Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for the ‘customer service’ Category

2014 – the battle of platforms continues

Posted by shannonclark on September 26, 2013

My wife and I are are a mixed couple.

Sure she’s Indian and I’m Irish-Jewish but that’s not what I meant. I meant that she’s on Android and I’m on iOS. Though we both also have iPads and share an older desktop iMac. I also have a MacBook Pro that is my primary computer.

We share a family Amazon Prime account though each use Kindle via apps not physical devices. We don’t, currently, have an Android tablet in the house.

As I look forward to 2014 I think we are an example of the looming battle of core platforms that a relatively small number of companies are waging. The companies that I would argue are battling this out are:

  • Amazon.com – especially with Kindle as their physical device but also with the growing features of Prime that have expanded well beyond free shipping. They are fighting for an increasing share of not just reading but all entertainment as well as all shopping for a growing number of families. And Amazon is powering a huge number of businesses via selling on Amazon.com and Amazon Web Services. Amazon payments is not as well known but is used by popular websites like Kickstarter.
  • Apple – obviously iOS is a massive platform and Apple is a platform for thousands (millions?) of app developers and companies that offer services to the huge and growing global iOS installed base (iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches) but Apple is also battling in the living room with Apple TV and their laptops and desktops are still very popular. While Apple is directly competing for entertainment time (iTunes Radio being their latest addition) and iBooks competes directly with Kindle, they are not competing for the eccommerce platform in the same way that Amazon or Google are.
  • Google – Android is their massive platform play on mobile phones and tablets and it is a huge success (if also a challenge in how many flavors of it our out in the wild). But Google’s platform plays don’t stop there. Chrome is a cross platform and important piece of their platform. Google+ is perhaps not a slam dunk success but it is an important piece of their puzzle and they have just recently announced a public roll out of their Google Shopping Express (currently limited to San Francisco and the Peninsula but presumably they plan on a larger scale rollout in the future) showing that they are looking for transactional solutions beyond advertising. If you can get what your family needs quickly, reliably and reasonably from local stores but delivered to you via Google they presumably see a way to make a lot of money offering that service.

There are many other companies that are also competing, though to a lesser degree.

  • Microsoft – hard to entirely rule out and their XBoxOne will likely be a huge hit this holiday season and gives them a footprint into many living rooms. But Bing is not as successful as Google, Surface is faring poorly against iOS and Android and while Windows 8 is big it is no longer as relevant of a platform as it once was as the focus for many consumers (and thus many companies and developers) has shifted very rapidly to mobile platforms. There while Windows Mobile / Phone (whatever they are calling it today) has some impressive phones from companies like Nokia, what it does not have is a large installed base or significant developer interest (there are applications and developers building for the platform but far fewer than for iOS or Android.
  • Ebay/Paypal – they have made some interesting acquisitions in the past year and have rolled out services like Ebay Now (that directly competes with Amazon Prime or Google Shopping Express for rapid fulfillment of ecommerce but they have lost their early community feeling and PayPal while still large and profitable has also made many people frustrated over the years as their anti-fraud systems have had many false positives. They remain a big online sales channel and PayPal is making inroads in other payments but they don’t have the same platform reach as other companies.
  • Comcast / Verizon / AT&T or other carriers/cable networks – this varies somewhat by region and is very different in other countries. but while Comcast certainly is competing for people’s entertainment dollars (directly with Apple/Microsoft/Amazon/Netflix for streaming/on-demand videos) and they have launched apps to expend to portable devices beyond TVs they don’t, yet, offer the other platforms of the companies above. But as the pipes upon which mobile phones, tablets, computers, consoles and entertainment devices like the Apple TV connect to the Internet and receive content they are certainly positioned to benefit from the success of other platform companies.

Are there any other companies I have missed? I know there are others outside of the US that are competing (and winning) as platforms. Companies like Alibaba in China (and indeed globally). Yahoo presumably wants to have a platform for consumers and businesses – who else?

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Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, internet, microsoft, web2.0 | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Idea – Small Business everyday – not just once a year on Saturday

Posted by shannonclark on November 19, 2012

This Saturday is the return of the American Express sponsored alternative to Black Friday, Small Business Saturday which is indeed a great event where American Express is using their marketing clout to promote shopping at local, small businesses. if you are an American Express cardholder you definitely should register before Nov 24th via the above link and qualify to get $25 credit if you spend more than $25 (on a single transaction) at a registered small business – either per the website above or a Square merchant.

No complaints about that emphasis from me but it did spark an idea and a question.

Why restrict this movement to one Saturday a year? Why not create a way to promote shopping from innovative businesses every day? 

Clearly there are a lot of complicated reasons to focus on a single day – for one it is a great way for American Express to leverage marketing dollars to make a single push and to emphasize the value of accepting American Express to small business merchants (i.e. since it costs more for the merchants anything like this day that adds value to that transaction via stretching marketing dollars is a win for small businesses) but I think there is a lot of great opportunities for networks of smart businesses to work together to create value for all participating merchants.

First however a few definitions and restrictions I would put on any such project were I to pursue it.

  1. The value for consumers in shopping at a small, local business should be the service they get and what they can get there that can’t easily be found elsewhere. In many cases this means businesses that offer unique items, often locally made and/or that support and service older items no longer available elsewhere. Used bookstores versus an only new bookstore for example.
  2. If I were running things I would emphasize the value of curation and editing over comprehensiveness. Small businesses win against the Amazon.coms and Walmarts not by competing on price or selection but by offering better service – which includes editing what is available to only sell great products. This in turn also allows for value to buyers even if the absolute price of a given good is the same (or even higher) than that good might be at a big box store or massive online site. Busy shoppers value service – and help in identifying the great versus the not-so-great is, for many, worth spending slightly more (avoiding the costs and time of returning items or replacing things that wear out quickly)
  3. Small businesses don’t necessarily mean tiny one-woman shops. Relative to the $100B+ massive big box chains like Walmart nearly every other retailer is “small” – small in this context primarily means in ethos and focus – though I think I would start with businesses primarily in the <$100M/year range (mostly in the <$10M range with many in the <$1M). These could be mid-sized businesses like San Francisco’s Rickshaw Bagworks or even smaller businesses like my wife’s design business.
  4. Here in SF we have an example of the type of thing I’m thinking about – SF Made is a network of 100’s of local to San Francisco makers – companies that aren’t just based in SF but in most cases manufacture what they sell here in San Francisco. SF Made is close to what I’m envisioning though I think it should be a national movement not just a local citywide one.

I don’t mind in thinking about this idea if it excludes many types of small businesses. The idea isn’t to promote shopping locally or at small businesses just because they are small or local – ignoring whether they offer great products at fair prices – rather the idea is to find a network of likeminded, related businesses that through pooling together can better market and promote the unique products and service they offer. Any such organization has to be about the value to buyers as much (perhaps even more so) than it is about the value to the local businesses. If it is this could be a highly sustainable movement – if the value isn’t there however or if it is too skewed towards one party over the other then this isn’t a sustainable, long term movement.

Groupon’s approach isn’t, I think, the right on – it emphasizes price over quality and service. What I’m thinking about would be a service that is not open to any business to join – but which rather is possibly a co-op where very business has to be approved in some manner (perhaps not by each other – this should be open even to “rivals” as long as they all meet the core criteria and philosophy). Once a member and once pooling marketing and promotional budgets the idea would be that this organization could do things that no single small business could reasonable take on – sustained online marketing campaigns, long running offline advertising and promotional campaigns etc. Possibly this organization would also serve as a negotiator on behalf of these smaller businesses for a wide variety of products and services (health insurance for example but also negotiating with payment processing firms like Square, American Express etc.

Posted in advertising, customer service, Entrepreneurship | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Billion dollar ideas for the next decade

Posted by shannonclark on April 23, 2010

What will be the next set of Billion dollar industries?

In the past week one of the biggest angel investors in technology, Ron Conway, announced that he has closed a new venture fund and he spoke to TechCrunch about what he sees as the opportunities for the next few years, the opportunities he will be investing in with his new fund. He identified three “megatrends” – the real-time data, the social web and flash marketing.

I agree with Ron that these are big trends and that there are many companies already pursuing them but still many opportunities in these areas for new companies to be created and to succeed.

However I think there are a number of other very large opportunities which will be huge in the next decade, opportunities which will transform not just entire industries but how we (and by we I mean people around the globe) live. Some of these opportunities may require massive investments and infrastructure which means that the winners in these spaces will likely be existing large companies that navigate the transition to a new business model though there likely will be opportunities for large, venture backed (and eventually public IPO backed) companies to prosper in these spaces as well.

