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The Flesh of Your Mother Sticks Between My Teeth

May 12, 2009

“The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth”

–A common taunt passed down through the oral traditions of the Rapa Nui Islanders

People tend to eat people when they are starving to death.  Frightening, but true.  Jared Diamond parallels the decline of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) with current global ecological degradation trends. A brief history starting in 900 AD:

  • 900: 20-30 people from Polynesia’s Pitcairn Islands intentionally sail 1,300 to Easter Island in small vessels that seat 5-9 people (miraculous isn’t it?)
  • 900: Overall, Rapa Nui was a sufficient but not optimal location for human civilization. The island was a little colder, dryer, and lower than most islands in the Pacific. The colder water provided it only 127 fish species (vs. 1,000 in Figi.) It had sufficient fresh water reserves, but not as much as other Pacific islands.    Easter Island was flush with trees, and had diverse mix of land birds and seabirds.  However, it didn’t have indigenous mammals (But the colonists populated the island with chickens, dogs, pigs, and rats.)
  • 900-1200: They built up to a population of 7,000 and subsisted primarily on chicken, rats, sweet potato, taro, and banana.  They also ate some shell fish and porpoise, seabirds, and land birds.  They also began to form into loosely federated tribes on the island with relative peace that cooperated but competed with one another.
  • 1300: Villagers began constructing the enormous statues the island is famous for.  The statues (moai) average 13 feet tall and weighed 10 tons.  However the biggest moai was 32 feet tall and weighed 75 tons. More striking the statues bases (ahu) ranged from 300 to 9,000 tons. All of this rock was in a singular quarry, and was transported up to 1-9 miles to their end destinations at the shores.
  • 1300: Villagers transported these enormous rocks by felling 75 foot palm trees and creating a roller device to move them accross the island
  • 1300-1550: Village chiefs become increasingly competitive and raced to build bigger Moai and more of them. In the process, they devastated the land
  • 1600: The last and largest Moai is built
  • 1600: The last palm tree is felled
  • 1600-1730: The tiny islands spirals into anarchy; the chiefs are overthrown, religion is abandoned, and people kill and eat each other, and then starve to death.

Think about what the villages couldn’t do after they cut down their last tree.

They couldn’t:

  • Make Boats to fish for 160 pound, protein rich porpoises (and other large sea creatures)
  • Make homes to protect themselves from the elements
  • Make fires to keep warm and cook food
  • Make ropes, fishing nets and other tools
  • Make clothes
  • Eat fruits from the trees

Eliminating the palm trees created other ecological problems:

  • Soil erosion lowered their other crop yields
  • Extinction of many land birds and seabirds
  • Unsustainable harvesting of remaining trees, bushes, and shrubs

What do you think the villagers were thinking when they cut their last tree down?

I found this to be an eye opening mental exercise.  My concerns over water pollution, overfishing, CO2 emissions, erosion, deforestation, etc became a lot more urgent after reading this story of how an economically successful, politically organized, culturally rich civilization destroyed itself in the matter of a few hundred years through greedy actions and poor foresight. It was a call to action for me, to learn more about the green movement, and figure out what I can do to lead a change.

Learn more at Wikipedia, Collapse, Big History, and Green History of the World by Clive Ponting



Constructive Capitalism (Umair Haque)

April 8, 2009

Constructive Capitalism Video

Different framework  for 21st century value creation.  My question:  Is Haque’s argument veiled communism?

It seems that people who really like this talk are the same people who ask the question: “Is growth really, really what we want?”

One of his is arguments is “outcomes, not incomes.”  What he means is that revenue, gross profit, gross margin, return on equity, and the other key financial metrics are not going to create value in the 21st century.  Instead institutions need to focus on the “outcomes” of their actions.  Does your operating behavior make people’s lives better?

If you watched this, I’d love your thoughts.  My gut on this was that he is outlining a vision for more innovative capitalism that operates on a different set of principles than the one of the past (suck up resources, extract value out of them, move on.)  I don’t think he’s a communist, but he might be.  I’ll need to watch it again and read more.

