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June 2005

May 2005

Another Hale and Hearty NWEN Pub Night: On Working, Walking, Running, Screaming, Fighting and Soothing

There was another great lineup of aspiring and inspiring entrepreneurs at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network (NWEN) Pub Night at Hales Ales this past Thursday.  Here's a brief summary:

  • Working: Steve Bjorg talked about MindTouch, a company that seeks to "bridge the gap between community-driven, open-source developments and today's business requirements" through, among other things, their Knowledge Server, a multidimensional and multiformat information repository.
  • Walking: Monty Reed shared the motivation and vision of They Shall Walk, which includes a wearable robotic LIFESUIT that will enable disabled people to walk; Monty got the idea for the LIFESUIT while recovering from a parachuting accident in 1986 when he was an Army Ranger (quipping "a parachute doesn't always work, gravity always does"), inspired by a robotic brace for soldiers described in chapter 7 of Robert Heinlein's book, Starship Troopers.
  • Running: for those who can already walk, but want to do more, Jeffrey Shilling presented, an executive fitness coaching company dedicated to empowering urban professionals to achieve their fitness goals in the least amount of time possible ("twice the fitness in half the time")
  • Screaming: for those who want to move [bits] screamingly fast, Andrew Edmond, CEO of Scream Networks, told us about his company's screaming grid-based platform to support full-screen DVD-quality video on demand
  • Fighting: an entrepreneur who was concerned about disclosure due to the power structure within the boxing industry highlighted the central importance of picking fights wisely (by boxers and/or their managers), and an idea he has for an online tool to help with this; out of deference to his wishes to keep a low profile, I'll say no more
  • Soothing: Morgan Miller, of Morgan Jane All Natural Products, told us about -- and shared samples of -- her company's non-toxic home, bath and body care products, that are soothing to people, pets and the environment ... providing an example of yet another way where people can make socially responsible investments.

These bi-monthly events are great opportunities for inspiration and networking ... and, of course, pizza and beer (I previously blogged about my experience at the NWEN Pub Night in January).  There will be a hiatus over the summer -- which makes sense, given that I suspect the summer-like weather we had Thursday night resulted in a lower-than-usual turnout -- and I look forward to the return of Pub Night in the fall.

Free WiFi Zones vs. WiFi-Free Zones: Virtual vs. Physical Communities

The Victrola coffeehouse in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle has shut down its free wireless Internet access (WiFi) on Saturdays and Sundays, in part because people were squatting in -- and tuning out from -- the physical place, and using WiFi-enabled laptops to instead tune into their virtual worlds.  Glenn Fleischman has an excellent article on the social issues that led to this change in policy, including the following quotes:

Before Wi-Fi, “People talked to each other, strangers met each other,” [Victrola co-owner Jen Strongin] said. Solitary activities might involve reading and writing, but it was part of the milieu. “Those people co-existed with people having conversations,” said Strongin. But “over the past year it seems that nobody talks to each other any more,” she said.

One of the people commenting on Glenn's article, DMA, notes

the feel and vibe of the cafe suffers due to the reclusive nature of the computing experience. The establishment turns into something like a library instead of a slightly noisy, unique, completely-Seattle cafe where people find random ways to relate to each other.

The article also delves into economic issues:

Worse than just the sheer number of laptop users, Strongin noted, is that many of these patrons will camp six to eight hours -- and not buy anything. This seemed astounding to me, but she said that it was typical, not unusual.

I, too, am surprised at this kind of chutzpah, but I find the other, more social, implications more intriguing. I wonder whether or why using a computer is [perceived as] more reclusive than reading a book or newspaper, or writing on paper.  Is it related to the device or object itself and the social affordances it offers, something about the level or type of engagement with the each object, or the type of people who tend to choose each medium?  I believe I've been every bit as engrossed in reading or writing on paper as I have been in reading or writing on a laptop, but I don't know what kind of perceptions others may have of me using the various media.  I suppose that the content of books or newspapers are more visible to others, and so may provide a conversation starter for someone who has read a particular book, or regularly reads a newspaper ... or has some other affinity with -- or aversion to -- a particular item that is visible to both reader/writer and others nearby in physical space.  Perhaps it's the mystery of not knowing what someone is doing on a laptop that reduces their approachability.  In that regard, I suppose that the laptop in a coffeehouse is the antithesis of a "front porch" (a la Scott Ginsberg).

As noted by Benjamin, another commentator on Glenn's article, Sean Savage and his colleagues have put together a system, PlaceSite, that provides a portal through which WiFi-enabled laptops can be used to share information (digitally) with others who are in a coffeehouse (or teahouse, as the case may be), helping to bring people using digital technology in a shared physical space closer together.  Whether those people are more or less likely to actually buy anything remains to be seen.

[Thanks, Sean and Bart!]

