Category Archives: Marketing

Reinvigorating USAID

It occurred to me that I might have a great way to inject some vitality and vigor into USAID.  Granted, this is somewhat of a flippant post and doesn’t address all the serious policy issues that USAID has to deal with.  But I figure with all the problems USAID is having, what with most Americans not even knowing what USAID is (!), what harm would this idea do?

So USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development, is in charge of aid programs to emerging and undeveloped countries.  Its staff has been greatly reduced in the last two decades or so, and Dubya managed to behead USAID of its key management in the same way that Reagan did to the EPA.  The USAID has such a poor image problem that SecDef Gates and SecState Clinton seem to be the ones defending the agency these days, saying that more funding and hiring energy should go into USAID.

USAID needs a lot more people.  But it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of money, especially right now.  USAID also needs a brand makeover.  It has almost no awareness in the US, and has a sketchy reputation abroad.  International development as a whole is taking some knocks.

So here’s what we do.  Send in the young entrepreneurs.  Tons of them.  Screen kids in high school and college for problem-solving curiosity and initiative.  Even throw camps to bring those qualities out of them.  Then send them to DC or to development areas worldwide.  Peace Corps on the cheap but with entrepreneurs instead of “do-gooders”.

Most of the kids wouldn’t be safe abroad, so leave them to work on projects in the US.  But here’s the rub.  Let them figure out what the problems are, and let them use their problem-solving skills to organize the projects.  That is, social entrepreneurs do best when they know their environment well and see all the problems within that society and then seek ways to fix them.  What they need is a structure around them to encourage them to solve those problems.  USAID’s goal would be to use its excellent senior managers and junior workers (apparently USAID’s main liability is its mid-career vacuum) to supervise those social entrepreneurs.

So what you get is a self-organizing insurgent initiative within USAID that is encouraging the next generation of international development/engineering social entrepreneurs to get some field experience and some hands-on time.  With very little cost and a lot of upside, not requiring large investments in career capital.

The underlying principle is that there is a whole generation of people out there ready to do something fun, cool, interesting, and helpful, but they really have no way to do it.  Let these problem-solvers do what they do best, and encourage it from an early age.

USAID can market itself this way:  sucking up young future leaders into its orbit and taking on a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit.  The boring current USAID logo says much about its decaying position within the US budget and policy priority list.  At this point it needs to take on some insurgent qualities and juggle up its DNA.

USAID’s role as an agency for development not only could take on more life abroad, but also at home, at a time when the economy is getting crushed and innovation is stagnating relative to past generations’ perceptions.

So how’s about it, USAID?  Let’s see some fire in your belly.  Let our people do what they do best.

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Filed under Development, Government, International Affairs, Marketing, Policy

Inefficiencies: Everywhere

I have this running series of posts grouped into “Inefficiencies”, where I want to look at really poorly-run business sectors and figure out how to attack them if I were an entrepreneur in their space.  Thanks to the US’s infatuation with “free markets”, which really means protected corporatism these days, there’s a litany of examples of shitty practices that are deserving to be over-run:  cable TV (which my buddy MonkeyPope just got rid of now that there are just so many substitutes like Hulu and Netflix and free downloads from the content owners themselves), US government foreign language preparedness, and near and dear to our hearts these days:  cars.

I keep coming back to Clay Shirky’s amazing video on the “cognitive surplus”:

Shirky describes the “cognitive surplus” as all the hours of thought unlocked as people move from passively watching TV or listening to radio and now doing things like adding edits to Wikipedia or gaming online with other people.

He goes on to say that the internet is so much more enticing because it’s interactive, whereas before it was the content providers who determined what we were allowed to do.

And now that we have a taste for this level of interaction, we’re going to go out and “carve out” a bit of the cognitive surplus to look for interaction in all those areas we previously passively accepted what we were given.

So, where am I going with this?

Airports

Airports are the fucking worst.  They are like life’s black holes.  Thanks to the wonderfully competent TSA, we now spend a majority of our time at the airport circumnavigating various security roadblocks.  This is already after we paid quite a lot of money to get a flight we probably weren’t completely satisfied with, on an airline we know we hate but are willing to save bucks on to fly with.

