Business Ethics Business model Customer relationships customer retention Recurring Revenue Small Business Strategy

The New Math aka Economics 101

A friend told me recently that his family filed a homeowner’s insurance claim for slightly under $600.

After filing no claims in over 20 years of keeping their insurance with this company, this was the 3rd claim in 5 years.

During that 5 years, their annual insurance rate went from $1300 a year to $4000.

After the 3rd claim was paid, their insurance was cancelled without warning.

Do the math

Somewhere, a bad piece of software or a misguided underwriter just killed a 20+ year customer relationship.

That aside, let’s do the math.

Even if a family had no other insurance with this agent/company (highly unusual, I suspect), they’ve been worth well over $20,000 to this insurance company.

In this case, ALL their insurance is at that company. Think they’ll move it? If they fired this customer over a $600 claim against a $4000 per year policy, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the family move their coverage elsewhere. All of it.

At $4000 a year, the recent claim is nothing.

Yet because they didn’t really look at the math the right way, they just discarded a customer with 20 years of loyalty over $600.

If this family keeps their home another ten years, that’s a loss of $40,000 in premium revenue, not counting the other insurance policies they have.

Who does the math at *your* business?

Are you throwing away thousands of dollars by not paying attention to the Lifetime Customer Value generated by recurring revenue?

Please do the math.



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An ethical lapse, or just not knowing any better?

Creative Commons License photo credit: KhayaL

Last night I was working on the web site for our local Scout camp.

Lots of Scout troops from out of state visit Glacier National Park every year.

Some of them use our local Scout camp property as a “base camp” for a week or two of treks they make into the Bob Marshall, Glacier Park and elsewhere.

One thing they depend on us for is referrals to quality local businesses for various outdoor adventures. We don’t have the staff, money or licenses to be an outfitter, so we refer them to professionals. Part of that process is providing these troops with contact info.

While looking up some websites to add to the “nearby activities” directory on the camp’s site, I noticed that when I searched for the name of one of the outfitters, a Google Adwords ad for their direct competitor appeared at the top of the page.

“How 1999…”, I thought.

What do I mean by that? It’s a reference to standard (and kinda dumb) stuff that businesses did online way back in 1999.

It could just be a dumb move. Or it could be unethical, which in this case qualifies as both.

Dumb and Dumber

I’ll address “dumb” first.

It could be that this business just doesn’t know any better and thinks they’re being clever by using their competitor’s name as a keyword to place their ad.

The “don’t know any better” thing doesn’t wash with me. Would they buy a Yellow Pages or newspaper ad with the other business’ name in it but put their own phone number in the ad? Of course not. Yet they do it in the hidden keywords of online ads and in their web site’s html source. The ad itself isn’t misleading, of course.

Like the Wild West, whatever you get away with online is legal and ethical, right? I mean It’s online, so the rules are different (if they exist at all), right?

Not hardly.

It’s obvious that outfitter-in-the-ad is advertising their business on Google Adwords using the business name of a competitor as a keyword. It’s equally obvious from the site’s meta info (source code that isn’t visible). The former is subject to discussion. The latter is uncool in any legitimate web marketer’s unwritten rulebook.

If “Joe’s Climbing Wall” had bought an ad to display when “climbing walls” or “climbing walls Glacier Park” is searched, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But that clearly isn’t the case. And no, this isn’t about climbing walls.

A big deal

You might not think this is worth talking about, so let me elaborate a little.

Imagine Ford’s reaction if every search for “Ford Mustang” resulted in seeing a Google search results page starting with Chevy Camaro ads and links.

Should I expect to see both companies in the ads and search results displayed when I search for “American sports car”? Absolutely.

The key here is that this isn’t what the searcher is looking for when looking for a specific business name.

Yeah, I’m yelling. A little, anyhow. Misuse of trade names – even at this level – will sooner or later get you bit. Misleading people in search results also annoys Google, who wants people to find what they are searching for the first time they search.

Placing Gain next to Tide on the shelf at your grocery is fair game (thanks Shane). It’s obvious to the consumer which is which in that case.

How’s your icemaker?

