The Curious Case of Atlassian

There’s a company in Australia that’s growing at a tremendous rate, but isn’t receiving enough mind share  in the business world. So far I’ve read about three business practices employed by Atlassian that stands out from the typical company.

No Sales Force

One of the the fastest growing enterprise software companies, Atlassian earned $105 mm in revenue for 2011, an increase of 35%, with no sales force. They’ve also had 40 consecutive quarters of profitability. Instead of employing a sales staff, Atlassian relies on marketing and good customer service to ensure its users have “a great experience with the Atlassian brand”.

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Education was on Steve Jobs’ Mind Towards the End of His Life

While I thoroughly enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s detailed biography on Steve Jobs, most of the book’s recounted stories expounded upon what we already know about him through anecdotes and interviews. What piqued my interest, however, were the last few chapters, where we get to glimpse what Steve Jobs would have focused on if he had more time to make another “dent in the universe”.

Even though Steve Jobs had precious little energy and time left, he spent a surprising amount of both thinking and talking about education. On his first meeting with Barack Obama, Jobs lectured the President on how to run the country, emphasizing the importance of eliminating the bureaucratic barriers to improving our education system. Moreover, Jobs recognized the need to replace our out-dated lecture-based teaching with more real-time interactivity and personalization.

The meeting actually lasted forty-five minutes, and Jobs did not hold back. “You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” Jobs told Obama at the outset. To prevent that, he said, the administration needed to be a lot more business-friendly. He described how easy it was to build a factory in China, and said that it was almost impossible to do so these days in America, largely because of regulations and unnecessary costs.

Jobs also attacked America’s education system, saying that it was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform. Teachers should be treated as professionals, he said, not as industrial assembly-line workers. Principals should be able to hire and fire them based on how good they were. Schools should be staying open until at least 6 p.m. and be in session eleven months of the year. It was absurd, he added, that American classrooms were still based on teachers standing at a board and using textbooks. All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.

Recognizing his time was nearing the end, Steve Jobs meets with Bill Gates for the last time. Once again, education was on Steve Jobs’ mind as he wonders how his friend and former-adversary would approach education.

They spent more than three hours together, just the two of them, reminiscing. “We were like the old guys in the industry looking back,” Jobs recalled. “He was happier than I’ve ever seen him, and I kept thinking how healthy he looked.” Gates was similarly struck by how Jobs, though scarily gaunt, had more energy than he expected. He was open about his health problems and, at least that day, feeling optimistic. His sequential regimens of targeted drug treatments, he told Gates, were like “jumping from one lily pad to another,” trying to stay a step ahead of the cancer.

Jobs asked some questions about education, and Gates sketched out his vision of what schools in the future would be like, with students watching lectures and video lessons on their own while using the classroom time for discussions and problem solving. They agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools—far less than on other realms of society such as media and medicine and law. For that to change, Gates said, computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback.

Why Education Startups Haven’t Succeeded, Yet

I was one of the six people that met with Avichal to ask for his opinion regarding the education space. I remember speaking with him while we were still undergraduate students, and his company, PrepMe, was starting to receive traction.

His provocative article entitled, “Why Education Startups Do Not Succeed“,  initiated a good deal of enlightened discourse amongst both entrepreneurs and educators alike. While I don’t fully disagree with all of the points found in the article, I do want to give my thoughts on Avichal’s main points in hopes that it’ll continue this healthy discussion on the future of online education.

Argument 1: Most entrepreneurs in education build the wrong type of business, because entrepreneurs think of education as a quality problem. The average person thinks of it as a cost problem.

Avichal is arguing that the educated few in America view quality as the primary factor in their purchasing decision, and are thus price insensitive when it comes to education spending. On the other hand, the majority of Americans think of education as an immediate cost, and are thus unwilling to spend on anything outside of compulsory education.

This argument constitutes the basis of Avichal’s reasoning on why online education start-ups don’t succeed and is fundamentally an argument I disagree with. Any person, “educated” or “average”, will not put education inside a vacuum and look at it purely as a cost or quality problem.

From every microeconomics course that I’ve taken at Stanford, the basic tenant is that individual purchasing decisions rely upon the relationship of both the price and the quantity of the good or service. The good or service, in this case, is education.

