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Week's Clue: Scumbags
Like many men, Bill Clinton gets off on games of dominance and danger. The uneven power relationship, and the fact discovery could be ruinous, combine in his psyche into something his wife can't give him. It's tragic, doubly so for us, because he also has an ability to hear and play the music of American politics in a way his Sancho Panza, he of the Gore-ingly stable marriage, will never know.
Still, I'll submit that sex isn't Clinton's fatal flaw. It's the assumption (driven by his wife) that his adversaries are enemies, with evil motives, and a resulting ruthlessness in dealing with them, which is transmitted down throughout his Administration. Everything is Armageddon, any defeat is fatal, and you can't have a successful Presidency that way. The fact that some of those adversaries have been as ruthless and tenacious as Clinton foresaw doesn't justify the attitude - it might be a result. Reagan's genius came in things like playing golf with Tip O'Neill. It's no coincidence, I'd submit, that Reagan sailed through the Iran-Contra scandal, emerging with one of the most politically successful Presidencies of this century. Some rounds with Dan Burton or Orrin Hatch, in other words, would have been useful. (It's too late for Clinton now, but you can take a Clue from it.)
Bill Gates, despite his many talents, shares Clinton's fatal flaw. (He also shares a love of golf, but that's another story.) Gates feels the Justice Department is out to destroy Microsoft, like IBM and Apple in the 1980s. This, like Clinton's attitude, is also transmitted down the line. So we have these incredibly arrogant court briefs, and a comical failure of memory that reminds me of Watergate. The truth can be seen in the company's newest ads, where Micro-softies explain that "Where do you want to go today?" is a challenge to the audience, that they're just waiting for your orders. But there's another way to read these ads. Software progress depends on Microsoft hearing and responding. The word for that is monopoly. The Clue here is to lighten up.
No doubt you're wondering what all this has to do with Internet Commerce. A lot, actually. In this business, you often have to go after a new niche ruthlessly, or claim to have something before you have it. Your business adversaries are often seen as enemies in corporate role-playing, but here's a key Clue - don't you believe it. In the last four years I've seen several top executives gain a reputation for not giving an inch, calling for lawyers at every hint of dispute. None that I know of have won their game. To successfully do business you have to be willing to give the other side what they say they want, whether they're a rival, an employee, or an investor. Winning businesses turn win-lose disputes into win-win outcomes.
The media tends to obscure this truth. Good stories require conflict, so businessmen who succeed in one niche and eye others are out to take over the world. Big businesses are always out to crush small ones, and the assumption is that in time they will. Those who succeed despite the odds are ubermensch (and women) whose selfish political whims should be treated as holy writ by the rest of us . Drama comes from such conflict, but it's as real as professional wrestling. In the real world, there are lots of winners, and lots of ways to win.
Let me conclude with a tragedy from my own life. My dad was a small businessman, who never got this Clue. He always went for the last dollar. He wound up doing business with people who would let him think he was getting that last dollar, but who were really intent on taking every last dollar from him. Instead of doing business with first-class people who could help him, in other words, he usually wound up dealing with scumbags. As a result, he never got what he wanted (although we always got what we needed). So take this key Clue with you, and engrave it on your heart. Your business adversaries are not scumbags. Find common ground.
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
It's out! You can now order "Web Commerce: Building a Digital Business," , by Kate Maddox with yours truly (but with on the cover) through Amazon.Com. It's $27.95, part of the Wiley/Upside series. Let me know what you think of it.
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And now back to our show...
When anything becomes enormously popular, a new industry springs up to take it down. Whether we're talking about a politician, a rock star, or a technology like the Web, there's an easy dollar to be found in saying "danger."
Right now, psychiatrists need easy dollars. Managed care and medicines like Prozac have combined to render most of them redundant. So why not find a new disease. It's easy to design a study that does this, as Carnegie Mellon University did recently under the name "HomeNet." Long story short, it claimed Internet usage breeds anti-social behavior. The study claims it followed its subjects over time, to isolate the Internet as cause, but as anyone with half a Clue knows they've got cause and effect backwards.
