Thursday, August 30, 2007

For all you who laughed, keep laughing

Unless you live another planet, by now you have to have seen Miss Teen South Carolina choke. If you haven't, check out one of the many versions of her performance on You Tube that over 10 million people have already seen.

10 million viewers. Unbelievable. No one knew who she was last Thursday hardly.

Be honest. You either thought it was hilarious, or you felt sorry for her (or felt sorry for South Carolina), but you couldn't stop giggling.

Now check this out. Since the girl is a famous and a good sport, she'll now make a gazillion dollars from her new found celebrity.

Keep laughing.

And oh by the way, how many of the seven geography questions that she asked did you get right?

Why I do this

Some people play golf. I do this.

Joe Milam and I sat on the sidewalk in downtown Greenville one morning as he passionately described an new business he's going to launch to create and serve an entirely new market of customers. It's hard not to feed off of Joe's enthusiasm. Life is good.

Google's 9 Steps to Innovation

Chris Harris's blog identifies an interesting list of Google's 9 Steps to Innovation.

  • Innovation, not instant perfection.
  • Share everything you can.
  • You’re brilliant, we’re hiring.
  • Allow employees to pursue their dreams.
  • Ideas come from everywhere.
  • Don’t politic – use data.
  • Creativity loves restraint.
  • Get users and usage – the money will follow.
  • Don’t kill projects, morph them.

(He provides lots more editorial if your interested.)

It struck me how counter most of these are to the closed, execution oriented culture most organizations around here have.

The Gift Of ADHD

Sam Grossman grew up thinking he was stupid, lazy and irresponsible—"a screw-up," as he puts it. Struggling with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he constantly disappointed his parents and teachers alike.
Our current, typical K-12 education, public or private, is not designed for people like Sam. In fact, it we tried to create an environment to frustrate Sam we couldn't do much better job that a k-12 class room. For Sam, those classrooms can be torture chambers. Thus the reason he seems stupid, lazy and irresponsible—"a screw-up,"
Distractibility, poor impulse control and emotional sensitivity have flip sides that are actually strengths—namely creativity, energy and intuition... A mind that flits easily from one thought to the next may not be good at mastering the material for a biology test, but the authors contend that a nonlinear mind can excel at combining ideas in new ways.
How people think and learn comes in a wide spectrum. We design classrooms for the middle if the bell curve, and neither end is well served. Most educators were themselves successful in the existing system, and thus don't get why Sam finds the system frustrating. When you bring this up to them, most ignore what you're saying and some get defensive. Very few empathize.

The reason that the Sam's of the world sometimes succeed as entrepreneurs is that they finally get to create an environment that matches their strengths, in particular their nonlinear thinking that excels at combining ideas in new ways. It's also why you often see them matching up with a strong operating partner to compensate for their weaknesses. Most K-12 education doesn't help Sam develop his full potential. As Sir Ken Robinson has clearly articulated, we spent 12 years systematically beating creativity, energy and intuition out of Sam.

Having a wide variety of educational alternatives that meet the needs of a wide spectrum of students isn't going to come from the top down. Variety never does. It's going to come, if it comes at all, from educational entrepreneurs who seek to create novel ways of delivering education to students not well served today. To empower that system, the money in education needs to follow the student.

If you are suspecting that I have lived this struggle both as a student and a parent, you are right.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Where's the tipping point in public education?

South Carolina's SAT Scores Fall

And it's not just because a high percentage of SC student's take the test. A higher percentage of students in sixteen other states take the test, and we trail all but one of them.

Plus the problem is not just at the bottom in South Carolina.
The better educated a SC student’s parents, the further he trails peers nationally. Actually, student at the bottom score on par with their peers across the country, though we do have more students in poverty. But the gap in test scores is greater with SC students at the top compared to their peers across the country.

This comes on the heels of reports that over half the high schools students in South Carolina do not graduate on time.

I wonder where the tipping point is for a large segment of folks decide that what we doing now is broken and we need to reinvent public education as we know it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Henry Ford: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

My earlier post about Southwest Airlines reminded that Henry Ford famously said,
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
While true, Ford almost certainly had conversations with prospective customers who were clear about the frustrations of their daily experiences getting to and from where they wanted to go.

