Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Andy Said

A good friend of mine is a Naval Intelligence Officer currently stationed in Kabul, working as an advisor to the Afghan National Army. Italicized below is an excerpt from an e-mail he recently sent out a group of friends and family:

As you can probably tell, I like the Afghans and regard several of them as friends. Unfortunately, there has been some recent turmoil in Afghanistan. A couple weeks ago, some US soldiers unintentionally burned a stack of Korans while clearing out a warehouse. As a result, there has been widespread protesting and rioting throughout the country. Even worse, there have also been several “green on blue” incidents, where Afghan security forces (green) have killed US servicemen (blue). Just three days ago in Kabul, Afghan policemen shot and killed two US advisors from my command.

As an advisor who spends most of my time alone with large groups of Afghans, I have definitely been affected by these events. For the last week, our team has been restricted from any travel off base. Members of our team are nervous and have discussed the possibility of wearing body armor to class or posting guards inside classrooms. There is even talk of the US limiting future interactions between US advisors and their Afghan counterparts.

Here are my thoughts. I think that, despite the incidents, we should make an effort to continue trusting our Afghan colleagues. For me, it’s all about the broader perspective. If we allow the wrong actions of a few to divide us from our allies, then the only possible result is defeat by our enemies. For any chance of success here, we must maintain trust with the Afghans, and they us. It is during these difficult times that we will discover if we are partners in name or in truth. And from the broadest perspective, in an area of the world dominated by conflict and feuds, we as Americans should be the ones to show them that there is a different way.

One other point I would add, and it's something I just wrote about on Cliff K's blog, is that we who observe events in the States should be careful about painting with too broad a brush when we talk about "the Afghans" and their reaction.

There are tens of millions of Afghans whose daily hierarchy of needs place basic survival above many other things, to include opinions about the actions of individual(s) at Bagram who committed a careless and thoughtless act (unfortunately, however, many of the conspiracy-minded in the region will not frame it that way).

There are 91,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan. Even those who primarily work on bases still interact with Afghans on a daily basis. With some quick multiplication, you'd see that there are literally millions of meaningful US-Afghan interactions that take place on a weekly basis. Our general strategy of withdrawing our troops as the Afghan National Security Forces increase in terms of numbers and capabilities is a sound one -- it should not be sped up OR slowed down as a result of the reaction to the Qu'ran burnings.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Building Your Business with Giveaways

Sometimes, 'something-for-nothing' fails as a business model (anyone remember the website that paid people just to surf the web, provided they dealt with some banner advertisements?) But when they're done right, giveaways can be an awesome way to build brand loyalty, to draw in customers who might spend money on other products or services, and to build some goodwill that ultimately promotes your product.

Saturday night at the UML-Merrimack game, I really was 'that fan' with the magical ticket (Section 101, Row 14, Seat 10) that meant a sweet River Hawks jersey, a goaltenders' stick signed by the whole team, a game puck, some restaurant vouchers, a 30-person suite for a home game next year (date TBD), and two Lowell Bank Pavilion season tickets for all of next season.

Added up, all of that is 'worth' a pretty sum, though the cost to UML is only a tiny fraction of that number (unless all the games were always sold out, and unless all the VIP suites were always used, that is).

What they'll get in return is what will hopefully be two filled seats (I will do my best to give away whatever tickets I can't use, and I already know my schedule will be a little bit crazy), and a grateful fan even more willing to buy concessions inside Tsongas, having walked in already feeling like he has gotten a great deal. Whereas I might have been a 'dabbler' (i.e. a casual two-three home games per year type fan), this means a greater interest, which could mean future season ticket purchases..not to mention additional ticket purchases next year should more than one friend be available (whether it's me or someone else who buys it, that extra ticket that would otherwise leave an empty seat is money right back to UML).

Ditto for the restaurants that included the free meal vouchers. Unless they happened to be places that I'm already familiar with and would eat at anyway (and they're not), this means new, potential repeat customers walking through the door already feeling the goodwill of having received a good deal.

The only downside I can imagine to giveaways like this would be cases where the fan would've bought whatever was being given away anyway (but my earlier points about extra willingness to part with dollars for concessions, and the promotion of a general sense of goodwill mitigate that somewhat), or that someone would be ungrateful and either not use what was given, or use it in a tight-fisted way that tried to *squeeze* whatever could be gotten without giving back or consider coming back on his own afterwards. Still, my hunch is that those would not represent the majority of cases.

