Archive for the ‘The Web and Technology’ Category

The only sustainable business advantage

Monday, September 4th, 2017

On September 5, 1882, the Knights of Labor celebrated the first Labor Day in New York City’s Union Square.

The Knights of Labor

The Knights were an unusual organization for their day, eschewing radicalism and enrolling all segments of labor:

  • from skilled to unskilled workers;
  • from managers to sharecroppers; and
  • including recent immigrants, African Americans, and women.

They only excluded “the unproductive members of society“: bankers, gamblers, lawyers, and liquor manufacturers.

They did not divide management and labor, as later movements did. The Knights deemed the true threat to a well-functioning business to be those that did not value their employees as human beings, the unscrupulous robber barons. They demanded that businesses allow employees their rightful voice at the decision-making table. (As well as for the government to prohibit exploitative and unsafe work conditions and child labor.)

The Knights kept their member list secret to prevent retaliation from the robber barons. For years, the robber barons used every economic and judicial tool to silence the voices of the employees. Within a decade, paramilitary action decimated the Knights of Labor in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair and the Thibodaux massacre.

As other groups rose up to fill the void, they separated skilled and unskilled workers, management and factory workers. The hard-won rights that were finally enacted into law reflected this splintering. They protected factory-type workers, who represented only one side of the Knights of Labor coalition and excluded groups ranging from sharecroppers to managers.

The destructive short-term mentality of private equity

Today, technical innovation has made these protections obsolete. Everyone is a manager – of contractors and technology. Automation has enabled machines to take on some tasks, from automated teller machines to machine translation. The gig economy has allowed owners to rent out idle resources (their time, language expertise, cars and homes). Every service business is now a tech-enabled service business.

Venture capital firms, using the Giant Pool of Money at the center of the world economy, drove this disruptive, but value-creating innovation. But there is a darker side. Venture capital is only a small portion of the $100 trillion shadow banking system. This shadow system employs thousands to wring profits from this Giant Pool of Money rather than to create value. Endemic corruption (legal and illegal) ensures that this shadow system works hand in hand with the more regulated banking system.

As President Obama said, when the “priority is to maximize profits – that’s not always going to be good for businesses or communities or workers.” This corruption works by maximizing short-term, inflated profits at the expense of long-term profit derived from actual value. And it ensures that there are no losers among the banks and consulting agencies and lawyers. The only losers are among the businesses, communities, and employees who are in it for the long-term.

The key insight came to me when a friend working in finance told me that I kept thinking like an operator, rather than someone in finance. What he meant was that an operator tries to build a business – with products, processes, teams – that creates value and that sustains it.

But for someone in finance their profit is derived not from value created over time, but from proximity to an immediately profitable deal. To the wrong type of financier, people and customer loyalty are expendable things to be used and then discarded in return for a quick profit. (Footnote 1.)

The destructive cycle is inevitable:

Once the buyout is completed, the private equity guys start swinging the meat axe, aggressively cutting costs wherever they can – so that the company can start paying off its new debt – by laying off workers and cutting capital costs…

It takes several years before the impacts of this predatory activity – reduced customer service, inferior products – become fully apparent, but by that time the private equity firm has generally resold the business at a profit and moved on.

I’ve seen this play out in news stories. The leader in my own industry went through a dramatic restruring as it prepared to sell itself to private equity:

  • pushing out many of it’s top innovators and the leaders who built the company’s value and brand; and
  • outsourcing it’s production centers to lower cost centers as it cut costs.

This is the absolute opposite of the Value Investing that Warren Buffett advocates. It’s bad for the economy. It’s bad for most people. But it sure makes a killing for a handful of companies in the short-term.

The only sustainable competitive advantage

Last September in San Francisco, the co-CEO of my company told a group of clients:

In my 24 years as CEO, I have learned one big thing. All competitive advantages – price, quality, even technology – are commoditized over a long-enough time horizon. They only way to have a sustainable competitive advantage is people.

That is the type of company I want to work for; and today, it is the company I am proud to work for. I’m proud of the products my team has created, and the successes, both for clients and internally. I’m proud of the team for coming together again and again in the midst of adversity and distraction.

But our economy is filled with vultures; and it’s hard to turn down a quick profit, no matter the pangs of conscience. With barbarians at the gate, what are we to do? The Hollywood ending calls for Richard Gere to realize that he no longer wants to rip companies apart for short-term profits. Instead, he wants to help them build a better boats.

But in reality, greed outstrips morality most days of the week. But for this one day, in honor of Labor Day:

  • we should all reflect on the company we work for;
  • we should reflect on our position and the value we offer;
  • we should look at whether we have a voice at the decision-making table today and in the future; and
  • we should think about the type of society we want to live in, and whether our actions today are helping to create that society.

For if we don’t, we are destined to be mere cogs in a machine, waiting to be outsourced.

***

 

[Political posts have been…let’s say rarer from me. My professional page is now at JoeCampbell.me]

Footnote 1: A cartoon villain of an attorney once told me and a group of employees that private equity firms “could staff [the company I work for] in a week with people of…equal, if not superior talents.”

