Apr 272012

I love a bit of silly, including in work. That’s certainly reflected in my own style of webcasting and blogging. Happily, lots of people enjoy that: I routinely receive e-mails expressing delight that I make exploring ethics and philosophy enjoyable, as opposed to feeling like a burden or a chore.

Recently, I discovered that MailChimp takes their form of silly to a particularly high level of awesome. Let me explain.

MailChimp is an e-mail newsletter service, and I use it for my weekly Philosophy in Action Newsletter. (Not yet subscribed? Gack! Get yourself subscribed today!) I’ve been really pleased with their offerings and prices. (They’re better than Constant Contact, particularly on price.)

I’ve also been entertained by their little touches of irreverence. So in their header, they’ll have their chimp logo say and link to something amusing. For example:

That links to this silly video of Chimpanzee Outtakes.

Even better, the bacon lance:

That links to this awesome video:

It gets even better than that, however. In my settings, I found this switch for “Party Pooper Mode.”

So yes, you can turn off the bits of humor in MailChimp. But if you do that, they’re going to poke a bit of fun at you, just one last time. I love it!

Some people, I’m sure, find such humor quite offensive. I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that a person can’t be doing good work unless dead serious. Yet a bit of observation easily proves that false. Particularly in customer service, a touch of humor can brighten a person’s mood and create goodwill. (Think Southwest Airlines!) The same is often true for dealing with co-workers, clients, suppliers, and the like: a touch of benevolent humor can make the work so much more enjoyable.

With the use of humor, a person must aim for that Aristotelian mean — meaning using humor “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.” That “mean” may depend on the individual too, as people differ in their senses of humor — often purely as a matter of personality, not morality. Of course, it’s good to be sensitive to the preferences of others.

So if you think that philosophy or business or politics or romance or sex or parenting or almost any other pursuit in life is TOO IMPORTANT to ever be lightened by benevolent humor… think again. Heck, even dour-faced rationalism can be funny!

Apr 202012

Earlier this week, someone posted this article — $5 million in revenues, 3 years in business, 4 lessons learned: Tips from a successful startup CEO — to OProducers. Santiago Valenzuela quickly responded with the following really useful comments. (I’m reposting them with his permission.)

I really dislike super-generalized “tips” like that. I often find it’s either uselessly general (“Be flexible”) or simply not really useful (“It’s possible to succeed in a recession” — this isn’t news, as evidenced by this 4 year old article.)

I’m nowhere near as successful as that guy, but here’s what I’m learning in my office furniture business. Different observations are, obviously, quite welcome:

1. Focus on what’s important: profits.

Being a small biz guy, everything is held together by bubble gum and shoe string. It’s easy to get lost improving little things and not focusing on the big picture, which is the next action that will move a customer to a sale. For me, that means keeping my name out there on online sites like craigslist and responding promptly to sales calls and emails. For you it might mean something else, but if you’re rearranging chairs instead of doing that, stop. You can literally spend 24 hours a day improving your business, but you need to focus on what’s important — which is making profit, not looking pretty.

I suspect that the thing that is both most important and most likely to get set aside for make-work is sales. Unless you start with significant seed money, you’ll be a salesman, at least at first. If you suck at sales, grab a book (How to Win Friends and Influence People is a great place to start) and learn.

2. Keep your network up.

Approximately 25% of the work I get comes from referrals or returning customers. This is setting up cubicles for offices. It always, always, always requires at least one follow-up phone call. A lot more of your work can come from these, I would bet. Get cards, call people every so often and ask them how they are doing and if they have any additional needs or people they think you would be a good fit with. If you did a good job for them, they like you, and a real person saying “This guy is great” — that is golden advertising that you can’t easily get otherwise.

3. Keep in mind why people buy your product.

Often the pricing for your product is based on your perception of its value — which is based on things like the materials you purchase and the time you put into it. This is the wrong way to go about selling stuff. While it is pretty obvious, I’ve seen others do this too, at surprisingly high levels. Instead, focus on why the customer would want to buy what you’ve got. For me, I emphasize a quick turn-around time and a free consultation where I suggest ways to arrange cubicles/desks to minimize expenses while still covering their needs. To emphasize this, I am starting to experiment with a pricing scheme that’s based on a per-person basis rather than per workstation / cubicle.

I focus on sales-y stuff like that because I have found it’s really rare for people to suck at what their business does. Programmers generally program well, for example. But it’s very easy to try and stick to your core competency and not branch out to where you need to go to succeed, and are probably currently pretty weak. If I could do one thing differently it would be to have gotten on top of sales and networking and spent less time obsessing about my inventory and the pricing. The former is far less important than the latter; if you master the former, you can be much more flexible with the latter.

