You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2014.

 Hug a Stranger?

By Shlomo  Maital

Happy Money

  I’ve blogged before about the book by UBC social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and Harvard Business School marketing expert Michael Norton, “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.”  In their New York Times Op-Ed, the two scholars report on an interesting experiment done by one of their students, Gillian M. Sandstrom.  The idea was to test the hypothesis that what matters most to us is our closest ties (with spouses and close relatives), not  interactions with minor random strangers.   It’s an extension of their work that shows how badly we spend our money, and how it often fails to bring us happiness.

    She had her subjects carry clickers, one red, one black, all day.  They clicked the red one when they interacted with someone close to them.  They clicked the black one when they interacted with someone they didn’t know.

    Her finding?  Introverts and extroverts alike felt happier on days when they had more social interactions.  Not surprising.  But  she also found that “interactions with [strangers] correlated at least as highly with happiness as interactions with strong ties [ our loved ones].”  

   “Even the bit players in our lives may influence our well-being,” they note.

  So – you may not quite be up to hugging a stranger, and the results may not be great if you do,   but,  why not chat with a stranger?  In an age when people are increasingly alienated, alone, isolated, even with Facebook and Twitter (or perhaps because of them),   a face-to-face conversation with a stranger can sometimes provide great comfort.

     In the end, human beings are highly social animals.  Technology seems bent on making us over into go-it-alone individuals.  Time to fight back.

What’s In a Name? Holy Crap! Almost Everything

By Shlomo   Maital

 Holy Crap

  In teaching innovation, and in guiding my students’ wet/dry simulations of launching new startups, I always stress the crucial importance of names – what you call your new product or service.  A strong catchy name can mean the difference between success and failure.  Shakespeare’s rhetorical, “what’s in a name? A rose is a rose by any other name” is just wrong.  Rainbow rose (see my blog, April 9, 2012), for instance, is far better than “multi-colored rose”.   

    John Grossman confirms this view in his New York Times article (April 25), “Risqué, funny  …and flying off shelves”.  He tells a wonderful story about Corin and Brian Mullins, whose debut product was a non-allergenic high-fiber breakfast cereal.  They called it Hapi Food.    Really bad name.  But an ecstatic client called up to praise the product’s effectiveness.   “Holy crap!” the client said, on the phone.

    The Mullins laughed…and cooked up a new batch.  Brian had worked in marketing communications.  He knew he needed a new name for his product.

    Why not call it Holy Crap?

    Sales grew to $5.5 m. in the first four years, partly because of the name.

    More and more products are choosing sassy, risqué, even pornographic names.  You can buy wines called Sassy Bitch and Fat Bastard.  You can buy a Kickass Cupcake.  You can have breakfast at an LA restaurant called Eggslut.   According to Eli Altman, author of “Don’t Call It That”,  “it’s significantly more risky to have a boring name than to have a risqué one”. 

    Carey Smith began making industrial fans. He called his firm HVLS Fan Co., for High Volume Low Speed.  Dull.  His clients began asking about his oversize Big Ass fans.  Eventually he changed the name of the company to Big Ass Fans.  But the City Council in Lexington KY., a bible belt city, thought about forcing Smith to remove its name from the side of its building.  The resulting PR was worth a fortune.   True, Big Ass Fans got blocked by anti-spam…but lately, anti-spam is based more on reputation-filters and less on offensive words.

    So – innovator!  Choose a memorable, cheeky name!   You may have a fantastic product.  But how will people know about it?  To get your product talked about, a risqué name can help.  Like, the name of a Tampa Fla. Shop called Master Bait & Tackle.    Get it?  Or the Toronto construction company, newly named Mammoth Erection, which came with a picture of a woolly mammoth.  The phones rang off the hook. 

 Man Against Fly – So Far, It’s Tsetse 2, Mankind 0

By Shlomo  Maital       


  It has just been announced that the genome of the tsetse fly (prounced: Te-tzee) has been decoded, by an international team of scientists.   Like some international fashion model, the ugly fly has made the cover of Science magazine. 