Update, June 5, 2005: Several other articles on the topic of WiFi at coffeehouses:

A Gathering on Gatherings

I attended the Pomegranate Center's Annual Gathering today, whose theme was "Community-Built Gathering Places".  The center's gathering places model is based on the premise that "unintentional encounters happen in intentional environments":

Gathering places are where social encounters happen freely and unexpectedly, contributing to a stronger sense of community, better relations among neighbors, reduced vandalism and crime, increased safety on crime, renewed volunteerism and stewardship, and enhanced environmental beauty.

Cason Swindle, Pomegranate Center Board President, welcomed the group of approximately 60 participants.  Milenko Matanovic then provided an introduction and overview for the event (and moderated discussions throughout the day).  The morning included presentations by

In the afternoon, we broke out into smaller subgroups led by the morning presenters for two sessions.  It was a tough choice, but I decided to attend the sessions by Linda and Ron.  I hope that much of the material will eventually be made available online ... meanwhile, I'll share a few of my notes below.

Continue reading "A Gathering on Gatherings" »

The Business Value of Integrity, Openness, Vulnerability and Compassion

Merrit Quarum, MD, Founder, Chair and CEO of Qmedtrix, highlighted the business value of personal qualities that I have always valued in his presentation today at the NWEN Venture Breakfast Meeting.  He also provided an overview of Qmedtrix' history and mission, talked about some of his courtroom battles, and shared some of the most egregious examples of overbilling (e.g., a $450,000 bill for a 10-day course of penicillin ... which typically costs approximately $300 -- a case which Qmedtrix won in court).

Qmedtrix develops defensible solutions for controlling and reducing health care charges, while promoting the highest quality care for patients. The result—Qmedtrix’s medical, technological and legal expertise has saved medical bill payers hundreds of millions in excessive charges.

This was all very interesting, however, I was most inspired when he turned his attention to the ways that people and organizations conduct themselves in business.  Dr. Quarum emphasized the importance of integrity in all business dealings, especially with respect to the establishment of fair, reasonable and consistent rates in the medical and health care industry (an issue I grappled with, and wrote about, recently, regarding fair consulting rates). 

He then went on to highlight the importance of the sense of community in an organization, listing the three most important employee retention factors -- compensation, opportunities for career development, and recognition.  Of these, he claimed that the lack of appreciation and recognition was the most significant (and, I suspect, the easiest and least expensive of the three problems to address), quoting an article from the Regent Business Review:

Employee recognition is a practice that clearly comports with contemporary business thinking about human relations.  Acclaimed as more than just a nice or ethical thing to do, encouragement and public praise has been touted by many in recent years as vehicles to greater employee satisfaction, productivity and retention.

Dr. Quarum emphasized that recognition has to be a consistent, ongoing process throughout the organization.  He then provided a definition of organizational trust from the June, 1995, issue of Academy of Management Review:

Organizational trust [is] the willingness of an employee and employer to be vulnerable, to be open to one another and to take risks for one another.

He noted the challenges in managing his dual roles as courtroom expert witness, where he has to don his armor before battle (embracing what I would describe as his warrior energy), and CEO, where he wants to model openness and vulnerability for his team.

The last part of his talk focused on knowledge, networking and compassion, where he drew upon the book "Love is the Killer App" by Tim Sanders, highlighting the following concepts:

  • It makes a difference how people view you and themselves
  • Compassion will lead to a better experience
  • Compassion will help people remember you and when people remember you, it is good for business
  • Compassion creates commitment, keeps you focused
  • Compassion buys forgiveness
  • Compassion creates opportunities for realizing potential

I recently started the book "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: Searching for the Soul of Kindness" by Marc Ian Barasch, which extols many other benefits from a compassionate perspective and actions, including a "helper's high" (first coined by Allan Luks in his book "The Healing Power of Doing Good") ... which reminds me of the mantra "givers gain" that I heard at the BNI meeting I attended yesterday morning.  It feels good to find so many connections as I continue to align my personal and professional goals and values.

Object-centered Sociality: Digital Affordances in Physical Spaces

Jyri Engeström claims that the problem with some social networking services is that they focus solely on people and links, ignoring the objects of affinity that those linked people share.  He invokes the concept of "object-centered sociality" (borrowing from Karin Knorr Cetina) to explain how the inclusion of shared [digital] objects, such as photos, URLs, and events, can enhance online social networking.  Jyri's post was sparked by Russell Beattie's report of why he stopped using LinkedIn, which was largely due to Russell's assessment that it was not useful [to him].  It's worth noting that Russell suggests that if he were to rejoin LinkedIn, he would only link to friends he has met in the physical world.  If we combine this emphasis on the physical world with object-centered sociality, it highlights the value of presenting objects (or "affordances") that can catalyze social networking in physical spaces, e.g., using ordinary name tags or perhaps photos or other digital content shown on a large, peripheral display, or worn on a small, personal display ... topics discussed in my last post.

What's in a Name Tag?

