Google’s new background images (esp. the default one) make me want to hurl.

Thank you, that is all.

Limelight Marketplace: Not the Limelight you (might) remember

Until recently, the only time I had seen the inside of Limelight (originally a church on the corner of 6th Ave and 20th St) was between the hours of 2am and 6am on the occasional weekend in the early 90s. For those who remember, the place was a dance club (and a fun one at that).  It went through several owners and names and a lot of disrepair since that time, finally shutting down and remaining unused for quite awhile.

So that's what the building looks like in the daylight

Last month the former church turned club reopened as a high-end shopping center called Limelight Marketplace (website not really functional- lame).  The transformation is pretty amazing. These aren’t your typical chain mall stores, but rather boutique mini-shops (some as small as 75 square feet or so) with unique and interesting merchandise.  I have to say that I’m impressed.

Pick the scene you'd prefer

Stores range from clothing to housewares to some food, including a nice selection of cheeses and gourmet food.  A restaurant and wine bar will open pretty soon.  It’s worth a look, even if it might make you nostalgic for those all-night dance days from your 20s.

Scary to think the state this place was in before its reincarnation

Mmmmmmm.....cheese (in your 40s, that's more exciting than a night of dancing, for sure)

To plan your career path, think chutes and ladders

For some reason I have a lot of friends who turn to me for career advice.

I don’t think it’s so much that they’re trying to emulate anything in particular that I’ve done; it’s just that I’m a pretty decent listener about this stuff (particularly when they’re the ones buying dinner and we’re on the 2nd bottle of wine), and once in awhile I offer a bit of advice that they seem to find helpful.

One of the most common things I hear is essentially: “I’m not totally happy where I am, and here’s where I want to be, but I really don’t know how to get from here to there.”

As I’ve thought this through, I’ve come to the conclusion that career management is like a variation of the classic kids game Chutes and Ladders.  Remember that?

In the classic game, ladders advance you and chutes set you back.

My version is a little different: chutes and ladders can both connect you to future opportunities. Chutes represent continuity & transferring skills or knowledge from a previous position.  They represent the things you’ve already done that can get you a new job.  Ladders involve doing something different to broaden your skill set and give you more options in the future.

The columns on the game board represent the location, industry/product, company type, function, and recruiting method for companies that interest you. Chronology starts at the top (with your first job) and moves down the board.

Ok, at the risk of being completely and annoyingly self-referential, I’m going to apply this approach to my own career progression:

A few observations:

  • Notice how the early career chutes just connect to adjacent jobs, but later on, chutes begin to lengthen and span multiple connections.  My AOL job drew on my experience as a brand manager at Campbell (2 jobs prior). When I interviewed for SiteAdvisor, I was able to convince Chris Dixon that I had startup cred by pointing to my experience at iSalvage (3 jobs prior).  This is why it’s important to build ladders as soon as you can; they enable future chutes, and it gets harder to build new ladders as you get more and more senior.
  • Notice also how there are a lot of incoming chutes in the ‘How Recruited’ column.  They come mostly from friends and networking, which is of course consistent with what every career counselor in the world tells you every 5 minutes.
  • Finally, note that you can have both a chute and a ladder connect something at the same time.  When possible, try to use a chute to leverage what you’ve done while also building a ladder to broaden your responsibilities.  Example: my move to Travelzoo drew on my existing online marketing background but also broadened it to include investor relations.

Which brings us to Kelly’s two laws of chutes & ladders career management:

  • Chutes enable ladders

-> Drawing on experience that makes you relevant also leaves room for you to grow into new areas

  • Ladders enable future chutes

-> Every new experience and new skill created by a ladder gives you more options and flexibility down the road

and two corollaries:

  • If you build too few ladders, you’re going to end up with far fewer options down the road and end up stuck doing the same thing

-> this is a reason to avoid lateral moves just to earn a small amount more

  • If you try to use too many ladders at once without offsetting them with chutes, you’re going to have a hard time convincing a hiring company that you are relevant for them

-> this happens when people try to change too much at the same time, which can either prevent you from getting hired or set you up for failure if you talk your way into a job.  When friends want to change too much all at once, I encourage them to consider an alternative 3 or 4 year plan that involves 2 steps, so their chutes can be used to earn some ladders.

