Deconstructing the Donald Trump Presidential Campaign … All Politics Aside

Donald Trump is not my preferred candidate … at least not yet. He has some work to do to convince me of, well, anything. But I think I understand “why” he is being so successful, and it has nothing to do with anything that I am hearing anywhere. NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, Drudge Report … seriously — everyone is getting it wrong.

Why Trump? I mean, he sort of ran last time, but dropped out quickly for the stated reason of keeping his financials private. Whether we completely believe that public statement or not, it’s clear that he never got much interest or support in that previous run. In addition, he has no real political experience whatsoever, often shoots wildly from the hip, and can be off-putting and caustic. But whatever we may think about Donald Trump himself and whatever we may think about the political parties, let’s set that aside for the moment and talk about the psychology of the thing. Why is the Republican audience leaning so strongly on him?

The pundits, commentators, and “experts” are saying all kinds of things. But I think that Trump is doing so well because of three primary reasons:

  • John Boehner
  • Money
  • Culture

Reason #1: It’s John Boehner’s Fault

OK, it’s not Boehner’s fault per se, but former Speaker of the House John Boehner represents everything the core Republican base despises. He and all of the old-school, deal-making, power-hungry elitist politicians we have elected who proudly display a capital “R” by their name. If you listen to what they sold the voting base over the last seven years and compared that to what they actually did once elected, it is depressing at best.

Each election cycle the base has turned out, volunteered, donated, and voted. There are now more Republicans holding federal and major state elected offices than at any time since the Civil War. And within months of each election, those popinjays in DC tell us that there is nothing they can do about anything until we give them more. It never stops.

Think of it like a boyfriend or a girlfriend. In every situation, the effort put into a relationship is never really equal. Someone always gives a bit more, loves a bit more, or is a bit less selfish. We all have learned to handle a little imbalance in the name of love. But if one side of the relationship does ALL the giving and the other side does nothing but hang out with their pals drinking every night, expecting a hot meal and a kiss when they come back after a night of carousing, the relationship is doomed.

John Boehner, Eric Cantor (we just voted him out), Mitch McConnell, and now — unfortunately — Paul Ryan have been stepping out on the Republican base for nearly a decade and it’s high time we got a little love and attention. Heck … some of us don’t even think that they like us all that much. We feel used. Sure, they sing a good song when they want money or votes, but once we’ve — forgive the term — put out, they make a hasty retreat to the door and tell us that we “just don’t understand” the pragmatic realities of this or that.

I do not want to get too graphic here, nor do I want to portray myself as bitter. But I think I can speak for a large swath of the electorate out there when I say that those politicians treat their interns better. Perhaps even buy them a dinner or blow them a kiss on their way to the next “fact-finding” junket to the Caribbean.

We’ve had enough. If those guys can play the field, we can too. That’s why three of the top four candidates on the right side of the campaign are outsiders (including Ted Cruz who, even though a Senator, has been jilted by the leadership himself).

Reason #2: It’s About the Money

I am on every candidate’s mailing list. I perform this act of self-flagellation on purpose. I do not recommend it.

If you saw how many condescending, dumbed-down, borderline idiotic messages that arrive daily into my various inboxes you would qualify for a Prozac prescription. But the communications pro and economist in me wants to see those messages. And lest the left-leaning readers feel left out, I am on the email distributions from the Democrats as well, and they are all equally poorly-written and moronic — filled as they are with pseudo-push-poll nonsense and claptrap. They often scream things like “We want your opinion!” and have some sort of a contrived “survey” wrapper covering a donation button. And, perhaps not surprisingly, they are always just a few dollars away from some “goal.”

I don’t fall for any of it. I have seen the scientific research about action messages, so I know that the vast majority of these are simply lies … manipulations … contrivances of convenience from our abusive spouse heading out the door on the way to the bar.

I got an email from the Trump campaign last week. It just said Merry Christmas. Not Happy Holidays, not Seasons Greetings … just Merry Christmas. There was no way for me to donate or “contribute” or any other euphemism for paying anyone’s election-year bar tab.

This is not only because Trump seems to understand his audience, but because he is self-funding. He is running on his own dime. Right, left, center, or jungle-living Javan villager, how do you not think that a good thing? I have been around a while and I have never seen such a thing before. How about you?

Far too many politicians of all stripes have become filthy rich in office. For Trump, the presidential paycheck is a rounding error. He likely spent more last year on fuel for his private jet. Speaking fees? Trump made more cash on one season of The Apprentice reality show than Bill and Hilary made on all those rubber-chicken dinner-speeches delivered in “questionable” overseas locations.

So … Trump may be in it for ego and self-aggrandizement, he may be in it for status, or he may be in it — as he says in his spot-on-marketing tag line — to Make America Great Again. But presidents put their investments into blind trusts while in office and he is going to spend millions of his own dollars in the race, so — even though we may be missing something here — he is not likely in it for the cash.

