Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Really Special People

I just had the most wonderful opportunity to spend 3 days with this year’s winners of the Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute Resonate Award.  These are people who have developed very innovative solutions to some of the biggest problems in sustainability.  If you want to read about the work of this year’s winners, check out the web site. 
I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist (fortunately) to know that these people are very special.  They are among the best in their fields in the world.  However, I had the chance to chat one on one with some of these wonderful scientists and discovered how special they are – beyond finding solutions to some of the world’s critical environmental issues:
At the end of the official several days together, three of us joined up for a hike in the Aspen area.  How fun!  And there is no better way to learn about what people are really like. Keeping us on the right trail without getting lost was Delia Milliron, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  Delia has (with her team) developed smart windows that can dramatically impact energy use in buildings.  She is tremendously articulate:  she can explain what she is doing at the scientific level, of course; more importantly, she can convey to people like me what she is doing, why it’s important, and its broad potential. Delia combines both the vision of a great innovator and the practical insights of a wonderful entrepreneur (a company has been formed based on these breakthroughs).  Besides that, she loves to hike, play poker, and probably lots of other things.  And mostly, she is a lovely person.
Our other hiking partner was Arshe Said.  Arshe is part of the team lead by Finland’s Aalta University Prof. Mika Järvinen (who is the Resonate Award Recipient) to develop a very significant way to use CO2 waste from industrial processes.  This is an often overlooked problem and the prospect of fixing it is very exciting.  But Arshe’s story goes well beyond working on this contribution.  He is originally from Somalia and arrived in Finland more than twenty years ago.  Recognizing that Somalians all over the world are facing various kinds of challenges, he is working in Finland and elsewhere to try to alleviate them.  Moreover, his goal in the next few years is to also spend time in Somalia and get involved in political movements that are trying to establish democracy in the country.  Arshe is such a nice man, and listening to him about the complexities facing Somalia was fascinating. (Besides, though Arshe is very fit, this was his first hike ever!)
At dinner one evening, I had the chance to spend time with Dr. Joel Dawson, an electrical engineer who until recently was a professor at MIT.  He is now the CTO and founder of ETA Devices.  Joel is terrific dinner company.  He not only explained to me (very patiently in his deep bass voice) what his company is doing, but he has a vision and understanding of business that I haven’t often seen in scientists.  He didn’t drown me with technology, but explained simply and with great examples what his company’s approach could mean to mobile devices, cell networks, and sustainability.  He shared that if Eta Devices’ chips are used in all base stations of around the world, the energy savings could equal the same as if we could take 7 million cars off the roads.  That’s meaningful.  Beyond our “shop talk”, Joel was very comfortable sharing his upbringing, how he found electronics, and where he thinks this all can go. 
Finally, at the beginning of the three days together, I asked Yi Cui, a Stanford professor and multi-time entrepreneur, how he got to where he is today.  The short version of his story is that he came from a small town in China and his parents had the prescience to move the family to a larger town for broader exposure.  He went to one of China’s premier technical universities and then came to the U.S.  These kinds of stories always amaze me.  But what is really amazing about Yi Cui is that, while listening to him, I realized that his is the embodiment of a “fertile” mind; this is a man with so many ideas.  He doesn’t seem to be constrained by uncertainty, doubt, or worry; he actually makes many of them happen.  By all accounts he is a brilliant scientist, but even without needing to discuss the science with me (since I wouldn’t understand most of it), it was clear that this man is changing the world.
The whole experience was so enriching.  These terrific people hold the future in their hands.  That’s a good thing.
(P.S.  The fifth winner is a lovely Japanese man.  Unfortunately, language constraints kept us from meaningful dialog.)
2015 Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute Resonate Award Winners  (From Left:  Neil Fromer, Executive Director, Resnick Sustainability Institute, Tsutomu Ioroi , Joel Dawson, Delia Milliron, Prof. Harry Atwater, Caltech, Yi Cui, Mika Järvinen, Arshe Said)

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cuba: the land of what you can do when you don't have a choice

(This is a version of comments also posted on Facebook.)

I've just returned from Cuba. What an incredible place! The people are lovely, the scenery is beautiful; it's rundown, but on its way to improvement.

