Category Archives: Business & Marketing

How Budget Rental Accused Me of Fraud Over Their Mistake

This is a story of corporate greed. Or maybe just uncaring incompetence. I’m not sure if anyone in this story cares enough to actually be motivated by greed.

We rented a car from Budget in Seattle last June during our vacation. Then in October we received a letter about glass damage on the rental car and we apparently owed $558.99.

That sucks, I thought. I didn’t remember getting any chips in the windshield, but anything’s possible. I figured we’d have to pony up, but on a whim I emailed Budget back asking for proof of the glass damage. It seemed odd that it would take them nearly four months to find the damage and bill us.

Budget’s response was basically, oops, our bad. Nevermind. There was no damage and we wouldn’t be charged.

That’s great!

Except we were charged $558.99 for glass damage.

Continue reading How Budget Rental Accused Me of Fraud Over Their Mistake

Do What You Say You’re Going to Do

Dear People on the Internet,

Do what you say you’re going to do.

Especially when you take people’s money and promise to do something.

(Neglected Kickstarter projects, I’m looking at you.)

Because people are watching. We’re asking questions. We’re gauging your reputation.

Now we can be reasonable. We understand when things don’t work out or stuff falls apart. Sometimes a project doesn’t go the way you think it’s going to go. That’s OK. But don’t just disappear. Tell us what happened. Own it. That strengthens your reputation. We’ll give you some slack.

But when you just drop the ball? When you move on and you’re afraid to talk about it because you know you screwed up? That’s a problem. You’re tanking your reputation and the next time you ask for something, we’re going to say no.

Kids Creating Stuff Online

Kids Creating Stuff Online: Inspiring the Innovators of the FutureI’m a big fan of the Internet. I’m also a big fan of kids doing stuff online. That should come as no surprise—I did publish a book with my daughter (The Stephanies!) and helped her turn her drawings into $675 for Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

The Internet enables a lot of cool things and age is not a problem. In fact, kids often come up with the best ideas.

That’s why it’s important that we help our kids understand the Internet and make the most of it. There’s a lot of potential online, both for harm and for good. Frankly, I’m tired of the sad stories of pathetic things people have done online. I don’t want to read another story about students being expelled over something posted on Facebook. I’d much rather hear about the cool things kids are doing online:

  • Like coding and selling their own Justin Bieber whack-a-mole app, Bustin Jieber.
  • Or launching a fashion magazine that would make Oprah jealous.
  • Or creating an artificial intelligence to better diagnose breast cancer (I don’t even understand that one).

Every example above is a project launched by someone under 18. How cool is that?

And they’re all in the free ebook, Kids Creating Stuff Online: Inspiring the Innovators of the Future.

It’s a project I put together for WordPress theme and plugin developer iThemes that explores how kids can create stuff online. Initially we were going to explore kids coding, but as I got into the topic it seemed so much more interesting to explore kids creating all kinds of stuff online. So we talk about coding, design, writing, music, causes and so much more.

The book explores the benefits kids get from creating stuff online, from becoming better thinkers to improving their relational skills.

Then it explores how kids can create stuff online, practical strategies and tips to make things easier.

There’s a section about being safe and smart online, how educators can help kids create stuff online and a slew of resources and tools to help kids. All throughout the book are examples of kids creating cool stuff.

It’s a fun project and I hope you’ll check it out and pass it along to your friends. After all, it’s free. Grab a copy: Kids Creating Stuff Online: Inspiring the Innovators of the Future.

How to Make the Most of Kickstarter

I did a Kickstarter campaign last month to publish a book my daughter and I wrote together (now available!). I think platforms like Kickstarter are awesome, but only if you know how to use them. There are a lot of amazing stories about creative projects being, well, kickstarted with huge piles of funding thanks to Kickstarter. But you don’t hear the stories of all the failed projects that didn’t quite get there.

I’ve done both, a failed project about Como Park and a successful campaign for The Stephanies. Here’s what I learned about Kickstarter:

What’s the Project?
You need to have a clear, simple description of the project you’re going to do. Give us details: Who are you, why are you the person to create this, why is it worth doing, why do you need Kickstarter, etc. I’m shocked at how many people just throw up an idea and expect money to pour in. Doesn’t work that way. Show me what you’re going to do and how you’re going to get there. You should put enough sweat into the project before Kickstarter that I can see it coming to life. I’m investing in an idea. I’m not investing in you coming up with an idea.

