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Best business practices from Ancient Greece

Socrates never claimed to be an expert in anything; instead he claimed to be just a man who was trying to understand the world around him. When he encountered someone making a bold claim he would respond with a simple question — he wanted to reduce their element to its plainest form. This method of distilling complex thought into the simplest form has become known as the Socratic method. At its core, its really just a form of conversation where two people work together to arrive at the truth. He understood that it was not enough to have his students memorize facts about the world, instead he led them to arrive at the the truth by having his students question and distill complex problems.

Law schools are noted for their use of the socratic method. Countless Hollywood movies have portrayed first year law students terrified of the professor calling their name, and this vision of socratic dialogue as a tool for inquisition and public humiliation has pervaded popular thought.

This negative perception of Socratic reasoning seems to have taken hold in popular culture. People are often uncomfortable with extended questioning of the merits of their decisions. The lizard brain kicks in, we become defensive. We become afraid, vanity inhibits our rationality. Admitting the faults in our reasoning is hard to do when we’re not accustomed to it — we are attached to our ideas precisely because they are our ideas.

Stop for a moment, I want you to be completely honest with yourself. Answer one question— are you transparent with your coworkers? Your employees? Your customers?

If you aren’t, why is that? Many excuses come to mind, I’m sure, but are they really valid? The reality is this: if you pushed to find the purpose and truth of things you would probably do better work. It’s as simple as that.

This was originally posted on Medium. To read the entire post click here

Facade

September 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

photo by PlanPhilly

photo by PlanPhilly

According to Merriam-Webster, a facade is:
the front of a building; also any face of a building given special architectural treatment
a false, superficial, or artificial appearance or effect

The French word façade originated in the mid 17th century, meaning face of a building. It is a derivation of the Italian word facciata (front of the building) and the Latin word facies (face). According to the etymology of the word, it took about 200 years for the ulterior (sarcastic) connotation to take root.

In colloquial parlance, facade has negative connotations. It seems to imply that you’re hiding something beneath a flawless exterior. My guess is that this negative connotation took root after the great depression.

The next time you’re walking through an American city, try to pick out the banks built before 1929, they’re usually characterized by grand facades. In the era before FDIC insurance, how would you judge the stability of a bank? According to architect Albert Kahn, banks were designed due to “the psychology of the average business man. [The building] should … reflect the prosperity of the business carried on within and should inspire confidence in the general public” (source).

What better way to judge the financial stability of a bank than by the amount of money they could waste spend on a building. The more ornate the building, the safer the institution; this became apart of the story of their business. Consumers felt reassured walking into the marble covered lobby of a bank. The prosperity – realized or otherwise – was apart of the story that depositors told themselves.

In the digital era it’s easier (and cheaper) than ever to put up a facade. This facade dictates how your consumers will interact with you, how they will view themselves. The lower cost of digital facades means that not having a polished site is more expensive than ever. Your facade is a large part of your legitimacy in the digital era. Most end users have no idea if your site is build off of a wordpress framework or if its custom coded, but they can tell you if they trust your look and feel.

Its important to build a facade that you can deliver on, unlike the banking system of 1929.

What online businesses do you trust the most? Add your thoughts below

Lessons from Seth

August 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

After ten days of silent meditation, I powered up my iPhone to check my email, the first message was from Seth Godin – telling me I was picked for his short summer internship. An intense feeling of happiness shot through my body, and I had to read the email a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly:

Hey Sean…

I don’t need to wait until tomorrow–even though I got more than 3,500 applications and sat through more than 800 videos, putting you on the shortlist was an obvious choice.
The hard part for me was narrowing down that short list of extraordinary people to a manageable cadre of superstars, visionaries and shippers who could wrangle this project into submission.
I’ve never even come close to having a team like this on hand to build something cool.
Write back and tell me you’re in, so I can publish the final team. Your commitment to your work, to your art, means the world to me, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to work with you.
Yep, you’re in.
Let me know for sure, and I’ll send you more details over the weekend.
Here we go!
Seth

Two weeks in Seth’s office, surrounded by 17 extraordinary individuals, were amazing. We sprinted through the internship, working tirelessly to create art, to create something that matters. I suspect this internship will be a highlight of my professional career for decades to come.

Some of my biggest takeaways from Seth’s internship were:

What do you want to Fight for?

Having a clear vision helps you to execute. I want to make the world a better place is a good goal, but where do you start? I want to provide clean drinking water to those in need is a much narrower goal, and you could start by donating your birthday to charity: water. Clear and concise thought leads to actionable items.