Imagine some Armani-clad lobbyist slithering into the White House with a six-figure check in one hand and the promise of a cushy consulting gig after he leaves office in the other. Would that turn Donald Trump’s head … would he even notice?

Now be honest with yourself … do you think that Hillary Clinton would take that meeting?

Reason #3: Cultural DNA

For some people, Donald Trump embodies everything they dislike about American culture. I can respect that opinion (even though I might disagree). After all, he is a brash and flamboyant example of conspicuous consumption writ large in bold, ComicSans font.

But try to think of him a little bit differently for a minute.

He is a 1962 Cadillac DeVille with candy-apple red paint and big tail fins pulling into Walmart. He is a big, bad Ford F350 dually with four-wheel drive. He is a pimped-out “crib” in New York and palatial estate by the beach in Florida (literally). And even though they may chafe at the comparison, he is both Dr. Dre and Kid Rock — decked out in bling and drinking champaign and Courvoisier with a super-model by his side. The only difference is the business model he took to get there.

In short, every person buying a lotto ticket today — Democrat, Republican, or Independent — would consider using Trump as a role-model for their winnings. Donald Trump’s life is the reason most people buy lotto tickets in the first place … he is living the dream. Their dream. They understand his luxuries and excesses because they imagine that they might do exactly the same thing. For all of the pomp and circumstance and braggadocio, he seems genuine and culturally “real” in an upside down, social media, selfie-stick, celebrity-addled world. His life may be lit in garish neon, but it does not feel like a lie. It feels … American. Can any of us confidently say the same about the lifestyle presentations of most of the other candidates? A few perhaps.

Other Tidbits

Sure, Trump is a successful businessman famous for making great deals — and we sure could use a bit of that in government these days. And he did graduate from Wharton — one of the finest business schools in the world — at the top of his class. So even though he speaks in plain, bold language with little nuance, no one gets that kind of a degree without being smart … scratch that, REALLY smart. But if a solid resumé was going to close the presidential deal, several other candidates would be tracking as high in the polls. There is something else going on here.

Wrapping Up

Donald Trump is a lot of things. One of those things right now is the leader in virtually all of the Republican primary polls. As the new year begins, we will likely wake up tomorrow to discover that he still leads those polls, and the media and Washington elites of all colors and affiliations will still not understand why.

Mean while, the fly-over voters who make up the core of the Republican base will get up and go to work thinking and dreaming.

Happy New Year

(this post was originally published by me on the Medium website on New Years Eve, December 31st, 2015)

Successful Branding – Keep it groovy

So … what is the best way to make certain that your brand—internal or external—stays front of mind, believable, and relevant?

Some brand managers treat their communications strategy like they were studying for finals.  They procrastinate and dither all semester, then try to cram months of effort into a short, glorious spurt of activity over a brief few days before some magical date.  Afterward, they meet briefly with their peers to grouse about their grades before going on vacation to Fort Lauderdale. Pull-quote 1

No doubt there are times when communications, branding, and positioning are aggressive and frenetic.  These times are usually project-based.  But if that is all you do, if your activities always feel rushed and crammed, then you are missing the planning, strategy, and most of the value.

This tendency to rush—to over-communicate in fits and bursts—has always been present in both politics and corporate halls.  It can bee seen in large, mission-critical efforts and the daily activities of our craft.  But never has it been so evident now that we have the advent of social media to add even greater velocity and urgency to our voices.  If you follow the Facebook or Twitter feeds of your customers and competitors you will experience long periods of silence punctuated by five or more posts in quick succession (usually just before 5:00 PM in their local time zone).  The poster then retires from his social media “strategy” for the day, self-satisfied that he or she has checked off this task.

It is waste.

The Space Between the Notes

The composer Claude Debussy is quoted as saying that, “Music is the space between the notes.”  In his debut single—Hallelujah How I Love Her So—Ray Charles wrote that he was convinced of the love of his girl not because of her beauty or a grand gesture, but because, “Every morning ‘fore the sun comes up, she brings me coffee in my favorite cup.”  The communication that ultimately convinces—that creates belief—is the one that is consistent and non-urgent.  We are believable in the urgent times because we have spent the quiet times in faithful reinforcement of a message. Pull-quote 2

Timing.  Tempo.  Rhythm.  No one dances to a screaming guitar solo—no matter how brilliant—without that rhythm section.  The soloist’s virtuosity is arrived at only after the groove has been established.

It does not take billions of dollars, and neither should it be a frenetic spew or checking off of a task.  If you want your messaging or brand to have lasting meaning and impact, deliver it like a faithful cup of coffee in the morning.

Cacophony … of Truth?

A Brief Word on Communications and PR in the Age of Democratic Messaging

The population of the world is nearing 7 billion souls.  And since this is the internet age, it seems that every single one of those folks is “trying to get their message out.”  But are those messages “true?”