We get through security eventually and then we’re stuck in a strip mall of shitty restaurants and tchotchke stores.  We couldn’t bring in liquids to drink, so we have to go buy those.  What’s the worst is that we can’t even use wifi for free to escape from the misery that is waiting for a flight!!  Crying babies, countless intercom messages, other passengers frazzled about their strained flights.

And we have to pay a fortune just to log on.  The airports in their wisdom have whored out to access providers who grant us very generously access to 24-hour accounts (because we plan on being there for 24 hours, right?) for a low price of $15.

Hope you brought a book or iPod or feel like using EVDO or 3G on your iPhone.

Government Offices

Need to renew your paperwork at the DMV or the election office or get a visa?  Get ready to wait in long lines with nothing to do.  The government always provides buildings with a nice sterile, fluorescent-lighted linoleum feel to it, as you’re helped by workers who are just so tired of dealing with your type.  The worst part is that you know exactly what you need to do and what needs to happen, but you have to wait for a gatekeeper to process you.  And probably enter typos in your information at that.

Restaurants

The whole routine and ritual of not being able to make reservations at a place, then waiting around for a table to open, if you didn’t go somewhere else instead, and then figuring out how to provide enough cash from ten different people to pay up is such a rigamarole.

It’s tough to fault waitstaff sometimes for not attending to your every need, but it would be nice to be able to pass along your requests electronically so that they can prioritize their tasks and respond to customers without actually being there.

Looking for the Mouse

Shirky calls the internetification of everything else a process of “looking for the mouse”, a metaphor he explains he got from his kid who saw a TV and tried to find the computer mouse to use it.  His kid wasn’t happy just watching the TV.

Well, I think it’s about time we found the fucking mouse in places like airports, government offices, and restaurants.

We should be able to use the internet in an airport and on the plane for free.  Allow advertising on individual monitors on the planes or something to help subsidize it.  I don’t know.  We should have a bill of rights for being passengers on planes.  We should be able to expect open, transparent ticket pricing.  Why do airports sit idle all night instead of running flights 24 hours a day?  I’d be willing to fly early in the morning if it meant less bullshit.

Why can we still not vote online?  Why can’t we request edits to our government-held information online instead of heading to the office to stand in line?  Why do we need visas to go to allied countries?  Why are most government actions still requiring laborious procedures in person conducted by overworked staff?  We’re sitting on the greatest social media tools to ever be available to a government to allow its many citizens to take action and make an online system that works, and we still insist that things be done the old way.

We should be able to order electronically from our tables, see how much our orders are, pay individually by selecting what we ate, and request special or extra things from the staff, including sending compliments to the chef.  If eating out is such a social ritual, why are we locked in to seeing a host and a waiter?  Why don’t more restaurants embrace online marketing, having better menu web sites and more engagement with the community?

Entrepreneurship

I think entrepreneurs should focus on these questions and figure out how to solve them and take advantage of them.  There’s just so many inefficiencies out there that it’s a massive opportunity but also just incredibly disappointing.  People have come to expect the worst when they have to interact with these gatekeepers, but really the gatekeepers could fully embrace the new stuff become darlings of their customers.

We’re in the midst of a financial crisis that is still not resolved, and it’s causing a lot of pain to large, bloated, anti-competitive sectors of the US economy that refuse to change.  Automotive, media, telecommunications, publishing, pharmaceutical, industrial…all the things that worked in the past, no longer work quite as well.

This is a condemnation of current American “competitiveness”.  We better get our fucking heads in the game and figure out that we need to massively revamp our innovative capacity and challenge all our old assumptions, because right now we’re a rotting mess of dying companies that are begging for bailouts from a government infiltrated by failed businessmen under Bush’s corporatist regime.

Have any more places of inefficient misery that need fixing?  Comment below!

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Hawai’i Trying to Be a Better Place

[NOTE:  Some of the stats used in this article are outdated but I think they still capture the depth of Hawai’i’s energy risks.]

Hawai’i wants greater energy independence and is taking active steps and forming policies to do so.

This has fascinated me since this summer when I went to visit my brother on O’ahu.  I stayed with him for a few days in Honolulu and we got a good chance to catch up, since Hawai’i and DC are quite far apart.  I went to Hawai’i to attend the International Achievement Summit on the Big Island (my write-up here).

