Friday, February 27, 2009

That's not writing. That's typing.

I sweat over these posts, I really do. So much to say, and all this room to say it in. But this time, I won't. This time, you see, I have nothing of importance to say. Somewhat like this panel on cloud computing I attempted to watch today. So much talking, and so little said.

I have to agree with Robert Scoble, who put it this way: "I hate panels ... They have the most well-known cloud experts. But we aren't learning all that much. And this is one of the most entertaining and knowledgeable set of people you will see on a single stage."

Yet, the Twitter hash on the thing was pretty amusing, as were the comments on the Ustream feed. Which leads me to this perhaps non-techy observation--the reason that cloud computing is exciting is not really anything to do with computing. The hardware--and even the applications themselves--are only of interest to a select group of people with a direct stake in them. For the vast majority, what's exciting about cloud computing is something else. Something to do with community. Or something.

Update even later in this late and lazy night: Christopher Kusek has written something quite intelligent on the topic, with promises to start a cloud blog.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jumped the shark

In my last post, I talked at (perhaps too much) length about the end of Starbucks, and came to the conclusion that the brand jumped the shark the day they started offering those breakfast sandwiches. Which got me onto a new train of thought. What else has jumped the shark of late?

For those who don't know, the term "jumping the shark" comes from an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie straps on water skis and literally jumps over a shark. That was the day, many say, the show lost its mojo and began to slide into the dark waters of oblivion. It is an accepted phrase among TV buffs, but I don't see why it can't be extended to other aspects of life.

With that, here is my list of Silicon Valley shark jumpers:

1. Email. Now that we have Twitter, why exactly are we forced to communicate via this clunky and overly permissive medium? As we now know, if you can't say it in 140 characters, maybe you just need to shut up. Or start a blog.

2. Web 2.0. What was that going to be, exactly?

3. PCs. Can't we all just admit that Mac has won and get on with it?

4. Facebook. Our parents are on there. Our grandparents are on there. Nuff said.

5. Google. I know people still use it all the time for search, docs, and what have you. Some of us still believe in Blogger. But do we think about the fact that we use it? No. It's just not interesting anymore.

6. Scoble.

7. The "killer app." Someday, we were once told, there would be this like, unifying app that would bring together everything--everything!--on the web. Umm. No, there won't. And I for one am tired of worrying about it.

8. VC funding. (See above, Web 2.0)

9. YouTube. (See above, Google)

10. Vlogging. I don't know where that went, but it is definitely gone now.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The end of the (Starbucks) era?

Is it me, or is Starbucks in the news more lately than ever? A recent Bloomberg article on coffee prices seems a perfect example of this. The article is not just about Starbucks--in fact in many ways it's not really about Starbucks at all--but you'd never know that unless you read the whole thing carefully through.

The Starbucks name is emblazoned in our consciousness in a way that almost no other brand is today. And right now, I think what's happening is the death of that brand. It has become too closely linked to what we have come to see as the excesses of the last decade. Our love affair with the comfy chairs, the jazz and the sipping of a latte while typing away on a Macbook might just be coming to an abrupt and ugly end.

Starbucks as a coffee chain has actually been around since the late 80s, but most people associate it with its rise to prominence in the mid-90s, when those big green signs started popping up on every street corner. Remember when its ubiquity was lampooned by Christopher Guest in "Best in Show"?

Starbucks had a starring role in the dot com era. The shine of that time stayed on the company long after the bubble burst. When I went to work at Red Herring, I was told that if you wanted to know what VCs were up to, the best thing to do was to hang around the Starbucks on Sand Hill Road. After the crash, Starbucks was there to soothe our frazzled nerves and remind us that a little luxury could still be had. The housing refi bubble, of course, meant we still had the cash for a $5 a day coffee habit.

It's hard to say when Starbucks started to flame out. Several commentators pointed out that the brand basically jumped the shark the day they started introducing breakfast sandwiches. And today's news that they're planning to introduce instant coffee is obviously the nail in the coffin. (Or should I say the nail in the coffee?) But whenever the exact date was, the little green mermaid is now starting to look like a symbol of times gone by--times, in fact, that many of us would like to forget.

The irony, of course, is that Starbucks is not just a symbol. It's a real company that is struggling to stay afloat in a down economy. It must cut costs and seek new revenue sources. The fall has probably been coming for many years now, and even Howard Schultz's hasty return as CEO a year ago can't change the course it's on. And so sadly, it must come up with new gimmicks and innovations, it must automate its processes, and introduce all kinds of other measures to remain solvent. (Amazingly enough, it is still offering its employees health insurance, despite the fact that this is one cost that is helping sink the company.)

So, who knows? Maybe Starbucks the company will live on, gradually becoming associated with something as mundane as the supermarket coffee aisle, where its instant packets will compete for market share with Maxwell House and Folgers Crystals. But the Starbucks that was--the brand that I might actually say defined my generation in many ways--seems to be fading away with each blast of steam from the automatic espresso maker.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

When Good Aptonyms Go Bad

Walking through my neighborhood yesterday, my husband and I saw a house for sale. The name on the sign was such a perfect example of what The New Scientist has dubbed "nominative determinism" that I was tempted to stop and take a photo. The name? Cashin and Company. This is really the name of a real estate company. Cashin. Yes, say it slowly out loud. Not a difficult one to notice. This is a classic in what has now become a series I seem to be writing on "aptonyms" -- or, names that are all too appropriate to their owners. The last few being Bernie Madoff, Philander Rodman, Gary Gygax, and Louise Story.