I’m sure there are other, very large opportunities, but here are a few which I have identified.

  1. Full lifecycle manufacturing – products which are designed to be recycled and reused. Yes, physical goods. As Moore’s Law continues to move forward the pace of technological change is rapidly increasing, manufacturing is increasingly global and nimble yet climate change concerns, the cost of transportation and energy and many other concerns suggests a need to reevaluate many products. My prediction is that across products from cars to toothpaste design for full-lifecycle use will inspire billions of dollars in new products and industry opportunities. Businesses designed to take products after the initial purchaser of the product is done with that good and reusing those products, at scale, to add value and reenter the value chain. This is much much more than just “recycling” it is an underlying shift in design. Done well this is highly “green” but will also be highly profitable with lower costs, multiple revenue streams and ongoing, engaged relationships with customers over the lifetime of the product – whether it is a car or toothpaste or a laptop computer.
  2. Renewal products to extend the usefulness and value of goods. Cars designed just two years ago have technology components which are already massively out of date and limited (20gb disks for the media players in the car). Laptops and desktop computers are typically out of date when you buy them and new models come out from most computer companies multiple times a year. And while the trend for the past few decades has been to replace our electronic devices (and indeed much of our consumer society) on a frequent basis, I think there is a huge opportunity for a new business of retrofitting and updating a wide array of devices. This opportunity is two-fold. The big but complicated part is retrofitting current products – such as cars made in the past decade with modernized electronics. The even bigger opportunity is when the design of products starts to shift to be designed for ongoing upgrades. This has happened in software in the past five years – both desktop and mobile applications (and to a degree server based applications) are almost all now designed to have ongoing and automatically checked for updates which allows these products to upgrade over time. My first generation iPhone is still useful over 3 years later as a result of having been designed to accept significant ongoing updates both for the core software of the device and for the dozens of applications I run upon it (which wasn’t even an option when I purchased the phone initially!)
  3. Many pieces loosely coupled. This is a trend which exists online and offline. In place of monolithic products whether software or hardware the next decade will see many more opportunities to integrate small discrete items together in ways they may have not been designed to be combined or expected to be used. In software the rise of widgets, such as Facebook’s recently announced Social Plugins is an example of this trend. In hardware this trend is a bit slower but there are examples of it in action in the home entertainment center changes of the past few years – the rise of Internet connected devices other than computers within many homes. Most Blue-ray players sold today, for example, come with wired or wireless Internet access and along with the ability to play Blue-Ray disks the ability to connect to Internet delivered services such as Pandora, NetFlix Streaming, Flickr and more. I predict that there are billion dollar opportunities for increasing the types of devices that can connect with each other and for more combinations of hardware and software working together. Specific short term opportunities I see are around Bluetooth devices that are more complex than keyboards, mice or headphones. Eye-fi’s line of wifi enabled SD cards is a great example of how a second part added to an existing device, say a basic digital camera, can transform the functionality of that device.
  4. Hyperlocal but global curated experiences. At first this may sound like a contradiction, how can an experience be both hyperlocal and global? What I mean by this is the emergence of new retail opportunities which combine deep connections and relationships with the local community around the retailer alongside of a global perspective and sourcing. The emergence of Third-wave coffee roasters over the past few years is one great case study. (here’s a list my favorite coffee places  in San Francisco). This trend is not limited to small, nimble entrepreneurs, even large corporations such as Walmart with their recent major switch to sourcing most of the fresh food they sell locally to each store is an example of this trend. But in the next decade I think there will be a major retailing shift & opportunity where hyperlocal smart retailers who deeply know the needs and interests of their local buyers connect to a global network and source parts of what they sell from across the globe, curate these elements carefully and present specific to their community goods and services. In many cases building and finishing these goods locally but sourcing parts and raw goods on a global scale. But increasingly not just sourcing from massive global businesses but buying nearly directly from global producers. Third Wave coffee roasters increasingly buy their green coffee directly from farmers across the globe. These small scale local retailers are able to afford to send buyers around the globe to source their beans and are building highly successful (and highly profitable businesses). Four Barrel Coffee here in San Francisco recently was quoted in a New York Times article on Coffee in San Francisco that their retail business alone is generating over $100,000 a month with a 45% profit margin. Add to that significant margin a large wholesale business and you have a highly successful new business. 45% margins in a retail business can sustain significant growth.
  5. Global brands, local products. New brands and businesses across the globe will with ever increasing frequency in the next decade expand outside of their initial “home” markets into a more competitive global market. The brands which will prosper in this new world will be ones which combine the best of global sourcing with local connections, resources and awareness. In the media space large media brands will emerge that translate media generated in one country & language into another. Viz Media in San Francisco, for example, translates highly successful Japanese media properties (Manga & Anima mostly) into English and has had great success. TOKYOPOP in LA is one of the most successful publishers (in any media) in the US with many of the bestsellers each year from their highly successful English language manga.

There are many other industries which are likely to generate new billion dollar businesses in the next decade but which I know a bit less about – a few of these are Cleantech, Biotechnology especially around drug design,  and Renewable energy.

What other Billion Dollar opportunities have I missed?

Which of these opportunities should I expand upon in future blog posts?

And yes, if you are a venture fund or investor and want to work with me on exploring these ideas in greater detail I’m available…

Posted in customer service, economics, Entrepreneurship, futureculture, geeks, internet, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The big tables in the cafe principle

Posted by shannonclark on October 22, 2009

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending Lunch For Good here in San Francisco, organized by my friend Chris Heuer, the lunch gathered around 50 people together for a tasty meal and serious conversation about how to inspire critical thinking.

At my table as part of our conversation I mentioned my “big tables” principle in evaluating cafes as part of our conversation about groups and spaces. At the table the pet owners were all sharing how much enjoyment they get from talking with fellow dog owners at dog parks. I mentioned that I could never even be in such a space, couldn’t ever own pets of any type.

If you are wonder, no I don’t hate animals, I’m just seriously allergic, so allergic that I stop breathing and have asthma attacks along with concurrent serious skin rashes, red eyes and stuffed sinuses. For a short time I can take some allergy medicines and endure brief exposure, but I refuse to take medicine every day of my life just to live with a pet – and furthermore such prolonged exposure to both the medicine (which does have very real side effects) and to the pet dander which has extreme impact on my well being is not conducive to my overall health.

My point in bringing this up is that while the interactions between pet owners are fantastic and it is great that such spaces spark interactions between folks who might not otherwise meet (though likely they share some common interests and traits since they have chosen to live in a near geographic area) such spaces are not, in fact, truly universal, there are folks, such as myself, who not only are unlikely to be at such a dog park my in fact be completely unable to enter such a space.

We then started talking about online spaces and communities and here I brought the discussion back to physical spaces. Cafes are often cited as spaces where strangers can meet, interact and get to know each other. However as a frequent cafe denizen (I’ve been working from cafes since the early 1990’s) I have observed that there are simple steps a cafe can do that dramatically change how the cafe functions as a social space.

Hence my “big tables” principle.

The bigger the tables in a cafe the more social interactions between strangers are likely.

My ideal cafe has tables big enough for two people to work on laptops comfortably while simultaneously having a plate of food, a coffee and some books or other materials open in front of them. Such large tables usually can readily accommodate more than two people and easily inspire ad hoc conversations and interactions between strangers – starting with the simple question ‘do you mind if I share your table” but often ending up with philosophical discussions.

Today, however, in the era when many folks, myself included as I write this post from a cafe in the West Portal seated on a couch (by myself)  frequently shut out the world via listening to headphones as we work, a cafe needs to take further steps to truly inspire people to converse with each other, to actually create a space where social interactions happen.

A few steps I have observed that help.

  1. Watching the volume of the music including any live performers to be quiet enough to enable comfortable conversations. A quiet cafe without any background music however isn’t ideal as people will turn to their own soundtracks. But a cafe with pounding music makes it hard to converse even with friends
  2. Regular events which help spark conversations and interactions. One cafe here in San Francisco (On the Corner) has a weekly games night sponsored by a nearby games shop. Such events give strangers a reason to do more than just talk in passing with each other. Other cafes have regular art openings, cuppings of coffee or other events which help inspire people to interact.
  3. Sociable staff. This is simple but friendly, sociable staff at a cafe will spark conversations with strangers and regulars alike (and help make strangers into regulars). In turn these conversations will then often offer reasons and entrypoints for strangers to interact with each other. Some cafes (and other spaces) take this to an extreme but generally speaking friendly, outgoing staff help create a space where people get a bit out of themselves and interact with others.
  4. Hours that encourage social interactions. Cafes that are open late inspire people (often but not always) to linger and hangout, to use the cafe as an alternative to other evening entertainment options such as bars or nightclubs. One of the more social cafes I have spent time in here in San Francisco is, in fact, a Starbucks. However it is also open 24hrs a day six days a week. Being located near to universities it is full of students studying and interacting with each other until the early hours of the morning.

