Monthly Archives: September 2002

On the Road Again

This was the most unpleasant trip to Silicon Valley I’ve ever made.

Almost as a premonition of the Valley’s disintegration, we passengers smelled smoke on the airplane to San Jose. After a few minutes of internal panic, we found out that the Angeles National Forest was burning and the smell was coming in from the outside through the plane’s air conditioning. Luckily, I flew Southwest Airlines, where they share information with the passengers. Had I been on any of the more traditional carriers, I probably would have been reduced to chanting and meditating. I recalled fondly how much I used to love to fly before 9/11.

Next I had to contend with the fact that I would have to stay in a hotel, as both Bay Area resident daughters were out of the area on business. I had called the Westin Santa Clara in the morning for their room rates, and they quoted me $215, a rate that recalled better days. Knowing that hotel rooms are perishable, I decided to take my chances and not make a reservation. I figured that if I just showed up there at 9 PM after my last event, they’d give me a bargain.

My first meeting,with the principals of Monterey Ventures,(a fund in formation dedicated to investments in the sustainable energy and food spaces)was not merry. There’s not much competition from other funds in this space, and quite a bit going on in the area of food technology and the alternative energy arena (wind power has finally “arrived” after centuries of neglect). But it is taking longer than usual to raise the money.

One of the partners commented that the venture capital process in Silicon Valley has become so institutionalized that all the former risk takers are now spending time with their grandchildren, leaving the industry to younger,less adventurous types. Just what we need–more bankers.

With that thought in my head, I went on to a truly bizarre event: the first joint meeting of The Indus Entrepreneur (TIE) and the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce. The attendance strained the seating capacity of the Westin, despite a rather mundane program. It was also notable for its lack of dinner, although it was scheduled from 6-9. An open bar, some fruit, cheese, and brownies, but none of the elegance that used to mark Silicon Valley networking events.

During the long introduction to the panel,more than one speaker brought up the common experiences of Diaspora peoples and the similarities in entrepreneurial spirit between immigants from the Indus Region and those from Israel. (One of the Indian participants was the CEO of an Israeli company.)

My companion, a practiced observer of developing countries, made the disturbing comment that Indians and Israelis in California might be drawing together to the exlusion of the Muslim community. As California is both a harbinger of the future and an area in which immigrants have always found work and in some cases wealth, I felt uneasily that I ought to be watching business alliances with a more political eye. Scary.

Between speakers, I checked at the front desk of the Westin to see what the room rate was at 8 PM. Yes, the hotel had rooms available. Now the quoted rate was $239. Was this a metaphor for what is wrong with Silicon Valley? A metaphor for how little most businesses know about marketing? A fundamental disconnect between supply and demand?

Good old Southwest. They had a flight back to Phoenix at 9:55. On my way to the gate, however, I was subjected to more of the current indignities of air travel. The airport wasn’t crowded, and the screeners were really applying themselves to the task at hand.

A man in front of me had a ticket for the next day, and was trying to catch an earlier flight. He had neglected to print out his new e-ticket, and was politely directed back to the ticket counter. He tried to explain several times that he had changed the reservation over the phone, but the screener was adamant: no tickee, no boardee. He turned on his heel and swore loudly at the screener.

As I passed through the scanner, I saw a man on the other side sitting in a chair, socks and shoes off, feet in the air,shouting a stream of expletives. He looked like one of those cartoon characters with a balloon over his head that reads ?*@#! Frustrated and furious, he made his plight worse by pumping up the volume. I don’t know if he ever made the plane.

As I took my seat and nodded off, I wondered how long it will take us to decide never to travel for business again. Between the airports and the hotels, it may just not be worth it. Invest in Webex.

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Music, Maestro

If I had my choice of any place in the world to live, I would not choose a castle in France, the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, or even a place on a beach in Costa Rica. Right now, I’d choose to move into the Apple Store at Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix. A modern, white, techno-Paradise, the Apple Store sells 23′ plasma screens, G4 movie-making computers, and the world-class IPOD. (Check your local listings for an Apple Store near you; I’m sure they all look alike.)

Biltmore Fashion Park is a high end shopping center, and the interior of the Apple Store is right out of an Italian interior design magazine or an art gallery. The computers and peripherals on display look like a combination of furniture and sculpture. When combined with the current ad campaign aimed at Windows users, this Apple Store is the most incredible merchandising job I can recall. I went in there to help a friend research laptop computers, but I emerged with a 20-gig IPOD. And they’re not inexpensive.