It's sad but true. Most modern technologies breed anti-social behavior and attitudes. Television is a solitary experience. Commuting has become a solitary exercise, too - you're in your own tiny world (the car), you depersonalize (and cut off) others, and just look at the sense of hopelessness and fear you see on faces next time you pass a fender-bender. The Internet does enable the isolated to make a living, and for those who seek contact-without-danger it usually delivers the goods. To claim it's the cause of those feelings is a ridiculous leap, but there you are.
There are ways we can keep our sanity alongside a life rich in isolation enablers. Here's how I do it. When I'm home, I stop sometimes to walk along my block and visit with the neighbors. In an office, I wander the halls and talk to people. I try to spend time with the kids - at their soccer practices, with their homework - and I turn off the TV at dinnertime. In fact, I'd submit TV is a far greater factor in breeding isolation than the Internet. As Pete Hamill wrote in his book "Piecework", it's no coincidence drug addiction has spiraled out of control since TV came on the scene. TV represents instant gratification, available 24-7 in any form you want (if you have cable). That's not natural. At least with the Internet you need to do a little work. (Thank goodness for Windows crashes.)
Internet communities should do all they can to deal directly with their users' souls, their hopes and fears. Many, in fact, do this. Web stores should do what they can to speed users through the site and maintain high customer satisfaction. Most, in fact, do this. Those engaged in Internet Commerce should have a simple answer to this pseudo-scientific nonsense. Turn off the TV.
Jesse Berst is often very clued-in, but either the bosses have jerked his chain or he's lost it. His opener on a discussion about free e-mail services (ZDNet offers them) fails to consider their most pernicious effect. They enable the spam flood as nothing else does.
As a journalist, I have to have a wide-open e-mail address, but I save my spam in a folder, and after reading Jesse's latest piece of Cluelessness I did a quick study. I looked at the 82 spams in the folder received over the last two months. It's not a scientific sample (some were deleted instantly), but I found 28 of the 82 came from free e-mail addresses, such as usa.net, hotmail.com, yahoo.com and mailexcite.com. Another 15 came from foreign addresses - most were bounced off them because U.S. servers have closed mail relays. Another 23 seemed to come from pure spam URLs like lifetimeads.com, fiberia.com, and selin.com. (The contact for Lifetimeads in Mobile, Alabama, who filed for his address in August, lists a mailexcite.com e-mail return address.) This means at least one-third of my spam (maybe more, because I didn't count bounces) came directly from free e-mail services. Much of the rest was enabled by such services.
This failure of spam-enablers to police themselves has many consequences in Internet Commerce. Most Web stores I know won't take orders from such e-mail addresses. Most people in the Internet business won't take any e-mail from such addresses seriously, unless it's from a relative or close friend. Many users routinely filter out e-mail from such URLs. And every spam we get is one more black mark against the name of the company enabling the spammer - Microsoft's smartest move to date has been to maintain the hotmail.com domain.
E-mail is a standard offering with commercial ISP accounts. Filters are standard on e-mail packages like Eudora, and there are more available on the commercial market. Anyone with a freemail address or Web site has two strikes against them in doing any business involving the Internet.
A patent isn't a license to print money. It can, however, get you in the door on business deals that might or might-not make good. That's the way to use them. Exhibit A here is Priceline, which signed an alliance with LendingTree that offers banks both the Priceline system and LendingTree software to analyze applicants and see if a bank wants to do business with them in the first place, before they answer a query. There are no guarantees here, and a lot of work to do on both sides before this proves out, but it's not stupid...unlike giving patents to business processes.
Clued-in is Nerve.Com . They call what they offer "literate smut," but it's not smut at all. It's honest discussion on sexuality designed to make you think (or laugh), not get you off.
Clueless (still) is Version 5.0 of Hotwired , which has dumped everything that didn't compete with C|Net or ZDNet. The way to win is not to be the same as larger rivals. If you're not looking for your own bliss, you'll just be found boring.