Category Archives: My Years with IBM: Riding the Dancing Elephant

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from a Cop

He was a crusty, retired New York City cop, now driving a cab. I was an IBM manager on my way to the airport. We struck up a conversation.

“An ex-cop?” I gushed. “I’ll betcha you’ve been in some real pickles. Surely you are packing heat right now.” He scowled at me the rear view mirror.

“Nope. I don’t pack heat,” he growled.

“Why not?”

“Because when you carry a gun,” he said, changing lanes, “You think with a gun. And when you don’t carry a gun, you gotta think with your head.”

And so it is with start-ups that take VC money. If they are not careful, they tend to solve problems by throwing money grenades at them, thinking with their money instead of being resourceful.

So take a lesson from a cop: “You gotta think with your head.”

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S.O.S. IBM

It was chaos. We heard a deep rumble, the great ship shuddered, and within hours the deck chairs began to slide as she listed to port. But the band still played, the bar was open, and the ship’s captain assuaged our anxiety with words of reassurance. The Titanic? No ~ IBM in the 1980’s. I joined them in 1983, fresh out of UVA’s engineering school. The first iceberg IBM hit was the PC, and later on it hit another: the Internet. For 17 years I stayed onboard as concern turned to chaos, and eventually bloodshed when in the 1990’s the company cut its bloated workforce by 60,000 souls. I was one of the survivors.

For years after, I thought of myself as “the corporate type.” I mean, what company was more corporate than IBM, with its blue suits, company song, no-alcohol policy, and standard issue haircut? But then I realized, as should everyone else ~ a house on fire is not a house, and a sinking ship is not a ship.

During the last ten of those 17 years, IBM was desperately seeking, and eventually found, a way to stay afloat. That decade was time when almost any new idea, however unorthodox, was welcome ~ a time when creative, non-linear, entrepreneurial thinkers like myself were heroes. Survivors learned to embrace adaptibility and flexibility. We learned to look outside IBM for survival lessons, and we quickly emulated best practices. We accepted that IBM was no longer setting the industry’s pace, no, they were setting ours, and it was more rapid and unpredictable than we ever could have imagined.

And so I stayed. When IBM finally righted itself in 2000 and set a stable course ~ I jumped ship. After a nomadic childhood (I attended 13 schools in nine years, some overseas) and a thrilling professional life, I am not suited to stability. I love the chaos.

I am deeply grateful, however, for what I learned during my IBM years, of the value of process, how to sell consultatively in a global market, how to comport myself in front of international executives, and when to trust my instincts and run against the tide. Most importantly, I know how to recognize the deep rumble that everyone else waves off as nothing, but we survivors know means something else. Iceberg.

Kiosk Bloodshed: What Mobile Can Learn From the Cyclops of the 1990’s

If you were around then, you remember seeing them. Lonely kiosks, gathering dust, cast aside in the corner of a hotel lobby or government office, their one dead eye staring out dark and lifeless. The once mighty cyclops of the computing world, what IBM believed would be THE way the public gained access to electronic goods and services — rendered a corpse — and a grim reminder of what fate will befall your mobile app should you fail to heed the lessons of the lonely kiosk debacle of the 90’s .

What kills technology based initiatives? Two things: A failure to deliver value, and failures in usability. Kiosks that have survived into the present day deliver superb value and are superbly easy to use, and we use them all them time. The airline ticketing kiosk. Redbox. The ATM. But what about those goofy “info only” kiosks that gave us a map to a restaurant that closed six months ago? Or those whose UI made us want to smash them with a baseball bat like in the famous fax machine scene from “Office Space”? Cue “Still” by Geto Boys. Those machines died a just death, and rightly so.

History repeats itself, as they say, and so today we see mobile apps that make all the same mistakes of the 90’s. But this too shall pass, and those apps will too. In 20 years we will will look back and it will all make sense. Apps that survive, nay, thrive, will be those that deliver value consistently, reliably, and easily, and that are compelling and “insanely” easy to pick up and use. Thriving apps will enable those line of business services that are in the critical path of a company’s strategy, essential to its customers, designed for ease-of-use, and built to last.

The question is: Will your mobile app be one of them?

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The Song Remains the Same, but My World Changed

The year was 1999. The song was “Sunburst” by guitarist Andrew York of the LA Guitar Quartet. I was driving, listening to my local NPR station. Before the song finished playing I was ready to buy it, but I knew neither the title nor the artist. It took many phone calls to the DJ and several weeks to find out. There has to be a better way, I thought, and there was. That is the moment my world changed.

I was working for IBM at the time, on a team building “in-vehicle” systems (aka telematics), which are computers designed to be embedded into the dashboard of your car. Remember, this was 1999, and such systems were not common. I presented a simple idea to IBM: capture the song in flash memory inside the telematics radio and allow the listener to press a button if he or she wants to buy it, then make the song a permanent part of the listener’s music collection. This was before iPods, before internet radio, before iTunes. Satellite radio was just launching its birds. Mine was a novel idea, and IBM suspected they could patent it. They were right.

Having worked for IBM for 17 years, I knew what would happen. They would be grateful, give me a pat on the head and a $1500 check, and send my idea into oblivion. Imagine the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, where the crate containing the precious ark is carried off by forklift into a cavernous warehouse full of similar looking crates. Yeah, it was gonna be like that, and I knew it. IBM was then, and still is, a great company, but not an applications company. They would license the patent to others but never build it out themselves. If I was going to watch my baby grow up, I was going to have to leave IBM, and so I did.

Because IBM owns my original idea, which was for digital (satellite) radio, I had to some up with a new one: the same ability to instantly buy radio content, but for terrestrial (AM/FM) radio rather than digital. This was considerably more complex, but with the help of retired IBM senior systems engineer Bruce MacAlister and Alen Docef, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, we figured it out. In a few months we had a working protoype. The business model came from my friend and partner Bob Griffith, then a Senior Executive with the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), and more recently with Google Radio. Bob knew squat about technology, but he knows the radio business like the back of his hand. “Make it work without station involvement,” he told us, “and focus on the ads, not just the music.” And so we did.

The idea was novel, the prototype brilliant, the business model ironclad, and the team A plus. But the venture failed. Why? Timing, and scope. We launched in March of 2000, just as the “dot com” bubble was bursting and becoming a “dot bomb.” Six months earlier and you could have raised millions by shaking a tree, having a venture capitalist fall out, showing him a “dot com” idea scribbled on a pizza box, and walked away with a contract. Now, in the spring of 2000, if you said “technology” and “start-up” in the same sentence, it had the effect of saying, “I have the Ebola virus and I’m about to sneeze.” We spent the balance of the year chasing VC’s into the hills. I gave up in December and went back to work in a cubicle.

Thinking back, I now believe the venture was far too grand in scope. It required too much capital to start, and there were too many parts that had to fall in place for it to succeed. But I had the IBM mentality of thinking big, and in those days bold, even audacious ideas, were in vogue. Today I am much more modest and prefer “bootstrapping” ventures to ones that need high dollar life support.

In the past dozen or so years, I’ve seen many try, and fail, with the idea of radio tagging. Apple has done the best, I think, the app Shazam is fabulous, and internet radio stations like Pandora and Spotify are close but need to pay more attention the the second part of Bob’s advice: focus on the ads. That’s where the money is.

I still love the song “Starburst” and remember whenever I play it. My world has changed, for the better mostly, as the opportunities to learn about and buy music are better than ever before. Ways to reduce instrusive, obnoxious ads are emerging, as I have written about in another post.
Oh, and there is one other wonderful change — I no longer work in a cubicle.

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