Monthly Archives: June 2006

Holding Forth On The Fourth

Back when I was a working stiff — slaving away to make someone else rich — it was always a special treat when holidays like the Fourth fell on a Thursday or Tuesday. Cuz it meant a solid four-day vacation.

Ooooh, the hangovers.

This year, I’ll be working a bit throughout the weekend, as I often do when in town. Partly because I can — it’s one of the great perks of working for yourself, to be able to schedule things very loosely, and not have to punch a time clock.

And partly because I have to — after being on the road for most of the past two months, I’m a bit backed up. One of the not-so-great things about working for yourself is… you work for yourself.

I can’t come up with a good enough excuse to give myself the entire four-day holiday off.

Nevertheless, I AM gonna take off the Fourth. Quaff some brew, blow some shit up (if any of my friends were able to smuggle fireworks into the state), and eat bar-b-que til I can’t move.

And, as master of my own domain, I find I actually have to arrange for this day off in my head. When home, I tend to regard my office as a fun place to pop into. Check email, push a few projects ahead, return a phone call or two. It’s pleasureable, because it’s the engine of my lifestyle.

But I also know that I enjoy it MORE… when I close the office door and refuse to go in there for a few days at a time.

And I tend to forget that fact. It’s like enjoying ice cream… but snagging a dish every time you pass the fridge. At a certain point, you’re gonna ruin the pleasure.

So, I’m taking a page from my old days as a slave laborer… and taking the whole day off. It seems silly to have to consciously make the decision to do that, but that’s what I’ve found works the best: Make a firm business decision NOT to engage in business for a stretch of time.

Studies back this up, by the way. Ongoing university research on “happiness” finds that — after you’ve reached a level of “sustenance”, where all your basic needs are met — money doesn’t make you any happier. (That’s the storyline behind that new TV show “Windfall”, too.)

I have some issues with those conclusions… having been dead broke, just getting by, and then relatively well-off myself. (My main complaint being: It’s just more fun to find out that money doesn’t bring happiness on your own, and not have to take the word of some college prof.)

It’s not the money. It’s the self-perception, really, that screws people up — once you earn a certain amount, this becomes your “base line” for who you are. At least for most people.

So you get it into your head that you can never earn LESS than your baseline… or you’ve somehow failed. And, if your bottom line continues to increase, you somehow “win”.

For some people, this actually works. I know workaholics who are hooked on 16 hour days, and wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they had more free time.

But they’re the minority. For most of my close friends, money brings the sense that you must work harder to “maintain” the income. It’s wrong thinking… but it’s pervasive. Especially for entrepreneurs who come from being broke, and experience massive cash influx for the first time.

What the studies suggest is that working stiffs simply have more free time to engage in pleasureable activities. And do so, with great pleasure. It’s the stuff of all working-class sit-coms (from Jim Belushi’s to Drew Carey’s) — the job is drudgery, and you work for the weekend.

Owning your own biz makes the option of joining a regular bowling league, for example, pretty remote. As the owner, you must keep your “free” time available for emergencies.

The truly independent entrepreneurs (of which I know a few) have put their biz on auto-pilot, so they can take off six months and sail around the world, or golf for weeks at a time, or do whatever the hell they please. Knowing that nothing will happen that will require them to abort their free-time activities.

I’ve had that arrangement, at times, in the past. But I’m in transition again, juggling multiple projects and responsible for a bunch of stuff that I have decided is more important, right now, than having a boatload of free time.

That will change, as I get those projects moving in the right direction. The moment I realize I’ve created a “job” for myself with all these entrepreneurial activities, I’ll dismantle the entire operation and start over.

I’ve had a “job”. I don’t need to be reminded why I started working for myself in the first place.

While I reposition things, however, I’m willing to work a little harder than usual. Because I have goals, and the payoff is within sight.

But, along the way, I have to remember to sample free time with luxurious leisure — just kick back, empty my mind, and revel in the moment. Outside. With a beer in hand and exhausted sparklers around my feet.