The implication of the above argument is that the educated few are price inelastic and will continue to demand for education even if subjected to a substantial increase in price. Perhaps, that is true. If my total tuition cost had doubled, my parents would still try to find a way to help support me and I would have to take an even larger loan. However, at a certain price point, for example $1 million for 4 years, we would have to seriously reconsider attending a prestigious university, and I am Asian-American. In fact, there is a movement amongst the very educated, most prominently Peter Thiel and Michael Arrington, advocating forgoing higher education due to its inflated costs and unjustified value.

[Please see: Infographic -  The Higher Education Bubble]

Lets refocus on the average American since that portion of the argument is most surprising to me; essentially, the average person is price elastic when it comes to education, and therefore a rise in price would cause their demand to drop to zero. Education is mandated by the government, and as a result, is immediately free, not taking into consideration that it’s tax payers’ money. If we assume for a moment that education is no long compulsory nor provided by the government, what would the average American do? I am not part of the 50% of America that don’t have beyond a high school degree, but I will assume that most Americans won’t neglect to provide their children with some type of education, at least through primary schooling. I would hope that is the case for the sake of this country.

I don’t know exactly why more people are not paying for learning outside of compulsory education. Perhaps, it’s a complete trust in the education system. After all, shouldn’t our school system adequately prepare our children for the next level? Perhaps, it’s a complete distrust of the education system. After all, if our school system failed to provide us and our children with basic literacy and math fundamentals, what is the point of test-prep and higher education?

I do know, as immigrants to this country, we came to America with a clean slate in regards to the U.S. school system. There were no prior experiences on my parents part to believe that a high school diploma can guarantee a stable factory job and life. Nor, did they have any any reason to distrust the system; why would they come to America, otherwise. We also arrive inherently disadvantaged, and thus every additional bit of education matters more to us.

Avichal argues that for “the poor, correlating with being African American and Hispanic, affordable, but poor quality approaches just aren’t good enough; these communities are on the hunt for dramatically better approaches and willing to try new things.” Khan Academy’s demographic chart is used to support this.

However, my perspective is that African-Americans (152 score), with past experiences of the school system failing them, are willing to try an approach outside of the traditional classroom, while the immigrant ethnic groups, Asian and Hispanic (scores of 270 and 232, respectively) want that additional resource to catch-up with their Caucasian classmates.

Argument 2: Building in education does not follow an Internet company’s growth curve. Do it because you want to fix problems in education for the next 20 years.

I completely agree with the latter part of this argument, but not entirely with the first part. There are hard, rigid bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of any true reform of the education system. The documentary, “Waiting for Superman“, did the best it could within 102 minutes to explain how difficult it is to advance or make changes to our current education system, a system that has not changed in the past half century.

Education might not be ripe for disruption, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be disrupted. Alvin Toffler believes as much and Bill Gates believes as much. It certainly won’t be disrupted at the policy level, as many educators and reformers have tried in earnest and failed. It has to be disrupted in a space where there won’t be regulations or unionized workers prohibiting change. The only area I can think of is the Internet, and what a disruptive agent the Internet can be.

To build a company that’s tackling a problem as large and important as education, it should stand to last at least 20 years. The next great education company shouldn’t have the mentality of a mobile social gaming company, nor even a social network or video-sharing website. These companies are able to have the typical Internet growth curve because it is free.

The three consumer focused education companies that Avichal provided as examples (Tutor.com, TutorVista, Globalscholar), inherently, have a scalable cost, which are their hired tutors, and they must transfer that cost to consumers. Anytime, there’s a cost associated with a consumer website, growth will always be significantly slower than expected, especially for something as immaterial as knowledge.

The other problem these companies face is that there is already an incumbent competitor, which are traditional schools. There is already knowledge dissemination at these schools for 8 hours a day. Tutoring companies, traditional or online, are supplemental services to traditional schooling, and as such, shouldn’t be expected to have a hockey-stick growth curve.

Currently, what can be considered a game-changing, direct competitor to traditional schooling?

For some people, it’s Khan Academy. Khan Academy and schools are already on equal footing in terms of cost, so the only differentiator is the quality, and for some people Salman Khan’s recorded lectures are of much higher quality than that of their math teachers.

However, there are two problems I have with Khan Academy. The first is that recorded lectures, albeit great for an initial explanation, falls at the wayside when an individual is stuck on a concept or has questions; in the other words, it’s a very one-dimensional way of learning. Khan Academy is able to get away with it because Salman Khan’s explanations of mathematical and scientific concepts are so lucid and clearly-explained. In addition, industrious teachers have begun to augment their classrooms with his lectures, while concentrating on what teachers are supposed to do: providing the individual attention necessary so that all students are ready to learn the next material.