Now let’s talk about the IPOD, which has only recently become available for Windows. It is about the size of a pager, and comes in white plastic or silver. It is accompanied by sleek ear-buds, a small battery charger that is not really visible when placed in an electrical outlet (unlike those big black rectangles), and an even smaller device to control the IPOD remotely while the device itself is in your pocket. (Fits in there beautifully). Everything about the IPOD is color-coordinated, right down to the box.

In case you don’t know what an IPOD is, it’s an MP3 player. With it, you can carry about 4,000 tunes with you, and keep yourself entertained for the better part of a day. It has a capacity far beyond its nearest competitor, and comes in three storage sizes. I got the biggest one; the IPOD’s hard drive is the same size as that of my desktop computer. Among other things, I can now carry the contents of both CDs of John Friend’s Anusara 101 with me when I travel.

I have also heard that the IPOD has spawned a new crime: owners go into computer stores, connect their IPODs to the 1394 port on a computer, and rapidly download software to the IPOD without paying for it.

Yesterday at an economic forecast breakfast I heard the futurist Dr. James Canton (www.futureguru.com) speak. He talked about the four power tools of twenty-first century business: ubiquitous connections, collaboration, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. Within that context, he said that any business that develops a solution to empower its customers would own those customers. Indeed, the IPOD empowers its customers, especially if you have also bought the package of speakers JBL sells with it: called ‘The Creature.’

The Creature is a sub-woofer than looks like a character from a science fiction movie, accompanied by two small speakers that look like its children. They are all made of shiny white plastic. I’ve set the IPOD and The Creature up in my exercise room, replacing an antiquated (and ugly) set of black audio components. My exercise room is now the best looking room in the house.

But for me, the joy of the IPOD will come largely from being able to take with me all the music I downloaded from Napster before it became illegal, including everything from Bessie Smith to Bob Marley and Nelly to Neil Young. No more bulky Case Logics and CD-Walkmen that use four AA batteries every half hour. And good-bye even to my lastgen Intel MP3 Concert Audio Player, with its limited capacity. I haven’t gotten this high on a gadget since I got my Palm phone.

The IPOD did expose my own weaknesses, however. It files all your music through software called MusicMatch. I have this software on my desktop, and I even went so far as to collect all my tunes in its library. But MusicMatch enables you to make playlists, and I never bothered to do that. Everything in my library is alphabetical, which means if I want to play a group of songs, they will probably be only the ‘A’s or the ‘C’s, and not any meaningful or even related selections.

Bummer. I have to go back and organize my music into easily available segments. In my spare time, I will do this. It’s a small price to pay for the kind of power that comes with the IPOD.

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This week has been a

This week has been a bummer, largely because of the anniversary of 9/11 and a Friday the 13th. It was interesting how many meetings were moved, re-scheduled, or cancelled because no one had any energy on Wednesday. Never mind deciding not to fly, many people seemed to have decided not to get out of bed. Now it’s Friday, and bomb-sniffing dogs are active in Florida detecting terrorists.

When rats are confronted with too many stimuli, they go into operational neurosis. This is a temporary form of paralysis, but it can kill them because they forget to eat. Americans are pretty over-stimulated right now, and many are just burying themselves in their houses and watching 400 satellite channels on their 50-inch TVs. It’s not only 9/11, it’s everything: Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Wall Street, West Nile virus.

On the morning after 9/11, we got to listen to President Bush making a case for the war against Iraq, or as it is euphemistically titled, ‘the regime change.’ That was brilliant timing; any kid who wasn’t scared to death on Wednesday by terrorism would have nightmares Thursday about weapons of mass destruction. Especially since all the adults were busy fighting with each other about whether Bush should declare war or not.

The alternative was to watch the former CEOs of GE, Adelphia, Tyco and Worldcom have their retirement packages confiscated, and the Justice Department dig deeper into the amazing extent of corporate greed. Martha Stewart may have known too much about Imclone when she decided to sell, but Jack Welch’s divorce papers reveal that he negotiated a retirement worthy of a dictator in a developing country.

All this makes me wonder whether the real
‘bubble’ of the past five years was really due to the Internet, or was brought about by something else altogether in the “old” economy. In hindsight, capitalist economy for the past five years has been a sort of creative writing exercise, in which some lucky people got to make up all sorts of stories, circulate them to as many others as possible�using the media as megaphones –, and collect big money for being such good storytellers.