Plus: This really is a special day. It’s unique to Americans. (Some day, if I have a few hours, I’ll have to tell you the story of the Fourth I spent in Mexico. It’s nearly as wild as the New Year’s Eve I spent in Ensenada a few years before that…)

I am not a gung-ho patriot, willing to forgive every trespass my country makes. The way I’ve learned to understand and love this place, my unwillingness to let the power elite get away with bullshit makes me a BETTER citizen than the yahoo’s who follow authority blindly.

I can point to the exact foundations of this amazing nation that make it the place everyone who is suffering wants to live in. We didn’t invent democracy, and our haphazard version of it sucks in many ways… but it’s things like the Bill of Rights (absolutely unique in the world)… the separation of powers (you can tell this is a good thing, because it pisses off the power brokers so much)… the freedom of and from religion, as we individually see fit… and the concept, relatively new in human history, that laws, and not men, will decide things.

All of this has added up to an environment where working-class stiff like me… and maybe you, too… can rise above our “station” in life whenever we choose to apply the energy. Other western nations, while enjoying many similar freedoms, haven’t seemed to grasp the elements of “free economic movement” that makes the US so powerful.

And crazy. One of our main strengths is our mix of ideas — there is nothing you can say that won’t be argued with, passionately, by someone else with a vastly different agenda. It’s hard to see this as a strength sometimes… but that’s what it is.

And people are always going to hate it that other people can think such different thoughts. Throughout history, the trend is alwasy toward tyranny — the will of the majority crushing the out-of-the-mainstream minorities.

Somehow, the Founding Fathers cobbled together a set of laws and rules that have mostly kept us on the right path. The joint has withstood a fairly steady onslaught of fascist, conformist and aggressively-stupid idealism, and that is why I consider the Fourth a sacred day.

Both the left wing and the right wing of this country have it wrong. And the large, slumbering middle is mostly clueless. This nation was created by rebellious types, and the true heroes of today remain those few who understand the vigilance necessary to keep the wing-nuts and the opiated masses from giving up the freedoms that make America tick.

We’re always going to have problems, and we’re always going to be at each other’s throats over politics. (As my mother used to say, it’s easy to see why politics affects folks the way it does — just figure out who gets what they want, and who gets screwed. There are no “perfect” laws, and never will be.)

But this holiday, I’m gonna overlook my anger at the idiots in power (and my disgust at the idiots out of power). We’re all in this together.

I don’t know about you, but I owe everything I am, and every free thought I think, to the wildly imperfect and amazing country I was raised in.

She has her faults, but she’s mine. And I’m hers. My love for her is intense, frustrated and undying.

We’re all just damned lucky to be here.

Enjoy your Fourth.

John Carlton
www.marketingrebel.com

Thanks. And Watch Your Back.

Just a quick note — I want to thank everyone who attempted to vote for this site during the Marketing Sherpa “Blog Of The Year” contest last week.

Unfortunately, there was no write-in option — the blogs that were eligible had been chosen beforehand. It was a very small, very limited list.

The fix was in.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing from so many readers. I tried to respond to as many as I could, but my inbox was just swamped with email, so I’m sure I didn’t get back to everyone. Please know that I did my best.

And, I apologize to those of you who spent time trying to figure out a way to lodge a vote in the rigged game. There’s always next year, as they say.

Lots of interesting stuff will be happening this summer, so keep checking in. I can always tell when a tidal change is about to occur online, because out of the blue, I start hearing from all sorts of colleagues who have been hiding, or off perfecting some strange new software or marketing tactic.

Sort of like how animals get all riled up before an earthquake. There’s just something in the air.

Plus, of course, if you’ve been paying attention, there are numerous technical advances getting ready to collide. Sony’s looking to make DVDs obsolete (and make gamers swoon)… a whole new “pay to play” high-speed level of the Web is being concocted by colluding Bells (who want to kill off the egalitarian nature of the online experience, and allow rich folks to pay more for better service)… and few people have thought through the ramifications of this Apple-PC interconnectivity thing.