What lessons can be drawn from such cafes (and other spaces) for online businesses seeking to spark conversations and interactions?

  1. The design details matter a great deal. Small, tiny tables in a cafe or a web design that emphasizes an individual experience will lead to individuals being alone in that space.
  2. Small gestures can inspire and spark interactions. Many of the cafes that most impress me, where I most quickly feel comfortable and at home are cafes where the staff take a simple step of learning my name from the first time I am there – and not just to call out my order but to greet me by name as they interact with me.
  3. Hours and patterns matter.Yes, the web is a global usually open 24hrs a day space but even online most successful communities and sites find rhythms and schedules to fall into. Here on my personal blog I fail in this regard, I do not post nearly enough. In contrast many of my favorite blogs have gotten into a pattern of one or more “open threads” posted every day specifically to create spaces for readers to converse with each other. These posts, in turn, supported by a regular pattern of other posts (the frequency and form of which differ by the blog). Cafes with short hours cater to one audience, cafes with longer hours open later reach a different group.

How do you judge a space? Whether online or offline what about a space inspires you to join it, to engage with the people who might share it with you?

Posted in customer service, digital bedouin, geeks, networks, personal, working | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Two models of retail – the Dollar store vs the Apple store

Posted by shannonclark on December 14, 2008

DUDES + DOLLAR STORE = VISALIA 07'Apple Mini Retail Store - Stanford Shopping Center

I contend that there are two primary models of reatail, at least in the US (there is a third model I’ll mention at the end which is rarely seen in the US).

In the title I called these The Dollar Store and the Apple Store but more accurately these are the “everything and the kitchen sink” versus the sparse and mostly open. 

In the first model, call it the Kitchen Sink model the buisness model is to have everything that someone might possibly be looking for, to have a surplus of choice and options, to fill most available space with products for sale and to, in theory, sell a lot to everyone who comes through the door. Typically these models combine having everything (or trying to appear to have everything) with a lot of emphasis on price. 

The logical extreme of this model is the Big Box Retailers such as Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Target and countless others overwhelming the suburban malls of the US (and occaisonally making inroads into he urban centers as well). Typically these stores attempt to have most active inventory right on the store shelves with the customers pulling their own products as they shop. Employees restock the shelves, sometimes help guide customers to the right aisle, and only in select departments of the store (if at all) have a direct customer service role, often taking custom orders for those products which the store does not keep in stock. 

Though in many of these models the store deemphsizes such products in favor of products which can be kept in stock on the stoor “floor”.

In contrastthe other model of retail is the Curated Experience, of which The Apple Stores are a fantastic example. In this model the emphasis is less on keeping a wide selection of products in stock, but rather on highly currating what is avialable for sale. 

Typically these stores have displays which highlight the products which are available but the full inventory of the store is not on the main storeroom floor but rather is kept in the back in a storeroom, off limits to the customers. Most (non-Payless) shoe stores operate in this manner. As do most higher end designer clothing stores. But the Apple Store is an example which many more people have likely experienced directly.

In many ways this is a very old fashioned retail model, this is how, for example, the old fashioned grocery stores operated in the days before the grocery cart and customer self service. Speciality food shops occasionally still operate in this manner, with all the products behind displays and cases and only available via a direct interaction between the customes and the shopkeepers. 

This model of retail is labor intensive, most of the staff has to be able to inteact with and literally serve the customers. It is also built upon the taste and curatiatorial skill of the store’s buyers. In place of trying to have everything that anyone might possibly want this model of store posits that they can choose between those goods (or services) people should want and those which they should not. 

It is the model of a bookstore which instead of cramming every available inch with books stacked upon books (and often barely if at all sorted) is highly seletive with what they buy, turning away more books then they choose to purchase (here I’m describing mostly a used bookstore but the same model also holds for new bookstores to a lesser degree). 

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In my experience though I occasionally will suffer the cramped, overly full bookstores, it is the stores such as Aardvark Books here in San Francisco which I return to time and time again, and from whom I buy many books over the course of a given year (in 2008 I’d guess around 100+ books perhaps). What often draws me into the store is a carefully currated window display of the latest used book purchases of the store – almost always hardcovers, in perfect (or nearly so) condition, and not infrequently books which I had recently read reviews of in national publications (I’m fairly certain that they buy books from a number of locals who receive review copies as nearly every book which is getting active reviews ends up in their store window within a month or so of publication). 

The curatorial model is not limited to physical retail stores, if anything it has even more value online. It may seem paradoxical, as online it is technically possible for many stores (especially any store selling digital goods) to have nearly infinite inventory. And I’m not arguing that there is not a place for such mega stores (call them the Amazons of this world) but there is equally a great deal of value in culling away the cruft and of practicing great curation to only highlight a select group of pruducts.

Buyers will then shop such stores less on pure price comparisions and more on an appreciation of the service offered in making them (the buyers) aware of products that they should own and enjoy. 

A short sidenote here. A few days ago I was at a local seasonal market, the Mission Market, which was an experiment where a number of local vendors (many without physical stores) had a booth at a converted Armory in the Mission district of San Francisco. One of these merchants sold music, mostly CDs. Now I have not bought a lot of physical CDs in the past few years (though I have bought more music in the past years than ever before). But I ended up buying two fantastic CDs from this man, entirely because he had a very select collection of works for sale, all clearly curated with care. And of the works he had in genres I enjoyed (which were nearly all of the genres of music he stocked) I already owned a pretty large portion of the works he was selling. 

And not just owned the works, but these were among my favorite albums of the past few years, music which exactly defined what I like.

So I was immediately favorably inclined towards him and especially towards the works which he had for sale that I did not already own – assuming, correctly as it were, that since clearly our tastes overlapped considerably, the works he also chose to stock would quite likely also be works I would enjoy.

And indeed that was exactly the case.

And that, in short, is the Curatorial Retail model. 

At the start of this post I mentioned that there is a third retail model, but one which is rarely seen in the US. That model is the Bazaar Model which can be a variation of either the Kitchen Sink or the Curatorial model but with the addition of a highly variable price. In many parts of the world this is the dominant model, where price is nearly infinitely negotiable and most (though not all) goods and services are subject to rounds of bargaining before a price is agreed upon. 

In the US this is not a common retail model, though to a degree the proliferation of discount codes (especially online) and complex sales at larger stores (Macy’s for example) combined with loyalty cards/store credit cards sometimes creates an environment which feels like every price is variable and subject to many factors. Online the purest form of Ebay historically was intended to be this exact model with the buyers competing to offer the best price to the seller. 

However what the pure auction does not capture in the true Bazaar model is that most of the time the negotiation is not multiparty (i.e. an auction with many buyers and only one seller) but one-on-one. One buyer, one seller who negotiate between themselves about a transaction which can either happen at a price, not happen at all, or be modified (expanded to include other products, shrunk to be something smaller).  The buyer always has the option of walking away (and the seller of simply not agreeing to sell).

With the exception of most tourists to such markets (who usually get the worst prices in part as a result of my next point) buyers and sellers who have a history with each other, who expect to do additiona business in the future (sometimes with the roles reversed) have more complex incentives in the negotiation process than just maximizing revenue/minimizing expense on a given transaction. 

Instead when there is an expectation of repeat business many other factors come into play. 

It is here, in part, that curation can add value, considerable value in fact, to even the Bazaar model of retail. A buyer who trusts the tastes and instincts (and fair dealing) of a seller will often value that the seller put something aside for that buyer over getting the lowest possible price for the product. 

It is my view that in the long term success will depend more on curation than on stocking the kitchen sink. 

And I mean this for both online retailers and for physcial stores. 

Posted in customer service, economics, Entrepreneurship | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Business advice case study – Bohdi restaurant in San Francisco

Posted by shannonclark on December 10, 2008

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This post is my personal opinion and advice, unsolicited and uncompensated for by anyone, so take it accordingly.

