Cannabusiness

Cannabis sativa — the name of the plant species that includes marijuana and industrial hemp — seems to have gone mainstream in modern America.

When I was walking through LaGuardia Airport last week for my flight back to Columbus, I passed a shop that featured the above advertisement for cannabis sativa seed oil, as an “herbal fix for problem skin” with “100% naturally derived ingredients.”  And Kish and I have been to parties where people our age have knowledgeably and seriously discussed the claimed health benefits of cannabis-infused oils and creams for conditions like sore shoulders and aching backs.  For years, people who have pushed for legalization have claimed that the plant could produce many different types of useful products — and now it seems those claims are being realized.

If cannabis products are being accepted by the masses for skin care and health care purposes, it’s a pretty good indicator that cannabis has become big business.  In America, there aren’t many product areas that are bigger than skin care and health care.

Cash Culture

If you take flights on certain airlines, you have heard the announcements that they only accept credit cards if you want to buy a snack box or adult beverage. I always wonder how that can be — aren’t greenbacks legal tender that must be accepted everywhere? How can you deny someone who wants to pay with cash?

So I’ve been happy to go to a few places recently — like this taqueria in Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood — that not only accept paper money, they require that you pay with it. But why do they apologize for that policy? The retailer doesn’t have to pay credit card fees, and the purchaser doesn’t have to sign little slips and worry about whether their card data will be hacked. There’s a pleasing, old-school anonymity to paying with folding money that has new-age privacy benefits, too.

In some places, cash is still king. No apologies necessary!

The Peak Productivity Period

When, during the standard work day, work week, and work year, are employees at their most productive?  One company took a look at the issue and tried to come to some conclusions based on quantifiable data.

59d679b82b6f9ad9b10ee36a24b6e1e8The study looked at Redbooth, a project management software company, and examined an anonymized data set of 1.8 million projects and 28 million discrete tasks.  It concluded that the peak productive time on any given day is 11 a.m., the most productive day is Monday, and the most productive month is October.  At the other end of the spectrum, workers completed the least tasks after 4 p.m., the least productive day is Friday, and the lowest percentage of tasks were completed in January.

You can’t draw really meaningful conclusions from one study of one company in one industry, of course, and it would be interesting to know how those 28 million separate “tasks” were defined.  (Is logging on to your computer a “task”?  How about submitting your time records to your boss, or sending a quick status update email versus a full-blown report?)  Nevertheless, the study seems to confirm what should be obvious — productivity ebbs and flows during the work day, work week, and work year.

I’m also convinced based on my own work history that productivity is uniquely individualized, and varies a lot based on the circadian rhythms, personality types, and social mores of individual workers and individual workplaces.  I feel like I am at my most productive first thing in the morning, when I can get in early and immediately knuckle down to work and there are fewer phone calls and work flow interruptions and distractions; I’m not a big late-night worker except in emergencies.  Other people get to the office later, like to do some visiting to start their day, and seem to pick up steam as the day goes on and the night hours arrive.  Averages tend to smooth out the real, material differences between people’s work habits and practices.

The one conclusion from the study that most surprised me was the productivity variance between seasons and months.  I would have bet that winter was the most productive month — in the Midwest, at least.  When your alternative is raw, cold weather, a bustling day at the office looks pretty good by comparison.

Investing In Space

Let’s say your modest portfolio in the stock market has had a good run over the past year or so, and you’re looking for a new investment opportunity.  Let’s posit, further, that you think Bitcoin is a curious bubble that’s going to burst someday, and that you’d rather put your money into a company that produces something more tangible and more futuristic.

Well, what about space?

fh-onpadSpaceX is racking up a number of impressive accomplishments.  Last month SpaceX successfully tested its Falcon Heavy Rocket, and it is moving forward on launching what it calls the most powerful operational rocket in the world.  The Falcon Heavy launch is set for next week, on February 6, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy would join other stellar (pun intended) SpaceX accomplishments, like being the first company to launch a rocket with payload into space and then land the rocket back on Earth, and being the first company to relaunch an already used rocket.  SpaceX also built the first private spacecraft to dock with the international space station, and it’s shown it can reuse the spacecraft, too.  If you’re trying to make space a commercially viable enterprise, developing reusable rocket technology and reusable spacecraft technology, to hold down the cost, is a crucial first step — and SpaceX looks like the leader in taking that step.