Axes

Axes Help you Think

Framing your argument is crucial. Posing open, ambiguous questions to a table full of people leads inconclusive discussions. Framed discussions, where people are given a choice of A or B, help to solidify the direction of your project. Those high level, intellectual debates can be incredibly useful as you begin to form your thoughts – they just don’t help you move forward.

Ship It

Ship It

You can have the best idea in the world, but its meaningless unless you execute it. Set a deadline, be realistic about your goals and expectations, and send your project out into the world. Before you do, define what success is to you. Thinking and researching are useful to a certain point – make sure you ship your project. It’s hard to put yourself out there, you become vulnerable and open to criticism, but shipping is the only way to create, to build. Celebrate your shipping.

Fail Fast, Fail Small

Get feedback early and often. Work with trusted colleagues to help you refine your vision. Its a lot better to crush a project early on than to work on it for months and have nothing to ship. Small, quick failure is a good thing. It teaches you a lot. Its hard to open yourself up to failure, but its necessary to fail if you want to create something valuable.

It’s better to fail on a project after a few hours than spend months working on something in the dark.

Polish Matters

While you want to ship a project quickly, the polish really does matter. Seth is a master at marketing, just look at any of his books. Polish is what gets people talking, what really surprises and delights them. When Seth published the Purple Cow he didn’t just send the first people who bought them a book. When the book arrived at your office it was put on your desk in a purple milk carton – imagine the watercooler conversations. (You can read Seth’s marketing plan for the Purple Cow here).

Writing a great book might have been enough to make the Purple Cow a bestseller; by delivering it in a clever and unique way Seth guaranteed his success.

Software is a Lever

Software can help you to amplify your vision and connect with your audience is a deeper, more meaningful way. Can is an important word in this context, if your software isn’t elegant and intuitive it will be a distraction. Most people don’t notice good software, but they notice when software doesn’t work well.

Paired Programing

According to wikipedia, paired programming is:

an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator,[1] reviews each line of code as it is typed in.

Coming from a nontechnical background, I was completely unfamiliar with this style of working until Seth suggested I give it a try when I was stuck on a project. Sitting with someone looking over my shoulder, as I refined my project, forced me not just to work quickly but to work thoughtfully. Every sentence I wrote was questioned: was it necessary, could it be phrased better, would it achieve what we wanted it to? In the end it produced a great product quicker than I could have on my own.

Thrash and Push Back

Having a room full of people critique and tweak your idea can be intimidating. Putting your ideas and vision out there is tough. Your ideas become open to thrashing and push back. It is important to remember that you aren’t being challenged, just your ideas. Pishing back against other people’s ideas will force you to refine your vision – and improve it.

Critical Path

The Critical Path Method (CPM) is a project management tool that maps out what needs to be completed to finish a project. CPM contributed to the success of the Manhattan Project by helping to manage tasks. If, for example, the enrichment of uranium took 18 months, and all the other components of the atomic bomb could be finished in 17 months, then uranium enrichment would be the critical path. Regardless of how quickly you built the bomb casing, it wouldn’t be finished until the uranium was enriched.

When you’re working on the critical path, don’t deviate from your project because it will slow down the entire team. And when someone else is on the path, stay out of their way.

For different perspectives on the internship, check out Seth’s, Grant’s or Barrett’s posts.

Sprint

August 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

I like to run, but I love to sprint. In 2011 I trained for my first half marathon without ever running more than five miles at once, I focused on sprint training – I finished in 1:57.

Sprinting makes you faster. Sprinting makes you leaner. Sprinting increases your stamina.

If you sprint every day you’ll injure yourself. Sprints are intense, and your body can’t handle it every day. After sprinting your muscles need rest to heal. You’ve ripped them to shreds and the rest will give them a chance to heal, a chance to grow.

The two weeks I spent interning with Seth Godin were a sprint. We pushed ourselves to work hard and to fail fast. The pace was not sustainable, but sustainability wasn’t the point of this exercise. The point of this exercise was to push ourselves close to our breaking point, to build something awesome. The point of this exercise was to make ourselves (mentally) faster and leaner.

The final push is always the hardest, but it leads to the most growth. We’ve ended our sprint, and I’m taking some time to rest and reflect.

 

Fulbright Skills

July 14, 2013 — 2 Comments

I received a lot of questions about the Fulbright when I decided to take the grant, many friends and family wanted to know what this would do for me, how would it help you I couldn’t answer those questions when I took the grant, but after months of living in Sri Lanka I have a sense of how the Fulbright has benefited my life.

