Monday, March 28, 2011

You Only Get What You Give

I love that song.

Anyway, this post has nothing to do with that song. Though it's a fantastic song. This post is about leveraging your synergistic shared value.

Kidding! It's just about shared value.

"Shared Value" is the sexy new way of saying "Corporate Philanthropy." They needed a sexier term because it's becoming increasingly unpopular to give away shareholder money expecting nothing in return. Something about theft. It's actually a very interesting concept, which I and those I link to explain pretty well in this post.

But, luckily for the third world, some companies are finding ways to profit off good fortune, rather than just misfortune. Nestle has a program whereby it helps poor coffe growers improve their yeild and reduce their impact on the environment. The result is win/win: The farmers have better crops, and make more money. Nestle has an improved supply of coffee. Citigroup does something similar, providing seed money as well as business management support for small business owners and entrepreneurs. Banks realizing that they have a vested interest in the long term success of that clothing store they loaned $20,000 to is definitely a good thing. And more companies engaging in similar projects will definitely be a positive trend for good in the for-profit world.

But is it philanthropy?

One could argue that if you're making money, it's not *really* charitable anymore.

That's why they call it Shared Value instead.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

5 Ways Facebook Changed Everything

In an attempt to quell the bitterness I feel every day about having a really great blog idea for Valentine's Day, then forgetting about it until the day after Valentine's Day, I'm going to discuss a topic I've been thinking about for months: Facebook.

And this is not because I use Facebook every day (although I do), or because I always have a Facebook tab open on my browser (Mousehunt needs tending to every 15 minutes). This is because there is not a single industry that hasn't been changed by social networking. And because I don't personally like Twitter very much.

1. You can use Facebook to sign into every other website in the world. I hate having a million logins and passwords for everything. LastPass helps with this, but it's still a pain to have to sign in all over the internet. But my desire to leave comments in random places on the internet remains. Luckily, I can now use Facebook to sign in to almost any website that needs signing into. This has the additional benefit (or downside) of making it easy to cross-post content. There have been plenty of times in my life where I was discouraged and ultimately abandoned a new website simply because I didn't want to give them information or have to think of a username. Problem solved.

2. The Newsfeed: Everyone hated it when it originally came out. Referred to it as the Stalker Feed. Which it was, in the sense that you saw the information that people posted on Facebook with the intention of being seen by you. It took Facebook from being a digital yearbook with pages to peruse to a way to keep up with friends without having to look up each of those friends individually every day.

But it did more than that. The feed became a way to keep up with everything. Much like how people smarter than I use Google Reader or RSS Feeds, I have Facebook set up to show me the news of the day, as it pops up. Every time any major news network publishes a story, it pops up on my feed. It's great, because it allows me to follow news, sports (if I cared about sports), car talk, weird science and new Cracked.com articles in the same way, and in the same place, as I keep up on the latest Friend news. I like having all my shit in one place. It lessens the chance that I'll forget to check it for months on end and miss something good.

3. Allowing greater interpersonal socialization. I hear people complain all the time that Facebook friends aren't "real" friends, that internet socializing isn't "really" socializing (I have a whole rant about that here). But the fact is that I am connected to people I haven't seen since elementary school. I'm connected to friends that have moved across the country. And ultimately I'm doing the same thing I would have done if they were sitting right next to me: link to funny videos on the Interwebs and talk about politics/religion/philosophy. As added icing, I can keep tabs on all the most talented people in my life so that when I'm running my own company/non-profit in the future, I'll have access to some serious talent that, importantly, are at least to some degree known quantities.

4. Creating an ad structure that is useful, non-intrusive and moneymaking. Yeah, I know everyone hates ads. I'm not a giant fan, but I am a big fan of Facebook, and I understand that they can't do what they do for free. In order to have great content on the Internet, I have to be willing to endure either ads or a subscription fee. The music industry had it's reckoning on this (somewhat) already, in that it's increasingly difficult to get free music. But Facebook has managed to create ads that are unobtrusive (I HATE ads that move around or flash about, because they slow my page loading) and even useful; I've discovered good sites through ads. It's not perfect, but ads on FB are by far better than ads on any other site I've ever been to.