Henry Ford didn’t invent automobiles. In 1902, at least 50 US firms manufactured and sold cars mostly to wealthy customers as high end luxuries, which were generally expensive to purchase and difficult to maintain. That year, the Detroit Automobile Co. went bankrupt after selling fewer than half a dozen cars in two years, and Chief Engineer Henry Ford was fired. The Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903, but it was 1908 before the Model T was introduced.

Prior to the Model T, Ford had been up and down in the nascent automotive industry for a long time, from which he had developed a deep base of informed intuition. He had a clear insight into the needs of an emerging market of low end customers for simpler, cheaper, more reliable transportation. Ford understood that many people wanted faster horses to do practical jobs like getting to and from town quicker so more work could be done on the farm. He identified a job the car could perform for non-consumers which was fundamentally different than the job for which most early cars were being built. Rather than competing with the market leaders in automobiles, Ford was led by customers to develop a simpler, cheaper, more reliable productivity tool.

With that insight, Ford looked around for how to create a product that completely satisfied his customers’ needs using existing components and processes where possible. Ford intuitively understood that his focus needed to be on what was difficult in delivering what the customer wanted, which was assembling car components as efficiently and reliably as possible. The famous innovation for which Ford is given credit, the assembly line, had actually been around for a century since Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The relatively recent broad scale commercialization of electricity made small electric motors possible, which significantly enhanced the potential scale of the assembly line process.

Ford surrounded himself with talented people who were as passionate about the business as he was. It was William Klann, not Ford, who brought the assembly line into Ford Motor Company after viewing the "disassembly line" of a Chicago slaughterhouse where animals were butchered as they moved along a conveyor. Ford was disciplined in meeting his customer’s demand with a laser like focus, but remained open to diverse ideas from other industries about how to best develop a solution for his customers.

What was most innovative about Henry Ford was not a new technology or even a new process, but a new insight into the needs of an emerging market of customers for which he created a powerful, new business model.

Ford is also famous for saying,
They can have it in any color, as long as it is black.
Early in a new market, what is usually not good enough is efficiently reconfiguring mostly existing components into a simple, reliable solution that completely satisfies the customers.

Once that is mastered, markets inevitably begin to climb up the S-curve of innovation. What Ford failed to grasp, at least as the market initially began to mature, is that discontinuous innovations create new markets, and then sustaining innovations create great companies. That the car market was ready to branch into segments contiguous to the early mainstream market beachhead that had been established was the insight grasped by Albert Sloan, the legendary CEO of General Motors.

You don't get the right answer if you ask the wrong question

Jeffrey over at Innovate on Purpose is concerned that,
while asking people what they want seems reasonable, it isn't a very useful way to create interesting, unique innovations.
With all due respect, Jeffrey is getting answers that aren't useful because he is asking the wrong questions. He uses Southwest Airlines as an example.
When Southwest disrupted the market, most existing fliers demanded frequent flier miles and were not likely to switch, so they identified a market that didn't demand frequent flier miles. Imagine asking customers if they wanted an airline without frequent flier miles!
Well asking customers if they wanted an airline without frequent flier miles was the wrong question. The right question to ask passengers was what about their flying experience was difficult, expensive, or inconvenient.

Imagine the earful that Southwest would have gotten. Customers surely would have said is that they absolutely hated connections. They take too long, they add unnecessary cost, and don't even bring up missed connections. What passengers really want is to get from where they are to where they want to be as efficiently and as quickly as they can.

The biggest problem with giving customers what they wanted wasn't the frequent flier system, it was the hub system. Airlines assumed that they needed to get customers from any location to any other location. Given that assumption, they created the central hub system as a cost effective clearing house of sorts.

Southwest changed the rules of competition, like all good Swamp Foxes do. They looked at the high volume routes, like Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and they implemented a very simple idea. They'd fly customers between Los Angeles to Las Vegas faster and less expensively that any other airline, because they didn't have the expensive hub system to support. And to make it even less expensive, they'd use only one kind of airplane, to make maintenance easier and less costly. And they wouldn't serve crappy airline meals, so passengers could bring their own on board. And since they wouldn't be flying passengers all over the country to get them where them wanted to go, they'd do away with the frequent flier miles.

