Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Oct
26

Convertibles – Ingenuity Applied

For most of the 70s and 80s, if you wanted a car without a roof you’re only real option was a hacksaw and a lot of elbow grease.  The Miata ushered in the latest generation of convertibles some 17 years ago and car manufacturers have gone hog-wild ever since.  Apparently, there are now over 50 convertible models available in the US.  As rumor has it, we’re likely to even have a four-door convertible relatively shortly with sneak peeks of a convertible Mercedes S-Class vehicle roaming the net.
 
More recently, hardtop convertibles have been in vogue.  While you give up a load of trunk space for this luxury, you get a quiet ride with the security of sheet metal over your head in return.  While other manufacturers have been producing rigid roofed convertibles for a few years (Mercedes SL, SLK; Lexus SC, Pontiac G6; VW Eos; Volvo C70; Cadillac XLR,; Chevrolet SSR), BMW has decided to join the fray with a convertible hardtop version of the new 3-series.  The dance this roof makes to fold itself into the trunk is simply amazing.  I wonder what the MTBF for this mechanism is.
 

 

 
The credit for the original hardtop convertible goes to . . . Ford.  Yup, that’s right.  No fancy European or Japanese engineering at work.  Just good ol’ American know-how.  Ford introduced the Skyliner with a hardtop that tucked away into the trunk all the way back in 1957.  It turns out that it was much easier when cars were a full 22 feet long, as can be seen in the video below.

Hey Luceeeee, I’m home.

 

 October 26th, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 5 Comments
Oct
26

The Amazing Internal Combustion Engine – Video

When I graduated from high school, I was convinced that mechanical engineering was what I wanted to learn more than anything.  Having done my fair share of taking vehicles apart in my teens (some of them even working when reassembled), I thought that engine designers were gods.  Just the fact that an engine works regardless of its starting temperature was proof that man had overcome nature and that the physical rules that held the planet together could be warped by man whenever he needed more horsepower or torque.

In college, I discovered alcohol and software engineering and the profound elegance of the internal combustion engine was lost somewhere in the blur between beer pong and punch cards.

All of this came back to me when I watched this video of the virtual assembly of a very basic four-cylinder engine.  Nothing fancy here.  No turbochargers, no variable valve timing, not even eight cylinders (or 10, 12 or 16).  The fact that these things work at any temperature, let alone widely variable temperatures still amazes me.

Note: Highly recommended video for teenagers who don’t have a clue about how this stuff works.  My son pointed it out to me and he knows how engines work.  Even he said he learned a lot.

 

 October 26th, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments
Oct
23

The Changing World of Angel Investing

I read two interesting posts on angel investing this morning.  The first, by David Cohen over on Colorado Startups blog: Do you believe in Angel Investing?  And the second by Jeff Cornwall over on The Entrepreneurial Mind Blog:  Are Angels Changing Their Strategy?

As a recipient of angel funds earlier in my career and an investor of such funds now, I’m fascinated by the dynamics of Angel investing and the correlation between investment criteria and solid returns.  While I’d like to think of this as an academic interest, I think it’s more likely that I’m a greedy bastard and want to know how to make more money.

David Cohen posts about his discussion with Kimball Musk and Brad Feld concerning whether or not angel investing works at all – shouldn’t any company with a solid future be taking big money right away?  An interesting perspective, for sure, although one I have a difficult time with.  In the end, the three end up agreeing that there are more scenarios where angel investing doesn’t make sense than when it does, but there is a fairly clear situation where wise Angel investing seems to apply:

“Companies that don’t need to raise much money ($250k-$1m) before they can grow and accelerate, but are likely to later need an institutional round.”

This point makes a lot of sense to me and, in retrospect, is fairly highly correlated to the successful angel investments I have made and seen made by others.

Jeff Cornwall’s post questions data showing the decline in angel investing.  He makes some sound arguments why it’s difficult to determine just how many ventures are being angel-backed these days.  Among his points:

“Angels that do smaller deals are off the radar. They are hard to get data on in the first place because there is no formal reporting mechanism. Add to that their intense desire for privacy, and it is no surprise that we are seeing mostly the larger deal angels working in networks.”

This makes a lot of sense to me.  I’m seeing a lot of angel investing going on, but it’s much quieter than the deals being done by angel funds and, of course, well submerged below widely publicized VC deals.  FWIW, I discussed my views on startup funding strategies and the choices between angels and angel funds in my post, Show Me the Money.

