Trees: A Parable of Community Management

A true story.

Waiting for the bus last Tuesday on a crisp November morning, I felt the lump in my throat.   I had gotten home from work very late the evening before and hadn’t noticed until the morning that a tree had been cut down in the apartment courtyard the day before. According to my partner, the “simple repairs” my apartment complex had notified me of now included chopping down trees.  He pointed to the one stump outside.   

I was anxious but remained calm.   I live on the 9th floor of a large urban building, where for the last seven years I’ve had these trees right outside my window to shade me, shelter the birds that visited my patio, block noise, and provide a tranquil oasis of green and clean oxygen in the middle of city concrete.  I depended on those trees.  They were a part of me after so many years. Surely it was just one tree? They wouldn’t chop them all down without telling us, would they?

On my way out in the morning I stopped one of the workmen to ask and got the horrible news:  yes indeed, all 14 of the 40-50 year old trees outside my window were to be cut down.  The roots of the trees were starting to affect the structural integrity of the parking garage below.  The entire courtyard, sidewalks, everything were to be taken out, and the construction could go on for months, all through the holidays.  But at that moment I couldn’t even think of that.   All I could see and think about was the fluorescent orange “X” on the trees, the bulls eye, the mark of certain death.  To me, it was if a friend was about to die and there was nothing I could do to stop it.   I was angry.  How dare they do this!

As I rode to work, I thought of the hummingbirds, jays, squirrels, and yes even crows that made the trees their home, which I would no longer see or hear. As I walked from the bus to work, Joni Mitchell’s sweet, sad, soprano lilted through my mind. 

They took all the trees, and put em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot

I went to work that day in a daze, saying nothing and thinking that most people would think me silly or weak for caring so much for a few trees.  It even surprised and embarassed me—I grew up on a farm and thought people from San Francisco were “tree huggers”—so these feelings of attachmment, and then anger and loss were an entirely new thing for me.  I’ve lost very close family members, friends, and beloved pets,  and to me this truly was on a par with that loss.  I was deeply, deeply saddened. I finally took a chance and mentioned my feelings to a few coworkers who jokingly suggested I get naked and climb the trees in protest, but I didn’t really let on the depth of my feelings, and grief, to anyone except to my partner Frank, who was exceptionally supportive.

Now, I’m the kind of person who can’t just be sad.  I always need to be “DOING” something about life, not just sitting around and complaining.  So, I contacted the apartment manager.  I chastised them for failing to notify us. No response.  Eventually they sent a note to the whole complex that explained the whole story, with just one line at the end: “We know it’s hard to lose the mature trees, and we’ll try to replace them.” Blah, blah, blah, I thought. What do they care? It’s all about money. 

And each day for the next few days I would come home from work and a few more trees would be gone.  The first day where half were gone was the worst. The next morning there were no birds to sing.   Finally, there was just one tree left, and I took its picture.  Last Friday when I got home from work it was gone. 

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I’ve built my career around my passion—connecting people with each other via the medium of electronic commerce—and this served as a visceral, tangible reminder to me of the emotions people in any community, online or off, feel when managers and companies change things on a platform that they are so invested in–financially, socially, personally, emotionally.  So, in the interests of  taking something sad, and trying to make something good, here are some takeaways I found, some “dos” and “don’ts” about managing communities through change:

DO:

  • Give the reason for the change upfront.  Had I known that the trees were being cut down because the garage might cave in, I’d have still been sad, but I would have been more understanding.
  • Give people time to adjust: Had I known the trees were being cut down, say a week before, I would have taken a few moments to take a few more pictures and to simply stop and enjoy them, say good bye, and be ready to move on.
  • Share a positive vision of the future:  There must be drawings about what this place will look like somewhere, given the scope of the work.  I would have really appreciated a place to view the pictures and drawings of the upcoming plans and it would have helped me understand what things may come.  Maybe host a coffee and donut session one Saturday morning to explain.
  • Accept and validate the community’s fears, grief, and concern.  They live there, and you only manage it.  Emotions are real, messy, and uncomfortable, and knowing that the management gets it is comforting.
  • Stay engaged.  Keep talking to the community for as long as it takes for a good majority to at least understand and accept the reasons for what’s happening.  This takes time, and most organizations don’t think it’s useful—but really, it’s more useful than a marketing campaign. 
  • When possible, ask for input about the change:  Give the community ownership whenever and whereever possible.  You may have to make a change no matter what, but giving people some control about how or when, for example really lessens the negative emotional impact.

