How a Swedish Grocery Store Beat Amazon Go to the Punch

December 7th, 2016 by ddeal

The Internet is buzzing about Amazon Go, Amazon’s new self-service grocery store. At the flagship Amazon Go in Seattle, opening in January 2017, anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app will simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. Customers will then receive a bill from Amazon, which uses a technology called Just Walk Out to detect when products are taken or returned to a shelf. The excitement over the disruptive potential of Amazon Go is justified. But a small grocery store in Sweden named Naraffar beat Amazon to the punch nearly a year ago. Naraffar’s story illustrates how small businesses can innovate quickly — but how big brands like Amazon can refine an innovation and make it mainstream.

Since January 2016, Naraffar, located in the small town of Viken, near the southern tip of Sweden, has been providing unstaffed 24-hour self-service. Customers use a smartphone app to unlock the store’s entrance, take groceries, and leave. Customers receive a bill later. Customers can also influence how Naraffar stocks its inventory by requesting items not in stock.

An enterprising Viken resident named Robert Illijason opened Naraffar after he noticed an unmet customer need: his own. After dropping his last bottle of baby food by accident, he needed to replenish his supply pronto. But the accident occurred when all stores were closed in the 4,200-town of Viken. Only after driving miles to another town did he find a store open.

In the aftermath of the experience, he wondered: why not open a 24-hour store in Viken? But the cost of hiring people to operate the store around the clock turned out to be prohibitive. So he designed a store that requires no people — not even to open or close the front door.

So far, Naraffar has succeeded as a small-scale, 7-11 type convenience store that offers staple items on demand, such as diapers and milk. Ilijason reports no issues with shoplifting. Customers need to identify themselves through Sweden’s BankID system. Security cameras monitor the store, and if for some reason the front door remains open for longer than 8 seconds, Ilijason receives an alert.

As noted by Tarunika Tolani of the Harvard Business School, Naraffar is a natural progression from click-and-collect buying, in which customers order what they want online and pick up goods in brick-and-mortar stores. The number of click-and-collect points in Europe grew by 20 percent in 2015, especially in the United Kingdom, where London alone can accommodate several collection points. Whether he realized it, Ilijason was tapping into a larger trend in consumer behavior by opening a store that removes a layer of friction from an increasingly popular click-and-collect approach.

But Naraffar lacks scale. Amazon possesses the scale, brand strength, and resources to make the Amazon Go model a mainstream experience. As is so often the case, start-ups can experiment and innovate. But the big brands such as Amazon can take innovation to another level. Amazon can test, learn, and refine an idea, whether its own or someone else’s. For instance, Naraffar requires shoppers to scan items with their smartphones and then confirm purchases — a two-step process. Amazon Go customers literally pick up their inventory and leave without any scanning their devices.

Naraffar offers limited inventory in a small location. Amazon Go’s flagship facility resembles a convenience store (with 1,800 feet), but already Amazon is exploring multiple grocery store formats, including much larger facilities, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Even Naraffar required the cooperation of a big brand to launch: Apple needed to approve its app for the smartphone technology to work.

In the United States, retailers are experimenting with several models that might exist alongside each other, including self-service stores of various sizes; variations of click-and-collect (see Walmart’s Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees); and delivery on demand (which Walmart has been famously piloting with Lyft and Uber). An independent self-service store relying completely on an app might be a better fit for a remote small town that requires fewer goods and exists. But I could see Amazon building larger Amazon Go stores (certainly larger than 1,800 square feet) in cities where a critical mass of shoppers and infrastructure exists to support a bigger store.

Retailers such as Walmart and Amazon will continue to experiment with different store formats. 2017 is already shaping up to be an exciting year.

Lead image source: geeksnewslab.com

Related:

Business Insider, “This 24-Hour Convenience Store in Sweden Doesn’t Have a Single Employee — Here’s How,” by Chris Weller, 29 February 2016.

The Huffington Post Canada, “Naraffar, Unmanned Swedish Grocery Store, Open 24 Hours,” by Emma Prestwich, 16 March 2016.

Reuters, “Broken Baby Food Jar Leads to Sweden’s First Unstaffed Grocery Store,” by Ilze Filks, 14 March 2016.

Brian Solis (via LinkedIn), “Amazon Go Brings Retail Experience into 21st Century,” 6 December 2016.

The Wall Street Journal, “Amazon Working on Several Grocery-Store Formats, Could Open More Than 2,000 Locations,” by Laura Stevens and Khadeeja Safdar, 5 December 2016.




Content Master: The Morton Arboretum

November 21st, 2016 by ddeal

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As the leaves of autumn give way to the bare branches of winter, the Morton Arboretum is a place of both refuge and inspiration. The preserve west of Chicago has a well-deserved reputation as a destination for hiking and bicycling amid the trees, ponds, and fields that comprise the 1,700-acre grounds. But the arboretum doesn’t assume that its reputation alone will attract visitors. To ensure that the natural playground remains top of mind amid the many digital and offline distractions vying for its patrons’ attention, the Morton Arboretum also happens to be a powerful content machine.

The arboretum’s content strategy is twofold: use digital to attract visitors, and offline content to support the organization’s mission of protecting and appreciating the natural world.

Visual Storytelling the Digital Way

The Morton Arboretum creates awareness and engagement by sharing content across the digital world where its patrons share their own content, on social spaces ranging from Facebook to Instagram, thus demonstrating that if you want to attract an audience, you need to be present where they live and search for things to do.