It is axiomatic—even a running joke—that you cannot believe everything that you read on the internet, and that photo of the attractive potential spouse on that dating site may be a tad bit out of date.  But rather than delivering up fountains of new and helpful information, the new media world has become jam-packed with PR spin and stage-craft … and most people are not very good at it.

As a professional communicator, I have been asked many times to deliver a message.  But as a professional, I am professionally responsible to ensure that there is truth in the message and that the messaging is in alignment with the core beliefs and identity of the

individual or company that employed me.  This is vital.  It is the amateur that will say anything—do anything—to grab glory and shift blame.

The highest value of PR and Communications is to reveal important truths about yourself or your business. The lowest value is to conceal important truths.  It is perfectly fine to polish the apple and shine the shoes, but it is not OK to call that apple an orange or to dance on stage in ruby slippers when you spend your days in workman’s boots.  The former delivers value to your audiences, the latter deceives.  And ultimately, people will not believe you.

The Lesson of Gerry Spence

Gerry Spence is famous for being the trial lawyer who never lost a case.  Some quibble and dispute the minor details, but no one argues that he had a very successful career, including notable wins in some very high-profile cases.  In one of his books he tells a story of when he was just getting started.  As a fresh graduate from law school working his first trial, he was adopting the uniform of the law firm he had joined: conservative Armani suits, wingtip shoes, black briefcase.  Being raised in Wyoming, the clothes made him feel stiff and unnatural, but he was expected to don the official uniform, an so he did.

But the case was going badly.  Very badly.  He knew he was was losing.

Mid-way through the trial he put on his western cut suit and boots—things that he had been wearing his whole life.  The senior lawyers criticized his judgment, but he “felt” like he was being truthful to himself.  He believed that everything about him, as the attorney, was being scrutinized by the jury.  In his view, you could even “lie” by wearing clothes, or carrying a briefcase, or even talking in a manner that was not true.  He believed that these “non-truths” could get in the way of the very important messaging that he had to deliver.  The future of his client depended on those truths.  When you are delivering an argument—when you are delivering a message—people will respond to “truth” better, even if that “true” exposes faults, imperfections, and flaws.  They will trust you in the imperfections.

This does not mean that you put on airs, speak poorly, or “act” a part.  In this way of thinking it is all about shining up who you are, but embracing the real you at the same time.  It is being the best you in the best light, but still you.

Gerry Spence went on to win that trial, and every trial thereafter.

People respond this way.  PR absent conviction & communication without belief are meals that fill, but fail to satisfy. Ultimately they are heaved up like spoiled meat.  Long term success is found in the famous words of Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

Start by not fooling yourself

Sun Tzu said, “Know your adversary and know yourself, and you will not fear the results of one hundred battles.”  That means the best place to start messaging is with the man (or company, for that matter) in the mirror.  If you are crafting messages and vision / mission statements that are inconsistent with what you see in the mirror or going on in the organization around you, change those things.

Do not use messaging as a masquerade to portray what you think your audiences want to see.  Rather, let your messaging have the power to alter behavior and transform identities and organizations.  Bring yourself and your company into alignment with what you want to be able to say about yourself.  Then, when you deliver the message, not only will it be believable by your audiences, but you will start to believe it too.  If you believe it and act upon it, you become a better leader and your team will start to believe it to (so will your family and friends).  Your communications and PR messaging will no longer be just a strategy or a collection of legacy images and half-hearted wish-goals on a user profile page … it will be true.

Be well.

A Tale of Republican Civil War, Failed Political Leadership, Thomas Sowell, and the Tea Party

In an article posted on Human Events yesterday, one of my favorite economists, Thomas Sowell, took aim at the Tea Party.  Sowell is not the first.  Many solid Republicans have, on occasion, joined with circling swarms of the media and political left to deride the Tea Party over various notions, perceived and contrived.  Sharing so many fundamental principles with Sowell, I depart from him here.

First, I really like Sowell. I am a big fan actually, and have two of his books. In the article, he mentions Ann Counter and her discomfort with Tea Party criticisms of some established Republican leaders.  I like Ann a lot too, though her delivery is a bit more napalm than elevated debate.  She is my socio-political guilty pleasure–she is effective and annoys the “crazy left” a great deal, which does her credit and is always entertaining.  Some have hyperbole-dubbed this intramural squabble on the right a “Republican Civil War.”  A good friend asked me what I thought on the matter, so here goes.

Cutting to the chase …

I am not an official member of the Tea Party (if there is such a thing as an “official member”).  Nor have I, as of yet, attended a Tea party event.

That said, the Tea Party is likely the most awesome display of a genuine grass roots political uprising I have seen in my lifetime. The Democrats know this, which is why they demonize it so much. Republicans–our brothers in arms–still do not realize that the best way to determine what assets are the biggest threat to your adversary is to look where the adversary is directing their fire.  Our political adversary–the Liberal left–takes every opportunity to bash the Tea Party and everyone associated with them.