Scott Ginsberg ("that guy with the nametag") has been wearing a nametag every day since November 2, 2000.  The nametag creates, in effect, a personal "front porch", projecting an openness that enhances approachability, with respect to both other people's willingness to approach him and their willingness to be approached by him.  Scott's web site includes a short video interview where he expounds on his "front porch philosophy":

This whole idea is ... you're throwing yourself into the sea -- you're putting yourself out there and opening yourself up to other people and as a byproduct ... people are going to say hi more and give you more attention, but you're letting other people know who you are and giving them the opportunity ... The problem with communication right now in our society is that people don't want to take that pivotal first step; from there, friendships can form, and all you gotta do is just take that initiative ... We have to use this short time not mathematically but artistically to, in our own way, express something ... I don't want everyone to wear name tags, I want everyone to find some method of expression to say what they want to say.  Friendliness is just a way of life that needs to be spread, and it can be spread if you're doing it one person at a time.

Scott is adopting an ultra-low-tech approach to creating the same kind of opportunities for awareness and interactions -- or, in his words, connection and communication -- that are the goal of our proactive display applications, which rely upon a different kind of tag (RFID) and large displays (with RFID readers) that can show content from people's online profiles when they are nearby.  We are both trying to help people express themselves in a non-intrusive and non-threatening manner.  Rick Borovoy is another kindred spirit, with his higher-tech nTags, which combine the tag, the reader and the display into one small package that people can wear around their necks.  Although I don't expect that most people are willing to wear a paper nametag, an RFID tag or an nTag on a regular basis, I do believe the proliferation of sensing and display technologies will expand the opportunities for self-expression, and thereby, awareness and interactions, in a variety of spaces and places.

I've found all kinds of interesting and inspiring insights, experiences and wisdom on Scott's web site and blog.  Among them are some recommendations into the effective use of nametags (of the ultra-low-tech variety).  I'll be attending a "visitor's day" breakfast meeting of a local chapter of Business Networking International -- which, as synchronicity would have it, was a topic in a recent post on Scott's blog -- tomorrow, where I will experiment with some of his recommendations.

[I first discovered Scott's blog via smallbusinessbranding]

Establishing a Fair Consulting Rate

I've recently begun to explore the possibility of an exciting consulting engagement.  I haven't done any consulting work for over a decade; for my first engagement, which lasted over four years, I took over a project a friend had started, and simply charged the same rate he had been charging without thinking seriously about what was fair to me and my client.  This time, I wanted to be more principled in my approach, so I did some research. 

I found a great paper entitled "The Meter is Running: Setting Consulting Rates for Independence", by Christopher Juillet, that outlines a number of potential strategies, including "What I made as an employee", "The 'Rule of Thirds'" (3x salary), "The Rambo Rate" (what the market will bear) and "The Rational Rate".  This last strategy is one I find most appealing: take your target salary (which may be "what I made as an employee"), multiply it by 1.5 (to account for benefits and taxes that would be paid by an employer), add annual business expenses, and multiply the sum by a profit margin of between 15% and 40%, to compensate for the market risk of being an independent consultant.  Divide this final rate by the number of billable days in a year (e.g., 180, to allow time for weekends, holidays, vacation, sick days, administrative days and marketing days), and then divide that by 8 (assuming 8 hour days), and voila, you have an hourly billing rate.

I've run this strategy by several friends who are consulting, either part-time or full-time, and all agree that this is rational and justifiable.  The only issue that was raised was the 1.5 salary factor, as social salary taxes only apply to the first $87K of salary, and medical insurance costs do not vary with salary level.  After working out more detailed calculations to explore the true costs of benefits and taxes, I came up with a factor of 1.33.  I imagine this will go up once my COBRA coverage expires, and I may well be overlooking other expenses that should be included in this factor, but this is the level I feel I can justify at this point.

There are, of course, other factors to consider in establishing a rate, such as the length of the engagement (which may reduce the risk and the number of days one needs to spend on marketing), the strategic value of the engagement (e.g., whether it will lead to future business with this or other clients), the "wear-and-tear" costs (e.g., the frequency and duration of travel), and the ability of the client to pay (e.g., not-for-profit vs. for-profit, and organization size).

It was a time-consuming exercise to work out all these numbers, but very worthwhile, as I now feel more comfortable and confident in negotiating a fair rate.  I don't actually intend to do much consulting, per se, but rather am looking for new channels through which I can design and deploy technology to help people relate to each other in shared physical spaces.  If consulting helps open up some of these channels, then I'm all for it ... especially if it can be done at a rate that is fair to both this consultant and his client(s).

[Update: Paul Brown, in a comment on an entry on Consulting Rates in the Valley in William Grosso's old blog, posted a simpler formula, [hourly_rate] = [desired_salary] * 0.0012, which yields a result that is within a few dollars of the rate I settled on.]

Calvinball in the U.S. Congress

Recent discussions and actions regarding rule changes in the U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee (over alleged improprieties by Representative Tom DeLay) and the U.S. Senate (over filibuster and cloture) remind me of one of my favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes.  One of the recurring themes in the strip was calvinball, a game wherein any rule may be changed by any player at any time. 

In the comics, reading episodes of calvinball was always a LOL experience for me.  When I read about such episodes in politics, my experience is more along the lines of WITFITS.  My only consolation is Newton's Third Law of Motion -- "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction" -- and my belief that the political pendulum will swing back.