And it all will play out as the real estate market collapses, the reality of debt and inflation starts hitting American families, and Asia finally gets hip to western-style marketing tactics. (The Chinese, especially, are way ahead of schedule, and starting to scare the bejesus out of their American soon-to-be-cold-cocked competition.)

Gonna be thrilling, scary and unpredictable. More than ever before, you need to find people and sources you can trust… because rumors will fly, disinformation will corrode the public discourse, and the Fat Cats will stoop to new lows to protect their power and privilege.

We truly are living in a Neuromancer-style sci-fi reality. I am more and more appalled at the cluelessness and aggressive stupidity of the mainstream media (and the gullibility of people who swallow their swill)… and also getting a little worried about how quickly bad information (and even lies) can zip around the cyber world.

You must continue to hone your skill at reading between the lines, and hold on tight to those sources you trust. The trick will be to practice a Zen calmness and an attitude of waking observation while chaos reigns — you do NOT have to panic to survive.

More later. It’s not all gonna happen tomorrow — plenty of time to relax and enjoy life as you plot your lifestyle in the new world order. Hope you’re finding ways to stay cool during this hot spell…

Stay (as always) frosty.

John Carlton
www.marketingrebel.com

Hacker Voodoo

New scary sign that hackers are still smarter than the Web cops behind site security: PayPal just discovered a flaw in their system that allowed hackers to set up a “legit” URL on the PayPal servers.

Result: You got an email directing you to a real PayPal URL, and every logical test you could give this URL proved it to be one of PayPal’s own, supported on PayPal servers.

However, on this real URL, you were told your account had been compromised, and you needed to go to this other site, right now, to fix things.

And off you went to a Korean scam center, where fleecing began in earnest, apparently. PayPal has zero clue how many people were duped, or how far the damage has gone. (Though they have apparently fixed that particular security flaw, and the Korean hack-site has been shut down. At least that’s the story now on Yahoo! news.)

This is not good, people. A couple of years ago, the first few emails purporting to be from PayPal looked and sounded so real, I contacted PayPal directly to see why my account had been shut down (or whatever action the scam suggested had happened). I was smart enough not to click the link in the email… but I was taken aback at how real the message seemed.

PayPal, back then, shrugged it all off. “Just be careful, and know that no PayPal employee will ever ask for your password.” No one there thought much of the repeated attacks. They didn’t have an official policy regarding these scams.

But it was like a large evil army relentlessly testing the security and vulnerability of the walls of a fortress.

And there is always a way through the locks and gates and walls. Always.

I tell marketers to consider this bet: Who would you put your money on to win — the little Latin American dope farmer trying to get some product into the states (to “starving” crowds eager for delivery)… or the U.S. military guarding the borders, with all their high-tech weaponry, detection devices, security protocol and multi-trillion dollar budget?

There is always a way in. Always.

This is a double-edged reminder for marketers. First, don’t ever get complacent about your security… and do what you can to keep your customers and prospects aware of the extra steps you take to keep their ordering info safe. It’s not a joke. This is serious. Just like people abandon the stock market after a crash, so too will they think twice about ordering online after a major scam like this.

Second — this is a good lesson for anyone in a crowded niche. No matter how much better funded your competition is, or how many other advantages they have… there is always a way to beat them in the quest for turning prospects into customers.

Online, everyone is equal. IBM cannot spend enough to make their site better than yours (even if you set it up from your kitchen table using freeware, or by hiring an elance.com geek for a hundred bucks)… as long as they insist on ignoring basic salesmanship and good marketing tactics, and you pay attention to what the customer really wants.

In short — find your competitors weaknesses, and exploit them. Do what they aren’t doing. (Most of the time, this involves paying more attention to the prospect.)

It’s still the Wild West online, folks.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton
www.marketingrebel.com

Golf’s Sacred Sweet Spot

I am not a fanatical golfer. Haven’t changed my cleats in two years, leave the covers off my expensive clubs during a round (so they ding against each other and occasionally dent), never tuck in my shirt, and refuse to practice.