Even for the ethically challenged, using a competitor’s business name as an advertising keyword is a bad idea.

If someone calls your HDTV store and asks a question about the newest 3D TV models and your salesperson say “Well, our refrigerators all have in-door icemakers”, would you expect that prospect to have a positive reaction? How would you react to a totally out-of-context response like that?

It’s foolish.

Likewise, so is advertising your business using someone else’s business name.

The other shoe

What troubles me most is the signal it sends. It makes me question how the rest of your business operates. It could be an innocent mistake. It could be something the web developer did and didn’t share with the business. Further research indicates otherwise.

When it comes to sending Scouts out into the woods or on the water, that wonder extends to…

  • Whether your safety equipment is up to par, or in another ethical lapse, you just say it is.
  • Whether your staff is properly trained, or in another ethical lapse, you just say they are.

It’s the last thought you want in the heads of folks who funnel hundreds of young, out-of-state visitors to businesses like yours.

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Santa’s naughty or nice business list for 2010

Merry Christmas
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Yahoo Finance put together a good list of naughty and nice business policies for this year’s Christmas season.

Check out today’s guest post. Spend wisely… and make sure your business is on the nice list.

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Don’t waste a single interaction


Last week I had to get on the phone to cancel an online service.

Not because I wanted to use the phone to cancel, but because it’s a requirement.

You see, you can sign up for this service online, but you can’t cancel it there. And you certainly won’t be doing it easily.

Yes, you read that right. You can sign up online, but canceling requires a phone call.

That’s so “Business can do no wrong, 1999” kind of thinking.

It reminds me of the old America Online (AOL). This is how they used to act. Butâ?¦

There ARE good reasons to require a call

I could see good reason for the call if they truly wanted to check to make sure that I couldn’t use their service. Obviously, that assumes that they’d put effort into making it a pain-free process to find out my situation.

Possible situations:

  • Maybe I couldn’t figure it out.
  • Maybe I found something better.
  • Maybe it wasn’t what I thought it was or didn’t do what I really needed (that vague thing called “merchantability”).

If I’m the vendor interested in improving my offering, I’d want to know those things when my service is getting cancelled by someone.

Why? Because that info will help me do a better job of selling my service in the future. It will also help me adjust who I market the service to and what it does.

A quick call for stuff like this is often faster and more productive for everyone but you have to make it fast, easy and pleasant. It’s a good time to leave a last good impression in a relationship that just didn’t work out (for now), and if time permits, ask what kind of changes would provoke the person to sign up again at a later date.

Hassle your customers

But that isn’t why I had to call them.

I had to call them because they intentionally designed a process to be more difficult than it was to sign up. They wanted it to be “work”, in hopes that I wouldn’t cancel and would just blow it off.

I know this because of what happened when I called.

First, I spent 12 minutes on hold. Overall, that’s not a huge deal because I put my phone on speaker and sat it on my desk, but it does indicate the importance they place on these calls. Or it shows that a TON of people are cancelling. Or both.

During the cancel process – in fact – during the very first interaction with the phone agent, I was asked if I wanted to purchase a “buy one, get one free” airline ticket.

I was so stunned by the out-of-context request, I had to ask him to repeat himself. I just couldn’t believe it.

Rest assured, there’s no relationship *at all* between air travel and what this online service provides. So why are they trying to sell me an airline ticket? Dumb.

Remember, all this lameness happened after 12 minutes on hold.

But they weren’t done. After all that, a six question survey about my satisfaction which should have been done by the agent, who didn’t even ask why I was cancelling. Otherwise, why make me call?

3 of the questions follow:

  • Would I recommend them? No. (An agent could have asked “Why not?”)
  • Rate the call wait time. (Your phone system knows how long I waited. Common sense will give you all the rating you need. It’s a feel-good question to allow me to vent.)
  • Do I feel valued as a customer? No. No. No. (Sorry, the airline ticket question failed to cement our love affair.)

Just in case there’s some doubt about how I feel about this kind of behavior: If this is how you treat your clients and this is how you do business, I hope your competition hires me to relieve you of those pesky customers you treat so poorly. I’ll enjoy every minute of it.