Anyway, I hope this is useful and actionable, which I think all management advice should be.

I have a strong tendency to fail on Point #1, probably mostly due to some fear of trying the unknown (and perhaps failing) plus some perfectionism. Basically, my brain says: “Oh, that looks big and hard, and you might fail! Let’s tinker with the little stuff instead! You need to get that just right!” I hate being in that mode, but I find it hard to break out of absent some clear big goals to consume my attention. However, merely reminding myself to “stop rearranging the chairs” will be helpful, I know. That will force me to look at my bigger goals, and start working on them.

Where do you struggle?

More Chutzpah Means More Money

 Posted by on 21 March 2012 at 1:40 pm  Business, Ethics, Gender
Mar 212012

Why do women earn less money than men? Maybe it’s due to the lack of chutzpah! See this awesome post from Reddit on the differences between women and men in salary negotiations.

I work for a large multinational tech company, I regularly hire woman for 65% to 75% of what males make. I am sick of it, here is why it happens, and how you can avoid it.

Obviously this is a throwaway, my employer would be far from happy to see me talking about this. I am not a researcher and can’t offer and statistics, just what I see in my day to day job.

Today I finished interviewing my third new hire this month, two of which are women. They both are getting paid substantially less than the man I hired earlier this month, and to be honest I am getting tired of that. I don’t set the wages, I just handle negotiations (HR has to approve every offer I make).

Our process, despite the pay gap, is identical for men and women. We start with phone interviews, and move into a personal and technical interview. Once a candidate passes both of those, we start salary negotiations. This is where the women seem to come in last.

The reason they don’t keep up, from where I sit, is simple. Often, a woman will enter the salary negotiation phase and I’ll tell them a number will be sent to them in a couple days. Usually we start around $45k for an entry level position. 50% to 60% of the women I interview simply take this offer. It’s insane, I already know I can get authorization for more if you simply refuse. Inversely, almost 90% of the men I interview immediately ask for more upon getting the offer.

The next major mistake happens with how they ask for more. In general, the women I have negotiated with will say 45k is not enough and they need more, but not give a number. I will then usually give a nominal bump to 48k or 50k. Company policy wont let me bump more than 5k over the initial offer unless they specifically request more. On the other hand, men more frequently will come back with a number along the lines of 65k to 75k, and I will be forced to negotiate down from there. After this phase, almost all women will take the offer or move on to somewhere else, not knowing they could have gotten more if they asked.

At the end, most of the women I hire make between 45k and 50k, whereas the men make between 60k and 70k. Even more crazy, they ask for raises far less often, so the disparity only grows.

I don’t know if this is at all helpful, I feel most of it is common sense, but I see it all the time. How can I help?

TL;DR [Too Long, Didn't Read]:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for more, it’s not insulting or in any way going to affect your ability to be hired (we can always say no)
  • When you ask for more, give a number! If you let me pick, I will continue to lowball it.
  • Ask for raises, confident people get them more often than high performers in a heavy bureaucracy.

On a small sidenote, the one person who got the most out of us was a highly aggressive, very smart, very confident woman. She nearly doubled the initial offer, which due to how she marketed herself was already pretty high.

When I worked as a web programmer after college, I was pretty aggressive about asking for raises… and to my amazement, I got exactly what I asked for. Then again, maybe that indicates that I should have asked for more!

What has been your experience with salary negotiations?

My Reply to Joe’s Diner

 Posted by on 21 February 2012 at 8:00 am  Business, Funny
Feb 212012

Undoubtedly, I was a bit snippy in my reply here. But… if you e-mail me to promote “Joe’s Diner located across for the Post Office,” and said post office is located in Ohio, you can expect a bit of snip in my reply!

Upselling Versus Building Relationships

 Posted by on 28 December 2011 at 8:00 am  Business, Ethics
Dec 282011

Ron Johnson on What I Learned Building the Apple Store:

People come to the Apple Store for the experience — and they’re willing to pay a premium for that. There are lots of components to that experience, but maybe the most important — and this is something that can translate to any retailer — is that the staff isn’t focused on selling stuff, it’s focused on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better.

That may sound hokey, but it’s true.

The staff is exceptionally well trained, and they’re not on commission, so it makes no difference to them if they sell you an expensive new computer or help you make your old one run better so you’re happy with it. Their job is to figure out what you need and help you get it, even if it’s a product Apple doesn’t carry.