  The tsetse fly is the scourge of Africa.  It lives on human blood, and unlike the mosquito (only the female drinks human blood), both male and female tsetse flies imbibe human and animal blood.  The tsetse fly spreads human encephalitis (sleeping sickness) and a disease that afflicts cattle.  The suffering and economic losses are huge.

    Evolution has created some amazing innovations in the tsetse fly.  For one, unlike other flies and insects, the tsetse fly gives birth to live offspring, only about 8 of them.  The female tsetse fly deposits eggs in its ovaries, and then secretes a milk-like substance to feed them.  When the tiny flies are ready, they are born, full-fledged.

    So far, efforts to combat this scourge in Africa have been unsuccessful.  But now that the tsetse genome has been decoded, scientists can look for a weak point, perhaps genetically altering a gene to hamper reproduction.

    So far, however, it is tsetse fly 2,  mankind zero.   In this battle, mankind against the wisdom of evolution,  mankind is definitely the underdog. 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The Farewell He Never Wrote

By Shlomo Maital


One of the world’s greatest writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has died, age 86. He wrote 100 Years of Solitude,   and my favorite, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, an amazingly creative mixture of journalism and fiction. Marquez himself was a journalist, at times, and was born in Colombia in 1928. He set Chronicle in a Colombia village.

After his death, Marquez’ poem The Puppet, written after he was diagnosed with supposedly fatal cancer in 1997, was widely quoted.   However, it turns out that he never wrote it. Instead it was written by a Mexican ventriloquist named Johnny Welch.

   I think Marquez would have loved the irony of the world’s press quoting a poem he never wrote, as a tribute to his writing skill.

   Here is the full poem. Marquez could well have written it, or better, if he so chose. It’s worth reading and heeding.

                                                   The Puppet

“ If for a moment God would forget that I am a rag doll and give me a scrap of life, possibly I would not say everything that I think, but I would definitely think everything that I say. I would value things not for how much they are worth but rather for what they mean. I would sleep little, dream more. I know that for each minute that we close our eyes we lose sixty seconds of light. I would walk when the others loiter; I would awaken when the others sleep.  I would listen when the others speak, and how I would enjoy a good chocolate ice cream. If God would bestow on me a scrap of life, I would dress simply, I would throw myself flat under the sun, exposing not only my body but also my soul.    My God, if I had a heart, I would write my hatred on ice and wait for the sun to come out. With a dream of Van Gogh I would paint on the stars a poem by Benedetti, and a song by Serrat would be my serenade to the moon. 

    With my tears I would water the roses, to feel the pain of their thorns and the incarnated kiss of their petals…My God, if I only had a scrap of life… I wouldn’t let a single day go by without saying to people I love, that I love them.  I would convince each woman or man that they are my favourites and I would live in love with love. I would prove to the men how mistaken they are in thinking that they no longer fall in love when they grow old–not knowing that they grow old when they stop falling in love. To a child I would give wings, but I would let him learn how to fly by himself. To the old I would teach that death comes not with old age but with forgetting. I have learned so much from you men…. I have learned that everybody wants to live at the top of the mountain without realizing that true happiness lies in the way we climb the slope.  I have learned that when a newborn first squeezes his father’s finger in his tiny fist, he has caught him forever. I have learned that a man only has the right to look down on another man when it is to help him to stand up. I have learned so many things from you, but in the end most of it will be no use because when they put me inside that suitcase, unfortunately I will be dying.”

Benchmarking Germany: Job Creation a la Merkel

By Shlomo Maital

job creation

proporiton with jobs

change in proportion of people ages 15-64 with jobs, since 2007

Floyd Norris’ “Off the Charts” feature in the New York Times finds clever ways to present complex data in clear, meaningful visual ways. In his latest effort, today (April 19-20), he charts the “proportion of people with jobs”, by age group, dating from 2007.