The lesson

Every interaction you have with a customer – no matter how trivial – is an opportunity to reinforce their impression of you (positively, I hope).

Don’t waste ANY of them on stupid, wasteful interactions like this one.

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Does it make you squirm?

Best wedding cake dolls ever.
Creative Commons License photo credit: ToastyKen

The oft-referenced-here Cialdini work “Influence” speaks in volume via today’s guest post from Rob’s IM Reports.

While the guest post’s video is intended to be funny, it does a nice job of illustrating a situation most of us have faced at one time or another.

You might also have created some of them. Did they make you squirm?

Preventing squirm

How you communicate value (and thus price) – and do so ethically, without royally ticking off your customer – is HUGE to maintaining your price structure.

Maintaining that is critical to creating the profits you need to stay open, grow and if necessary, hire.

We’ll talk more about that next week as we jump into the Amazon e-book pricing mess.

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Avoid the temptation

A couple of days ago, I was pretty forward with you guys about your responsibilities as both employees and employers.

It’s easy to assume that one will regularly take advantage of the other – even in the current tight job market. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s been going on forever so my guess is that it’ll continue.

Even the current education reform arguments are full of us vs. them employee/employer tension and rhetoric. You, of course, can put an end to it if you like.

The current employment/economy situation in general reminds me of a story General Schwartzkopf tells about the First Gulf War.

Quoting Schwartzkopf:

“…You can look at the number of tanks, you can look at the number of airplanes, you can look at all these factors of military might and put them together. But unless the soldier on the ground, or the airman in the air, has the will to win and the strength of character to go into battle, believes his cause is just, and has the support of his country, all the rest of that stuff is irrelevant.”

Employers face an identical issue, as did the commander of the once-feared Iraqi Republican Guard.

You can buy the best tools, have the best location, the best products and services, provide what you think is the best value, BUT as the General says: “…all that stuff is irrelevant.”

You’d better also have the best staff. Best trained, best attitude and so on.

That goes for you too, since being the best in your market includes all those things, as well as paying a decent wage, continually training the people you have and providing the tools they need to succeed – and not looking at them with that “Hey, the job market stinks so I can pay you less, replace you in a heartbeat, work you more and treat you not quite as nice as I usually might” kind of attitude.

Because as Schwartzkopf says…the soldier on the ground might be the best and have the best to work with, but they can make your business irrelevant.

They’re on the front lines every day. They’re the ones answering the phones and greeting your customers. They’re the ones you expect to smile whether you’re standing there or not.

That teenager working her first job deserves at least as much consideration, training and attention as an employee as the “best” full-timer you have because she can run off your best customer in a heartbeat.

How’s that training expense seem now? Tiny, I’ll bet.

Treat your people like your most valuable investment – because that’s exactly what they are.

Employees have a similar burden

Sure, the job market is tight so you obviously want to deliver as much value as you can – that much is obvious.

Little things make a big difference.

Do you show up on time? If something happens and you’re going to be late, do you call? Do you arrive ready to kick some butt? Do you show up looking the part? Nails clean? Yeah, little stuff like that.

You might think that owner of yours is a rotten old cuss who is getting rich off your back. While that might be true (and I’ve suggested you create your own economy via your own small business as a way to cure yourself of that problem), it’s also true that the rotten old cuss has and continues to take risks and invest their money to create and sustain the business that pays you.

If you make $30k and have just 3 fellow employees, consider what has to happen for your checks to clear each week. At the very least, they’ve got to take in at least $3000 a week just to make your checks clear (and set aside money for their part of payroll taxes).

Zig Ziglar once said that you should consider yourself self-employed whether you have a job or not. Do the job as if you owned the place, because it reflects on you.

You never know if that customer in front of you will someday be your boss, or better – your best customer (of your own business) or even the one who suggests to the person who owns your business that they’d be nuts not to promote you and give you a raise because of the amazing job you did for them.

You’re the one who makes your boss’ business more competitive on the ground level – and that’s what makes sure it’s there to pay you tomorrow.