I’m not suggesting for a second that I had a master plan in place throughout my 20 year career, but by applying the chutes and ladders principle to job changes, I ended up with a lot of great options, continued to build my skill set, and am fortunate to be in a rewarding and challenging job today (which incidentally has almost nothing to do with how I started my career).

Now that you know far more than you care to about my career, the key is to apply this to your own.  Map out where you are, where you want to be, and then begin to connect the squares with your chutes and ladders.

New life goal: someday have a mobile dressing room that says…

There are film production trucks outside the Hunch offices again on 21st Street.  I’m not sure what movie or TV show they’re filming this time, but the name on one dressing room trailer door did catch my eye.

The handwritten sign says “Shadowy Figure.”  How cool is that?  First off, it would be great just to be said Shadowy Figure in the production.  But to have your own Shadowy Figure mobile dressing room?  Now that’s something.

Goldman vs. Capitol Hill: Like fighting with your mailman about the cost of gas

A few things are clear after the Goldman/Capitol Hill showdown today:

Goldman is greedy and sees no issue with bringing together parties betting on contrary positions on a given security; the firm may or may not bet one way or the other on those securities.  Um, obviously…that’s their job.

On the other hand, Goldman doesn’t really grasp why people are so pissed at them based on the perception that they participated in exacerbating the credit meltdown and foreclosure mess.  Well, fair enough- it’s not really their job to do so.

Ok, looking at the other camp: senators expressed outrage, on behalf of Main Street, that Goldman profited handsomely while betting against bundled mortgage securities that ultimately represented many doomed homeowners.  Ok: that’s their job to do so.

On the other hand, the senators showed a near embarrassing lack of understanding of the basics of what it means to bring two parties together who have different outlooks for a given financial security; they didn’t have a clue what it meant to be a market maker.  Understandable: that’s not their job.

See the issue here?  These two adversaries are each doing their respective jobs, but with little understanding of the other.  The senators might have just as well been grilling Goldman about having blocked fire exits, while Goldman was defending a policy of providing free dinners when employees work late.  The back and forth seemed completely incongruous.

Interesting that Goldman was one of only 3 financial stocks to rise today, even as the market as a whole fell about 2%.

Separately, one thing Goldman might want to be more aggressive about is policing its paid search results on Google.  Companies are bidding on their brand name and showing ads that are fairly humiliating.  Goldman can’t necessarily prevent this, but they should at least have the #1 search position themselves (currently they don’t show up at all) to make it either more expensive or impossible for the t-shirt companies to show up.

Check out the paid search ads on the right column. Not exactly what GS marketing/PR folks would hope for.

Words are the dress of thoughts

We have a tradition at Hunch, instituted by Caterina Fake, called “15 min. of genius”.  It essentially involves bamboozling awesome people who stop by the Hunch office into talking to all of us for an hour or so.  (We tell them it’s only 15 min., but the awesome discussion always ends up being quadruple that time, if not more)

We actually had two 15 minutes of genius today since we had two awesome people come by the office.  But especially awesome was Erin McKean, founder and CEO of the new online dictionary Wordnik.  I had met her once before and liked her very much, but after today’s talk I’m absolutely smitten.

Fitting to what she does (and what has apparently been her dream since she was 8), Erin loves words, language, and the study of their respective evolution.  She is brilliant and hysterical; I could have listened to her etymological anecdotes all day.

Here’s Erin delivering a presentation at the 2007 Ted conference.  Also check out Wordnik.  It goes way beyond most dictionaries in the sense that it thoroughly examines how the meaning of words may be changing colloquially (although the site still renders an ultimate subjective judgment based on a “Usage Panel” of linguists).  Importantly, the site also cites usage and context it finds throughout the web.  Two good examples: hopefully and peruse (I’m pleased to say that while the site acknowledges the way these words are often used today, the Usage Panel agrees with me that those uses are generally incorrect).

The title of this blog post is a quote mentioned by Erin that I had never heard before, apparently by Lord Chesterfield.  The full quote:

“Words are the dress of thoughts, which should no more be presented in rags, tatters, and dirt than your person should.”

Indeed.

Spirit Airlines’ carry on baggage fee: Smart. But it doesn’t go far enough.