The Fulbright has done a lot for me, in terms of personal development. Through the Fulbright I’ve become:

  • more open and honest in my communications
  • able to think outside of my life experiences
  • better at helping students learn and understand their strengths

I’m not positive how these skills will help me in my future, but I’m confident that the past nine months of living in working in Trincomalee will help me in my future endeavors. In his recent commencement speech, Dick Costolo spoke about his life and how he never could have put together the pieces going forward. When he reflects on his computer science degree and his time spent performing standup comedy, it seems obvious that he went on to become the CEO of Twitter. When Steve Jobs gave his commencement speech he cited a typography class as one of the classes that most influenced him – the class was not apart of his undergraduate curriculum. It’s easy to connect the dots when you’ve reached the finish line. It is not easy to see the dots when you’re still finding you way.

 

The True Cost

May 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

How much would you pay for a t-shirt? Five dollars? Ten? Forty?

How much should you pay for a t-shirt? What would it cost to produce a shirt that does no harm to the environment or person? Can clothing even be produced in a sustainable way?

Clothing is the second most chemical intensive industry in the world, after agriculture. Rivers in China run blue with the dye from denim.

Patagonia is, arguably, the most responsible manufacturer of clothes in the world. For the last six years they have been named on Ethisphere’s most ethical companies list (though they were left off this year). Patagonia has served as an industry leader in transparency, and publish information on all of their suppliers and manufactures  Recently they elected to become the first Benefit Corporation in California; this form of corporate structure requires that they put their stakeholders infront of corporate profits (Bloomberg explains the benefits and drawbacks of BCorps here). Recently they’ve partnered with the Nature Conservancy to work with sheep farmers in Patagonia to ensure that the wool they buy does not contribute to overgrazing. Overgrazing has turned 20 million acres of land into desert in Patagonia. On the largest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, they ran an ad telling customers, “don’t buy this jacket.” Instead they asked their customers to try and buy used versions of their product.  All of their cotton is organic, a decision they made when they realized how many chemicals go into growing cotton – they had to find famers to buy organic cotton from directly before there was a market for it.

In light of this, I’d say Patagonia is a pretty good example of what a responsible clothing company should look like.

Patagonia sells many clothing items, among them are t-shirts. The minimum retail price for a Patagonia shirt is $39.00. That is a pretty steep cost for a t-shirt; it reflects the cost of making clothes that do little to no harm to the environment and treat the laborers well.

You can buy shirts for considerably less than forty bucks, but should you? Gap, through Old Navy and Bannan Republic, sells t-shirts ranging from $4.99 to $32.50. Its hard to think how a $4.99 shirt could be made in a sustainable way, even at the high end its questionable. Gap’s CSR policy is as good as most clothing manufacturers, but implementing the policy while maintaining a competitive pricing policy is a hard task to juggle.

Gap manufactures a lot clothing in Sri Lanka, and they promise to maintain a watchful eye on the post war situation. Despite blatant abuses by the government, Gap continues to manufacture clothes here. More prominently, Gap may have been able to prevent the death of over 507 people at Rana Plaza in Dhaka last week.

In 2011 Gap walked out of negotiations which would have implemented extensive fire and building safety standards. This plan would have implemented these regulations outside of the control of the government, with funding by multinational manufactures. The companies would have contributed up to $500,000 a year. PvH (Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and German retailer Tchibo signed on to the plan, but the commitment of at least two other firms was needed to implement the plan.

It’s being argued that cheap clothes have helped fuel social revolutions in Bangladesh, but at what point are clothes too cheap? If these reforms had been implemented Gap could have passed the increased cost on to consumers or seen their earnings reduced by 0.0034% (Gap Inc. earned $14.5B in 2012). Instead of moving operations to a higher cost country, with more regulatory burdens, Gap could have taken the charge and led meaningful reforms in Bangladesh.

Keep this in mind next time you’re out shopping.

Coffee is something I’ve struggled to live without while living abroad. After a month of living off of instant coffee, a friend turned me on to Hansa Coffee.

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Hansa is a local coffee producer, and they’ve quickly turned into my favorite coffee brand. They have a small shop in Colombo, where you can purchase a variety of coffee drinks, snacks, and packaged coffee.

Hansa is unique because they roast their beans at the same altitude as they are grown, which is supposed to improve the taste and flavor of the bean. Sipping the Arabica blend – a favorite of mine – one picks up subtle notes of blueberry and chocolate. Needless to say, I’m glad to have made their coffee a part of my life.

