AOL as a standalone

Last night, I sat at the bar reading the Jonathan Knee book, “The Curse of the Mogul” applying its basic tenets to our business at NCI – good mental gymnastics, more to come on that… I was fascinated by a piece where he showed how media CEO’s who are on a bad path tend to be disingenuous to their investors. He uses the VNU announcement of its acquisition of Houghton Mifflin as the example – hinting at synergies that were obviously not there.

Well, I just watched Tim Armstrong on CNBC (note that I think you need a CNBC account to see the viedo) and tried to put his opening day interview and his “Squawk on the Street” transcript to the test.

Here is what I found:

His five points for investors summarized…

  1. Management Team with deep knowledge (important, but not a barrier to competitors)
  2. Brand – ught oh, brands are temporary and certainly don’t present a long term barrier to competition
  3. Strategy – depends on what he means – wait and see.
  4. No debt, deep pockets – ught oh, to quote the Knee book, “deep pockets are eventually emptied”
  5. Cost structure – good, without a lot of barriers, you need to be extraordinarily efficient

When asked about investor’s biggest concerns he says:

“…what’s really here at the business, there’s a business that’s– that’s large, historic and declining. There’s a newer business which I think they’re tryin’ to understand and see.”

High marks for directness in that response. It is the brutal set of facts.

When asked to explain the strategy, it seems to be generate a lot more content and align the content to advertiser needs. There is discussion of technology and content management platforms – but the big bet is that content and broad audience is what big brand advertisers need. Meanwhile the AOL advertising business most recently has been in decline. Hamm – wait and see, not a lot of clear picture of what the content competitive advantage is.

The disingenuous moment came this morning in his interview with Melissa Lee. I’ll need to paraphrase because I can’t find the transcript. When asked about the focus on the access business, he replied that while they love their access customers they are only 2mm of AOL’s 260mm audience; a small sliver. WHOA – you don’t get paid in audience! Audience is, at best, a source of potential value – right now it is just a source of expense (acces is the profit driver for the whole enterprise). This smells like obfuscation and trouble…

Cool Flight

ImageThe flight from NYC to LA (and visa versa) is always interesting. It used to feel like everyone felt slighted on the plane. People in coach thought they should be in business, people in business thought they should be in first and people flying first thought they should be flying private. Thankfully, those days are over.

This morning on my flight to the Kelsey conference, I was surrounded by true icons (the benefit of LOTS of Delta flying). Sitting to my immediate right is Chuck D. from Public Enemy – one of the first rap groups that I really enjoyed growing up and a potent voice for social change. I even had a chance to show Chuck his tracks on my iPod – a remix of Survival by Bob Marley with his voice over; a rare, but cool track from Chant Down Babylon and a remix of Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth called He Got Game by Public Enemy.

ImageSitting behind me is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He seems content not to be bothered on the flight, so I am leaving him alone. However, Chuck D. did have an amazing conversation with him this morning – loaded with respect, humility, praise, a love of jazz and thanks. Chuck related reference points from his life that were tied to Kareem’s career – moving out of Harlem the year Kareem was recruited, getting an autograph in ’77 at a Nassau Colosseum game, events that tied their lives together. Witnessing the conversation, even as an eves-dropper was very cool.

My Name is Todd Dubner

Todd DubnerMy Name is Todd Dubner seems to be the perfect title for a blog post that is in part an SEO experiment. I made the decision last week that I was going to take some simple steps to try to boost the page rank of my blog for my own name. We talk about SEO all the time, and I had not really done any personally – just listened to experts and had our organization all geared to appeal to Google on an institutional scale.

So far so good, in the first day or so I was able to move from page 2 to page 1. I think that I can probably get to mid-page with just about an hour more work. So far, here is what I have done…

I added a page to my blog named “Todd Dubner”. That means that every one of my posts have a link to a description of me with the title tag of the link beign my name. (Note that I also just did a little internal linking on the blog for my name just above).

