Monday, January 21, 2008

The Perfect Business

One of the oldest and well-tested truisms of business is to be the first in the market. If you are first on the scene with a new product or service not offered by anyone else, you are more likely to succeed.

I was trying to think of a business I could start that would fit this requirement. Then, out of the blue, it came to me during a conversation with one of my colleagues. He said that if he was to start a terrorist organization, he wouldn’t call it something boring (think Al Jihad), he would name it something exciting, like a sports team (think Tamil Tigers).

He is right. Your name means everything – how people perceive your organization is vital to your success. Do you think your terrorist organization would be respected if you called it “Belligerent Bunny Rabbits”?

We live in a world of terrorism, where, like McDonalds, there’s a new group in the industry springing up on every street corner (see the US State Department’s list of terror organizations). Now is the opportune time to offer terrorist organization marketing services. Why not? Joe Average doesn’t really know the difference between Al Qa’ida, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas or Fatah. To him, they are all just the same. If your organization is responsible for an incident and it is mistakenly attributed to some other organization, who will know and who will care? You have to stand up and get yourself noticed. A good marketing campaign is the way to go.

Logos, slogans, full-page advertisements in broadsheet newspapers, a visual media campaign, an interactive website and radio slots – that’s the way to get your message out there. We will get you on Oprah, if that’s what it takes to ensure that your terrorist organization gets the credit and reputation you work so hard to build.

The more I think about it the more I realize that terrorist organization marketing services really is the perfect business. Now, all I need is to employ someone to collect on bad debts. You interested?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Low-Risk Strategies for Buying a Used Car

Someone challenged me to write about how to buy a used car. The simple answer to that is to find a car you are interested in, approach the seller, give him money and drive the car home. But that would be cheating my challenger.

The topic should really be “low-risk strategies for buying a used car”. Although that title sounds more like a management text-book than it does a blog post, I think it more accurately describes the essence of my challenger’s challenge.

So what are the low-risk strategies you can use when buying a used car? The answer is that there aren’t any. You just have to take your best shot. Sometimes you will be lucky and find a good car, and other times you will end up buying a vacuum cleaner that sucks your money right out of your pocket. But there are things that you can do to minimize the risk of buying a four-wheeled-dud.

The first thing to do is to really ask yourself if you want to buy a used car or not. The high risk of wasting thousands on a lemon might be enough to push you to buy a new car instead. But new-car salesmen are just as bad as used-car salesmen. Certainly, the car itself will probably go okay, but new-car dealers will relentlessly push the buyer into buying all the extras. This often leaves the buyer with less in the bank account but some nice, fancy gadgets in the car that won’t ever be used (passenger-side airbags? Feh!). So when you are weighing the pros and cons of buying a used car versus buying a new car, just figure that you are going to get royally worked over no matter what you do. It’s easier when you learn to accept that fact at face value.

Never buy a car from a friend. That is my next piece of advice. You may have ridden in the car many times, or you may even have driven it from time to time. Over the years your friend may have described to you his dealings with car mechanics. He may have spun adventurous tales of danger and excitement, like the time when his car broke down on a busy six-lane highway and he had to cross to the other side to get to a phone booth, but was attacked by an angry chicken. You may think you know this car. But you don’t. For in the deep recesses of your friend’s mind is the thought that one day he might sell the car to you. So, whether he realizes it or not, he won’t tell you the full story behind the breakdown (he didn’t get a flat tire, the rear axle sheared itself off the chassis). He may not do it consciously, but your friend is holding back. I would believe the part about the chicken, but a flat tire? Come on.

Know to ask the right questions and then doubt every answer you get. “Has this car ever been involved in an accident” is a great question. Assume that the answer is “yes”, but you are more likely to hear, “I was once driving south on a vacation with my family, when the car in front of us spun out of control. Thankfully this car has great brakes so I managed to stop on time. The driver of the other car was okay, but his car had to be towed to the next town. Luckily my car is very powerful, so I attached the tow-rope and hauled it 100 miles down the road, in the snow, barefoot”.

