Category Archives: business

GPM Calculator

In June, I blogged about Fuqua professors Rick Larrick and Jack Soll and their push to improve fuel efficiency and consumer behavior by simply changing the measurement from MPG to GPM.  Today, Duke Research Advantage blogged that this work was featured in the New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas” issue.  They’ve also launched a new GPM calculator to find your current GPM, compare cars, or see the GPM for all 2009 cars.  More information about this research, including an interactive fuel-efficiency quiz and a video of Larrick and Soll discussing their work is available at mpgillusion.com.

Staying pure after selling out

This week’s HBS Working Knowledge newsletter starts off with an interesting proposition: what happens when a well-known socially responsible business is acquired by a multinational?  Professors James E. Austin and Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard discuss their recent research, which examines such acquisitions as Ben & Jerry’s by Unilever, Tom’s of Maine by Colgate and Stonyfield Farms by Dannon.  Their work suggests that it is possible for a company to stay true to its social mission after acquisition, presented in a working paper asking “Can the Virtuous Mouse and the Wealthy Elephant Live Happily Ever After?”  

The discussion touches on some great questions, including why the elephants would want to acquire mice with a conscience and why it could be a good deal for the mouse (they’re not selling out – they’re scaling up).

An excerpt is below, but it’s totally worth your time to read the entire (brief) HBS interview with Austin and Leonard:

Q: How can elephants protect the mouse’s social value and brand integrity?

A: The more effective large companies have recognized that preserving the social icon’s distinctive culture and business approach is essential to preserving its key success factors. Consequently, they retain a large degree of organizational independence so as to prevent “contamination” of the social technology.

This stands in contrast to the common approach in acquisitions to integrate and rationalize the assets into the new owner’s systems, structure, and culture. Some of the specific mechanisms used in successful mouse-elephant agreements include governance structures and processes that give the “mice” review and even veto power over actions by the “elephants” that might jeopardize those elements that are deemed essential to the social values underlying the brand’s integrity.

Retaining the social entrepreneur in the joint venture is highly desirable

Fred Wilson “Big Think” Interview

An interesting video posted yesterday on the usual technology and business trendcasting topics.  It’s 8 minutes, so here’s the summary:

  • Changes in technology – evolution over 15 years from using the phone to using email to using social media to get most of the work done (value as business tools); face to face is a constant value throughout
  • Workforce – this generation less loyal, more mobile, more interested in maximizing their career than company value, especially as geography becomes a less crucial hiring factor
  • Social networking – the most interesting part comes around 4:30 in, where he starts with the charming “I write a weblog…”  He stresses that there is a community built, and that trust in the community and the tools has led to new ways of doing business, and talks about how he has taken action based on comments from people he’s never met.  Great stuff in this portion!
  • A little bit on tools such as IRC, wiki and facebook
  • In the comments, some folks ask for more video and he says “I don’t think video is an efficient way for most people to consume info so I try not to do too much of it.”  Agreed on the efficiency, both for consuming, and trying to find that quotable portion 6 months later.  Hence this self-reminder post.

Conversation: The Future of Social Enterprise

Harvard Business School professors V. Kasturi Rangan and Susan McDonald are hosting a conversation based on their recent paper, The Future of Social Enterprise. Click here to read a summary of their findings and join in the conversation.

The questions posed center around social sector evolution and measuring ROI and social impact – the conversation started today and already has some interesting posts.  These web forum conversations generally only last a week or two, so check it out now in order to participate!

Better fuel efficiency through better labels – gpm vs mpg

We all know how important language is in persuading people to think certain ways, and that certain words and phrases in common use are politicized rhetoric (think pro-life and pro-choice).  However, I never thought of “miles per gallon” as one of those potentially misleading phrases.  Until I read this in a Fuqua Alumni email:

For example, most people ranked an improvement from 34 to 50 mpg as saving more gas over 10,000 miles than an improvement from 18 to 28 mpg, even though the latter saves twice as much gas. (Going from 34 to 50 mpg saves 94 gallons; but from 18 to 28 mpg saves 198 gallons).

These mistaken impressions were corrected, however, when participants were presented with fuel efficiency expressed in gallons used per 100 miles rather than mpg. Viewed this way, 18 mpg becomes 5.5 gallons per 100 miles, and 28 mpg is 3.6 gallons per 100 miles — an $8 difference today.

“The reality that few people appreciate is that improving fuel efficiency from 10 to 20 mpg is actually a more significant savings than improving from 25 to 50 mpg for the same distance of driving,” Larrick said. (See table.)

