Thursday, August 31, 2006

Jordan vs. Montana

There’s no denying that Michael Jordan was perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. What I find most interesting about Jordan’s career is actually the time he DIDN’T play. As most of you know, I’m an all-around dork but particularly so when it comes to statistics and probability. It’s rare to find so striking an example of one player’s influence on a team both positively in attendance and negatively in absence. Here's the history of the Chicago Bulls from Let’s just simplify things and look at championships instead of analyzing the individual seasons' records which are somewhat meaningless anyhow given the extended postseason in the NBA. From 1990 to 1993, the Bulls won 3 NBA championships with Jordan. After the ’93 season, Jordan retired and the Bulls failed to win another championship. Then, the first full year Jordan returned and for the following 2 years, the Bulls won 3 more championships. In 1998, Jordan retired for good and the Bulls have pretty much been pathetic ever since.

Let’s contrast this story with Joe Montana. As opposed to Jordan, when Montana left the 49ers, his team didn’t fall apart. In fact, the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIX just 2 years after Montana was traded to the Chiefs.

I frequently use the example of Jordan and Montana as allegory for leadership in business. While my ego would sometimes prefer to be Michael Jordan, I'd really rather be Joe Montana.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Case for China

As part of implementing a new computer system, I currently have some data entry to be done. It's only about a day or two of work for a clerical person and clearly not worth the time and expense of outsourcing it. That being said, I've got 25 people working for me in our China office who each make a fraction of what his or her U.S. counterpart make. You'd better believe I'm overnighting documents for them to do the data entry!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jetlag stinks

I can barely keep my eyes open much less come up with something to blog about....

Monday, August 28, 2006

Perfect vs. Good Enough Entrepreneurial Opportunity

I had an interesting discussion this past weekend with some friends who were thinking about making the jump to something entrepreneurial in the next few years. Assuming your current situation is tenable, should you exercise patience and hold out for the "perfect" opportunity or jump into something "good enough" and trust that you'll be able to make a go of the situation? Obviously, financial stability and self-confidence are factors. But I also think certain opportunities only present themselves when you're actually running the business and remain hidden if you're just watching from the sidelines. It's sort of like small-ball versus long-ball baseball. And with all due respect for the Moneyball devotees, there's nothing I like better than watching a perfectly executed squeeze play or a delayed double steal.

By the way, I'm in New York this week so give me a buzz if you want to catch any of the Yankees-Tigers games.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Back in LA

I'm back in LA for the weekend. Got upgraded to first class on the China Eastern flight from Shanghai which had fully-horizontal seats. There's a HUGE difference between "nearly horizontal" (business class) and "fully horizontal" (first class) as I was able to sleep the entire 13 hours! Why don't airlines configure sleeping berths ala capsule hotels in Japan?

P.S. Can anyone tell me how the heck to edit the blogger CSS file so that the recent comments links to the right show up on one line?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Now I Feel Old

One of my employees here in Shanghai was amazed when I told her that U.C. Berkeley didn't have WiFi in the dorm rooms when I was there. She was astounded that a school she held in such high regard was so archaic. I had to explain to her that WiFi (not to mention the internet) didn't exist back then. OK, technically Al Gore invented it a few years earlier, but it wasn't quite in the format we know and love today....

Greener Grass

Over lunch today, one of my coworkers told me, "Well, at least in Los Angeles you don't have to deal with traffic like we have here in China...."

The funny thing is she was right.

Retailing Among Thieves

DVD pirating in China is big business. I have no idea what the total dollar value is but DVD storefronts are everywhere. Shops compete on value-added services such as location, return policy, convenience of store hours, and quality of piracy. Under this hyper-competitive market, the consumer apparently wins. I took a quick peek into a "legitimate" music shop the other day and the retail price of the new Rolling Stones CD which looked official (it had a hologram on the packaging but this could very easily be fake as well) was 20 RMB or $2.50 which is about the same as cleaning one sleeve and the collar of my dress shirt.

Global Capacities

I've spent quite a bit of time touring textile plants in Pakistan and China in the past few months. Almost each and every plant I've seen is currently undergoing a massive expansion. The funny thing is that many of these plants are not running at anywhere near fully capacity right now. Seems as though everyone thinks there's beauty in scale. And while there definitely are efficiencies to be gained, overcapacity is a deadly curse. Trust me on this one. I have a great deal of first hand experience with overcapacity and the refusal to deal with it.