But here’s the thing:  you can’t invest directly in SpaceX.  It’s a private company, and its founder Elon Musk has said he won’t take it public until the company has started to make flights to Mars.  Why?  Because Musk is afraid that if the company goes public before then, there’s a chance that the stockholders will pressure the board to focus on things other than colonizing Mars — which is Musk’s goal and is bound to be more expensive and difficult than, say, establishing Moon exploration bases or mining asteroids for precious metals.  It’s not an unreasonable fear on Musk’s part.  So if you want to own a piece of SpaceX, you can only do so indirectly, by investing in Alphabet, which owns a piece of SpaceX as well as parts of Google, YouTube, and other things.

Okay, so SpaceX isn’t currently available for the intrepid investor who wants to get into the space exploration game.  Are there other options?  It’s not easy to determine, because a lot of the companies that are touching upon space issues — like Boeing, for example — are better known for producing other objects.  But you can start to get a sense of what’s out there by looking for lists like this one, on potential investment opportunities involving space, or looking for articles about company announcements related to space activities and then figuring out whether they are publicly traded.

It’s not easy for the casual investor.  What we really need is for one of the stock exchanges to create a “space index,” just like there’s a Dow Jones “transportation index.”  The index would identify the space-related public companies, mutual funds would be established to invest in each of the space index companies, and those of us who’d like to put our money in the heavens could buy into the mutual funds.

Hey stockbrokers!  How about giving investors interested in space some help here?

Trump’s Business Approach

Here’s a surprise:  Congress is mired in disputes about the new legislation that is supposed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (or at least claims to do something to deal with the ongoing problems with President Obama’s signature legislation).  There was supposed to be a vote on the legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday, but the tally got postponed over concerns that the legislation might fail.

President Trump has been involved in the wrangling, and last night he weighed in with what the Washington Post described as an “ultimatum.”  According to the Post, Trump told the Republicans in the House to either pass the legislation on Friday, or reject it, in which case Trump will move on to other items on his agenda.  Trump apparently will leave it up to the Republicans in the House to figure out whether they can agree or not.

the-interview-donald-trump-sits-down-with-business-insiderIt’s an interesting approach, and I suspect that it comes from Trump’s years of working in the business world.  Corporations typically don’t engage in open-ended negotiations, allowing events to marinate and slowly come together — which often seems to be how Congress works (if you believe that Congress works at all).  Instead, because there’s a time value to money and limits to corporate resources that can be expended on potential deals that don’t materialize, corporations set establish priorities, set deadlines, and push.  Once a deadline gets set, it becomes another means of applying pressure to the parties to reach an agreement, and if the deal doesn’t get done by the deadline, typically that takes the transaction off the table, the corporation moves on, and there is no going back.

Trump’s approach to this legislative test is, obviously, also informed by political considerations; he wants to set a deadline so members of Congress are actually forced to do something concrete, and we don’t have the lingering story of “what’s going to happen to Obamacare” attracting all of the media attention and detracting from the other things he’s trying to accomplish.  It’s a gamble, because if the legislation Trump is backing doesn’t pass, he could be painted as a failure in the early months of his Administration, making it less likely that he’ll be able to obtain passage of other parts of his agenda, like tax reform.  We already knew that Trump is a gambler, of course — his whole campaign was a bizarre, otherworldly gamble that paid off.  Now he’s bringing some of that high-stakes, business world approach to the legislative political realm.

We shouldn’t be surprised, by now, that Trump is going to continue to gamble and continue to do things in confounding ways.  Today we’ll get another lesson in whether his approach can actually work in Washington, D.C., even on a short term basis.

Mutt Morsels

IMG_1137Kish and I went to dinner in Grandview last night, and as we walked to the restaurant we passed one shop that had thoughtfully placed a water dish and a huge gumball machine filled with dog food by its front door.

Kasey wasn’t with us, but she would have appreciated the gesture.  And I have to say that, as a means of point of purchase advertising, a water dish and a dog food dispenser are pretty strong inducements.  Anybody who cares enough about our canine friends to provide such treats is probably a pleasure to deal with, and a decent sort besides.

