Debt

Seth Godin’s post today about the concept of debt is a good one. Citing this book, he points out that debt is, in fact, older than money. This makes a certain sense – it’s easier to make exchanges based on promises.

When I bought a bag of coffee this morning at Dunkin Donuts, the deal at the register was – I promise to give you this green paper if you promise to hand over the coffee. This happens every day without flaw because we live in a stable economy.

But what happens if that promise is broken? How tied are we to it? What if after I handed over my money, the Dunkin Donuts cashier said, “No, we changed our mind. No coffee for you, next customer.”

In this unlikely event, I would have reasonable grounds to say, “Hey, that’s not fair. You are indebted to me. I did my half of the bargain and you are failing on yours. Give me the coffee.” And everyone else in line would see this and say, “Yeah, give him the coffee or we’ll all leave.”

That would be very bad for Dunkin Donuts and it’s part of the reason you hear things like “The customer is king” at so many stores. The entire premise of a business is they uphold their end of deals.

This is understandable when you are dealing with small sums but it gets tricky, as Godin notes, when you start talking big numbers. John Paul Getty said it best, “If I owe you $100, I’ve got a problem. If I owe you $100 million, you’ve got a problem.”

And so it is with Greece and the student loan crisis.

Call me an idealist but I think people are intrinsically good and want to pay off their debts. It is an awful, nagging feeling to be indebted to someone and I loathe it. I cut up all my credit cards years ago.

But if I lend money to someone who I know is spending recklessly, I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t get my money back. In that situation I am partly to blame for making a dumb loan.

DeJargonator Revived

Nandini Jammi’s post about bad writing at Medium inspired me to revive The DeJargonator™ – my personal crusade against bad writing. The excerpt she received from a freelance writer made me wince:

You try your best to deliver great service to your customers, but the bigger your company gets, the easier it is to make mistakes, especially as our technology gets complicated. One simple mistake in a line your engineers’ code easily leads to negative experiences that can destroy relationships. Handle that situation wrong and you can lose even your most valuable and loyal customers. With social media it doesn’t take many loud complaints for your company’s otherwise sterling reputation will be gone.

So what can you do to quickly cool down a hot situation before it erupts into a disaster?

Ouch. You can almost hear the person mouthing the words breathlessly as they type them. They tumble out there with no real plan or slavish obedience to making sense.

The first sentence catches our attention with its vicious comma abuse. The second forces readers to stumble with its omission of the word “of” in “line your engineers’.” The last sentence, oh man. How fast did this person type this? It reads like he typed it while trying to catch a plane.

Alright, enough beating up on this person. Here’s how I rewrote it:

As a company grows, it becomes more difficult to deliver outstanding customer service. A bug in the code or a tech support call that goes awry can now be amplified and broadcast to thousands over social media.

What can you do to prevent a bad customer service incident from escalating into the next “United Breaks Guitars“?

Last sentence is good in that it uses a funny example but I don’t know the audience so my reference might sail over their heads. It’s hard to write when you don’t know the context of the larger article – am I writing for a product or a service or is this a general “How to Avoid Social Media Disasters” piece?

Anyway, thank you Nandini Jammi for inspiring me to revive this project. That’s the official DeJargonator™ revision – use it if you want.

Rise of the Small Business

Because of complicating factors, I was in an unfamiliar part of town last week and had to find a place to take my kids for dinner. I chose a chain restaurant that looked clean and immediately regretted my choice.

It was clean and orderly but the food was terrible. The cashier upsold me on toppings to net the chain an bonus 50 cents. What does it say about a company that would choose such a small one-time profit instead of fostering long-term customer loyalty? Because that’s what that 50 cents netted them.

Also, the TV was tuned in to ESPN and it destroyed the possibility of any kind of conversation. Everyone who worked there looked bored and counting the minutes until their shift was over. Not a single person there was motivated by management to do anything outside of the bare minimum required. That’s what you get when you manage by the stick and not by using carrots.

It was near a high traffic mall and we were surrounded by other chain stores. I had the overwhelming feeling of being processed – lumped into a giant pack to be fed, clothed, and entertained in bulk. I didn’t fully grasp the scale and reach of these herd-processing corporations until I read that if McDonalds wanted to create a menu item featuring shrimp, they would deplete the world’s shrimp supply in 2-3 months.

Don’t get me wrong, this kind of processing is entirely preferable to the alternative. Given the choice of Big Mac or starvation, I’ll pick the Big Mac seven days a week. But it did give me insight into why small businesses, like mine, flourish in the face of enormous competition.

Small businesses can’t compete with the big chains when it comes to efficiency and a low, low price. But we can when it comes to not treating people like herd animals, or not using deceptive practices to net an additional 50 cents on a transaction. When running a small business, doing good work leads to more work. The best advertising route available to you is your good name.