DON’T:

  • Hide the scope of the change.  I was most angry and sad about feeling tricked into thinking the change was small when it turned out to be dramatic. 
  • Ignore the outpouring of passion and emotion.  The fact that people are angry means they are invested, and they care.  From a business standpoint, that is a big sign of customer engagement, so learning to appreciate it and work with it is a powerful strength.  Which would you rather have, a blog post with hundreds of comments, or a blog post with none? 
  • Delegate communication.  Leaders of the organization need to be very visible and take responsibility for their actions, especially during the most painful changes.  It’s not easy to deal with the wrath of frightened, angry people, but it’s the only way to the other side. 

What other community management lessons do you see here?  Let’s discuss in the comments.

Why (More) Americans Don’t Vaccinate

Today’s New York Times article on the growth of the Anti-Vaccination movement in America, particularly in response to the swine flu vaccine, got me thinking.  Why would otherwise rational human beings choose not to take advantage of a medical advance that is easily, affordably available?


1.  Memory is short.

The World War II generation saw polio personally and up close, if nowhere else than in their President.  They saw friends disfigured and dying from disease.   The advent of vaccines in the 1950s was considered a gift from God, and their children, the Baby Boomers, were all inoculated and polio, for example went from 35,000 cases a year to 121 in only 11 years .  These same Baby Boomers who are raising kids today didn’t live through that nightmare, don’t see a reason to bother anymore, and people in my generation, Generation X, are also part of this movement for similar reasons.

When I received my travel vaccinations for East Africa a few years ago, I did some research into the diseases I was being innoculated against.  Typhoid, Hepatitis B, Yellow Fever.  Most of these are diseases caused by impure drinking water.   People in Africa are still dying from these diseases, 2.5 Million people to be exact, and the diseases of childhood that none of us know personally anymore, thankfully:  measles, polio, mumps, rubella, diptheria, tetanus.  For a $20 co pay, I have life giving immunity from all of these. And I guarantee that if you asked the hundreds of thousands of African mothers whether the “equivalent inexpensive” value of a vaccination was worth the risk, especially a risk that has never been confirmed by any major medical journal, they’d be lined up around the block.

These diseases have never gone away, and with the advent of Jet Travel and massive waves of immigration, they still can enter the US quite easily.  Maybe a few media headlines of polio outbreaks will be enough to remind us that these diseases are so horrible that the vaccine is worth a slight risk.

2.  Distrust of the Government and Big Business

Over the last 30 years, scandals such as Watergate, Agent Orange, Enron, Big tobacco, the Ford Pinto, Bernie Mathers, political sex and bribery scandals,  the recent credit derivative mess, no weapons of mass destruction, etc etc ad nauseum have disillusioned the population to the point where they no longer trust large entities or soon, authority of any kind.  This is both positive, in that citizens need to be involved in their democracy, and negative, because when the government or big business tries to push a meaningful point such as vaccination or public health care, the populace will not listen. They think the government is corrupt, and that big greedy business is selling a tainted product.

Once trust is destroyed it will take a very long time to regain. Our nations’ political and business leaders would do well to start thinking about how to lead again — because it won’t be long before order will start to break down, which runs the risk of a fascist clamp down. I don’t mean to be all tin foil hat–but if you follow this mistrust to its logical conclusion, that’s where it leads.