The second problem I have is that Salman Khan is one individual attempting to scale. While his lectures on math and science are superb, other subjects, as one critic pointed out, specifically citing Khan’s history lectures, are sub-par.

Khan Academy has planted the seed that online education can be effective; Stanford’s new initiative with their online computer science courses is inspired by Khan academy. However, in order for there to be lasting growth, an online education company should be a platform; a way to connect outstanding teachers with willing students, while eliminating the distance barrier. It should be a platform much like eBay is a platform that connects buyers and sellers, and eBay certainly had the Internet growth curve people are looking for.

Khan Academy and the other tutoring companies mentioned are constrained by the supply of quality teacher(s). A platform would solve the bottleneck by finding, curating, and scaling the number of quality teachers available.

Argument 3: There are opportunities in education in servicing the poor in the US and building a company in Asia — not in selling to the middle class in the US.

Argument 3 is an extension of argument 1, although the logic implied here is that since the average American considers education to be an expenditure, business opportunities can’t exist. I don’t agree that the average American considers education purely as an expenditure, as explained above. But even if they did, health care in America is considered an expenditure, yet more money per person is spent on health care in the U.S. than any other country in the world (1) and 83.3% of the population have insurance of some kind (2).

However, I won’t dispute the argument that there are opportunities to be had in Asia, but not for the reasons stated. Avichal claims that a non-educated person in Kansas will not die homeless, while a non-educated Chinese person would. I don’t think that’s true, and it’s certainly not true in Korea and Japan, yet countries in most of Asia have similar attitudes towards education.

If we look at the societal incentives of these Asian countries, I think we’ll have a better understanding of why there is such an emphasis on education in Asia, and possibly find a reason why education companies in the U.S. haven’t seen spectacular success.

The incentive structure in China is set-up in such a way that one of the few ways to advance in life is to acquire a diploma, even better multiple diplomas, and even better still multiple diplomas from prestigious universities.  This quote from a lengthy article explains the importance of scoring well on the gaokao, the national college-entrance exam:

In China, there is a time-honored career domino effect: good gaokao score, top university spot, communist Party membership, job in the government bureaucracy.

When achievement in life is tied specifically to the words found on a piece of paper, everybody’s efforts will be focused on that piece of paper. On the other hand, in America, examples of success don’t necessarily revolve around a piece of paper. When there are possibilities of acquiring wealth and happiness by pursuing passions in music, sports, fashion, entrepreneurship, etc., obtaining that piece of paper is de-emphasized. Hence, the UnCollege movement.

A lot of education start-ups in the U.S. have been focused on preparing our students to succeed in a “gaokao” society, while the reality is that achieving success in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily depend on a perfect SAT score.

Education companies have seen partial success in America because their product is made for a “gaokao” society, yet America is only partially a “gaokao” society. A startup that focuses on the mentalities prevalent in the United States would have the opportunity to succeed with the middle class.

We should ask ourselves, if a student is solely interested in becoming a musician, poker player, or fashion designer, and has seen examples of their peers achieving these same goals, why are we offering them help only in math and verbal?

Education companies work in Asia because they focus on preparing students to overcome these mandated national exams. It will be more difficult to fulfill the diverse interests of our students, and as such, learning should take place on a platform of many different types of teachers.

Argument 4: The underlying culture will change and expose interesting opportunities in the long term, but probably not for another 5 years.

The opportunities that arise are continuous and dynamic; there will be opportunities throughout every single year with each new technological advancement and with the current rate of change. The point is to be proactive in regards to that changing culture as opposed to being a waiting bystander for 5 years. 

In fact, there has never been a better time to talk about education in the context of technology. We have advanced enough to glimpse the possibility of a world educated by the powers of the Internet. That much is evident by Avichal having to meet with so many entrepreneurs and VCs to explain his viewpoints.

I’ll conclude with a quote from Rupert Murdoch during the e-G8 summit in May.

The greatest change of all is the digital revolution, which frees people from the “tyranny of time and distance,” and it’s occurring in every field except one — education.

A teacher waking up from a 50-year nap would find a classroom looks almost exactly the same as it did in the Victorian era. My friends, what we have here is a colossal failure of imagination and an abdication of our responsibilities to our children and grandchildren.

In putting [our] creative force into schools we can ensure the poor child in Manila has the same chance as the rich child in Manhattan. The key to our future is to unlock this potential.

Thank you Joshua and Maurice for their feedback.