5. They could create the ad structure of the future. They're already on this one a little. If you "like" Skittles on FB, they sometimes will use that information to advertise Skittles to your friends, with your specific endorsement. This practice is already pissing people off, because who wants to be used as an advertisement, and especially without getting a cut? My question is, why the hell aren't they just being more direct about it? I love The Daily Show and would gladly endorse it to my friends. Why not just have a check box next to The Daily Show on my profile where I grant my explicit endorsement?We all love products, but the way to tap into the whole "word of mouth" concept is not to be sneaky about it. They're on the cusp of creating something incredible: The first useful internet advertising. You know, advertising that leads you to buy products you'll actually like and want.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Who's afraid of the big, bad franchise?

So my roommate just got a job (her third job, actually, meaning she is currently working three jobs) at the local Great Harvest Bread. This is great news for me.

I don't know if you've ever had Great Harvest Bread. If you haven't, go to the store locator, find one, and try it. You don't need to buy; every GH store gives free full-slice samples. It is, hands down, the best bread I've ever had. And I've had some bread. My mother in law bakes bread at home. I've had Dave's Killer Bread. Nothing comes close.

But, one might object, what about the local baker? Isn't it important to support local business? (I'm from Oregon, and am generally of the hippy persuasion, so I hear this a lot.)

The answer I ultimately have to give is no. I think that, right now, it's good to buy local ingredients and items when possible. However, once we finally get off our asses (so to speak) and master the use of alternative energies and fuels, driving products across the country in an electric truck that is charged with solar energies will have little effect on the environment. And I tend to think that even now the benefits we get from global trade outweigh the negatives of sourcing from far away places (though my good friend over at Green Vegan Living might disagree).

However, even buying at Wal-mart, you're still supporting your community. Your neighbors work there. While that shirt you're buying was almost certainly made in China, and obtained using ethically questionable bully distribution tactics, the person bagging your groceries lives in your community, and buys stuff in your community using their wages.

For the record, I don't shop at Wal-Mart, because their tactics as a business do not agree with my being a good person. But many people seem to object to the very corporate idea, the idea that a single person (or group, or bunch of shareholders) own stores all across the country, so when you buy from a franchise or chain, no matter where, you're ultimately sending your dollar to New York or LA or wherever the parent company is based.

This is marginally true. A portion of your dollar does go somewhere else. It pays for a customer service call center in North Carolina, or it pays middle managers at the corporate headquarters, or it goes into the pockets of the 12 year old who made that shirt. Sure, a few pennies goes to the guy at the top, the guy we all hate (and I hate because I think for-profit companies should follow non-profit compensation practices, but that's another blog entry), but substantively your money goes to the people who produce your goods and run the company that provides them. I don't see what's so bad about that, even if they don't live in a 20 mile radius of your person.

But don't kid yourself. The mom and pop stores you support are the same way, they just don't have the power to be truly evil about it. They negotiate prices from distributors just like Wal-mart, they just don't have the power to put those distributors out of business by walking away. They cheap out on labor. And to boot, they are often very poorly managed, because while Wal-Mart has the resources for a competent HR department, middle managers, and training seminars for executives, mom and pop probably don't even Google search good management practices. I'm not saying all small businesses are terrible; there are definitely ones who are not interested in growth or expansion, who pay employees well and are well-managed. It's just that in my experience, they are in the minority.

But, fear not, you silly hippies. Remember Great Harvest Bread? They are a national chain with a strong philosophy of community. Franchisers have a ton of freedom to run their own business, and many Great Harvest stores source everything except their wheat (which comes from a dedicated farm in Montana) locally and/or organically. It's a great hybridization of the corporate franchise and the entrepreneurial spirit. It's a chain that I don't think anyone needs to feel bad about supporting.

I think big business has some serious shortcomings to overcome. But the solution is not to blindly support local business as though they're inherently better. Chances are, they buy their shit from China, too. After all, they've got a business to run.