A few nights ago I had dinner at Bohdi restaurant, a  Vietnamese restaurant here in San Francisco which I have long walked past but haven’t previously had a chance to try. It is a huge restaurant occupying two storefronts in the Mission, in a part of the Mission which has long been borderline but is rapidly gentrifying with new restaurants, shops, galleries and cafes opening up all around Bohdi.

As I ate my dinner I looked around, counted the chairs and tables, counted how many other people were eating that evening (a Sunday night), I watched the one waitress managed the two large dining rooms, and I puzzled on what and where this restaurant had gone wrong. 

Unfortunately based on my observations of hundreds of restaurants over the years, I would predict that Bohdi restaurant will close within the next year, probably sooner rather than later unless they make many changes. 

I should pause here a bit and explain my views and my purpose in writing this post (especially if you are reading this without being a regular subscriber of my blog or a long time reader). I’m a fairly serious foodie and longtime “chowhound”. Back in Chicago I was an active poster and participant on Chowhound, and then later on LTHForum which friends of mine started as an alternative to Chowhound (this was before CNET purchased them). Since college (early 90’s) I’ve been an avid explore of restaurants, especially Asian restaurants, and eat out often. 

I’m the amateur in my family, my father has had a 40+ year career in the food industry helping to design and build food processing processes and factories throughout the world. He’s written many textbooks on food processing and hundreds of academic papers on the food industry. I grew up learning to cook from both of my parents and talking serious food with my whole family. My sister’s long time boyfriend is a former food critic for the New York Times and has recently sold his 3rd and 4th cookbooks which will be published next year. He’s edited recipes for many cookbooks and has worked on multiple TV food series. 

In short my immediate family takes food very seriously. I’m also a serious cook.

And professionally I’m a consultant and entrepreneur, so I look at restaurants not just with the eye of someone who loves food, but also with the eye of someone who is an entrepreneur and who advises businesses. 

So with that said, here are some of my observations about Bodhi specifically and my suggestions for them to consider – and more broadly for anyone who has a food (or indeed other retail) business to think about. 

The good news

  • Bodhi serves flavorful and tasty food. The food is good, not without some serious issues (more on that below) but at least they are starting from a good basis of chefs who cook their cuisine well
  • Bodhi has a large space with lots of potential. They literally have one of the largest restaurants I’ve seen in San Francisco, not the absolutely largest but a very big space, I counted a bit over 90 seats as they currently have their tables and chair arranged and they are legally licensed for 108 people.
  • The location has a lot of potential. They are located on a stretch of Mission St which is almost at the beginning of SOMA. It is a still rough neighborhood but all around them are new galleries, restaurants, shops and cafes which have opened in the past year. The location does not get a large amount of foot traffic, but it is close enough to many parts of the city and parking is still manageable that they could draw a good crowd, and indeed within a few blocks of them are restaurants which are always busy and usually packed. 

The bad news

  • They are nowhere near busy enough. They should be serving 200-300 covers nightly for dinner in a space this large, if not more. Instead I’d guess that they rarely serve more than 40-50 covers a night, if that, with perhaps a few additional takeout or delivery orders. 
  • Their portions are far too large. Large portions may seem like a good deal, but for a restaurant they mean people do not order as many dishes or as many courses. In many cases they likely mean wasted food and certainly increase the costs to the restaurant of dishes they serve. In large part I think this is in part because they serve food on overly large plates.
  • The decor, especially the cheap tables and chairs without any tablecloths is at odds with the menu. They are using uncovered, cheap four or two top rectangular tables and basic standard stackable chairs. In short tables and chairs right out of a discount restaurant supply house. The have a single flower in a small vase on each table but not tablecloths. Everything except the physical size of the space shouts discount, cheap location.  The prices, however, are not exceptionally cheap though neither are they overly high, a few dollars higher for most dishes than the cheapest of Vietnamese restaurants, though the quality is higher. 
  • They only have a wine & beer license and no bartender. Though they have a large bar with 9 barstools at it, they have no bartender and are licensed (based on what is for sale) only for wine and beer. And they do not stock a wide range of drinks at that, nor do they push them on customers. Alcohol makes up much of the profits of any successful restaurant, yet they are seriously forgoing this. 
  • The layout and single waitress does not draw people into the space. As I sat and observed people walking by and on first entering the restaurant they often looked around a bit puzzled. Here was a huge restaurant spanning two storefronts yet only a few patrons and you have to walk in, past a fountain, and look around to find someone, anyone to guide you to a table somewhere in the vast space. 

So what does all the above mean in terms of suggestions I would offer?

For starters I would suggest that Bohdi make the following changes:

  • update the decor at a minimum by adding tableclothes to hide the cheapness of the tables. Better would be to replace the tables and chairs with more natural and rich appearing materials. Tables of real wood, chairs with some design to them. This would be much more in keeping with the neighborhood which is edgy and arts oriented and would make the space feel higher end
  • leave no part of the space unfinished, cluttered with storage or apparently unused. At present there is an entire seating area, between the bar and the bathrooms which looks like it is never used. The tables and chairs are just scattered around that space haphazardly. If the demand for that space as a dining area is not there, then perhaps it should be transformed into an extension of the bar and made more functional.
  • Remove much of the visual clutter, such as the odd central fountain and the very old (and cheap) art hanging on the walls. Did I mention this is an arts district with countless galleries in the area? Make a deal with one or more of them to hang art on a rotating basis that is more in keeping with the neighborhood (and not coincidentally might suggest holding an opening party in the space each month)
  • Simplify the menu still further to have fewer dishes which are even more seasonal and always using fresh ingredients. Write about the choices and suppliers used. Reduce portions (while keeping prices at current levels or even higher in some cases – use local, organic meats and charge a few dollars more for example) . Add weekly or daily specials to try new recipes and to make it special to dine in the restaurant. 
  • Upgrade the wine, beer and sake selection. Again look for local supplies, there is Sake brewed here in the Bay Area for example as well as many local breweries and lots of local wine. Include imported sake, beer, and wine but emphasize quality and pairings with the food. Add special beverages for non-alcohol drinkers and train the waitresses on selling pairings. 
  • Get demand higher so that the bar has a full time bartender and give very serious consideration since the space is so large to transforming one section to a lounge and to upgrading the license to a full liquor license (which is, I admit costly especially for a space this large). Consideration should also be given to getting a public performance license though that depends on if the space would be used frequently for non-dining events. At a minimum a license that permitted use of one of the two rooms for private events on a regular basis would be a good idea.
  • Add the chef’s name to the menu. This is assuming that there is a chef behind the restaurant (if not, get one). But restaurants with the chef’s name attached enter a different category in the mind of patrons than those that are seen as ethnic, cheap dives. With a space that could seat nearly 100 people and should probably see 300+ people a day if not more (since they are open for lunch as well as for dinner) they should be targeting a higher end audience. 
  • At the moment I would guess the average cover is less then $20, making these changes would likley move that closer to $30 perhaps even $40 if most tables are getting a bottle of wine or a couple of beers or cocktails. At the moment few patrons would get appetizers, entrees and desserts for everyone at the table, and it did not appear that most were buying wine or many drinks. However throughout San Francisco there is clearly demand for restaurants where the average cover is far higher than $40 and indeed this could be a great date or group dining restaurant where a couple could have a great experience for less than $100.
  • With new furniture make a wider range of table types to signal a wider range of customers. At present they have only a very few two tops and every other table is a four top. There should be a few tables set up for larger groups, perhaps arranged for semi-private dining experiences and there should be far more two-tops set up as with only one exception every single group I observed at the restaurant was a couple out on a date.

A few general underlying premises behind my suggestions (here’s where things may be a bit more broadly applicable):

  • Curation adds value. It is hard to create a streamlined space and in the case of a restaurant menu. But a tightly focused menu (or selection of goods) signals quality – the assumption being that there is nowhere for a chef to hide on a short menu. Also that every decision has been made with care and attention (as it should have been). A short menu also allows for frequent changes to reflect the best possible ingredients and suppliers. In a non-restaurant context think about the visual difference between higher end retail shops and dollar stores – very few (if any) high end shops are cluttered – instead they sell a relatively small but in theory highly curated selection of goods. Likewise a restaurant with a short, tightly focused menu signals that the chef is very confident – and is only offering the best possible dishes and is not catering to the broad public but to discerning patrons (and everyone wants to be respected)
  • Design suggests audience and price. In an artistic neighborhood show respect for art and design. Lazy choices about art to hang on the walls (i.e. stuff that was very cheap) or the use of bulk, cheap furniture, signals a lack of design. Just a few blocks away the new Four Barrell Coffee shows one great approach to furniture – they have all custommade from recycled materials tables and chairs, the effect is striking and well in keeping with their desired audience of “hipsters”. Their other choices, such as playing vinyl for their music and not having wifi are other signals. And they are almost always packed with customers paying premium prices for high quality coffee. 
  • If you don’t ask people won’t buy. Years ago I met a professional waiter who shared with me his secret to having average covers which were nearly double his fellow waiters, if they averaged $20 he averaged closer to $40 (which meant his tips were also double or more than double his fellow waiters’ takings). His secret – he asked people if they wanted things. He asked if they wanted to start with a cocktail, he asked if they wanted appetizers, if they wanted wine with their meal, if they wanted dessert, if they wanted an after dinner drink. Especially with couples on a date his technique worked extremely well. 

