• The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Tack Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power

    There was a time – pre-digital age – when the most outrageous way for retailers to impede on your bod was to count your eye blinks when you were attracted to a product on the shelves (the more blinks, the better).

    Yep, back in the day, some stores would install hidden movie cameras behind the shelves that would film your pupils as they dilated.  Think of an Andy Warhol version of Candid Camera.

    Little did they – or we – know what was to come. Today, brick-and-mortar retailers, desperate to retain you before you’re completely raptured to e-commerce, will practically inhabit your soul as you enter their doors.

    It doesn’t stop there. New technology is following you around in ways that would make you blush. And the voyeurism doesn’t end when you leave the store. In fact, this story has hardly begun.

    In his book, The Aisles Have Eyes, Joseph Turow investigates how retail stores use data mining, in-store tracking and predictive analytics to define us and influence the way we buy.

    Joe is a Robert Lewis Shayon professor of communication and associate dean for graduate studies at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Here, Joe tells Three Commas how retailers tempt us with discounts in order to collect information on us, and where this is heading in the very near future.

    Ron: What’s the main difference between the past and the present when it comes to retailers tracking us?

    Joe: The difference is that now, it’s personalized. Back then, it was generalized.

    One of the larger points of the book is that we’re moving from an era of anonymity to an era of personalization. And even when people are told they are anonymous, the fact is that -- even if you have an anonymous profile -- you are being tracked. Anonymity in terms of not knowing your name may not make any difference at all.

    Ron: Most people have no idea about this, right?

    Joe: We have found in our surveys that that most people know they are being tracked, and companies are collecting data about them, in stores as well.

    But they really don’t understand data mining and they really don’t understand the large number of data points that sometimes do get collected around them --  and how they can be adapted to predictive analytics. That’s another term for big data.

    People also don’t understand the laws connected to this. For example, we found that most Americans think that it is illegal to charge different people different prices for the same items. It’s not.

    Ron: How much of this is last-ditch effort? Brick-and-mortar retailers are trying hard to retain those physical, in-store customers.

    Joe: A lot of it is hyper-competition. First, it was the competition with the online world.

    But it really took off after 2011, when Amazon did this gimmick, you could say – where they told people to scan products in various stores, and if they really wanted to buy the product, Amazon would give them a discount.

    Amazon was getting prices from all over the country, right before Christmas. It was a great thing for [Amazon], but it freaked out a lot of retailers.

    That’s when [retailers] said, “We can’t fool around with this. We have to be able to bring the ability to track people into the store like sites do online, and begin to take the sites that they have seriously.”

    There was a time during the turn of the 2000s when stores were afraid that their websites would cannibalize them. They would say things like, “Our website is for people who don’t like to go to Macy’s.”

    Ron: Now, people are simply getting used to being tracked. It’s become normalized. It’s actually perceived as a trade-off, in order to get discounts and other benefits.

    Joe: The prices the stores put on the racks are just the starting point. Those are never going to be the actual [final] prices. And then they have 40% or 50% sales. The feeling is that people want to get discounts.

    Procter & Gamble has tried mightily over the decades to stop people from using coupons, and they failed miserably. JC Penney hired someone from Apple who thought he could turn the store around by having “everyday low prices,” and it just didn’t work for them. He left and JC Penney lost a ton and now they are trying to crawl their way back. They’re doing OK in general, but they realize they have to have [specific] sales.

    Loyalty is just an excuse to get data, but at the same time, it’s to give [customers] a sense of getting dollars off here and there.

    Ron: What about the “Acceptance of Terms” click? Does anybody ever read them? What are we actually agreeing to?

    Joe: Nobody wants to be bothered reading all that legal mumbo jumbo. Privacy policies are almost never read. Studies have shown that. If they really tried to read them, they would be spending hours and hours of their lives.

    Lawyers have told me that they are basically contracts. They’re  not made to be read. They don’t expect that anybody would understand them. But if people slog through them, they’ll see that stores, in many cases, say that they are following you around, they are tracking what you are doing online, they’re maybe buying information about you.

    They may even find out what you are saying about them on the Internet. Then they put all of this together, sometimes using psychographics, to “score” you.

    Then they are changing the prices for you, with discounts. And if they are doing it in the store, with beacons and lights and other vehicles, they are changing the price as you walk through the store, on your smart phone.

    Ron: Should you turn off your smart phone before you walk into a store?  Does it even matter?

    Joe: You can go off the grid by turning off your WiFi and your smart phone. But it’s not just that. If you do that and you’re not using your frequent shopper card, you are losing a fair amount of money, particularly if you are in a supermarket. If you don’t use your frequent shopper card in the supermarket, you may lose like 20%.

    But if you are using your frequent shopper card, you are giving your whole history to the supermarket. And if you are doing that, it’s amazing what generalizations that companies can come up with.

    The Kroger [supermarket chain], for example, owns a very sophisticated data and analytical operation. They can just take your purchases and infer lots of different things. For instance, you may not know that it’s legal to keep records of people’s non-prescription drug purchases.

    It’s hard to see this in the privacy policies, but they’ll sell your data to data brokers like Experian and Axiom. Companies like that will then turn around and sell your offline behavior to companies that link it with your online behavior. The difference between online and offline today is very blurred.