Both David’s and Jeff’s posts are worth a read if you’re thinking about funding your startup with angel funds or you’re an angel investor.

 

 October 23rd, 2006  
 Will  
 Investing, VC  
   
 1 Comment
Oct
22

Honda Sells Planes Like . . . Civics

Earlier this year, Honda (yup, that Honda) introduced its first plane.  Aptly named the HondaJet, it’s apparently differentiated from the competition in its class with its small exterior dimensions, relatively large interior dimensions, speed, fuel economy and low price.  It seems that Honda’s standard formula for kicking the competition’s ass works outside automotive world, too.

The HondaJet has a top speed of 420 knots, a 43,000 foot ceiling and 30-35% better fuel economy than comparable planes in its class.  Honda says that the unique over-the-wing mounted engine creates more interior space and makes the plane substantially quieter.

The big news is that Honda just announced that they have taken orders for well over 100 of these piloted missiles in the first 30 days of sales.  At $3.65M per plane, it appears that their move into the aerospace market has been validated by potential customers.  Honda is applying for FAA approval now and expects to be shipping planes to customers in 2010.

Honda’s an amazing company.  They’ve stuck with the simple strategies for decades and have been a huge success.  Seems like other could learn something here . . .

 

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 October 22nd, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 4 Comments
Oct
20

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Football

There’s an article in Sports Illustrated this week (no online access for non-subscribers that I can find) that discusses how Rodney Harrison, the New England Patriot’s strong safety was voted by opposing players as the dirtiest player in the NFL.  Harrison’s response:

“I’m not dirty.  I’m a hard-nosed football player.  I play to the whistle [meaning that he doesn’t quit while he still has a shot].  I’m not going to be your friend.  I don’t want to go to parties with you.  I don’t need you.  But at the end of the game I’ll pat you on the butt and say, ‘good game.'”

I don’t know how much butt-patting should go on in business – my lawyer suggests that none is the correct answer – but Harrison’s take-no-prisoners view of the game is, to me, exactly how the the competitive game of business has to be played.  The reason that other players think that Harrison plays dirty is because he plays hard and he never backs off – the same way successful companies are run.

You can’t put 90% of your effort into your business and expect to win.  Your competition is just too good for you to give them that edge.  You have to give 100% if you expect to be the victor.

I’m a huge believer in outworking the competition.  In fact, I think its one of the easiest ways to differentiate yourself.  Shockingly, you’ll find that much of your competition is just not willing to work as hard as you.  Later in the article Harrison gives his view on this:

“You’re not going to outwork me.  You may be faster, you may be bigger, you may be stronger, but you won’t outwork me.  And I’m not afraid.”

Wow.  Exactly.

 

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 October 20th, 2006  
 Will  
 General Business, Leadership  
   
 Comments Off on What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Football
Oct
18

Applying Military Strategy and Tactics to Business – Deception

[If you read any of the previous posts in this series, you may want to skip the next couple of introductory paragraphs and branch, jump or goto Deception in boldface, below.]

This is the last of a six-post series that discusses how, when, why and why not apply military strategy and tactics to business.  For the sake of some brevity, I won’t repeat my introduction to this topic but, if you’re interested, you can find it here in the preamble.  There are also a few more introductory words in the second post, here

In short, I’ve always had a difficult time mapping military strategy to business, although I’ve always been compelled to.  It seems so natural to take stories of great military exploits and use what was learned from them to advance a business idea or improve on its execution.  Among the many problems in doing this, though, are questions about when to apply a particular strategy; does the organization have the competence to execute against that strategy; and can one correctly interpret what actually made a particular military strategy or tactic successful, especially once applied in a business context with its inherently slower feedback.

That said, the legends of military successes and failures are great teachers.  Not so much for the direct application of what a military leader did at some time, but in presenting a palette of potential actions.  The stories and analogies are also good because they are easy to remember and are great tools for leading others.

In my view, there are a small set of profound lessons to be learned from the great military commanders and their exploits through the ages of warfare.  Lessons is the key term here, not specific strategies or tactics.  In my effort to communicate what I believe that some of these lessons are, I’ll try to toss in a few military stories that indicate to me why these particular lessons are so important and can be readily applied to business.  The lessons are:

Today’s final episode of applying military strategy and tactics to business is . . .

Deception

If you’re like me, you immediately question how deception can and should be applied to business.  In a business context, the concept of deception seems almost immoral or, at least, against the rules – if not the legal ones, at least the ones understood as part of business decorum, civility or fair play.  Who wants to win by cheating, after all?