A Steve Jobs Film Should Be Saved for the Next Generation

How soon is too soon for a movie studio to capitalize on the death of a beloved and celebrated icon? That was the gut-reaction of many comments found on articles reporting that Sony Pictures is acquiring rights to make a Steve Jobs biopic.

The film will be based on Walter Isaacson’s upcoming and highly-anticipated biography of Apple’s celebrated co-founder and de-factor visionary. The book is already an Amazon #1 seller based on pre-sale orders. This fact combined with Sony’s past critical and commercial success with “The Social Network,” a dramatic film about another Silicon Valley prodigy, made it quite logical for any movie studio to pursue a Steve Jobs film.

While many will cry greed and callousness, there’s no point in shaking an indignant fist at a movie studio for doing their job. In fact, I think it would a movie many people would want to see based on the overwhelming number of mournful messages written by my friends, as well as celebrities and leaders across the globe. The sentiment and image of one of our generation’s most influential inventor will still be fresh on our minds when this movie is released.

We certainly won’t watch it in hopes of learning something new about Steve Jobs; his life story and Apple’s has been well-documented, as are anecdotes about his famously peculiar personality. We will watch it, however, to relive the life of someone who had profoundly affected our lives.

And who cares if a movie studio will profit substantially from it? That’s how the world should work.

My only gripe is that this biopic would really be of true significant good for the world if it was made for the next generation, whom might not know the hardships Steve Jobs had to endure to create the world’s first true personal computer and all the subsequent transformative devices thereafter.

I hope that after the Sony Picture’s production there will be another biographical film made 50 years later that can capture the emotions our current generation felt when we lost one of our most inspiring and admirable individuals. It’s imperative that our children and grandchildren be introduced to Steve Jobs the way we were introduced to Howard Huges or Oskar Schindler; I want them to feel inspired to make a difference and do good for the world, the way Steve Jobs inspired us.

Else, the story of Steve Jobs, which has positively affected countless many, might be lost with the passing of time much like the stories of many other great inventors and entrepreneurs, including that of Edwin Land, the man who inspired Steve Jobs.

Why Marc Andreessen Won’t Recognize the Tech Bubble

If there’s such a thing as virtual hero worshipping, then I have it, for Marc Andreessen. I revere him not because he started Mosaic and Netscape, thus helping usher in the Internet era.

It’s also not because he married the daughter of John Arillaga, whose name I saw placard on every which building at Stanford, where I spent my happiest years and found the best of friendships.

These accomplishments have certainly built Marc Andreessen a persona that’s revered across Silicon Valley. Yet, what I most admire about Marc is the writing he did for his blog. Every sentence in every posts conveyed wisdom, that we knew, he had accumulated in the many years spent building successful and unsuccessful companies in Silicon Valley.

Through his earnest writing he was helping build a better world by educating and encouraging entrepreneurs. It had certainly affected the decisions I made in life.

I can only speculate on why he took down his old blog posts, but someone had the foresight to archive all of it. His current blog doesn’t do it justice.

I’m saying all of this because I am a bit disappointed in his interview at the D9: All Things Digital conference where he was asked: “Is there a bubble–and did you cause it?”

There was no way he could have answered, “Yes, Walt and Kara, there is a bubble.” Any start-up investor whose success depends on an optimistic public market already has his hand forced in answering that question.

However, the reasoning behind Marc’s answer seemed disingenuous.

A bunch of people think there’s a bubble, so therefore we think it is not.

If everybody’s euphoric, then I’m concerned. “If we’re back here in three years and nothing’s changed and nobody’s worried, I’ll be horrified. I’ll wet my pants on stage.” There’s no history of an equity bubble that has not affected the public markets in a major way. Read “The Go-Go Years.” Fast-forward to today, in 2011: Apple’s PE is 12, projected to be 10. Microsoft’s is 7.2, next year 6.8. Google 13.7, next year 11.3. Cisco 7, next year 5.5. “PEs in single digits are what steel mills trade at before they’re going out of business.”

What these things tell me is the public market hates tech. It’s tremendously scarred by 10 years ago.

Maybe that was an intentional homage to deceased Red Herring magazine because Marc made a classic use of red herring. None of the companies mentioned above had their roots in the tech bubble that came tumbling down in 2001. Of the companies from that era that did survive, the most well-known is Amazon, whose P/E is 83.9.