A Little Edsel Love

IMG_6499Its name is right up there with the Titanic:  a proper noun that, as a result of unfortunate circumstance, has morphed into popular language as a shorthand reference for disaster.  In this case, it is a corporate disaster — a highly marketed, ridiculously expensive roll-out of a new product that utterly fails to appeal to the masses.  It has endured for almost 60 years as the ultimate business failure, has survived challenges by New Coke and Betamax VCRs and countless other duds, and still tops the lists of absolute flops.

IMG_6500So when I saw a vintage, perfectly preserved 1958 Edsel — the year the car was first introduced to the American public — parked on the street yesterday, I just had to stop, give it a close, 360-degree inspection, and take these photos.  It was a big, gleaming, two-toned, orange-and-cream-colored beauty, with plenty of chrome that caught the sunlight just right — a classic example of a ’50s-era American car.

The reality is, the Edsel is a beautiful vehicle, and its allure is made all the more intriguing by the scent of failure and catastrophe that lingers around it.  I wasn’t the only passerby to stop, give a low whistle, and check it out.

IMG_6503The back story of the Edsel is a familiar one.  Named for the son of Henry Ford, the Edsel was an effort by the Ford Motor Company to introduce an entirely new car brand that featured new approaches to standard car features. Ford and GM were in their glory days, and GM had a family of car brands that would allow car-hungry, upwardly mobile Americans to progress from the cheaper ones all the way up to Cadillac.  Ford, on the other hand, had only three brands — Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln.  Ford’s “dream big” solution was to create an entirely new brand.

The Edsel was heavily promoted in advance, in one of the first huge, post-World War II marketing campaigns, with ads that featured tantalizing pictures of shrouded models and suggested that America was on the cusp of an entirely new driving experience.  Then the Edsel was finally rolled out, with great fanfare, on one day in September 1957.

And the Edsel bombed, completely.  It was such a colossal failure that, despite sinking huge amounts of money into the effort, only a few years later Ford recognized the inevitable, production on the Edsel ceased forever, and its name entered the lexicon as synonymous with corporate catastrophe.

IMG_6504Why did the Edsel fail?  Countless people have weighed in on that core question, and no doubt the Edsel is still and will always be a case study in MBA and Marketing programs across the country.  And people have identified lots of potential reasons.  The economy was just moving into recession as the Edsel was introduced.  The marketing campaign had raised public expectations so high that no product, no matter how great, could possibly match them.  The Edsel was too technologically advanced, with a push-button transmission set-up in the middle of the steering wheel and other novel features.  Ford tried to do too much by creating an entirely new car brand, with 18 new models and more than 1000 brand-new dealerships.

IMG_6502And some of the reasons even target the American car-buying psyche.  Some people argue that the top-of-the-world Americans of the ’50s were looking for huge, overpowered, rolling phallic symbols that would serve as tributes to their masculinity.  The Edsel’s distinctive front grille, they say, not only did not have the phallic element that Americans instinctively craved, but in fact suggested the exact opposite.

Why did the Edsel fail?  I’m glad to leave that question to the academics and armchair psychologists and marketing gurus and corporate planning executives.  All I know is that when I see an Edsel on the street, I’ll gladly give that low whistle and take a good look at what remains a very cool car.

IMG_6505

Becoming An Investor

When I was in junior high school, I took a class called General Business where the teacher taught us about the marvels of capitalism and the wonders of the stock market.  After I took that class, I had one goal:  I wanted to own some stock in a company.

I saved my pay from high school jobs and talked to Uncle Tony, who was a stockbroker.  He identified three stocks that were cheap enough that I could buy a decent number of shares, and I picked one called Vikoa, for a company that sold a product related to cable TV.  I figured cable TV, which we had at our house, was likely to grow and prosper.

It was a great day when my fancy Vikoa stock certificate, made out to my Mom in my name because I was under age, arrived at the house.  Vikoa’s stock was listed on one of the smaller exchanges, so every morning at breakfast I could check the listings in the Columbus Citizen-Journal to see how my investment was doing.  For a time, Vikoa seemed to thrive and its stock went up — so much so that I decided that I should make another investment, this time in a new restaurant chain called Pizza Hut that had opened near our house and made pretty good thin crust pizza.

The Pizza Hut investment turned out well and earned a profit, but not so much for Vikoa.  Its stock plummeted — in those pre-internet days, I never found out why — and ultimately it vanished entirely from the exchange listings.  I later got another stock certificate, for some fractional interest in a different company that apparently had bought whatever was left of Vikoa, then that company also went under.  My investment had failed.

