Setting the Standard

April 5th, 2019 by dewprocess.
April Perry


Following is an Interview with April Perry, Managing Consultant at Drake Beam Morin, now Adecco – the world’s leading Human Resource services consultancy.

de Wolff Advisors President, Nicholas de Wolff consulted to DBM and its Managing Consultant for more than a year, providing advisory and restructuring counsel, as the organization moved toward its successful acquisition by Adecco. The following are excerpts from an interview we conducted with the firm’s Los Angeles Director.

Q. What can you tell me about working with Nicholas de Wolff?

Nicholas always found time to help me and my staff with a variety of projects – everything from editorial rewrites on corporate documentation, to serving as an invaluable sounding board on some very high-level strategy we were exploring. As such, it is impossible for me to compare him to others, as I have yet to meet an individual so adept at wearing a diversity of strategic and tactical hats.

Q. What would you say are his greatest strengths?

Extraordinary insight, piercing intellect, and sensitivity. A marvelous sense of humor, and a degree of innovative thinking and creativity matched only by his tenacity and efficiency.

Q. What type of contributions did he make that had a definite impact on the company’s bottom line?

His ability to crystallize our messaging and positioning (and at extraordinary speed!) saved us time and money, as well as increased executive attendance at our events. He has a way of getting straight to the point, and clarifying reality, vision, and the ways to connect the two that ensure a superior degree of operational and strategic efficiency. He works at a fantastic pace, without sacrificing the quality of his contribution. I find him to be a motivational, inspirational, challenging, and charming collaborator.

Q. How responsive was he to the suggestions of others?

He is very open to input, and in fact requires it. However, he will be swift to challenge your position if it is not well-thought out.

Q. Can he communicate technical ideas to non-technical associates?

I have no doubt that, as the one-time Chief Marketing Officer of one of the world’s largest multinational technology service providers, he fulfilled this role with deceptive ease. On a personal note, I am consistently amazed at how much he knows about technology trends, and how he is able to explain them to me without making my head spin!

Q. Would fellow co-workers consider him to be a leader or follower?

Leader.

Q. What would you want a prospective employer to know about him?

Don’t let this one go. Do whatever you must to get him on your team.

Q. Would you hire him again, if you could?

Without question.

Jetskis R Us

February 1st, 2019 by dewprocess.

For more than a decade I have been railing against Unicorns, while concurrently coining the notion of Workhorse or Zebra startup mentalities. My passion for reimagining the approach that innovators and inventors take to building their business propositions is matched by my zeal for an equally aggressive repositioning at the other end of the enterprise scale.

Too many large enterprises (I’ve worked at a few) operate much as an aircraft carrier [if you’ve heard me speak on the topic, you know this analogy of mine all too well!]. They are slow to respond, costly to maintain, and require astonishing lead-times in order to effect any sort of course correction. I have long held that modern businesses need to model their operational efficiency on a “Jetski” principle: nimble, reactive, fast, and able to jump over any unexpected wave running counter to its objective. While one of the most telling characteristics of the lumbering giant enterprise is its slow response time, these sorts of megacompanies have mitigated that weakness by establishing, as best they could, de facto monopolies or regional agreements with competitors, so as to ensure themselves the lead-time necessary to implement unavoidable changes. That worked while technology and society moved at something close to the same pace as these brands. One of the most important aspects of jetski companies (as I have called them, for a while), is that – while they may not have the resources to individually manage the same volume of customers or clients as the aircraft carriers, they are able to adapt much more efficiently and effectively to sea changes.

Residential ISPs have been operating under a massively flawed business model for years now, and seem to have no interest in changing said model. AT&T, Spectrum (formerly Charter and Time-Warner), and others believe that customer churn is an acceptable cost of doing business.

So long as they can successfully seduce an equal or greater volume of new customers each month, to offset loss of customers due to their shady price hikes (or keep a sufficient volume of customers who are too lazy or ignorant to contest the price hikes), these near monopolies are happy.

Any intelligent market analyst will note, though, that inevitably accelerating changes in technology always disrupt long-established yet unchanging business models. These large behemoths are lumbering along as if their revenue streams are secure.

