One Thing Leads to Another

Maybe some people lead lives of consistency, in a single, sure trajectory.  In the Navy it’s said that a ship is all about velocity and vector.  It’s the vector I wonder about…perhaps true for a ship but less true for most people.  Certainly less true for me.

I was reminded of this in Commonwealth Books this morning in Boston, where I stopped by to check out the recent arrivals at one of my favorite rare & secondhand bookstores in the city.  Of course I always find something and today was no exception: a memoir by James Laughlin called Byways and written when he was eighty, published after his death.  James Laughlin was both a writer and poet himself but more famously the founder and publisher of New Directions, the imprint of the best of modern literature ever published in America. Scion of a great Pittsburgh steel family he was patrician to the core yet a friend of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and an entire generation of new writers.  I had lunch with him once at Meadow House in Norfolk, CT on a warm summer afternoon.  I think his cook gave us tuna fish sandwiches.  Being a young editor at a photographic publishing company and he the great man of American literature–he published Ezra Pound’s Cantos–he could have given me anything and I would have thought it the best meal in the world.

This was a period of my life when books and literature were what I knew. I had recently returned from Trinity College, Dublin with a masters degree in Anglo-Irish literature and on the basis of that was hired as the managing editor of Aperture, the nonprofit photographic publishing firm.

During those years I met every great photographer alive, from Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Cole and Brett Weston, Paul Caponigro, Henri Cartier Bresson to a younger generation of photographers such as Lee Friedlander and the great photographer of Gypsies, Josef Koudelka. While at Aperture I also became involved with other small presses of notable fame, chiefly The Jargon Society and the Eakins Press.  With the kind and generous Leslie Katz, publisher of the Eakins Press, I had lunch with Monroe Wheeler in New York, many dinners at Lincoln Kirstein’s amazing house, coffee with Mikal Barishnikov, tea with Father Fly of  James Agee fame, the only man I ever knew who used an ear trumpet.  I had breakfast with Lord Mountbatten, arranging for him to write the introduction to an Aperture book I was editing: Photographs of British India.  Mountbatten had been the last Viceroy.  On another occasion I was sent to the editorial offices at Doubleday to meet with Jackie Onassis.

That vector lost velocity when I went to business school and turned my back on a world I had loved.  After graduation I went to work for Benton & Bowles, then the finest, classic package goods advertising agency in the business.  My first assignment was as the assistant account executive on P&G’s star product Rely Tampons (yes, me) only months before Rely was implicated in Toxic Shock Syndrome and taken off the market.  Baptism by fire. Because P&G had boasted that it had reached 95% of the women target in the country, the FTC made the company run “remedial” advertising to the same 95%.  It cost P&G over $60 million in remedial advertising alone.

When I hear young agency people talk about stress–like nearly all the young women at a tech PR firm I recently worked for–I look at them and think: you have no idea.  The publisher of Aperture had a notoriously bad temper and frequently would make our only woman employee, the lovely Ann Kennedy, cry. When she did he would scream at her “Crying’s not a proper officer tactic. Go home to your playpen and come back when you feel like being a grownup.”  Hardly to be condoned, but the young women at the PR firm–and there were mostly young women–would likely have to have been hospitalized.  They were so naive and vulnerable they couldn’t even deal with listening to someone’s distress.

My vector has diverged many times.  Left turns, cliffs, mountains, clear skies and clouds.  All good in their own way, though often not perceived so at the time.  In every case where something didn’t go my way, a new and usually unexpected pathway opened up.  Trust fate even when it’s hard.

It’s about being open: open to what comes next, to new ideas, new people.  Be open to life.  Sometimes we may feel like Job–2011 has been such a year–but it’s the tests that build us.  Even Steve Jobs had setbacks at Apple and returned to create the company we know today.

It’s in this spirit that I’m building something new.  I hope people, and business, will join me.


I’ve been thinking a lot about uncertainty, how every minute of our lives is an uncertain minute no matter how we have planned or projected.  Uncertainty is the residue of the constant change and disruption in our world.  Every new business lives on a knife-edge of uncertainty.  Even great businesses have an uncertain future. They just don’t know.  No one knows.