See the full article here, including a video link.

Going Negative with Green Messaging

Struggling for years with a decreasing market share and tumbling stock price, Nortel is going negative with a campaign against Cisco.  This Wall Street Journal article details their PR blitz utilizing bloggers, YouTube, anti-Cisco websites, and trade show demonstrations.  The message?  Use Nortel to avoid “the Cisco energy tax.”

Nortel is countering with the argument that Cisco’s technology, as successful as it has been in the marketplace, is an energy hog. In its ads, Nortel claims that Cisco’s data networks “are costing you 100% too much.” At trade shows, Nortel staff attach wattage meters to comparable Nortel and Cisco gear in an effort to show that Nortel’s gear is much more energy-efficient. The company posted a film of the demo on YouTube.

Energy prices are finally rising to a point where being energy-efficient is not just something to make a consumer feel good, but something that affects purchasing decisions by price-sensitive customers.  That Nortel is taking this message to large corporate customers is evidence that at least some people in corporate purchasing departments are concerned with cutting costs by conserving energy.

In a previous post, I talked about the strategy of going negative with marketing, and why it’s rarely done.  This is one of those cases where a very small company with much to gain and little to lose takes on the market leader with a campaign aimed at gaining some awareness and hoping to steal just a bit of the leader’s market share.  Or, as pointed out in the WSJ article, survive and keep their current customers as their competition makes persuasive presentations to switch.  It’s not unusual for a smaller company to paint the larger one as evil, and it’s not that unusual to use an environmental rationale to make that argument.  What might be unusual is that with the price of energy rising so quickly, customers might listen.

And frankly, Cisco’s response that “there are no industry standards to measure “green”; and Cisco’s gear meets the environmental requirements of the product-testing company Miercom” falls a bit flat with me.  Not a counter-argument about green manufacturing or building initiatives, but a lack of industry standards? No pledge for improved performance or details of why the additional energy usage creates a superior product?  This lack of rebuttal leaves me thinking Cisco either isn’t taking Nortel seriously or isn’t taking energy efficiency seriously -  either case may not be a big mistake now, but could be a huge mistake in the future.

L3C in VT – blending non-profit goals and for-profit structure

An interesting post from yesterday on npEnterprise – Vermont has passed a bill to allow incorporation as a “low-profit liability company,” or L3C.  This is basically an LLC (limited liability company) that is allowed to accept PRI’s (Program Related Investments, often from foundations) traditionally limited to nonprofits.

In other words, this is a new business structure that recognizes the blended value proposition of a double bottom line that incorporates both social and financial goals.  Legislation has also been introduced here in NC, and is apparently awaiting action in the House Finance Committee.

Check out Americans for Community Development’s website for more details on how an L3C works and the current legislative status.  Or read the original post with additional links below:

Thu May 22, 2008 9:58 am (PDT)

Vermont recently passed a lot of bill regarding L3C’s, which allows
organizations to incorporate into “low-profit liability companies.”

If you would like additional info on the concept, Heather Peeler (Managing
Director of Community Wealth Ventures) wrote an article last year that outlines
the purpose of L3C’s.
http://www.communitywealth.com/Newsletter/August%202007/L3C.html

The bill was championed by a group called Americans for Community Development.
Check them out here:
http://americansforcommunitydevelopment.org/

Becky Eisen
Social Franchise Ventures, LLC.

Some additional information: Vermont Legislature passed
our L3C bill and the Governor of Vermont signed it, so it’s now in the books.

Aspen Institute’s FIELD on Microfinance and Social Enterprise

Just learned of this nifty resource from the NP-Enterprise listserv: a new article called “Social Enterprise and MicroEnterprise: Understanding the Connection” posted at the Aspen Institute’s FIELD homepage (a program of the Aspen Institute focused on microenterprise as an anti-poverty strategy).  It’s a great brief on the basics of social enterprise, social purpose businesses, and micorenterprise.

Also on the homepage are links to a webinar on how microenterprises are using social enterprise to increase sustainability (free registration required, 90 min – unfortunately not able to be downloaded and saved, and I haven’t had time to listen to it in full yet) and a recent FIELD forum (their newsletter) focused on social enterprise.  Both of these resources include a case study of Mountain BizWorks, a project right here in North Carolina (up in Asheville) that I was previously unaware of.  Great reading!

RecycleBank on CNN

Just saw an interesting short news story on RecycleBank, which I hadn’t heard of before.  They motivate people to recycle by offering incentives from big corporate partners like Coke and Kraft.  Cities pay RecycleBank with money saved from landfill overuse fees, and the founder claims that most cities that implement the program have seen increases in recycling of over 100%.