    Ron: So this tactic must be a raging success, if the retailers are flocking to it and you’re writing a book about it.

    Joe: I think we have to put this in perspective. Much of this is experimental. There are many stores that do this. From what people tell me, there are hundreds of thousands of Bluetooth beacons around the world.

    But if you talk to people in the business – and I make this clear in the book – they see this still as an experimental phase.

    They’re still working their way through it. They’re still trying to figure out things like, how many messages should you send someone when they first walk into a store? How many times should you discount products as you walk through the store? What kinds of geo-location messages should you send them?

    There are lots of issues about how we define return on investment. The problem of getting people to get the right Bluetooth app on their phone is that some stores don’t have enough scale to have their own Bluetooth. Lord & Taylor, for example, uses other Bluetooths that tie into Lord & Taylor.

    Ron: So this is truly only the beginning.

    Joe: We’re very much in the beginning of an era. We’re not anywhere near where everything is so cut and dried at this point. Companies that do it claim that it works for them. Many of the companies that run the beacons and run the various technologies argue that it works.

    General Electric and Phillips are into the idea of changing lighting systems in stores so that you don’t even need a Bluetooth device – the lights themselves will go into the camera of the phone and ignite your app and do the same thing – help the stores track you around. But we’re still very much in the early stages.

    Ron: How would technology like this be used by smaller pockets: entrepreneurs and small businesspeople?

    Joe: There is a company called Perko that does credit card relationships with small and medium-sized businesses. And they actually have a beacon project, for example, that allows a small or medium-sized retailer to put a beacon in the store, which can alert the owner when a customer walks in, with information that will allow the owner to know how to greet them.

    I think it’s true that companies like Macy’s and Target and Wal-Mart and Walgreens are deep into figuring out how to track people. They are very much engaged in that now, on many different levels.

    Walgreens, for example, was working with Google to create a cart where, as you walk down the aisle, it shows a map on a video screen that talks to you personally, based on your history, about various products around you, and maybe gives you discounts.

    So yes, this is a big deal for big companies. [Smaller players] might want to get involved in it. The trick is to do it without going bankrupt. You have to figure exactly how it works and what you can get out of it.

    Ron: Meanwhile, on the consumer side, a general ignorant bliss continues.

    Joe: A lot of people still don’t get it. A lot of people in the federal bureaucracy don’t really focus that much on retailers. The focus has been on advertising on the web, and, of course, on the NSA and government surveillance.

    What I argue in the book is that, on a day-to-day basis, people are learning the hidden curriculum. They’re learning that giving up data in the 21st century is going to be the norm. So, in a sense, what retailers are doing is that they are neutralizing data, teaching people that data is something that you give up, because you have to give up things to get along.

    In the Trump era, it is unlikely that there is going to be a whole lot of legislation that is going to affect this. The big threat to American activities in this regard is coming from Europe. The Europeans are trying to figure out how to better control this sort of thing. European privacy policies have the ambition of being stricter.

    There are ways to get around it, though. The retailers are shaking in their boots about this, but we’ll see what happens.

    Ron: In your research for the book, what knocked you for a loop?

    Joe: I learned a lot more about beacons than I ever knew. The most interesting aspect for me, and I think the one that is going to grow the most, is geo location marketing.

    It’s in incipient stages right now. There is a huge marketplace that is trying to reach people as they walk through the outside world, by getting into their text messages via various retailers.

    Now retailers are trying to do things like this: if you go to a store, and the beacon sees that you are standing around a lawnmower for like five minutes, or an unusual amount of time, they may think that you are interested in that lawnmower.

    As you leave the store and are somewhere in the parking lot -- or maybe a half an hour later -- you’ll get a text message from the retailer saying, “Hey, have you thought about this lawnmower again? We’ll give you 20% off!”

    One retailer told me that if they start this, it could start a [price] war that could get out of control. If there is a potential to find out where people are [outside of the store], competitors could have a price war around that.

    When you say yes to the app, you’re allowing that app to sell your location to other places and to target you based on what marketers are interested in. I think that’s potentially a really growing area.



    Click here to find out more about Joe and his book.

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  • Robert Herjavec and Amanda Brinkman Help Stir A Small Town Business Revolution

    Small business and small towns are what built America, but they are both experiencing some worrisome issues adjusting to the 21st century.

    Many small businesses are falling victim to the advance of e-commerce and other technology, while younger people are leaving their small towns and moving to the live/work/play environments of urban areas.

    Still, small businesses and small towns matter big time. They continue to employ half of America’s workforce, servicing more than 60 million people living in communities outside major metropolitan areas.

    Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec, along with Deluxe Corp.’s Amanda Brinkman, are stepping up to help small towns and small businesses find their way. Deluxe Corp. assists small businesses with logo design, website development, email marketing and more. And we all know about Shark Tank.

    Their web series, Small Business Revolution on Main Street, debuts its second season, awarding one lucky small town’s Main Street with revitalization, guidance and money (more about this later).  The show runs on Hulu as well as its own website.

    The ultimate goal: to shine a spotlight on the vital impact that small businesses have on our economy, our communities, and our daily lives.

    The competition is conducted by nominations and majority votes (how American is that?). In its premiere season, more than 180,000 viewers voted to award Wabash, Indiana a revitalization worth $500,000.