Small businesses have to provide a good product that we are proud to serve and motivated to serve with a smile because we know our livelihoods depend on it. I’m all too aware of the competition out there and focus on delivering products to my clients with speed, quality, and a smile.

It’s David vs. Goliath all over again – you have to be fast, smart, and use technology to your advantage to succeed in this line of work. It’s a welcome change and I love it.

Crime and Punishment

The best part of Dostoevsky’s epic novel “Crime and Punishment” comes at the end. And it’s not just the overwhelming sense of relief of nearing completion of a 600 page dark, oppressive novel.

In the story, the main character Raskolnikov brutally murders a woman living in his apartment. Dostoevsky is sometimes said to be a master of human psychology, pre-dating Freud, and this novel is his masterwork. The novel dives deep into a criminal’s mind.

Before and after committing the deed, Raskolnikov rationalizes his actions. The woman is an unscrupulous pawnbroker and needs to be exterminated, he thinks. He believes murder is permissable for enlightened people like him in pursuit of a higher purpose.

One is reminded of Nietzchke’s writing about the ubermensch, the higher beings among us who should be allowed to break the rules as they see fit. Raskolnikov, like all murderers and criminals, believes himself to be one of these higher beings.

It’s a sick and twisted view of the world. Raskolnikov goes deeper and deeper into psychological hell as his actions, lies, and deception isolate him from everyone else. When he’s eventually caught, the relief for everyone – including the reader – is palpable.

But then comes the epilogue, where it gets important. Raskolnikov is sentenced to an eight year sentence in Siberia. It’s here – doing his time and paying his price to society, that he finds true redemption. Unlike his previous suffering, this one is with a cause, he’s making amends to society and in the end he achieves atonement.

I thought about this story when I heard about the Tsarnaev apology yesterday. After going on a murderous spree that terrorized an entire city, ruined a historic and fun sporting event, and destroyed the lives of hundreds of people, Tsarnaev finally opened up and said, “Sorry about all that.”

Yeah.

Here’s the rub – there is a price to be paid when you commit a crime. Apologies are self-serving if the perpetrator is unwilling to do anything outside of mouth a few meaningless words. For punishment to be redemptive, there has to be a cost to the perpetrator.

Like Raskolnikov, Tsarnaev thought he was committing murder for a higher purpose – fulfilling the aims of some God that only he can see. Unlike Raskolnikov, he was not racked with guilt. Rather it all seemed like a fun game for Dzohar – picking up milk on his way home from blowing people up, participating in movie-like shootouts with police. Having his face splashed across the cover of Rolling Stone like a young Bob Dylan was fun, being executed – not so much. So now he’s sorry.

The city of Boston gave the Tsarnaevs safe harbor from a war torn region. Dzohar enjoyed free public education and was given a world of opportunity. And he repaid this hospitality and kindness by killing innocent children, women, and men and marred the lives of thousands.

That’s what grates on me, the ingratitude. If that was my son, there would be no need to execute me – I’d die from shame. For every action, there is a price to be paid and no, mouthing a few words handed to you by your lawyer is not penance. It’s weaseling out of what you did. The bill has come due for you Dzohar, time to pay up.

Telling Stories

Back when I was an English major in college, I looked around at all the other fields of study and became jealous. Upon graduation, engineers and business majors were going to make bank and I was going to starve.

I used to joke, “I can’t fix your sink but I can write you a lovely sonnet about it.” Writing seemed like such a worthless skill to my college self. While engineers were busy solving hard problems, we English majors loafed around telling each other stories.

It took me many years to recognize the value of my degree. Want to capture someone’s attention? Tell them a story. At your next presentation, instead of showing a endless series of slides on growth rates – tell a story.

When I worked at Viaweb, our story was we were scrappy upstarts with a Harvard pedigree. That was a story people remembered and it opened a lot of doors. Faced with competition from Intel, SAP, and potentially Microsoft if they ever got wind of this whole internet thing, our entire business model was loosely based on the story of David and Goliath. Like David, we were small, fast, and used technology to overcome larger foes. Just as in the Bible, it worked out well for the underdog.

That story also served to rally us, it gave us an identity and a cause. The story motivated and inspired us much more than a chart. The Viaweb story template was later used to launch the enormously successful Y Combinator – creators of Reddit, Dropbox, and Airbnb.

If you need numbers, go to an engineer. If you want those numbers woven into a story that makes sense and moves people, talk to a liberal arts major.

Special thanks to Fred Wilson whose blog post inspired this one. Also the book Made to Stick, which originally pointed this out to me.