Spirit Airlines has very wisely instituted a carry on baggage fee. It caused all kinds of commotion and media coverage and even got politicians scrambling to impose misdirected punitive legistlation.

But the truth is that the fee is both smart business and good for consumers. If you don’t like it, fly another airline. Better yet, if you have a few hundred million dollars to lose, start your own airline and make (sorry, lose) money however you see fit.

The real problem is that the fee doesn’t go far enough.

Airline deregulation was passed in 1978. ‘member? The point was to stop meddling in the free market and let airlines set their prices and services in a way they chose. Consumers would either embrace or reject those decisions. Airlines could adapt, or not.

Since then, it is estimated that increased competition has caused inflation-adjusted fares to decline 30%-40%. And, oh yeah, many huge carriers went out of business (Eastern, PanAm, TWA, many others), and the combined industry has lost about $60B since that time. This remains a hugely unprofitable industry.

Most proponents of the carry-on baggage fee cite the overcrowded overhead space and bumbling passengers with too much stuff as a reason they support the fee. I’m absolutely with them on those issues, but this is not my primary argument.

Weight, wherever it comes from – passengers, checked bags, carry on bags, fuel, the aircraft itself – uses fuel and costs the airlines money. That’s why air cargo, from a FedEx box to a pallet of time-sensitive merchandise, is charged by weight (and usually secondarily by volume). Nobody thinks it odd to pay more to air ship a 30 pound package instead of a 2 ounce envelope. Yet commercial passenger travel defies that logic.

So here’s my plan: include a fixed weight allowance, let’s say 175 pounds, for every ticketed passenger. That includes your body weight. Beyond that, you pay for the extra weight you use, no matter where you carry it.

If you’ve ever flown in a helicopter or tiny commercial prop plane, you may be familiar with this procedure. Passengers step on a scale and their weight is logged in addition to the weight of their luggage. This is used to ensure that the aircraft doesn’t exceed its safe operating load, but the measure could just as easily be used to adjust ticket prices.

Politicians say that charging for carry on bags isn’t family friendly. (the logic is that families with young children have lots of essential stuff that needs to be brought on board). But my plan is actually incredibly family friendly. Think about it: for every ticketed minor likely to weigh well under 175 pounds, the parents can load up baggage (as carry ons or checked luggage) as they see fit.

Here’s how the convoluted system works today: two passengers book the same $200 one-way ticket at the same time. Passenger one weighs 150 pounds, checks a 30 pound bag (for $25), and ends up paying $225 ($1.25/pound). Passenger two weighs 225 pounds and carries on two 20 pound bags. Net price: $.75/pound, or 40% cheaper than passenger one. Plus, passenger 2 is contributing to slower boarding, slower exiting, and clogged overhead bins, while passenger 1 is not. Is this fair?

Here’s an additional advantage to this approach: if airlines knew exactly how much weight was in the passenger cabin, they could efficiently pack more cargo underneath, since they wouldn’t be making worst-case assumptions about how much each person (and all their accompanying carry-on baggage) weighs. Over time, that means lower ticket prices, a healthier industry, and likely both.

New York’s Senator Schumer was an activist on this issue. I’m glad to have him as a NY senator and even met him at a fundraiser once. But Senator Schumer, I wish you would please stay out of my free market and please stay out of the business of our country’s pathetically unprofitable commercial airlines.

There’s been some suprising support for this misguided meddling in the market, including from a publication I normally respect, The Economist. Apparently, many people feel it’s a right to carry whatever they want onto a private airline. Would they prefer a regulated industry again with 30-40% higher ticket prices in order to preserve that ‘right?’

Then again, there’s been some support for Spirit’s initiative, too.

Let’s get real: Weighing passengers themselves (and everything they carry) is logistically unfeasible and would cause a consumer uproar. But it’s one of the fairest ways to deal with this mess. Compared to that, the very wise practice of charging people to carry on bulky baggage that doesn’t fit under the seat should seem like peanuts.

Not that you’re likely to get the peanuts for free anymore, either.

5 reasons not to bet against Goldman

1) They’ve been in tricky situations before and managed to get out. They navigated the financial crisis better than other big banks and paid TARP funds back faster.