Passengers who wanted to go to Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back, and those that wanted to fly other high volume routes, loved it. Southwest didn't worry about other customers, because they weren't Soutwest's market.

Southwest asked the right question. What were customers trying to do but finding all of their existing options expensive, difficult or inconvenient. As a result, Southwest was able to make a boatload of money by creating an entirely new segment of the airline industry that was less costly to passengers and at the same time more profitable to Southwest. Not bad.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Choice in education that works

What completely baffles me is how we can see such dramatic improvement in higher education because students have choices about the types of higher education that best fit their needs, and yet many can't make the leap that this same dynamic will dramatically improve K-12 education as well.

Clemson just found out that it has risen to #27 on the U.S.News ranking, well along the way to becoming a top 20 public university. Setting an objective to rise in the rankings is inherently to engage in a competition with peer institutions. Clemson President Jim Barker captured the dynamic at work:
I’m very excited about the number 27, but I’m more encouraged by what’s behind that number. We’re seeing improvement in areas that directly impact faculty and students - smaller classes, lower student-to-faculty ratios and continued strong retention and graduation rates. We’ve always said that if we do the right things, if we make good decisions, if we’re strategic about resource allocation and if we constantly focus on academic quality, the rankings would take care of themselves. Today, I’m happy to report that our plan is working.
This competitive dynamic even works with private institutions: Furman moved from 41st to 37th on the list of top liberal arts colleges. Furman President David Shi doesn't like the terms of the competition, though, saying,
Serious reservations" persist "about the legitimacy of the process. It is much more important for a prospective student to find the college that is the best fit for him or her rather than basing such an important decision on a problematic college ranking.
That's a very Swamp Foxy thing to do: don't accept the status quo of the market leaders, but rather define the competition on terms that better matches your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses. That works as long as you can get customers to buy it.

Whether you engage in the competition head on, like Jim Barker, or you seek to redefine the terms of the competition, like Davis Shi, the fact is that competition will create high quality public and private education options that benefit students and society as a whole.

Someone tell me again why this same dynamic won't work to improve K-12 education.

Getting to the crux of what we do about dropouts

Slog through the The High Cost of South Carolina’s Low Graduation Rate, and the first two thirds of the report document the dreary details of the cost of half the students in South Carlina, half, dropping out before they finish high school. This is among the worst in the nation. Dropouts earn considerably less; they reduce tax revenue; they disproportionately use Medicare; they are twice as likely to be incarcerated.

Finally on page 22 you get to the crux of a part of the solution for improving the dropout rate: The Public Benefits of School Choice. Where school choice has been tried, not only do students who actively choose where to go to school benefit from having that choice, but in fact the local public schools improve as well. The proposal makes a compelling case that:
Even a modest school choice program would reduce South Carolina public school dropouts by up to 3,100 each year, saving up to $10 million annually.
Tell me again why we shouldn't be dramatically increasing the variety of education options available to students in South Carolina.

An irrelevant distinction: public versus private schools

Recently the SC Policy Council and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation published a report entitled: The High Cost of South Carolina’s Low Graduation Rate.

Responses from political leaders have been predictable. Governor Sanford said it bolsters the case for school choice in South Carolina. Secretary of Education Rex said, "We agree on the magnitude of the problem. And we agree with the Policy Council that the solution is to improve public schools. But we don’t think we improve public schools by paying parents to send their kids to private schools."

As a citizen, I have an obligation to ensure that all children have access to a high quality education. Most of my libertarian friends will disagree with that, but none of us has been successful alone. We have all built on the legacy of many, many others. No where is our obligation to be good stewards of that legacy greater than ensuring that all children have access to education.

It struck me as I read Dr. Rex's quote that he is making an irrelevant distinction between public and private schools. Half the children in this state are dropping out before they finish high school. We are failing as a society to provide them educational options that meet their needs.

