The Public’s Interest

Back when Bob and I started CitySquares, we did so based on some very important founding principals. We felt very strongly about serving the needs of local communities, local businesses, local artists, among others. Oftentimes we even contemplated the idea of establishing the business as a not-for-profit. We felt very strongly about serving the community, first and foremost. To the customers, to us, to the users, and to the organizations we partnered with, that’s what the brand was about, it was our brand promise. As we raised money from investors, as we felt the pressures of our preferred stockholders, and most notably when Lehman went under and the global economic crisis started, those values were tested, time and again. Our focus changed, our priorities changed, and like so many of the stories told in Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants (see my Sure Shot blog post on Small Giants), we learned some tough lessons. Even now, more than three years later, I clearly remember heated board meetings and arguments about what we “needed to do” and for whom we needed to do it.

Here I am now, starting Influential, a new business with an emphasis on the public good, with a focus on community, on people, on civics. While I have the benefit of history and its lessons, isn’t this the definition of insane? Alas! There’s a shift happening in society. Whether it’s because of Lehman, and the other institutions deemed Too Big to Fail, or because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there’s a backlash against corporations that don’t serve the interests of the people, of community, and of the public in general. There’s a backlash against prioritizing shareholder value over the public good. And now there’s a model for corporations who want to legally commit to putting the public good ahead of shareholder value. Thanks to the good people at the 501(c)3 B Lab, there’s the Benefit Corporation.

So what is a Benefit Corporation? While I highly encourage you to learn more on your own, I’ll quote the Benefit Corporation website,

Benefit Corporations are a new breed of corporation that are required to create a positive material impact on society and the environment and to meet higher standards of accountability and transparency.

At the time of this blog post, 19 states have passed benefit corporation legislation, allowing for the creation of benefit corporations, with several more pending.

And with that, I’m happy to say that Influential has incorporated itself as a benefit corporation. We are officially Influential, PBC. This, in and of itself, is not a terribly big deal, but what is exciting is that my co-founders and I agreed that we want to commit to these ideals, to the principles we feel so strongly about, and to lock-it-in, if you will, and literally make it part of our corporate charter and bylaws, to hold ourselves accountable and to enforce transparency. We’ve fully embrace the implications therein. We’re not done though. It’s not as simple as just deciding and incorporating as a benefit corporation, there are requirements, there are policies and practices that need to be implemented. And surely we’ll screw up. Old behaviors don’t change easily, but we will learn and we’ll get it right over time.

Last night, on the heals of reviewing the incorporation filings, I sat down to catch up on some reading, specifically this article from The Washington Post, titled “Maximizing shareholder value: The goal that changed corporate America.” The timing was perfect, it only validated our thinking, our decision, and our commitment to restore, in some small way, the ideals of the corporation. The following quotes really leapt off the page,

Across the United States, as companies continue posting record profits, workers face high unemployment and stagnant wages.

and

… a deep-seated belief that took hold in corporate America a few decades ago and has come to define today’s economy — that a company’s primary purpose is to maximize shareholder value. The belief that shareholders come first is not codified by statute. Rather, it was introduced by a handful of free-market academics in the 1970s and then picked up by business leaders and the media until it became an oft-repeated mantra in the corporate world.

and

“We don’t build companies to serve Wall Street,” said Margaret Blair, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School. “We build corporations to provide goods and services to a society and jobs for people.”

and cited from an article by Daedalus – American Academy of Arts and Sciences,

“Corporations have a responsibility, first of all, to make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices, thereby earning a profit that attracts ­investment to continue and enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy,”

[and]

“The long-term viability of the corporation depends upon its responsibility to the society of which it is a part. And the well-being of society depends upon profitable and responsible business enterprises.”

and

The mantra that executives and corporate board members have a duty to maximize shareholder value has become so ingrained that many people assume it must be codified somewhere. But legal experts say there is no statute in state or federal law requiring corporations and executives to maximize shareholder value.

and finally

“Let me be clear that this pressure comes from the media, from shareholder advocates and financial institutions in whose direct interest it is for the company to get its share price to go up,” Blair said in testimony before a House hearing in 2008, “and from the self-imposed pressure created by compensation packages that provide enormous potential rewards for directors and managers if stock prices go up.”