I made money on one investment and lost my shirt on the other, but I was young and didn’t mind.  My investing days were over until I started working after college and law school and considered how to plan for retirement — and then the teachings from General Business class and the specter of Vikoa resurfaced.  I decided that rather than take a chance on a single company again, I’d just invest in mutual funds, where the fund manager picks the investments and keeps track of their performance.  That’s been my practice ever since.  The Vikoa lesson was one I didn’t need to learn twice.

Oversurveyed

The other day when Kish and I were out and about I sat at a table and a napkin dispenser invited me to take a “one-minute survey” about my experience in Columbus.  I groaned and silently resolved to not take the survey — but here’s the link to it if you feel differently.

IMG_5581Modern Americans must be the most surveyed group in the history of the world — or, at least, the most survey-solicited group ever.  These days, surveys are inescapable.  Every activity seems to generate a request for you to provide follow-up information.  Take your car to be serviced, and you then get a phone call the next morning asking you to answer “just a few questions” about the experience.  Stay at a hotel and get an emailed questionnaire along with your electronic receipt and an earnest request from the general manager that you complete the questionnaire to allow them to enhance the hotel experience.  And some websites use answering survey questions as the price of website admission — one that I simply refuse to pay.

I try to be a polite person in my interactions with the working people of the world, just as I hope they will be polite with me. The constant requests for information, however, seem to be an imposition on our politeness and civility.  I cheerfully answered “feedback” questions from my car dealer service department the first few times, then started to say no when I realized that I would be called and questioned every time — and recognized that if I took the time to answer every “survey” that was thrown in my face it would consume a measurable chunk of my day.  I also began to suspect that many of the requests weren’t really for meaningful feedback, but rather sought to get consumer information that could be sold, or used to solicit me for other services.  And I realized that the more generic on-line “surveys” couldn’t possibly yield scientific results and more likely were geared to increase the click-count on websites that could increase their ad rates as a result.

So, I’m not going to take the “one-minute survey” about Columbus, thank you very much.  Kish and I like it here.  What more does anyone need to know?

Business Blogger

Richard has started his new job at the San Antonio Express-News, and one of the first things he’s done is restart the blog “Shop Talk,” which will collect news about developments in the retail sector in San Antonio.  His first post on the blog is here.

A lot of newspaper work these days is in the social media sphere, on blogs, Twitter feeds, and other outlets that I can’t even begin to identify.  The reality is that many young people are getting their news electronically, and social media also allows news to be published immediately, rather than waiting until next morning’s newspaper.

The retail area, too, is one that is interesting to most people.  Many of us worked in retail at some point in our lives — as a server in a restaurant, as a cashier at the grocery store, or as a sales clerk at a clothing outlet — and virtually everyone shops at retail stores.  As a result of our significant exposure to retail shops, some questions are just intrinsically interesting, like — how much does shoplifting cost stores, and what are the costs, in reputation and potential liability, in pursuing an aggressive no-tolerance policy?  Are all employers requiring applicants to take drug tests and no-smoking pledges these days?  And is it true that clothing manufacturers, recognizing that Americans are becoming portly, have increased the sizes of clothing, so that what is now marked a 32 waist would have been a 34 waist three years ago?

If you’re interested in retail trends, the Shop Talk blog is worth following — as is Richard’s Twitter feed.

Cbus Coffee

Columbus is blessed with lots of really good local coffee houses.  Kish and I particularly prize Stauf’s Coffee in German Village, which roasts its own beans, has a wide selection for every kind of coffee taste, and then grinds the java to order depending on the kind of coffee maker you use and whether it uses a basket or cone filter.  It’s got pretty good baked goods to go with the brew, too.

IMG_5438Experience Columbus, one of the local booster organizations, has teamed up with some of the Cbus coffee shops to offer The Columbus Coffee Experience, which aims to encourage the uninitiated to sample some of the finest joe you can get anywhere.  The participating beaneries are Boston Stoker, Impero, Mission Coffee Co, and One Line Coffee, all of which are in the Short North, Cafe Brioso, Cup O’ Joe, and Roosevelt in the downtown area, and the Stauf’s shop at the North Market.