Now, of course this is the name of a company, not a person. But my curiosity was piqued the minute I saw the sign. Was this a family name? If so, who were these original Cashins? And did they, so to speak, cash in on the real estate boom before cashing out and saddling this name with a new generation of realtors? When I got home I started doing some research. It wasn't easy, mind you, because when you enter the word "Cashin" along with the word "Realtor" on Google you get over 2 million hits, almost all of which are instructional pages on how to cash in on the real estate bubble.

After much blood, sweat and tears, I did manage to track down a page that gave a history of the Cashin company, and I couldn't have been better rewarded. According to the site, the story goes as follows:
"Our Roots: For over half a century, the name Cashin has been synonymous with exceptional quality, integrity and service in peninsula real estate. Cashin Company’s roots on the peninsula date back more than 50 years to when Emmet J. Cashin, Jr. began selling homes for Fox & Carskadon in Burlingame. By personally helping to develop neighborhoods like Sharon Heights, Sky Farm, Tobin Clark and Hillsdale, Emmet helped build the local communities we all know today. Later, Emmet’s son, Skip, took over Fox & Carskadon and grew it into one of the most successful independent real estate companies in the country." (Italics mine.)

I don't know why any businessman who was already saddled with the overly obviously name Cashin would choose to name his son Skip, but this is just what Emmet Cashin did. I have to admit that while researching this, a part of me hoped to find that the son had left town and was now on the run, but sadly this was not the case. If he's living out his name at all, however, it could be that as the real estate industry slides into oblivion, Skip Cashin may in fact not be earning the same level of revenues as he once did, in which case the name would have an unfortunate ring of truth to it--no doubt he must forego the usual bonuses for himself and his employees until this real estate mess gets sorted out.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Events on Facebook - How to Promote without Annoying

There's a lot of advice going around about how to use tools like Twitter or blogging appropriately to promote your business or service. But what about Facebook? I've noticed that a large number of the emails in my FB inbox these days are from people who have invited me to events that I'm not interested in attending, giving me endless details about said events until I am ready to de-friend without another thought. So, how do you use Facebook to promote yourself without alienating the very people who are in your trusted network? Here are my suggested rules for using Facebook as a promo tool--comments welcome, as I'm still thinking this one through.

1. Limit emails around an event to two per event--one when you first invite, and one right beforehand to remind people. I am shocked at how many reminder emails I sometimes get for just one event. Not to pick on someone who will remain nameless, but I received five such reminders for one company's New Year's party. How well thought out was that strategy?

2. Follow-ups should go to attendees only. Once you've set the event, I think it's right and appropriate to send emails to all those who are invited. Following that, wait a considerable period of time, and then ONLY send reminders to people who have either indicated they are attending, or might attend. Imagine how annoying it is to have done the polite thing and indicated that you are not going to make it, only to receive several more emails reminding you of the event!

3. The event page itself should include the ability to RSVP, or it's worse than useless. I'm surprised how often I get an invite and then when I reach the Facebook page I'm told I have to RSVP at evite or somewhere else. This is a misunderstanding of the power of social networks, which is that you can have people post their attendance on their profile, thus increasing the virality of the event. And why should I be forced into an extra step? It's an automatic turnoff.

4. OK this should be obvious but is not always--remember to always put in all the key details onto the event page, as well as in the invite and reminder emails.

Thoughts? Comments? I'm open.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Top 5 Blogging Mistakes

Everyone has a blog these days--doesn't matter if you're a multinational corporation or a dairy farmer. This is a good thing, in theory. I love hearing about people lives--especially people who have created a business out of something they're passionate about. If I see a blog I like, I'll almost always go and check out their home page as well. What most bloggers don't realize is that it's easier than they think to drive traffic--and a lot of it has to do with how the posts themselves are written. Here is my list of the top 5 most common mistakes people make when writing blog posts.
1. Length--Either people microblog (so, why did I click from Twitter?) or they write a novel. Ideal blog post length: 150-350 words. That's enough to express one idea, and not to go on too long about it.
2. Never getting to the point. Every time you post, ask yourself the following questions: What is the point? What am I trying to say? Why should anyone care?
3. Oversharing. I love to read tell-all memoirs and the like, but there's something about people putting intimate details of their personal lives on their blogs that is just ... creepy and wrong.
4. Being moderate or milquetoast in one's position. The corollary to this is that the best blogs are controversial. The most popular bloggers--think Perez Hilton, Ariana Huffington--are the ones with a very strong point of view.
5. Passive voice. Forget those term papers with the "It seems the author is trying to imply that Ulysses was attempting to be rescued..." lingo. Get active with the nouns and verbs, and all of a sudden the words leap off the page.

For more stuff like this, check out this interview on Robert Middleton's blog with someone named Daphne Gray-Grant.