers.  Those of us actually creating sites know that reality is usually far more colorful and rarely as cut-and-dry, one-size-fits-all as most of the “experts” would have you believe. If you’re hoping for one more, short form, ADHD blog of lists parroted or reworked from another blog, move on. There’s enough of that out there now.

What this will be is longer form, more prose based, higher-level, strategic, and hopefully more thought provoking. In reality, it probably won’t be published weekly—though that’s what I aspire to.

What you can hope to learn about are modern concepts in ecommerce design and development, product asset development, branding, mobile strategies, seo, information architecture, graphic design, and more.

So, once again, welcome. May your visit be as entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring as I hope.