    “It’s been really exciting to see how the businesses have thrived after we’ve worked with them,” Amanda says. She’s Deluxe Corp’s chief brand and communications officer, with a wealth of experience in internal marketing, brand management and interactive development.

    Of the nature of the series, she says, “Each of the businesses featured in the show had a different, unique problem, but they also all had to struggle with some of the same things. It’s exciting to see them get a better handle on their numbers that they struggled with, and really what an impact the marketing has made for all of these businesses.”

    Following the show’s finale, people from all 50 states nominated 14,000 towns that they believe deserve a Main Street revival for season two.

    The money is surely sweet, but even more valuable: useable advice from real businesspeople.

    “That’s the great divide in America today, isn’t it?” Robert tells Three Commas. We all know and love Robert from Shark Tank; as an entrepreneur, he’s built and sold several IT companies to major players like AT&T. In 2003, he founded The Herjavec Group, and it quickly became one of North America’s largest technology companies.

    He says,  “If you don’t know somebody who has run a business or knows marketing, where are you going to turn to for advice? Most businesses don’t fail because of lack of money. Most businesses fail because they don’t have guidance. When I was younger, I didn’t need more money. You could always go get money. I needed somebody to show me the way. In a small way, that’s what we are trying to do for these people.”

    The eight-episode series highlights the transformation of Wabash, Indiana, thanks not only to the financial investment, but also from smart business guidance and team spirit.

    Robert adds, “One of the reasons that Wabash won is that they came together as a community, but through the process, they bonded even more.”

    Amanda adds, “It was so fun to see them come together as a community like that. When small businesses work together, rather than trying to solve it on their own, you really see that come through. That’s what so beautiful about small towns. They have a real sense of community and they really rally around small businesses.”

    Of course, Robert’s helping hand is extremely valuable, from his years of experience working with and understanding small businesses and entrepreneurs.

    “It’s great to be involved.” Robert says. “It’s very near and dear to my heart. This is what we do on Shark Tank, but in some ways, this has even more impact. The numbers on Shark Tank have to be bigger, but these are entire communities. It has a much greater impact, not just on one business, but you see the entire community come together. And that’s been great.”

    In fact, this series and Shark Tank do share a commonality. Everyone loves a good backstory, especially if it’s about an underdog.

    “We’re all hungry to support brands where we know the story of the owner,” Amanda says, “where we can see that the purchase that we make can make an impact on someone’s life. We live in a world that is so isolated now. We have so much technology, but when you go to a small town and people look you in the eye and say hello or you go to the local restaurant and they know your name, there is something really great about that. I think this country is hungry for that kind of connection again.”

    True for sure, and Robert agrees, but he adds that the story – even if it’s amazing – is still not enough.

    “It’s a great time for that message, but people still want it at a great price, great service,” he says. “That’s the thing we’ve learned – it’s not a slam dunk. You’ve got to provide value.”

    The value, from what the series showcases, does comes through.

    “We feel like this [series] is a resource,” Amanda says. “It’s certainly impactful for the businesses we work with, but we feel like if you watch the season one episodes, you can get a lot of different insights and advice we gave around finances and margins and certainly around marketing. We definitely want this to be a tool that small businesses can rely on.”


    Click here to watch past episodes and vote for your favorite finalist.

    Voting is open Feb. 9-16, 2017, and the winner will be announced Feb. 22!


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  • Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior

    We like to think of ourselves as autonomous, independent, non-conformist, and maybe even a bit alpha, but sorry. We’re constantly making decisions and forming opinions because of the people around us. Whether you like it or not, those bitches have a constant impact on everything we do.

    Jonah Berger’s current book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior, is a follow-up to his 2013 book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Here, he drills down from the macro to the micro: how interpersonal relationships motivate and demotivate us on a daily basis.

    It’s not all bad news: sometimes this influence leads us to make better choices, or to avoid bad decisions. We almost never realize this – until now.

    Jonah is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and has been published in numerous newspapers and periodicals such as The New York Times, Science, and Harvard Business Review.

    Here, he sheds some light into the invisible influences that make us who we are, even though we think we got this, solo. He also clues us in on how to use invisible influence in business negotiations, which is pretty sweet.

    RON: Jonah, what the hell? Most of us like to think of ourselves as non-conformists and unique and apart from the crowd.

    JONAH: There is a great episode of South Park where one of the kids wants to be a Goth, and he’s hanging out with the Goth kids. They’re hanging out a Starbucks-type place. They ask him, “Do you want a coffee?” He says, “No, I don’t really drink coffee.” And they say, “You can’t be a non-conformist if you don’t drink coffee.”

    What I love about that example and that whole line of thinking in general is that even people who think they are not conformists end up looking like a lot of other people.

    RON: You’re also saying that being influenced is not necessarily a bad thing.

    JONAH: We talk about it as if it’s a four-letter word. We want to see ourselves as completely different from everyone else.

    Influence actually helps us make better and faster decisions. Imagine having to pick a restaurant without ever looking at Yelp, or picking a babysitter or a new movie without ever asking a friend. Life would be a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult. And so, often influence helps us.

    I think the reason we think it’s bad is that in American culture, we all like to think of ourselves as unique and special and that we are all distinct snowflakes and different from everybody else.