In quantum theory, the uncertainty principle implies that it is impossible to simultaneously measure the present position while also determining the future motion of a particle.  Can quantum theory be a basis for understanding market dynamics today?  Since we can never measure where we are while predicting where we’ll be, the goal is the quest.

Inevitably this leads me to think about Michael Frayn’s brilliant play Copenhagen.  Three actors: Nils Bohr, his wife Margrethe, Werner Heisenberg.  The plays ends like this:

Margrethe: And sooner of later there will come a time when all our children are laid to rest, and all our children’s children.
Bohr: When no more decisions, great or small, are ever made again. When there’s no more uncertainty, because there’s no more knowledge.
Margrethe: And when all our eyes are closed, when even the ghosts have gone, what will be left of our beloved world? Our ruined and dishonored and beloved world?
Heisenberg: But in the meanwhile, in this most precious meanwhile, there it is. The trees in Faelled Park. Gammertingen and Biberach and Mindelheim. Our children and our children’s children. Preserved, just possibly, by that one short moment in Copenhagen. By some event that will never quite be located or defined. By that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.

That final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.  Isn’t that what life feels like?  How dull would it be if life were certain?  A little certainty might be comfortable.  We all want to hold on to what is certain in our lives, but in the end that life-line is frayed and torn and we are cast in the waves again and again.

I’m lucky to be a swimmer.

Farewell Isis Biopolymer

Tomorrow is my last “official” day at Isis Biopolymer–official in the sense I will no longer be on board in Providence, but still unofficially involved as an advisor and friend.  The past six months have been an adventure and a privilege.

It’s a rare opportunity to get to create and launch a brand from scratch.  Even rarer when it’s accomplished from an unknown company with limited resources.  Developing Biobliss has been such an opportunity.

I remember well the first board meeting I attended in mid-May of this year, presenting the “fast-fail” approach to taking a technologically advanced patch and turning it into a consumer product, in the very competitive arena of women’s skin care.  Well, we did go fast–and we didn’t fail.  The entire Isis team in Providence, together with the Board’s support, collaborated to bring our new brand Biobliss to life and launch it out in the world.  It’s our collective child.

The story of Isis Biopolymer is a book unto itself.  As one of my friends on the Board said to me, “I would like to write the history of Isis but it would have to be a novel because no one would believe it if non-fiction.”  The story begins with Emma Durand who founded Isis in 2006.  The company was established to exploit the emerging fields of conductive polymers, flexible circuits and advanced micro-electronics.  Isis’ first product area was in the development of intelligent transdermal drug delivery. This became the foundational technology of the Biobliss line of products.

Emma was no ordinary founder.  She had founded and sold other successful companies before Isis.  Educated at MIT, everyone said she was brilliant.  I regret never having known Emma.  She died in October 2010.  In her earlier life, up until her late 40″s, Emma wasn’t Emma, but David.  That change is a piece of her story.  Some of my colleagues here at Isis knew David, then David becoming Emma.  She loved fast cars and cool technology.

Isis initially focused its transdermal infusion process on the pharmaceutical industry.  They struck a deal with Novartis to apply their technology and manufacture Novartis’s nicotine patches.  At the 11th hour, Novartis pulled out of the nicotine patch market. Later, Isis signed a deal with a OTC company to manufacture anti-aging patches sold through the mass drug channel.  For complicated reasons that deal went south rapidly.

After Emma’s dramatic death in late 2010, two Isis Board members took over the reigns of the company and steered it toward the development of its own line of anti-aging products, and in the process saved the firm.  There should be a plaque commemorating this achievement at the front door.  The dedication of these two Board members, the patience and support of the investors, and the loyalty and commitment of the Isis employees is a miracle.

What have I learned from this experience: that a brand can be created in 90 days–from naming, to logo and package design, to an e-commerce website build, to a marketing and support program, to a direct channel sales operation, to a PR program implementation–all on very limited funds.  This wasn’t J&J launching a new product.  This was an unknown company with a weird technology, launching a new brand, in a category filled with doubt and suspicion. Our marketing budget was $30,000 a month.  Yes, you heard that correctly: $30,000 a month.