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Domino’s Transparent Pizza

Recently, Domino’s started a campaign that threw open the world of food photography and showed why the food you get at the restaurant rarely (never?) seems to resemble the amazing looking food you see on TV.

At, they asked for their customers’ pizza photos.

In short order, they’d received 13,000 photos.

At least one showed cheese stuck to the top of the delivery pizza box (We’ve all gotten one of those).

Rather than leave it buried in the other 13,000 photos, Domino’s Pizza CEO Patrick Doyle shows the photo in a recent television ad, names the town (and thus by association, the Domino’s franchisee) and make it clear that kind of performance will not stand.

How’s that franchisee feel about his town being named on national TV? Hopefully it feels like a target on their back.

If I’m the Domino’s CEO, I don’t really care so much about how it makes the franchisee feel (and I suspect they were warned before the ad appeared). Meanwhile, I suspect a number of the Domino’s customers in that town are nodding their head as they see the commercial and thinking “Yep, that happened to me.”

Rather than pretend it didn’t happen (or spin it), he steps right out, shows the photo to the world and says (more or less) “This will not stand and we will do better.”

A great lesson for every small business owner, whether you sell pizza, knitting supplies or software: The world already knows what you screwed up. Your customers talk about it, blog about it, chat about it at the grocery store, at the water cooler and in the yard.

How you face – and fix – what you screwed up is often far more important. We have enough image control and spin in our lives. We don’t need it from the businesses we deal with.

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Situational Ethics: Don’t go there

She sells seashells: the extended inventory
Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya

The probably not-so-old joke goes something like this: “There are two kinds of people: those who break people into two groups and those who don’t.”

When it comes to business ethics, there’s usually a pretty clear definition of the line between these two groups: the unethical and the accidentally unethical.

The accidentally unethical will stumble now and then and make a mistake that, in many cases, they didn’t even realize was a problem.

These folks are the reason why even the most jaded person needs to start by giving these situations a second look or a benefit of the doubt prior to dropping the hammer. Sometimes, you’ll find that easing into these situations will work to your advantage. You can always get serious about things after you gather more information.

The Wild West

I had just that situation occur a few years ago. Back in the wild west days of the internet, I found out that a competitor was using my product name in his web site’s keywords – something that no ethical website designer or business owner would do.

This is a problem for the same reason that I can’t put “Goodyear tires” on a sign in front of my tire business if I don’t sell Goodyear tires. It’s misleading and it uses someone else’s trade names to attract business to my business. Not only is this unethical / wrong / slimy, but in most cases it’s illegal.

Plus it really ticks off customers who pull in wanting a pair of Goodyear Eagle GTs only to find that you sell nothing but Chinese-made retreads.

Back to the story. When I first found this website, I was angry about it. This was back in the days when website keywords mattered a lot more than they do now and I was in the middle of the “climbing to altitude” phase of my business – fighting for every inch and not interested in giving any of it back to a thief.

But…something inside told me to tread softly, so I called the guy in Michigan and explained the situation. He sounded sincere when he explained that he didn’t know that it was illegal to use my business name and product name in his website keywords.

Note: In most countries, it’s ok to use a competitor’s brand and name when comparing your product / service to theirs. It’s not cool to use them in ways to “game the system”. We’ll skip the details and geeky stuff for now.

The twist

As I explained the problem to the guy using my trade names, he got it and agreed to remove the terms from his website…and then a funny thing happened.

He offered to sell his business to me.

At the time, he was my biggest competitor. If we lost a sale to someone at that time, more often than not, it was to this guy.

And yes, of course I jumped on it. Not only was it a chance to take over a sizable chunk of the market, it made us that much stronger.

The gravy: the guy was well-liked in the business, so his enthusiasm about getting out of the business and selling it to someone who would treat his customers properly gave us a nice word-of-mouth boost.

The other kind

I don’t mind competitors. You shouldn’t either – they make us all better.

In fact, several of the local ones are friends and we refer business to each other.

Unfortunately, a couple of them – and one in particular – has shown that he is the other sort of unethical person. The kind that knows it and doesn’t care if you catch them at it.

More recently, I came across someone locally who was using the byline of this blog to advertise his marketing business.