As 5G continues its maturation and deployment, and initiatives such as Loon point the way to yet more compelling alternatives, customers repeatedly abused by current ISP giants will be eager to explore emerging options.

In the face of these disruptions, no amount of retroactive price cuts will restore customer faith in the big brands that for so long exploited their market dominance.

No matter how faithful these brands may have been to their shareholders, if customer volume drops, so will the share price.

The painfully obvious lesson here being that in an age of accelerating technological and social disruption, the relationship a product or service brand has with its customers is the most important relationship to establish, manage, and honor.

This doesn’t mean brands should become enslaved by the vicissitudes of mercurial and sometimes manipulative shoppers: “two wrongs don’t make a right”, as our parents often said!

It does mean that transactional relationships need to be more equitable, manageable, and transparent. ISPs and other businesses incapable of upgrading their methodologies and practices will be disconnected, beached…insert analogy or metaphor of choice.

Two Anniversaries

August 23rd, 2017 by dewprocess.

13 years ago, I gave a small talk at the Cannes Film Festival, evangelizing for more measured creative and business growth. I had been working with several startups and noticed a trend toward accelerated scaling that I found worrisome. I encouraged my audience (mostly independent filmmakers) to give themselves time to develop their properties, instead of desperately rushing to sell their idea, fearful that it would be illicitly co-opted by some unknown competitor.

In 2005, I joined a large multinational corporation and noticed that this trend was reflected in the sense of urgency with which budgets and projects were managed throughout business units, and even at the corporate level (usually in response to shareholder demands for the semblance of repetitive short term gains).

Instead of engaging in careful long-term strategic planning and consistent scaling at a manageable pace, enterprises large and small were increasingly (and often retroactively) chasing mythical goals. Business ventures want to convince investors, shareholders, and others that their offering is worth obscene valuation, yet they don’t want to “waste” time actually doing the work of conceptualizing, developing, testing, productizing, marketing, selling, and supporting any tangible offering. It takes less time to make a PowerPoint, it would seem, than it does to make a product. The collateral damage from this mentality continues to be ignored today, by too many people who ought to know better.

Permit me to jump to another topic, for reasons which will become apparent, I hope:

The C-130 Hercules remains the longest continuously produced military aircraft in history. The first flight of the YC-130 prototype was made on this day (23 August) 1954 from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California. Burbank’s relationship with Lockheed was long and proud, but the city demonstrated a painful lack of strategic planning that left it in dire straits in the early 1990s, when Lockheed left town. The job losses and economic downturn were dramatic, to say the least. Burbank had relied too heavily on one industry, even though the signs of change in that industry had been evident for years. Today, the local economy in this charming SoCal city is once again relying heavily on an admirable and powerful industry. That industry is also showing signs of dramatic change, and Burbank must work proactively – in partnership with its resident businesses from the Media & Entertainment industries – to adapt and evolve, in order to stay aloft in turbulent times, economic, technological, and social.
Cities are growing, as populations increasingly urbanize. Too many of these cities rely on a very few large sources of tax inflow, instead of diversifying their portfolio of revenues. Given that 99.7% of businesses in the US are small businesses, and 48% of US employees are small-business employees, I continue to advocate (with increasing volume!) for municipalities to support sustainable small business incubation: providing for scalable workforce growth, complementary innovations within pre-existing business ecosystems, and more agile infrastructures, capable of adapting to the increasingly explosive nature of 21st century markets, without becoming unduly subject to that same volatility.

The window of opportunity narrows, the closer one comes to a point of inflection. Will Burbank adapt in time, so it is able to manage, rather than be subject to, dynamic market changes? Will the Media & Entertainment industries pull back (even just a little) from the precipice of quarterly performance, in deference to more long-term strategic measurements? Will business ventures invest more thoughtfully in smaller initiatives (subsidiary or autonomous), more capable of adapting to the creative, technological, and economic forces that wait around the corner?

In the words of my close personal friend, Dame Shirley:

“They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near,
But to me it seems quite clear
That’s it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”

The Ties That Bind.