A very interesting model for social entrepreneurship, and definitely seems to be scalable.  Seems that they’re currently located primarily in the northeastern US, but I’m guessing that the CNN story will help them scale out more quickly.  I’m very curious as to whether the customers (actually, I guess they should be called “end users,” as the customers paying for the service are the cities) have found the rewards program to be actually valuable.

I’m also really curious as to how the revenue works and the costs of the scanning equipment being retrofitted to the trucks (particularly upkeep/repair costs), but I’m sure that those things are trade secrets that won’t be revealed anytime soon.  Very interesting model, though, and the type of thing that I’d love to write a case study for!

McKinsey on Microfinance

I know – this blog is in danger of becoming a McKinsey advertisement.  However, when they keep putting out so much good stuff, I can’t help it!  Today there are 5 articles on microfinance/microcredit and banking services for the bottom of the pyramid.  Three of these are premium (paid subscribers only) articles which are only guest passed for current subscribers to the free version for a limited time.  So get reading!

Direct from the e-mail:

The McKinsey Quarterly

Special collection: The biggest market on Earth
In one country, as part of a ubiquitous custom called “five–six” lending, poor people borrow five pesos from informal lenders and repay six, usually within a week. The annual interest rate works out at roughly 13,000 percent.

This is hardly the only place where low-income people suffer from a lack of choices and information. Their options have been limited because legitimate companies have been reluctant to enter the markets that serve them.

These articles from the archive show that large and reputable financial and retail businesses are now finding ways to do so profitably.

A grassroots approach to emerging-market consumers
November 2006

Extending financial services to Latin America’s poor
March 2007

The following three premium articles are available to nonpremium members for a limited time through this e-mail.

Financing Latin America’s low-income consumers (Guest passed until May 16)
March 2007

The CEO as CIO: An interview with the head of India’s top private bank (Guest passed until May 16)
March 2007

Succeeding in Latin American banking: An interview with Banco Itaú’s CEO (Guest passed until May 16)
November 2006

McKinsey on Strategy – First Quarter Newsletter

I think I’ve mentioned before that I find the McKinsey Quarterly’s free resources available by signing up for their newsletter to be top notch.  This quarter’s entries for top strategy articles are no exception.  The descriptions below are taken directly from the e-mail newsletter.  I’ve deleted the ones that are only available to premium (paid) subscribers.  I’ve only read the climate change and Brad Bird/Pixar ones so far, but both were excellent.

Business strategies for climate change
April 2008
The value at stake is huge. The winners will be companies that reposition themselves to take advantage of a low-carbon future.

Dissecting global trends: An example from Italy
March 2008
Executives should examine the impact of trends on subindustries, segments, categories, and micromarkets before placing their bets.

The promise of prediction markets: A roundtable
April 2008
Prediction markets draw together information dispersed across the company, but they face organizational and legal challenges.

Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird
April 2008
His approach to fostering creativity among animators holds powerful lessons for any executive hoping to nurture innovation in teams and organizations.

Software Testing – The Specialists Are Autistic

Going through the old e-mails again, and found this fascinating article in HBS Working Knowledge that was shocking and inspiring.  First off, I must admit that I’m a fan of the show Boston Legal and that most of my knowledge of Asperger Syndrome comes from that show (yes, i’m pitifully uninformed or misinformed).  However, I’ve worked with autistic children in after-school programs and have heard lots of scary statistics about the “autism epidemic.” This can be a debilitating condition and the success stories seem few and far between – the only one I can think of (disregarding the Hollywood savant examples) is Temple Grandin, who apparently also is in the Asperger Syndrome category on the autism spectrum disorder scale.

Usually, when I think of job training and opportunities for autistic people, I think back to working at the Volunteer Center of Durham 15 years ago, and how we used organizations like Good Work for low-skill labor opportunities such as stuffing and labeling envelopes for mailings.  The results were haphazard at times, and we often had our Board of Directors and Junior League volunteers come in instead to place mailing labels on fund-raising and development mailings to insure quality.  Granted, these were an entirely different population and spectrum of developmental disorders, but still, I never would have thought that anyone on the autism spectrum disorder would be not only well-suited for software testing.  Not to mention that it would actually be so well suited as to provide a competitive advantage.