My brother, who is a programmer for a project for NOAA, is always particularly well-informed.

We were driving to the airport and he was telling me how much the oil price crisis was hurting Hawai’i, back when oil was heading for $140/barrel.  The impact of higher oil prices is particularly significant to Hawai’i, since most of its imports must be petroleum from Alaska and the Pacific Rim to support its own economy (I was unable to find the exact percentage of the total trade balance spent on petroleum imports, but oil costs them $7bil/year to import).  My brother told me the taxi drivers were hurting in particular, but also anyone in the logistics and transportation sectors.  Even here in DC, there was a $1 surcharge on all cab rides to account for higher gas prices — they only recently removed it again after oil prices dipped into the $40’s.

Hawai’i in other words is highly dependent on energy imports, moreso than any other state in the union.  Petroleum in particular takes up 90% of all energy usage, 40% being imported from Alaska.  Hawai’i’s demand is highly inelastic for energy since it is a basic requirement for economic operations there.  However, in looking at the stats in depth, most of that oil demand comes from jet fuel and military operations.  Around 60% is used for transportation purposes, and about 1/3 of that oil is used on jet fuel alone, according to some sources.

A Better Place?

So when I read an article yesterday in the NYTimes describing Hawai’i’s electric company and government endorsements (whatever that means) of Better Place (press release here), a new automotive energy infrastructure start-up, I was excited but skeptical.

Better Place is a company started by an amazing salesman, Shai Agassi.  He recently had a long write-up in Wired Magazine (which, I should add, should be a must-read for anyone — it posts all its magazine articles online for free, but subscriptions run super-cheap).  And I saw Mr. Agassi speak on a panel for an electric car conference in downtown DC over the summer, featuring a Tesla Roadster and Jim Woolsey.  Agassi is considered to be (fairly over-optimistically) the leader in pushing for the future of automotive energy.

His plan for Better Place is to build an infrastructure of charge-up stations and battery-swapping stations using existing gas station infrastructure.  Combined with electric cars, which he sees as appealing to car companies because his company can separate the battery and energy production from the car design itself (which will allow car companies to execute on what they know (or should know) best), people will be able to drive longer distances and just swap out batteries interchangeably with ones at the stations.

“Agassi dealt with the battery issue by simply swatting it away. Previous approaches relied on a traditional manufacturing formula: We make the cars, you buy them. Agassi reimagined the entire automotive ecosystem by proposing a new concept he called the Electric Recharge Grid Operator. It was an unorthodox mashup of the automotive and mobile phone industries. Instead of gas stations on every corner, the ERGO would blanket a country with a network of “smart” charge spots. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a specific plan—unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month, or pay as you go—all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. They’d buy their car from the operator, who would offer steep discounts, perhaps even give the cars away. The profit would come from selling electricity—the minutes.” (Daniel Roth, Wired)

Very ambitious.  And hard to get off the ground, apparently.

Electric Cars in Hawai’i:  The Holy Grail and a Prototype?

But Hawai’i poses a unique environment that might be perfect as an Agassi prototype.  This is the sort of shit that an international affairs grad student such as myself really enjoys analyzing.

It is a small collection of islands with a diverse ethnic composition of mainlanders and haolis, native Hawai’ians, and many Japanese and other Pacific Islanders.  It is one of the most progressive states in the union (probably second only to DC in unanimity in voting for Barack Obama in 2008’s election).  It is a major hub for civilian and military travel.  It has the largest protected natural reserve under monument status in the country, which is what my brother is working on for NOAA.  As said before, it is highly dependent on energy imports.

So it is a highly progressive state that exists somewhat outside of the rest of US politics, its budget made frail by reliance on energy imports, and is geographically suited for not only a small-scale electric car prototype project and to rid itself of continued energy dependence.

Caveats

Interestingly, Agassi’s first attempt to install a Better Place infrastructure has been Israel.  It also has interesting characteristics, being a highly-modernized nation dependent on oil, which it imports from its “enemies” (although it cuts deals with them all the time, normally) in surrounding Muslim countries.  It is essentially isolated by geography, and is small enough for electric cars’ limited ranges.