The most worrying example of the current tech bubble, as deemed by the public, is LinkedIn, whose initial pubic offering saw its stock price rise 90%, leading to a valuation that’s over 500x net income. The buyout of Skype by Microsoft received less attention, yet had valuation multiples even more outrageous than LinkedIn’s: a buyout of $8.56 billion in cash, while the company carried a net loss of $7 million and long-term debt of $686 million. Marc Andreessen invested in both companies.

Marc never bothered answering the second part of the question, “Did he cause the bubble?” No one person can be faulted for causing an equity bubble. If anything, the blame should be laid on Microsoft and LinkedIn’s institutional investors. The blame could also be shared by the U.S. government for setting interest rates so low for so long, artificially inflating the equity market, but that’s a tangent.

Regardless, Marc has no control over the investment decisions made by those parties. However, he does indirectly affect euphoria surrounding tech companies by the valuations he set for his own investments. The latest of which was his $100 million investment in Airbnb at a $1 billion valuation. The company’s previous investment was a comparatively minuscule $7.2 million.

The company is in a great market and critics don’t fully know its details, such as growth metrics, but with supposed revenue of $25 million, how quickly will Airbnb need to grow to be comparable in revenue to Skype’s ($860 million) and LinkedIn’s ($292 million). Keep in mind Airbnb’s valuation is 1/8th of those two companies.

Later on Marc backtracked and admitted there is an equity bubble but it is only affecting one company, LinkedIn.

The true answer to the bubble question is that we just don’t know. Unlike the companies of a decade ago, there’s actual substance and growth behind today’s web start-ups and, as Groupon has showed, plenty of innovative business models generating real revenue and value for the world.

Yet, could Marc have answered such a question with unbiased observation or even with some ambiguity or uncertainty? Not when his words have so much influence.

What I’ve Learned from Phil Jackson

Friend or foe, fan or victim, we will all miss Philip Douglas Jackson. He won at the highest level, which brought him fame and accolades, but it was his unique approach to coaching and life that kept the public yearning to learn more about the “Zen Master”.

While his unconventional methods made him an outcast amongst the fraternity of coaches in the NBA, the common sense and wisdom behind his unique philosophy made him a model for success in sports and in life.

An often constant criticism about Phil was his stoic demeanor on the sidelines belying his involvement and attention to the game. Phil addressed this critique with such soundness that I find myself questioning coaches who act otherwise.

If there is any major misconception about me, or any coach, for that mat­ter, it’s that we’re not as engaged if we don’t scream at the refs or pace along the sidelines. Such antics only serve to distract the team from the game plan. I also believe the majority of coaching is done before the game. Timeouts and substitutions obviously play an ex­tremely important role, but the strategy, which principles should be followed, is put in place many hours before tip-off.
- The Last Season

Despite his different ways, one trait Phil shared with other all-time great coaches was his work ethic and meticulous preparation. In his book, he speaks of spending hours in the video room, preparing game film by himself to have a better understanding of his opponent.

There is an anecdote in Jeanie Buss’ book, “Laker Girl,” which demonstrates Phil’s intense focus in his work. While losses would often result in restless nights for Phil, one particular loss to Dallas caused Phil, in his sleep, to rip the pillow from under Jeanie because he was dreaming that it was a loose ball and he was trying to steal it. When Jeanie told him about this in the morning, Phil was proud of himself.

As much as losing seemed to bother Phil, winning never became a form of validation for him. His lack of contentment with success explains his consistent achievements as a player and coach.

Tex, who is definitely no Buddhist, has a saying that I’ve grown to love: “You are only a success at the moment that you do a successful act.” You can’t be a success after the moment because you have already moved onto do something else, even if it’s just accepting the award for the successful moment that just passed. That is why I’ve always told my players the glorification comes from the journey, not the outcome.
- The Last Season

In basketball — as in life — true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way.
- The Sacred Hoops

Buddhist and Native American principles heavily influenced Phil as a coach. One amusing image described in “The Last Season” was his attempts to get the Lakers to meditate as a group. An exercise that worked well with the Bulls, its goal was to get the team to cohesively focus on tackling the daunting challenges ahead.

However, at the core of Phil’s ability to command and lead a group of young men was the sincere care he showed his team, both as players and as people.