There is little concern for such concepts in modern warfare (historically, much of warfare was conducted under a code of ethics – aside from the Geneva Convention rules, no such code exists today), however, where the goal is most often the physical destruction of the enemy.  In battle, a commander’s trickery and deception can easily represent the difference between victory and death.

There are few better examples of this than the campaigns of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and his army during the Civil War in the US.  Stonewall Jackson is widely considered as one most gifted tactical commanders in US history.  His motto: “Mystify, mislead and Surprise.”

Early in the Civil War, during the infamous Valley Campaign, Jackson found his Army outmanned, outgunned and often, surrounded.  After an initial tactical defeat in a relatively small battle, Jackson’s 17,000 troops soundly defeated the Union’s 60,000 man Army of the Potomac.  He accomplished this feat by constantly surprising the enemy, attacking its flanks, sneaking behind its lines and appearing like his forces were larger than they actually were.  During the campaign, Jackson marched his troops almost 650 miles in 48 days to defeat and cause the retreat of a Union Army that outmanned him almost 4:1.  Trickery and illusion were his key tactics in the Valley Campaign and he used them frequently in successive victories during the war and until his death in battle (from friendly fire) in 1863.

Like Jackson before him, Erwin Rommel was a master of deception.  Even though Rommel was primarily a tank commander – relatively easy to detect and slow-moving – he often got the upper hand on his enemies by sneaking his tanks through dense forests or via indirect routes. 

Rommel is best known for his success during WWII’s North African Campaign where he consistently defeated the better armed and staffed British Army.  His understanding of how the British tank command worked led him to implement the most important tactic to his success during the campaign – making the British believe that his forces were much greater than they were.  This, in turn, caused the British to split their forces, leaving many tanks in reserve (they conservatively never wanted to risk all their tanks in battle) and gave Rommel’s smaller force a far better chance at success.  The deception turned out to be the key that initiated his victories.

Rommel implemented this by making his tanks appear to be in locations where they were not.  He would frequently have trucks drive in circles throughout the day in one area.  The clouds of dust they kicked up would be so extreme that the British assumed that there were huge tank convoys preparing to entrench themselves for battle at that location.  In the mean time, Rommel, would move his active tank columns at night into flanking positions around the British.  Rommel’s ability to deceive the British let his smaller and weaker force win battles for years in the desert.

In a business world that thrives on communication and rewards the speed and quantity of information available, it’s difficult to see how deception might be used in a strategy leading to success.  After all, anything you do to mislead your competition might mislead your customer as well.  There are a few uses of deception, however, that are commonly used and are valuable tools in the business strategy quiver:

  • Press releases as a defensive tool:  Most often successfully employed by medium to large companies, a me-too press release announcing that your company has or will have some product, feature or service that your competitor just launched can effectively slow your competition’s sales process down until you actually have it.  This is especially effective if you are already the perceived market leader in that particular segment.  Switching costs are, generally, high and current customers want to believe that you’ll continue to deliver the best stuff.  Of course, this won’t hold your competition off forever, but it will allow you a bit of time to catch up.
  • Appearing bigger than you are as an offensive tool:  Larger companies often prefer to purchase from established vendors.  Of course, this depends on what you are selling and how much it costs, but it is generally true for anything even remotely mission critical or costing a lot.  Giving the world the impression that your company is larger or better established than you are can only help you in this environment.  This can be done through advertising – small companies generally do little-to-none, big companies do a lot; large, highly visible displays at trade shows; success stories from large customers; focusing on implementation instead of just functions or features; and so forth.
  • Taking advantage of the reactionary nature of your competition:  Companies tend to react without thinking instead of responding in a thoughtful, considered way.  You can take advantage of this by misleading your competition, when appropriate, in an effort to waste their time or defocus them.  In the most basic case, you can entice them to spend energy in areas that are outside your main focus, giving you more lead time when you introduce your own new product or service.  Keep in mind that when you implement strategies like this, you don’t get a bye on precise execution.  You still have to execute well – if you can’t execute your company’s strategy better than your competition can execute on the same strategy, no amount of deception will help you.

Certainly, deception in the form of outright lying and cheating is a dead-end strategy.  It might work out in the short term, but it’s going to get you in trouble in the long term.  Defined a bit softer, though, as a method for manipulating or spinning reality (I know, I’m cutting this a bit thin, but you get the idea), it is almost as powerful a tool in business as it is in warfare and is one that can be employed to increase your opportunities for success.