Sure this last point is simple – but the simple things are often the most important. I’m always surprised by how few restaurants train their waitstaff to always ask if I want something to drink, to check if I want dessert before giving my the bill for my meal. To see if I want some appetizers to start the meal. The better restaurants train staff to do this as a matter of course – and as a result sell much more.

I do not know all of the numbers for Bohdi restaurant, but my very rough estimate would be that between lunch, dinner and delivery they gross far less than $500k a year, probably less than $400k. In s apce that large, however they should be grossing over $3M or more a year (potentially a lot more). And yes, to gross that much they would need to have far more staff, buy more supplies, do more active promotion, spend more on printing, cleaning of tablecloths and the like, but I suspect they would net vastly more than they do today – and with some further changes could net far more than $3M a year (which is based on an average cover of $25, shift to $40 or higher and to high alcohol sales on a regular basis and profits could be much more. 

If I were wokring with a client such as Bohdi restaurant I would start with the following questions (see above for some of the probable results):

  1. What strengths does the business start with?
  2. What is working already?
  3. What resources does the business have?
  4. What is the initial impressions of the business (if retail on walking past, on first entering, if online on first visiting the site)
  5. What does that impression signal about the target audience and especially about the price expectations of that audience?
  6. Does the actual experience then reinforce (or call into question) those initial impressions?
  7. What could be done immediately to start to change? 
  8. And then what further changes should happen, ideally looking to make changes that reinforce other desired outcomes and build on it (i.e. start with tableclothes, move to partnering to improve the art, then throw opening parties to build awareness and get people in, then change the menu to help grow revenues, then reinvest in getting better/higher quailty furniture, then in expanding/enhancing the bar options etc)

As I noted this is based on my experiences of walking past Bohdi and of eating there once as well as my long time observation of the restaurant industry. It is certainly possible that I’ve missed some key aspects to Bohdi’s particular situation (they might do a booming lunch business for example though I doubt it). And as in every case, if I were working with the business it is likely that there would be other issues that would be discovered and would need to be addressed – every situation has surprises and unique aspects.

But hopefully this (admittedly long) post helps them (if they see it) and inspires others to rethink their particular business.

And yes, I’m available to do extended versions of this type of consulting work (the first meeting is free but after that I charge).

Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Quick ways to judge a restaurant or cafe

Posted by shannonclark on March 29, 2008

I take food seriously. Professionally I organize large group dinners after conferences and other events on a regular basis, my friends and family often ask for my recommendations for places to eat for a range of occasions. Though in my family I’m the amateur, my sister’s boyfriend of many years is a professional food critic for the New York Times and multiple book author, just sold a major cookbook with one of the hottest chefs in NYC (and thus one of the hotter chefs in the world), that book deal being for enough that he doesn’t have to do much beyond writing that book for many years.

But even in that company, I would like to think I hold my own when it comes to finding and discovering restaurants both where I live and as I travel. In Chicago I was a very active participant on the old Chowhound (before CNET purchased the site) and then later on a site and discussion board my friends set up after being fed up with the slow software of chowhound – lthforum. In San Francisco I have occasionally contributed reviews to Yelp and the occasional post back on lthforum or on my blog, but mostly I haven’t been writing about dining out as often I used to do.

Here, however, are a few of my personal rules of thumb, offered to help you (and to help anyone running a restaurant or cafe) as you choose your next place for a meal or a coffee. These are not all firm or universally true, but most of the time they offer a very useful filter. For the sake of many restaurants I sometimes wish I didn’t always notice these small details – but many times over the past year my instincts have been proven right more often than not – restaurants I walked past and my instincts said “will be closed soon” are now closed and for sale, restaurants I entered with a group (their choice, I tried to convince them otherwise) were indeed horrible meals as I predicted.

Breakfast or Brunch

  1. Coffee from a can or vacuum pack bad, from a local specialty roaster good. Breakfast places start with the coffee, if they take that seriously enough to buy it from a local roaster (and incresingly most states and cities have at least one)  that holds promise for the rest of the menu
  2. Real maple syrup. The best breakfast and brunch spots just offer real maple syrup and don’t offer any alternatives. Some okay to good spots offer real maple syrup as an option. With very very few exceptions spots that don’t offer real maple syrup at all aren’t particularly good (at least don’t take their food very seriously)
  3. Fresh squeezed juices in season. Fresh squeezes seasonal juices squeezed on the premises are another sign of a restaurant that takes what they serve seriously and are rarely found at a bad place.

Note that I didn’t focus on the exact dishes of a breakfast or brunch spot, though I do also tend to find that restaurants with smaller, more focused menus generally speaking have better food that restaurants with pages upon pages of breakfast or brunch options. But these simple elements – coffee, maple syrup, fresh juices are all signs of places that are almost certainly worth trying. Oh and any breakfast spot that names itself after breads (Toast to take one commonly used example) better bake those breads on the premises if they truly want to be worthy of the name.

Lunch

There are many approaches to lunch. When making suggestions for places I differentiate between places for working, professional lunch meetings and places for dining alone or with friends and colleagues. For the former, price is not an issue but speed, quality, quiet and privacy can be key factors. For the later, price is often a factor, quality, suitability for a range of diets, and speed.

In San Francisco there is quite a range of lunch spots. Here are a few that I can recommend highly.

  • Medicine Eatstation – located in the heart of the Financial District of San Francisco in the Crocker Galleria this is one of my favorite places to get lunch in San Francisco. They are known for their vegan and vegetarian cuisine, Japanese Zen temple foods, but they have a range of fantastic fish dishes as well. Lunch will typically run you about $15-20 a person here, so this isn’t a budget place but neither is it overly expensive and the quality of food is amazing. The service is order at a counter and then find a spot at many large communal tables, so this is great when dining alone, or fantastic for informal meals with a group, though not ideal for a private meeting or discussion. However for the quality of food and the ability to provide an amazing meal for vegan or vegetarian friends this is well worth dining at (and more times than not I eat vegan when dining here though I’m a confirmed omnivore)
  • E & O Trading – I generally do not suggest chains, but I make an exception for E&O Trading. Their location in San Francisco which is just off of Union Square makes for an ideal location for a business lunch. The food is quite good, but what makes E&O Trading ideal for business lunches is that the design of their booths is ideal for private business conversations with 2 to 4 people, and they do have larger tables (though generally a bit less private depending on the table location) for larger discussions. Well worth knowing about when meeting with clients in town for a conference and staying near Union Sq.
  • Canton Seafood and Dim Sum – One of my favorite restaurants in all of San Francisco, a restaurant I frequently use for large group dinners, greatly enjoy going to for lunch when near Moscone Center, and which I have also always enjoyed their dim sum weekend brunches. What makes Canton a great restaurant to know about is that they offer very high quality Chinese cuisine, at amazingly reasonable prices, and are very willing to accommodate large groups with a fixed price menu. (Feel free to mention my name if you book for a large group, the managers all know me as I have group meals there on a regular basis). For lunches they have even been known to open up their upstairs banquet hall for large groups.
  • Spork – located at Valencia and Hill in the Mission District of San Francisco Spork has, I think, the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten. Not best in San Francisco or best in a long while, but best burger I’ve eaten in my lifetime. Every ingredient works perfectly, the price is right ($8 for a single, $10 for a double) and the toppings, bun, and sauces as well as the quality of the cooking just combine to make for an amazing meal. They also serve a great dinner but for lunch they are now my go to place when dining in the Mission. They offer a small, very focused menu at lunch highlighted by the burgers which are amazing. A place that takes the food they serve seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously – the result is one of my favorite discoveries of 2008.

And those are just a few of my favorites. There are many, many other great options scattered throughout San Francisco and for that matter most cities.