February 22nd, 2017 by dewprocess.

present-past-future

I am a big admirer of Satya Nadella. However, when Mr. Nadella states in a recent interview, “It always bothered me that we confused an enduring mission with a temporal goal”, he seems to be confusing and conflating the concepts of a VISION and a MISSION with the notion of VALUES. Perhaps this is an effort to distance himself and his administration from the legacy presence of the brand’s co-founder, but I fear that would be misguided strategy. Perhaps he was misquoted (it happens). Perhaps he didn’t say what he meant to say, or in quite the way he intended. Media interviews are fraught with the peril of partial clarity.

It bears reviewing that a vision statement should, if pursued properly, have an expiration date. At that point, the sitting leadership should reinvigorate the brand strategy with a new vision statement. Similarly, a mission is not well defined if it is not clearly achievable, and thus temporary. The values of a company may also change, but they can also endure.

Bill Gates’ vision of hardware ubiquity, expressed in his mission of “putting a PC in every home”, was well stated at the time, and largely accomplished, as Mr. Nadella concedes in this interview. Quite correctly, Nadella also points out the geographic and cultural limitations of that mission: a perfect opportunity to refresh the Microsoft brand, with a new more expansive Mission Statement, a new Vision Statement, and – if he and his leadership team so choose – a new Statement of Core Values (which is what I believe he is attempting to do here).

If a company accomplishes its previously stated mission, this is cause for celebration, not criticism and distancing. I hope Mr. Nadella will recognize and underscore this, going forward, and give his company the credit it justly deserves. I believe Microsoft has an exciting path ahead of itself, and how its leadership frames the past will do much to develop market and shareholder confidence in its future.

Is “Periscope Depth” still too shallow?

July 6th, 2016 by dewprocess.

The power of live streaming is incontestable, as most recently demonstrated by the awful but important footage captured by Lavish Reynolds. This media innovation has the potential to revolutionize journalism, communications, storytelling…but then Twitter had that same potential, when it rose to prominence. Technological innovation will usually manifest compelling results, but many pioneering brands will stumble along the way. Is this unavoidable? Are there better ways to grow a product or solution, so it may realize its best potential more effectively, efficiently, and sustainably?

The recent Democrat “sit-in” in the US House of Representatives launched Twitter’s subsidiary Periscope into the spotlight (at the edges of which it had been operating for more than a year). This app has the potential to merge the functional merits of both Twitter and YouTube. Will this “Video Twitter” evolve into a long-term media platform enhancement, or is it little more than the latest social media fad? Who remembers Meerkat?

Snapchat took over from Instagram, which itself apparently supplanted Pinterest, after the latter briefly challenged Facebook. Of course, some will argue that I have one or two of the brand incursions mixed up, but that only underscores my contention: Will everyone have the Periscope app on their smartphones for the next 6 months, only to hop to the next shiny bright object, as soon as some bright young startup creates it (with a surfeit of investment from Venture Capital companies eager to reap quick cash rewards, before their latest vaporware is supplanted)? Will Periscope instead grow “too big to fail”, as Twitter seems to have done, yet – like Twitter – represent little clarity, in terms of functional positioning? Are our social platforms and channels destined to come and go with the whims of youth, or are some focusing on developing a degree of operational maturity that will more securely establish their merits and utility, both on our smartphones and in our communities? For all of Facebook’s flaws, it has consistently pursued this maturation with the degree of academic humility and professional confidence that is the hallmark of most engineers. Its relative longevity is as much a result of its willingness to adapt and iterate, as it is due to its refusal to be molded by its user base.

Therein lies the lesson.

Too many brands have relied upon the “Crowd” to manifest and elevate their identity and fortunes, simply because it was this same “Crowd” that first adopted the company’s initial value proposition. The “Crowd” is a powerful current, but while it runs most aggressively in shallow waters, it carries the greatest power in deeper seas. In much the same way, it behooves companies that operate in the Social space (which effectively includes all M&E and Communications companies, along with a host of other markets) to study more assiduously the role of their user base in the ongoing development and growth of their brand. It is not the Crowd’s responsibility to identify or define the brand, nor its value proposition. Furthermore, the longer we allow Startups to scale too quickly, simply as a means to secure larger investments, IPOs, and other Get-rich-quick objectives, the weaker our innovation pipeline will become. The vast majority of Venture-backed startups fail in their first year, and the many articles acknowledging this long-known but too often ignored fact effectively concur that the solution lies in more sustainable development, both of IP and workforce.