6 Tips to Wrestle Business Problems to the Ground

April 1, 2009

Look for an Ass Kicking

I wrestled for one year when I was an awkward, chubby, pubescent 13 year old.  (Not much has changed. lol)  At first, my teammates kicked the crap out of me everyday.  It sucked.  I wanted to quit after two weeks, but reasoned I should tough it out for the sake of  “character development.”  We would run miles in garbage bags, do push ups into infinity, run “suicides”, do sets of 1,000 sit ups.   Then we’d do technique training and spar.  This is where the ass kicking really began.  It was exhausting, but it made me stronger.  I was never the best wrestler, but competitors stopped taking me for granted towards the end, and I even won a few matches.

Why Business is like Wrestling

Both business and wrestling require conditioning, training, finesse, and commitment.  It takes a ton of reading and learning to understand a business to inform good decision making.  You need to synthesize volumes of data, and pull out trends with clarity.  You need to go deep on your customers and understand their unmet needs and purchase barriers.  You need to visit dozens of retailers and understand your trade dynamics.  You need to meet with dozens of colleagues in different functions and learn about their internal and external perspectives on the business.  It’s not easy.   I like to wrestle with business problems.   Business isn’t ballet. It’s an aggressive intellectual wrestling match where the smartest and strongest win–and everybody else is helplessly pinned to the ground.

The Jack Welch Approach (Debate as a Leadership Tool)

Jack Welch particularly inspired my business as wrestling philosophy.  I read Welchs’ book Winning a couple of years ago. I embrace a few of his tactics he used to to create a culture of intellectual inquiry and rigorous debate.

  1. Ferociously debate ideas with colleagues. The best ideas come out of creative teamwork.  If you study the champions of business, you always hear stories of colossal personalities sparring with one another using argument to converge on the right business strategy.  Role models include: Steve Jobs, Donald Keough, Warren Buffett, Steve Ballmer, Rupert Murdoch, the list is endless.
  2. Attack ideas, not people.  Many people confuse the difference between attacking an idea and attacking a person.  This is the key reason why we don’t see a lot of debate among the low ranks of corporations.  People are afraid they’ll get branded an “argumentative, anti-collaborator.”  In a teamwork obsessed decision by consensus culture (which most companies with over 500 employees are), an anti-collaborative reputation is dangerous for promotion and job security.
  3. Listen, Listen, Listen. When somebody is speaking, listen.  They are probably saying something intelligent.  A lot of folks are hot headed and like to debate because it’s “fun.”  Of course it’s fun, but that’s not why you do it.  You debate to learn, to sharpen ideas, and to inform decisions.  It doesn’t matter how smart you are.  Usually the best ideas come from other people, not you.  So, listen when they speak
  4. Commit ideas to writing.  It’s easy to spot a bad idea in writing.  Try to write your good ideas down.  You’ll usually discover your “good idea” sucks on the first attempt.  Seek input from colleagues.  Rewrite it a couple of times, and you’ll have a great idea.
  5. Structure some meetings as “debate sessions” rather than “information downloads.” People hate meetings because they are unbearably boring and unrelated to growing share or building the organization.  It’s either sitting through a semi-relevant PowerPoint or doing a  “team update to see what everybody else is working on.”  Not a productive hour of value creation.  Alternatively, set up an hour to debate the merits of a core strategy.  Request each individual contribute to the discussion.  Moderate it, and allow the good ideas to flourish.  You’ll see how motivated your colleagues get when you demand they express all the brilliant ideas they were too shy or indifferent to express.
  6. Play devil’s advocate. Good ideas become great ideas when they are challenged.  When somebody says something you broadly agree with, ask yourself: “What’s the weakness in that position?”  If you find one, attack.  It will make everyone a stronger leader and thinker.  It will also enable a better decision.  And, better decisions made consistently over time lead to sustained success.  Do you want sustained success?

How Grameen Bank Alleviates Poverty

March 29, 2009

Muhammad Yunus Speaks at Google

Muhammad Yunus innovated the microfinance model (lending small sums of money to the poor) 25 years ago in Bangladesh.  He is the key leader who reframed the global poverty alleviation discussion around empowerment and belief in the poor vs. dependency and cynicism.  Here are three “takeways” if you don’t have time to read the book.