A few things to look for for a business lunch location:

  • Style of tables and booths – for a private, business lunch an open layout with tables crowded near each other is not good. For serious discussions high booths or private rooms offer the best venues
  • Fixed price menu option – if you are organizing a business lunch or dinner for a large group arranging for a fixed price menu or taking advantage of a regularly offered fixed menu greatly facilitates either splitting the bill, or streamlining the ordering process allowing for more time for business discussions and less distractions around the ordering process. Any good restaurant catering to a professional business crowd will include a range of foods on such a menu, with good options for vegetarians and lighter dining options. Further the foods should be “clean” to eat – i.e. not messy, not finger foods generally speaking.
  • A seasonal menu and specials that actually change from day to day – these are related elements. A very good sign for nearly any meal is a restaurant that prints up new menus each day (implying they take their food and sourcing of that food fairly seriously though you do have to watch out for places that are trying to hard and can’t deliver). Baring a menu that changes frequently at a minimum great places have true daily specials that are, in fact, special to that day and season. If the “daily specials” board or menu in the window look worn and faded that’s probably, generally speaking, a bad sign.
  • A short, focused menu – whether for lunch or dinner my broad, general rule of thumb is that a short, focused menu is a sign of a restaurant that takes the food seriously. Nothing on that menu should be bad or below their standards. In contrast all too many restaurants have pages upon pages of menu both for lunch and dinner and as a result while they have an occasional dish they do exceptionally well, they almost certainly have many other dishes that are rarely ordered, use poor quality (often frozen) ingredients and are often quite disappointing. This rule of thumb holds exceptionally true for lunch.

Cafes

  • Large tables – one of my very simple tests of a cafe is the style of tables they use. Small, tiny tables (“French bistro” tables while looking pretty imply a place that does not have people sitting down, sharing tables and working together. My strong bias is for cafes that are laid out for people to be social and to work, with room at the tables to have a couple of laptops out plus beverages.
  • Coffee source – frequently truly great cafes, if they have the space or the facilities nearby, roast their own beans. I take coffee seriously and in San Francisco we’re blessed with many cafes of different styles who likewise take the coffee they serve quite seriously as well.
  • Small drinks menu – this is a personal preference. As a rule of thumb, though not universally true, I find that cafes that have a very focused drinks menu (often forgoing syrups, frozen drinks and the like) are places that take the coffee they serve very seriously indeed. But this is not always the case, there are exceptions, mostly when I’m selecting a cafe (for the coffee) I look for signs that they take what they make seriously. “Latte art” is almost always a sign that they have highly skilled baristas.
  • Looseleaf teas – not every cafe serves great tea and great coffee, but as a general rule of thumb cafes which have looseleaf teas which they then use to make either pots or individual cups of tea are typically places that are owned by owners who care about the quality of what they are serving. There are many sources for teas today, so I am relatively agnostic about the vendor of the teas a cafe serves, but almost always places that take tea seriously enough to have looseleaf tea take everything else pretty seriously as well (there are, in fact, many cafes where they don’t do a good job on the coffee, but do serve looseleaf teas and otherwise have great spaces so I just order tea there and enjoy them that way)

But a cafe is a highly and deeply personal thing. For me I like places that have wifi, a busy but not overly loud atmosphere, power outlets (though I can forgive a lack of one if the cafe has other redeeming features – Ritual Roasters in SF comes to mind) and which show signs of design and thought having been given to them to make the cafe a place that appeals to adults. A growing trend which I celebrate is cafes which also serve wine and beer, not so much that I partake, but that they tend to serve a more adult clientèle and almost always also have tasty food options to go with the drinks.

My personal preference is also for cafes which stay open late into the evening, but a great cafe that is only open during the day also has its place.

Dinner

  • Focused menu and theme – fusion can work, but almost never does a restaurant that tries to combine many cuisines into one, often overly long, menu do justice to any of the dishes. In contrast most restaurants with a tightly focused, often seasonally influenced menu at least start from a place where it is likely they can prepare good, tasty foods. The cooks and ingredients still need to be of high quality however.
  • Busy when restaurants should be busy – not every great restaurant will always be busy, some haven’t yet been “discovered” but, for example, a restaurant which is quiet at 7pm on Valentines Day (one of the busiest dining out nights of the year) is almost certainly a restaurant which is not going to be open much longer and should be kept away from. Now, a busy restaurant is, however, often not a sign of a good one, but an empty restaurant when most places would be busy is typically a major warning sign.
  • Ethnic restaurants with mostly non-ethnic tourists is a very bad sign – sure the restaurant may have been written up by national press and be in all the guide books, but if the restaurant, particularly if in a particular ethnic neighborhood does not also cater to the locals you are almost guaranteed a disappointing meal in my experience. Whether in Little Italy or Chinatown this is not always a completely accurate guide, but more times than not it helps you avoid the truly bad places for places that have a better than average chance of serving great tasting food (though you still have to figure out what to order if you don’t read the menu/speak the language)
  • Attention to the details – this can be hard to judge from outside of restaurant, but look at the tables and the menus in the window or step inside and ask for a menu. Generally speaking restaurants that have paid attention to the details at each table, that haven’t used the cheap, standard issue items from mass restaurant supply stores (cheap napkins, salt & pepper shakers etc) likely are paying attention to the food and the rest of the elements of the restaurant.  In looking over a menu, without being pretentious does the writing of the menu communicate care about the foods being served? Does it show a point of view? Does it make sense as an overall menu?
  • Pricing that is fair but not too cheap – this is a personal preference, but though my pocketbook might at times appreciate cheapness, my stomach almost never does especially if I take it to an extreme. Cheap restaurants or for that matter any place that feels it has to compete almost solely on price is generally speaking a sign of a restaurant that is either owned by someone who doesn’t know the business well or someone who is getting desperate. This is a rule that especially also holds true for cafes and lunch spots, generally speaking great restaurants charge a fair but not cheap price for what they serve counting on the quality of what they serve and the overall experience to bring people back again and again. This is not, however, to suggest that restaurants which appear to be expensive will also be good, generally speaking they are not, these are often restaurants which are catering to people on an expense account or people who do not eat out frequently – so quite often overcharge for foods (and especially for wines) without making up for it by serving great food and wine.

There are many other factors I look for when I look over a menu and decide about a restaurant. A few smaller tips, generally speaking menus where every dish has lots of ingredients and sauces are rarely good. This is bit of a personal preference, but I find that such dishes usually suffer from elements not being of the same quality and of being drowned in the respective sauces. My preference whatever the cuisine is for chefs who start with extremely high quality ingredients and prepare them with extreme skill and restraint, not overwhelming the dish with too many flavors or too much of any one sauce.

If you are looking at dishes of other people who are eating a few other simple signs which can be warning signs of a potentially bad restaurant.

  1. Lots of leftovers – if everyone leaving the restaurant has doggie bags or if most tables have lots of dishes that seem to have been uneaten (especially true of family style restaurants) this is a sign of a restaurant which is likely both serving too large portions and likely a kitchen which is highly uneven. Both tend to be signs of a meal that will almost certainly be a disappointment.
  2. Garnishes – plates with lots of parsley or other garnishes tend to be a sign of a restaurant which is also trying too hard.
  3. People waiting to place orders or pay bills – both are signs of either waitstaff that don’t care or are overworked, and both in turn are signs of a restaurant that is not being managed well (and that usually is reflected in the food as well as the service). A related issue is if people seem to have empty water glasses, or if messy tables are left messy for long periods of time
  4. Messy plates – there are many types of food and dining, not every restaurant is going to serve food that is photographic ready, but if the food is leaving the kitchen sloppy, it is almost always a sign of a kitchen that is lax, that is taking shortcuts.

I hope these tips help please leave comments with your own additional rules of thumbs, suggestions and tips & tricks to selecting a great place to dine – whether by yourself or with a large group.

Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Notes on Transit – transitcamp without being there

Posted by shannonclark on February 24, 2008

This weekend in Palo Alto TransitCamp Bay Area will take place. I was not able to attend (in not small part because via public transit it takes me 2+ hours if I catch all the right trains and buses to get from my house to Palo Alto) but as my contribution here are some observations and thoughts I have about Transit.

First some personal background. I grew up in Oak Park IL, moved to Chicago where I lived for another 13+ years, two years ago I moved to the Bay Area. In 2004, I sold my car and have not replaced it, when I sold it (a 2000 model I had bought in Dec 1999 as a new car, that car had only ~13k miles on it). So for about the past 8+ years I have primarily relied on public transit, not on a personal car for the majority of my transportation. With the occasional taxi ride (often to/from an airport – more on that as well, and yes, to a degree taxi policies and licensing should be considered as part of overall transit).