3.  The rise of the individual vs. the collective

The 60′s “me” generation has brought their emphasis on self and self actualization to our culture.  There are positives in this–everyone should be free to choose their own path in life, not forced into conformation.  Too much of this, however is leading to a total disregard for the idea of self-sacrifice for the good of society or community.  Those who reject vaccines for reasons other than allergies are thinking only of the risk to themselves and ignoring the cost borne by society of their lack of immunity.  The concept of herd immunity has no relevance if your main value system focuses on self actualization.

That’s a hard one to fix, but certainly in the past the wealthy nobles, even the early robber barons, subscribed to the concept of Noblesse Oblige–literally the obligation of the nobility.  Look all of the philathropic work you see under the Getty, Rockefeller, Annenberg, and other foundations.  Short of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar, and Jeff Skoll, who is starting foundations out of their wealth gained in the last 30 years? What about all the people who made massive amounts of money in the credit debacle?  Where are they?  We’ve lost in America the sense of We.

4.  Lack of investment in the Educational System

Systematic reductions in education spending and teacher salaries are leading to a decline in test scores.  Less education means a populace less capable of making rational, informed decisions, and subjects us to the risks of populism.

Is it then any surprise that an under educated, forgetful, mistrustful, self oriented people would reject vaccines?

If you’re still on the fence, here’s some more reading:

Measles in Africa cut by 90% due to Vaccines

Remembering Polio, an Oral History

Vaccine Education Center, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

If Van Gogh were alive now and aware of his global fame, would he still cut off his ear?

Moving to the Lab and marinating in the creative atmosphere in and out of World has already opened up some channels in my brain that have been deliberately dammed up while I chose to develop my analytic and data analysis skill sets and make my way in the world of the balance sheet and cash flow statement. But I feel a flood of ideas and insights flowing now, a flash flood after a few years of drought. Green shoots are coming up and I couldn’t be more excited to see the spring again inside my mind and heart.

I was recently interviewing a candidate for the Lab and we discussed the future of Second Life and some of its potential. Flashback: 1999. I wrote a business school application essay to Cornell to answer the question, “What will be the impact of technology on your chosen field?” My field at the time was the entertainment industry. I thought I’d mention some of the ideas here not only because I think they have come to pass, but also because I think they are relevant to my current profession in ecommerce.

Here’s the logic:

1. Throughout history, artists and creative people have generally been paid poorly and have not been recognized by society, especially when alive. Not only was that because their work at its best threatened the status quo; it is also because artists were totally dependent on distributors and promoters (galleries, theatres, studio executives, the record industry, the Catholic Church) to sell their product.

2. In the last century, as leisure time increased, and offered higher rewards to artists in the form of monetary compensation, global fame, influence, and of course the ability to attract an equally powerful and attractive mate, there are more people entering creative fields. However the demand did not scale as fast as the supply due to control by those gatekeepers listed above. Thus, the competition is fierce in music, acting, and writing, which meant in the past, supply was high and prices/wages are low, except for those at the highest levels. It took a Madonna, U2, or Stephen King to become mass market and command their price.

3. The internet has altered that power dynamic forever. There are hundreds of cable channels, infinite internet opportunities, online bookstores, blogs, twitter feeds, movie theatres, etc. Which means distribution is essentially free, which means…

4. Of course, that content proliferates.

5. Lacking editorial or control of distribution, mediocre content will be lost in the new global cacophony. If you’re not good, you won’t have an audience.

6. Bad content will rarely see the light of day. Expect shorter shelf lives of tv shows, albums and software tools that don’t find an audience fast. (Thankfully 30 Rock somehow survived that–and remember that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip didn’t)

7. Instead of just those mass market artists(which may not have been the most talented but rather the most marketable) making good money, now those who create good content for audiences large AND small should and will eventually name their price in the marketplace. You don’t have to be big to make good money, you just have to be GOOD. Think “Mad Men.” Think “Will it Blend?” Think “Dooce.”