But the single thing that struck me most was what the Cubans have been able to do because they simply didn't have a choice. This became particularly clear to me when I went into an art gallery with some of the best modern Art I've ever seen.  Every piece of art used recycled material. And yet it was fine art; it wasn't just glued together pieces and parts.  And then I started thinking about the cars.

We've all heard about the old cars in Cuba. There are a variety of reasons for their presence. But key to them is that they still run. And often without the real original parts.

Why? Because there was no choice. If you are Cuban with an old car, which is the only car available, and you want it to run, you just have to figure something out.

That's pretty much the way the country is all over. The cars,  the art, the food. 

And, the Ebola crisis has brought to our attention the excellence of the Cuban healthcare system. Two important pieces of data. The first is that the system is excellent, very organized, and focuses as much as possible on prevention. That's because they don't have the money to cure things.

The second amazing thing is that many doctors in Cuba have a second job. Because they don't get paid much as a doctor. One psychiatrist that I met was acting as a maître d' in a restaurant to augment his income. But he loves medicine. It was just amazing.

This is a dramatic contrast to the world of the Silicon Valley; this is the land of plenty. And yet, sometimes we forget about what it's like to have to use ingenuity instead of resources.

I encourage everyone to visit Cuba soon. If the rapprochement between the US and Cuba happens, the country will zoom into modernity. And, it's very likely that some of this wonderful can-do culture will be impacted by that.

The same is probably true about Vietnam, China, and  a number of countries I haven't visited. But it was so present in Cuba that I couldn't overlook it.

Happy new year. All the best wishes.

Abigail Johnson


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Friday, June 22, 2012

Hype Kills: Will Facebook's Troubled IPO Hurt The Brand?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Making a Revolutionary company Look Evolutionary

This past weekend, I read Om Malik's wonderful guidance about which seven stories to read this weekend. As always, this weekly list was provocative. One article that particularly caught my eye was "Why are we so Afraid of Creativity?". In short, creativity leads to uncertainty and "As a general rule, we dislike uncertainty. It makes us uneasy. A certain world is a much friendlier place."

This is a topic about which I am passionate because we live in an age of evolutionary innovation, to a large degree and those who are willing to think orthogonally are often accused of being dreamers. But that orthogonal thinking is what makes real movement in the market.

So what's a company to do when it has an (often technical) innovation that looks like an evolutionary innovation, but really has the potential to lead to an orthogonal market shift? Since we at Roeder-Johnson often work with companies that fit this description, it's a topic about which I think often.

Going back to the story about why we are afraid of creativity, the answer is:

-Understand what you really have (the "high concept").
-Build a communication and market strategy that first makes your breakthrough look and feel evolutionary.
-Then, when you have credibility, build the new, orthogonal trajectory on the foundation of the first stage success.

In some ways, you are building in your own "innovators' dilemma." That is, you know eventually, you will have to obsolete the perceptions you may have started out building. So why not just start with the big idea? Because in many more traditional markets with established perceptions (enterprise technology, vertical markets, etc.), the revolutionary idea can scare people and you won't build your base business before you move into the new realm.

Yes. We are back to the fact that creativity scares people.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Social Media and Building Sustainable Ideas: A complex puzzle

In this morning's news, an article ran called "'Kony 2012' grabs media attention, but it could be fleeting". The article is about social media and revolutions, summed up in a quote from the article: "When you use social media to bring down a dictator, it's simplistic and easy," says Christopher Tunnard, who studies the effect of social media on politics at Tufts University. "When you're trying to build things back up, it's much more complicated. It's very difficult to put together a story about how social media are being used to build up institutions."

Since this blog is not about global politics but communications issues, this morning's article highlights what I believe is perhaps the biggest issue in communications today: social media is very good for intermittent hits on single ideas. But how do you sustain and build an entire "ideology" with social media?

The first answer to this question is to keep your ideas simple. We have talked a lot in this blog about a "high concept".

But the second answer, about which we have also talked, harkens back to our view of creating a "communications architecture." That is, even when you have a single "high concept", building an entire infrastructure around it is critical to build sustained ideologies.

I believe we are all just in the early stages of understanding how to implement this second strategy with social media. There will be a lot of experimentation in the next few years; though it is likely that the right approach will revolve around creating social media campaigns that systematically build and weave ideas.

There's a lot more to think about re how these campaigns are created. Watch this space.

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Hype Kills Redux: Is Apple's Lesson "Underpromise and Over deliver"?