 October 18th, 2006  
 Will  
 General Business, Leadership, Management  
   
 7 Comments
Oct
17

Corvette “Blue Devil” Headed for 2008 Intro

According to this week’s issue of Autoweek, the super-secret uber high-performance Vette, known as the Blue Devil, will be a 2009 model available some time in 2008.  GM’s performance geeks have allegedly filled the engine bay to the brim with big pistons and blowers – a supercharged 6.2l V-8 generating about 650hp. 

According to the UK publication, Autocar, the Blue Devil was spotted earlier this year lapping Germany’s famous Nurburgring in 7 minutes and 40 seconds.  If this did, in fact happen, it would make the Blue Devil one of the fastest production cars ever made.  GM has never talked about these numbers and it’s not even clear if the car on the track that day was the same the one that will end up in the hands of thousands of men suffering their mid-life crises.

Apparently, the General is only going to hand-build a coupla thousand of these beasts a year and sell them for about $100K.  Oh yeah, they may even resurrect the name Sting Ray for it.  Cool.

 

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 October 17th, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 Comments Off on Corvette “Blue Devil” Headed for 2008 Intro
Oct
17

Picking Your Mentors and Advisors

Ben Casnocha, makes a terrific point in his post, In Praise of the No Names – often (in fact, most often) the best teachers are not necessarily the most visible, recognized, educated or paid people.  Most often, they’re knowledgeable people who understand the art of teaching.  People who can explain situations, concepts and potential solutions to you so that you can understand them and absorb them into your own thinking.  They are people who excite you about what they have to teach.

Sometimes, these people are well-known.  Most often, however, the best teachers aren’t the flashiest people and are hidden from your first view.  These are the people that you should seek out to guide you.  They may be a little harder to find, but they’re also more available than their well-recognized counterparts.

Great thoughts, Ben.

 

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 October 17th, 2006  
 Will  
 General Business  
   
 2 Comments
Oct
16

Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel Now Widely Available in the US

October 15, 2006 was the deadline set by the US government for the mass deployment and general availability of Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD).  Officially, this means that 80% of the diesel fuel available in the US for trucks, buses and the handful of diesel cars still out there had to meet the new lower sulfur maximums.  Apparently, the deployment went so well that availability looks more like 90% than the mandated 80%.

According to AutoBlog:

“Older diesel-powered vehicles will see a 10-percent reduction in particulate emissions right off the bat by using the new fuel, while new diesel engines designed to take advantage of it will cut their particulate emissions by 95 percent. This is due to the fact that the new ULSD contains only 15 parts per million of sulfur, compared to the old fuel’s 500 parts per million. The next major step on this path comes on January 1st, when all diesel engines sold in the United States will have to meet these stricter emissions standards. Until then, you can spot which pumps are offering ULSD by looking for the sticker above.”

In a post I wrote a while back, The Prius Deception – Part III, I discussed my belief that the US was greatly ignoring the advantages that a diesel hybrid (where an electric motor replaced the standard turbocharger in diesels) has over a gasoline hybrid.  Pure diesel cars in Europe already get much better mileage than hybrids in the US.  With the addition of an electric motor to keep the diesel engine at it’s optimum rpm, you’d have an engine system that would produce more performance with lower fuel consumption.  The one stumbling block was that American diesel fuel created a load of pollution.  The new diesel fuel is the first step to bringing us to a far better solution than today’s gasoline electric compromises. 

 

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 October 16th, 2006  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 Comments Off on Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel Now Widely Available in the US
Oct
16

The Amazing, Disappearing Mailbox

I ran across this interesting article last week in the Baltimore Sun discussing the huge decline in the number of USPS curbside mailboxes in use.  Apparently, 42,000 mailboxes have been removed from service since 1999, leaving 295,000 in use. 

Email and online bill payment are the big killers of the blue boxes, but security threats (the potential for bombs being dropped in) have caused many to be removed as well.  According to the article:

“… disuse is the primary reason for box removal. Local post office branches conduct quarterly surveys of mailbox use, removing those that collect fewer than 25 pieces of mail per day. Citizens in communities across the country have circulated petitions to save mailboxes, and postal officials say they take such campaigns seriously.”

Sorta sad.  The loss of another American icon.

 

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 October 16th, 2006  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 Comments Off on The Amazing, Disappearing Mailbox