    Certainly, we are not the same as everybody else. In no way, shape, or form am I saying that we are exactly like the person next to us. We’re certainly different from them, but really what we are is a mix of everyone else who is around us.

    There is a saying: you are a mix of your five best friends. I think that’s true. We’re not identical to our five best friends, but if you put our five best friends together, and you create overlapping circles, we would be the mix of those things.

    We’re constantly being influenced by the folks around us: our friends, family members, the folks we work with.

    RON: The purpose of your book is to show that if we can understand the influence, we can harness its power.

    JONAH: By recognizing how it works, we can take advantage of it both at home and at work.

    RON: At the opposite end of our desire to be unique, we also want to fit in, and not be so different. How do you reconcile those two conflicting desires?

    JONAH: There are very different motivations that seem opposing.

    Studies will show that if we tell you that you are exactly the same as everyone else, you get upset. If we tell you that you are completely different from everybody else, you will also get upset.

    You may do everything you can to show that you are different, and yet, if you are told that you are completely different from everybody else, you start to worry: “Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe people won’t like me.”

    So we have these two competing motives: to be similar and different at the same time.

    It’s not one versus the other; it’s a combination of both of them. It’s called optimal distinction: similar but different at the same time.

    RON: Optimal distinction is a good way for entrepreneurs to think of their products or services.

    JONAH: I think this is a good way to think about introducing new ideas if you have a new product or service that you want to become successful.

    It’s all about being different. You focus on how completely different this product or startup is from everything else that came before it. But different isn’t [always] successful. If something seems too different or scary, people may not want it.

    Right in the middle is just right. It’s like Goldilocks: too similar – not so good; too different – not so good. But in between is just right.

    It’s a Goldilocks effect when we get that mix of similarity and difference: similar enough to feel familiar, but different enough to feel novel and change of pace.

    RON: What about the old standby “trusting your gut?” Isn’t that what we’re always told to do? How does influence play into gut trusting?

    JONAH Influence is our gut. It’s not our gut versus influence.

    Often, our gut feelings come from influence. Imagine walking into a store and seeing a shirt and saying, “I love that shirt.” We call that our gut. Why? Because we think that choice was driven by our own preferences.

    We don’t buy the shirt to fit in or to be like someone else. But we may have bought the shirt because we saw other people wearing a similar shirt, or a similar cut or a similar style. We may not realize that’s why we like it, but that’s what winds up shaping our behavior.

    It’s called mirror exposure. The more you see something, the more you like it. The more familiar it feels, the more you like it. We think that’s our gut, but it’s actually influence shaping our behavior through what we think is our gut.

    RON: Peer pressure is very important to us when we are teenagers, but does it play a part in influence in adulthood?

    JONAH: Certainly. Many companies describe themselves as “The Uber of…” There are huge herd effects in what areas people want to live in, what styles of clothing people wear, what languages people use.

    We think of peer pressure as negative. We like to think that our choices are being driven by ourselves. We don’t realize that peer pressure shapes us whether we are kids or adults.

    RON: How does invisible influence affect our personal relationships?

    JONAH:  On a first date, the more language that overlaps, the more likely you are to go on a second date. The fact that our language is similar makes us like someone more.

    At the same time, there is some evidence that being different is also good. We don’t want someone who is exactly like us. We may want someone who is a little bit different. It ends up being a little bit of both. Our potential partners are not exactly the same and not completely different. Again, it’s somewhere in the middle: familiar enough, but different enough to be distinct.

    RON: How does invisible influence work in business dealings?

    JONAH: Imagine you and I are stuck in a tough negotiation - maybe it’s the price of a contract or maybe you are buying my company. It doesn’t look like we are going to figure out a way out. We seem far apart. We don’t trust one another.

    Researchers have found a way to reach an outcome when all looks like it is lost. The trick: mimicking or mirroring their negotiating partner; suddenly imitating – whether it’s the language, the mannerisms, or the facial tics of the person they are talking to.

    If you would lean back in your chair, well, maybe I would lean back in my chair as well. If you crossed your arms, maybe I would do the same. Not so obviously that I could tell that you are mimicking, but subtly.

    It’s the same thing in a sales context. Mimicry creates a sense of affiliation, like we are part of the same tribe. It increases influence and facilitates persuasion, because it creates a sense that we are part of the same tribe. Don’t just listen – emulate them. Be a chameleon, mirroring their behavior.

    RON: The new power players and CEOs wear T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. You call this invisible influence “countersignaling.” How so?

    JONAH: All of these things are a response to the environment. How you dress, what you drive, the music you listen to -- what does it say about you?

    We used to think that dressing up signaled success in business, or having a flashy car signaled wealth. The problem is: when other people come along and imitate those signals that aren’t true members of that group, [those signals] start to lose their meaning.

    High-powered business executives always wear suits. Great. So when we see someone wearing a suit, we know that they’re a high-powered business executive. But when not-so-high-powered business executives start wearing suits, we don’t know if they are the real thing or a wanna-be or a poser.

    People in startup cultures don’t want to be thought of as some old, fuddy-duddy business leader. They want to say, “I’m part of the new school, the new generation.” They are trying to contrast themselves. So instead, they dress down. They’re saying, “I don’t have to dress up to be successful.” Dressing down becomes just as strong a signal as dressing up.