But in Hawai’i’s case, if much of its actual oil consumption is constituted by jet fuel, then Hawai’i is ages away from ridding itself of that energy hurdle.  Electric car models cannot be transferred to airplane models yet.  We won’t have “green planes” for a while.

So one has to be realistic about the ultimate impact switching to electric cars would provide to Hawai’i.  The other component is that electric cars will increase the demand for electricity production, which is also to some degree reliant on energy imports.

Hawai’i Policy

Hopefully the Hawai’ian government understands this with its more holistic solution for electric cars within a broader energy policy (read about it here).  It instituted the Hawai’i Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI) recently as an agreement with the local utilities as of October 20, 2008, to end up receiving 70% of its energy needs from clean alternatives by 2030 as opposed to the 92-95% dependence on petroleum as of now.

So there seems to be a lot of political traction right now.  My brother informed me that Lanai is trying to build large wind and photovoltaic farms and the islands are trying to unify their electricity grids, hopefully towards the smart grid that Agassi would like in order to distribute power and conserve it during peak times versus inactive times.  So the increase in demand for electricity could be off-set by a shift from dirty energy to clean, alternative energies, facilitated by Hawai’i’s policies and initiatives.

[My buddy Monkey Pope (just returning from O’ahu) in his comment below rightly pointed out that I left out the rail transit plan in Honolulu.  My brother mentioned this to me and said it was a highly-contested debate between people concerned about budget and environmental damage and people who want to remove the burden of cars on the gridlocked roads.  As it turned out, the last election day found that the rail plan passed a vote.  So this new railway may assist in removing pollution and energy burdens too.]

Politics

All of this is also interesting within the context of the automotive industry lobbying for a government bailout in DC.  Better Place and Tesla Motors are two companies started out of Silicon Valley circles of entrepreneurs and not out of Detroit.  Hawai’i and San Francisco have signed on to the Better Place project.  Tesla’s popular among the rich investors in California.  These projects may fail, but it’s sad that they receive so little support; in fact, the tech sector seems to be the only thriving source of innovation within the US right now save for its university research (pharma, auto, media, etc. are crumbling and are full of old minds that don’t understand why they’re losing) and if the US loses that, then we’re fucked.  On top of that, the Republican party and its masters and lapdogs make fun of the fags in San Francisco and Massachusetts and the cocktail-drinking elite in DC…all the people who are busy creating real value in this country instead of peddling old garbage in strip malls that no one wants to buy now that they’re having to pay off their overpriced mortgages and credit card bills.

Here’s hoping for an innovation commons promoted by Barack Obama (a Hawai’ian) that leads to more of these companies!

Thanks to my bro for getting me to think about this stuff.

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Filed under Business, Economics, Energy, Globalization, Government, Marketing, Policy, Politics, Tech

Enlarging the Playing Field

Tonight I was watching 60 Minutes and they were running a story on Obama’s advisors and how they managed the campaign.  Anita Dunn, the communications, research, and policy advisor, said of David Plouffe, the campaign manager:  “David’s mantra was that we were gonna enlarge the playing field.”

This struck me.  The idea was that the campaign was going to go everywhere it could in the United States to inspire a grassroots campaign of alienated voters who wanted someone to connect to.  It would go to states no one thought Obama could win in, just because there was a substantial number of people not previously involved in elections.  These people could be harnessed to campaign for Obama, become neighborhood captains, go door-to-door to get votes.  Morever, Obama recognized that these people WANTED to do so, whereas Obama’s adversaries just thought they were all politically lazy.  Obama was the example of a leader people wanted, and this brought out all these voters that the Clinton and McCain campaigns neglected.  Obama’s advisors, in fact, mention how well Obama responded as a leader, through calmness and thoughtfulness and consistency of purpose, and how that made all aspects of the rest of his campaign easier.

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Imprinting

I opened up a Shelfari account and populated it with most of the books I’ve read from 2005 on — I don’t have a list of what I read before then.

It’s quite an easy service to use. Search for your book and edition, then add it to your shelf. Then add in some other metadata about it easily. I have little interest in writing reviews for books because that would take too long — I never wrote reviews on Amazon.com either. I guess I don’t have enough particular experiences from a book (save for the passages I dog-ear that I wish I could digitally copy into my computer or something) to want to write about it.