And the arboretum speaks the language of its audience: imagery. For instance, in October and November, the arboretum’s Instagram account offered an explosion of fall colors enticing the Instagram community to experience the bright red leaves of a sour gum or a golden yellow cork tree. The arboretum’s growing Pinterest community takes advantage of Pinterest’s organizational tools, with images organized under boards ranging from Gardening Ideas to Winter Trees. On YouTube, the arboretum offers more immersive tours that give potential visitors a taste of what they’ll find if they stop by. For instance, the arboretum recently posted a video tour of Illuminations, during which the grounds come alive with a festive light show at night. But YouTube is also a learning destination, offering how-to videos on topics such as tree pruning and watering plants and trees.

On Facebook, the arboretum also includes user-generated images, thus drawing from a broader palette of images and creating more engagement from its Facebook followers. Facebook and Twitter also act as sources of updates on the events that the arboretum offers around the year. In fact, its Facebook page is a textbook example of a how an organization can use a local page to generate awareness where people conduct searches for things to do nearby. The arboretum makes it easy for visitors to learn about events such as its Boo Breakfast for children, and the arboretum cross-promotes content on other social spaces, including TripAdvisor reviews. By being transparent and informative, the arboretum makes Facebook an important digital touch point that complements its website, which serves as its hub for learning more about things to do there. Patrons can also sign up for an email newsletter that curates content as frequently as needed.

A Learning Experience

The arboretum’s not-so-secret weapon for engaging its audience is educational content. Its website modestly claims that we engage students, families, teachers, and life-long learners to dig a little deeper into the science of trees,” which is putting things mildly. The arboretum is practically a year-round school, offering lectures, classes on topics such as nature art and photography, and opportunities to get involved in conservation. The arboretum does a masterful job segmenting educational content for different audiences. Here are just a few examples:

  • School groups: for grades PreK-5, the arboretum hosts classroom visits in which educational leaders provide courses such as plant investigation and the basics of trees. Its half- and full-day field trips offer deeper dives into nature for ages ranging from kindergarten to high school. Kindergarteners might learn about using the five senses to explore nature, whereas high schoolers can get involved into the maintenance of the park by acting as restoration stewards during their field trips.
  • Adult programs: the arboretum empowers adult visitors to enrich their understanding of nature and discover their inner artists. During chilly winter Saturday mornings, visitors can take winter bird walks, in which small groups discover the habits of the birds who winter at the arboretum. The Nature Artists’ Guild encourages patrons to express their artistic sides through paintings, drawings, and other creative endeavors — really a form of user generated content.

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Image source: The Morton Arboretum

One of my favorite arboretum activities is to immerse myself in learning at the Sterling Morton Library. The curved shelves full of neatly arranged books, comfortable chairs, and high ceiling create a welcoming environment to learn the old-school way: by burying your nose in books about the natural world the arboretum has vowed to protect. The library reminds me that a location need not provide blinking lights, video, and pulsating music to be immersive. The silence that invites quiet exploration of the mind is as immersive as sound.

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All the content has a purpose: to support the arboretum’s self-proclaimed role as “the champion of trees.” The exhibits, the classes, and the tours all ladder up to a mission to get everyday people involved in protecting the natural world. And the arboretum supports its mission in obvious ways, such as the Vanishing Acts traveling exhibit. Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat was developed with the Global Trees Campaign to raise awareness for threatened and endangered trees. What makes Vanishing Acts special is that you can take the exhibition with you. The exhibition is designed to be set up in public spaces appropriate for learning about tree conservation. As such, the arboretum offers a program to help others set up the exhibition, including a how-to guide for constructing the exhibit. Consider Vanishing Acts an old-school way of creating sharable content.

 Questions for Brands

  • Are you creating content that will engage your audience at a location level?
  • How well do you employ visual storytelling to share your brand?
  • Are you distributing that content where your customers are going to find it?
  • How well does your content support your mission?
  • How well do you involve your audience in the branded content you create?

Other Brands to Examine

  • Nordstrom, for its mastery of content on platforms such as Pinterest.
  • Starbucks, for capitalizing on social spaces to generate awareness for its stores.
  • Bass Pro Shops for providing activities such as 3D Archery
  • Weber Grill Restaurants for offering grilling classes and special events

For brick-and-mortar businesses, sharing meaningful content is increasingly essential to combat the ever-present threat of such as video games, Netflix, and apps that make it all too easy to remain planted on our sofas in the comfort of our homes. The Morton Arboretum can teach any brick-and-mortar business the power of immersive content.

Portions of this blog were adapted from a post I wrote for SIM Partners.

 




Al Green and the Family War

November 5th, 2016 by ddeal

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Art can divide a family.

In 1973, my family lived near a network of ponds and fields on the northern fringe of Battle Creek, Michigan. You can visit the neighborhood anytime through Google Street View and even check out our old house at 242 Wanondoger Trail. The area still looks pretty much the same: simple wood or brick ranch structures, the occasional split level, big lawns, trees, and, beyond the cluster of houses, an open expanse of grass that still invites kids to play war games in the summer and ride their snowmobiles in the winter, just as my older brother, Dan, and I did. I was 10 years old in 1973. Dan was 12. I had two older sisters: Karen, who was in high school, and Cathy, who had recently graduated, worked at a Dairy Queen, and lived at home. Our family lived uncomplicated lives, or so it seemed to me. Besides playing outside a lot, Dan and I listened to record albums, including Bible stories that our Grandma Deal bought us. And somewhere along the line, I had discovered the joy of Al Green.