The Family Business

Another random Pakistan thought: many of the businesses I saw when I was there were family businesses. Some patriarch was the CEO with his sons managing the various business units. Grandsons were generally managers in the Sales or Sourcing department. What struck me was that the family members were ALWAYS working. Every discussion and every meal was about the business. Kids were groomed from a very young age about their responsibility to carry forward with the family business. There seemed to be a sense of OBLIGATION as opposed to ENTITLEMENT.

The Best Mentor: Opportunity

A great deal of business press stresses the importance of finding a good mentor early in your career. While I think this approach is generally right, I wouldn't underestimate the value of jumping into the deep end of the pool and learning to swim yourself. When I look back upon my own experiences, the times that I have learned and grown the most occurred when I was more or less unqualified for the situation. I have come across several individuals here in Shanghai who are a great deal more qualified and polished than their years of experience would indicate. I think it's because they've been swimming in the deep end by themselves for the past few years.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Tissues in Pakistan

Completely random post: When I was in Pakistan, one of the weirdest things I came across (well, besides the Sikh temple which treated a book as a human being complete with an air conditioned bedroom) was the fact that people used tissues instead of napkins.

Price Discrimination in Shanghai

Most businesses in Shanghai appear to be business casual. In fact, only ex-pats wear dress shirts which is a fact that the JW Marriott has chosen to exploit shamelessly. Guesses how much it costs to launder a dress shirt....


I just can't bring myself to pay that price on principle alone even though I can expense it. Guess I'm bringing my dirty dress shirts back home with me this weekend.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Say what?!?!

Andrew Young should have just said, "Wal-Mart is more efficient and it goes without saying that more efficient is better." I guess he and Trent Lott can now comisserate over their comments being misinterpreted by the public.

I'm not sure what the media coverage over this story is in the US right now, but it's on the bottom of the front page of the Herald Tribune which appears to be the international edition of the New York Times.

Speaking of the media, does arresting that creepy waxy-looking guy in Thailand in connection with the JonBenet case really warrent the top story on CNN International for the past 3 days?!?!


I've been suffering from an unusual affliction in Shanghai I call "proscrimination". It's the opposite of discrimination where instead of underestimating my abilities, people overestimate mine! Everyone I've run across assumes I can speak Mandarin and doesn't understand why I don't. Waiters, taxi drivers, shopkeepers -- you name it. I think this makes it harder for me to get around than people of non-Asian descent who don't speak the language. Service people who lack fluency in English can subtlely opt-out of dealing with foreigners but I seem to throw them for quite a loop! When is Microsoft finally going to develop that babblefish already?

Logan's Run: 2006

I've come across something here in Shanghai I think is very interesting: all of the knowledge workers are very young. After thinking about it more, this phenomenon is probably repeated in many developing nations. Basically, anyone over 35 years old grew up in a very different time when China was dominated by state-run enterprises. This entire generation of workers is now either VERY wealthy (and as such not interested in working for a company), corrupt, or not very talented [editor's note, the first two attributes are not necessarily mutually exclusive]. It's surprisingly hard to find good middle-managers and no, that's not an oxymoron.

Yes, Virginia, there is a weekend

One of the suppliers I met with asked me an amusing question. She wanted to know if it was true that children in American get "two vacation days a week." When I told her that was in fact the norm, her face lit up and she said, "Sounds like Heaven!"

It's Christmas in Shanghai!

For those of you who get annoyed that the malls get decked out with Christmas stuff too early, skip this post. It's already Christmas season in Shanghai. I visited a few textile plants last week and all of them were busy ramping up production for the U.S. Christmas shopping season. I saw row after row of sewing machines dilligently fabricating stocking some of you may be buying in 3 months time. And a quick word to the wise: ALWAYS wash a new item before using it. I could elaborate but I won't.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Shanghai: Second First Impressions

As some of you know, I'll be commuting between New York and Shanghai for the next few months. I've just arrived in Shanghai and have two quick anecdotes to share which illustrate how much Shanghai has changed since my last trip here four years ago.

First, four years ago, it seemed as though 90% of the passengers cars were the exact same make, model, and color: VW Santana in black. This time, only about 50% of the passenger cars were VW Santanas and they now come in an assortment of colors including aqua and lime green!

Second, I asked the bellboy at the JW Marriott if the hotel was new. He replied, "No, it's old. It was built back in 2003."