Another classic question is, “When was the car last serviced?” The true answer is probably that Cousin Angelo came down last weekend and helped to get the car going by repeatedly whacking the starter-motor with a monkey-wrench. However, the answer that you will probably get is, “I service the car regularly. Unfortunately the service log-book was destroyed when I drove my car at high-speed through the collapsing wall of a burning building to save a trapped fireman, a small child and her teddy bear. I managed to save them and the car emerged unscathed, but on the way out of the burning building the fireman flipped through the log book, commenting on how I only used authorized mechanics, when a huge bird of prey swooped down, grabbed the log book and then dropped it into the fiery depths of the second floor, never to be seen again”.

So buying a car is a tricky sort of a business, new or used. If I were you, I’d just take the bus.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Ultimate Vacation

Where did you go for your last vacation? Disneyland? Hawaii? Europe? Colin went to Mongolia. He wrote about it in his most fascinating blog, creatively titled "Colin's Mongolian Adventure". Let's not knock Colin. He went to a different destination - to a place where he could see something new and exciting, to challenge himself and come back with engaging stories and lasting memories. I hope Colin doesn't mind if I reproduce a small section of his blog:

To summarize, everything in Mongolia can accurately be explained by merely adding the words "Crazy Mongolian" at the beginning of the name. (E.g. Crazy Mongolian bus drivers; Crazy Mongolian jungle birds; Crazy Mongolian construction workers; and Crazy Mongolian liver diseases.)

This is truly the best I can explain the country.

After all the planning, effort and expense he put into his adventure-trip to Mongolia, the best way he can summarize the place is to call the people "crazy"? Whatever would Gengis Kahn think of Mongolia's hard-earned reputation? "Crazy", indeed! He would be rolling in his grave if he read that. But I thought we weren't going to knock Colin. Let's face it, at lest he left his comfort zone and did something interesting, even if his summary of the whole experience is a little short on adjectives.

It seems to me, though, that the reason most people want to go away on a vacation is either for: luxury (think 6 star Hawaiian resort hotel), fun (think Disneyland), quiet (picture deserted tropical beaches, fine, white sand and exquisite solitude) or adventure (backpacking in Europe, a ride down the Amazon, or an African safari). I think the last category of people get the most out of their vacation. Adventurers get to meet interesting people, enjoy fascinating experiences and contract exotic diseases.

I bet that the ultimate adventure holiday would be a trip to space. According to this short piece on www.space.com, "on April 28, 2001, Dennis Tito, a California-based multi-millionaire, became the first ever space tourist". Mr Tito boarded a Russian spacecraft and then spent two weeks on the International Space Station.

Now that has to be the ultimate vacation.

Firstly, you have the excitement of the buildup. You are sent to a secret Russian camp to learn how to survive lack of gravity, oxygen deprivation and G-forces that push your face through to the back of your head. Then you pay millions of dollars and trust your life to a spacecraft made by a country that can't even produce a decent automobile. You then leave your spacecraft and live in an isolated metal box called a space station, which is basically a fragile pod equivalent to a tiny, vulnerable Lego construction, delicately floating in a great ocean of nothingness. You then spend two weeks getting in the way of a bunch of nervous scientists, hoping that the oxygen doesn't run out, that equipment doesn't malfunction, that asteroids don't crush you while you sleep, that food rations don't get accidentally shot out of an airlock, that aliens don't attack, or that the pilot for your return trip doesn't lose the keys to the spaceship. I can think of nothing more fun than that.

Tito's 2-week jaunt on the International Space Station in 2001 hasn't yet spawned a space-hotel industry. Despite the predictions (or fantasies) of futurists, techies and trekies alike, space-station hotels are still a long way off. A less-than-thrilling article by Leonard David entitled, "The Future of Travel: Aquatic to Cosmic Destinations" quotes an "expert" who says, "You can't have a successful hotel if you don't have the means of getting people there." How cleverly insightful.

Fortunately or unfortunately, at least for now, the majority of us are limited to searching for more Earthly adventures. So next time you feel like a break from the drudgery of life, either borrow a couple of million, learn Russian and bunk down with the Cosmonauts, or do what Colin did and find something different, like climbing Mount Everest using only a ball of string and a toothpick.

Send me a postcard.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

How to Open a Coconut

I was surfing the web and came across a very informative site called www.howtoopencoconuts.com. It shouldn't surprise me that such a site exists, but I found it amusing that there is an entire website dedicated to showing you how to open a coconut.