I don’t remember when or where I first heard Al Green’s voice — probably on the radio during a family drive in our Monte Carlo. But I loved everything I heard. I was a quiet kid. By age 10, I had already lived in Peoria, Illinois; Atlanta; and Indianapolis, and I did not make friends easily. Mine was a lonely world defined by books, the fields, the pond, and Al Green’s voice. His music was like a companion. His soothing, sweet vocals on songs like “I’m Still in Love with You” made me want to sing. The romance and longing in songs like “Call Me” made me want to experience the passions that had inspired such powerfully emotional songs even though I was too young to truly understand what he was singing about. I lacked the money to buy his albums, but I could afford the occasional 45s, which I purchased at K Mart and kept in a small stack in our parents’ big wooden console stereo, right next to my dad’s copy of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

“You Ought to Be with Me” was my favorite Al Green single. I listened to it over and over. At the time, I didn’t know how songs were made. I thought singers and musicians performed them live as opposed to recording their parts separately and assembling the parts into a song. I wondered how Al Green made his voice become like an instrument in the opening few seconds, with his “Hey, yeahs” and drawn out “hey-ah” jumping an octave over a bed of horns and strings before pleading and asking someone to be with him. I always listened closely at the one-minute mark, when his teeth made a slight whistle sound as he sang the word “us” in “They don’t want to see us do.” I suppose someone else might have done a retake, but Al Green made every vocal tic sound like honey. And I thrilled at the way he made the word “night” sound like an extended “nigh-hi-ey-aye” as the song faded out. Whenever I saw the Hi Records logo on his 45s, I thought of that drawn-out “hi-ey-aey” and still do.

But Al Green was not an obvious choice for a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek. On the one hand, he was at the peak of his popularity as a soul singer. His sweet vocal style combined with Willie Mitchell’s slick production generated a slew of hit singles and albums that would help shape 1970s soul. But there was something about him that didn’t sit right with the masculine small-town culture that defined our neighborhood. Maybe it was the way his voice soared high and cooed. Maybe it was his occasionally florid choice of attire, such as the frilly coat and sleeves he wore on the cover of Al Green Gets Next to You. Never mind that he was a notorious womanizer in real life. He was just too sweet for the boys of Battle Creek.

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I soon experienced his impact firsthand when Cathy began to bring home boyfriends. They all looked big and rough to me in their greasy jeans, dirty flannel shirts, and long hair. When they hung out at our house, they always brought their records, and they played Cathy’s records, such as the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) and Paul McCartney’s Ram. Sometimes they would discover my Al Green singles and play one, which always evoked the same incredulous “What is this shit?” expressions before the 45 was abruptly yanked from the turntable and replaced quickly with something more suitable, such as Deep Purple or Uriah Heep.

And Cathy was not exactly in a position to explain my odd musical interest. She really didn’t know me. We lived in two completely different universes. In 1973, she was soon going to turn 19. She was the oldest child, which meant being the first among us to experience the world, and I was the youngest, which meant I had experienced nothing, in her eyes. We were not hostile to each other, but we didn’t have anything in common. She tolerated me — but she accommodated her friends.

My mom and dad expected their kids to abide by the rules of the house, which, for Cathy, meant the usual prohibitions, such as on overnight guests without our parents’ consent, no drinking, no drugs, and generally no partying. It was fairly easy for my parents to enforce these rules so long as they were around.

But they weren’t always around.

My dad traveled a lot for his job as an insurance executive. We all grew up being accustomed to him living long stretches away from home. He would later keep an apartment in Chicago after he took a different job, and for awhile, the rest of us stayed behind in Battle Creek, as we had gotten used to him not being at home much. Part of my dad’s job involved attending annual company meetings in locations like St. Maarten. In 1973, he took my mom on one of these trips, and left the kids at home under Cathy’s care. Which meant Cathy had carte blanche to break the house rules. Which she did with relish.

She had her friends over. A lot. Overnight. With drinking. And maybe drugs. Probably drugs. I didn’t like it. Our house had been overtaken by a bunch of long-haired Vikings from the wild, drinking what they wanted, eating what they wanted, and sleeping where they wanted. And who could blame them, Cathy, or any other teenager once they discovered they had the run of the house? One morning, after a few nights of their general debauchery and hedonism had passed, I discovered my collection of Al Green singles had been reduced to a pathetic pile of sharp vinyl shards. I never found out who destroyed them, but it didn’t matter. Cathy had let them in. And they had violated my prized possessions. Even worse, Cathy didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t even notice.

That week, I discovered the meaning of revenge. I could never get those singles back, but I could get back at Cathy. So for the rest of the week, I kept a journal that described every rule violation that had occurred while my parents were away that week. Down to the minute, I recorded each party, each random cigarette butt tossed in our yard, each bottle of beer consumed by the Viking hoards, and every moment I had endured listening to their loud music. When the week was over, and my parents had returned home, I dutifully handed over the journal to my mom. Our parents never trusted Cathy to babysit the kids again, and they stripped her of the right to have any friends over for a long time, with or without my parents there. Essentially, the house became a prison for her, or so she thought. And my journal was to blame.

Today Cathy and I get along just fine. She lives not too far from me, and we share a deep love of music. But the journaling incident caused a rift that took years to heal. In Cathy’s eyes, I was nothing more than the worst kind of younger brother possible: a snitch. As I saw it, she was responsible for a horrible violation of my world. But I was willing to pay the price. You just didn’t mess with Al Green. Not my Al Green.




Content Is King in Virtual Reality

October 15th, 2016 by ddeal

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Virtual reality believers have had a lot to smile about lately, as Facebook and Google took big steps to make VR mainstream.

On October 4, Google launched its anticipated $79 Daydream View VR headset, part of Google’s toolkit to embed VR into our lives through Google’s ecosystem, whether we’re watching concerts on YouTube or navigate Google Maps. Two days later, Mark Zuckerberg wowed the technology industry by showing off a slick VR demo at the Oculus Connect developer summit, which showed how quickly Facebook is delivering on Zuckerberg’s vision to transformation social media into social VR.