And yet… I know and revere the essence of the game.

I have felt the warm, capricious embrace of the Golf Gods.

Every year, for over a decade, my pal Stan and I carve out a week in late spring or early summer… pack up our gear… and head out for as many rounds as we can cram into a single road trip. It’s not the easy path — this year, we had oodles of reasons not to go. Business crises, deadline pressure, other committments crushing against our chosen Golf Week.

Yada, yada, yada.

I even had health reasons to punt. I was barely over a vicious bout of bronchitis, and had wrenched my lower back. I was limping to chiropractor and massage appointments in a haze of ibuprofen. No one would have faulted me for bowing out. I was a mess.

Plus, I had a four-day seminar to get through first. The Tactic 7 workshop was a huge success (check out www.tactic7.com for the post-game report)… but it took a lot out of me. Being on-stage for four straight days will do that to you, you know.

And yet, I was determined to get our Golf Week in. It has become a tradition that must be upheld.

So, within an hour of the seminar ending, I snuck out the back of the hotel, picked up Stan, and we were off. I was still in my slacks and sport coat, but the clubs were rattling around in the back of the SUV, we had an oldies CD blasting away, and I-80 opened up traffic-free before us as the sun danced just above the horizon in my rear-view mirror.

Dude, we were off. No girlfriends, cell phones turned off, our stomachs growling for manly food.

If you don’t golf, I won’t try to convert you. I mostly suck at the game — because, as I said, I refuse to practice, and I seldom get in more than a dozen rounds a year. Each time I put on the cleats, it’s a special day, and I’ve learned to absorb every moment like the rare jewel it is.

Long, gorgeous fading tee shot, or skulling a fried egg deep into a nearby bunker… I may bitch a bit, but I’m still happy to be there.

There are two kinds of guys, I’ve learned. Most, when I mention my dedication to our yearly golfing venture, smile politely and wait for me to get on to another subject.

But you can always tell the guys who have been bitten by the bug. They almost get tears in their eyes, clearly visualizing what it means to have an entire week to do nothing but chase a little white ball through tree-lined fairways. With your most trusted pals. (That’s important.)

That melancholy gets deeper when they learn our annual treks have included Key West, Orlando, the central California coast (playing just above, and just below Big Sur), Vegas, and all over the Sierras. Top-ranked courses like Old Greenwood, five-hundred-dollar-a-round soul-crushers like the Rio, mysterious links like Dark Horse (originally designed for a two-star general with a left-handed slice — meaning, lots of odd doglegs), and trashy little excuses like the tropical fun-zone course near the southernmost point in the states.

Just to name a few of the destinations.

This year, to avoid wasting time traveling, we worked our way around Lake Tahoe. Weird weather patterns kept other golfers away, but we made our tee times despite sleet on the first day and drizzle on the second. Our perseverance paid off, and each day just got more and more glorious.

We’ve got stories to burn.

I’m back now, after ten days on the road (counting the seminar). Exhausted, happy, and with a much better attitude already. In my mid-career, I would have taken many more of these long trips, escaping the office for up to six months at a time.

Now, with my monthly deadlines, I can’t do that anymore. I committed myself to a more rigorous schedule on purpose, to spend a few years being prolific and maybe making a small mark on the industry. I enjoy working, especially with clear goals.

Still, I know my limits on being “serious” about work… and without these annual golfing getaways, I’m not sure I’d be a happy camper.

One of the main appeals of golf is the strict set of rules that must be followed. We play the ball where it lays, take every penalty like a man, and never cheat. Never. We wear collared shirts, we obey even the silliest etiquette rule, and we pay off every lost bet with the required snarl and insult. (Which the winner delights in.)

Plus… we each have a “Birdie Dance” that must be performed after each birdie putt. Even when we’re paired with another set of golfers who think we’re insane.