I’m a big fan of both Stauf’s and Cup O’ Joe, and there are lots of people at our firm who are stone-cold Cafe Brioso java junkies.  I’ve not tried the other places, but if I take my Columbus Coffee Experience booklet and have it stamped after trying the fare at four of the establishments, I can stop by the Experience Columbus office and get a free Columbus Coffee Experience t-shirt.  Sweet!

It’s a small promotional effort, as promotional efforts go, but it’s a simple way of getting folks to recognize a little part of the great stuff Columbus has to offer, and support local businesses, besides.

Dubious Branding

Today I noticed that one of the businesses I pass on my walk to work has a logo that consists of “T&A” over a stately Greek column.  The “T” stands for a person’s last name, and the “A” stands for “Associates” — so there’s a legitimate reason for the “T&A.”

IMG_4955Still . . . T&A?  It’s memorable, I’ll give it that.  Any red-blooded American male is not likely to forget that name.  Of course, whether they associate the name with this particular business, or with something else, is another matter.

Obviously, the brand is fraught with lots of baggage and is, well, easily misconstrued.  For example, let’s suppose, hypothetically, that this specific company wanted to hold a holiday party to thank their clients for another successful year.  How many clients are going to want to get an invitation to the “T&A party,” especially if the invitation is delivered to their home address?  Who wants their secretary to see a calendar entry for “T&A meeting,” or have someone overhear them talking about “T&A”?  Do they answer their phone “T&A.  How may we help you?”  Do their marketing brochures say “If you need help, call for T&A”?

You’d think someone, somewhere, sometime, would have suggested that “Big T Associates” might be more suitable.

 

A Complaint As Old As Commerce

The other day I went through a drive-through window at a fast food restaurant.  I made my order through the crappy intercom set-up, was handed my bag of food by a disinterested teenager at the window, and drove back on to the interstate — only to learn that the restaurant had screwed up my order.  Arrgh!

Everyone who has ever bought goods has probably experienced the sensation of being ripped off.  It’s an old complaint — in fact, as old as commerce itself.

This point was driven home by a 4000-year-old Babylonian tablet found in the British Museum — a tablet that is, in its entirety, a complaint about bogus business practices.  A merchant, Nanni, is upset because Ea-nasir cheated him in a transaction for copper ingots.  Ea-nasir, the charlatan, promised high-quality ingots, delivered crappy ones, and kept Nanni’s money nevertheless.  Nanni was upset — so upset that he hired a scribe who prepared the complaint tablet.  Why did Ea-nasir keep the tablet so that it survived for 4,000 years?  Who knows?  Maybe conniving bastard got a chuckle out of the sense of utter powerlessness that radiates through poor Nanni’s predicament, even to someone reading the message after the passage of millennia.

What really bothered Nanni is what really bothers those of us who get screwed in our business dealings:  he felt that he was being treated with contempt.  And he was!

Fast Failure

Richard had a story recently about the unexpectedly rapid demise of a Jacksonville-based company called Body Central, which sold clothing to teenage girls and 20-somethings in the “fast fashion” industry segment.  After years of strong growth and expansion of its outlets into new malls, Body Central suddenly hit the wall and closed its doors.  Richard’s story is an interesting treatment of the arc of a company’s existence in modern America.

What happened?  Basically, capitalism.  Body Central, and other stores catering to the same market segment, kept expanding to new locations and storefronts and expected the demand for clothing from teenage girls and young women prowling the malls to continue to grow indefinitely.  But the tastes and buying habits of Body Central’s target audience changed.  They decided that going to malls wasn’t necessarily the bees’ knees and started looking for more clothing on-line.  In the meantime, Body Central had growth-related problems, like managing distribution centers.  Revenues shrank, efforts to redesign stores to reattract customers failed, and ultimately the enterprise crashed.

Capitalism has a long and proven track record for incentivizing production, creating wealth, and enhancing efficiencies — but it’s a messy process.  Businesses begin, occasionally thrive, and often fail.  Sometimes the failures are of mom-and-pop shops, but sometimes they are of companies that experienced some success but just couldn’t move to the next level, and sometimes the failures are of mega-corporations like Blockbuster that are killed by new technologies, changing consumer tastes and buying habits, and competitors who develop a better product or service.  It happens, but it doesn’t make the situation any more enjoyable for employees who are out of a job when the company hits the wall.

Goodbye, Body Central!  You’re just the latest in a long line — and you won’t be the last.