These are indeed good reasons to be excited about the future of VR. But you know what really made me feel passionate about VR in recent weeks? Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Yep, an iconic song that was released more than 40 years ago gave me a more compelling glimpse of the future than any demos and new products coming out of Silicon Valley recently. Last month, Queen, Google Play, and studio Enosis VR collaborated to create The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience, an app that presents Queen’s masterpiece as an immersive journey “through frontman Freddie Mercury’s subconscious mind,” in Google’s words. After you download the app, you can experience the song with or without Google Cardboard in Android or iOS, as I did one recent afternoon. (Google Cardboard enables the VR experience, but without the viewer, you can still enjoy the song with a 360-degree view by tilting your screen — not quite VR, but a step toward it.)

And by “experience the song,” I do mean experience. Here is an inspiring, visually stunning re-imagining of Queen’s most endearing work. Drawing on animation that reminds me of Yellow Submarine, the video depicts a world of stars, floating snails, twirling figurines, moving album covers, forbidden caves, and members of Queen exploding in neon — just within the first few minutes of the six-minute epic.

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God knows how many times I had heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” before seeing the song this way. It’s the kind of song that I stop what I’m doing and pay close attention to each time I hear it. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t need VR to be memorable. But VR gave me a fresh perspective. It made me experience the music in a new way by using spatialized sound, or sound that corresponds to different segments of a video depending on how you turn your head.

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“Bohemian Rhapsody” is the latest example of how Google is partnering with artists to show us the possibilities of VR. For example, through Google Spotlight Stories, Google and directors such as Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) make short movies in VR. And on October 16, the 600th episode of The Simpsons will feature a virtual reality sight gag developed with Google. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably Google’s most ambitious creative partnership yet. The song speaks to multiple generations and has become so far embedded in popular culture that future generations will be singing along with Freddie Mercury in 2926. The app entailed a collaboration with Queen guitarist Brian May, a braniac who has a PhD in astronomy and who also just happened to help develop a VR viewer through his directorship of The London Stereoscopic Company.

The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience illustrates two essential truths about VR:

1. The Content Has to Be Great

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is great. But “We Built This City” would suck in any reality. If you start with terrible content, experiencing VR is about as compelling as watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 3D: virtual crap. By working with acclaimed and popular artists such as Queen and Read more »




Snap Makes a Run at Affluent Millennials

September 28th, 2016 by ddeal

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As soon as Snap Inc. announced the launch of its Spectacles video recording shades, the digerati began comparing Spectacles to Google Glass and pondering whether Spectacles would capture consumers’ imagination in ways Google Glass failed to do. But I don’t believe Snap CEO Evan Spiegel cares whether Spectacles finds a widespread audience. I think he’s trying to target a smaller audience of affluent millennials, the kind who can afford to drop a bundle at Coachella each year.

Whether you’re Facebook, Instagram, Snap, or Twitter, the name of the game is to create a brand that stands apart and builds a loyal audience. Facebook already owns the social media category. Every business that describes itself as social media will forever operate in Facebook’s shadow. Spiegel has kept Snapchat from becoming just another social media also-ran by positioning the app as a visual storytelling experience for millennials, who now constitute the largest age cohort in the United States, bigger than baby boomers.

By changing the name of his company from Snapchat to Snap Inc., Spiegel is trying to position Snap as a bigger millennial lifestyle brand beyond the app, which is where Spectacles come into play. (I like the way Brian Solis characterizes Snap as a digital lifestyle company.) The colorful shades, which will cost $130 when they hit the market, look playful and fun, and therefore millennial-friendly. They won’t make anyone look like a dreaded Glasshole.

But being millennial-friendly doesn’t mean being friendly to all millennials. The millennial generation is large enough and diverse enough to accommodate products and services targeted to smaller segments of their population. The 92 million millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 2000) who live in the United States are a diverse generation in many ways, including economically and culturally. Ranging in age from roughly 16 to 36, they include digital natives in high school, millions who are just starting out at the bottom rungs of their careers, and millions more who are achieving affluent status as they approach middle age (the median age in the U.S. is 36.8). As a whole, millennials’ median college loan debt is rising. They are more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a spouse our partner in their own household.

In other words, many millennials don’t have $130 sitting around to spend on shades that you can use only to record 10-second videos on Snapchat, but they’ll continue using Snapchat because it’s free. But Snap does not need all millennials to buy Spectacles — just a chunk of the 44 million millennials aged 25-36 who are actually generating more sizable disposable incomes. (According to FutureCast 6.2 million millennial households in the U.S. earn $100,000 or more each year.)

I believe Evan Spiegel wants Snap Inc. to be something like Alphabet, rolling out different products and services that will make Snap indispensible to millennials. Some will be more broadly applicable than others. Spectacles represent Spiegel dipping his toes in the water with a very targeted market.

As Spiegel told The Wall Street Journal, “We’re going to take a slow approach to rolling them out. It’s about us figuring out if it fits into people’s lives and seeing how they like it.”

But not all people’s lives — rather, his people’s lives. And Evan Spiegel understands affluent millennials. After all, he is one.

 




Every Picture Tells My Story

September 23rd, 2016 by ddeal

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When you reach your 50s, you start to experience the cruelties that life visits upon you if you hang around long enough, such as losing people you love or a job that puts bread on the table. The 50s are also a time of reflection, whether you’re patting yourself on the back for building a marriage or regretting that you never moved to the desert when you had the chance. My spiritualty keeps me balanced during this chapter in my life, but God also gets a major assist from music. Case in point: Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, recorded 45 years ago. Improbably enough, a 26-year-old rock star on the rise created music that connects with my 53-year-old self in a way that few albums do.

When I was in high school during the late 1970s, Rod Stewart was something of a joke. I knew him as the campy singer of cringe-worthy songs whose titles, such as “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Hot Legs,” betrayed their juvenile nature. But after high school, probably because of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, I listened to Every Picture Tells a Story. The album revealed a more sensitive, nuanced side of Rod Stewart’s music, such as the gentle mandolin that introduces “Maggie May.” The album sat on my shelf for years, periodically played and enjoyed as a 40-minute song cycle, usually after Stewart’s name came up in conversation, or one of the album’s songs was used in a movie such as Almost Famous.