Coach Peterson was not only a coach. He was a proud, principled educator who strongly believed in nuturing his players. On one road trip, I was in the backset of the car when he snatched the book I was reading, a pornographic novel. When we arrived at our destination, he took me aside. “I’m not really disappointed,” he said, “but I am, kind of. You’re a really good person who doesn’t need to read this kind of stuff. This is just going to trash your mind.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way he dealt with me was probably the first lesson I learned in how to treat men. He was simultateously stern and sensitive, show that he cared for me, and not only as a basketball player.
- The Last Season

Phil Jackson wasn’t the perfect coach or person and his flaws, assuredly, must be plenty. Yet, he always strove for improvement even after multiple championship rings and the age 60. He preached the same to his players gifting them books so that they may improve beyond the basketball courts. Phil’s own books have taught me so much.

 

Our Most Memorable ‘Fresh Air’ Interviews

Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow, and other various daytime PBS programming played important roles in my development as a youth. Each episode wrapped education over a ball of entertainment, or was it the other way around?

Of course, I eventually outgrew PBS, along with the rest of the Internet generation. In its stead, we found our attention diverted to instant messaging, email, and eventually social networks. Yet, where is our contemporary replacement – the engaging and enriching content we once enjoyed as a kid? We have to backtrack the technology highway to find it in a public radio station.

That’s not to say NPR hasn’t adapted to the digital age. The majority of its Twitter followers listen to NPR on the radio, and it’s Facebook fan page has grown to over 1.5 million subscribers.

Recently, congress voted to prohibit federal money from funding NPR. I can’t comment on whether I agree with the bill or if NPR has a distinctly liberal bias, as Republicans have claimed. I do, however, hope this doesn’t spell the demise of many people’s most trusted source of news and cultural content.

One of my favorite programming on NPR is ‘Fresh Air’ with Terry Gross. In fact, the most popular topic on the NPR’s Facebook page is the question, “What are the best past NPR Fresh Air interviews to listen to?

Many people poured in to submit or vote upon their favorite interviews. Having heard most of them, I can see each one’s appeal. Ms. Gross has a very distinct interviewing style that’s highlighted by her empathetic personality underscored by very meticulous research on her subject. What results are either very open accounts of the interviewees’ lives or defensive and sometimes hostile interviews. In both cases, the emotions are real and unadulterated.

While I can’t list every interview recommended by fellow Facebookers, I’ll post the most liked ones and a few I thought were most memorable, along with what the recommenders have to say about it.

Tracy Morgan

Fresh Air – Tracy Morgan.mp3

“I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest of all time or anything, but the October 2009 interview with Tracy Morgan (30 Rock) was truly remarkable – a memorably powerful bit of radio journalism. I don’t know, I still remember listening to it when it first aired: where I was, the details of the route I was driving, the weather, so strong an imprint it has on my memory. I believe I caught myself tearing up more than a little bit when he began to cry on air when talking about his estranged mother and about his father dying of AIDS. It just caught me entirely off guard (and Terri, too, which adds to the uniqueness).”

- David Salter (Works at USC Viterbi School of Engineering)

Gene Simmons

Fresh Air – Gene Simmons.mp3

“KISS’s Gene Simmons’ bizarre, openly hostile, misogynistic rant, including the implication that Terry Gross wanted to sleep with him.

From Terry Gross’s Wikipedia page:

The February 4, 2002 interview with Kiss lead singer and bassist Gene Simmonsbegan with Gross mispronouncing Simmons’ original Hebrew last name.Simmons dismissively replied to her that she mispronounced it becauseshe had a Gentile mouth. Gross replied that her mouth was not Gentile. Gross questions Simmons’ views on the importance of money. In the interview Grossinterjects “so having sex with you” (implying herself and Simmons), Simmons said, “you’re going to have to stand in line.” Gross continuedwith questioning Simmons about his many liaisons. Later Simmons said ‘If you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going tohave to welcome me with open legs,’ to which Gross replied, ‘That’s a really obnoxious thing to say.’

Simmons refused to grant NPR permission to put the audio online…”

- Drew Nilsen (University of Texas)

Sasha Baron Cohen

Fresh Air – Sacha Baron Cohen.mp3

“The best “Fresh Air” interview I’ve heard was Sascha Baron Cohen talking about the process of filming ‘Borat’. It was especially enlightening because it was one of the few interviews he did at the time that was out-of-character.”

- John Spangler (Michigan)

Stephen Colbert

Fresh Air – Stephen Colbert.mp3

“The Stephen Colbert interview was excellent. It was him and not him as Colbert the character.”

- Xander Meise Bay (Columbia University)

Bill O’Reilly

Fresh Air – Bill O’Reilly.mp3

“The Bill O’Reilly interview where he storms out of the interview is pretty awesome.”