Aside from producing coffee with a rich, fresh taste, Hansa makes coffee that you can feel good about drinking. Over the past few years I have grown more aware of the effects of my consumption on the rest of the world. My experiences in Kenya opened my eyes to the shocking working conditions and standards of living that tea and coffee workers often endure. Designations such as fair trade, organic, and rainforest alliance can help guide consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions, but there are flaws with these systems.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Hansa’s roasting operations in Nuwara Eliya. Lawrence, the founder and master roaster of Hansa, gave the Fulbrighters an open invitation to visit whenever we were in the area – I’m glad I obliged. Hansa might not be certified organic or fair trade (yet), but after visiting Lawrence I have no doubt that they are among the best coffee producers in the world.

The coffee used by Hansa is sourced from small growers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, in contrast to the original coffee industry that existed on the island under British colonial rule. During that time, Ceylon was the world’s largest exporter of coffee in 1870, producing  51 million kilograms of coffee annually. The coffee plantations were built in deforested lands, and their monoculture ultimately led to the entire industry being wiped out by 1890. Hansa educates small scale farmers on techniques such as shade-growing, composting, and organic farming.

Hansa is trying to revive the coffee industry without causing further deforestation. Shade grown coffee has a longer yield cycle, but this slower growth leads to a coffee with more complexity and taste. By teaching farmers the benefits of a polyculture farm, Hansa is reducing their dependence on fertilizers and pesticides.

Once the beans are harvested, they are brought to the factory, where they are sorted by hand. Beans with any defect – insect damage, mold, or cracks – are removed. As it turns out, half of the coffee in America is contaminated with mold. This mold produces mycotoxins (not only do mycotoxins make your coffee taste bitter, they cause cancer and brain disease). After the defective beans are sorted out, it is time for the roasting to begin.

Hansa's Roaster

Hansa’s Roaster

When I entered the roasting room I was struck by the intense heat and the overwhelming smell of fresh coffee. The coffee is roasted in small batches, and their special Indian-made roaster is a relic of a bygone era. Periodically the beans are checked for their progress in the roasting process. Watching the pale coffee beans transform into the familiar black ones was fascinating. When I started to hear a cracking noise, the beans were released from their primary chamber and emptied into the bottom hopper. The steaming beans continued to crack. The roaster was brought back to temperature before more beans were poured in.

Hansa is my coffee of choice for a multitude of reasons. It is delicious, but it is also made in a socially and environmentally thoughtful manner. Lawrence is a humanist, who cares deeply about the tenets of organic farming. His company is both a reflection of his beliefs and an attempt to make a better cup of coffee.

Article Published

February 12, 2013 — 1 Comment

In light of my New Year’s resolution of getting more article published, I’m happy to announce that I’ve gotten a new article posted on Under30CEO: How to Host a Dinner Party That Gets Everyone Talking.

The post was inspired by an ebook written by Michelle Welsch.

And now, for an excerpt:

The internet is the greatest connector in the world, it facilitates meaningful and powerful connections. Over the past several years there have been waves of startups that are trying to leverage this connection machine. There are firms like Twitter and Facebook, whose entire model is based upon connecting people and building a community. There are also the less obvious firms, likeShapeways or Quirky, that have built communities as an integral part of their business model. They have been successful because they create value by connecting people around their products. More and more companies are realizing that to be successful they have to connect individuals and build a community.
Seth Godin defines the Connection Economy, in his new book the Icarus Deception, as “value created not by industry, but by trust and interaction.” Digital connections have become more prevalent, but they should not replace offline connections. In the era of digital collaboration, the face-to-face element can be lost. There is something so remarkable about sharing a meal with someone else, and the web has yet to replicate that experience.

To continue reading click here.

Over the past several months I’ve been forced to become more efficient in all of my interactions.

When speaking with someone from a different cultural background, even in English, much can be lost. After studying in China for two semesters I had a good sense of how to deal with the language barrier, but there was quite a learning curve for the style of communication in Sri Lanka.

For the language barrier it is best to:
  • Speak simply. Throw out the convoluted diction and try to mimic the commonly used phrases.
  • Don’t dance around your problems. Clearly state what your goals and
  • Repeat everything and ask questions. If you’re asking someone to do something for you, ask them to explain the task back to you. Make sure you follow up with email (also, email cannot be relied upon, always follow up in person)
  • CC one or two other people in the office. Keep your interactions transparent

Earlier in this post I said I had become clearer and more upfront in all of my interactions. That isn’t always true. When dealing with cultural issues I often find myself dodging questions and answering if half truths.