This is a much better statistic than the unemployment rate, because when the poll person knocks on your door and asks you, “are you working now?”, if you say “no”, the next question is, “have you been actively seeking work in the past 2 weeks?” If the answer is no again, you are not unemployed, because, you are not even in the labor force. So “proportion of people with jobs” is a good statistic to track.

   Norris’ charts show that both America and the EU (excluding Germany) are abysmal; nearly 5 per cent fewer people aged 15-64 have jobs today than in 2007, and this is after the two biggest economies in the world have ‘recovered’.   Britain is nearly back to what it was in 2007; the Conservative government under Cameron is taking credit for this, giving credit to its austerity program.  I think the job recovery was in spite of austerity, not because of it.  Britain’s pound sterling has dropped a lot, helping its exports, like Germany. 

   But the stellar performer is Germany! Germany has 4 percentage points MORE people working, ages 15-64, than in 2007.    


     I have some explanations. Germany has benefited from the plummeting euro, and boosted its exports. Germany has succeeded in boosting exports to China. Germany maintained wage restraint and restrained social benefits, and its unions have been highly responsible.   Germany avoided shedding excess labor during the downturn and hence preserved the high skills of veteran workers, often the first to be dumped.

     But this is not my point. When job creation is the #1 key issue almost everywhere, and when one country outperforms all the rest by a huge margin, should the decision-makers not be beating a path to its door to find out the secret?   I see no evidence this is happening.

     Obama – Send your civil servants to Berlin. Tell them to stay there until they come home with a strong plan to boost job creation, and reduce the huge numbers of discouraged workers, who do not appear in unemployment stats and hence who are invisible. Tell them to get to the bottom of Germany’s success.   And while they’re there, ask them to discover why Chanceller Angela Merkel is an effective competent leader, while you, Obama, seem unable to organize a paper bag (or a simple website).

Do human beings still evolve?

By Shlomo Maital


   Pick up a 2-week-old copy of TIME magazine, and it’s worse than stale, like week-old fish. Pick up a 4-year-old copy of Scientific American, as I did recently, and it’s still fresh as a daisy. In the October 2010 issue, Jonathan Pritchard writes about human evolution. The question is, are humans still evolving, through survival of the fittest, as plants and animals are? The answer is: Yes, but very very slowly.

   Pritchard cites a gene that exists in Tibetans, that took 3,000 years to entrench itself. This gene adjusts red blood cell production and helps Tibetans survive and thrive in the low oxygen levels of the Tibetan plateau. But this seems to be an example that disproves the rule. “The classic natural selection scenario in which a single beneficial mutation spreads like wildfire through a population has occurred relatively rarely in humans in the past 60,000 years.”

     Want to believe, for instance, that gene implants can give you NBA-tall babies? Studies show that there are over 50 different genes that influence human height. Even if tall people procreated more than short ones, natural selection would take a long time to muster all those genes and spread them.

   The bad news? Viruses, like HIV, evolve far far faster than humans do. We stand no chance of having natural selection evolve HIV-immune humans, before the HIV virus itself evolves to counteract such resistance. Vaccines are the only hope.

     The good news?   There is also ‘social selection’, the competition for survival among different prototypes of social organization. We have America, with its dysfunctional Republican-vs.-Democrat paralyzed government. We have Europe, with its dysfunctional can’t-agree-on-anything ‘unity’; we have Russia, with its corrupt oligarchic dictatorship and a newly born Cold War relic at its head.   And so on… They are all in competition. So, out of all this vast variety of dysfunctional social and political systems, one of them will evolve to endure and prevail, and lead the other systems to imitate it?

     Won’t it???

Can Facebook Innovate?

By Shlomo Maital


This cartoon ran in a German newspaper; it was accused of anti-Semitism, because its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, who is Jewish, with a long hooked nose, recalls anti-Semitic literature.

