Friday, November 28, 2014

The Real Turkeys

“I see turkeys… they’re everywhere!” Sorry, I must be channeling the holiday spirit of Haley Joel Osment. But I really do see turkeys everywhere, and I’m not talking about the kind stuffed on your dining room table. No, I’m referring to the taller ones flocking to stores and malls on this Black Friday, which in typical Wal-Mart fashion has been rolled back to 6 AM Thursday.

Otherwise (presumably) rational people line up six or eight hours before the stores open to take advantage of discounted merchandise, or expecting to be one of the six customers in the line to obtain a store’s Door-Buster Special (amazingly, even though the store has only six in stock, the 100th person in line still believes he or she has a chance to snag the item advertised at a ridiculously low price). These same people, who on Election Day refuse to wait 90 minutes on a voting line to decide the fate of our democracy, will gladly arrive hours before dawn and stand in the freezing cold of winter, rain, or snow for a 25% discount (remember, the Door-Busters are gone in the first three minutes) off the regularly inflated price of an item they don’t need.

If they had needed it, they would’ve bought it long before Thanksgiving. No, Black Friday sales, which focus heavily on electronic toys (from TVs to iPads), are hyping impulse items mass-market retailers want consumers to think they need. It’s all about getting consumers to think they need a product they really don’t, and then each year convincing them to upgrade to a newer or larger version. Bought the 52-inch TV last year? That was so 2013; you need a 60-inch this year. Already have an iPhone 5? The new iPhone 6 comes in gold.

The truth is, you really don’t need any of the things the marketers and retailers are hawking this weekend. What you need, is to understand the difference between a “need” and a “want”. A need is something critical that you cannot live without (food, water, a roof over your head). A want is something you desire (a PlayStation, a cruise, a yacht) but can live without.

If you need something, there are two ways to buy it: with money you have, or with credit (borrowing the money with the intent to pay it back later). If you want something, but do not need it, then you should only buy it with the money you have, and not go into debt to purchase something you don’t really need. If you don’t have enough money to buy it (which is another way of saying you can’t afford it), then you should not buy it. What you should do is put away a small amount each month towards savings and use those earmarked funds to purchase your “wants” without having to go into debt to a credit card company at 29% interest.

It’s a trap, because once those credit card statements arrive in your mail in January, you’ll be paying interest at usurious rates on your Black Friday impulse purchases through the next Turkey Day. There’s even a holiday for consumers who fall for this trap. It’s celebrated every April 1. Can you guess its name?

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Better Mousetrap

According to Forbes (via Bloomberg), 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. Put another way, only 20% of new businesses are still around a year and a half later. Increasingly in our post-Great Recession economy – a period defined by a jobless recovery, in which investors are reaping huge gains on Wall Street, while Main Street is littered with résumés – the formerly employed who now find themselves unemployable are choosing self-employment over unemployment. It certainly makes sense they would choose to label themselves as “entrepreneurs” and emulate the Rich Uncle Pennybags (the iconic top hat and tails millionaire from the Monopoly game) rather than admit to being unemployed and resemble a character from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Yet, if Forbes is to be believed, 80% of the newly minted “entrepreneurs” née “unemployed” are destined for failure and bankruptcy. While success in business may appear elusive, a simple axiom known by schoolchildren for hundreds of years holds the secret to establishing an enormously successful business: simply build a better mousetrap. The meaning of this adage is clear: find a product everyone needs and improve upon the competition’s design. Then, logically, consumers will abandon the obsolete version and flock to the new and improved model.

Madison Avenue continually offers consumers “new and improved” – cars, dishwashing detergent, beauty cream… every product is wrapped in the “new and improved” cloak; never mind that the cloak came from the same tailor who made The Emperor’s New Clothes. The products are not really new and the much touted improvements come from the minds of marketing mavens, not research and development engineers. Logically, the words “new” and “improved” are mutually exclusive. If something is new, it has never existed before; whereas, for something to be improved, it must have first existed. It can’t be both. But that hasn’t stopped Madison Avenue from marketing “new and improved” to American consumers for over half a century.