Yesterday, Apple introduced the new iPad. There have been various reactions. But pretty much everyone was underwhelmed or, at the very least, a little disappointed.

So what's going on here? The new iPad is a good product; its screen excites a lot of people. But the reality is that this new product is just an evolutionary step for Apple.

That's ok. Companies need to have systematic product introduction plans that build on their existing customer base and momentum. The difference is that Apple, on a regular basis, challenges conventional wisdom and keeps itself in a leadership position.

So what should Apple have done? It should probably have managed down expectations. Instead of getting people hyped up for a new a dramatic product; it should have let us know, in advance, what we should expect.

We call that "underpromise and over deliver."

Let people be pleasantly surprised, rather than unpleasantly disappointed.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Netflix and the Myth of Transparency in the Modern Age

A few days ago, Netflix announced that it would not, after all, split the company in two. You know the story -- recognizing its future is in streaming media, Netflix set out to create separate companies for its DVD and Streaming businesses.

When the company met with a very bad reaction from customers (and a lot of other constituencies), it retracted the plan. Some press described Reed Hastings a "chastened", among other words.

There are probably a number of lessons here. But, I believe the lesson in this episode is that transparency in the new media age is a myth. Netflix was attempting to be the ultimate in transparent: acknowledging to the market that its future was not in DVDs and a new company needed to be formed. It wasn't hiding that fact or playing games. Just taking steps and moving ahead.

A lot of people say that in today's world of 24/7 communications, the market figures everything out and you might as well just admit what you are doing and not try to manage your communications. Netflix did just that and was roundly punished for it.

The reality is it's critical to be a bit cagey in today's world. Or alternatively, do what you want to do but don't acknowledge or admit it. We have seen Facebook, Amazon, Google and many other companies do that repeatedly in recent years. And despite exclamations to the contrary, some of these moves might be a just a little evil.

Netflix was actually trying to not be evil. And it was vilified.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Hashtag Movements: Whither big ideas and social media?

One of the most puzzling communications issues today is how to introduce new ideas in the current environment that is dominated by social media and often calls for 140 character ideas. This is a question I think about regularly because we often represent companies that aren't just an evolutionary step from something that exists already, but often call for people to think about new and different issues.

I was reminded of this puzzle in reading today's Reuters story about the current anti-Wall Street movement.

What can we learn from this movement, called "Occupy Wall Street" and which has been described as a "hashtag movement"? I think there's one big lesson: social media works to generate interest when you can sum up your new idea with a simple, short tagline. I am not trying to be caustic or cynical here. Just observant.

Does that work for all communications problems? I am going to have to keep thinking about it. Over the years, as we have worked with companies with big, new ideas, I have come to understand that to help them succeed we need to come up with a way to systematically lead the market to believe it needs what the company has. In "the old" world where people relied on somewhat extended stories, we could develop an educational program designed to raise questions, answer them and gently ease perception in the direction we wanted. This could be systematic and allowed for explanation and clarification along the way.

But how do you do this when 140 characters is the norm? This is a really big challenge for new ideas.

There's clearly an opportunity within the social media space to address this issue. In the meantime, is the answer a series of progressive "hashtag movements" to get a market from here to there?

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

No, Cisco Didn't Flip Out; A good, Fast Lesson for Start Ups

When I first read about Cisco's decision to shut down its Flip division, I was stunned. This technology/product seemed like a no brainer. Even though the capability is quickly being built into multi-purpose, networked devices, surely Flip cameras would be needed or could be repurposed.

I don't know if there is a case to be made for that argument, but Cisco has just taught start ups a really important lesson:

if you have piece of your business that doesn't focus on your core capabilities, don't let it sink slowly. Kill it quickly.

It's hard for any company to do that, but it's really hard for a big business to do it. Because they often have the resources to support the ship in hopes of finding a solution. But with start ups, where every penny matters, that option is not available. Make these decisions quickly.

Of course, this depends on understanding clearly what your core essence is. Because you don't want to kill businesses that are key to that essence. That's what makes the fast decision so hard.

But Cisco's lesson is really important; they know their essence and saw that the Flip wasn't part of it.

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Friday, April 08, 2011

Set Some Priorities; What is the Goal and How do we Get There? Well, maybe it's not that easy

We work with start ups, primarily. And I can't help being aghast at the current government shutdown debate (which may be resolved by the time you read this). When you work with young companies that are trying to make a difference, every day involves setting priorities.