Today, though not entirely out of the weeds yet, Biobliss is an established brand with a growing following.  Skillful sales execution and product line development are the next chapter.  I’m proud of my involvement.

At the beginning of November I head back home to San Francisco.  I will miss Providence, a lovely small historic city.  If you’re passing through, be sure to visit the RISD Art Museum which has possibly the finest collection of any small museum in the country.  Walk down Benefit Street to see the longest continuous stretch of Federal Period houses in America. What I will not miss is my sketchy living situation.  Unable to sign an annual lease, I first lived in a hotel.  Then in August I rented a room from three Brown University students in their off-campus house.  They were, and are, very nice guys, but honestly, living in a room in a student house wasn’t my life dream.  Nor was moving for September and October into my office.  I was homeless in Providence.  All the students were back and there were no rooms available.  I still couldn’t sign a lease.  So here I am writing this post in my office/bedroom/sitting room.  Call it either a start-up mentality or lunacy.  Likely both.

Stay tuned for the next chapter.

Higher Standards

I was talking to my son David yesterday who is completing a PhD at Columbia with the goal of being a physics professor.  He was telling me about the controversy surrounding the on-going debate on establishing Federal guidelines for education standards.  This is a complicated topic, with many pros and many cons.  It begins with Federal jurisdiction versus State jurisdiction and continues with which State’s present standards get lowered and which State’s standards get raised.  Then there’s the issue of focus–math and science (for sure) versus literature and the arts.  Does the USA follow the standards imposed in high test scoring countries like Singapore and Japan?   Interestingly, at grade 4, the USA ranks in the top three; by grade 12, we fall to nineteen–well below France, Slovenia, Australia/New Zealand and all of Scandinavia. What happens in American middle and high schools?

Critics of Federal standards claim that they only promote the creation of good corporate employees and de-emphasize innovation and creativity skills.  One Federal provision recommends that middle school students should predominantly read non-fiction to prepare for analyzing science texts in high school. This is based on the belief that literature is a pleasurable past-time, not a route to increasing future test scores.  (Google would very likely agree. Its hiring criteria is entirely based on “the data.”  Even a 50 year old with outstanding work experience has to produce her high school SAT scores. And by the way, 50 year olds are an extraordinary exception to the rule.)

My own background, and educational preference, is strongly liberal arts.  I was an English major at Bowdoin and then got a masters degree in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Talk about an un-marketable eduction!  But it was a wonderful, life enhancing education that gave me skills and never ending passions I could not have achieved otherwise. That said, I did have to earn an MBA to begin the hike up the corporate ladder.

Early in my career I hired a young man who had graduated top of his class at Williams as an English major.  His senior thesis was writing a novel in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Bowdoin 1825.)  Unfortunately, everything this fellow wrote was in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Our P&G client did not appreciate a 19th century approach!   To his dismay, he had to be sent to remedial writing classes to learn how to write a simple business recommendation. He would have been better off copying Ernest Hemingway.

Email takes us even further down the road of less than literary.  I even heard the other day that typos in emails are now seen as a sign of speed and efficiency–a good thing.

So how can education standards address all the needs required to be both a civilized human being and an effective business person?  They used to be the same.  In the MBA classes I teach at the University of San Francisco, if I reference a writer or artist, in a legitimate comparison to something we’re talking about, I get 100% blank stares.  Frankly, if I reference a famous company from the 1970’s/80’s, I get 100% blank stares. I often wonder if this matters.  If you’re founding the latest tech start-up, does it really matter whether you’ve ever heard of Digital Equipment Corp, much less Wallace Stevens?  On the former, a lesson in corporate hubris might be useful.  I won’t even argue for Wallace Stevens, although it’s interesting to note that one of the greatest American poets was also a successful insurance executive in Hartford, CT.