Compare that with other retailers where the emphasis is on cross-selling and upselling and, basically, encouraging customers to buy more, even if they don’t want or need it. That doesn’t enrich their lives, and it doesn’t deepen the retailer’s relationship with them. It just makes their wallets lighter.

That’s awesome… and worth remembering in business. Also, I’d be curious to know whether the Microsoft Stores — which seem like rip-offs of Apple Stores on the surface — are run on the same underlying principles or not.

Nov 182011

Ari Armstrong created a good video contrasting Occupy Wall Street with the friendly capitalist exchanges at the nearby McDonald’s.

I love Ari’s interview style of just letting people speak for themselves, particularly in this case, where the occupiers reveal so much.

On a funnier note, I loved this segment from The Daily Show:

And the two segments with Stephen Colbert — Part 1 and Part 2 were funny too:

Steve Jobs, Gone Forever

 Posted by on 5 October 2011 at 4:44 pm  Business, Heroes, Steve Jobs
Oct 052011

Apple reports that Steve Jobs has died.

Thank you Steve, for all that you did to make my life so much more productive, interesting, easy, and fun. The world is a bleaker place today.

I just want to cry.

Update: I created a Facebook page to express my gratitude to Steve Jobs and allow others to do so too: Thank You, Steve Jobs:

Please post your personal thank-you to Steve Jobs on its wall.


Hooray! The fourth and final event of Capitalism Awareness Week is tonight… and you can watch it live via streaming! Here’s the announcement:

The Financial Crisis: Causes, Consequences and Cures

John Allison, Former Chairman and CEO, BB&T Corporation

The cause of the recent financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn has been hotly debated over the last few years. The media, politicians, and even many businessmen have placed the blame on the supposed excesses of free-market capitalism. In this lecture, John Allison, former Chairman and CEO of BB&T, argues that this crisis is in fact a legacy of government’s anti-capitalist policies.

Mr. Allison presents his unique perspective of the financial services industry to support his argument that massive government intervention into the U.S. economy—from the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 to a reckless crusade to encourage home-ownership—laid the groundwork for an unsustainable real estate boom. He offers his views on what contributed to the financial crisis and how the government’s response to the inevitable bust—a frenzied series of bailouts, nationalizations, and “stimulus” efforts—is only making things worse.

Finally, Mr. Allison discusses some of his proposed immediate and long-term solutions for moving us towards a stronger economy. Mr. Allison will demonstrate that capitalism, far from being the cause of our financial troubles, is its only cure.

Tuesday, October 4th
5:00 PM Pacific, 6:00 PM Mountain, 7:00 PM Central, 8:00 PM Eastern
North Carolina State University and live streamed online worldwide

You can watch the event live from this page.

Remember, if you’ve not yet contributed to these awesome efforts by The Undercurrent but you’d like to do so… it’s not too late! Paul and I won’t be matching funds as with the first $2000 contributed, but your money will be well-spent!

To make a one-time donation, use this PayPal link. To make a recurring donation, visit TU’s donation page and follow the instructions for “Recurring Monthly Payments.”

NetFlix Shoots Its Own Foot

 Posted by on 19 September 2011 at 1:00 pm  Business, Film
Sep 192011

NetFlix announces a major change to its business model:

…we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”.

… Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to qwikster.com to access their DVD queues and choose movies. … A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated. So if you subscribe to both services, and if you need to change your credit card or email address, you would need to do it in two places. Similarly, if you rate or review a movie on Qwikster, it doesn’t show up on Netflix, and vice-versa.

My reaction? I immediately cancelled my streaming account — something that I didn’t even consider after the price increase a few months ago. I don’t use that nearly as much as the DVDs, and I’m just not interested in the hassle of managing two separate queues. Instead, I’ll likely check out Amazon’s streaming service.

Based on the 11,000-plus comments, I’m not alone.

Video: The Morality of Extreme Couponing

 Posted by on 16 September 2011 at 1:00 pm  Business, Ethics, Videocast
Sep 162011

In Sunday’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, I discussed the morality of extreme couponing. The question was:

Is “extreme couponing” moral? Earlier this year, the Boston Globe wrote about people who engage in “extreme couponing.” Basically, they find ways to redeem store coupons in a fashion that still abides by the rules, but they get free stuff out of the deal. Are these people moral, or are they parasites because they don’t actually live by trading value for value? Are they violating rights?

Here’s the video of my answer:

If you like it, please share it! Also, all my webcast and other videos can be found on my YouTube channel.

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