    RON: The biggest mystery of all: Brooklyn hipsters, lumbersexuals, punk rockers, goths, hippie chicks. They are all claiming their individuality, but they all tend to look and dress alike.

    JONAH: Birds of a feather flock together. People who like similar things tend to hang out with one another. People who tend to like similar music tend to like similar clothes. One way to think about it: if we both like movies a lot, we both may like popcorn a lot.

    These groups are trying to diverge from the mainstream; they’re trying to be different. Hipsters and punk rockers don’t want to look like the mainstream, but they don’t want to be the only person dressed that way, because no one else can tell what it means. The challenge is: multiple people have to do something for it to be a signal. Signals are socially constructed.

    RON: We’re not completely clueless to invisible influence, right?

    JONAH: We do see influence. It’s not like we never see it. But the only place we never see influence is in ourselves. We don’t often see how we can use influence to affect others.

    The goal of this book was to help people spot influence in the world around them, and by understanding that influence, living happier and more successful lives. When we understand how it works, only then can we take advantage of it.


    Click here to find out more about Jonah and his work.

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  • The Airbnb Story: This crazy idea disrupted an industry and generated billions.

    Airbnb is the online travel platform that has become – in less than a decade – the largest provider of accommodations in the world. Not Hilton. Not Sheraton. Not Holiday Inn – not any part of the $500 billion hotel industry.

    Leigh Gallagher is the first to write a book on this incredible entrepreneurial adventure, with the company’s current valuation at $30 billion (that’s very close to Marriott).

    Her book, The Airbnb Story, tells the tale of a wacky idea that was unlikely to succeed. The cast of characters includes regulators wanting to curb its rise, a cottage industry of entrepreneurs making big-time cash while Millennials found new places to crash. Overall, Airbnb introduced a unique way to see the world.

    Leigh is an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine. She is also a co-chair of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit and oversees Fortune’s 40 Under 40 editorial franchise. Her first book, The End of The Suburbs: Where The American Dream Is Moving, has been called “prophetic.”

    Here, she tells Three Commas about the Airbnb backstory.

    RON: What drew you to the Airbnb story? I’m sure it was begging to be told.

    LEIGH: Well, that was part of it. There hasn’t been a book written about this company yet, and it’s such an incredibly disruptive story. It’s a social and business phenomenon. A lot of people know the basic origins of the story, but once I got into it, there was so much more.

    RON: The story was filled with irony and unexpected twists and turns.

    LEIGH: Airbnb started as a fringe idea that no one thought would work. And it not only became successful, but it became one of the biggest privately held startups of this current wave of tech euphoria.

    From that alone, I thought it merited a deeper study, but you add on the fact that it was started by three outsiders, almost accidentally. Nobody wanted to touch it. Everybody thought it was a crazy idea.

    RON: The Airbnb team was not even the first to come up with the idea.

    LEIGH: Upon further study, I found that there were many companies who basically rented out homes. The question is: why did Airbnb take off?

    It’s a combination of things. Part of it is that they put everything on the same platform in a very user-friendly way. You can’t really overstate how important that was. Part of the design was building the payment right into the platform so, in one click, you can make a booking. That was new.

    Another understated point of difference is that Airbnb was urban at the beginning. It was an urban phenomenon whereas all the others – except for maybe Craigslist – were vacation rentals at beaches and mountain towns. Airbnb saw themselves as something quite different. The consumer did too. That’s why they took off with Millennials.

    You didn’t have to own the property to profit from it. You could be the renter of a little studio, and you could suddenly monetize that property for yourself.

    RON: The word “disruption” is really appropriate here. This could have been the biggest disruption of all, right?

    LEIGH: It really was. The word today could get overused, but it’s a classic case of disruption. Because it was so unexpected – because it came from the least likely people you would expect – an idea that would disrupt the hospitality industry.

    You have this business that has been around for centuries – the hotel industry – that has been completely upended by Airbnb.

    At first, [the hotel industry] was very dismissive of it. It took a long time for them to consider it a threat. They still say it doesn’t really compete with their business, which is a very hard case to make. And the bigger Airbnb gets, the more it disrupts the hotel industry.

    The true sign of disruption is when the giants being disrupted start to adopt the same product that the disruptor has brought to the table. And we’re absolutely seeing that with hospitality right now.

    RON: Could the success of Airbnb be a generational thing? As an aging baby boomer, I really like my hotel, with its amenities and a pool. I’m not sure I would happily adapt to this model.

    LEIGH: It definitely started out as a Millennial thing, and it still very much is. I think a big part of the reason as to why it took off is that they have different values than the rest of us have.

    I spoke with a former hotel executive in his 40s and he said, “I completely missed this. I thought, ‘why would anybody want to do this?’” He said that he imposed his 40-something values and biases onto this idea, whereas the Millennials  -- for one thing, they are obsessed with everything being artisanal and local and adventurous and different. They are somewhat distrustful of large organizations. For them, it is not so weird to have a relationship that is forged “digital only” and then to bring it into the real world. It’s not so much of a stretch for them to go sleep in the room of someone they only recently connected with online. For the rest of us, it took a long time for people to go with that.

    RON: But there are plenty of non-Millennials who find Airbnb to be fantastic.