Saturday, August 12, 2006

LA vs. NY

For the past 6 months, I've been commuting between Los Angeles and New York. I awoke this morning in my Santa Monica condo and realized one small difference that I truly miss: sleeping with the windows open.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Problem with Airport Security #1 (in a planned series)

One major problem with airport security today is the lack of incentives on the part of the airport to do a good job. While I definitely applaud the job the British intelligence agents have done in foiling the latest terrorist plot and think the threat of terrorism is real, I’m left wondering exactly how much safer I am because of the rude TSA agent at JFK. Exactly what would happen if a pair of shoes just happened to enter the x-ray machine in one of the grey trays? I could go on and on about the rejects from the Post Office who get recruited to be TSA screeners, but this post is actually about queuing theory and incentives.

I suffered through a hour-long check-in process at JFK this morning which was shorter than I was expecting and MUCH shorter than the ludites who didn’t use one of the self-serve kiosks. The long wait was based on two major factors: more checked baggage than usual and slightly more extensive personal screening. Both of these factors could easily have been anticipated by the airport security staff and airlines. In fact, they WERE anticipated as evidenced by the warning for passengers to arrive at the airport even earlier than normally recommended. Now here’s where I get confused. This is a very simple operations problem. You have the same number of expected customers (perhaps slightly fewer as some are spooked and change their travel plans) and longer service times (see above). There really is only one solution to this problem: BRING IN MORE OPERATORS (in this case, service agents)! Simply asking people to come in earlier and wait in longer lines only works if there are long lulls during the day for the operators to catch up. And while there may be a morning rush, I would assume most major airports get fairly steady business throughout the day. Even if there are lulls, why is having customers arrive an extra hour early the solution?

Which gets me to the incentive part. While I fully appreciate the efficiency of having security checkpoints pooled between airlines, I think decoupling the security screening from the airline produces a sub-optimal situation. There is a complete lack of accountability for rude and inefficient security screenings. I’ve personally asked to file formal complaints with TSA supervisors in the past year and only once has anyone done anything besides offering me a cursory “We’ll look into it.” Who exactly is the TSA anyhow? What sort of training are they given? I watched one TSA supervisor yell at a woman for 10 minutes this morning for her to “calm down!” I’m sure that works every time. By privatizing the security screening, airlines would have incentives to provide a quality service as customers dissatisfied with their screening (as the woman this morning clearly was) can opt to go with a competitor. And airlines have even more incentive than a murky government agency (TSA) to assure no dangerous material or person is allowed to board their flights as their business depends on safety.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Do you re-read old books?

One of my hobbies is reading non-fiction books. I probably average 15-20 books a year or so. I generally read them once, put them on the shelf, and occasionally refer back to passage or two. I seldom re-read an entire book. In fact, I think there is only one book I've read more than once. That book is The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Strategy vs. Operations

There's a saying in the military that amateurs talk strategy and that professionals talk logistics and operations. I think this adage also applies to the business world. Having a sound strategy is vital to any business but I have found that most people seriously underestimate the importance (and difficulty) of solid operations. By operations, I’m referring to the everyday blocking and tackling of marching goods and services from point A in the value chain to point B – nothing more than carrying out the business strategy as laid forth. MUCH easier said than done. While I don’t have data to back up this statement, I think many more companies fail because of poor execution than bad strategy. The bad strategy folks just get more press because it’s more interesting to talk about strategy than operations. Would you rather discuss what went wrong with or the U.S. auto industry?

Put another way, is operational excellence sufficient competitive advantage? I think it is.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The new career paradigm: Multi-Gig Entrepreneur

I was at dinner the other night with an old friend, Jameson Thottam who has an interesting take on careers. Namely, he advocates everyone should have several at the same time. By day, he works in Bus Dev for a real estate developer. By night, he invests in rental properties on his own. We have a mutual friend who has no fewer than five (FIVE!) gigs going on right now including CTO for an entertainment production company, consultant to the film industry, and professional screenwriter (he currently has a script in development at Paramount).

The more I think about it, the more this paradigm makes sense to me. In my experience, there are peaks and valleys with most jobs. For borderline ADD individuals such as myself, juggling multiple gigs forces me to maintain focus and actually INCREASES my productivity with each situation.

This might be the next logical step in the evolution from lifetime employment to free agent to multi-gig entrepreneur.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Lesson Learned the Hard Way #1: Negotiations

The most important part of a successful negotiation is making sure you want to deal with the other party in the first place. I've learned this lesson the hard way through many unsuccessful interactions. I've come to the conclusion that a prerequisite to a fruitful exchange is to avoid dealing with irrational people. For instance, I'd rather take my chances with a slick used-car salesman whose profit motive is hyper-rational than a someone selling the family station wagon he or she grew up with.

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