Parents play a huge role in establishing learning goals for their children, for filling in the gaps the system, whether Federal or State, inevitably create.  My own sons are pursuing degrees in science eduction, law and medicine. They also love Haruki Murakami, play classical piano and jazz saxophone, happily go to summer Shakespeare festivals, and don’t complain too much being dragged through every art museum in Europe.  I admit that my former wife and I may not be typical (whatever that may be)  American parents, and that children from less well educated families are at a disadvantage.  This is a gap the Federal standards are meant to address.

I wish there was an easy answer to this.


I returned last night from attending “The International Congress of Esthetics and Spa”–a spa convention in Philadelphia.  It was the second such show I’ve attended on behalf of the anti-aging skin care brand I helped launch, Biobliss.  The products and claims made by manufacturers who sell their products at these spa show continue to amaze me.  Case in point, our booth neighbor featuring a Swiss-made body contour outfit that once drenched in their special fluid reduces your figure by 2 sizes in one month–no other diet or exercise required.  Really?

Or what about the Hungarian Blueberry Soy Night Cream, Yam and Pumpkin Enzyme Peel, or best of all their Garlic and Tomato Masque?  Are there really women who want to rub Garlic and Tomato on their face?

All of these spurious claims made me think about a campaign I once worked on for NEC.  This was a reseller directed campaign built on the theme “You can’t manufacture integrity, but you can sell it.”  What we meant to communicate was the idea that if a company–NEC–manufactured high quality products, made legitimate and honest claims, had fair pricing, and a consultative, helpful sales approach, that would constitute a process founded on integrity.  We believed at the time that NEC had such a process in place.

Is there integrity in skin care marketing.  Limited at best.  This is partly due to the never-ending pursuit of the fountain of youth.  Few of us want to age gracefully.  Our culture doesn’t support the idea of ageless beauty.  There are many truly beautiful women who reject that, ultimately hopeless, objective–women like Judy Collins who is as lovely at 70 as at 20.

Integrity also goes deeper in a company’s culture.  It’s based on the promises it keeps, not only with its customers, but with its employees, too. A company that doesn’t honor its commitments is dishonorable.  Contracts, agreements, even strong verbal commitments, have to be fulfilled–not ignored or violated.  When the latter is the case, the entire company is diminished.  The best people simply won’t want to work there.  And that culture of not honoring its personal commitments will permeate other parts of the company.

I don’t think maintaining integrity is too optimistic a goal.

Gone. Forgotten?

It’s said we meet people for a reason, for a season or for a lifetime. I think we always hope it will be for a lifetime. I learned this year that the lifetime hope is fragile and often dashed to pieces. It’s learning that hurts. A lot.

But don’t companies experience the same three patterns? Many are founded for compelling reasons. Many only last a season. It’s ironic that Google sits on the former campus of Silicon Graphics. Facebook on SUN’s.
Corporate evolution moves far faster than human, I’m sure most of Google’s young employees don’t even know what Silicon Graphics was.

Same with Digital Equipment Corporation, in its day one of the world’s largest IT companies, second only to IBM in this country. When I was at DDB, I led and won a pitch for DEC’s global advertising. It was the largest new business win DDB had achieved at that time. We replaced more than seventy agencies around the world. Less than three years later, DEC was gone. Its former CEO Ken Olson made the fatal mistake of deeming PC’s snake oil, something no one would ever want. Hello IBM and their famous Charlie Chaplin campaign. Goodbye DEC. DEC was purchased by Compaq which was purchased by HP. Rapid evolution.

The day Digital closed its historic headquarters in Maynard, Massachusetts–The Mill–everyone cried.

Who remembers Digital today? Who remembers Wang? I date myself with these memories. When I was in Mannheim last weekend with my brilliant friend at SAP, he had never heard of Digital Equipment Corporation. Nor Wang. Nor Silicon Graphics. SUN will fade away, too. Thousands of lesser companies only survive in their founders’ memoirs.

IBM feels like a lifetime. P&G. Coke. Philips and Unilever survived the Nazis.
Yet we know there is no forever.

What does your company feel like?