Contrast this with Yelp, which I just started using to rate and review stores and restaurants in the US. My dining and shopping experiences are very particular and very keyed in to all my senses, whereas a book isn’t. So I’ve felt like writing quite a few reviews on Yelp.

But one thing I noticed at Shelfari was that they show your books from the front cover art. I thought this was dumb at first, since you can’t display as much data quickly as you could if you just had a list of text.

But then I realized that I identify a lot of books purely from the cover art. It irks me in fact to see older cover art, or modified cover art for re-issued books. The cover is as much a part of the book as what’s in it, in terms of identifying it.

When I go abroad to Europe, all the books have different cover art in the bookstores and it really throws me off. It’s like reading in a different language you’re not fluent in — I have to slow down and read each book title instead of glancing at the cover and knowing what it is.

Here’s a quick experiment. Take the paper cover off your hardback books and look at that ugly hard cover that it has underneath. The book’s meaning and feel change completely.

I thought about how this affects experiences in e-books and on the Kindle. Books sort of become faceless through digital readers because you don’t see the cover every time you open the book. It’s just another digital file. Is there some way to replicate the experience through good design?

I then thought about whether music albums have this same imprint. I have not bought an album in ages — I download a lot of my music. So I don’t even really know what the cover art looks like for the music I listen to.

But that doesn’t matter because the personalities I listen to have large media presences and style themselves in flamboyant and stereotypical ways. I know my music through photos and TV. I also know my music through the way a band sounds — you can identify music pretty quickly from the guitarist’s sound or the voice of the lead singer.

Maybe albums need to take a cue from the visual imprinting of a book’s cover art and develop a musical imprint to put on albums and songs and artists.

This is essentially creating a brand appropriate to the media it promotes. Can I brand my web site better? Can I brand “Ben Turner” better?

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February Plans

When I get home (soon), I’m going to be over-hauling my web site. A lot will change for the better, offering a more distilled, pure version of benturner.com. I have a lot of new ideas for content. Most significantly, much of what comprises benturner.com will be made private; I’m building a private side and making it more personal, requiring you, my reader, to complete a questionnaire before given access. I want to know who you are. I’m not concerned about hits, or trackbacks, or the larger community. I care more about communicating with my readers. I want to build a network of creative, industrious idea people. Also, I want my privacy, my intimacy, freedom to speak, with an audience I know. No more free rides, little Johnny! But there’ll still be plenty for the external version of benturner.com for new readers, don’t worry.

Bill Murray from Groundhog Day.

 Did you know it’s Groundhog’s Day on February 2nd? Well, along with James Joyce’s birthday is my own! I’ll be 28. I’m excited about this year’s birthday! Last year I spent my birthday at JRTC, a training exercise in Bumblefuck, Shitwhere. For an idea of what this place is like (or what it became famous for), I recommend you rent Tigerland, a movie with Colin Farrell acting well in a good part (shocking!) as a role model for developing leaders and sergeants to follow in terms of leading from the front and looking out for his soldiers.

I’m on a quest, and it’s not looking good. =P  The quest? To find a damn Nintendo DS at the PX here before all the Joes buy them up. It’s hard, let me tell you. NBA 06 on PSP is far, far better than I expected but I desire much more gaming in my dulled support-soldier state, dear reader. I check the PX daily waiting for a shipment to come in, but no luck. And it’s too close to the time to go back hometo order one online. Now I’m so obsessed with this I’m like Captain Ahab seeking the goddamn pixellated Nintendog, Phoenix, vampire!!!

The new American flag. (from Adbusters.org)

So yes. Birthday. Birthday birthday birthday. I’ve been in Iraq for a while. How about you go to my Amazon.com wishlist and get me something? If not for me, do it for what I think is a diverse, fascinating list of important books from economics to history to hacking to graffiti to cooking to traveling!  And if not for that, do it for your country! Your consumption translates into a healthy economy, the promotion of good ideas, thongs, Cheez-Its, and lots of sex for everyone!

You DO want that, right? Then what are you waiting for?

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