And while I'm lounging in the Pavilion at Tsongas next year, I will remember the lesson and its potential implications for start-ups and any other growing businesses -- a generous giveaway now could pay bigger dividends down the road.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Risk Trading, Counterintuitively

I wasn't able to write much from overseas, which was a combination of two major factors: (1) Blogspot being blocked on the network computers on base; and (2) a lack of time (given more free time, I could've hunted down some random Wi-Fi areas, or discovered sooner than the last week I was there that there was a full-blown "Internet area" in one of the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation facilities on post.

I will probably weave some Afghanistan observations in here from time-to-time, but not in a coherent way. Sometimes, things will just sort of come up (like wild conspiratorial rumors that follow single, isolated acts like ignorant servicemembers burning religious material) that will trigger thoughts and memories (and check tomorrow's Sun for the possible inclusion of said material, and thanks Rob Mills for reaching out on Facebook).

Anyway, one thought that crossed my mind more than once, especially during that awful six-week period at the beginning of the deployment was the proverbial fork-in-the-road question asked in Spanglish by the Clash once upon a time: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The answer I've come to, after a few mental spins around the block is that I will....stay (as in, one weekend a month, though at Devens instead of Reading, two weeks in the summer, and the possibility of other, down the road).

Here's the thought process: Leaving would've meant a certain type of freedom -- no more drill weekends, no more 12-day "wraparound" work weeks, no more condescension from those schooled in the "combat arms" MOS family, no more bureaucracy, pencils, books, teachers' dirty looks, etc. etc.

However, that would've also meant a whole new type of risk -- one that I would rather not take, thank you very much.

Staying in as a drilling reservist means that I have a secondary income no matter what, health insurance no matter what, and a chance to *plus-up" my employment matter what.

That's a really big deal.

Much like someone who has lived through a Depression never loses the habit of saving pennies and avoiding reckless financial speculation, my experiences over the last couple years teach me two important things that I believe will be permanently ingrained in my noggin': (1) No matter how healthy you *think* you are, the unexpected can happen at any time; and (2) No matter how many people tell you "you'll be fine" and no matter how many resumes you send out, you can still wind up involuntarily jobless.

In other words, bad things sometimes happen -- and sometimes, much like the Spanish Inquisition, those things can't be predicted or expected.

In the short term, staying in means the drill paycheck each month, saving a fortune over the required health insurance I'd have to pay for without Tricare, and much more freedom to choose my next full-time, *permanent* (i.e. post-school) job.

It's not every day that someone talks about joining the military to gain more freedom (for himself, that is), but let me explain: By knowing that the backstop of some type of guaranteed paycheck, in addition to family Tricare, is available to me, I can take a greater risk on the job front. I could join forces with the four crazy guys in Kendall Square with the idea to make the next streaming, 4G widget delivery service and the glimmer of an IPO somewhere in their eye even knowing that the whole thing could go belly-up in 18 months because I know that it wouldn't be doomsday for my family if they did.

Otherwise, I'd be much more constrained, and would feel a much stronger gravitational pull towards more stable (but less exciting) options.

And by pushing towards that magical twenty-year mark, I'd also know a lifetime pension would be somewhere out on the horizon, even if I wouldn't be able to touch it until age 59 (only the active-duty guys get the half-enchilada right at the retirement age, which could be as young as 38 for some).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

But the Y Has a Pool!

A prominent billboard on the Connector, as well as my sister-in-law, who is a proud new member, remind me that Mill City Fitness offers a membership for $9.99/month with no contract or other commitment. A look at their website shows me that Mill City Fitness (MCF) offers state-of-the-art equipment and hours that are slightly better than those at the YMCA.

And even though the Y offers a monthly rate that makes my Boston/Cambridge friends envious, it's still more than three times the rate offered by MCF. So what's keeping me from going ahead and making the switch? My rational side tells me there are two major reasons, both of which appeal to my irrational side.

(1) The Y has a pool. This is the big one. I love water, particularly when I'm in it, and the prospect of working on my swimming is part of what drew me to the Y in the first place. Swimming is right up there with jumping rope as one of those rare exercises that uses nearly all your muscles. Plus, it's a zero-impact activity on joints, bones, and other parts that aren't getting any younger.

(2) The Y has a nifty reciprocity agreement with all the other YMCAs in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. So in other words, I can be anywhere in the Commonwealth, or even in nearby Rhode Island, and grab a workout without having to pay anything extra.