Here are a couple of observations followed by a few suggestions. Primarily I will focus on issues specific to the Bay Area, but I’ll note some additional elements based on my experiences in other cities both in the US and around the world.

  • Current transit is, mostly, focused on the needs of “commuters”
  • In the Bay Area we, simultaneously have too much and too little transit (I’ll explain)
  • There are many options for how to pay (as an individual) for transit – in the Bay Area we have nearly all of them (far too many)
  • When thinking about transit private (individual) and private (corporate) should be part of the discussion, as well as all of the factors that influence those choices (tolls, parking availability & pricing, zoning requirements especially around the construction of new parking, metered vs free vs permit parking, zoning rules around mixed use vs. sole use vs. “strip malls” vs. sidewalk frontage or set backs etc)
  • Tourists have different needs than residents, not all residents have the same needs, and those needs vary by time of day, day of week, month, the weather and the age & health of the individuals.
  • The groups who have the most political influence are rarely those who have the most vital needs for public transit, though the aspects of public transit which do impact those with political influence tend to be those which get the greatest funding.

Here in the Bay Area by my count there are at least the following varieties of transit which should be discussed.

  1. Private Cars
    • an unusual aspect being the commuter lanes & toll policies which combine to create an unique system in places of the bay area for ride sharing by strangers (essentially “hitching” but with a more fixed pattern)
    • toll policies preference travel in certain directions
    • parking and zoning regulations dictate certain patterns in SF while zoning & building patterns dictate others in the rest of the Bay Area
    • motorcycles and scooters
    • special cases of rental cars
    • special cases of tourist cars (“go cars” guided tours of San Francisco for example)
  2. Shared Cars (City Carshare, ZipCars) and Commuter vans
  3. Taxis (and to a lesser extent limousines)
  4. Amtrak
  5. multiple ferry services
  6. CalTrain
  7. BART
  8. Muni – buses, cable cars, and light rail
  9. A large number of public bus services – most one per town around the Bay Area, a few like AC Transit crossing multiple towns, and a couple which cross towns (TransBay)
  10. Private bus services
    • Corporations (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and a few others) have formal bus services for employees
    • Certain buildings & neighborhoods in San Francisco (and some buildings in other cities) have bus services, typically for residents or workers in those buildings usually between the buildings and main transit centers (Caltrain station being a main point)
    • Local universities have services for students between residences and campus locations and between multiple campus locations throughout the area (U. C. Berkeley in Berkeley, UCSF and many other schools throughout SF
    • Tourist specific buses (some of which do offer “on/off” services. There are some public tourist buses as well (in the Presidio, in Golden Gate Park)
  11. Public handicaped special bus services
  12. Greyhound
  13. Bikes
  14. Walking
  15. Select light rail in other towns than San Francisco
  16. Major airports (Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose)
    • these also have internal transporation and special buses connecting the airports and trains
    • for some reason no airport in the Bay Area has trains that run directly to the terminals
  17. Private airports (and to a lesser degree helicopter pads)
  18. Private boats & boat dock

That is a lot of transit options – many of which any one person rarely experiences and uses. Like much of the state of CA the private car, usually driven without passengers is a very commonly used form of transit. For that matter there are many people who never use any of the other services – especially public buses

Payment methods and models:

  1. Pay on entry – most buses, MUNI in SF, Ferrys
  2. Pay on exit – CalTrain – exact amount varies by start and end point (and varies considerably from a low of <$2 and a high of many multiples of that
  3. Prepaid – MUNI (monthly passes), most Tolls w/automated pass, to a degree BART since you have to have a card with value added to it already (new “TransitLink” will have aspects of this
  4. Payment via special unit – bus coupons in San Francisco, parking cards in SF

Some questions I have:

  1. What is the GOAL of Public Transit? (Not or at least not solely I’d argue to “get workers to work”)
  2. How should transit be funded (currently few if any transit services are fully funded by the riders in the case of public services)? Private services (buses etc) are parts of the cost of some other business (office building, large company etc)
  3. How can the many specific focuses and political complications of have dozens of public transit agencies be minimized to better serve the needs of the entire Bay Area?
  4. How can Public Transit in particular emphasize the public service aspects of transit, not just serve the needs of one sector of the public (businesses whose commuters have to get to/from work during “regular” business hours).
  5. In particular, in my view, public transit should have many 24hr options, be sure to have 24hr access to hospitals in particular, should avoid creating isolated sections with no inexpensive transit options for much of the day, and transit should build into their business models flexibility to accommodate changing circumstances (planes which are delayed at airports for example)

Some specific suggestions

  1. In San Francisco (and across the Bay Area more broadly) the last trains, especially across the Bay, should run for 1 hour AFTER bars & nightclubs close (and if on weekends this means running 24hrs – so be it). This both serves a very strong and real public interest (keeping people off the streets when/if drunk) and it as importantly would encourage more people to stay in the city after work for entertainment and/or head into the city on the weekends – without clogging roads with cars and without requiring preplanning in the morning (i.e. choosing to drive instead of taking the train). Combined with bike parking at many stations (already done) and with local bus/transit services so people could avoid driving from train stations home (perhaps also with friendly parking policies that encourage overnight parking without serious penalty)
  2. Trains (and buses) which leave from Bay Area airports should run until also an hour or so AFTER the last plane lands – if this means running very very late, again so be it. Ideally the trains would be in communication with the airlines and be sure to wait until all bags were off and arriving passengers were directed from the baggage claim to the buses to trains (and were made aware that trains would be waiting for them). This might be slightly costly (but heck, I’d imagine airlines might kick in some dollars in fact) but would dramatically improve impressions of the public transit services for visitors and locals alike. A related point, ideally public transit should run TO the airports in time to clear security for the FIRST planes of the day (and yes, this might in the case of SF to OAK traffic suggest running nearly 24hrs – see a trend in my suggestions…)
  3. Monthly (and Weekly) passes should be available WIDELY. From ALL machines and from all hotels – at a minimum as a starting point. My local Safeway almost without fail SELLS OUT of Monthly MUNI passes – that is completely unacceptable – each pass is simply a piece of paper – 1000’s more of them should be printed each month – NO store should EVER sell out of them. Chicago solves this by NOT selling a monthly pass – instead Chicago sells a pass good for 30 days from first use – but with the variety of ways transit s paid for in the Bay Area that might not work (can’t easily visually show the pass where that mode is needed such as on buses)
  4. Fine amounts for not having a pass/ticket in modes of transit where one is required at all times (most of the bay area services) should be SPELLED OUT AND POSTED.
  5. Unlike many cities, the bay area does NOT have a single, universal taxi number – and taxi rates are extremely high – which discourages many people from using or thinking about using a taxi. At a minimum there should be ONE number (perhaps per area code) for taxis which would work with ALL taxis. Outside of SF taxis can be nearly impossible to find at times (Palo Alto in particular I’ve had problems at times)
  6. ZipCar and City Carshare are good for many people – but serve people who need one-way transportation or need open ended transportation relatively poorly (I most often need a car on days, such as this weekend, when there is an event or events happening down the peninsula which I would want to attend – and which I couldn’t easily predict when I might return from the events – both because I don’t know travel times and traffic well and because I not infrequently will stay late at event and/or want to go out with folks from an event – to get dinner for example). This is a very hard problem for car share services – but for me at least, and I’m sure I’m not the only person, $60/day though perhaps actually a good deal is a very big hurdle to overcome to think about spending to go to an event. (For that matter the $10-12 round trip to take Caltrain down to Palo Alto is pretty painful as well)

Much of the transit system fails because of serious gaps in the transit experience between commuters (many of whom have their passes paid for by their companies or significantly discounted) and the use and costs born by everyone else. I buy a monthly MUNI pass in San Francisco ($45) which is a good deal – and it makes it trivially simple for me to get on/off buses, trains or even the cable cars if I’m traveling within San Francisco – however I can’t, for example, use that pass to get to an airport (why the San Francisco airport at least for purposes of transit isn’t “in” San Francisco still befuddles me).

Yes, the trip planner is useful (though why there isn’t a mobile and iPhone interface for it I don’t know) and NextBus is also helpful, but even so there is also too little flexibility in too much of the transit patterns in the city – travel in the commute times is uncomfortable (very packed – suggesting that even more trains/buses could be run then) but at least trains and buses arrive fairly frequently – but if you wait just a bit everything slows to halt. And if you want to travel on, say a Sunday, good luck – your options shrink to almost none (no Caltrain back to San Francisco after 9:30 or so on a Sunday night for example).