2) They are smart. Very smart. This is not to say that smart people don’t do stupid things, criminal things, or stupid and criminal things that get them caught. But if anyone is likely to have a CYA excuse, it’s this bunch.

3) It emerged today that the SEC actually had a split vote of 3/2 to take enforcement action, indicating that the case is anything but a slam dunk.

4) It’s hard to imagine a fine that’s both big enough to get through the courts and also big enough to make a material difference in Goldman’s medium-term outlook.

5) Tomorrow’s earnings results are likely to be great.

None of the above mitigates the fact that the charges are serious, that the SEC might win, or that there could be long-term damage to Goldman’s reputation. It’s also obviously quite possible that this will fuel the passage of financial regulatory reform (which could hurt long-term profits) or get lots of people to hate Wall Street more than they do already.

I’d put some money on a scenario that includes Fabrice Tourre resigning, some other upper rank changes, and a settlement in the hundreds of millions of dollars range. But is all that enough to stop this machine from generating fist fulls of cash and a rising market cap? I doubt it.

When the stock went into free fall last Friday I jumped in and went long at $159, which mostly proves that no matter how many times I tell myself to stop trying to pick individual stocks, I don’t listen. “Myself,” I should be saying to me, “you just never seem to learn.”

So 6 months from now if I’ve lost money on this buy, I’m going to sit myself down and have a serious talk with me.

But for now, I’m rooting for ol’ GS to shake it off and keep those profits chugging.

The Latest on the Fire Island Pines Makeover

Paul and I opened up the house today in the Pines. Other than a couple of large tree branches which came down during some serious winter storms, the place was in pretty good shape. We’ve spent the day doing a lot of clean up projects, but the fact that I’m blogging again after a two month hiatus is testament to the fact that it’s pretty relaxing out here.

It’s also a bit of a dump out here at the moment, mostly because lots o’ change is in the air after a power trio plunked down $17 million to buy the majority of the commercial district. Make no mistake that Paul and I could just as easily have done that. That is, if we were powerful, and if we had $17 million.

Anyway, on the way back from the Pantry, where we bought a fabulous white trash lunch of Sloppy Joe ingredients (hey- at least it involved my getting out a skillet to brown the ground beef), we ran into a friend who is on the FIPPOA Board of Directors. There had just been a meeting, and the guy was like a walking, talking press release; we got lots of good scoop. In a nutshell:

  • The coffee shop has been gutted and expanded into the adjoining retail space (previously a real estate office). It will become a restaurant/bar with access to the pool in the back. Tables will be both inside and in the back near the pool. Name: Canteen. The idea is that it will become the low tea space, replacing the Blue Whale for that. [Update: that last sentence may not be correct; see comments section] Target open: mid May (seems do-able based on the progress we saw)
  • The Blue Whale is being gutted and will be operated solely as a restaurant, drawing on the menu/format of the Hampton’s Almond Restaurant. Target open: late May (I doubt it, though, based on the pics below. It’s a wreck, and there was only one person there today slugglishly moving some lumber around)
  • The previously dysfunctional high tea space has been opened up into one big room (buh bye and RIP “Glo Lounge”), and supposedly will be opened up even further to have a balcony+stairs going down to the Pavillion space. Target open date: not sure.
  • “Fresh Market” will have a new format as a 5 department store. It’s like a Shrinky Dink version of Bloomingdales! It was raining on the boardwalk at this point, so I had little interest in hearing the whole plan, but here’s what I remember: 1) housewares, 2) pets, 3) ready to eat meals, 4) flowers, 5) can’t remember. (There was also some mention about being able to order bulk materials- the 40 roll of Charmin or the 12 pack of 96 load Tide, for example. I can’t remember whether that was department 5 or in addition to everything else. I was soaked at this point, remember?)
  • The current liquor store will be moving to where the old hardware store was (North side of the Pantry) at the end of the season. Unclear what will happen to the current liquor store space after that move.
  • The gym will be put behind the Botel (sorry, Hotel Ciel).
  • The Botel will still be…The Botel.
  • Index (the retail store in The Botel adjacent to Blue Whale) will still be a store, but with some sort of fancy brand or owner that I was too wet (or indifferent) to remember.
  • I’m sure there was more, but Paul and I are soaked at this point, and poor little Nanu is starting to shiver. Plus, our Sloppy Joe ingredients are getting water logged. So that’s all I have for now.
  • Some pics below chronicle the big changes. Doesn’t this look like an incredible paradise?