Enter the shock and inspiration:

“But who is best suited to control and manage the tests? The surprising answer may be found in a group of people previously thought to have a crippling condition: autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

In a new case coauthored by Austin, “Specialisterne: Sense & Details,” an innovative consultancy in Denmark has turned testing into its own specialty. While its 50 or so part-time consultants are considered best-in-class—they are paid industry-competitive wages, and customers include LEGO, Microsoft, and Oracle—75 percent of them live with what others might consider a handicap: They have Asperger syndrome or some form of ASD.”

And later in the article:

Specialisterne now has two offices in Denmark, another under construction in Scotland, and branches being planned in Sweden and India. Its niche, according to the case, is testing when the cost of establishing automated testing is too expensive and complex. In March 2008 Sonne was honored with Denmark’s IT Award for outstanding contributions to IT development. In a statement read at the ceremony, the award was bestowed to Sonne of Specialisterne because “these highly gifted people require special support to get on in society—but via their particular logical skills and sense for precision, they can contribute massively.”

Solar Panel adoption in CA

This blog post reports that “Southern California Edison plans to install 250 megawatts’ worth of solar panels on commercial rooftops, generating enough electricity to power 162,000 homes.”  Great post/article that goes into the long and short-term business implications of this decision, including a potential short-term price hike as demand spikes before an eventual price fall as economies of scale ramp up, and potential faster adoption of thin-film solar panels, which use far less silicon than traditional panels.

This report coming on the day that we’re hosting a screening of the documentary Kilowatt Ours with a Q&A session from director Jeff Barrie seems like some sort of good omen, or at least a pleasant coincidence.

MapEcos – an intersection of business, environmental activism and research

MapEcos is a joint venture led by business school professors at Harvard, Dartmouth and Duke. It “brings together information about companies’ environmental management, provided voluntarily by managers in real time, with companies’ pollution data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” according to a recent article in HBS Working Knowledge.

Virgin biofuel flight planned

The New York Times reported today that Virgin Atlantic will conduct a test of one of its Boeing 747s using biofuels. The most interesting thing to me is that there seems to have been a lot of thought put into both the sustainability and the business aspects (even though this first step is actually a blend of 20% biofuel and 80% conventional jet fuel).

Sustainability: Virgin spokesman Paul Charles is quoted as saying the company rejected fuels derived from crops like palm oil because of the land that would be needed to cultivate such crops, and that the biofuel production would not compete with food or freshwater resources.

Business: This joint project between Virgin, Boeing, and GE Aviation splits the costs of innovation among several companies, and had smart business requirements. For example, the test plane will use one of GE Aviation’s CF6 engines as a “drop-in solution,” meaning the use of biofuel requires no modification, and will not affect the engine’s performance or range.

I recently read a New Yorker article about Branson and his work with Al Gore to create the Virgin Earth Challenge with its $25 million prize.  I’m impressed that he’s so intent on solutions that are market-driven, commercial, and don’t require major lifestyle changes, as I believe that these are the ones that are truly scalable.  An excellent article that shows that for Branson, business is very personal.  I just wonder whether he’ll consider himself eligible to win his own prize?

McKinsey Interviews: Al Gore and More!

Consulting giant McKinsey & Co has a free subscription service offering a subscription to their business publication, the McKinsey Quarterly. While they do have some articles that are “premium” and require you to purchase full access, a startlingly large percentage of what they put out is free. It’s shocking, but they offer more free content than any of the other business knowledge services I subscribe to (HBS, SSIR, Net Impact) with the exception of Origo Inc’s cross-sector news which is totally free and published less frequently. N.B. All of these services require registration, which means giving out your name, e-mail address and company affiliation, but I find that the information I receive is worth far more than this small amount of personal data. Also, links to each of these services can be found at the right side of this page in the “Social Entrepreneurship Resources” list – no time to create individual links today – sorry!

Today I received an e-mail with the McKinsey Quarterly’s top interviews of 2007. I thought that folks might be interested in one with Al Gore and David Blood on investing in sustainability.

The others from the list that I found particularly helpful and/or interesting were:

Strategy’s strategist: An interview with Richard Rumelt
A giant in the field of strategy ruminates on strategic planning, diversification and focus, and the role of the CEO.

Crafting a message that sticks: An interview with Chip Heath
The key to effective communication: make it simple, make it concrete, and make it surprising.

Promoting growth and social progress: An interview with the president of Chile
Michelle Bachelet discusses her views on the roots of political upheaval in Latin America, and the link between economic development and the fight against poverty.

Leading change: An interview with the CEO of Deere & Company
Bob Lane details the steps his company took to engage the whole organization in an operational and cultural transformation.