Here's where the logical rubber doesn't fully meet the road, so to speak, with respect to either of those reasons: As much as I like the idea of a pool being at the Y, the actual number of times I've ever used it during the four years that I've been a member is very, very tiny. The treadmills and the free weights? I've used 'em tons of times. The reality is that the extra effort needed to go swimming (a change of clothes, the time needed to dry off, remembering to bring goggles, finding a time when there isn't a class going or a swim team practice going on, etc.) just means I haven't really taken advantage of the opportunity on more than a handful of occasions...which means that rather than pay the extra money for the Y, as opposed to MCF, because of the pool, what I'm really paying for is the concept.

Same for the reciprocity thing. Yes, I've taken advantage of it in Wareham and Reading when Guard duty pulled me in those directions, but those were, yet again, a very tiny number of actual times. While I might imagine myself as a worldly (or Commonwealthly?) traveler who stands to benefit from the reciprocity deal, the reality doesn't really bear that out, at least if I'm using the past as prologue.

I've given myself a short trial period, during which I'll see whether I start taking advantage of what justifies the extra expense of the Y, or just acknowledge that I was just paying the extra surcharge for the idea of who I am and what I do, rather than the reality.

And I'll also bet that if you and I sat down and tried to scratch out a list of other products, services, and *extras* that people pay for more because of the idea than the reality that they provide, we could do it. One I'll start with is subscriptions to The Economist. The Economist has done an excellent job marketing itself as a mark of sophistication, refinement, and intelligence, which has helped its subscription base in the US boom over the past couple decades, even as other newsweeklies have seen circulation plummet or have just gone out of business altogether.

I don't know if such a study has ever been carried out, but I would bet that if you could find out the entire percentage of subscribers who regularly read a majority of the magazine's content week-to-week, it would be very, very tiny. Like less than 10 percent.

So why don't more people go ahead and cancel those subscriptions?

Because that would mean making a concession that they're not ready to make. And what makes me so certain about that?

Well, it's the stack of unread issues sitting on my kitchen table!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hearing Lowell's Howl

I just caught this YouTube video on It's announcing the launch of Howl in Lowell, which is an online arts, culture, and entertainment magazine set to launch on March 1st. The video is extremely well put-together and loosely based on the "Halftime in America" Clint Eastwood Chrysler shown during the Super Bowl. Check this out!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

When There's Not a Lot To Like About "Rimz"

The other day, fellow blogger Dick Howe and I looked out at the now-empty storefront (it may have been empty for a while, but bear with my sense of what's new) of the storefront formerly known as "Rimz-U-Like" at the corner of Jackson and Central.

I remarked that the store's demise wasn't a hard one to predict -- after all, they were hawking an expensive, functionally useless* product during bad economic times. What's more, they were doing it an area mainly populated by the fixed-income elderly and young urban professionals who don't tend to adorn their vehicles with rims other than the ones the cars came with. Dick added that they were selling a car accessory in area without adequate parking, which led to a bit of speculation from us about why certain stores succeed, why others fail, and where the resultant credit or blame should lay.

Of course, there are no easy answers to this, and no equivalent of a scientific autopsy to determine a precise cause of death for a small business that goes belly-up. I hope to gain a much better understanding once I formally start studying E & I (Entrepreneurism and Innovation) before taking those lessons back out into the *real world,* but the first strong hunch I have is that many small businesses which ultimately fail have more to do with the owner's dream -- or pet hobby -- than they do with a determined, researched market need.

I'll admit that I'm shooting from the hip here (I have no idea who owned Rimz-U-Like, who worked there, what their business plan was, or how brisk their sales were, and I state that as a caveat to whatever else I say), but I would speculate that the owner of Rimz-U-Like was some kind of a "Rimz" enthusiast, with specific industry knowledge, discriminating taste in the spinners with which cars could be decorated, and a stylish set on his own auto.

That's all important (that type of knowledge and enthusiasm might even be a necessary condition for success) but it's not sufficient. If downtown Lowell wasn't emitting a "demand signal" for rims, then even the most knowledgeable, personable, and determined rim salesman was bound to ultimately wind up like the proverbial air-conditioner salesman up in Eskimo country -- busy and purposeful, sure, but successful? Not so much.

While people don't necessarily like what they say they like (just ask the TV news execs about what the Nielsen boxes show when the programs switch away from people named Kardashian or Hilton or towards things like South Sudan and Greek bonds), some initial money spent on consulting or just flat-out talking to people about what they would support with their dollars might go a much longer way to success than would the realization of one owner's dream, whether that's Ming Dynasty vases, used books, fancy-pants cocktails, or, yes, even rims.