And yet, Every Picture Tells a Story never connected with me personally until now. I got immersed in the album this summer after reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — the Year that Rock Exploded, an engaging book that contains an insightful appreciation of the album and Rod Stewart’s early career. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the master appears. I discovered that the passage of time has prepared me to uncover a deeper bond with the themes that reveal themselves on the album. Two songs in particular, “Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Mandolin Wind,” say everything there is to know about being at this stage of your life.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” is a sprawling track about a young man’s coming of age as he leaves home and sees the world. Although Stewart was in his 20s when he wrote the song, he belts the lyrics with the gusto of an older man happily looking back and allowing himself to indulge in some joyful nostalgia. I see myself all over the song. When Stewart sings, “Spent time feelin’ inferior standin’ in front of my mirror/Combed my hair in a thousand ways, but I came out lookin’ just the same,” he sums up my high school years in two lines. I well remember the awkward teen dressed in jeans and a T shirt, trying to screw up the courage to ask a girl out on a date, and then experiencing the crushing rejection of getting turned down. But I always had my studies, and my grades, to buoy my spirits, even if getting A’s meant creating expectations and pressures to succeed.

Even awkward boys leave home and start to find their way, as I inevitably did when I spent a summer in Germany and France after my senior year in high school, a time of unfettered freedom from expectations and the limitations of how I was defined at home. I moved on to four years of college, where self-discovery continued, sometimes painfully, sometimes happily. Stewart captures this time with lyrics like “Paris was a place you could hide away if you felt you didn’t fit in.” This was a period of creative growth and exploration, which I would not experience again for many years until I embarked on an unexpected but rewarding second life as an actor at the Bristol Renaissance Faire on summer weekends.

Even the absurd lyric, “My body stunk but I kept my funk” has meaning, for I remember the period of living alone in my own bungalow during my senior year of college, when having no money was a badge of honor. I supported myself washing dishes and pumping gas at places where I was in over my head, covered in grime and oil.

But the part of the song that resonates the most is this:

I firmly believed that I didn’t need anyone but me

I sincerely thought I was so complete

Look how wrong you can be

This passage speaks to the experiences that make us grow, especially after you think you’ve settled into a groove after college and you’re forging your own successes. You think you’ve discovered the formula for personal prosperity and growth until you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, as I did when I met Jan. You realize that needing someone means changing your thinking and assumptions about how the world works, although the realization doesn’t always happen right away. How well I remember our early years of living in an apartment in Chicago, when cleaning the house together meant playing Paul McCartney songs very loud and turning work into fun. Cleaning the bathroom no longer became a detested chore as we navigated the new. Those little ordinary moments are the times when you understand that the assumptions you formed the first 25 years of your life will not carry you through the rest of your years. You start to figure out how to stop tackling problems (even little ones, like the apartment needing a thorough cleaning) in terms of “What am I going to do about this?” to “What are we going to do about this?

The most famous song on the album is “Maggie May,” with its Graduate-like narrative of a young man falling into an aimless slide as he recovers from a romance with an older woman. The song imparts a sense of life passing by (“It’s late September and I ought to be back in school”) and time being wasted, which is surely a theme anyone sliding into middle age can understand. But it’s the song that follows “Maggie Mae” that stands out for its quiet power. “Mandolin Wind” is a folksy number that sounds like it came from another era. The song is an ode from an aging farmer to his wife, who stays at his side through a harsh time. Stewart delivers the lines with an understated grace that feels almost like a poetry reading set to music:

Oh the snow fell without a break

Buffalo died in the frozen fields you know

Through the coldest winter in almost fourteen years

I couldn’t believe you kept a smile

Now I can rest assured knowing that we’ve seen the worst

And I know I love you

 

I recall the night we knelt and prayed

Noticing your face was thin and pale

I found it hard to hide my tears

I felt ashamed I felt I’d let you down

“Mandolin Wind” is a song about that part of growing older where life visits cruelties upon you, such as job loss. I can easily remember the experience of having my job eliminated in 2010. That day, I had been asked into a 5:00 p.m. meeting for a vaguely defined reason. Something didn’t feel right, and I had the entire day to worry. It didn’t help matters that I was working in an unstable industry, and layoffs were common. When I walked into the sterile office where the meeting was to be held and saw a member of HR sitting with one other company executive, a large white envelope sitting on the desk in front of them, I already knew I no longer had a job. The meeting itself followed a script that I knew well, as I had laid off members of my own team recently. I could have said all the words and saved them the trouble.

They say you should never take getting laid off personally, but it’s your job and your livelihood disappearing. Inevitably, you ask what you could have done differently, although it’s sort of like asking what you could have done differently to cheat death. When your time is up, your time is up. But when you lose your job, you still have to call your wife to explain what happened, and you feel like a total loser, just like the farmer in “Mandolin Wind” who says, “I felt ashamed/I felt I’d let you down.”

But with Jan, there was no doubt we were going to endure together and support each other. We moved on, and kept moving on, leading up to the place we are now, working hard to create a future for ourselves and our daughter. Our life of self-employment affords many joys such as being able to take a break in the middle of the day and go on a hike in the woods. There are also some frustrations, such as paying for our own health insurance and taxes, and trying to save enough for tomorrow. We have cold winters. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve experienced other rejections beyond job loss. But we handle them together.

I don’t know if we’ve seen the worst yet, but I know we love each other, which brings me back to “Mandolin Wind.” It’s the right song for right now in my life.