Remember how the left glommed on the “occupy” movement? A few hundred smelly college students living in tents and defecating in the street, and the left hailed that as an admirable grass roots movement. But then, when literally tens of thousands of regular folks show up at rallies around the country without professional organization, media support, or union thug-buses, when those citizens then peacefully participate in heart-felt protest and then proceed to clean up after themselves without any central authority, to the media and the left, it’s the same thing as a KKK rally in Selma.

ALWAYS look at what the enemy is shooting at (queue Sarah Palin).  In addition to the political and media smears, what kinds of organizations did the IRS stall, deny, and delay in the two-year run-up to the last presidential election?  (hint: rhymes with “see marty”)

Now, a quick history lesson

Back in the day, there was another try at nationalizing health care. The euphemism of the day was “Hillary-Care” and it was fraught with all of the horrible, economically ignorant, borderline eugenics, anti-intellectual dreck that the current plan is. It was also organized in secret. The Democrats had control of the House and Senate, and Bill and Hillary Clinton summoned the Republican leadership up to the White House and sat them down. They said, in effect,”Boys, we are going to do this thing and you can’t stop us. You can get some goodies for yourself and come along for the ride or be left behind.” Sound familiar?

At the end of that meeting, as the Republicans came out of the White House woodshed, the media was there waiting, all queued up and ready to grab a sound bite. One-by-one our leaders on the right marched up to the microphones. Everyone was there: Bob Dole, Mitch McConnell, and more. Each one made conciliatory statements. “We have our concerns, but we are willing to work with the Clintons …” and “We understand the political realities and will seek to make this the best deal possible ….” Yadda yadda yadda.

Then, up to the microphone steps Phil Graham of Texas.  Phil Graham was a former Democrat Congressman who switched sides in 1983 during the Reagan Revolution, and then finished his career as a Republican in Congress and then the Senate–he is an economist as well. I remember this SOOOOO well. He steps up to the microphone and says, and I quote, “This [health care bill] will pass over my cold dead political body.”

I still get chills when I remember that.

He went on to organize the legislative resistance and Hillary-care was defeated, setting the stage for a retaking of the House orchestrated by Newt Gingrich in 1994.  Recently, Ted Cruz recalled that moment in an interview on Meet the Press.

Fast-forward a quarter century … Obama comes along now, and our side collapses like a house of cards with tepid, almost perfunctory resistance while whining about the unfairness of the media.  A few on both sides are tempted to take kickbacks, cut deals, and negotiate exceptions and exemptions (as if the other side ever intended to honor an of them).  Bam … Obama Care is passed in the middle of the night–unread, unfunded, and unintelligent.

What most contemporary Republicans fail to realize is that the Tea Party is NOT a reaction to Obama. The Tea Party is a reaction–organic and visceral–to a tragic lack of leadership in their own Republican Party. And by this I do not mean leadership as a title. I mean actual principled, organized, disciplined, and intelligent leadership, communicated well. Phil Graham and Roland Reagan leadership.  The Tea Party’s very existence today is a persistent, stinging critique of the current state of the top echelons of the Republican right. The Tea Party is not causing failure in the Republican party, it exists BECAUSE of the Republican Party’s failures.

Brother and sisters … it is time for us to own that.

There is a stunning lack of understanding on the right

Many notable Republicans, including the admirable Thomas Sowell, now speak only about winning elections and gaining power. Does Thomas Sowell forgets Ronald Reagan’s insurrection of 1976? Ronnie challenged Gerald Ford of all people, and darned near unseated the sitting Republican President in that 1976 primary election. Does Sowell forget Conservative hero William F. Buckley who ran against the Republican candidate for Governor of New York on the Conservative Party ticket with the deliberate intention of splitting the vote so that who he saw as a liberal elitist in Republican disguise would NOT gain power.  In Bill Buckley’s view, better an honest Democrat that a closeted liberal in conservative clothes.

And then there is Joe Lieberman. Lieberman was a Democrat running for the Senate in Maryland who owes his victory to Bill Buckley. Bill ACTUALLY CAMPAIGNED for Lieberman against the establishment Republican candidate. Buckley did this because he believed that Joe Lieberman–a Democrat–was more conservative than the Republican candidate.

It is surprising that Sowell laments such Tea Party actions now since Sowell is a Buckley fan and appeared on his show, Firing Line, several times (I have the DVD).  Thomas Sowell was a part of the “Republican Civil War” of that era.

Back to the Tea Party …

So, instead of stepping up, capturing the moment, and LEADING the Tea Party–truly leading them, not just pandering–the establishments on both sides attack. The history of real conservative movements is one of cleaning house and installing candidates who are, for lack of a better term, believers. They forget that lasting conservative victories are not NECESSARILY about the next election, or even the one after that. They are about changing the direction of the party and the country, and these things can takes years … even decades.  Winning elections is vital, don’t get me wrong.  But winning elections does not equal a conservative victory unless, by winning, you then do conservative things effectively.