The secret of business success is not saying one has built a better mousetrap, but actually doing so. This is where all those businesses are failing. Let’s examine the basic mousetrap. As you may recall from your childhood Tom and Jerry cartoon days, the traditional mousetrap consists of a piece of cheese set on a trigger that snaps when the mouse tries to snatch the cheese. Attempts to build a better mousetrap usually focus on the design of the trap – we all recall the Rube Goldberg-esque Mousetrap game produced by Hasbro. Likewise, many businesses and entrepreneurs go to extremes modifying design while ignoring the bait.

The bait, of course, is the cheese. And therein lies the problem. It turns out that mice do not like cheese. Really. That’s a fact, I’m not making it up. Mice eat grains and fruit, both high in sugar, and (like most of us) would probably choose chocolate over cheese.  (The pungent scent of cheese might even lead the mice to eschew the mousetrap.) So, to build a better mousetrap, one must not make the mistake of dwelling solely on the design. In business terms, this is best expressed in another adage: “Think outside the box.”

Long-term business success comes from true innovation (think Apple Computer), not from changing the window dressing. Innovation can take the form of a brand-new product or a significant change to existing one. But it must be real and meaningful, not hyperbole. For corporations and wannabe entrepreneurs, that means leaving the comfort zone of simply repackaging or applying a fresh coat of paint to what’s come before, and instead thinking and looking at things in a completely different way. One cannot move forward by continually looking in the rear-view mirror.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bark ‘n Barf

I promised myself I wasn’t going to write about this week’s topic. I tried to avoid it, despite the media bombardment assailing me everywhere I went. But now, I fear I have no choice. I’ve been forced to take to my podium and scream “Stop the Idiocy!” at the top of my lungs.

My dog and I were at the vet yesterday (no doubt, helping put the veterinarian’s kids through college, judging from the bill) when I saw a laminated, 8 ½ x 11 placard taped to the checkout counter, with the ominous heading: “Dogs and Ebola.” I leaned over to the cashier-nurse and asked, “Precisely how many dogs in America have Ebola?” She stared at me as if I had asked a question on the “Do Not Ask” list pinned behind the counter. I decided to narrow the range of my query to make it easier. “How many dogs have ever contracted Ebola in America, in the history of the country, since it was founded?” A pensive gaze enveloped her face, as if she had been transported to the stage of a TV game show and this might be a trick question. Slowly, she answered, “None?”

“Absolutely right,” I replied. “So why are you alerting all of your customers to “Dogs and Ebola” (which I might add concluded at the bottom of the page that we really don’t have to worry about our dogs contracting Ebola, after all) instead of canine influenza; the deadly, yet common, parvovirus; or the life-threatening heartworm caused by mosquito bites?” You know, stuff that could really happen, and does, frequently.

She answered, the owner had insisted on posting the scary placard, even though Halloween had passed, just as the news media insist on scaring the American public over a phantom bogeyman. The truth is, no one has ever contracted and died from Ebola in the United States. The only person to ever die from Ebola on U.S. soil, Thomas Eric Duncan, contracted the disease in Liberia and flew here with it. Only three other individuals in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Ebola and all were healthcare workers: two were directly exposed to Duncan, and the third was a doctor who became sick on his return from helping Ebola patients in West Africa. There is no Ebola epidemic in the United States.

The panic about Ebola is reminiscent of the panic surrounding AIDS when it first appeared. Initially known as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) when first observed in 1981, the condition caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome after researchers discovered it affected more than homosexuals. By 1983, it was thought to affect gays, Haitians, and intravenous drug users. A popular joke at the time was, the hardest part of testing positive for the disease was telling your parents you were Haitian. The disease was spreading rapidly and killing many people, but Americans did not label it an epidemic until two new facts came to light: the incurable, deadly AIDS would kill anyone – not simply gays, Haitian, and IV-drug users – and it was transmitted through sex. Everyone was at risk and you caught it from sex: this was a f--king epidemic!