When I called him on the fact that it was uncool to use my byline (he’s copied my business slogan to promote his business), he was unapologetic and refused to stop, claiming he somehow randomly arrived at the same slogan despite never seeing my blog or hearing of me.

Yeah. I got that same story from the Easter bunny and Santa too.

Kinda makes you wonder how he treats his customers, doesn’t it?

The Genie

You find these situations in business, politics and your personal life – and they seem to become more prevalent as a situation becomes more challenging / desperate (like the tough economy many are experiencing now). Almost without exception they will come back to bite you. Don’t let tough times tempt you into doing something like this.

A friend of mine has a saying that fits these situations well: “When you move on, the only thing you leave behind is your reputation.”

That’s a genie that you can’t get back into the bottle.

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Real business owners aren’t scared

Kick Butt
Creative Commons License photo credit: Teeejayy

While live-blogging the US Chamber of Commerce Small Business Summit, Brad Peck (US Chamber of Commerce official Twitter blogger) said this during Joe Scarborough‘s talk:

Somewhat annoyed by the “scared” comment, I responded with this:

I don’t know a single business owner that’s scared.

Annoyed? Sure. Aggravated? Sure.

But scared? Not. A. Single. One.

Thankfully, Brad understood. I say thankfully because I would wonder if he has any business working at the US CoC if he actually *believed* what Scarborough said.

I don’t believe for one minute that an entrepreneur would decide not to start a business because someone in Washington was talking about new taxes.

Do I think new taxes make business people happy? Of course not. But scared? No way.

Hand-wringing by the numbers

What you have to keep in mind when reading Scarborough’s quote is that he is a politician and a TV talking head. My guess is that his speech’s goal is to stir people up about government intervention, regulation, taxation in order to boost TV ratings, get votes or whatever.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Except (and here’s where I can predict the comments) that I really don’t worry about those things on a day to day basis.

Sure, I’m aggravated by higher taxes, especially when they arrive in the same wagon with government waste. And yes, it annoys me when a politician votes for final passage of idiotic legislation and then later speaks as if they are an opponent of the law (eg: Rehberg on the CPSIA is a fine example).

BUT…I don’t sit around wringing my hands about it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The best “revenge” is success.

While you might get some satisfaction out of passing your competitor on the street and waving at them from the driver’s seat of your new F350 or 911 Cabriolet, that’s really not what I mean. I don’t mean revenge against them, your favorite tax entity or anyone else in particular.

The real revenge is being successful enough to do *exactly* what you want to do – and none of that has anything to do with fear of what happens in Washington.

Real satisfaction

If you observe people like Bill Gates (and you should), you’ll find that the big screen movie theater in his home might give him enjoyment, but wiping out polio via his $350MM+ donation to Rotary is what really gets him excited. Likewise his efforts in the sustainable energy business (see more on that at

No one – including Bill Gates – likes paying taxes. Like you, he’d rather use that money for something else.

Here’s a suggestion: Worry about making more gross so you have more net than you need.

More net than you need means that you can do the things you always wanted to do, including helping folks that you always wanted to help. Or maybe it just means a new boat. Whatever.

It isn’t always about that million dollar donation or the new bass boat. Little things mean a lot.

Small favors

For example, when my Scout troop goes camping once a month, we don’t cook on Friday night. Everyone brings a sandwich or eats before they leave home. We cook Saturday and Sunday.

Before I arrive, I typically buy a footlong sandwich and save half because most trips, one of the guys will have forgotten dinner, gotten it creamed by a wayward backpack, dropped in the mud or some such.

The why and how really doesn’t matter.

While you might consider lecturing the boy on “Be Prepared” (and yes, we will talk), what matters to me is the look on the face of a kid who just got a half a lukewarm meatball sub, when he thought he was going to go to bed hungry because of an accident.

Gates could do the same to Rotary. He could lecture them about what they’ve done wrong in the home stretch of their 25+ year polio battle. Instead, he gave them a pot of money (with conditions) to make it happen and when he saw how they used it, the next pile came without conditions because they had earned his trust.

Trust is a measure of success as well.