Sowell’s article uses the Tea Party’s criticisms of Mitch McConnell as evidence that they are unfair or self-destructive. But the Tea Party does not like Mitch McConnell for the same reason that he has been successful in his political career: he is a deal maker and he is entrenched in the hierarchy of the same Republican leadership that has been failing and flailingly timid.  I do not speak for the Tea Party organizations, but if I may restate their position, they believe–perhaps justifiably–that you cannot expect different results if you continue to do the same thing over and over again with the same people calling the shots.  Whether or not such criticism is fair to Mitch McConnell, that sounds like a reasonable argument to me.

They also do not like McConnell because he, and others on the “top right,” disdain the Tea Party folks themselves, likely because they cannot be controlled and will not get in line with the existing narratives. It is hard to like someone who does not like or respect you back.

I am not trying to say that I approve of everything that the various Tea Party organizations do or say.  You can call them mis-directed, you can criticize their methods and perhaps their lack of subtlety or political savvy, but the only reason that they exist as a movement is because the existing hierarchy has not delivered the goods.

McConnell and his supporters examine his voting record and “lifetime ranking” from this organization or that one and call that a success. Voting records and third-party rankings do not equal success … only successful leadership and change equals success. Having a great voting record on legislation that ultimately does not pass as the country slouches toward demented economic and cultural suicide is not any definition of success that I recognize.  And Thomas Sowell’s limp defense of Mitch McConnell–that he is better than Harry Reid–is a low threshold indeed, and ultimately unconvincing.  

Coulter is awesome, but remember that she cherry-picked Chris Christie … right up until he literally hugged Obama and metaphorically kissed his ring–handing him important political cover as he dodged Benghazi questions in the precious days just before the presidential election.  Her politics and philosophy are mostly spot on, but nobody’s perfect, right?

Do not mistake my position here.  Ann Coulter is great, fearless, smart as a whip, and equally deadly with both pen and tongue.  Thomas Sowell is an insightful and important economic voice for the free markets–I admire and respect him greatly.  Mitch McConnell has done some solid work–even if more yeoman than admiral.  I say “God Bless Them All” with no sense of sarcasm or irony. But they, like all of us, at times miss the point.

The thing that we need more than anything else is true leadership. We need people who can lead the Tea Party, Sowell, Christie, and Coulter while deftly side-stepping the dull torpor of the existing party leadership without degrading them or diminishing the contributions that they have legitimately made during these dark times (remember Reagan’s eleventh commandment? “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”). Nothing else will create real success.

The Tea Party is an opportunity, and we should consider that a little gut-wrenching redirection and redemption might be in order.

So … now you all know what I think. :-)

Top Ten Errors Building Communities, Successful User Groups, and Social Organizations

Building a successful group or community can be hard.  In my opinion it is always worthwhile, but it takes dedication and consistent effort—something all of us struggle with among our daily work, side projects, and personal life.

First, the oh-so-obvious stuff: You’ve got to have passion, desire, organizational skills, the ability to motivate volunteers, yadda-yadda-yadda.  We all know that.  These days you also need a context (software, platform, social cause) that has enough members to get going—a fair bit of technology and social media skill doesn’t hurt either.

Tell you something you don’t know, right?

This blog isn’t about any of that stuff

Those things are organic and are anything but universal.  They are uniquely formed within each organization.  If those things do come, they will come naturally from within you and your community members.  This blog is about the pragmatic things.  The kinds of nuts and bolts that hold ALL user groups and community meetings together in those times when the flush of ephemeral excitement and enthusiasm start to wain.  I have seen dozens of worthy causes—social and technological—that had all of those “soft” qualities going for it, but they still failed to get user groups off the ground because of a few pragmatic errors made early on.

This blog post is for them and to help future organizers to avoid those pitfalls.

The Top Ten User Group and Community Errors:

1.  Don’t do Fridays
Unless your are starting the Kardashian Club of South Florida, if you set meetings for Friday evenings after work no one will show.  People either want to go home, get out of town, or paint the town red.  This is why we all like Fridays, isn’t it?  Also, don’t do Monday—everyone will be brain-dead after the weekend and will have forgotten because most people do not look at their business calendar until Monday sometime after coffee.  Wednesdays and Thursday have had the best success in my experience.  You get to send a reminder email on Tuesday and avoid the Monday/Friday curse.

Simply don’t send emails, don’t have conference calls, don’t have meetings on Fridays or Mondays unless there is no other choice, one time.  What’s that?  You’re not available on those days?  Then evaluate whether you have the time to invest in this project yourself.