8. Instead of having perpetually low wage costs for creative talent, companies like Disney should expect to see wages rise exponentially for their creative stars.

9. If you’re an artist, you better know if you’re good, and if you are, start demanding you be paid—don’t give it away for free.

10. Companies who employ these high value creatives should also plan to build knowledge management and retention/motivation systems to retain these people.

11. Thus the workplace should change: less structure for those people, more latitude for individual expression, ongoing training, less command and control and more rewards for creativity.

It turns out that without even having stepped foot in a technology company in 1999, what I wrote ended up applying directly to the top engineering talent in software development, for exactly the same reasons. With the proliferation of start ups and technology companies, no longer were the only buyers of engineering limited to the government, the military, and IBM. Thus wages rose and will continue to rise for the top knowledge workers. This is why companies like Microsoft are pushing so hard for H1-B visas. They are trying to keep supply costs low by hiring foreign labor that is willing to work for less than American labor.

Is that right? Does my logic make sense? What am I missing? Let me know in the comments.

A new role for me

Last week, I started in a new role with Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life. In my new role I’ll be focusing on driving the land and virtual goods ecommerce marketplaces with a team of warm, funny, and amazingly brilliant Lindens, as they’re called.

I’m already having a blast meeting and learning from my fellow Lindens and together I know we will do some amazing things. I’m particularly happy that the team at Linden Lab is forward thinking enough to have an official “Blog Policy”, and that I will be able to continue to hone my blog skills, so long as I’m not commenting about Second Life or Linden Lab in a way that violates their common sense employee confidentiality rules.

So, please don’t look for commentary on Linden Lab strategy or business specifically here (not counting the occasional post about a new feature or announcement) or ask me to respond to any Resident facing issues in this forum. Please, respect what I’m trying to do, and don’t put my blog or job at risk: use the Second Life user forums and normal Resident Support normal channels located here if you need support.

Lastly, here is the required disclaimer: My blog is my opinion only; and does not in any way reflect the thoughts, opinions, beliefs, or strategy of the management team at Linden Lab, Second Life; or of any Linden, other than myself.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll keep trying to provide some value added thoughts.

Do You Believe in Magic?

A recent post on the Wall Street Journal’s “The Juggle” Blog about laundry was especially active with comments today.  Why is it, do you think, that people (especially those of the Wall Street Journal’s educated and usually financial elite) are seizing on such topics as mundane as this? 

It’s the kind of subject that binds humans together:  rich or poor, we all have dirty clothes we have to wash, and in most cases, fold, and puta way.  No one teaches us one way to do this, it’s a solution that evolves based on experience.  Why are we so anxious to share these details, and why is the conversation remarkably lacking in rancor?

Of course I had to put my two cents in:  and that’s my endorsement of one of the most amazing products ever, OxiClean

OxiClean

Yes, that’s right, the loud guy on the tv commercials who makes you feel just a bit strange watching the intensity of his pitch. 

But I can’t deny, the product works.  It really does.  Recently when Safeway wasn’t carrying it, and I had to use a substitute from Clorox that just didn’t work as well; I realized that the product was GREAT.  And I want to tell everyone about it.  And I wasn’t the only person on the thread to talk about how great the product was.

In return, another reader posted that Kaboom!, a bathroom product from the same company, was equally effective at its job.  I’ll be buying and trying it this weekend.

Such are the things that viral marketing gurus dream about.  But again, it all starts with a product—that works.

There’s so much hype about search/display/affiliate  type marketing, but as Seth Godin says, if the product doesn’t work, that stuff is like a Meatball Sundae.

What are some of your favorite products that you just can’t wait to talk about?  What are you doing to make sure the products you sell are worth talking about?

PS An update as of 2/16/2008: Kaboom! worked wonders on some pre-historic soap scum in the shower with relatively little scrubbing, though I did use half the bottle on two passes to get it all.