I could go on. And on. It’s a long article but very much worth the read for anyone interested in such topics. But there you have it, them’s the facts.

Anytime I’ve made a career decision because of money, I’ve regretted it. I’m not on this earth to make money. I’m not sure what I’m on this earth for, frankly, but it’s certainly not to make money. The time I have here is finite, and if I can work with purpose (let alone live with purpose), I will. And I’m thrilled about doing so through Influential, PBC. I’m especially thrilled about the moral commitment that I, and my co-founders, have made to stay true to ourselves, to our founding values, and I’m excited about tackling some huge problems, building a responsible company, building a company culture based on these values, and ultimately taking our time to do it right.

With this ideological commitment and framework underway, there’s another one I’m excited about – a management methodology called holacracy. But I’ll save that for a future blog post.

 

WGBH Innovation Hub Gadget Review – August 2013

Kara Miller invited me back to her Innovation Hub program on Boston Public Radio for another gadget review. This time we discussed the ThermaCell Mosquito Repellant, the ATN Night Scout night vision binoculars, and the Garmin Oregon 600 handheld GPS device. Certainly a strange variety of products, I’ll give you that, but that’s what makes this segment so much fun. Check it out…

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/105714380″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

 

And in case you missed the last segment a few months ago, when we discussed the Fitbit One, the Kindle Paperwhite, and the Canon EOS M, check it out here.

Subscribe to the Innovation Hub podcast feed here on iTunes.

 

You Can Be Very Abrasive!

That’s what she said to me. It was around 2004 and she was a mentor to me. I held her in such high regard, I admired her and when she spoke I listened. We were having lunch on a beautiful spring day in Harvard Square, dining on a restaurant patio. She was cultured, she had the pedigrees, she’d been around the world and back, and she’d totally kicked ass over her highly entrepreneurial career. Now, in her early 60s, she was as wise as she was inspiring. And she said, “you know, you can be very abrasive sometimes.” My fork stayed steady in my hand while I paused and humbly and sheepishly responded, “I know.” I sat back to hear her out.

A few years later I find myself far from the guy I was then, yet very much still that guy. I feel like I’ve come full circle in many ways. And only when you go on that journey do you really learn. A pattern has been revealed.

Today I start a new stage of my career. After two and a half years at Litle & Co., as their Vice President of Marketing, and through their late 2012 acquisition by publicly traded Vantiv, I’m getting back to what I do best – startups and entrepreneurship. My experience at Litle & Co. was nothing short of educational and enjoyable. I learned so much. Most of all, I proved something to myself, and that was the biggest gain.

For the most part I’m taking time off, to enjoy spring and summer, to see friends and family, to enjoy life, but also to make my next move a smart one. The next stage of my career is an important one. At 37 it has to be wise. Not conservative, mind you, but wise. I often fantasize about a totally different career path, one of journalism, or of science, always something that might make real change in the world. As one of my best friends often says, “the last thing we need is another app to help me find the pizza, review the pizza, get a deal on the pizza, take a picture of the pizza, and clip recipes of the pizza.” I’m often frustrated by the lack of real innovation out there, truly transformative stuff, specifically in the digital space. Stuff that really makes a difference. But it’s not enough to be frustrated, that breeds apathy. Instead I’m embarking on something new here. I’m also often frustrated by what I’ll call the cult of personality that’s come out of and surrounds the Internet’s entrepreneurial scene, here in Boston, in NY, in Silicon Valley. Scenesters, hipsters, hangers-on. Me toos. That stuff is just such a turn off. And none of it even really matters. But again, it’s not enough to be frustrated and annoyed by it.

So with that I’m launching an experiment, if you will. I call it Sure Shot Labs. Sure Shot Labs will be the vehicle that helps me navigate this transition, these bumpy roads. Through Sure Shot myself and a few trusted and passionate colleagues will try something new for all of us. We’ll build products and invest in ideas we have, on our terms. The traditional start-up model is gone. The lean startup is here. We will consult, yes, we will make our clients happy indeed, and we will take the proceeds from those engagements and invest them in the lab, in our experiments, in innovation and in products. This will be fun.