2.  Make Meetings Start at Either 5:30 or 6:00 PM
I like 5:30 because it gives people a reason to leave work on time without feeling rushed or having to make excuses to their boss.  You want the attendee’s boss to feel good about the event.  Not only will it make the attendee’s life easier, but his boss will be the guy who lets you use their facilities/conference room for meetings and might sometimes sponsor refreshments.  Win-win-win!

3.  Use Meeting Discipline
Strictly limit the meeting length formally—I like 90 minutes.  Start on time and end on time.  If people want to hang out for a bit longer and chat professionally and/or socially, great.  But some people are repelled by open-ended meetings of any kind.  I do not care whether you are in a band performing music on stage, giving a presentation to win a sale, or hosting a user group for a new app that will change the world as we know it; as soon as the first person in the audience thinks “When will this be over?” you have gone on too long.  Always leave people wanting more and eager for the next set or session.

4.  Choose Locations Suited to the Primary Audience
If a scheduled meeting location works for you too, even better.  It needs to work for the “others” more than the organizers.  You are already committed.  Until they are, treat them like customers.  Which brings us to ….

5.  Remember Who Your “Customers” Are
All of the previous items apply to this simple principle.  If you are asking people to participate in something after hours and without direct (immediate) compensation, you have to make it easy on them and their lives.  The pressures on their time and resources are great.  You need to mitigate impacts to their jobs, so do not put them in a place to anger their boss.  Their spouses matter too, so start and end on time (predictability is key).  And sometimes the group members want some personal time for themselves.

Other tools of guerrilla-marketing can be very powerful as well.  Mail member’s bosses thank you cards for their support.  Do the same on Mother’s/Father’s Days for the spouses of loyal members.  Make one meeting per year a family and friends style event—pizza for everyone and give out your yearly appreciations, etc.  When you are building a volunteer community your customers are all of the people in the lives of your membership.

6.  Deliver Real Value
No matter how cool or well-located a restaurant may be, it all comes down to the food.  If the food is sub-par, then no amount of advertising hype, specials, or celebrity endorsements will save it (anyone remember the Planet Hollywood chain before it morphed, ad absurdum, into a Vegas casino?).  Meetings need to always have real value, the topics need to be real, and sponsors need to be properly appreciated without dominating any event.  Get the best, most relevant speakers you can and then exercise meeting discipline (see above).

7.  Avoid Scope Creep
You can’t do everything, so don’t even try.  Are you the Windows Software Developers User Group of Cleveland?  Do that and do that well.  Expanding your scope to far-off regions and disparate technologies usually means only extending failure.  It’s common sense—know your market and purpose and stick to it.

8.  Let People Help
It’s not about you.  Really, it’s not.  This is not the chance for you to prove how great you are, to demonstrate much you love the software or social cause, or a personal resume enhancement.  Emotional and psychological attachment and loyalty naturally build in people when they do things.  Investment by action.  Find a fellow community member and ask him/her to post a Tweet, make a graphic, bring the beer (even if you have a sponsor), etc.  Anything that they can add or contribute gives them ownership, solidifies the community, and makes your life easier.

9.  Don’t Be a Martyr
Sure, in the beginning you will do everything yourself.  If things go well you will soon build a core group to help share the load and then you will build from there.  But in the end it is all about the community.  After the first ½ dozen meetings or so bits of the work—even very small bits—should start to be shared with other members.  If they are not you will eventually burn out—even if the group is doing well and has god attendance.  No one can do it all forever.  Ask for help.  Ask forcefully when you have to.  If you don’t get a little help here and there in the first six months, either your group is an exercise in masochistic narcissism or you are hanging with the wrong group of folks.

10.  Share the Love
Hey, we all want to be appreciated.  After you spent the last two months pulling everyone forward to make a cool event, some people will naturally be appreciative.  But that is not why you are doing it, right?  For every compliment that you receive, pass out two to others.  If they make you a plaque or certificate, accept it graciously and share it with the team.

I know … sometimes you and—if you are lucky—a very small, dedicated team will indeed have done the lion’s share of the work.  But this is definitely one of those “cast your bread upon the waters” moments.  Give all the credit and appreciation away and then buy anyone who helped a beer—even if they only helped a little.  You might discover, as I have, that those who really matter in life will appreciate you even more and that other, seemingly separate, successes will find their way to you in strange and mysterious ways.

No Guarantees, But Still Worth It 
None of this will take one task off your list, erase one frustration, or remove one over-worked hour spent building your community and making great and relevant group meetings.  But avoiding these ten common pitfalls will give you and your organization a better than average chance of success.

Until next time, be well.