Actually Facebook and Zuckerberg do have a problem. But it is NOT anti-Semitism. It is innovation – how to remain innovative, even though Facebook is not that old. When startups grow to global size, almost invariably they lose the creative spark. And Facebook is no exception. Facebook has been forced to acquire its innovation, rather than initiate it internally. Its innovations like Home and Graphsearch failed; and it paid huge sums for Instagram and WhatsApp.

   In an interview with New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo (April 17, “Can Facebook Innovate?”), Zuckerberg describes Creative Labs, an effort to unbundle the “one big blue app” that migrated Facebook to mobile phones.   Creative Labs will try to create a wide variety of Facebook spinoffs, with specific features users seek, some of them not even branded as Facebook. It should not be that hard. People spend 20 per cent of their mobile time, on average, on Facebook. This is amazing, considering Facebook migrated to phones not that long ago. But – how to sustain this 20 percent? It already seems to be eroding.

   Why is it so hard for companies to innovate, as they grow large? Zuckerberg’s answer:

“Understanding who you serve is always a very important problem, and it only gets harder the more people that you serve,” says Mark Zuckerberg.

Big companies become isolated from their customers. Senior management sits in their 30th floor corner offices, and never speak to a real customer from one year to the next. And when customer preferences change rapidly, daily, hourly, this isolation from customers and clients is almost fatal. Zuckerberg is struggling to keep in touch with Facebook users.

   Will he succeed?   Stay tuned. Meanwhile, let’s learn from Facebook. As your startup grows,  do everything possible to keep decision-makers in touch. Have them make sales calls. Get them out of their offices at least two days a week.   Have them answer the customer service phones for a few hours a week. and have them bring regional executives and sales personnel back home frequently, for informal chats. It is the sales people who really know what is going on with customers.

     Another key issue: Wealthy senior management live lives totally different from those of their customers, and soon grow out of touch with reality. Zuckerberg says: “ .. my life is so different from the person who’s going to be getting Internet in two years. One of the things that we do is ask product managers to go travel to an emerging-market country to see how people who are getting on the Internet use it. They learn the most interesting things. People ask questions like, ‘It says here I’m supposed to put in my password — what’s a password?’ For us, that’s a mind-boggling thing.”

     Startup entrepreneurs must make a point of trying to live more or less ordinary lives, if they are to remain in contact with real people. Pretty hard, when your net worth is several billion dollars.


Let the Sunshine In!

By Shlomo Maital


   “Somewhere, inside something there is a rush of Greatness, who knows what stands in front of our lives, Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, The sunshine In, Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in…”

   Those are the words of a song from the musical Hair. According to Suzanne Daley, writing in today’s The New York Times, a small Norwegian factory town, Rjukan, has taken those words seriously.   Rjukan is nestled in the Norwegian mountains and once was the site of the world’s first modern fertilizer factory, in 1906.   Because of its northerly location, and because of the mountains, for six months of the year Rjukan residents do not see the sun – at all. [The sun rises and sets quickly, and never gets high enough to rise over the surrounding mountains]. But they’ve found a solution, that made this little town famous all over the world.

   Three huge solar-power and wind-powered mirrors move in concert with the sun, and focus a beam of sunlight on the town square. Thousands of people come to the square, wearing sunglasses and carrying beach chairs. Suddenly the town became more social.  After church on Sunday, people flock to the square, enjoy the sunshine and converse and chat.

   “It’s been a great contribution to life here,” said Annette Oien.

   What can we all learn from Rjukan? I am blessed to live in a country with sunshine nearly every day, often strong sunshine. One philosopher even claimed that three great religions were born in the Mideast because of that strong sun, whose powerful stark shadows of dark and light remind us of the sharp contrast between good and bad, right and wrong.

   But even here, in bright sunlight, there is much darkness. People who are ill, lonely, depressed, who live in poverty.

     Can we learn from the people of Rjukan, and MAKE sunlight, in our own lives and in the lives of others – where there is only darkness? It’s not that hard. A smile, a kind word, some encouragement, a pat on the shoulder…..   It’s worth a try.  