The word epidemic immediately leads to panic, with good reason. The Bubonic Plague wiped out 40% of Europe’s population from 541-542 ; The Black Death killed between 75 million and 200 million people (30-to-70% of the European population) in the 14th century; 75 million died in the 1918 influenza pandemic; smallpox killed between 300 million and 500 million people in just the 20th century alone; and AIDS has killed 25 million since 1981. The total number of Ebola deaths worldwide since 1976, when the disease was first reported: 6,585.

Ebola is not new; it has existed since 1976. That breaks down to an average of 173 deaths per year. Distressing? Yes? An epidemic to panic over? No. For comparison, last year, 11,419 Americans were killed by guns; 576,691 Americans were killed by cancer; 595,577 Americans were killed by heart disease, and 35,200 Americans died in car crashes. Americans killed by Ebola: 0. Zero, none, nada. Still afraid of Ebola? You’d be better off to pass on the Big Mac and stop texting while driving.

Yet fear is panic’s handmaiden. Ryan White, a hemophiliac, was 13 when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1984. He was expelled from middle school after panicked parents and teachers petitioned against and protested his attendance at the public school. When he was allowed to return to school for one day, half the students refused to attend classes. Many of the people on the boy’s newspaper route canceled their subscriptions because they believe they could contract HIV through the newsprint of the newspapers he handled. The school insisted Ryan eat with disposable utensils and use a separate bathroom. In Arcadia, Florida, in 1986, three hemophiliac brothers – Ricky, Robert, and Randy Ray were diagnosed with HIV and barred from attending school. A week after a court ruled, in 1987, that the children had to be allowed to attend classes, their family’s home was burned to the ground.

HIV, like Ebola, is not an airborne illness. You don’t catch either from sneezes or toilet seats. Both are transmissible only through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. In the case of HIV, bodily fluids are blood, semen, breast milk, and vaginal secretions. In the case of Ebola, bodily fluids are blood, semen, breast milk, saliva, mucus, vomit, feces, sweat, tears, and urine. Since bodily fluids may be exchanged during sex, this has made HIV particularly scary. However, while HIV can be transmitted by a person who is asymptomatic (i.e., displays no symptoms) Ebola can only be transmitted by one who is displaying symptoms.

So what are Ebola symptoms? They include weakness, fever, aches, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, rash, red and swollen eyes, chest pain, throat soreness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and external and internal bleeding. The bleeding can come from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and rectum. While it is possible for Ebola to be transmitted sexually, since the disease can only be transmitted when the victim is symptomatic, I doubt anyone could be horny enough to desire sex with someone bleeding through their eyes and rectum. Ebola is much more difficult to contract than AIDS or influenza. And surfaces can be decontaminated with household bleach.

Meanwhile, the American media have irresponsibly fueled a panic over Ebola and the nonexistent epidemic in this country. A new poll shows one in six Americans believe they will die from Ebola. A woman at an airport dressed in a full body, do it yourself Hazmat suit. A teacher was placed on medical leave merely for attending a conference 10 miles from where Ebola patient Duncan had been treated in a Dallas hospital. Another teacher, Susan Sherman, resigned from her Kentucky elementary school job after being placed on a 21-day leave because she had returned from Kenya – Kenya, a country in the continent of Africa, does not have Ebola. Parents pulled their students from a Mississippi middle school after its principal returned from his brother’s funeral in Zambia. A New Jersey school barred two students from Rwanda, another country in Africa, 2500 miles away from where the Ebola outbreak occurred. One of the results of America’s failure to teach geography in its public schools is that we now have an entire generation of supposedly educated people who do not know that Africa is not a country, but one of the world’s seven continents.

Fortunately, my dog can’t read, so she was not panicked by the notice at her veterinarian’s office. Those humans who can read, and take the time to seek out the facts, rather than the hysteria, will also not fall victim to the Ebola panic. For the rest, who would rather believe in half-truths and superstition, rather than facts and science, I am pleased to announce I am now selling anti-Ebola bracelets, only in the U.S., which are guaranteed to ward off the dreaded Ebola virus. I also have some wonderful books for sale, but hey, a buck’s a buck and I’ll take it where I can get it.