 




SIM Partners Makes It Easier to “Ride There with Uber”

August 25th, 2016 by ddeal

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Location is a catalyst for the $57.6 billion on-demand economy.

Case in point: today SIM Partners, a location marketing technology platform provider (and one of my clients) announced that the company has made it possible for brick-and-mortar businesses ranging from restaurants to retailers to add a “Ride There with Uber” button to their location pages.

SIM Partners clients that use the company’s Velocity platform to add the Uber button to their pages will provide an easy way for anyone to order an Uber to their location. The button will appear along with the usual content, such as store hours and addresses, which you find on a brand’s location page when you use your smart phone to conduct a search for things to do and places to go nearby. So, for example, a shopper interested in checking out a sale at a shoe store can order an Uber right off the store’s location page, as shown in this image:

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Velocity manages location pages for businesses with multiple brick-and-mortar locations. So for a brand with thousands of location pages, the addition of a “Ride There with Uber” button can convert searches to in-store business at scale. As SIM Partners noted in a press release, 76 percent of people who conduct a local search on their smartphone visit a business within 24 hours, and 28 percent of those searches result in a purchase. SIM Partners aims to help its clients capture their share of those searches by nudging searchers one step closer to the store.

The announcement comes at a time when the addition of buy buttons on sites such as Pinterest has amplified the role that digital plays in the growth of an on-demand economy in which consumers can get what they want faster than ever before. Indeed, according to an August 2016 Harvard Business Review article, online businesses account for the largest category of on-demand spending. Brick-and-mortar businesses are responding by developing on-demand services that rely on a mix of digital and offline delivery tools. Brands such as Domino’s Pizza, Nordstrom, and Walmart are creating partnerships with business such as Uber, and developing integrations with technologies such as Amazon Echo, which promise shoppers faster delivery of goods and services from brick-and-mortar stores. Others, such as Shoe Carnival have succeeded by providing mobile wallet offers that lure shoppers to stores in order to enjoy time- and place-sensitive deals.

Uber is the engine of the on-demand economy, both online and offline. According to Business Insider (and reported by SIM Partners in its press release), Uber completed 62 million in July, a 15 percent increase over the previous month. As I have noted previously, Uber ushered in the on-demand economy by tapping into unmet consumer needs and offering services that have disrupted industries ranging from retail to healthcare. SIM Partners clients span multiple industries in which brick-and-mortar locations are at the center of the customer experience. It makes perfect sense for SIM Partners to add Uber functionality for its clients’ customers.

Technology becomes pervasive when it permeates multiple industries and when everyday people use it, which is the key to the success of brands such as Apple. Uber enjoys that kind of success. Anyone with a smartphone can order an Uber. Integrations with companies such as Foursquare and SIM Partners make Uber more pervasive for businesses, too — and make it even easier for people to use Uber to get what they want on their own terms. It helps that Uber makes its API available to businesses. Uber simplifies life for both consumers and businesses. Simplicity is the key to the on-demand economy, which is attracting 22 million consumers annually — and investments from some of the world’s most valuable brands. As the services being developed by the bellwether companies such as Walmart take hold, look for brick-and-mortar businesses to grab an even bigger share of the on-demand economy, with location being the battleground.

 

 




How Uber Feeds an Appetite for Disruption

August 19th, 2016 by ddeal

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The news about Uber rolling out self-driving cars later in August underscores the reason why Uber has become a multi-billion dollar brand within seven years: Uber’s core competence is not ride-sharing — it’s disruption.

Uber has consistently developed and modified its business model to either drive or participate in disruption. Consider these examples:

  • In 2009, Uber initially upended the auto transportation industry by launching a ride-sharing service that liberated consumers from the tyranny of taxicabs that dictated terms and pick-up schedules to passengers. The launch of Uber was the big bang, which ushered in an era of on-demand, peer-to-peer services in multiple industries.
  • Uber set its sights on home delivery with the launch of UberRUSH in 2015 and UberEATS in 2016. UberRUSH delivers goods for retailers ranging from Nordstrom to boutique florists. UberEATS focuses on food delivery for restaurants. The service is moving its way across the United States by forming relationships with dining establishments in major cities such as Philadelphia, where more than 100 restaurants partnered with UberEATS on the first day of its launch.
  • The deployment of self-driving automobiles is part of a broader disruption of the automotive industry, which has involved an interesting partnership between automakers such as Ford and Silicon Valley titans such as Google, as car manufacturers seek to change their own industry with autonomous vehicles before someone else does. Self-driving vehicles, following their initial use in Pittsburgh, will permeate both transportation and delivery, potentially outmuscling the use of drones that other businesses are adopting.

How does the company continue to ride waves of disruption, even challenging the very service it launched in 2009? Three factors play a role:

  • A knack for wedding technology with an understanding of human behavior. Uber initially succeeded not because it provided a cool app but because the company understood that people ordering taxicabs require responsiveness, ease of use, and transparency in pricing — needs that were unmet by the status quo. The Uber app filled the void by making it ridiculously easy to order a ride when you want it and where you want it. No longer was it necessary to navigate clunky phone trees to request a cab and then wait around wondering when your ride was going to show up.
  • Creation of partnerships with like-minded brands. Uber doesn’t go it alone. For ride-sharing services, Uber has created relationships with businesses such as Foursquare to make it even easier to order an Uber. The success of UberRUSH and UberEATS relies on Uber’s ability to partner with retailers and restaurants. It’s no accident that one of UberRUSH’s delivery partners is Nordstrom — a company known for its innovations in customer service. (I expect Uber will expand its relationship to go beyond delivery and offer customer service options akin to a Nordstrom town car, shuttling loyal customers around for a day of shopping and in-car entertainment as an exclusive service.) Similarly, Uber is partnering with Volvo with self-driving cars.Uber finds not just any partner, but the right fit for Uber.
  • A willingness to adapt. UberEATS initially rolled out in 2014 as a feature on the Uber ride-sharing app. But the experience was wonky. Uber realized that people are in two different frames of mind when we order rides and food: when we want a ride, we want to get from point A to point B. We don’t want to bother with ordering food delivery. So Uber decoupled the feature as a standalone app. Uber has also constantly changed its ride-sharing app, introducing greater levels of information transparency. Now Uber is revised its business model with a driverless service. Uber also recently introduced UberPOOL, which encourages passengers to share rides and split their transportation costs. UberPOOL could cut down on congestion and pollution by combining multiple rides in one car. UberPOOL has reportedly taken 7.9 million miles off the roads and 1,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air in Los Angeles within its first eight months of use.