    LEIGH: There is a woman in my book who is a suburban mother of three in Alpharetta, Georgia. She loves Airbnb and uses it all the time. She convinced her husband to use it, and he was very reluctant. As she says in the book, he loves his “American bathroom.” They went to Europe [using Airbnb], and now they do it all the time. Her friends in Georgia think she’s crazy. They would much prefer the air-conditioned Hilton. She would much prefer to go to a charming garden apartment and sit outside and talk to the person who lives there and can tell her where to go. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for many more people than you might think.

    RON: You got to talk with Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky. Has success changed him?

    LEIGH: He educated himself on how to become a CEO. He went to all corners and all sources of the business world to do this. He shamelessly asked mentors from Jeff Besos to Warren Buffet, all these leaders. But he has a natural affinity for ring-leading and leadership.

    He would say that what was harder for him was actual management: having difficult conversations with people, hiring people, letting people go. He has much more on his plate now then he did when I first met him, but he’s managed to scale as a leader.

    I think that is an interesting playbook because we’re going to see more cases like this, where people who don’t come from traditional business backgrounds suddenly find themselves in these type of positions.

    RON: For Airbnb, it hasn’t been all success all the time. There are some crazy stories of major fails.

    LEIGH: Things have gone wrong. There have been some horrible accidents. There have been some deaths. Very bad things have happened. There is no way it’s going to be perfect. It’s impossible.

    I have a story in the book about a family in New Jersey who rented out their home. There was a golf tournament coming to town and they thought they were renting to a golf writer from Golf Digest, and it ended up being a humungous party for 400 people. There was a DJ and tickets sold. Nobody got hurt and there wasn’t even much property damage, but there are all kinds of opportunists out there. It’s a public platform. So it’s a risk.

    Airbnb tends to get headlines. This is the brave new world, and we should be alert and aware that these things can happen.

    RON: What has been the hotel industry’s response to Airbnb now that we’re past the startup stage?

    LEIGH: They still try to say that they had a record year last year, and Airbnb has been saying this too. But [the hotel industry] is finally starting to recognize that this is something that struck a chord, and it struck a chord with consumers for a reason.

    So now, the industry is experimenting with its own ways to dip a toe with this idea. They even have a new name for this sector of the market – they call it alternative accommodations.

    RON: It’s astounding that people are actually making a living – a good living – with Airbnb.

    LEIGH: There are a lot of people making a living on Airbnb.

    I have a few hosts in the book who are making six-figure incomes. Some people buy multiple properties and turn them into a business.

    Airbnb has been caught up in legal fights around this very issue. Depending on the market, they push back against this with various degrees of forcefulness.

    Brian Chesky likes the idea that there are a lot of entrepreneurs on the platform. They make a lot of money. This is a real business. It takes some work. There are a whole lot of cottage industries that are there to help with the cleaning, the pricing, analytics, anything you might possibly need. It’s a real booming economy. And even some of those startups are starting to get venture funding of their own.

    RON: In your research for the book, what surprised you the most?

    LEIGH: I was surprised at just how painful the early days were. They all say that that was the hardest time of their lives. It might sound glamorous now, but it was not. They almost went under. They almost did not get this company off the ground. It was only through hustle and some key assists at a few critical points, and with a little bit of luck and timing, that they did it -- and with some very ingenious, clever maneuvering on their part. That, to me, was a part of the story that I didn’t really know.

    9 lessons for entrepreneurs from The Airbnb Story:

    • The big idea is not always the idea you think will be the big idea.
    • Just because it isn’t working doesn’t mean your idea is fundamentally flawed.
    • It’s better to have 100 customers who love you than a million who sort-of like you.
    • It’s OK to do some things that don’t scale.
    • Be pathologically curious and shameless about asking for advice.
    • Spend time in person with your users. Don’t just interview them; observe them as they use your product.
    • Focus on culture early; don’t wait for a company to get big first.
    • When a crisis hits, don’t hide or be silent; respond and, if you are at fault, apologize.
    • It’s hard to fatally mess your company up. You’re allowed to make a lot of mistakes.


    Click here to find out more about Leigh Gallagher and The Airbnb Story.  



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  • Too Small To Fail: Entrepreneurs Turn To Alternative Financing in The Unbanking of America

    Big banks’ marketing is oh-so slick: they position themselves as your concerned, generous friends who are right behind you as you build your business.

    Yet the cold, hard truth, which is getting easier to see everyday, is this: the only thing banks pay to small business people and entrepreneurs is lip service.

    How banks make money: monthly fees and overdraft charges (one bank VP named his boat Overdraft. How cute is that?). The only business being built from this scheme is the banks’ business, not yours.

    In addition, nearly half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck – and this is not the kind of customer that interests banks. And speaking of interest, have you checked the rate for savings accounts lately? Keep your loose change in that coffee can.

    As banks don’t really give one be-bop about entrepreneurs and small business people, a growing number of them are voting with their feet and saying, “close my account.” It’s the financial equivalent of cable chord cutting, and it’s happening at a dizzying rate.

    There is a new game in town that’s actually not so new, but it’s becoming a strong contender to banks: check-cashing businesses and payday loan establishments. Once considered as shady as loan sharks (and many of them were), they now are rewriting the rules of how non-wealthy Americans take control of their finances and their destiny – and the money they need right now.

    In her book, “The Unbanking of America: How The New Middle Class Survives,” Lisa Servon explores the New National Normal. This is an inside look at how the American banking system is broken, and its customers are fleeing.

    Lisa is a professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, but she takes time out to tell Three Commas about the state of the new banking industry.

    RON: I guess the 2008 financial crisis was the very beginning of the ride down this rabbit hole.

    LISA:  It’s not just a one-off. If you look at the fines that the larger banks have had to pay, it’s a larger structural problem. There are patterns of abuse and deception.

    RON: I would imagine that Millennials are also contributing to this sea change, as they are changing so many other things that used to be considered here to stay.

    LISA: You see Millennials doing things differently. They didn’t grow up – as you and I did – going to the bank with their parents. They’re much more comfortable using cell phones and computers to do what they’re doing, and they’re the largest generation ever. So things are going to change. It’s only a matter of time.

    What’s interesting is that the banks don’t really seem to be adapting. It’s not a sector that’s known for innovation. Some of the larger banks are not limber and flexible enough to move the way they need to.

    RON: Payday loan joints and check-cashing places never had a good reputation, but here they suddenly are, with a shiny new coat! Everyone is taking a new and different look at them. Should we still be cautious?

    LISA: The popular wisdom is that they’re all predatory, they’re all sleazy, they’re all trying to get over on their consumers. What I’m saying is that with any industry, you have good actors and bad actors. There is always a spectrum. Capitalism is set up for that.

    They story we hear is that bankers are good and that these guys are bad -- and neither one of those things are true. The people I’ve worked with – especially the check cashers – they are small businesspeople.

    Comparatively, their prices are pretty good. The people making decisions to use them are usually making very rational decisions, given their situation and given the other options that are available.

    We’ve created this skewed debate of good vs. bad, and it’s actually more complex than that. The good guys aren’t the good guys and the bad guys aren’t the bad guys.

    RON: Part of the appeal and effectiveness of your book is that you actually got down in the weeds, actually working at these places, to find out what’s what.

    LISA: What I’ve tried to do in the book is refocus people’s attention onto the [customers]: here’s why people are making the decisions they are making. Here are what their options really are. And it’s set in the declining and deteriorating conditions for the American worker. You used to be able to go into a bank and get a $500 loan with a handshake. You can’t do that anymore.

    My parents were schoolteachers and we didn’t live a fancy lifestyle, but they were able to buy a house, save for retirement, and save for my sisters and me to go to college. A lot of teachers now couldn’t do that. That’s the big background picture.

    RON: That old feeling of putting your money in a bank and feeling safe – that’s over.

    LISA:  We have banking and policy sectors changing so that there is no guarantee that when you go into a bank and get a bank account that you are going to get a package of safe, affordable services.

    The banks are trying to sell you as many products as they can in order to up their fee income. They used to not depend on fees. It was a different business model and it was a different policy environment.  The whole game has changed.

    RON: It really boils down to the customers the banks really want. And I don’t think it’s the average, middle-class person.

    LISA: The banks don’t really care about serving the low-to-moderate-income customer. It’s hard to interpret the message differently.

    In a way, I get it. They are for-profit companies. Their primary mission is to maximize profit for their shareholders. And that profit model has changed a lot. So banks are not making as much money as they used to, especially the larger ones. They’re making their money off of fees and international deals. The everyday customer has become a less important part of their business model, so it makes sense that they would give us less attention, because that’s not where their money is coming from anymore.

    RON: What was it like to work in payday loan and check-cashing places?

    LISA: I wasn’t thinking about my own banking history much when I started, but working in those places brought me back to the type of bank I went to as a child. With check cashers and payday lenders, people are in there all the time.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love doing my banking online, and yet those kind of relationships that I had and my parents had are replicated at these places. There are relationships between the tellers and the customers, and that is certainly something people value.

    I’m really glad I took the jobs, because I could really see how people were transacting their money. People would come in to get their check cashed, but we also do bill paying. They would spread their bills out in front of them on the counter, and pay this much to their phone bill and that much to Con Ed so that they don’t turn the lights off. We’d pay their bills, and whatever they had left over in cash was what they had until the next paycheck.

    RON: Entrepreneurs and small businesspeople seem to benefit from this alternative.

    LISA: I write about a guy named Carlos in the book. He’s a contractor. He has a big check, and I’ve seen the way he was working with his money and the fact that it made sense for him to cash the check and leave $100 on the table. That was basically to get the money today, because he needed to pay his workers in cash the next day.

    The popular media has focused on why these people are paying so much, but when you’re there, you’re like, “oh, now I get it.”

    So they are going to pay their bill now and there is no risk of overdrafting. There is no risk of that check getting lost in the mail. That bill is paid now and they know that there is money to do it. They pay the money and they know what they have left. There is no checking their account all the time to making sure their check cleared. It makes sense.

    So rather than implying that people are ignorant for not doing their banking the way that you and I do, what I hoped to do was show that the decisions are rational, even if they are expensive.

    RON: So it actually makes more sense than a bank. Imagine that.

    LISA: Entrepreneurs don’t have a lot of margin, especially at that very small end where you are a sole proprietor, or if you have contractors working for you.

    There is a real unevenness too – let’s just say, if you make stuff, you have to buy materials to fill the order and you may not be paid for 30 or 60 days.

    Entrepreneurs always had this issue of very lumpy income streams. You need working capital. You need money to help you get by. I had talked to quite a few entrepreneurs who had taken out payday loans for just those situations.

    A lot of small businesses use credit cards to finance their businesses – much of that credit was just removed from the market. So you have people who had figured out a way to operate using credit cards, for better or worse, but suddenly that’s not there for them. This larger environment helps explain why people have turned to other sources of credit.

    As banks have gotten bigger, you’re less likely to have local bankers who know your business or know you. It’s harder for the small businessperson to go in and get a loan.

    RON: As we discussed before, Millennials are changing consumer financial behavior that sidesteps banks, like online crowdfunding.

    LISA: They’re certainly drawn to it. They’re comfortable getting money that way, but they’re also comfortable giving or lending money that way. It’s a change in consumer behavior, and it’s a really important one. Millennials talk to each other. That’s the way they get information.

    The problems are structural. When you have such a change in the deal that the average worker gets, so much movement in the gig economy, and shifts from full-time work to part-time work, it doesn’t exist the same way.

    Millennials are saying, “I don’t think I can buy a house and have a kid.” Things are changing, but we are still telling the myth of the American Dream, as though it’s still a reality. The game, the bargain, has fundamentally changed.

    RON: Where are you seeing this going in the long-term?

    LISA: I hope there will be enough of a potential to build a coalition around what so many people have in common but don’t realize. Things are screwed up, but there is a different kind of a wake up that’s happening.

    Click here to find out more about Lisa Servon.

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  • Get Into The Ride: Adam Carolla’s Chassy Media Drives Awesome Automobile Documentaries

    “It got down to this: we’re doing everything ourselves anyway. Why don’t we just do this last part ourselves too? Start a website and sell it.”

    So says Adam Carolla, entrepreneur/comedian/racer/bestselling author/podcast king. He’s talking about his new company, Chassy Media, which produces and markets historical documentaries, particularly about automobiles and racing.

    The Chassy website is a premium platform which delivers content for the automotive connoisseur to rent, stream, or purchase.

    Adam says, “We realized that if we were going to start making movies -- and especially with the automotive theme -- instead of taking it to some place in New York to a bunch of hipsters who really have no idea what they were dealing with, why not just keep it in-house?”

    For this venture, Adam partners with Nate Adams, a Hollywood screenwriter who has produced and directed feature films, documentaries, television projects, an EA video game, and over 40 commercials.

    Adam and Nate have collaborated on two films for Chassy, as well as the comedy Road Hard, which starred Adam Carolla himself.

    “We’ve already sold about 10,000 units on, and it’s brand new,” Adam says. “We basically just got started.”

    Good news, for sure, but Adam didn’t drive down this road with a map.

    “I didn’t know what to expect.,” he says. “I didn’t know if people were going to go or buy it on iTunes or Amazon. I didn’t have any real thoughts. I’m usually running around so much that I don’t have time to fully consider what’s going to work or what’s not going to work. It just seemed like, all right, let’s do it. I don’t want to say that it exceeded my wildest dreams, because I really didn’t have dreams about it. But it’s a very good base, a really good jumping off point. We sold a lot of units.  It’s worked out nicely.”

    The latest offering, The 24-Hour War, tells the astonishing story of the racing rivalry between automakers Ford and Ferrari during the 1960s.

    Ferrari was the most successful racing team in the world, winning consistently at LeMans. Ford, humiliated by GM’s Corvette on the race track and in the showroom, asked Ferrari to team up to beat GM. The negotiations eventually crashed, so Ford set out to build its own supercar: the legendary GT40. This story leads up to the 24-hour LeMans race between Ford and Ferrari, and the breathtaking history that takes us to the finish line.

    The underdog tale has a universal appeal, and you don’t have to be a gear head to appreciate it.

    “You don’t have to be into cars,” Adam says. “It’s a story. It doesn’t require preexisting knowledge. You don’t have to be a car guy. You just have to be into a good story.”

    Another Chassy offering, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, profiles the side of the actor most of us never knew: car racer. His racing life spanned 35 years and almost sidelined his acting career. During that time, he won four national championships as a driver and eight championships as an owner – and he began racing when he was 47-years old.

    Another compelling story based on, as the website itself calls it, “gasoline-fueled passion.”

    “It’s just guys out competing, pure and simple,” Adam says. “That part is never going to change. Technology will change, but the part where guys compete is never going to change.”

    Taking a detour from auto racing, Chassy also offers The Bug: The Life and Times of the People’s Car. It explores the super-ironic story of Volkswagen’s dark start in Nazi Germany, its groundbreaking advertising campaign out of New York, and its iconic hippie days during the Summer of Love. The VW Bug formed a very special bond with its millions of owners (actor Ewan McGregor is on hand to explain further). The odd-looking car became one of the most successful (and successfully marketed) products of all time.

    Does screening some joints about wheels sound like a plan? Without a doubt, there is an audience for this.

    “It’s working for us,” Adam says. “You don’t get rich, but as long as we can pay for the next one -- as long as the math pencils out, and so far it has been, then we can keep just building the library.”

    Click here to find out more about Chassy.

    Follow Adam here.



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