When I think about that conversation with my mentor nearly 10 years ago, I think about the young man I was. I think about how “abrasive” I was. It was unearned confidence and it was fear. Back then I had to compete with others who were smarter, bigger, stronger, more experienced, more wealthy, more well connected, and more educated. Today I still have to compete with those people. And they still might be bigger than me, stronger than me, smarter than me, wealthier than me, more well connected and more educated. But what they lack, and have never been able to compete with, is my endless tenacity, my ability to wear them out, like a wolf and its prey. And the street smarts, the innate will to work smarter, to work harder, to out-think and out-smart, to out-play, to outwit and out-will. I’ve always been out of my league. I’ve always been in over my head. I’ve rarely done things their way. I don’t plan on starting today.

 

How Do You Engage Your Representatives?

No matter your political leanings, your position on, say, gun control, or the government’s use of drones abroad and domestically, or on the matter of e-commerce taxes, or the sequester, or the death penalty – you have opinions. And oftentimes, especially in times like these, or as we get older or perhaps just more involved in civics, we want to engage our local representatives, our senators, or our town hall, mayor, aldermen, and make ourselves heard, influence change, or organize a petition.

When you have a cause or when you want to affect change, how do you do that? How do you engage your local representatives (or senators etc.)? This is not a rhetorical question; I’m genuinely looking for honest and candid responses. So I guess the questions are as follows:

  • Have you ever written a letter or an email to your state reps or senators?
  • Have you done so more than once?
  • Did you ever receive a response?
  • How meaningful was the response (versus a boilerplate ‘thank you’ letter)?
  • Did he/she take action based on yours?
  • Have you ever gone above and beyond writing a letter (i.e., organized a protest, or a petition, or otherwise)?
  • How do you keep tabs on your representatives and ensure they’re representing you well (i.e., how do you know what they vote for/against, what legislation they sponsor, where they truly stand on specific issues, how ‘in the pocket’ they are with lobbyists, unions)?

 

I’d truly love your thoughts, and those of your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers. Comment below and please, share this post (click here if you don’t see the comment box).

 

WGBH Innovation Hub Gadget Review – January 2013

After joining Kara Miller on her popular Innovation Hub radio program on WGBH Boston Public Radio in December to talk about mCommerce I was invited back to join her for a new periodic gadget review. We recorded a couple weeks ago at the WGBH studios in Boston and talked about six different consumer gadgets. Part one (of two) of the segment airs tomorrow morning at 10am and again Thursday at 9pm. In part one Kara and I discuss three gadgets: the Fitbit One, the Kindle Paperwhite, and the Canon EOS M. Please tune in to 89.7 FM or stream it live online. If you can’t listen live you can just listen to it below. In part two we discuss three other gadgets and I’ll share it here when it’s available.

I’m looking forward to continuing this but more importantly hopefully you will too.

Listen to the broadcast here: [soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/103716610″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

And I highly encourage you to subscribe to Kara’s Innovation Hub iTunes Podcast feed.

Is the Phone the New Wallet? I’m not so sure.

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed on Boston Public Radio’s Innovation Hub with Kara Miller. The discussion was about mobile payments, mobile shopping, and other consumer spending and payment trends. The broadcast aired again this morning and can be heard here on demand.

This morning I wrote a blog post on the Litle & Co. blog to further explain my thinking on mobile payments. What do you think? Am I too sour on the prospects for mobile payments in the near term?

America: The Violent?

Why are we so violent?

Is it because of pop culture, mass media? Turn on any major network television station during primetime hours and after the reality TV garbage there’s violence on nearly every channel. Cop shows, hospital shows, ESPs chasing down criminals before they act violently – all primetime fodder for our society. This is not an opinion, this is a fact. Turn on FX and watch American Horror Story, a program I confess to watching but a program that is perhaps the single most violent, gruesome, gory program I’ve ever seen on TV. The Walking Dead, a program where well-armed survivors roam a world dominated by flesh eating zombies, blasting through the zombies with everything from arrows, machetes, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, and what seems like a never ending supply of ammunition. The special effects are amazing: The shotgun slugs blast through weak and tender zombie skeleton like a baseball to a watermelon.