In fact, one of the primary duties of a CEO in the last decade was to be the “outside spokesperson” for his/her company. A whole industry has been built up around media training � readying these spokespeople for anyone who dared question their “messages.” The consultants gave the CEOs “talking points” and “image consulting,” furnished them with multimedia presentations that included displays of themselves on multiple large screens simultaneously, and made damn sure that whenever they opened their mouths they had a “good story.”

All this storytelling responsibility was pretty time-consuming, so it’s no wonder that few of these CEOs knew anything about what was going on inside their companies. Shuttling back and forth from the conferences on Wall Street, at Aspen and Davos, they were rarely in the office to detect the familiar stench of cooking books.

With all the stories around, it’s also no wonder that CEOs convinced themselves and everyone else that they should be compensated at an annual rate exceeding the gross revenues of 90% of American businesses.

But there seems to be very little remaining of the run-up in the ’90s. Not only are the dotcoms gone, but Blue Chip corporations are gone, and their “trusted advisors” are gone with them. I’m not sure 9/11 or the Internet changed everything, but something sure did. Many people are out of work, others are out of retirement savings, and even Alan Greenspan doesn’t seem to be able to impact events.

If Alan is out of tricks, what’s next? America seems to have a few dozen naked emperors � and not because they couldn’t afford to pay their tailors. Perhaps we should make them all pool their former salaries and retirement packages into a Social Security or Medicare fund, so they can take care of all the rest of us. Then we could stay in bed, where we really want to be these days.

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Ed Denison

It’s always difficult when someone you know dies. It’s more difficult when they are younger than you are. It�s even more difficult when they have been an almost daily companion on the journey to establish Arizona as a technology center�as a place one�s own children would like to live.

Unfortunately, this compound difficulty arose for me last week when Ed Denison, the President of the Arizona Software and Internet Association, this very week to become the Arizona Tech Council, played a round of golf on a Saturday morning and took a nap for good. I cherish the fantasy that he will wake up one day, like Rip van Winkle, to find that we have finished the work he started.

It�s a great fantasy, but it won�t happen. No matter how hard we try to get capital into Arizona, he won�t wake up (at least not in this incarnation). However, I predict that his death will have a salutary, if ironic, effect on the campaign for which he was the spokesperson. Now that he died, the embellishments he hoped to bring to the state�s technology industry will probably become realities.

And that�s because, when people die, they are finally taken seriously. In fact, only when people die are they really known. As I sat at Ed�s funeral, I heard his sister recount a story about her kidney disease. She said that a doctor had misdiagnosed her about ten years ago, telling her she would have kidney failure and be needing a transplant. For eight of the previous ten years, Ed had assured her that he was ready to give her his kidney. He didn�t have to do it, because the doctor was wrong, but as her only sibling, he stood ready without her even asking.

This is a profound truth about Ed that would never have surfaced in a business meeting. And yet, it told me more about him than anything he ever said at the countless community meetings we attended together. Clearly, he was a guy with the right intentions, no matter what the tactics.

Those intentions, however, were often buried in the tactics. In those endless planning meetings he was often funny, assertive, and lately, testy. Like many of us, he had gotten tired of the putdowns and putoffs associated with starting any sort of entrepreneurial venture fund either with legislative or executive help. He had also personally internalized many of the job losses and company extinctions that followed the dot-com meltdown. In Arizona, we never had a dot-com bubble, and when we lost jobs and companies, they were regular old information technology companies or bootstrapped startups.

Ed was passionate � nay, fanatic � about how to get capital formation to happen in Arizona. He finally bottomed out on the fact that if the entire technology community didn�t speak with one voice at the legislature, it wouldn�t happen, and he attempted to move his organization into position to be that one voice.

He had just gotten the first part of the job done � the preparation for a unified voice � when he left us. When he died, people were still arguing about how and who would be subsumed or included in this �unified voice.� Those people, at least temporarily, have fallen silent, including me. Venture capital is not worth dying for.

Fortunately, my karma is good and I had just enjoyed an optimistic lunch with Ed two days before his death, a lunch in which we talked about yet another possible means to get rich real estate guys to invest in Arizona�s economic development (which causes their riches). So he left me, personally, on an upbeat note. But that�s small consolation for the loss to the family and the community.

A modern poet says it best:
�Now this looks like a job for me/
So everybody come follow me/
Cuz we need a little controversy/
Cuz it feels so empty without me.�

It definitely feels empty without Ed, who –unlike a rapper — can�t just make a new album and a comeback. We will just have to be content with the old repertoire.
Namaste,

Francine

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