  1. Don’t train the poor.  Empower them with access to capital. Yunus cynically describes how training programs prop up international aid institutions with employment and tasks to keep international aid workers busy without providing constructive improvement to the poor.  Oftentimes the poor are intimidated by training programs, and the programs can highlight there illiteracy or lack of aptitude, which further discourages them.   Yunnus argues that the poor have a “survival instinct” and that if you give them capital, they will deploy it efficiently to generate income.  As they make their own lives better, they will naturally seek out training that they want and will even pay for.  It’s not that training isn’t important.  It’s essential, but training comes later in the solution, not at the  beginning.
  2. It’s access to capital, not rapid population growth that primarily keeps poor people poor. To be clear rapid population growth is a problem.  However, the solution is not to focus on family planning.  Instead, solutions should focus on providing capital to the poor who can then use that money to generate increasing income over time, educate themselves, and educate their children.  As women increase their income and education level, they choose to have less children because want to provide a better standard of living and education to the children they have.
  3. When you help women, you help families and societies. Yunnus discusses how women in Bangladesh were historically excluded from the financial system.  He also explains that poverty strikes women hardest because: “if one of the family members has to starve, it is an unwritten law that it will be the mother” (72).  When women earn a little extra they invest that money first in their children and second in their home.  Men tend to invest in themselves first.

How the lending system works

  1. Members form into a 5 person lending group.
  2. Each member of the lending group must take training on Grameen lending and repayment principles and pass an oral examination to be eligible for a loan.  If one member fails, they all must retake the test
  3. Only two people get loans immediately.  After they prove they can repay over a 6 week period, other group members are permitted to borrow.
  4. If one group member is unwilling or unable to pay back a loan, the entire group becomes ineligible to borrow larger sums in the future.  This creates tremendous social pressure for groups to support each other and keep each person on track.

Repayment terms:

  • Loans last one year
  • Installments are paid weekly
  • Repayment starts one week after the loan
  • Interest rate is 20%
  • Repayment amounts to 2 percent of the loan amount per week for 50 weeks
  • Interest payments amount to 2 taka per week for every 1,000 taka of the loan amount

Couchsurfing for a Job

February 18, 2009

Check out  Awesome travel site.  Believe it or not, it will surpass 1 million users globally in March.

The Big Idea

Find people with similar interests and passions who live in cities you plan to visit.  Meet them online and request to sleep on their couch and hang out with them for a negotiated period of time.

My Introduction to Couch Surfing

My hippie, Italian friend introduced me to couchsurfing during college.   I first (unsuccessfully) couchsurfed Pamplona, Spain.  I couldn’t find the meet up place for my host (I didn’t have a cellphone, I couldn’t find the address in the commotion of the festivities, and my Spanish is terrible–uno, dos, huh?  I ended up “roughing it” in Pamplona for 35 hours.

A few months ago I successfully couchsurfed in Denver, CO during a short weekend stay with a delightful lady.  We hung out with her friends, enjoyed great conversation, and she even had a blow up mattress for me.  After that, I’ve just been waiting for a couchsurfing request so I could reciprocate the generosity.  It recently came.

Couchsurfing for a Job

I got this email on couchsurfing a few weeks ago:

Hi Elliott!

I will be driving through Cincy and wanted to check out
the city because I might be moving there soon. I was
wondering if your couch is available? I also saw you
work for P&G, how do you like it? I am in contact
with the marketing dept about a job. Perhaps you can
give me a couple pointers and insights. Let me know
if you have something.

Thanks a lot!

After reading this I thought:

  1. Hell yeah, I’ll host this guy; it’s my solemn couchsufing oath
  2. I would definitely hire this guy for any job because of his resourcefulness and courage to send me this note.  He just proved he’s a creative problem solver and go getter.
  3. I hope he isn’t a serial killer because he could find me if he wanted to.

The Couch Surf Visit

Matt rolled into my place Saturday.  I took him around Cincinnati to show him the town.  We dined, drank coffee, shopped, spoke with local merchants, dropped into an informal work party, and dropped by a local bar.  In the morning we grabbed some pancakes at IHOP with my buddy, and he was off.

Tips on Couchsurfing Safety and Etiquette

  1. Bring your host a present or treat them to a meal (Matt brought me two books he thought I’d like based on my profile.)
  2. ID you guests using various social portals before you disclose your address (email, facebook, linked in, etc)
  3. Meet your guest in a public place first to conduct the “serial killer test” before taking them to your couch


  1. Couchsurfing is an awesome way to meet cool people who index highly on the personality trait “a person open to new experiences”
  2. It’s a good way to develop potential friendships you’d otherwise never develop
  3. Be smart about who you let sleep on your couch
  4. Couchsurfing may just lead you to your next job

Do You Want to Hire Matt?