Based on having worked with with nearly 100 new and growing companies, there is actually one question that underpins the determination of priorities:

*What is our company's goal and how do we optimize getting there?

Though this may be a simple question, it's pretty hard to answer. We suggest a recipe:

1. Understand -- at your core -- what is your essence as a company -- what is it you are really trying to do?
2. How will you realize this essence and truly optimize next steps as a company?
3. How do these next steps fit into your company architecture? That is, based on your goal, how do you set priorities so that you don't compromise critical path items in favor of short term issues.
4. Keep reassessing.

These questions impact communications strategy directly. So we are often right in the middle of this discussion. Sometime there's instinct involved in finding the right answer. But, at the same time, the key is having a clear vision and continuously moving in that direction.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Let's not Forget to Talk to Each Other

We ran into friends after a movie last night and sat down for a cup of coffee. I hike with the husband, but hadn't met his wife (I'll call her Brenda) and just learned what she does: she helps people figure out the best elder care solutions for their family members. Because Brenda has such a personal profession, she mentioned that she finds it's VERY important to talk with her clients, rather than just email.

This was a great reminder. Brenda mentioned that phone and in-person conversations are so important because she gets so much out of the nuance of people's voices and even how they phrase questions and answers. This gives her a far better opportunity to truly provide the best counsel.

This is a great reminder. Because working in technology, we all know that it's very easy to communicate electronically with short phrases to get a lot of our day to day work done. There's no question that this is a great enhancement in efficiency. But, sometimes, how much is lost in translation?

This reminder is particularly important when building a communications strategy. We need to know how to use all of these instant, quick communications tools/media; And we need to know how to emulate the nuances of emotion and intent through these instant approaches -- that is, how do you get nuance and emotion into 140 characters? That's a fun puzzle, which we find very interesting to try to solve.

At the same time, we encourage clients to remember to find ways to communicate verbally where possible. In-person and on the phone communications are more time-consuming, but they might can work wonders to cement a relationship or impart the essence of what you are trying to communicate.

And by the way, in today's world in which there are so many new ways to communicate instantly, there are also lots of new ways to ensure that we are able to talk to each other.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

How Supporting a Relay Race can Lead to Big Thinking about Communications!

I had a great weekend! Along with my husband, I was part of a team of people supporting the Coast Guard Team for the Baker to Davis Run. There were a few things about it that were terrific:

1. It was fascinating to be a part of such an intricate puzzle of logistics. There were 23 runners (20 main and 3 alternates) running a 120 mile course who needed to be delivered to starting points, followed for safety, and picked up. There were 7 support vans, a communications team, medical teams, and miscellaneous other volunteers (a total of about 50). And all of these needed to be coordinated in split seconds so that none of the team's advantage was lost to logistics. See the Team 1790 blog to read some of the highlights of each leg of the race. It was a great learning process and a little hint of what our armed services face on a daily basis.

2. The active duty and reserve Coast Guard personnel participating on the team were terrific. They were energetic, focused, and cared deeply about their mission. And it was really fascinating to hear about their day-to-day lives in the Coast Guard or as Reservists (one of the reservists is the head of City Planning for a city in California; another is a Las Vegas police officer; and I didn't get to hear about the rest).

3. Having been exposed to the Coast Guard through my husband's participation in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, I have become aware of how unheralded the Coast Guard is as a critical armed service. It is the oldest service and is responsible today for homeland security at every port and on every body of water in the U.S. as well as having numerous responsibilities in international missions. But it seems that, compared to the other armed services, most of us hardly know about the Coast Guard, in spite of its importance. It turns out that the one of the team members whom I met this weekend will soon be a member of the headquarters communications team for the Coast Guard. It got me to thinking about how interesting it could be to take on the mission to raise the awareness of the important role the Coast Guard plays in our Nation. Just as with any organization -- like a start-up company or large corporation -- the Coast Guard could be positioned strategically to accomplish certain key goals. And even though security is a necessary element of its mission, it would be highly possible to create a set of key messages and implement a consistent series of campaigns that could, over time, create a new understanding of the important role of the Coast Guard.

I never would have thought that a weekend of helping support a relay race could have such broad impact!

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