Keep your goal realistic. If you don’t hit your goal you get nothing. But you can always go over your goal. What’s the bare minimum you’d do this project for? That’s your goal. Don’t put in lots of extra cushion room. Keep that goal attainable. The goal for The Stephanies was $300 in 30 days. Easy. Also, keep that time frame short. 30 days should be the max. We hit our goal for The Stephanies in three days.

Rewards are huge, but easy to do wrong. Keep the rewards simple and don’t offer too many. Don’t make me choose rewards because one has the format I want and one doesn’t. Also, make sure they’re packed with value—these are your early supporters, willing to back you when no one else will. So treat them like insiders, not donors to milk. It kills me when I see Kickstarter projects I’d love to back but they’re asking $25 for an ebook. Seriously? I promised my backers they were getting the cheapest possible price. Be sure to offer something awesome for $1. My most popular reward was the digital copy for $1. It brought in the least amount of money but the most people (build your audience!). It builds a buzz and lowers the cost of entry. Also offer some cool high-end prizes. Well over half our income came from the $50 and up rewards. This is a way to reward your uber-fans with some cool stuff.

Your video is important. Everybody talks about this, but I think it’s over-rated. Do a good job with the video, make it professional and tell your story. But if that’s you sitting in front of the camera, don’t sweat it.

Kickstarter is awesome. If you do it right. Do you have a project needing a kickstart?

What Do Political Yard Signs Accomplish?

Are pint-size political billboards worth the paper they’re printed on? I’m thinking no.

“I love watching people waste their money on signs. It’s great. Keep spending your money that way. What do you learn from a sign? What does a sign tell you?” Democratic consultant Judy Stern says in a Sun Sentinel story. “Signs don’t vote.”

But popular wisdom says that name recognition, especially in local races, is valuable. When you’re voting for a bunch of folks you’ve never heard of for city council, it helps if you’ve seen one candidate’s name around town.

“You don’t even really think about it,” says Marietta College psychology professor Mark Sibicky in The Plain Dealer. “It’s a classically conditioned response. All things being equal, we like the familiar name.”

Another report backs up the name recognition theory and suggests it also has more to do with the person putting up the sign. They say each sign is worth 6-10 votes, not because of the sign, but because the person putting up the sign is likely to encourage votes in other ways.

But knowing who’s running doesn’t help you make an informed decision. In national elections that name recognition is kind of useless. No one puts a Romney sign in their yard to make sure their neighbors have heard of him.

It seems like the problem is that political yard signs generally don’t communicate a message. It’s simply a name. All they’re getting is awareness. It doesn’t communicate your reasons for voting. It doesn’t contain any message that could persuade other voters. It’s merely a badge of pride, a flag of identification, letting people know where you stand. At best, it gives people the illusion of popularity (“There are bunch of Joe Jones sign in my neighborhood, I bet he’s going to win!”).

That works for U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich: “This is better than a paid billboard, because it’s a personal endorsement. It shows that I have support at the neighborhood level.”

I wonder why candidates don’t put any slogans or messages on their yard signs? I’ll admit you couldn’t fit much of a message on any yard sign and it’d come down to bumper sticker slogans, which might not be any better (why don’t campaign bumper stickers have, um, bumper sticker slogans?). But wouldn’t that at least communicate something? According to the experts, that’s a rookie mistake. According to sign printer Dale Fellows in The Plain Dealer, political signs should feature the candidate’s name as big as possible. The fewer words the better.

Bah. I wish signs actually communicated something.

On the plus side, it’s likely they’re not a decisive factor: “Well, I think that it would be very unusual if any of these tactics actually were decisive in elections,” says Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Fordham University in an NPR story. Well, not usually: “But at the margins, mobilizing voters can be very important. And particularly in close, competitive races, they can make a difference in determining the outcome of an election.”

I guess election marketing just sucks.

Lessons from Coca-Cola

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year. Mostly I’ve been finding books at the library, but I also decided it might be time to actually read some of the books on my book shelves. We had a bit of a used book addiction when we were first married and amassed quite a library of books that we had no hope of ever getting around to reading. Though if my reading habits of this year keep pace for a while, I could get there.

Anyway, one of the books I picked up cheap a while ago was For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. The title’s a mouthful and so was the book (up until that point I’d been reading two to three books a week—it took me two and half weeks just to get through this book), but it did offer some engaging insights into the history of a an American icon.