An Open Letter to Warren Buffett and the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway

I just finished my annual reading of Warren Buffett’s letter to his shareholders–a tradition to be admired. The homespun narrative, self-effacing humor, and honest reflections are certainly unique in the universe of big business.  I have been critical of Mr. Buffett at times–not for his investments, certainly, but when he steps away to lecture us on unrelated matters I have stepped up.  It seems time for that again. Warren Buffet

To assure that my position is not mistaken, let me restate that Warren Buffett deserves every accolade heaped upon him related to the investments he makes in various businesses. There is no qualification. I also greatly appreciate his “buy and hold … and hold” strategy, even in the face of the vagaries of outrageous fortune. Thirdly, I agree with his philosophy of buying quality, exemplified by the following quote cited from this years letter:

“More than 50 years ago, Charlie [Munger] told me that it was far better to buy a wonderful business at a fair price than to buy a fair business at a wonderful price. Despite the compelling logic of his position, I have sometimes reverted to my old habit of bargain-hunting, with results ranging from tolerable to terrible. Fortunately, my mistakes have usually occurred when I made smaller purchases.” – page 13

It should therefore not be surprising that I followed Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway into an investment in Wells Fargo a few years ago that has done very well for me. I trusted that–even though the banks were melting down at the time–Warren and the team had performed an evaluation to pick the best available investment opportunity from the bunch. My four digit Fidelity IRA investment has since doubled nicely, thank you very much.

I depart swiftly from following Buffett when he discusses government policy and general economics, which is where I think he gets seriously into the weeds. Part of this is semantics.  When Warren says the word “economics,” the context usually implies either things generally related to money or to a financial analysis of some sort–such as in the evaluation of a company or the profitability of a proposed deal. That is not the sense that I mean at all. For me, economics is a serious study of incentives and the behaviors of people in the presence of those incentives (among other things).  So in fairness, we are often talking about two different things.  Hearing Buffett speak and reading what he has written over the years however, I am struck by the suspicion that this important distinction may be lost on him.  It must be said that nothing in Mr. Buffett’s history or experience that we are aware of, in our albeit limited capacity to understand, in any way prepares him to have an opinion more worthy or more accurate than any other man on topics outside of acquisitions and stock picking.* Berkshire Hathaway stock

In short, if Buffett advises an investment opportunity, listen intently with both ears and consider borrowing the milk money to participate. If he opines regarding tax policy or macroeconomic incentive, he falls from Olympus and shares the level ground with the rest of us.

On that front, let me offer you the following quote, also from this year’s letter:

“MidAmerican’s electric utilities serve regulated retail customers in ten states. Only one utility holding company serves more states. In addition, we are the leader in renewables: first, from a standing start nine years ago, we now account for 6% of the country’s wind generation capacity. Second, when we complete three projects now under construction, we will own about 14% of U.S. solar-generation capacity. Projects like these require huge capital investments. Upon completion, indeed, our renewables portfolio will have cost $13 billion. We relish making such commitments if they promise reasonable returns – and on that front, we put a large amount of trust in future regulation.” – page 10 [emphasis added]

He goes on a bit in the justification of political wrangling with the unpleasant hint of encouragement to support politicians locally who will further such regulation, but the gist of it is that Berkshire Hathaway is making a $13B investment in equipment and technologies that require federal and local subsidies and anti-competitive regulation in order to provide a “reasonable return.” Now, one could say that he is “betting” that such subsidies and regulations are fate accompli. And perhaps that is an intelligent wager, from an investment perspective. But it must be fairly said that now, one of the largest and most respected companies in the world–and all of its shareholders–has a compelling and continuing vested interest in the reallocation of tax dollars to their favor, and in alignment with a certain political dogma, whose end result is greater expense to the general populace (the math does not lie).

That is one powerful set of incentives.

It also makes his personal and consultative relationship with President Obama smart business for Berkshire Hathaway, but a bad deal for the rest of us.

So, on this matter I stand with a sense of my own place in the universe … a huckleberry of sorts to Buffet’s persimmon. But I am confident in my analysis.  The last line of this year’s letter says:

“Come to Omaha – the cradle of capitalism – on May 4th and chime in.” – page 24

Cradle of capitalism?  When the largest businesses collude with government in such ways, there are other, well-defined terms that are used to accurately describe it (some of them have become so politically charged and mindless that I will avoid using them here).  But it is not capitalism as most of us understand it.  I am in Omaha, and this little letter might certainly be considered as “chiming in,” but I am not certain that Mr. Buffett will appreciate my participation.

(The author does not currently own any stock in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A or BRK.B) and is not an employee, now or in the past, of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A or BRK.B).  The Name and logo of Berkshire Hathaway, and Warren Buffet’s annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, are considered copyrights and trademarks of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A or BRK.B) and are used here in a fair use, editorial context.)

*Warren Buffett has a degree in Business Administration from the University of Nebraska Lincoln and a masters in economics from Columbia (1951), but the entire focus of his life, even while in school, has been in investing and investment which, as I have said, he does very well.

