When I look around, I do not like what I see. My perception is that nothing is working the way it should be, and strong measures are long overdue if the malaise is to change. People seem to be living on entertainment and social media while waiting for things to improve. Hope and euphoria alternate with discouragement and despair. Neither is not the right answer; nor is procrastination and indecision. Disconnects cannot be resolved by throwing gasoline on a fire when less of something else would be more appropriate. It is time to face realities and stop rehashing the same things over and over again without providing answers. Desperate times require desperate, or at least innovative, measures. They also require a consensus.
For those who don’t get it, Main Street is in the toilet. Everywhere I look, I see businesses closed that I depended on for many years and their space vacant for months, if not years. One of my favorites had survived the Great Depression. At the same time, even with financing, new shops have difficulty opening due to bureaucratic red tape and difficulties getting services connected and equipment delivered and installed. They could be providing new jobs. It is also no wonder that large retailers are doing poorly and closing stores when consumers learn from them and then buy from competitors on the Internet. What are the limits to this punishment? What will the Internet sellers do when they drive everyone else out of business? Keep prices low? I doubt it! There needs to be a way to resolve these inequities.
As students get ready to go off to college and the unemployed ponder futures without jobs, I wonder what they are thinking. Are they prepared to add more debt with no hope of getting a job if they are studying the wrong things or don’t already have marketable skills and experience? Could it be that outdated teachers are passing along outdated information? What about all the technical wonders that sit idle or are underutilized because someone bought ahead of their needs or failed to understand how to get a reasonable return on their investment before obsolescence set in. Can we really afford to squander resources like that?
Could social media be the next bubble? Perhaps. Social media has probably been oversold, and now that there is so much competition, a major consolidation could occur anytime. For me, it is difficult to decide which horse to bet on after years of mixed results and false starts. Although lots of people use social media to share experiences, from a business perspective, I have not been satisfied. It is too difficult for small businesses with small marketing budgets to gain traction solely because a few people happen to “like” them on facebook. It is important to leverage new capabilities, but do so cautiously.
To put this subject in perspective, I have checked information about facebook on a financial website. Their Initial Public Offering (IPO) was in mid-May (2012). Price started about $42 and went as high as $45 soon after the IPO. The stock was as low as $25-3/4 in early June. Since then, there was a high about 33. Monday (7/23), it closed at $28.75. Today (Friday, July 27) it dropped to about 22-1/2, an all-time low, for a total loss from the high of 50 percent after disappointing estimates of future earnings before recovering to $23.71 at the closing.
With this in mind, I am more convinced than ever about social media being oversold. I believe that it is important to hedge bets in the stock market, but also for a business to diversify itself by creating a winning combination of social media, e-commerce and traditional marketing and sales.
For a new business with an innovative new product, my first challenge has been to convince customers that they need something they have not already considered. I look for a way to link what they already
know and accept to the new and different. An innovative solution that provides added value and benefits may be wonderful, but it still needs to compete against the tried and true. This provides a difficult challenge that many consumers and small businesses need to solve before committing too far, too fast to anything whether it is staying with the status quo or innovating. Careful deliberation will improve outcomes, avoiding disconnect and disappointment.
Becoming blindsided creates problems of epic proportions. It doesn’t just cause accidents on highways. The volume of changes that keeps growing, includes subterfuge that is practiced everywhere whether consciously or not. This overloads systems causing surprises and incomplete and incorrect information that is then used in making decisions. Human nature factors in as positives tend to be accentuated and negatives avoided and downplayed. These things impact all of us in one way or another.
Motorists travel in packs and speed unopposed down highways. Companies bury legalistic terms and conditions in fine print and apply hard to distinguish changes to product designs, packaging and warranties. These mask the impacts of cost reductions that lower value propositions and trick consumers to make costly buying errors. Politicians talk about lowering taxes while services decline even faster. Spammers waste our time as they flood email accounts with threats to privacy, identities and livelihoods. We are told what we want to hear, not what we should be told. Even when something is flagged in red, it may still get lost in the noise and not get adequate attention.
These are symptoms of a world that has gotten so complicated and congested that even the most knowledgeable and vigilant among us is unable to avoid distractions and catch everything significant enough to have the potential for serious, negative consequences. Even sophisticated systems designed to detect anomalies and warn of impending disaster are not always enough. For example, weather forecasters were unable to provide actionable intelligence to residents soon enough to prepare for the sudden, severe storms that recently wreaked havoc in the Chicago area with 90-mile per hour winds.
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After Hurricane Irene two months earlier, we thought that a nor’easter would be a piece of cake. Little did I realize in my wildest dreams that this storm’s impact would be much more severe. In fact, there were reports that damage in my area of northern New Jersey was the worst since 1938. After ten days some places still did not have power and just north of us Connecticut was hit especially hard. In any event, when the storm started early Saturday, October 29, 2011, it looked like business as usual. We expected possible freeqing rain and light snow north and west of us, but mostly rain where we live.