Golfers understand this reverence for the rules and traditions. Especially men — we have lost our rites of passage, we no longer go on long quests to prove anything, and we are poorer for it. Men crave challenge, and respect tradition.

This is the sweet spot of golf. The rules must be obeyed. The game requires total focus, which frees your mind as effectively as meditation. It is impossible to be perfect, and yet that is what you strive for each shot. For all the frustration and humiliation, a single great chip can restore confidence and respect.

There are trials.

There is redemption.

And you will never conquer the game.

Perhaps much of my reverence comes from the dearth of playing time I get. I’ve known jaded golfers who take their days on the links for granted, and I pity them.

Everything sacred should be rare. And special.

And earned.

There is a Zen peace to golf that most people miss. I enjoy my rounds with Stan because he understands this completely. This is how two guys end up teeing off in a mild hailstorm in the mountains in early summer, oblivious of the miserable conditions, enthralled with the first drive of the week.

That first rare, special, and earned drive.

Just wanted to check in while the high of the trip was still with me.

I hope you find your own sweet spot in life, if you haven’t yet. There are plenty out there, and I’ve got many others outside of golf.

But tonight, it was very easy to write about this silly, achingly beautiful game.

Hey — stay frosty.

John Carlton
www.marketingrebel.com

P.S. I must grudgingly admit that Stan had two birdies in a row yesterday, and possibly his best round ever. My single birdie right after that only stopped his bragging momentarily. Two birdie dances, in a row. Three birdie dances in a row between the two of us.

That, indeed, is a feat of grand beauty. We are not good golfers. And yet, for three holes, we transcended our earthly skills and looked like good golfers.

And that’s enough, sometimes.

The Choking Point

I’m in-between trips here, on a sort of weekend pass until the next seminar. Just flew in from Vegas, and I have to get in the car in less than 48 hours and drive to another event (the sold-out Tactic 7 seminar in San Francisco).

Immediately after, I’m off for my annual golf getaway with my pal Stan. Several days dedicated to the noble sport of chasing little balls around nature.

I am out of my routine, and struggling to stay in the groove.

Still, the old marketing mind never quits. And I just had several experiences that reminded me of how fast things can go bad in business when you’re too lazy to pay attention to the foundation of what you have.

Experience #1: I’m trying to order a friggin’ sandwich without tomatoes at a well-known fast food joint. I hate tomatoes. I hate them so much, I used to ask cooks not to simply hold them… but to take the slices meant for my burger out back and let the garbage truck run them over.

I have my reasons. I’ve been hurt by tomatoes before.

Anyway, I’m at the squawk box, giving my brain-dead simple order: Gimme the blankety-blank sandwich, without tomatoes, and a Dr. Pepper.

You can’t hold the tomatoes, says the tinny voice in the little box. That sandwich doesn’t gzzzt brrrck praxxx.

What?

I can’t understand what he’s talking about. Finally, I order something else — a “number 3″, with a plain old Coke. Jeez Louise.

When I get to the window to pay, the guy is all ticked off. “Why’d you keep asking for no tomatoes on that first sandwich?” he said. “It doesn’t COME with tomatoes, so we CAN’T leave them off.”

And: “I couldn’t hear what the heck you were saying.”

Okay. Never mind the twisted logic of not being able to hold the tom, because it doesn’t come with tom.

Let’s get back to that part about not being able to hear me. I was speaking clearly, right into the box. I know the drill. I’ve been ordering fast food since Jack-In-The-Box actually had a clown’s head you talked into. Scary.

While waiting at the window, I watched the guy butcher another order. I heard the order clearly, even from ten feet away, but the clerk was just clueless.

Wouldn’t you think that — just maybe – the guy you’d want handling the orders from the speaker box… should be able to HEAR?

What we have here… is a “choking point”. Everything else can run smoothly in the joint… but because somebody didn’t do his job during the hiring process, all that high-efficiency is wasted, utterly.

Because every incoming order is being choked off by the clerk who can’t hear.

The ramifications of this are staggering. For any business.