Examples of these tough questions being asked of me: This is my fat daughter, what do you think? Why aren’t you married? How much did your [computer, shirt, phone, apartment] cost?. Are you Japanese? You don’t take sugar? Some of these questions make me laugh while others have made me uncomfortable. The first time some of these questions were posed to me I stumbled; sometimes I blurted out the truth (sorry fat girl), while others I paused and said the first lie I could think of.

Take sugar for example. I have a bit of a sweet tooth, but I don’t like consuming sugar every day. I find myself telling people I’m a diabetic, its one of the few ways I can politely deny the sugary tea and soda that are forced upon me at meetings. As for marriage, I’ve found that telling people that I don’t have my ‘qualifications’ brings that conversation to an end. Salary has been by far the toughest issue to deal with. My stipend pays me well by local standards, and I’m often embarrassed to tell people that I make more than most doctors do. I’ve taken to telling people that I’m here as an unpaid volunteer, it just makes things easier.

The Fulbright has definitely improved my communication skills, in both relative and absolute terms. Compared to the start of my grant I’m much better equipped to handle sensitive cultural issues, I’m also better at getting things done in my office.

Instant Coffee

December 19, 2012 — 3 Comments

Steaming hot, bitter, and slightly sweet. The first sip is delightful, but by the end I can barely stomach another gulp. Instant coffee is many things, pleasant isn’t one of them. I’m a bit of a yuppie; there’s nothing I enjoy better than lounging in a coffee shop, enjoying a good meal, engaging novel, and a rich cup of coffee. But in Sri Lanka I’ve almost stopped drinking coffee all together.

Where tourists go, it is possible to find real coffee. In the more affluent cities, there are shops that cater to the locals. In Colombo there are a plethora of European-esque coffee houses, which serve delicious and authentic brews.

In Colombo I even found a coffee shop that really surprised me when I walked in; jazz was piping in over speakers, the lighting was dimmed, and the chairs looked comfortable. I approached the counter and could hear the familiar sound of milk being steamed, and I ordered a cappuccino. The coffee was some of the least expensive in Sri Lanka, only 100/ ($0.75), and I watched with anticipation as my drink was created. It was then that I realized this café did not have an espresso machine, and I saw the barista mixing a spoonful of Nescafé with water – topping it with foamy milk. This ‘cappuccino’ wasn’t bad, an improved version of instant.

As the wealth of a nation grows you start to see these western style cafés spring up. They are a luxury that many Westerners take for granted. It makes me happy to see locals mingling among visitors in these places. Trinco has not yet reached a state where the local citizens can afford the luxury of coffee, so for the time being my only reprieve is the occasional cup of instant.

Sri Lanka has some amazing teas; you may know them as Ceylon Teas. And prior to growing tea, Sri Lanka was one of the coffee capitals of the world. That is, until a virus wiped out coffee production across the island, and someone thought to try planting tea on the now idle coffee plantations. It worked out well for them, save for the lack of coffee production on the island.

Nescafe, the gold standard of instant coffee, is a bitterly repulsive drink. I find myself making a latte out of the stuff hot milk. Business meetings will regularly serve the stuff aside bags of tea. (For those interested, here is a great article on how to make instant coffee more palatable.)

I’ve tried most of the instant coffees on the shelves, and there is one that is a clear cut above the rest. Starbucks, a coffee chain which I tend to avoid, has introduced an instant coffee by the name of Via. My experiences in China gave me the foresight to pack a healthy supply of the stuff, which helped wean me off coffee. Now that that supply has dwindled, I am back to Nescafe, saving my Via for special occasions.

Most of the world’s instant coffee is consumed in Asia. When I lived in China most of the instant coffee I had was served in 3-in-1 packets, complete with sugar, creamer, and coffee. The instant coffee market is valued at $21bn a year, and only 5% of that is in the U.S., according to the WSJ. Nescafé controls most of that market.

Starbucks has a tremendous opportunity with Via, in the global market. Rather than selling Via in single serve packets, if they jar it and sell it in bulk I think there is quite a market in the developing world. Many people cannot afford to drink a real cup of coffee, but instant coffee is within their price range. Starbucks, which based upon their pricing in the US, would come in as a premium instant coffee. It would still be less expensive than regular coffee, especially as you don’t need to invest a large amount of money into a machine to brew coffee. And by launching their product in these emerging markets they could get consumers familiar with their brand, helping them as they enter new markets.

Starbucks has already begun to sell Via abroad, they recently launched it in China. I wish Starbucks was being more aggressive with their expansion plans – mostly out of personal desire to avoid drinking Nescafé.