If you have the authority to hire Matt, you can find him here on Twitter. You can also contact me to get his email address.

Risky Business: On Growing Up and Making a Profit

February 14, 2009

Iconic Tom Cruise Dancing in Underwear (like you haven’t done this)

My friend told me the other day that I reminded her of Tom Cruise from Risky Business.  I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not.  I watched the movie recently and was primarily struck my the timelessness of the movie.  It’s probably the best male coming of age movie ever.  It’s got it all: girls, money, drugs, a father’s wrecked Porsche.  The film also deals with the theme of American capitalism.  It comments on the empowerment and excitement a capitalist feels after a major breakthrough, as well as the potential dark side of selfishness, materialism, and human exploitation when abused.

My favorite scene in the movie is toward the beginning when Miles tells an insecure Joel (Cruise):

“Every now and then say ‘What the f**k.’  What the f**k gives you freedom.  Freedom brings opportunity.  Opportunity makes your future. “

Good piece of advice from an 18 year old fictional character.  Sometimes you need to just go for it.  You can play it safe when you’re dead. Although after following Miles’ advice, Cruise destroys his father’s car, falls into a prostitution business, and nearly loses his family’s possessions.  He also recovers his losses, has an enormous adventure, develops a stronger self-concept, earns admission to Princeton, and gets a taste of adult life and adult responsibility through running a business and earning a profit.  As Joel says at the close of the movie:

“My name is Joel Goodwin.  I deal in human fulfillment.  I grossed over 8,000 dollars in one night.  Time of your life, kid.”

Spoken like a true capitalist.  Solid movie.  Highly recommended.

A Short Walk with Tim Westergren of Pandora

February 3, 2009

I was at Social Media Club Breakfast the other day to watch Tim Westergren of Pandora give a talk.  Tim was heading over to P&G after the breakfast, and Kevin the host asked me to walk Tim over.  It was a good deal.   Tim has a great vibe.  He stuck me as humble, thoughtful, and fervently committed to his vision.

Side note: He’s also unbelievably good with names.  I watched him meet a bunch of people and he fluently and effortlessly seemed to remember everyone’s name.  I’d never seen anything like it before.  It was God-like (no joke.)  I think taking the effort to remember peoples’ names is a rare quality and is indicative of a person who genuinely believes in the value of individuals and thinks he can learn something from anybody.  That kind of humbleness (in my view) is admirable and attractive.

Tim’s Advice for an 18 year old kid who wants to enter the music biz.

My brother Wes wants to start a record label.   He’s 18 and a freshman in college.  He asked me a couple of weeks ago what I thought about his idea, and I gave him some fairly clueless advice masked at “older brother wisdom.”  When I found myself walking with the guy who–more than anybody else–revolutionized the music industry, I had to ask him about my brother’s dream.  Here’s Tim’s answer:

  1. Find 1 or 2 bands you like
  2. Offer to manage them for free
  3. Do your best; see what happens
  4. Learn and adapt

There ya go.  Tim Westergren has synthesized the key to a music business in 4 steps and 22 words.  You’ve just benefited from his decade of struggle, sacrifice and hard work to get to a boiled down summary.

His advice reminds me of the quote: “A long journey begins with the first step.” Whenever, I’ve talked to entrepreneurs, read their books, or read about them I see this as an ongoing theme in how they do the extraordinary things they do.  They try the crazy stuff that everybody else is too afraid to try.  And, then they have the courage/stupidity/unawareness to keep going even when the enterprise seems  impractical/stupid/doomed.

Of course Tim had a lot more to say about how to enter the music business.  He talked about:

  • Working with bands that are cohesive and not addicted to drugs
  • Working with bands with talent and something to say
  • Using social media tools to promote (facebook, myspace, twitter)
  • Starting out in a non-core city where the competition isn’t so fierce

But the big takeaway from Tim was that you don’t need to over-engineer the start.  You don’t need a 50 page strategic plan.  You just need to find a band, get started, learn, and adapt.  And, what better time to do it than when you are a college student with relatively low responsibility and downside risk.  Go get it Wes!