What’s next for Uber? What industries might the company upend? Here are some candidates:

  • Entertainment. Uber can become an entertainment brand in a number of ways. Live Nation and Uber already have a basic ride service partnership for people to order rides to events, but I think Uber is capable of much more, especially by bundling entertainment with ticketing and transportation. Uber is big enough to offer the entertainment itself through partnerships with artists. Uber already hosts private concerts for customers. Uber may also capitalize on the car itself as a source of entertainment. The company already offers ad-free streaming via apps such as Pandora, which just hints at the kind of in-car entertainment options Uber could provide, ranging from music to streaming movies for longer rides. Cars provide much more than transportation. They’re already mobile content machines.
  • Healthcare, by bringing medical providers to patients (and vice versa) and by managing the delivery of pharmaceutical products. Companies such as Pager exist already to bring physicians to patients’ locations on demand. But Uber has the scale to pull off on-demand medical care nationwide. Already Uber has a relationship with Relatient to offer transportation services to patients. More to come here.

Uber could also expand payment, customer loyalty, and advertising services through partnerships with other companies, becoming an all-purpose customer acquisition and service platform based on the data the company collects on its customers.

Uber will also go beyond the app interface if it needs to do so. If the economics make sense, Uber could penetrate wearables to provide even more frictionless, on-demand services.

What do you think Uber will do next?




A Place of Magic

August 12th, 2016 by ddeal

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Photo credit: Brian Schultz

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now . . . Come further up, come further in!” — C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Do you have a happy place, a special source of joy that uplifts your soul every time you are there? Let me tell you about mine.

The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a make-believe 16th-Century English village that recreates a day when Queen Elizabeth has come to visit. Bristol is located within sight of the world of concrete roads, orderly outlet malls, and generic motels that cluster around Interstate 94 just north of the border between Illinois and Wisconsin. From the road, Bristol looks like a patch of green wood enclosed by a fence. Bristol is in the world but not of the world.

The world of Bristol is a tangle of trees, dusty lanes, cozy wooden shops, elaborate stages, still ponds, glades, and meadows. Entering Bristol requires visitors to pass through a set of gates, like the Pevensie children entering Narnia through the doors of the wardrobe. My family and I have been visiting Bristol for years. My daughter, Marion, and I are now part of the cast of actors who become Bristol residents for Saturdays and Sunday during the summer.

I have often been asked why on earth I choose to dress in heavy 16th Century garb and drive two hours round trip on Saturdays and Sundays to bake in the summer heat. I have offered some answers through my blog during the past few years. But my posts are, at best, clues, as is the one I’m writing now. For Bristol is a mystery, like a rune that casts a spell on you. Bristol is a place of strong magic, like Middle Earth or the island in Lost.

Over the years, I have experienced the setbacks that beset you if you hang around long enough, ranging from job loss to death of family and friends. Bristol is a healing balm. Early on Saturday and Sunday, long before the gate opens, and before many of my cast mates arrive, I walk through the trees that stand like guardians beside a private lane where cast members enter the grounds. I feel the trees whispering to me that the time has come to put aside all the world’s cares and surrender to Bristol.

The spell of Bristol grows throughout moments of the day, like when I walk past the fairy village in the morning. The miniature buildings and trees of the village are set off from a meadow by a little fence, seemingly still but humming with energy. Or when I smell wood smoke and notice white wisps rising from cooking pots simmering in the open air at the Dirty Duck Inn across from the Cheshire Chase Action Stage.

The day brings more smells, sounds, and sights. Like the drone of a hurdy-gurdy in the distance as you stroll down the wide expanse of High Street and Shoplatch Lane. The harmonic voices of the Bristol Buskin Frolic dance company or the jingle of the bells on their feet as they walk by. The sight of fairies, their faces painted yellow, green, and blue, dancing amid the trees or hiding in bushes. The shadows that fill Shakespeare’s Meadow, creating tall, animal shapes that dissolve in the trees. In the evening, I sometimes detect a splash of incense wafting from the shops, like a natural perfume in the air, which energizes me during moments when my body grows tired from having roamed the streets all day, interacting with patrons as I portray a character named Nicolas Wright.

When you visit Bristol as a patron, you can easily spend hours bouncing from one attraction to the next: the knights jousting, the comedy shows, the musical troupes, the Danse Macabre, the shops selling silver rings, ancient maps, and wooden swords, among other things.

Video source: the YouTube Bristol Renaissance Faire channel

The street improv acts create an energy that can keep you buzzing all day. As a cast mate, I enjoy all those things as much as I did when I was a patron, but I also appreciate the quiet moments when I savor life as I did when I was a child and things were simpler. Like lying in the grass behind a tree and studying the clouds before the mid-day parade begins. Or letting a breeze wash over me during a mid-afternoon lull in the hidden garden of the noble’s glade. Or following the graceful, swooping motions of a falcon after the creature is unleashed by royal falconer. Little moments that deepen the spell.