A few interesting moments from Coke’s history:

  • The initial Coca-Cola business involved selling syrup to soda fountains that added the carbonated water and ultimately mixed the drink. The company was not interested in bottling Coke and selling it in bottles or cans at the grocery store, to the point that when enterprising and persistent bottlers came to Coke, the company practically gave away the bottling franchise in a perpetual contract that would cause them headaches for decades to come. As you can imagine, the bottling business soon surpassed soda fountains.
  • The familiar Coca-Cola bottle was developed and trademarked as a way to discourage imitators who kept trying to borrow everything distinctive about Coke–the red color, the diamond-shaped label, the scripted font and even the words “coca” and “cola”. While the company’s efforts to trademark each of these components met with some limited success, trademarking the bottle was a brilliant and effective move, cutting off the imitators.
  • During World War II, Coca-Cola was considered vital to the war effort as a morale booster to the troops. So much so that Coca-Cola men were given technical observer status and Coke and the Army partnered to build bottling plants behind the advancing Allied troops, all to keep the Coke flowing to the men in uniform.
  • While Coke adamantly refused to develop other drinks until the 1950s and 60s, Fanta was developed during World War II by the German branch of Coca-Cola that was nationalized by the Nazis. The drink was created to fill the gap left by sugar shortages and take advantage of what scarce resources were available, namely fruit.
  • Coca-Cola had at least three opportunities to outright buy Pepsi Cola and shut down their primary competitor (a tactic they employed on other occasions). They never did. While this seems like an enormous mistake, it’s likely some other competitor would have filled Pepsi’s shoes. Also, the rivalry with Pepsi is credited with spurring the company on to greater creative heights.
  • The New Coke debacle of the 1980s when the company dared to change the formula of America’s soft drink gets detailed treatment. While the new formula seemed like a sure success, beating both Pepsi and old Coke in blind taste tests, the company didn’t pay attention to its own research that said Coke drinkers hated change.

Dealing with Mistakes

I hate making mistakes. Yesterday I made a mistake, sending an email to a few thousand people with a broken link. Doh. I had to spend a few hours scrambling and doing damage control, sending out a second email fixing the problem and dealing with some fallout from people using the broken link. It wasn’t a huge deal—nobody got hurt, nobody lost money—but it did cause some problems.

As much as I hate making mistakes like that and feel bad that it happened, there are always lessons to be learned.

Find Solutions
First and foremost, the best way to respond to a mistake is with solutions. Whenever my daughter is complaining about something I tell her to fix the problem or stop complaining. There’s no sense standing around whining about something. Either fix it or shut up (though I try to be a little more diplomatic than that).

As soon as I realized what happened I emailed my team and proposed a few solutions.

Be Responsive
I think the next thing you can do is be responsive to what needs to be done. I was going to say act fast, but I don’t think speed is always what’s needed. Sometimes we overreact to mistakes because we respond too quickly without thinking. But you do need to be responsive—answer emails, explain what’s going on, get on the phone if you need to. Be prepared to respond.

I spent the morning dealing with this, putting aside other projects so I could respond to questions as they came in.

Stop it From Happening Again
Once you’ve responded and fixed the problem, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Is there anything you could have done to stop it? Sometimes we create layers and layers of checks to avoid mistakes and it gets to be too much. But sometimes a simple double-check can avoid the headache.

Look for the Silver Lining
Sometimes good things happen because of a mistake. In this case we found a bug thanks to the broken link. Sometimes it’s as simple as you learn to be more careful next time. But there’s always a lesson. I have another project that’s shaping up to be a failure (well, maybe not a failure, but it’s far from a success), but instead of shaking our heads and pointing fingers, we’re learning a lot of lessons.

If you’re not learning from failures and mistakes, well, you’re in trouble.

5 Minutes a Day

I recently read Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod. I mean, why wouldn’t you read a book called Evil Plans?

It’s another book about creativity and striking out on your own, written by a guy who made a name for himself by drawing cartoons on the backs of business cards. That’s all well and good, but sometimes I think these kind of screeds are a little too niche. Some people like having a 9-to-5 job and working for an employer and that doesn’t make them brainless schlubs. Maybe more people can and do have their Evil Plan side projects today than ever before, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everybody.

But that’s my own rant on rants like this. What I really wanted to talk about was one of the brilliant thoughts that stuck with me from the book:

“Like a very talented pianist once told me when I was a boy, it’s better to practice a musical instrument for five minutes a day than to practice for two hours once a week. It’s something I never forgot.” (page 39)

Five minutes a day is better than two hours once a week. If you’re serious about anything, if you want to get good at anything, if you want to tackle a tough project, you need this advice (read: I need this advice).

It’s the consistency that wins over time, not the herculean effort.

And really, if you love it, you’ll find those five minutes are never enough and you’ll start to make more time. But at least take those five minutes.

(My problem is I can never stick to just five minutes and it turns into two hours and the next day I can’t afford to dive in so deeply, so I don’t. I need to learn some self-control. Or I need an egg timer. Or maybe a real egg timer.)