As things progressed, precipitation quickly changed to light snow, but not all that much. As we ate lunch in our kitchen, we looked out the sliding glass door to our deck. There was a little snow on it that seemed to be coming down harder, but nothing to really be concerned about. A short while later, however, the lights started flickering. My wife had been making lasagne. I must have had a premonition as I told her to quickly finish up anything requiring electricity. She just finished cooking the noodles when the power went off not to return again for six days.
Later in the afternoon the storm worsened. I went outside to shovel 4 or 5 inches of very heavy snow off the driveway. All of a sudden, I heard explosions and loud cracking sounds. I knew right away that the snow was breaking tree limbs that had not yet lost their leaves. Those leaves played a major role in the major damage that was destined for my area including my own yard. Unfortunately, even though Hurricane Irene damaged and destroyed many trees, there remained countless others that had been spared the first time. Mother Nature was determined to finish filling the void and neglect of the power company, Jersey Central Power & Light, by cleaning house for them.
In over 30 years that I’ve lived on my street, we have had constant problems of downed wires in storms. Our neighborhood has buried services, but is at the mercy of above ground feeders. Had those been buried, we likely would have avoided many outages over the years. The added cost would probably have paid for itself many times over. In this case we probably would’ve lost power, but for a much shorter period of time. The upsetting part is that we are paying premium prices for third world service.
With Hurricane Irene, the outage was much more localized and a day shorter. We were able to find relief by visiting our children and their families who each live about 2 miles away. They never lost power from Irene and only for a couple of days this time. However, travel between us was difficult both times, mostly from flooding with Irene and this time from more extensive downed trees, branches and wires.
The small portable generator that I used for Hurricane Irene continues to be a godsend. This time, I also used it in my yard to power an electric chainsaw, and spent three full days cutting up and clearing debris. For anyone considering the investment in a chainsaw, I recommend getting a carbide tipped chain for it. About ten years ago I got tired of replacing the regular carbon steel chains!
After the power went out, the Verizon wired phones worked for a couple of days before going out of service. They came back on before the power did. The Comcast cable did not come back until a day after power was restored. My cellular services, including the data card for my laptop, degraded more severely this time (compared to Irene) until people started to get their power back. There were also reports of over 200 cell towers being out of commission from the storm this time that may have contributed to weaker signals before being repaired.
From a contingency planning and disaster recovery standpoint, I believe that these storms provided good lessons. The large medical center that I use near my daughter’s home, had no power for a few days and was completely shutdown. Normally, they have an urgent care center. Also, even though I am an advocate of cloud computing, I also believe that standalone local solutions should not be abandoned to assure more failsafe service. It is important to have a backup plan in case all else fails. In particular, one of my weak links is a limited supply of gasoline to run my generator. Many nearby gasoline stations had no way to pump gas without electricity. I am considering a solar panel to charge my batteries, just-in-case, but many businesses are also talking about getting generators.
As for Trick or Treaters, they had their Halloween either Friday, November 4 or Sunday, November 6. Most schools used up all their snow days by being closed for a full week because of lack of power. So everyone seems to be wondering what will happen the next time.
When The Pentagon was found to have charged taxpayers $434 for a hammer and $600 for a toilet seat cover, people were outraged. What they failed to realize was that the same thing is happening to us all the time. Unless we see something blatant that affects us directly, we do not even think to question what is going on. A case in point is a healthcare system with similar excesses.
The other day, I stopped at my local drugstore to pick up a new prescription that I had left to be filled. The drug had not been in stock. In retrospect, that should have been a red flag. Others were probably too smart and were not buying it. Anyway, when I went to pay the bill, I learned that it would cost $121.37. This, by the way, was for a prescription strength version of a medicine that is available over-the-counter for a fraction of this amount. My first reaction was that my insurance had not paid its share. But no, they had disallowed the claim and I must pay the entire amount as if I had no insurance at all. Needless-to-say, the drug got put back on the shelf.
For an accountant like me, it is easy to see what is happening. Costs are what they are, but who pays and how much they are charged is another matter. One way or another, costs are going to be marked up and allocated to someone for payment. Nature abhors a vacuum so if there is pushback in one place, something else must give way. When an insurance company avoids paying at all, so much the better for their bottom line. If they negotiate too many discounts or too many people who lack insurance and cannot pay are subsidized, everyone else foots the bill. The consumer has little say in the matter. Costs simply get spread through the prices of products that we buy, the taxes we pay, insurance premiums, co-pays and deductibles, contributions that we make and so on. It is anyone’s guess what the true cost or price should be for anything.
There are different prices. Some people pay nothing out-of-pocket at all. Until the alarm goes off, we simply take whatever comes along without question. In my case, I had one other piece of information about medicines that most people do not know. I had learned from Bloomberg Businessweek that roughly half of the costs of prescription medicines are wasted because they do not work as the prescribing doctor had intended. In 2008, this amounted to $145 Billion wasted by all of us in that year alone. A year ago, I spent $100 on a co-pay for eye drops that did not work. Quite frankly, I was not ready to risk adding to this waste especially when there were other options.
Looking at the world around us, I believe that it is important to find out the facts, tell it like it is, and fix what is wrong. If you agree, please join in by sharing your comments and experiences with us.