I just posted my picture with the name of the File as Todd Dubner.jpg, descriptive text of Todd Dubner. I will spare you all the video…

I managed all of my social media presence accounts to point to the blog. Linked-in, Twitter, Facebook, Active Rain profiles all now have a link to the blog – I am not sure how impactful that will be, but it seemed wise.

I added myself to Google Profiles with a link to my blog.

I used the blog roll to point at all of my social media presence points.

I tagged myself in a couple of posts.

I bought $15 worth of clicks on Google for my name, just trying to encourage them to take a closer look at my site.

So, about 1 hour of work, $15 in spend and so far about 1/2 a page in rank.

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Design for Flow

At NCI we have some mid-volume, highly structured websites.  They flow from search criteria, to lists of information to details in an entirely structured, sound way.  It is a classic design to organize information for easy, predictable access.  It is as efficient as the Dewey Decimal System.  It is inherently flawed.

I spent the last couple of days working with our Interactive group and our Home Design team thinking about how to fundamentally improve the design.  We have already worked through this logic for our Apartment Finder and Real Estate Book brands, but I think we took another big leap with our framework for Home Design.

What we are trying to achieve is a “flow” that is potentially infinite – like a never repeating Mobius Strip.  Once we understand generally what our consumer is looking for, we want to provide them specifically what they asked for within their direct field of view, with valuable and interesting “other” information in their peripheral frame.  The goal is ongoing engagement – not a singular solution.  The analogy we tested in our design session compared a traditional magazine – well ordered and organized – to Nash’s room in “A Beautiful Mind”.  We want to show all of the potential interconnections of content, the weave of articles, posts, polls, contributed, subscribed, pictures, videos – well enough to create a collection of strings connecting element to element within our world with a goal of engaging our audience while simultaneously presenting our advertisers.

Our new design requires a different kind of thinking about how we create, curate, share and integrate content.  Our editorial teams are busy wrapping their head around it as it will change the nature of their work and their processes.  The discussion we had yesterday was a giant leap in this direction.  It centered on how what we already do can be used to weave this fabric for our audience.  I am excited to see how it starts impacting the ways we are doing business.  There will be a lot of trial and error, but when we find approaches that work it will create a potent offering that should create tons of value for our advertisers!

Sammy and Comparative Advantage

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about lessons from wrestling, economics of comparative advantage and business.  In a conversation over the phone with my son, Sammy, last night (business travel sucks), I realized that he is already applying these strategies to his life.

Sammy is great.  He is an exuberant, extroverted, bright, fun, caring, and sensitive kid.  What I think is truly special about him, is his enthusiasm and willingness to work fiercely as the underdog to “take his healthy bite”.  It is easiest to see in athletics.  Sammy loves sports and teams, but is not a natural athlete.  He has never been the fastest kid on the field.  He never picked up a ball, racquet, bat, stick, glove or skate that came easy.  He does not instinctively “read the field” and anticipate where he should be.  But he does hustle hard, smile the most, celebrate his friends and he does work.

In an earlier post, I described how Sammy and I drill tennis.  Our hitting sessions are fun.  He is focused on improving his game.  He works hard on the “basics”; moving his feet, preparing his racquet, adjusting his swing and following through.  He does not shy away from the repetition and he does not get (too) frustrated when it does not “click”.  I admire his effort and focus, especially when it does not come easily.  I love the fact that he has so much fun, and that his hours are paying off.

Sammy and I have experienced the same lesson of the underdog when we stated running.  My wife, Tracey, is a tireless runner.  She gets up ridiculously early each morning to go run 5 or 6 miles.  When she gets back, Sammy and I go run 2 miles together (when my travel schedule permits).  We started running at Sammy’s suggestion.  He wanted to get faster, so we started.  He now runs in the dark, in the rain and in the cold.  Again, it does not come easily – just getting to two miles was hard, getting faster has been harder.  He loves the John Irving quote and has tremendous heart and takes great pride in his improvements.