I have an obligation to see that all children have access to education. It is irrelevant how that education is delivered as long as at the end of the day children are empowered to become productive, contributing members of society. Drawing a distinction between public and private schools is completely beside the point.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Is nothing sacred?

My high school physics teacher, Mr. Reifler (imagine the fun we had with that name), taught me that one of the most immutable laws of the universe is that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. The great Einstein said so. Now this...
'We have broken speed of light'
A phenomenon called quantum tunnelling, which allows sub-atomic particles to break apparently unbreakable laws. Nothing's sacred anymore.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

All of a sudden the new media isn't looking so bad to an old media warrior

The State's prolific blogger, Brad Warthen slammed John Edwards, which got picked up by the Drudge Report. Brad's now wallowing in all this fun.

Why I see John Edwards as a big phony: Director's Cut

Adjusting the focus on Edwards

Audio of Edwards getting folksy with the editorial board

Fox, or Edwards, or SOMEBODY is mighty excited about my column

The people (some of 'em, anyway) speak out on Edwards

I'm not primarily interested in substance of the discussion, but how an idle post on a blog one afternoon has all of a sudden gotten amplified globally. The new media isn't looking so bad to an old media warrior like Brad right now.

Random acts of kindness

The world would be a better place is we all just slow down a little bit and shared random acts of kindness each day.

I know my world would be.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

OK, let's see you do that.

G4 American Ninja Finalist shows off downtown Greenville, SC.
From Think Greenville

Why isn't this being shouted from the moutain top?

For all the hoopla over rising high education tuition in South Carolina, here's an important result of the way higher education is being funded currently in South Carolina today.
USC President Sorensen cited Clemson University research that showed 60 percent of South Carolina students with SAT scores higher than 1,390 now stay in state to attend college, compared with 17 percent before the start of the scholarships.
This is not a very well known statistic among the public, much less legislators The people that squeal the loudest are those whose children aren't getting into Clemson or USC. But their kids aren't being displaced by out-of-state students; the competition from in-state students has gotten much tougher. Who we don't hear from are the parents of the best and brightest kids that no longer are going out of state.

Why USC and Clemson aren't promoting this much more vigorously, I don't know.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Encyclopedia of Emerging Industries

I recently got a spam email about, "The Encyclopedia of Emerging Industries." Normally I'd just hit delete to blow this off and move on, but this struck me as odd.

I've been involved in a number of start-ups commercializing new ideas. When an idea is truly different, one of the real challenges is what to call it.

Fifteen years ago, I organized a group of investors called Capital Insights; 150 individuals invested $14 million in private companies. Was Capital Insights a venture capital firm? Most of the people investing wouldn't have been able to define "venture capital." Was it an angel group? Capital Insights was started before "angel" investors became a popular term. I find myself describing Capital Insights now, after the fact, using vocabulary that we didn't use at the time.

We've struggled with what to call InnoVenture too. Is it a "venture capital conference?" That's what it started out to be. It's evolved far beyond that, though, and the vast majority of the 1500 people who have attended an InnoVenture conference came looking for something else. So what is InnoVenture; an innovation conference. Yes, but that doesn't seem to describe it fully either. And most of the investors that come still make room on their calendars for InnoVenture by comparing it to other "venture capital conferences" they attend.

I do know that it is very important that you name new ideas well. One of the most critical jobs an entrepreneur has is defining the competition for pragmatic, mainstream customers. And that's what naming new ideas does. It tells they customers that they should do this, instead of that which they otherwise would have done. It can not be overestimated how critically important that positioning is to gaining market acceptance. I recently read an analysis of the video uploading marketing, and the author opined that a major reason the current market leader won is because they have a great name that clearly describes what they are: YouTube. There's something to that.

So that's what struck me as odd about, "The Encyclopedia of Emerging Industries." By the time the name for something new has become widely accepted, especially by the time the name is compiled into an encyclopedia, is it really "emerging" any more?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What's next in Charleston

I recently got this intriguing email:
its whats next

Ernest Andrade, Director
Charleston Digital Corridor
You now know what I know.