Passover & Easter: The Story of a Miracle

By Shlomo Maital  


  Christians and Jews are about to celebrate Passover and Easter. They always fall together, because the Jewish calendar is lunar and Easter is always determined according to the lunar calendar.

   Both Passover and Easter cause us all to reflect about miracles – in the case of Passover, the miracle of the people of Israel, abject slaves, fleeing Egypt and becoming a strong, free independent people.

     The story below was sent to me by a friend. It too is about a miracle, involving Jews and Christians.   Each of us, all of us, can literally save the lives of others, even those we don’t even know… This story is confirmed in Elmer Bendiner’s book, The Fall of Fortresses. *

*Sometimes, it’s not really just luck.*

  Elmer Bendiner was a navigator in a B-17 during WW II. He tells this story of a World War II bombing run over Kassel, Germany, and the unexpected result of a direct hit on their gas tanks. “Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi antiaircraft guns. That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit.  Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20 millimeter shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot, Bohn Fawkes, told me it was not quite that simple. “On the morning following the raid, Bohn had gone down to ask our crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of unbelievable luck.

     The crew chief told Bohn that not just one shell but 11 had been found in the gas tanks. 11 unexploded shells where only one was sufficient to blast us out of the sky. It was as if the sea had been parted for us. A near-miracle, I thought.

     Even after 35 years, so awesome an event leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from Bohn. “He was told that the shells had been sent to the armorers to be defused. The armorers told him that Intelligence had picked them up. They could not say why at the time, but Bohn eventually sought out the answer. “Apparently when the armorers opened each of those shells, they found no explosive charge. They were as clean and harmless.

     Empty? Not all of them! One contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it was a scrawl in Czech. The Intelligence people scoured our base for a man who could read Czech. Eventually they found one to decipher the note. It set us marveling. Translated, the note read:

    “This is all we can do for you now…

      Using Jewish slave labor is never a good idea.”

Benchmarking: Why You Have to Look Far Afield

By Shlomo Maital


   As academic director of Technion Institute of Management (TIM), I helped organize about 25 international benchmarking trips for senior Israeli managers. We visited other countries – China, Taiwan, Finland, Switzerland, Estonia, UK, U.S. – and benchmarked great global companies and their leadership first hand. The learning was immense, far beyond what was possible in a classroom.

   On one of our trips with a global high-tech firm, we held a workshop in a Mariott Hotel in South Boston. We sent our managers out of the classroom, in pairs, to benchmark hotel service. (The bar was a highly popular venue – everyone wanted to benchmark it). There was great resistance. What can a high-tech software company learn about customer service from a hotel? Is there any similarity at all between hotel services and software?

     The experience was enlightening. The teams came back with valuable information and learning about customer service. The hotel was running 13 events simultaneously, and all ran smoothly without incident. When one of our group asked the concierge where he could buy a tie, because he had forgotten to pack some, the concierge removed his own tie and gave it to him (for keeps!). THAT is great service.

   Writing in the New York Times, April 8, p. 17, Sydney Ember describes how Conde Nast, a publisher, learned from a luxury hotel. Bill Wackerman, VP and publisher of Conde Nast Traveller magazine, interned at the opulent Carlyle Hotel. “We need to learn better service,” Wackerman said. “We have got to get back to that human touch to understand, because that is what really is the key to driving success.”

He is so right. Don’t let the impersonal Internet/smartphone connectivity fool you. They put walls between you and your customer. Break them down. You have to have some face to face, as in the hotel business.

   There is a powerful lesson here. All good companies benchmark. One company I worked with had a firm rule, set by the CEO – benchmark ONLY firms within our own industry. What a dumb rule!   You learn nothing from firms in your industry, because you are all watching one another and copying one another. You are all Bobbsy Twins, same DNA.

     Escape your industry. Roam far afield. Benchmark other industries, as different from yours as possible. Only then will you learn unusual ideas, that can give you a unique strategic differentiator.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital