Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Accidental Billionaires

I love business books, especially those that provide insight into the creation, growth and sustainability of a business; some of my favorites include Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, Michael D'Antonio’s Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, Rich Cohen’s Sweet and Low: A Family Story and Jim Collin’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. Unfortunately, I will not be adding Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal to my list.

I decided to read The Accidental Billionaires after Citizen Reader, one of my favorite book bloggers, mentioned it in her post Why read business books?:

“So that's why I hang in there on the business books. Every now and then, as in John Bowe's Nobodies, Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires***, and Paul Midler's Poorly Made in China (as well as anything written by Michael Lewis), they actually open my mind in ways I never expected. So do consider a business book this weekend. It may not make you happy, but it might blow your mind OR give you a laugh. Both good things.”
***About the founder of Facebook, who is icky, and who could care less about your privacy, especially if he can sell it for profit.
The problem with the book is twofold. First, Citizen Reader isn’t kidding Mark Zuckerberg is icky and it isn’t just him. I was repulsed by everyone for most of the first 100 pages of this book. Zuckerberg hacking into Harvard’s computer system, stealing photos of students with the intention of creating a website that would compare photos of girls to farm animals is creepy, but so are Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins. Saverin, Facebook's first investor, spends his time trying to become a member of the Phoenix, a social fraternity at Harvard, so he can improve his social standing, meet girls and get laid. The behind the scenes story of the Winklevoss twins, who claim Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them, is also nauseating. They are Harvard seniors on track to make the Olympic team and members of the Porcellian Club the most prestigious, secretive and oldest of Harvard's eight all-male clubs. Most likely Zuckerberg did steal their idea, but I disliked them so much I found myself rooting against them.

The second problem with the book is the lack of any real insight into Facebook or its creator Zuckerberg. The book is more about Facebook’s co-founders and their account of how they were screwed by Zuckerman than the genius of Facebook. Ben Metrich writes in the first paragraph of the book:

“The Accidental Billionaires is a dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents, including records from several court proceedings.”
And then:

Mark Zuckerberg, as in his perfect right, declined to speak with me for this book despite numerous requests.

After only a couple of chapters in, I found Zuckerberg’s voice to be a noticeably absent; there are two sides to every story and the real story of Facebook probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Despite the issues I had with the book, The Accidental Billionaires is a quick engaging read and there are lessons to be had:

-Be daring. Be different. Be first. Getting there first changes everything:
Tyler Winklevoss claimed a lot of the features in Thefacebook were different from his site, ConnectU originally called Harvard Connection, but the overall concept was similar. The problem was that for certain industries, it wasn’t about the quality of the product or even corporate strategy. It was about who got there first. When Zuckerberg agreed to write the code for Harvard Connection then stalled for two months while he launched his own site he put the Harvard Connection a disadvantage. If Harvard Connection would have been the first site to launch and every college kid had signed up for it Thefacebook may have faded away unnoticed even if it was the better product.

-Put it in writing. I’ve seen more than one partnership end disastrously.
The Winklevoss’s should have put their proposal in writing and Zuckerberg should have signed it. The outcome may have been the same, but legally the twins would have been a stronger case.

- Eduardo Saverin should have drafted a written a contract with Zuckerberg before he lent him money. The act of drafting the partnership agreement may have clarified each party’s intentions and dispelled future problems.

- It really is all about the numbers.
Even if Zuckerberg’s actions are proven to be unscrupulous and Facebook is proven to be a huge tar baby (the humble opinion of my favorite librarian) it isn’t going to matter. With articles like Facebook surpasses Google as number one site no one is going to care that Zuckerberg is an unethical jerk or that spending hours on Facebook is really a big waste of time.

Please Note, I am an Amazon Affiliate

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Heartbreaking Reality of Animal Shelters

Buck, our golden retriever, was the first dog I ever owned. He was the pick of the litter and would have been destined for show dog stardom if running around a ring would have been my thing. We immediately signed him up for puppy classes. He was the naughtiest dog in the class, but did learn to respond to a couple of commands when rewarded with a treat. Unfortunately, at ten months he wasn’t completely housebroken and listened only if given a treat. At our wits end, we enrolled him in an expensive training program.

Our new trainer took one look at Buck and said, “I like his look. You should consider breeding him.” I loved this idea. We could recoup some of the training costs we’d spent on Buck plus, it would be fun to have little golden retriever puppies running around. The training program was more about training us than Buck and well worth it in the long run.