For Sammy, focus is about happiness, joy and enthusiasm.  It is his core strength and his comparative advantage and he seems to know it.  He seems to understand that true enjoyment and enthusiasm is contagious – it makes him a great part of a team, of a classroom and makes him a great friend.  It comes naturally from his core – but that I try my best to foster it.

I guess the punch line is that I am proud of my son; that he is unafraid of his deficiencies and is aware of his assets and does not shy away from things that are enjoyable but challenging.  He is about to be 10 years old and I think he is developing great strategies for his life.

There’s an App For That

NCI has its first app in the iTunes store. Apartment Finder’s app (search for apartmentfinder) does everything we wanted it to, using features on the device that we think make total sense for an apartment shopper.

  • Find apartments near me (use the GPS)
  • Email a lead (email)
  • Call a lead (phone)
  • Take a picture of the apartment into your notes (camera)
  • Share your notes with a friend (web, email)
  • Much, much more

While I love it, think it is totally cool and know that it will drive leads and traffic – I still believe that the dominant “Mobile App” is ink on paper, freely distributed in a digest form, coupled with a cell phone. To that end – this video is spot-on and hillarious.

P.S. Finder has generated more than 1mm cell phone based leads since May, before our app ever hit the market.

Strategies of the Underdog

It is exceedingly rare to have absolute advantage.  Rights to a gold mountain that sits above ground with easy transportation in and out and low cost labor is just a fantasy.  Everyone competes in a series of dimensions, where they have some comparative advantages and comparative disadvantages.  It is important to know what you are good at and not shy away from those dimensions where you don’t have the natural upper hand.

John Irving is one of my favorite authors, not only because he is a wrestler, but because he gets that everyone is the underdog in some dimension and it shines through in his books.  He often talks about it and was described in a Salon.com  interview introduction; “it was John Irving’s high-school wrestling coach, Ted Seabrooke, who told him that ‘talent is overrated. That you’re not very talented needn’t be the end of it.’ Seabrooke also told him: ‘An underdog is in a position to take a healthy bite.’”  I have never seen John Irving wrestle, but I bet he had comparative advantages to go with his relative lack of talent.

I was a competitive wrestler in high school and can relate to the Seabrooke quote.  By my senior year I did well, with most pins on my team, a runner-up finish in the NY State Prep tournament and an upset of the number one seed at the Prep Nationals.  I find that what I learned wrestling are the same exact strategies we implement at NCI:

  1. Focus counts.  You can’t be better than everyone at every move.  I had a great single leg take down, a good escape routine and lots of pin routines.  I did not try big throws, I did not “scramble”.  Being much better at a few things leads to wins.
  2. Hard work pays off.  If I had to bet on any two wrestlers, I would put my money on the guy who spent more time training.  Fitness usually beats talent.
  3. Efficiency is key.  Wasting a ton of effort on a poorly set-up move or a position of limited leverage just tires you out.  It does not score points.

At NCI, our Apartment Finder brand is a great example of an underdog with comparative advantages.   We are significantly smaller than our competition both on line and in print.  We have less overall cash flow to invest back into this line of business than either For Rent or Apartment Guide.  But even as the underdog, we are busy taking our “healthy bite”.  We know where we have comparative advantage: being vertically integrated our production costs are the lowest in the space, avoiding exclusive, expensive distribution gives us the lowest cost per copy picked-up, having a stable management team we have some of the most long-standing relationships in the industry.  So, how to tie wresting to apartments?

  1. Focus counts.  We know that our position in the market must be as the low cost, high value supplier. Everything we do must be around that equation – improving our relative cost per lead for our customers.
  2. Hard work pays off.  I would bet that the Finder team logs more miles per employee, more hours per week and more overall effort per advertiser than anyone in our space.  Relentless hard work will bear fruit.
  3. Efficiency is key.  We do not need to be the flashiest, we do not need to be the most innovative in all dimensions, we do not need to try daring changes that put our relationships at risk.  We can’t waste our energy on efforts that won’t score points for our customers.

I like our positioning in this market.  I like our strengths and I like knowing that we are the underdog.  I really like that my colleagues at NCI have that same fighting spirit.