La-la Land

Magical realism can’t hold a candle to the fantasy world of skin care marketing. Have you ever read the claims skin care products make? Haruki Murakami would be ashamed to stretch reality to such proportions–and he’s a master at it. First, there are the secrets of exotic origin: “For generations, the Dead Sea has been visited by people seeking new life for their skin.” or “Discovered in a sake brewery in Japan–when people noticed older workers still had remarkably youthful-looking hands–this seemingly “age defying” phenomenon sparked scientific research, which led to the miracle ingredient, SK-II Pitera.” The headline to the latter is “Touch the Miracle.” But didn’t that happen at the Dead Sea? Oh no, it was the miracle in the sake brewery. I forgot.

I’ve spent the past six months creating and launching a new brand in the women’s anti-aging skin care category. It’s not the first time. For several years, when I worked at DDB, I oversaw all of J&J’s skincare products’ global advertising–from Neutrogena, RoC, Clean & Clear to their Rx anti-wrinkle brand Renova. Renova we launched on the tagline “Hope in a Bottle versus Truth in a Tube.” In those days, claims had to be verified by teams of attorneys, both at J&J and the agency. Television and magazines had their own review boards and standards. No such standards exist on the internet today.

Take for instance Stages of Beauty, a line of anti-aging skin care products marketed by Hungry Fish Media, the makers of another over-claimed muscle builder brand Force Factor. The retouched “before treatment” models look freshly unearthed from a grave. The “after treatment” models look like Gwyneth Paltrow. HFM’s rating with the Better Business Bureau is C-. And yet the products sell.

What about Dermacyte–“a new and innovative Oxygen Brand”? Their claim: “Oxygen is essential for radiant, young looking skin.” Hmmm…I think oxygen is essential to be alive. I’m sure your skin would look awful without it. Have you ever looked in a casket?

I attended a Spa and Esthethician trade show in Long Beach last month, and am attending the east coast version in Philadelphia this weekend. In Long Beach, the products and claims were out of this world. Next to our booth we had the Kakadu Nut man, seen in his ceaseless video harvesting the wild Kakadu nuts with native Aboriginals in the outback of Australia. Having lived in Australia, I don’t think anyone, least of all themselves, would consider the noble Aboriginals to be skin care experts.

Then there were the purveyors of 24 karat gold facial masks. “Experience the ultimate luxury in cleansing…” I guess so. Or, a “powerful moisturizer that is infused with nano-gold technology.” What the hell is that? Who makes up these things?

Maybe best of all is the $1,222 a jar Dr. Jucre Million Stem Cell Magic Concentrate. “For those who wish to have their own fat extracted and used, the company offers that option at an additional price.” And by the way, all extracting is done in South Korea. Definitely a magic potion.

The issue for legitimate marketers is how to break through this sea of exaggeration and false advertising. Do you have to join the fray, with even wilder claims, to capture the attention of doubtful women? Can an honest approach work? Or do forthright claims get ignored and lost?

We launched our new brand with the direct claim that the product visibly reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by 50% in just one hour. We have dermatologist supervised clinical trials that verify this claim. We have a significant reason to believe in a patented transdermal infusion process. There is nothing false or misleading about our promotion. We are not Hungry Fish Media.

And very few women have bought our product. There are many reasons, but a critical one is that in this category of inflated efficacy claims, a woman doesn’t understand what a 50% reduction might look like. Dematologists think this is an extraordinary achievement in one hour. Women are disappointed their wrinkles aren’t erased. Though we never say they will be, the expectations are high and based on the wishful thinking so pervasive in anti-aging skin care marketing.

The balance between truth and beauty is a delicate one. Beauty is an ambition, a hope. People–women and men–want to create their own beauty and will pay enormous sums to achieve the look they want. They will even inject botulinum toxin type A–commonly known as Botox–into their faces.

As Catherine Deneuve once said, “If a woman is not beautiful at twenty, it’s God’s fault. If she’s not beautiful at forty, it’s her fault.”

In the clouds.