The way this website advises you to open the coconut is by delicately tapping holes in the end of the coconut and then draining the liquid (coconut water). Once the coconut water has been extracted, gently wrap the coconut in a towel and then sledge the thing with a hammer until pulverized. You may wish to bare your teeth, yell and think of something that makes you angry. I call that a bonus.

The funny thing about this method is that at the top of the website are the following words, "but we humans can't just sit around and let monkeys show us up, right?" - yeah, right. Monkeys can crack open a coconut with their bare hands, a banana peel and a pebble, but we use rusty nails and hammers. Sure, we are much smarter than them.

This got me thinking about the most efficient method for opening coconuts.

I went to About.com, which is a great resource for advice on almost anything. They suggest that after draining the coconut of its juices (by using a corkscrew to poke it in the eyes), you whack the coconut with the blunt
edge of a knife. If that doesn't work, bake the coconut in the oven for 15 minutes and then whack it with the blunt edge of a knife. I think they like whacking things with blunt edges of knives.

WikiHow suggests that you hold the coconut in the palm of your hand and have a go at it with the blunt
edge of a machete. "Hey, can you hold this coconut for a minute while I go crazy over it with a machete? Don't worry, I'm only using the blunt edge". Ah, no. Live-Food.com shows you a video in which the person demonstrating how to open the coconut wields a meat cleaver the size of Greenland and then tells you not to cut your fingers off. Thanks for the advice.

Jeremy and Michael, whose coconut-opening video is featured on lonelyplanettv.com, demonstrate their somewhat unique method. According to these two outdoorsey types, all you need is a swiss-army-knife, a coconut, a car jack and a heavy off-road vehicle. Simply puncture the eyes of the coconut with the swiss-army-knife and prop the coconut between the car jack and the underside of the heaviest part of the car. Pump the jack until the coconut explodes under the pressure.

So there you have it. If you are planning on getting yourself stranded on a deserted tropical island, all you need to take with you is a hammer, a nail, a towel, an oven, a corkscrew, a large, meat cleaver, a swiss-army-knife, a car jack and a heavy 4x4. I don't know about you, but to me it seems easier just to bring along a monkey.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Who's fault is it, anyway?

According to this article in USA Today, the Dolphins' Cam Cameron, was fired from his position as coach. Why? The team finished with one win and fifteen losses. They fired the coach? Don't you think they should have fired the players? Let's see, was it the coach who zigged when he should have zagged? Was it the coach who dropped the ball? Was it the coach who tripped over his shoelaces at a critical moment?

Certainly, the coach has overall responsibility for the players. He directs them where to run and what plays to make. He is the decider. He tells you when to play and when to sit on the bench. He sure does have a measure of responsibility. But if the players stink, they will lose the game matter how good the coach is.

Think of sports as a war. You have the General sitting safely in a tent on friendly territory (the coach). A superior officer (the team captain) directs his men (the players) to carry out the General's orders. If the on-field officer doesn't do a good job of directing his soldiers in the heat of the fight, or if the soldiers are incompetent, they will lose the battle despite that the General shouts orders through the radio. So who is to blame? The General? I think not.

Now, I know that it is the coach's job to properly train his team, motivate them and get them to perform the best they can. If he doesn't do that then he didn't do a good job. I get it. But there is a limit to how much blame you can lump on the coach. If the players lack talent, they should be held accountable.

Hang on, though. If you fire the coach because of bad decision making, then what about the decision to hire the coach? The coach was hired by management, right? Therefore, shouldn't the guy who hired him also get fired? After all, he didn't do a good job of recruiting, either. And who hired him? The President of the club? I mean, didn't he have something to do with this as well? Isn't he ultimately responsible for the entire team? He should go, too. But you know what? I think that we should take it all the way and fire club members, the fans themselves, because if it wasn't for their support of the club, financially and emotionally, then the club wouldn't exist. They are the shareholders of the club. If the fans would shout as one voice and protest the CEO's bad decision to hire someone who made a bad decision to hire someone who makes bad decisions, then maybe the club would win a game or two.

So it stands to reason that if you are a Dolphins fan, you should be ashamed of yourself.