I have spent the past 15 years promoting this thesis: that Startup success should no longer be gauged by how fast a company sells, but rather how solidly it is able to build its value proposition; how securely it is able to hire and retain talent; how reliably it is able to integrate its offering into the physical and functional communities within which it operates. While the ROI may not be as immediately “sexy” as the silly Unicorns investors still chase, the longer-term returns generated by the far less mythical “workhorses” I have been supporting are more rewarding, both financially and otherwise. With this in mind, I look to brands such as Periscope, and I wonder: will they be seduced by the noise and sparkle of short-term ROI aspiration, which more often than not represents little more than a mirage of unattainable yearnings, or will they plot their course with thoughtful care and imagination, giving themselves, their investors, their employees, and users the best chance of hitting the mark, and driving forward into an increasingly valuable future?

What Lies at the Heart of a Business?

June 21st, 2016 by dewprocess.
Businesses all too often find themselves pulled by powerful gravitational forces into the black hole of “quarterly prosperity at all costs”. The vision becomes about paper profitability, and the true core value is lost in the mists of market competition.
 
Great business is, however, always tied to great community, great innovation, and great people. Without those ingredients, the heart of a brand fails, and all the remnant frantic activity is little more than life support, performed on a gradually failing entity.
 
No matter the size of your venture, be it startup or multinational, always remember your people, your vision, and your community are your core.

Natural Growth Is Always More Attractive.

February 26th, 2016 by dewprocess.

Silicon Valley!

Silicon Alley!

Silicon Beach!

Silicon Forest!

Silicon Prairie!

“It’s in the trees!
It’s coming!”

When will the startup gold rush fever end?

I have been trying for 8 years, with varying degrees of success, to encourage people to stop heeding the false prophecies of certain (not all) Get-Rich-Quick Venture Capital investment vehicles, and instead seek out the truly thoughtful innovations that have the potential to bring as much social value as fiscal value to the marketplace and communities in which we exist today.

It’s time for us all to stop playing this game of “my vaporware is more shiny than yours”, and try to sincerely help inventors, innovators, and other creative business builders develop the types of sustainable business propositions that can build workforces, communities, steady revenue streams, and the types of long-term economic stability that was once the hallmark of great nations. It requires time, humility, and perseverance. It requires collaboration, vision, and generosity.

Watch this clip featuring Bernie Sanders. You need not agree with his every political position to recognize the veracity of his observations herein. It applies to our approach to so many facets of life and society:

“The truth is, at some level, that we are in this together… The truth is at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt. And when my kids hurt, you hurt. And it’s very easy to turn our backs on kids who are hungry, or veterans who are sleeping out on the street, and we can develop a psyche, a psychology which is “I don’t have to worry about them; all I’m gonna worry about is myself; I need to make another 5 billion dollars.”

So I believe that when we do the right thing, when we try to treat people with respect and dignity, when we say that that child who is hungry is my child, I think we are more human when we do that, than when we say “hey, this whole world, I need more and more, I don’t care about anyone else.”

You say Mitosis, I say Meiosis.

August 18th, 2015 by dewprocess.

The Facebook brand risks suffering from the multiple personality disorder that plagues companies that make too many acquisitions and market launches, without clarifying the nature of the independent parts, and how the aggregate merits augmented consideration. With the launch of Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google​ has clarified that its strategic brand is much akin to the old Idealabs: a parent holding entity that creates and nurtures businesses that are each destined to form their own ecosystems of sustainable operation. The aggregate value is early on, when the nascent entities may benefit from the mentorship of Alphabet corporate resource providers, and the collaboration of other companies in the family.