Control and the flip side of taxes

I’m sure many will read this wrong, but I’m going to say it anyway: I *want* to pay more taxes (all else being equal) than my competitors, because I want to do more, earn more and create more business for my clients.

The more good you’ve positioned yourself to do (as a business person), the more taxes you’ll pay. Part of that hurts, but it sure beats not paying any because you’re in the red.

If the government puts a regulation in place that impacts one of my clients, I enjoy spending time (and earning fees, of course) helping them profit *despite* the regulation, while their competition sits around and whines about it, writes a letter to the Daily Bugle complaining about it and then fades slowly out of business because they whined rather than working.

The point is that real business people don’t have the luxury of sitting around and hand-wringing (or teeth gnashing) about what Washington DC or Helena are up to – only talking heads like Morning Joe have that luxury.

Work like you’re scared

With very few exceptions, folks in Washington are gonna do what they’re gonna do.

Don’t get me wrong – I strongly believe that you should make every effort to right the wrongs (if not fix them in advance), but that’s isn’t enough. In addition, you’d better be working twice as smart /hard as everyone else in your market in the meantime.

All of the stuff that government does affects us, but we have a lot more control than most of us believe. If our businesses kick butt and take names, the government’s so-called “efforts to scare us” are mostly irrelevant.

Work, don’t whine.

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Complaints & Complainers are Strategic Assets

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Recently, a friend of mine got this email from an electronic components vendor he uses.

I’ll let you read it before we dive into comments about it.

The Call for Complainers

You have to love sales reps. Everything is always “yes.” Every problem is amazingly solved by whatever they are selling. When I’ve been oversold, I complain. How a company responds to a complaint is what sets them apart.

I recently complained to one of Jameco’s software providers that their product had disappointed me. My sales rep had promised me a specific feature, but when I went to use it, I found it worthless. I was frustrated and fired off a complaint.

Did anyone take my comments seriously? Will they fix the feature? I don’t expect an apology but I would think that if I took the time to complain, that someone might have time to type out a brief “thank you.” Are you surprised that my complaint was apparently ignored?

Jameco treasures complaints. The word “treasures” was not chosen lightly. In fact, I’ll take a complaint over a compliment any day of the week. Complaints offer Jameco a road map to improve and perfect our business. Don’t get me wrong, complaints are rare, but when we frustrate our customers we treat the input as gold and we’re trained to fix the problem so it won’t happen again.

We make it easy for customers to have direct access to the Jameco management team and actively respond to all e-mail personally at  **email address removed by Mark**. No company is perfect but there’s a problem when a company begins to think that they are.


Greg Harris
Vice President of Marketing

While I totally agree with Mr. Harris’ attitude about customer feedback, I have to admit that I’m completely disappointed that this isn’t the norm.

At times I’ve brought up this subject and the consistent feedback I get (which should be a treasure) seems to immediately go two directions:

1) Despite the commonly used saying, customers are not always right (note that Harris NEVER says that)

2) This is Montana, what do you expect?

Both attitudes miss the point entirely. The second one sets an expectation that is so Mississippi-like** that it disgusts me.

How do you welcome feedback? How do you treasure it?

Feedback is a strategic asset

Improvement is a function of feedback.

Your competitive position is a function of (among other things) your ability to improve and the speed that which you improve.

If your clients see feedback going nowhere, their collective intelligence and market knowledge will stop being funneled through you. It’ll either go nowhere (lowering the bar in a market that probably needs it raised) or it’ll go to your competitor.

Neither is a good thing.

Treat feedback as a strategic asset to your company and do so in a public way that makes it clear to your customers that it is of serious strategic importance – so they value it as well.

PS: Does your sales force fit the description Greg offers in the opening to his letter? If so, do something about it.

**NOTE: “Mississippi-like” refers to a US state that is 49th or 50th in numerous statistical categories. I’m sorry if you’re from Mississippi and don’t like the facts. I don’t like them either.

UPDATE: Another view of this issue, from a different angle, from Mark Cuban. Note that he is talking about new product creation. In that case, I agree that when creating a game changing product/service, you can expect exactly what he describes. That isn’t what Harris is talking about, however.