Beanies to Full Power!

There’s nothing like getting into a really good brainstorming session to get the mental juices flowing and the beanie propellers revving. I had a great little conversation with one of my favorite people, Andrew Jones, when I ran into him downtown today during lunch. Andrew’s one of these smart guys that always has a lot of ideas, a lot of information to draw upon, and a hoard of energy to back it all up.

We were talking about Andrew’s company, Zerendipity, which is working on a system for linking together entrepreneurs, experts, mentors, and venture capitalists in the BC area to help entrepreneurs find the people and resources they need to get started. It got me onto the topic of linking customers with companies and vice versa.

As I see it, companies are pretty clueless about their customers – this occurred to me while doing research for my business plan class. Try and find specific information about customers. Really specific information, beyond the broad brush strokes of age and income demographics, is hard to find, especially if you don’t yet have any customers. If you do have customers, you probably have some information about customers, but you’re not using it as well as you could be. Case in point: Safeway.

That's a whole lotta junk mail...Last year, I noticed the inordinate amount of bulk unaddressed mail I was getting to my apartment. I decided to collect the mail for a year, just to see who was sending what, how much, and how often. It was pretty shocking: by the end of the year I had 20 pounds of junk mail from businesses that I either had never shopped at, or never would shop at in the future. Lots of these companies had essentially wasted their advertising dollars, and produced no value. Beyond the usual small business mail, realtors’ “I just sold a house!” proclamations, the major bulk of the mail came in the form of newspaper flyers from a limited number of businesses. Safeway came away as the worst offender, mailing a newspaper flyer roughly once a month.

Looking at the mass of flyers, something occurred to me: my wife and I shop at Safeway religiously, and we use our Safeway Club Card on all our purchases. Hadn’t anyone at Safeway realized this, and thought, “Hey, if we look at who currently shops with us already, maybe we could avoid wasting money on customers we already have!” I guess not. If I were them, I’d cull the Safeway Club purchase transaction database, note purchasing patterns, and directly mail customized offers to existing customers or new customers. Though it would cost more on a per-mail basis, the overall campaign could be designed to cost the same by reducing the physical size of the flyer and the number of customers targeted. Not only would it be more environmentally responsible, it would also maximize the “bang for the buck” businesses receive from their advertising budget.

Similarly, companies don’t seem to be too smart about asking their customers for information on what they’d like. For example, try to suggest to Sony a feature you’d like on their next camcorder. Or give feedback on why you didn’t buy a product because of a design feature you didn’t like. Go ahead, I dare you. Even if you manage to find some way to contact the company and give feedback, I guarantee all of the value you could have added to the company’s next product has just been relegated to the electronic wastebasket.

Who will help these companies?

Natural Capitalism

I’ve been reading Natural Capitalism on the bus to and from school for the last week. Wow. What a great read. From the opening chapter, an analysis of cars and how simply reducing their weight would open a world of compounding improvements, Hawken et al. are captivating. Though the book goes to effort of supporting all of its propositions with numerous scientific references, the underlying premise is simple: avoid unnecessary use of natural capital through application of existing technology and a little careful thought.

'Natural Capitalism' CoverFor example: the book starts with analyzing how reducing a car’s weight would eliminate the need for a big engine, a transmission, and power steering and brakes, all while reducing manufacturers’ costs. In short, manufacturers could be making gobs of money if they just addressed the weight problem using existing carbon fibre technology.

Drew Barrymore 'Lite'It was with my mind in this frame of thought that I saw this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, adorned by a suspiciously thin Drew Barrymore. Closer examination revealed, of course, Drew’s thighs had been assisted by an airbrush. And then it hit me: how many people out there are working industriously to create cleavage, thin thighs, and cover creases at this very moment? In fact, how much labour is expended in general to falsify the image of what a man or woman should appear? Are we so vain?

Apparently we are. Even my own experience in the MBA confirms it. Normally, I’m a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of guy; after all, since when did university call for anything else? But every time I wear something more formal to school for an interview or other event, I get an unusual number of comments from my classmates. The comments themselves aren’t a simple “You look good today”, they’re usually something more. There’s a hint of something Pavlovian to their voice, like they’re about to pet my head, give me a biscuit and say “Who’s a good boy, huh? Who’s a good boy? You are! Yes, you are!”

Honestly. Could we get over the issue of image, listen to Hawken et al., and focus on some problems that really matter? No? Then could you at least convince my classmates to stop petting me and giving me biscuits when I wear a suit? No?

Fine then, be that way.