When we took Buck to our Vet for his one year checkup the Vet tech asked when we would like to schedule his neutering. I told her he wasn't going to be neutered we were considering breeding him. I was shocked by her negative response:

“Leave the breeding to the professionals the world doesn’t need anymore dogs. Novice breeders don’t realize what they are getting into in both time and money and it usually doesn’t end well. Most of the puppies end up at animal shelters.” She volunteers at the humane society and was telling me from experience the majority of dogs dropped off are never adopted and end up being euthanized.

"But our dog is a beautiful purebred golden retriever. We will easily be able to sell his puppies."

“The shelters are full of purebreds with the majority being retrievers. And what about back yard accidents. What will your neighbors do with the puppies? Are they qualified to select adequate homes? Dog ownership is a huge responsibility with many purchasers having no idea what they are getting into. Once a puppy is too big to handle it is dropped off at a shelter never to come out again."

I was reminded of this conversation while reading the following excerpt on A Gai Shan Lifes's blog:
I think our society needs a huge "wake-up" call. As a shelter manager, I am going to share a little insight with you all...a view from the inside if you will. First off, all of you people who have ever surrendered a pet to a shelter or humane society should be made to work in the "back" of an animal shelter for just one day. Maybe if you saw the life drain from a few sad, lost, confused eyes, you would stop flagging the ads on craigslist and help these animals find homes. That puppy you just bought will most likely end up in my shelter when it's not a cute little puppy anymore. Just so you know there's a 90% chance that dog will never walk out of the shelter it’s dumped at? Purebred or not! About 25% of all of the dogs that are "owner surrenders" or "strays", that come into a shelter are purebred dogs.

......Odds are your pet won't get adopted, and how stressful do you think being in a shelter is? Well, let me tell you, your pet has 72 hours to find a new family from the moment you drop it off. Sometimes a little longer if the shelter isn't full and your dog manages to stay completely healthy. If it sniffles, it dies. Your pet will be confined to a small run/kennel in a room with other barking or crying animals. It will have to relieve itself where it eats and sleeps. It will be depressed, and it will cry constantly for the family that abandoned it. If your pet is lucky, I will have enough volunteers in that day to take him/her for a walk. If I don't, your pet won't get any attention besides having a bowl of food slid under the kennel door and the waste sprayed out of its pen with a high-powered hose. If your dog is big, black or any of the "bully" breeds (pit bull, rottie, mastiff, etc) it was pretty much dead when you walked it through the front door. Those dogs just don't get adopted. It doesn't matter how 'sweet' or 'well behaved' they are.

What happened with Buck?
Buck was neutered shortly after the above vet appointment. Our vet also strongly encouraged neutering convincing us it was better for his health in the long run.

What about the expensive dog training?
We ended up buying a second dog from our trainer and my husband became a training center volunteer.  He plans on dedicating his retirement life to training and fostering rescue dogs.  Here he is with our two dogs and our trainer's puppy Molly:

Sunday, April 04, 2010

He's polite, he doesn't make excuses, and he doesn't lie.

While discussing overdue accounts at a recent meeting, my boss made the comment he liked working with a particular customer even recommending the company extend his payment terms, “He’s polite, he doesn’t make excuses, and he doesn’t lie.” Unfortunately, honest non-abusive behavior such as this is rarely observed in our slow-paying customers.

This scenario reminded me of a chapter I had read in Stacy Horn’s book, Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Memoir. Stacy had received a hostile note from a customer who had become unhinged over an unpaid bill for services from her company Echo. In response she wrote:

It’s the rare person who says, “Oh God, I’m sorry, I wasn’t really using my account, I meant to close it.” No. Not only do they owe you money they have to be abusive about it on top of it. Then they have to come up with something to justify their hostility, like “Echo was so slow this month, and the phone lines keep disconnecting me.” Anything to prove that you’re the asshole, not them. But I’ve finally accepted that this is the defense that people adopt when they are in owing-money mode. This is how they cope.
I’ve been known to become unhinged a time or two myself especially when sneaky fees* appear on my cable or cell phone bill (not to mention the customer service rep who refused to accept my credit card payment until I located my password), but not every company is playing gotcha with sneaky fees. The majority of business owners are trying to sell you their product or idea at a fair price, so they can pay their own bills. If you can’t pay your bill on time or are no longer interested in receiving a service you legitimately signed up for why be abusive about it?  Be polite, don’t make excuses and don’t lie. You might receive better service in the long run.

*To learn more about sneaky fees and what to do about them I suggest reading Bob Sullivan's Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day-and What You Can Do About It.