Nah, they don’t need $5 Billion dollars.

Speaking of Visa’s IPO…

I was reminded today of a series of lectures given by Professor Swaminathan when I was in Business School.  In addition to just being a brilliant teacher of finance, he’s an expert in the field of corporate valuation, including the valuation of real options.  I remember Swami explaining the concept of underpriced IPOs to us from his research.  For you MBAs out there this won’t be a new thing but the rest of you might find this interesting.

 Most IPOs leave money on the table.  In other words, when a company goes public, it deliberately under prices what it think the market price will be.  In Visa’s case today, since the market price ended up being $56.50 and not the $44.00 a share it was initially offered at, that translated into $5 Billion dollars Visa left on the table.  Technically the shareholders as a whole lost out–since that is cash now not available to invest in positive NPV projects.

 But you see the money wasn’t exactly left on the table.   It was handed quite deliberately into the pockets of the firms below: (thanks to the Wall Street Journal for the information) 

First, the original IPO Shareholders….okay, they deserve some compensation for all the “risk” involved in investing in the nation’s largest IPO–as you might know, Visa was owned and originally founded by the banks, so it’s not like they haven’t been getting returns from their investment in Visa along the way.

The largest owners of Visa ahead of the IPO were J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (guess one could now say JP Morgan Bear Stearns Chase and company, or perhaps JP Morgan Bear Chase ;)) , Bank of America Corp., National City Corp., Citigroup Inc., U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo & Co.; all continue to own stakes in the company.

 But wait, there’s more….don’t forget about those hungry investment banks.   We know how underfed and overworked they are.

Given today’s current credit crunch and tightening of Wall Street bonuses, I’m sure more than a few folks were bailed out by the fees they raked in on this one. Per the WSJ:  More than three dozen underwriters participated in Visa’s IPO. The deal was led by bankers from J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America, Citigroup, HSBC Holdings PLC, Merrill Lynch & Co., UBS AG and Wachovia Corp.

 It’s always bothered me that so many insiders benefit from IPOs in the way the average stockholder does not.  Gotta give Google credit for keeping some of the food to themselves.

Perhaps even more frustrating, the popular press continues to perpetuate the myth of the “hot” IPO.  Consider today’s article in Time.  To quote:

Perhaps the biggest reason that Visa’s IPO price soared from $44 to $60 a share by noon on its first day of trading is simply that the company has massive growth potential, especially internationally.

Umm, no.  Most of the smart money had seen the road show and had priced in their valuations the growth prospects.  The fact is that most insiders know the real market number (or a close approximation) and they under price the shares accordingly to guarantee that juicy 30% pop the first day.

Nice work if you can get it.  I’m reminded of a quote from Robert Sarnoff:  Finance is the art of passing money from hand to hand until it finally disappears.

The Metric no eCommerce manager seems to be talking about

On the occasion of today’s Visa IPO, especially given my former life at PayPal, a few thoughts…

I recently attended one of the largest in-person gatherings of online marketing professionals.  I asked each of the people I met, close to 15 large, name brands the same question:

What % of your total revenues are you spending on payments processing?

Not one single eCommerce manager could answer the question, even within a ballpark.

Why do you all think no one’s looking at this?

Some ideas I thought of:

  1. Overemphasis on top line vs. bottom line
  2. “not sexy” relative to cutting CPA or increasing conversion rate
  3. lack of knowledge among GMs about how payments work (a corollary might be that there are assumptions that payment processing costs like electricity—necessary, but fixed).

  

Take a look at your payments metrics.  Evaluate the competition.   Run a quick model—it only takes an hour or so.  You might be surprised about how much opportunity there is for you to be a hero and save some money. 

Then get in there and make those payments vendors give you back some of your site’s hard earned cash. In this economy, everyone can use a little extra profit, right?

Personally, I’m taking a good hard look at Visa.  Given its business model, it’s as close as we’re going to get this year to a blue-chip IPO.