While emailing this morning with my friends at Integrated Marketing Partners in San Francisco I made a silly typo: I referred to cloud computing as cloud commuting. Then I began to think that this isn’t so silly after all.  While images of the Jetsons come to mind, what I’m thinking about is how we do in fact use “the cloud” as a commuting channel.

This image comes from Wikipedia and illustrates my point.  Given the cloud’s agility and location independence, we  do commute from one device to another as seamlessly as walking from one room to another. We can be anywhere, anytime, and access all our stored data.  Commuting has never been easier or more productive.

As cloud computing progresses, our ability to adapt to the rapid pace of change in the world today becomes more efficient–if not easier.  This is evolution at the light speed.

Are you ready?

Wave Dynamics

My astrologer David Pond has sent his annual Autumn Equinox newsletter.  He writes that for the next several years the world will be highly unpredictable and that social instability will last at least through the seven squares of Pluto and Uranus through 2015.  We don’t want to wait for life to get mellower; it’s not.

He asks ‘Is light a particle or a wave?’  It’s both, depending how you pay attention to it.  Light responds to our attention; so does life.  ‘Are you a particle or a wave?’  This can be a useful metaphor to guide us through these times.  When you are locked into a particle consciousness, you attempt to freeze yourself in time and space and it’s futile.  When you are in wave consciousness, you remain growing, changing, evolving with the energy of the field around you.

Does this feel like now?  The world we live in is today characterized by rapid change and constant disruption. If we want to live in it, be part of the exhilaration and the harrowing drama, then we must be waves, rolling, undulating, crashing.  Hence Spindrift: the spray blown from a cresting wave in a gale, the result of wind and complex wave dynamics.  Pure nature, raw and violent and beautiful.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the internet and within social networks.  Twitter is a wave.  Facebook has wave action built-in. Nothing ever grows old in these waves.  It’ either the future or the past, and old is not a concept.  New isn’t a concept, because when everything is new, new immediately becomes the past.  This is what we live with.  Only wave riders will survive.

How can we write a business plan in this storm?  Does next year have any meaning?  Five years?  The world will be such a different place in five years that an alleged five-year plan is as fictional as Alice in Wonderland.

I’ve spent the past six months launching a new product on a e-commerce platform that lives within a complex, many tabbed Excel spreadsheet five-year plan with as many assumptions as required to make the numbers work out. The plan is meant to give the investors a sense of confidence that the company is viable, and has a future.  The spreadsheet tells us so;  it must be true, real.

The plan is a set of handcuffs limiting spontaneity, quick left turns, improvisation, zigs when the situation calls out for zags. Everything must be evaluated within the context of the plan.  It assumes the external world is a static place, where change never happens, where success one day is always replicated.  One order must be followed by 3x repeat orders, in a specific time period of time.  And if this order sequence isn’t met, is the product a failure?  Will the investors release the next round of funding?

This isn’t marketing.  It’s lunacy. My work here is complete.  The product has been launched; the case has been written.  Whether it succeeds in the marketplace will be subject to the waves in which it’s tossed.

Passionate External Workers

“…in the areas of technology and globalization, organizations must have the right talent to respond to the constant disruption and changes in the market.  And, the right talent for all of this is the passionate knowledge worker.  How does an organization accomplish this feat in the face of the very real war for talent?  The best answer is that forward-looking companies will gather and connect passionate external workers around the world and engage them as part of a virtual network, which very well may be attached to their organization.  And they will do this by taking advantage of the powerful advances we have seen in social software and cloud computing.”

Eric Openshaw, Deloitte

Let’s create a global team of friends who want to work together in new ways to innovate, share ideas and solve business problems collaboratively.  “Passionate external workers.”  The key here is friends.   Friends who know each other, like each other, want to work with each other, have a range of talent and expertise, have lives outside of work, and many passions.

We live and work in different cities and countries and draw inspiration from our time, place and culture.  We know where we are in the world.  And where we might want to be.

Most of us have worked together before.

We’re different ages and different nationalities and come from different backgrounds.  As individuals we’re unique; as a team even more so.

These are my friends.

Try us out.