Video source: the YouTube Boston Mama Knits channel

The spell works its way through the cast and also the patrons, like Daniel, a military veteran who I’ve occasionally encountered in the streets. He is quiet, barely saying a word as he moves slowly from shop to shop. Normally he wears sunglasses and a cap with the name of his military unit stitched on the front. We sometimes trade smiles and small talk in fleeting moments. One time in 2014 he told me that Bristol is his happy place, where he walks off his memories of fighting in the Middle East. He thanked me for being part of the magic that heals him.

I never forgot that conversation — what he said, where I was standing in the shadows of Guild Hall Row when he confided in me, and his sunglasses and cap. I didn’t see much of him in 2015 or this year, until a few weeks ago, when I was marching in the mid-day parade. The parade snaked its way through Bristol, all of us kicking up little eddies of dust. As always, I made brief eye contact with a sea of faces, waving and shouting. Near the lane, I noticed a familiar, quiet grin behind a pair of sunglasses. I did a double take. I knew that face — Daniel’s, without the cap.

“I know you!” I shouted.

His grin became a broad smile.

“You will always be my friend!” I continued, as he disappeared from view.

Seeing Daniel filled my soul. He looked happy and healed. I wondered if I would see him that afternoon. You can see someone for just a moment in Bristol and never again. Every second counts. But a few hours later, at St. John’s Crossing, a little lane of shops and food stands, there he was, wandering alone. I held out my arms, and we embraced like brothers. Not a word needed to be spoken.

Video source: YouTube FunBlast TV channel

Everyone on the cast can tell you stories like mine. I hear them every day — tales of people transcending the world that sent them into Bristol, through encounters with Queen Elizabeth, learning how to country dance, or meeting a knight. These are but snapshots of a place, flat images that capture a glimpse of something unknowable. Magic cannot be known. Like faith, magic requires belief. I believe in Bristol magic even though I do not understand it fully. I am grateful that I have a place in my life for the unexplainable.




Why Ed Sheeran Might Need to Pay up in Copyright Infringement Lawsuits

August 10th, 2016 by ddeal

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Ed Sheeran is having a tough summer. In June, the writers of Matt Cardle’s single “Amazing” slapped Sheeran with a $20 million copyright infringement lawsuit, claiming that Sheeran’s 2014 song “Photograph,” from his album X, copied “note-for-note” Cardle’s “Amazing,” written in 2009. On August 10, Sheeran was hit with another copyright infringement lawsuit, this time by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who composed and co-wrote the lyrics for Marvin Gaye’s classic song “Let’s Get It On” in 1973. The latest lawsuit claims that Sheeran’s song “Thinking Out Loud” (Sheeran’s first Number One single, also from from X) possesses melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements that are “substantially and/or strikingly similar” to “Let’s Get It On.” It’s anyone’s guess as to how these lawsuits are settled, but an unfavorable verdict against Sheeran could have ramifications on songwriters everywhere.

In both cases, Sheeran is being sued because, in essence, the musical structure of his songs is too similar to someone else’s. For instance, the “Photograph” lawsuit alleges “The chorus sections of Amazing and the infringing Photograph share 39 identical notes – meaning the notes are identical in pitch, rhythmic duration, and placement in the measure.”

These types of cases, which come down to musical, as opposed to lyrical, similarities, seem to be up for grabs. In 2015, attorney Richard Busch, who is representing the writers of Matt Cardle’s “Amazing,” successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in a copyright infringement case that claimed Thicke’s and Williams’s song “Blurred Lines” was too similar in musical structure to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” A judge awarded Marvin Gaye’s family $5.3 million and a share of future royalties. On the other hand, in June, Led Zeppelin successfully defended itself in a copyright infringement lawsuit that claimed the opening chords to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarized guitar chords in Spirit’s song “Taurus.”

Why did Led Zeppelin emerge victorious over musical infringement but Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams did not? The answer will determine whether Sheeran is liable for millions of dollars in damages. And, as I blogged recently, the matter is a murky one. These factors will likely decide the outcome:

  • How integral is the music to the entire song? This issue will likely determine whether Sheeran wins or loses. Thicke and Williams were successfully sued because the recurring backbeat and chorus that form the structure of “Blurred Lines” was too similar to that of “Got to Give It Up.” On the other hand, although the opening chord progression of “Stairway to Heaven” is similar to a guitar part in “Taurus,” the resemblance lasts but a few seconds. Thicke and Williams might have emerged victorious had a jury believed the same was true with “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” In Sheeran’s case, the lawsuits are basically arguing that Sheeran stole the foundation upon which he built his songs, as opposed to nicking just a few elements here and there. Based on the outcome of the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit, Sheeran is definitely in a tough position with both his lawsuits. He may very well need pay up.
  • How original is the music in question? Team Led Zeppelin argued that the songs “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” were based on common chord progressions that date back to the 17th Century and can be heard in songs such as the Beatles’ “Michelle.” In other words, the musicians were adapting music that is in the public domain, and any similarity to other songs was entirely coincidental. On the other hand, in the 1970s, George Harrison was successfully sued for copyright infringement because his song “My Sweet Lord” was too similar to a very distinctive, original melody in the Chiffons song “He’s So Fine.” Team Sheeran may find themselves needing to prove that the songs in question are not entirely original — an argument that comes down to successful homework and producing musicologists who sound convincing enough. But this point can be difficult for a defendant to successfully argue. With “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven,” a jury determined that despite Team Led Zeppelin’s arguments, “Taurus” was original enough to justify Spirit owning its copyright.

In any event, songwriters have been put on notice: attorneys are watching your every move. What you determine to be creative inspiration could land you in court. And you might not possess Led Zeppelin’s deep pockets to defend yourself. The band paid $800,000 in legal fees in the “Stairway” case. Your creative reputation could come down a judge, a jury with zero musical knowledge, and a whole lot of money.