- Tom Hayden (PhD student at Northwestern Univeristy)

My Personal Favorites

The three interviews below are my personal favorites and also were recommended on Facebook. Beyond being fans of their work, I had a very myopic perception of who they were, basing most of my opinions on a few sounds bytes and on how the media portrays them. What I’ve learned is that to get to where they are today, meaning success, there’s a very real and personal struggle they must go through. Jay-Z poignantly explains why he had to sell crack cocaine, Russell Brand speaks of his grim bouts with heroin addiction, and RZA describes how difficult it was to satisfy his thirst for music given his humble beginnings.

Jay-Z

Fresh Air – Jay-Z.mp3

Russell Brand

Fresh Air – Russell Brand.mp3

RZA

Fresh Air – RZA.mp3

Opportunity Lost

Hulking, muscle-men with bulging biceps grunting angrily at the mirror while blowing kisses at themselves. Decrepit couples blanching their already pale skins in the jacuzzi, in complete denial of their workout facade. Big-buxomed housewives spending excessive amounts of time on the thigh-machines for reasons I do not know or do not want to go into.

I treat going to the gym as part vanity-workout and part people-watching-exercise. I try to avoid maintaining any type of consistent schedule; I go late at night, in the morning, during the dreaded after-work rush hour, the sparse weekends. I rarely see a familiar face, except for one individual.

I am not exaggerating: I have seen this middle-aged woman at the gym pumping iron very intensely every single time I’ve been there. I’m guessing you’re thinking of a few jokes. She’s either stalking me or she’s thinking the other way around. Also, for someone who’s been to the gym that often, she must look like a female-turned-male bodybuilder, always an interesting sight to behold.

Yet, at immediate glance her situation was plenty obvious and quite sobering. She had a long, lanky frame with almost little-to-no fat and almost equal amount of muscle, along with very short hair unmasking two very determined eyes.

I’m not an expert so I can’t diagnose what disease she was stricken with but it was apparent that being the only woman in the weight room, she was fighting against muscle atrophy.

I can only guess because I never talked to her even after plenty of friendly smiles and nods. Perhaps we could have ended up being friends or at the least, I could provided some encouragement or support. I’m not sure why I couldn’t muster up some courage to say a few words, while this woman was brave enough to continue to fight for her life everyday.

That opportunity is lost because after days, then weeks, and then months, she stopped going to the gym. I can only hope she switched gym membership.

The Mad Men Behind Our Super Bowl Commercials

Me Men

Technology may come and go, but advertising will remain for as long as people have idle money to spend.

Television commercials have long been the medium of choice for large corporations and their ad agencies. Yet, with the advent of Tivo, Internet ad-blockers, and Facebook, we would expect a downward trend in interest in television ads, in particular from youths.

The reality is quite the opposite. In a study by Venables Bell & Partners, young adults said they look forward to watching Super Bowl ads more than spending time with their friends and family, the half-time show, and the national anthem, in that order. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed would opt to watch the game with commercials versus commercial-free. Attribute this phenomenon to the enormously popular drama, Mad Men.

A clear result of this demographic shift in attentiveness to advertising is evident in USA Today’s Ad Meter, a study which charts second-by-second reactions to ads during the Super Bowls by volunteers. Four of the top ten most popular ads in the Ad Meter were user submitted commercials that won Doritos/Pepsi’s amateur-commercial competition. With budgets of less than $1,000, the six young winners came away with $4 million in total winnings.

Below are the top ten commercials for Super Bowl XLV as rated by USA Today’s Ad Meter, along with an abbreviated exposition on the geniuses behind these creative works.

1. Doritos – Pug Attack (J.R. Burningham, user submitted)

Doritos struck marketing gold by using its now-familiar formula for creating best-liked Super Bowl spots: let its customers make them. The fella behind the winning Doritos ad: a 31-year-old part-time designer of websites for kids. J.R. Burningham says he filmed the spot for about $500.

In the commercial a running pug, set in slow motion, knocks down a door and a man holding a bag of Doritos to get to the tortilla chips. For Burningham’s top ranking, he receives a $1 million in addition to the $2,500 already received from Pepsico, which makes Doritos. Burningham was one of 5,600 entries in the Frito-Lay Crash the Super Bowl ad campaign, which invited fans to make a commercial.

A freelance editor and part-time Web designer, Burningham said he didn’t know his ad was going to be aired until he saw it on TV with millions of other Super Bowl watchers. [Source]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpjaOUjUPUc[/youtube]

1. Bud Light – Dog Sitter (DDB, Chicago)

Tied for first place is the commercial for Anheuser-Busch’s best selling Bud Light brand. Long been the prohibitive favorite for most memorable Super Bowl commercial, there was a noticeable decline in quality for A-B’s commercials across the board.