Experience #2: I’ve been reading about MySpace.com a lot lately. I’ve known about it for a while, never visited, and never really cared much about it. Wasn’t on my radar.

All of a sudden — bam, here is article after article about it. In the local paper. In the local hippie freebie paper. On the six o’clock news. On the national news. In the New Yorker. On AOL.

Suddenly, it’s everywhere. Rupert Murdock’s NewsCorp had paid $580million for MySpace, outbidding Google and other players. Everyone in a suit, it seemed, considered the site “the next big thing”. For something. They just knew it was teeming with young-uns, and that HAD to be a good thing.

Right?

I’m not sure if this was purposeful PR, and part of a conscious campaign… or accidental PR, part of a media feeding frenzy.

But something in my gut told me it was not good.

Most companies drool over PR. They crave it, like a junkie, and pursue it with dedication. PR equals attention, and attention equals more customers.

Right?

Well… not always.

In the case of MySpace, the “fuel” for growth was primarily teenagers. Anyone with prior experience marketing to teens knows how fickle they are. And all this publicity — while getting MySpace noticed by Wall Street — was kicking out the foundation of the site’s success.

Teenagers are much less interested in sites once their parents know about them. This loss of “cool” is immediate, like a breach in a dam. Kids flock to music, sites and attitudes that are hidden from the ‘rent’s awareness.

Once the geezers start to “get it”, the teens are gone.

And it’s happening with MySpace. Growth has sputtered. Previous sites with similar booms in popularity (like Friendster) hit virtual walls in this exact manner, without warning, that caused massive desertion by members. Sometimes, kids just get bored. More often, something new comes along.

Like YouTube.com — a fascinating, yet totally alien cyber world that feeds into the natural narcissism of kids even better than MySpace does.

The suits at NewsCorp, I’m betting, thought their PR plan was pure genius.

Instead, their cluelessness about what is truly hip and cool has become a choking point for the site.

Good luck re-couping your $580mil, guys.

Experience #3: I caught the final show of the latest “Apprentice” round. Part of why I watched was because my pal Joe Polish was in the audience, and we tried to spot him during pans. No luck.

Now, I’ve caught all the previous Apprentice shows — nearly the entire series. I liked it. So did other marketers, like Dan Kennedy. It was raw fun watching both the strategies of making odd tasks work, and the soap opera drama of the interactions of unfettered egos.

But I sorta doubt I’ll watch anymore. I’ve joined the swelling ranks of “former fans”.

What happened? The numbers for much of the current round actually increased this season… as the producers did focus groups, and tweaked the elements of the show that brought in more viewers.

Unfortunately, what brought in more and more people had nothing to do with what made the show such fun originally. You know, the business stuff.

The wider the net cast, the less interesting the show became to its core audience.

Now, it’s just another reality show, like Big Brother. I guess too many people complained about being confused by all the “biz talk” and focus on strategy. They liked the fireworks of the personalities. The humiliations of failure, the jungle-level back-stabbing.

Which is all tremendously entertaining — don’t get me wrong.

But the tasks have gotten dumber, and less “real”. And much less focus on the “how they did it” part, which is what’s interesting to business people. There’s so much product tie-in and pitching and irrelevant voting going on, it’s just a travelling circus now.

The choking point: Decisions based on raw numbers, and not on quality.

There is a place where you can have both a huge audience, or even a huge herd of customers, and still offer challenging quality.

But that place is tenuous and fragile. And to move beyond it, you have to sacrifice quality, because the wider audiences won’t tolerate complexity.

They want the easy fun of watching stereotypes kill each other. Like a comic book.

Sad.

But all things pass. I was getting pissy about being chained to the TV every week for that show, anyway.

Now, I have time for new diversions.

I’ll try to post from the road. Otherwise, I’ll be back in a week or so.

Enjoy this early part of summer, while the brisk spring is still in memory.

And stay frosty. It’s gonna get hot.

John Carlton
www.marketingrebel.com


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