Facebook, meanwhile, keeps adding arms to its body, without clarifying anything. When their Messaging app launched, they took pains to give it its own functional space, thereby keeping the core Facebook​ clean (or relatively so, considering we’re talking about engineers here, who love to tinker, patch, repatch, and otherwise refine Frankenstein’s monster as an iterative process, rather than design and create Michelangelo’s David as a fluid act of final artistry). When they updated their Photos section, it wasn’t so dramatic that people began to seriously consider leaving 500px. However, Facebook’s latest iterative improvement is big enough to begin to strain against the bonds of the core Facebook brand proposition. The embedded Video update caused consternation, but the integrated Notes update is causing confusion.

Facebook Notes has long been “just another OK feature” amidst a wealth of tab features available to users seeking to enrich their personal brand value, whilst also engaging with their communities, both online and off. Facebook was a “connectivity facilitator”: not so much a platform, as a conduit. As users began to discover their voices, they might gravitate their expression to another brand that represented a richer immersion in to a particular form: 500px for the photographers, Medium or Tumblr for the essayists, YouTube for the video diarists. They continued to rely on Facebook for social community, whilst delving in to the new realms as channels of more specialized expression and exploration.

Now, however, Facebook has made it clear that they want all those voices to remain in their castle, and I fear this may prove counterproductive in the long run. Had the Facebook Video platform been launched as a standalone adjunct to the core Facebook brand (as was Messaging), I might have seen some potential in the move, so long as the UI and UX were consistently and intuitively improved. But Facebook wants it all to stay in the room…a room that becomes more and more crowded every day. We all know what happened to the Tower of Babel.

The latest update is to Facebook Notes, and makes the tab a direct competitor to Medium, but without giving itself room to breathe and spread its wings. Admittedly, the improvement is attractive, on its own merits. Maybe what we are witnessing are the latest growing pains of Facebook, experiencing a form of metamorphosis: once complete, the new entity will be more beautiful, more functional, more elegantly obvious than ever before. For now, it becomes more unwieldy and cumbersome, and risks losing its shape and functional value.

Facebook_creatures

 

A single body, made up of increasingly disparate parts, has historically proven to make for a great story, and a range of mediocre film adaptations. It has rarely functioned as a cohesive unit. However, if the organically solid parts are allowed to find relevant combinatorial sums that best express the identity of each individual Facebook user…

If Facebook builds out their tab improvements as standalone entities, a la “Messaging”, but with a design and structure sensibility that gives users the ability to connect the pieces together to better express their individual brand identities. Now, that might be an exciting proposition. If Facebook controls the clutter (so it doesn’t become another MySpace V1), but allows each user’s Facebook presence to become their de facto website, tailored toward their unique preferred mode of expression, that would be a truly revolutionary manifestation of the Web.

People Still Lie At the Heart of Business

August 12th, 2015 by dewprocess.

I love productivity and efficiency. I preach it, I evangelize on its behalf. I campaign for its adoption across every enterprise and initiative that seeks my advice and counsel. There is a line between Utility and Assistance, however, which cannot yet be crossed – no matter how many startups try valiantly to ignore the prevailing reality. Utility is a largely passive operation, which must be activated and managed by the user to fulfill its potential. It’s a useful tool such as Prompt.ly, OneNote, or Wunderlist. Assistance is an active function that manifests itself independently, and must anticipate and manage multifarious unqualified scenarios to be truly effective.

The list of Virtual Assistant startups grows daily. It’s the present fad. For every variation that promises to reinvent the VA space yet flames out (Zirtual), another two replace it with air-dancing artificial plums (e.g.: Genee, x.ai). The new holy grail of tech startups is AI virtual assistant apps. For the next 6 months or so, all the early adopters will fall over each other, just to be able to claim they had “Amy”, “Genee”, “Cortana”, “Siri 2.0”, et al, before everyone else. What you won’t hear much about is the fact that all these AI solutions fall far short of useful. Virtual assistants have existed for years, and work with varying degrees of success. Productivity apps have been around for a long time as well, exhibiting capricious achievement in their own right (yet but few pretentions to actually *replace* staff). Zirtual did not fail to provide the services they promised to clients. The company failed because, like so many startups today, it was encouraged to grow too fast, in an unsustainable quest for lightning ROI. The likely result was an inability to meet financial covenants, founders and investors working at cross-purposes, and lack of transparency between stakeholders seeking markedly different objectives. Whoever takes over the operations, such as they are after this negative brand impact, will assuredly restructure for more realistic growth metrics, if any future is to be realized for the employees and their clients.