Or wait, is America violent because it’s part of who we are, it’s our history, our heritage? We have a right to bear arms don’t we? Don’t we have the right to take up arms against our government if we, The People, decide that’s what needs to happen? It’s revolution baby! Well-formed militias are our constitutional right. Our entire history is story after story of violence. Be it the explorers who landed on these shores, the colonists who ultimately took up arms and violently rebelled, or the north and the south waging horrific violence there’s a long heritage of firearms and violence in America. Today we use remote control airplanes to bomb anyone who is a threat to our national interests, with extreme precision, or so they tell us, and we turn a mostly blind eye to their collateral damage.

And we love it. We love the violence. We pay to watch it. But forget about television shows and movies, we love stories of World War II atrocities followed up America’s heroics, as we marched, as we drove, as we shot our way through Europe, freeing and liberating the poor people who couldn’t have done it without us. We convince ourselves that America’s heroics are solely responsible for the defeat of the Axis Powers and that Russia and the Eastern Front wasn’t a major factor. America, the heros, the honorable. And we love stories in the news of mobsters who live by their code, of gangsters who remain loyal, who because of omerta must uphold their way of life. We excuse violence if it’s honorable, or so we tell ourselves.

Or are we violent because we’re becoming, as data suggests, a more godless society?

Is it because we’re becoming, as some will inquire, void of family values? (How does one quantify this? Violence is not a direct corollary.)

Have we lost our way so much that the kind of violence we witnessed in Connecticut is, tragically, to be expected? Are we becoming even more desensitized?

Fact: Violent crime is down in America, pretty sharply too.

I was in Paris a couple weeks ago when I heard the news that New York City passed a day without a single report of a person being shot, stabbed or subject to other sorts of violent crime for the first time in recent memory. The irony being that I was an American in France, a very non-violent society.

Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, made this graph of “deaths due to assault” in the United States and other developed countries. While we are the clear outlier violence has dropped to its lowest point since what looks like roughly 1963.

As Healy writes,

America the ViolentThe most striking features of the data are (1) how much more violent the U.S. is than other OECD countries (except possibly Estonia and Mexico, not shown here), and (2) the degree of change—and recently, decline—there has been in the U.S. time series considered by itself.

Healy tweeted an interesting thought last night,

Assault Death Rates is one of the few topics where many Americans will rush to compare the USA to South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, or El Salvador.

Meanwhile 2nd Amendment advocates are stocking up on guns and ammunition in the wake of the election fearing an Obama administration crackdown. Some worry if they don’t do it now they won’t be able to get the weapons they want, or rather, they need. Their basis for this is almost nonexistent, especially given that the first four years of Obama’s presidency saw him signing legislation that allowed loaded firearms in some national parks and Amtrak trains. With that one exception both parties, both candidates, but especially democrats, have been largely mum on gun rights, barely touching it during the debates and gun control was the most unpopular issue during the campaign. But if gun rights advocates have mostly baselessly feared Obama over the last 4 years, the recent shootings will certainly change that. Not since George W. Bush let the assault weapons ban expire in 2004 has there been any serious public policy discussion on gun control.

Fact: gun stocks are sharply up

Fact: gun ownership is up

Fact: violent crime is down

This issue is already very complicated, and it stokes the passions of everyone. The roots of our society’s violent tendencies, people often argue, span a broad range of issues often starting with mental illness, a lack of social services, to a national identification system, to nuanced legislation on what kinds of guns people can buy, to family values, to a morally vapid America that’s increasing consumed with itself, with social media, with its own narcissism and self-importance, to an increasingly godless culture where fewer and fewer people go to their church, their synagogue, or their mosques. The public dialogue also includes opinions about immigration, about drug policy, about prisons overflowing with non-violent criminals while violent repeat offenders are parolled and allowed to walk the streets, yet pot dealers do twenty years hard time. The discussion includes zero-sum solutions ranging from arming everyone to arming no one.

One day after the senseless tragedy in Newtown Connecticut the conversation is already heating up, and one thing is certain, America is about to have the most intense and prolonged discussion on gun control that she’s ever seen.

;

Enhanced by Zemanta