Christmas Message 2012

Just Another Day

Solstice comes at the same time of the year
As the autumnal season disappears
December 21st this day arrives
Made special by the darkness of the skies
Four days later comes the Christmas tide
And no celestial events coincide
December 25th fails many ways
Do you believe it’s just another day?
Three hundred sixty five of these occur
Why should we choose only one to prefer?
Each day the sun rises and also sets
And with each passing day the past forgets
Today a million men were born and died
That this is true each day can’t be denied
Christmas is so average in every way
Do you believe it’s just another day?
We might have picked April or September
But Gregory chose for us December
The Julian’s thought it best to be merry
Upon the seventh day of January
Why do we linger, why do we tarry
Upon just one day so arbitrary?
With the calendar pinned on feet of clay
Do you believe it’s just another day?
Linger we do, on this day of good will
When a choir of angels still gives us chills
And we can sense that a meaning remains
Beyond decorations and ad campaigns
It’s deeper than any cosmic event
More than a calendar date represents
Something special keeps us feeling this way
Do you believe …
… It’s just another day?
Merry Christmas

I Survived the Mayan Apocalypse 2012

I survived the Mayan Apocalypse and all I got was a little Social Media Buzz

I am, scientifically, philosophically, and religiously certain that the world will, indeed, end one day.  However I am also certain that the chiseling records of stone-age astronomers on the Yucatan did not predict it and, instead, some ancient indigenous scribe simply decided to stop.  I can hear him now, “Geeze!  I could make this calendar go on forever at this rate.  I will just stop chiseling when I reach the next solstice … ”

Unless you are too busy storing up canned goods and packing dampened towels around your doorjambs, have a Merry Christmas and look to the heavens more for signs of Peace and Goodwill toward man rather than hurling, darkened comets and mysterious cosmic rays.

See you tomorrow … wait, what’s that coming in the distance?

The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey – A Review

I received a special advance screening of The Hobbit last night in Omaha (thank you Dell Computer).  I loved all of the original books by Tolkien and enjoyed the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie trilogy, so I am a bit of a fan.  So I was excited to get an early showing.

In a nutshell, this movie is OK, but falls short of greatness.  I will not spoil things … how could one actually “spoil” the plot of arguably one of the top ten fantasy fiction books ever, right?  But here is my review.

Animated effects = 10
Gollum is amazingly and lovingly rendered. It was obvious that Peter Jackson (the director of the film) sought to humanize this retched, fallen, anti-hero.  He received the lion-share of the CGI budget and it shows.

Story = 10
They were faithful to the plot. Although I do not remember Galadriel (Elf Queen) in The Hobbit book–I thought she only appeared in LOTR.  No doubt someone will fact-check me on this.  But perhaps they felt compelled to add a female presence to the film so they “borrowed” a character from the future. In the end, it was a small distraction.

Action = 9
About as one would expect.  The plethora of CGI films has left us all a bit jaded on the matter.

Political Correctness = – 5
Yep, that’s a negative 5 … here’s why

  1. The Hobbit was written as an allegory for the blindness of the World to the rise of German aggression, the vice of greed/avarice, and the intersection of the new and old worlds. But at one point in the movie Gandalf turns to the camera and pontificates about “small random acts of kindness” as if he were some wizardly Rodney King wondering why we can’t be like Hobbits and all just get along.
  2. I guess that you have to be a Vegan to be an Elf (more on this under “Even More Weirdness” below).
  3. Does Radagast The Brown really need to spend 10 minutes of screen time saving the life of a porcupine as huge tarantulas rip his house apart and that it looks like somehow the attack just stops once the porcupine is revived (OK, that is a minor spoiler, but I just don’t get it and need someone to explain it to me).

Running Time and Trilogy = 8
I read critics who thought that the movie ran too long (at ~2 hours and 50 minutes) or that it should have been one movie instead of the trilogy that they have created. The movie felt full and not rushed to me. So although I could see a few needed trim points, they likely made the correct call on these items.

Acting = passably 6
‘Nuff said.  You do not necessarily go to science fiction and fantasy films for the acting–it’s all about the plot, the mythos, the action, the escapism, and the faithfulness to the source material.

Weirdness = 0
Two songs … really? One of them titled “That’s Not What Bilbo Baggins Likes” … really? Dwarfs singing … really? Does anyone think that the audience of Glee has that much cross-over potential with the audience of The Hobbit? Fortunately both songs are in the first 45 minutes and we get by them fairly quickly.

Even More Weirdness = 0
It strikes me that the accents of the characters appears to be coded to their race.  Here is a character-type accent score card:

  • Aristocratic Londoner = Wizard
  • Scottish Oaf = Dwarf
  • Elitist Vegan Stamford Professor = Elf
  • Welsh “Dudley Moore” = Hobbit
  • Oliver Twist Cliche’d Gutter Tripe = Goblin / Troll

Overall Score = 7
Glad I saw it, but it is a one-timer.  I will see the next too with the hope that time and a little fan input will smooth out the wrinkles.