I have no doubt that after various highly overvalued iterations churn through talented developers, employees, and investors, the chasm between AI VA concept and reality will begin to narrow, such that solutions that provide useful value finally establish themselves on semi-solid footing, and scale sustainably. Until then, you will have to contend with one offering that has access to your calendar, but not the other party’s calendar; another unable to process plain language text or speech; and probably none that take “drive time”, “weather”, or “distance” in to consideration when booking meetings back-to-back, not to mention the probability of client A being notoriously late, or client B correspondingly early, by habit. In short, none will be able to do what a proficient human assistant can do.

AI

Sometime in the future, our human administrators may well be replaced by competent digital, or even robotic, facsimiles. However, the truest measure of a great assistant is their ability to adapt to and accommodate the unexpected scenarios, and no algorithm can proactively absorb this aspect of the job, yet. Artificial Intelligence learns, and improves with use, but most companies and executives who require assistants cannot afford to patiently wade through failure, in an iterative quest for efficiency and reliability. If the day comes that Artificial Intelligence Apps crowdsource their refinements, machine learning will accelerate exponentially, and I’m frankly not sure how comfortable I’d be with an employee who mathematically assures me they know what’s best for me, simply because they know more than me.

Another One Bites the Dust, or “When Can We Get Back to the Business Of Building Real Businesses?”

August 11th, 2015 by dewprocess.

For the past 7 years I have been aggressively promoting the notion of sustainable business development, and campaigning against the fad of Venture Capital infused vaporware growth. Valuations based on nothing but ideas and Powerpoint (or Prezi) presentations might lead to a successful lightning IPO or other lucrative short term result, but the Piper must be paid, else the music stops. Those left holding the bag at the end of the short dance are left with little but debt and shattered dreams. This is not the way to build and sustain long-term innovation pipelines, or quality workforces, let alone support the dreams and aspirations of sincere emerging entrepreneurs. The terms “serial entrepreneur” and “unicorn venture” just piss me off.

graves

So many businesses have been encouraged to scale super fast, disregarding the absence of solid structural, brand, and product foundations. Their Towers of Babel have been raised with alarming speed, designed to look impressive, and promising extraordinary views and world-class functionality, yet delivering very little of substance. Investors have repeatedly relied upon the advice of brokers whose only interest has been swift maximization of returns, and nobody seems to have spent much time worrying about employees, product sustainability, solution viability, brand audits, or anything else that would underpin a business proposition designed to last beyond year 3.

This is why I decided 7 years ago, to stop working with clients seeking aggressive short term returns, instead of measurable and sustainable growth milestones. This is why I no longer invest in flashy business propositions, but instead in people. This is why I only mentor businesses willing to invest in their long term narrative, as opposed to the short term climactic scenes to which so many startups and larger organizations seem to still be aspiring.

When the State of Oregon recruited me last year to set up a business ecosystem supporting Digital Storytelling startups, some members of my new Board wanted to replicated “conventional” VC incubator and accelerator models. I resisted, and was thrilled that enough members of the Board accepted my vision, as well as my alternative business plan. As a result, we were able to help launch and build twice as many companies as had been required by the government, and nearly all of them continue to exist and grow today. The growth is at a rate that permits adaptation and management of both expected and unexpected challenges and opportunities, whilst protecting the people and assets around which the businesses operate. It saddens me when I hear of talented people or great ideas imploding under the weight of the overly ambitious aspirations of impatient investors. We cannot build sustainable new industries this way. I’m convinced that my model works. My proof is logic based, and has examples. I sincerely hope that the example set by companies such as Zirtual, Goodmail, Secret, Springpad, Outbox, Wahooly, and the hundreds of thousands of other companies that fail due to high churn, overly aggressive growth, and other errors in judgment, will soon set enough of a precedent that market practices will correct themselves, and more than a few of us will see the merits of more responsible investment, mentoring, and sustainable business development.

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