* Yes, I called rims "functionally useless." While still being careful not to judge the way other people spend their money, the fact remains that rims -- much like many of the things you and I buy -- serve no practical, day-to-day function.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Staggering Out the Stagger-Out

I came to Thursday night's City Council meeting with what I now realize were grandiose intentions: I had several sheets of paper, two working pens, and a plan to stay through the entire thing and then write a fairly comprehensive blog entry.

The overflow crowd meant even those who arrived just prior to 6:30 couldn't get seating in the balcony. Those of us who stood up in the obstructed view section were jammed in tight enough that me reaching for the pen in my coat pocket meant brushing up against the lady standing to my right and then an ACTUAL case of writer's cramp as I was trying to feverishly, assiduously commit all of Superintendent Lavallee's seven major points to paper. Undaunted, I wound up *riding the pine* on the floor for a bit after some yellow-bellied early exiters cleared some space in the balcony...all the way until the guy who started out by acknowledging the three-minute "warning" droned on with "...and just one more point" for what seemed like a small eternity.

Which was when I quietly and politely tapped the mat myself and made a beeline for Merrimack Street to Shattuck to Market to home.

Rather than try to summarize the notes I either can't quite decipher and didn't take well enough to begin with, I'll summarize with two points that I heard come from the excellent speeches from the neighborhood leaders and other civic groups (Ann Marie Page, Kathleen Marcin, Taya Dixon-Mullane, Bobby Tugbiyele, and Thomas Fleming all stood out for me):

(1) Downtown can't be a drain on citywide resources. Even as a downtowner, I have to admit this is a fair point. If the City Police feel that they need to devote so much manpower to controlling downtown on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights that other neighborhoods are left in a critically-vulnerable position, well, then, something is wrong. That's why, even if it's primarily just a small group of establishments and people causing problems, those issues need to be nipped in the bud. Criminals aren't dumb. Over the past two years, cities from Vallejo, CA to Newark, NJ have learned that when police resources are curtailed or diverted (in the case of Vallejo and Newark, layoffs were caused by negotiation failures between the unions and the municipalities), opportunistic criminals will pounce on the chance to take advantage of the vulnerable. If LPD resources had to be consistently shunted towards the downtown on the weekend evenings, how quickly do you think predatory criminals in the Acre or Lower Highlands would realize the numbers had shifted in their favor? For that matter, what about prospective home burglars in the city's better-off neighborhoods?

(2) One point that Superintendent Lavallee made that seemed to have some traction with the other speakers was a layered, or staggered, closing process rather than an "all or nothing" closing affixed to a single, arbitrary time. For instance, let's say all entertainment had to stop by 1:00 a.m. Let's say no *new* patrons (i.e. anyone other than smokers who had just stepped out for a few minutes) could enter by 1:15 a.m. (Hookslide Kelly's has received a lot of praise for voluntary implementing such a policy at 1:00 a.m.) Let's say no new drink orders could be placed after 1:30 a.m., and the lights had to be on by 1:45 a.m., with everyone out of the bar by 2:00 a.m. The exact times are arbitrary but the general point is that by rolling out a phased signal that "ladies and gentlemen, this night is winding to a close," you could avoid the problems associated with suddenly pulling the plug on a bunch of testosterone-addled guys (and yes, I'll throw my own gender under the bus here, because let's be honest about which half of the population is causing these problems) and tossing them out to the four winds.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rejoining the World, Step by Step

Well, I can officially, unequivocally say that it is AWESOME to be back. I'm still sort of readjusting to some new scenery around the area, and primarily to the fact that I'm now the parent of a one year-old (and that everyone who ever told me that parenthood changes you was completely right, in new ways that I'm constantly discovering).

Most of all, it's just nice to wake up in my own bed, next to my wife and amidst all of our own surroundings, which we more or less control -- all of which is very unlike waking up in a tent with 40 other guys in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, or a room with 11 other guys and the morning, uhh...symphony that created in Fort Dix.

The short-term challenge is figuring out just what to do for the next several months -- I start business school full-time in late August, but with my earned leave set to expire in late March, well, that's a bit of a gap in time. I went to a job interview yesterday which seemed to be going swimmingly, until I dropped the "I would have to leave in six months" bomb, at which point the proverbial music screeched and everyone stopped dancing.

I'm viewing that as a blessing in disguise, though. I should probably be a bit careful about jumping right into whatever it is that I jump into too soon.

In the meantime, there's plenty of opportunity for diaper changes, nursery rhymes on YouTube, and trying to prevent someone who doesn't know any better from attempting to eat anything her hands can pick up!