Update: I just received a press release from Steel Gym in the city saying that they will be co-operating the gym in the Pines.

Outside of the old Blue Whale (to be redone in "Almond" format)

Inside of the old Blue Whale. "Book me a table for 9!"

What the storms did to our trees. We spent the day cutting these branches into itty, bitty pieces that fit into garbage bags. Meh.

The new owners tore down that stupid wall separating the two areas of the top of high tea.

Everything is currently a Big ol' Mess. Hopefully it will turn out great.

The High Tea furniture stacked together in a really sad way, including a lonely disco ball. This is random: some of the couches are IKEA SLEEPER beds. Bizarre.

I wondered if the lonely disco ball might make a good earring. But alas, it was kinda heavy. Plus, DOH! My ears aren't actually pierced.

Watch out for your headphones, DJ Lina: Paul and Nanu are ready to have a spin-off (as soon as there is power again in this joint)

"Save me that primo seat!" The pool before its transformation into part bar/restaurant blending into the new harbor space.

Experian’s latest marketing trick: clever…in a way that makes me want to take a shower

If you’ve had a pulse for the last few years, chances are you’ve seen one of Experian’s ads for FreeCreditReport.com.

I have to admit that most of the spots are generally engaging, funny, and memorable.  The fact that YouTube users have voluntarily viewed them millions of times is saying something.

Still, the method Experian uses to hawk its product is fairly sleazy, and it just got sleazier.

The reason, of course, is that federal law mandates that everyone has a right to receive a free credit report once per year from each of the 3 primary consumer credit reporting agencies in the US.  The site is annualcreditreport.com, and it is administered (by direction of the government) by the 3 credit reporting agencies themselves.

The issue with Experian’s ads is that the free credit report they’re promising is not part of the federally-mandated program, but rather as a teaser deal in conjunction with a subscription to the company’s $14.95/month ‘triple advantage’ credit monitoring service. Whether or not triple advantage is worth its costs is not the point here; the issue is offering a so-called ‘free’ product (which is in fact free from another site, with no strings attached) which actually can end up costing $180/year if the service isn’t canceled within an unreasonably short 7 day window.

Experian would argue that they have disclosed the strings attached to their offer.  “Disclosure” in this case has typically included an announcer’s speed reading “free with enrollment in triple advantage” in the last 1 second of the TV commercial, or a small mention/text link on the freecreditreport.com’s site.

Ok, slightly sleazy, right?  But it gets worse.

For a while now, the FTC has only mandated minimal disclosure for these “free with strings attached” offers.  But a few weeks ago the FTC mandated significantly more prominent disclosures, including large messages on the homepages of sites like freecreditreport.com which direct consumers to the government-mandated site.

Experian dodged the bullet, though. Now, they charge $1 for their ‘free’ credit report (and even that $1 is donated to charity). By charging a nominal amount, they are no longer offering the credit report for free, and thus (so they reason), they can also avoid those pesky consumer-friendly disclosures which would hurt their bottom line.

A message on FreeCreditReport.com implies that the government put a stop to its free reports. It says, “Due to federally imposed restrictions it is no longer feasible for us to provide you with a free Experian Credit Report.”  The company is also beginning to change its advertising to direct consumers to freecreditscore.com.  Unlike credit reports, credit scores have not been federally mandated to be available to consumers for free each year.

I will say this: Experian’s massive advertising for FreeCreditReport.com no doubt raised awareness about credit reports in a way that a government agency could never afford.  And this is the free market in action.  The other observation is that this is a great example of how quickly the free market can skirt the government’s attempts to regulate advertising & marketing practices.

Does anyone in Experian’s marketing department really feel good about what they do?

Small wonder they are fighting and adapting to retain profitable marketing initiatives.  Experian is a UK-based company, but their latest half year results indicate that North America accounts for 54% ($1 billion) of revenues and 64% ($307MM) of EBIT.

Here’s an excellent summary of the issue by the SF Chronicle.