And yes, this is just a gimmick. It’s like all the other ideas, techniques and tricks out there to get you to do something: National Novel Writing Month, inbox zero, pick your favorite Lifehacker gem. But let’s call them what they are: gimmicks. Designed to get us to accomplish a task we can’t otherwise seem to do. Another comment MacLeod makes is that we’re just primates, and like primates we need to be tricked into accomplishing something.

I’m Not Blogging Right

I don’t think I’m blogging right. There’s lots of advice out there about how writers are supposed to blog and the importance of having a web presence and putting yourself out there and all that. And I think I’m doing it wrong.

And I don’t care.

They tell you you’re supposed to blog a lot. I don’t. I only posted once in January.

They tell you you’re supposed to at least blog consistently. I don’t. I posted once in January and now I’m going two days straight.

They tell you you’re supposed to have a personal brand, a niche, a specialty that you’re known for. I don’t. I write about whatever I feel like here, which means I’m all over the map. For goodness sake, I blog about when I turn on the heat every year.

They tell you you’re supposed to polish everything and put your best work forward. I don’t. I spend all day writing polished copy for clients and when it comes to my blog, some days I want to wing it.

They tell you to post at the same time and not post multiple posts at once. OK, I follow that bit of advice. But not because it builds a consistent audience with consistent content. I do it because I hate it when my RSS feed gets clogged with multiple posts from the same site. Too many posts in one day and I feel overwhelmed, like I can’t catch up. So I like to spread my posts out a bit if  I can.

They tell you you’re supposed to keep your site current, up to date and well designed. I don’t. Let’s face it, this site has no design. I haven’t even updated my company site in over a year. It doesn’t even list one of my newest and biggest clients.

(OK, not updating my company site is actually dumb. I’ve been meaning to do something about that, but it needs a complete redesign and I don’t have time [or energy] for that. Though every time I redesign that site I try to make it require less and less maintenance. At this rate I should just make a single page that requires zero updating. Ever. Hmm… tempting.)

They tell you you’re supposed to build a fan base. I don’t. I mean, I have Twitter followers and Facebook friends and RSS subscribers. I even have an email newsletter, but updates are rare. But I’m not trying to marshal this crowd of ‘Go Kevin’ people. I figure if people like my stuff they’ll follow somehow. I don’t need to constantly flood them with a steady barrage of ‘I’m So Awesome’ updates.

Maybe all that is naive. Maybe I’m squandering my potential. But I don’t care. I started my blog way back in 1998 for me. I still do it for me. I’ve learned that I can’t follow all that advice and still do it for me. If I start following all that advice then I’m doing it for someone else, and that doesn’t work. I mean, I love you folks who keep reading this crazy blog, but I think you understand that I’m not here to sing and dance for you.

This is my blog, my journal, my place to scratch out my thoughts, to try stuff, to rant, to yell, to piss and moan, to remember things and to fail. I’m not one of those people who’s all about me, but this place is all for me. And if that flies in the face of conventional social media guru wisdom, oh well.

Benefits vs. Features

Abby and I have been cell phone shopping (for her, not me—I still can’t justify it), and surprise, surprise—it’s delivering great marketing lessons.

We’re comparing Android phones on Virgin Mobile’s no-contract plan, and the way they pitch the phones is pathetic. They’re talking about features instead of benefits. They tell you all the phones features, but they don’t talk about how those features actually benefit you. And most of the time in their rush to tell you features, they just keep telling you more and more features to the point that they’re completely useless.

  • A clock? Seriously? That’s the feature you’re going to brag about?
  • I can send email on the phone? Wow. Every smartphone you sell does that. And it’s not like we’re looking at smartphones and non-smartphones side by side where the ability to send email would be worth pointing out.
  • RAM: 512 MB. What does that mean? Later on we get “Internal Memory Size Limit: *ROM 512MB,” followed by the asterisk explanation: “* Usable ROM is less than usable RAM by 152MB” I’m a pretty tech savvy guy, but I’m still lost.
  • Access to the Android app store? No.

Those are all features the company keeps lining up like they’re aiming for bragging rights. What they don’t realize is that they’re making it harder and harder for a customer to choose a phone.

Instead, they should talk about benefits. A feature is that you can access the Android app store. A benefit is that I can find an app to do anything I want, whether it’s track my budget or calculate tip.

Wait, that sounds familiar. How does Apple advertise its app store? Oh yeah: “There’s an app for that.”

Give people benefits instead of features. Apple figured that out and it’s why the iPhone is everywhere.