 

AT&T Is Asking Us To Trust Them

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened. Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said:

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[…] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

  • Thou shalt not discuss the political activities AT&T engages in rather than providing decent service.
  • Thou shalt not discuss when AT&T censors you so as better to maintain the fiction of a ‘Community’ Forum.

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch) — and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you.

Capitalism in Practice

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve started Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, a history of information industries in America; and having read Ayn Rand’s fictional Atlas Shrugged earlier this year — I wonder what Rand would make of this history of industrial warfare.

One of the motifs of Wu’s history is a theme of Rand’s novel — the extreme lengths the rich and powerful will go to in order to quash a disruptive technology. In the novel, it was Rearden steel — a metal stronger, cheaper, and better in every way than ordinary steel; in Wu’s history, it is every technological innovation from the phone to FM radio to television to the internet. In both history and the novel, the established industry used corrupt scientific experts, intimidation of suppliers, government regulation, and the blocking of financing to prevent the disruptive technology from taking off.

Rand’s novel though divides the everyone into two categories: the productive who are proud, competitive, inventive individuals who make everything of worth; and the looters who are unproductive and seek to leach off of the productive using the government, religion, and pity.

Wu’s history reveals a rather different story. There is no figure in history to match the strong, creative, independent, self-made industrial magnate Dagny Taggart. There are few who resemble her brother, the weak, dependent, self-loathing James Taggart who adds nothing of worth to the business except to plead with the government to stop his competitors because their superiority is unfair,

Only rarely do the inventors become rich. More often, they are outmaneuvered by corporate titans who use every means at their disposal to win. When Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1934, he had pioneered a technology that allowed for better sound quality and that could fit more stations in the same radio spectrum with less interference. David Sarnoff, a major figure in the AM radio industry, was able to prevent FM radio from gaining wide acceptance until the 1970s through a combination of public propaganda, lobbying to change obscure rules relating to radio spectrum usage, and control over the manufacturing of radio players. David Sarnoff managed a vast business empire; he was at the cutting edge of innovations in radio and television. He won not because he was weak and unproductive (as Rand’s villains are) — but because he was ruthless.

Rand’s many fans aren’t typically the creative inventors. They are the very businessmen who see moral justification for their wealth in her philosophy. But they, like the businessmen in Wu’s history, are distinguished not for their purity of motive or love of competition, but their willingness to use any means at their disposal to achieve the corporate empire they seek. Unlike the fictional heroes of Rand’s novel, they do not seek competition. They seek a final victory and end to the competition.

In the theories of Rand and many of her acolytes, capitalism is about competition. In practice, capitalism has about brute strength and force used in restraint of competition.

[Image by Ron Schott licensed under Creative Commons.]

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-11-19

Friday, November 19th, 2010
  • reddit: making the world a better place. http://bit.ly/bDwN5m #
  • "I think your lawyers just like to see ppl under water" J Stewart on why GWB's attys approved waterboarding but not saving hurricane victims #

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Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-11-12

Friday, November 12th, 2010

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Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-10-22

Friday, October 22nd, 2010
  • Remember when people now waxing nostalgic re:"good ol Bill" warned re“1st frankly left-wing administration in history”? http://bit.ly/dqJXuJ #
  • Foreign-owned co. w/ties to Saudi extremists attacks internet foundation in NYC to stop customers f/seeing Fox shows. http://nyti.ms/cbyFCG #
  • And now officially done with the Law Offices of Paul J. Giacomo…with the exception of my final paycheck… #

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Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-10-01

Friday, October 1st, 2010
  • Fox News employs and has exclusive contracts with 4 of the top 5 potential Republican presidential nominees. http://bit.ly/avkqTm #
  • Do Not Lean on Door. http://bit.ly/9hMWIY #
  • Something intense going on in Wantagh around Adelphi Rd – Saw 3 cop cars, ambulance w/police escort & police copter all converge w/in min. #
  • I'm not really sure what the controversy about Stephen Colbert's Congressional appearance was… But see for yourself. http://bit.ly/9rZZz5 #

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Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-09-17

Friday, September 17th, 2010
  • Martin Luther King would be a Tea Party member if he were alive today! http://bit.ly/dDnVfh #
  • Marc Ambinder gets a lot right on principles in dealing with the 'Ground Zero Mosque' and Qur'an burning. http://bit.ly/bB0W7H #
  • On @Park51 & Qur'an burning, @marcambinder: Mainly, I agree but wouldn't this incentivize those hurt to make themselves heard by harming? #

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Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-09-03

Friday, September 3rd, 2010
  • True Story. http://bit.ly/9aKrI4 #
  • The Onion hews closely to reality with "Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims" http://onion.com/9D0ycc #
  • I remember reading Reagan wasn't woken up by staff as they made decisions re. mdnght Latin Am coup. Can't find info now. Anyone help me out? #

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Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-08-27

Friday, August 27th, 2010

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