Plus the payment complexities and the inability to pay on the train in most cases (you can’t even pay the gate agent at MUNI or BART but must fight with the often broken/flaky machines) also makes transit a frustrating experience. From CalTrain’s giving change only in dollar coins (and not taking payment on the trains) to MUNI’s insistence on using two different machines at times to get change (for dollar coins and for quarters).

So those are some suggestions and questions and observations I have about transit. I with I could have made it to the TransitCamp this weekend – but as I noted, it would have been costly for me in terms of time (and money).

Posted in customer service, economics, geeks, personal, politics, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Fixing “Chrome registration failed” error on Firefox 2.0.0.8+

Posted by shannonclark on November 1, 2007

Since the update to Firefox 2.0.0.8 I have been experiencing a problem of three “Chrome Registration Failed” error messages being presented to me every time I restarted Firefox.

With today’s update to Firefox 2.0.0.9 I had hoped that the problem would have been resolved.

Nope. Instead it only got worse, whenever I tried to update my add-ins and then edit their options, the add-ins pane froze. Looking on Mozilla.org I found one suggestion for a fix (delete the extensions.ini, extensions.cache and extensions.rdf files from your profile). On doing that however not only did it NOT fix my problem, but in fact it made it worse – every single add-in I had installed was reset to a “needs restart” and even after a restart the add-ins were not installing.

So on experimentation I tried the following:

(all this is on Windows Vista)

Right click on the Firefox icon on your desktop.

Select “run as administrator”

And poof – problems gone, all add-ins installed and working.

I then closed Firefox and restarted it (figured running as administrator is not a good general practice).

But count me as in the “pox on both your houses” camp here – to both Microsoft and to Mozilla.org. Microsoft for having such a clunky OS that occasionally you have to run processes as administrator (i.e. as “root”). And Mozilla.org for two serious bugs – first error messages that are BEYOND useless – reporting on an error WITHOUT NOTING WHAT CAUSED THE ERROR. And second, for building a USER application (a browser) which for some reason does something during the installation process of components (i.e. add-ins) which requires administrator rights.

Seriously bad coding somewhere.

And this is a case where Google failed me. Nothing I found after searching almost literally 100+ websites and online discussions had this fix, not even discussions on Mozilla.org (which reported inaccurate fixes for this problem in fact).

So hopefully this will help someone and the last two hours of my life which was wasted on fixing this will at least help someone else.

Update – some of the comments make it clear I was unclear in the above. After initially running Firefox as administrator I have not had to do so again, something about that one running fixed what I can only suspect were either permissions or registry issues. This fix has survived reboots and subsequent installations of additional Firefox plugins. Glad it has been helpful to a few of you (about 100 people or so a day have been reading this due mostly to Google searches)

Posted in customer service, geeks, internet, microsoft | Tagged: , , | 476 Comments »

Shifting from event planning to company launches

Posted by shannonclark on July 27, 2007

This past Wednesday the MeshWalk Palo Alto which I have been planning for a bit over a month took place. Nearly 100 people participated over the course of the day, well over a dozen investors and 75+ entrepreneurs. I was thrilled, as some of the MeshWalkers have noted, at how diverse the participation in the MeshWalk was. I have long argued both in this blog and in comments and discussions elsewhere the value of diversity – that though I am indeed a white, male American, I want to hear and meet people of many different backgrounds, with a variety of perspectives.

One other note about the MeshWalk, one of the participants noted that it was only the second event he has seen which included public transit directions in the conference materials – and the other event was a conference on green and sustainable development so it was somewhat expected there. As a rare CA resident (and rare American) who does not own a car, I too have noted this lack in the directions and descriptions most events provide.

So, though I will be planning many future MeshWalks, now my attention and focus shifts from the active planning of a large event to the launch of multiple projects (companies) this summer. It is a balancing act – I have a great deal of important work to do as my contribution to these projects – writing projects to complete, data entry, UI testing, sales and business development calls to make, important business milestones to define and track, to a degree business plans to write (more specifically not formal plans but simple yet informative spreadsheets to track the key metrics for each business – and thus our plans and timing to test, measure and prove the business models). In short plenty of work (and these being bootstrapped startups, probably really plenty of work for multiple people but work which I will have to complete for the most part myself).

But I have to balance this with the important role of getting out of the house, of talking with people of doing business development not just via email or phone calls but also be in person meetings – both one-on-one but perhaps more importantly in many cases via attending and participating in the wide range of events throughout the Bay Area (and at times conferences and events outside of the bay area). Just this evening, while getting dinner with a group of people after one such event I had a brief conversation and exchange of cards with someone working at a company that is precisely who I need to talk with to line up as a participant in the beta trials for the ad network we are building. And at  the party before the dinner I spent a lot of time reconnecting with people – learning for example that one friend may soon be taking a C-level position at a large firm which may be a potential client for one of the projects I’m working, I also chatted with another friend who thought I should talk with the organizer of a conference at which I might be an appropriate speaker, etc. In short the social glue which binds business – for even at the largest of scales business is personal.

Yes, the numbers have to work and you have to deliver, but opportunities arise from this social fabric. In comparing the tech landscape of Chicago to the Bay Area, as I was doing multiple times in the past few days, I have been noting the fluidity of the business world here (in the bay area). People who work at your competitors today may be your boss tomorrow (probably at an entirely new company). It is not just that every investor knows each other (or at a minimum talks with each other) the same holds true with most positions here in the area.

It is one of the reasons I do not hold to the position of being “in stealth”. I do see the role that mode can play in group unity and in an ability to take on large targets/competitors and perhaps launch and surprise them – but one major tole it takes is to disconnect your team (and partners & investors) from the casual conversations which permeate San Francisco. Just tonight, for example, at the same table were Twitter employees and Pownce employees. Yes, they compete, but they also attend the same parties, know many of the same circle of friends, and it is not unlikely that at some future company current competitors will be working together (perhaps as investors if both firms are successful).

Tonight (Friday) is the TechCrunch Party where some 500+ people will attend, network with each other, and chat. At the last party I actually had some really interesting conversations – I hope I have many tomorrow as well. However I am also in a new mode for tonight’s event than I was previously.

For this event I have a number of specific goals – a bit of a rarity for me – so let me share them publically here (as I mentioned, I am very much about being open).

1. In the late summer/early fall we plan on conducting a trial of a new ad network. This requires building relationships with both publishers (broadly defined – in our case specifically application publishers mostly, though possibly also some “content” sites) and equally with the right matching mix of advertisers.  So I am actively networking to talk with application publishers, direct advertisers, and media buying/campaign management firms.

2. The purpose of the trial – in addition to making money and providing a valuable service to all parties (including the users of the applications) – is to prove out portions of our business and help us raise the right amount of capital. So I need to be proactive in starting conversations with the right mix of investors (and also need to define the scope of funding we’ll need – as well as what in the current market we should expect & try for).

3. In addition to the ad network, we have two other projects which are getting ready to launch (or in one case open up the launch much more widely). So I need to think about how to spread the word about these projects and how to seed the initial launches – i.e. who I know who would be interested and passionate users (and thus testers – by beta we really do mean beta).

4. And again in one of these cases (possibly in both) we are investigating raising funds (probably angel scale of investment) and we will be seeking ways to prove those business models as well. For the content play – think a Zagat’s like guide by business people for business people I need to talk with the organizers of conferences and trade shows. Especially ones to be held in the Bay Area (SF or the East Bay in particular) or in Chicago.

So I have some agendas in my conversations at events these days. But as well I want to spread the word about my own events to people who might enjoy participating in them (next MeshWalk is Aug 12th in Seattle after the Gnomedex conference for example).

If you are reading this, wondering how/if you “meet” what I have outlined above, please feel free to ignore what I have written and when we meet, perhaps tonight at the party, just tell me about yourself and what you are doing – I am always happy to help if I can, if an introduction makes sense making it (whenever possible at that event). My philosophy is always to try to be helpful, to assume the best of people until proven wrong, to give. I try to be open about what I am doing – but also attentive to others and what they are doing, listening for when I get a sense of “hmm you have to…” as I talk with someone.

So a bit of a mental shift for me this weekend, but a good one.

Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, meshwalk, networks, San Francisco, venture capital, web2.0, working | Leave a Comment »