Part of the reason is due to shake-ups in A-B’s marketing operations. Bob Lachky, A-B’s former chief creative officer who created some of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the past two decades, including “Wassup?!,” the Budweiser frogs and the “Real Men of Genius,” left in 2009 after InBev bought A-B for $52 billion in 2008.

Last year, ad agency DDB of Chicago, long linked at the hip with the Bud Light brand, began sharing creative duties with Cannonball in St. Louis. [Source 1, 2]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcN4S0jSYI0[/youtube]

3. Volkswagen: The Force! (Deutsch LA, Los Angeles)

Volkswagen premiered two :30 second spots during Super Bowl XLV. The ads showcased two new vehicles, the all-new 2012 Passat and the 21st Century Beetle, months before they arrive in dealerships this fall.

Immediately following the Super Bowl, Volkswagen will execute a digital and social media campaign, including an ESPN mobile takeover, VW.com blog, and Facebook activations, as well as a YouTube homepage takeover for the recently launched walk-around webisodes “Inside the VW Academy.”

Volkswagen of America selected IPG’s Deutsch/LA in 2009 to handle creative duties on its $200 million ad account. That spending is almost sure to increase as the German automaker tries to make inroads into the U.S. market, where it currently holds a meager 2% market share. [Source]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R55e-uHQna0[/youtube]

4. Doritos – House Sitting (Tynesha Williams, user submitted)

Tynesha Williams was awarded 2nd place and $600,000 for her hilarious commercial entitled “House Sitting.” Tynesha was one of only two females amongst the ten finalists and the first black female finalist to make it to the top 10 in the five years Doritos has been conducting this contest.

An interview with Tynesha regarding her favorite filmmakers, her aspirations as a black female director and the inspiration for her commercial can be found here.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCdnFMp6s84[/youtube]

5. Pepsi Max – Love Hurts (Brad Bosley, user submitted)

Brad Bosley directed, wrote and produced the winning ad in PepsiCo’s “Crash the Super Bowl” contest and won $1 million in cash.

Bosley lined up with other finalists in a Cowboys Stadium suite Sunday, hoping his $800 commercial with unknowns was picked to run alongside others costing millions of dollars and starring celebrities.

Bosley, 28, likes to make ads with a surprise twist and a comedic touch. He studied film production and creative writing at Northwestern University and earned a master’s degree in directing from the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles in 2008. He has directed more than a dozen short films.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVQrH0aHGAc[/youtube]

6. CareerBuilder – Parking Lot (In-house)

After an at times tumultuous relationship with ad agencies, the No. 1 job site in the country, CareerBuilder, no longer works with an agency of record and is handling its advertising in-house.

CareerBuilder ended its two-year run with Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., which picked up the account after the job site’s acrimonious split with its former creative shop, Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8B-Vu94Sd4M[/youtube]

7. Pepsi Max – First Date (Nick Simotas, user submitted)

Orange County-native Nick Simotas finally earned 2nd place and $600,000 in his third year as a competitor, with a Pepsi Max ad depicting a first date. The ad, which he and his friend Kyle Stafford reportedly made for $30, takes the viewer through the mind of a man and a woman on a typical first date. The woman has all sorts of questions running through her head, while the man is only focused on taking her home –until the Pepsi Max arrives, when his attention switches.

The Cal State Fullerton graduate was discouraged by his losses in past years and only decided to make this ad a week before the deadline. [Source]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N1aOZTTA-c[/youtube]

8. NFL – Best Fans Ever (Grey Worldwide, New York)

One of the best and most understated spots of Super Bowl XLV came from the National Football League and Grey. Instead of focusing on the drama of the game or the athleticism of the sport, the NFL gave us a trip down memory lane, with a montage of TV fans celebrating the game while wearing NFL garb on their shows. Mostly TV comedies like Happy Days, The Office, Cheers, Seinfeld, The Brady Bunch, The Golden Girls, The Simpsons, even The Dukes of Hazard make an appearance. [Source]

Below is a side-by-side comparison of the original footage of these clips with the graphically-enhanced Super Bowl version.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt0jZDqBRGU[/youtube]

9. Bridgestone – Carma (Method Studios, Los Angeles and The Richards Group, Dallas)

Visual effects company Method recently completed work on Bridgestone’s :30 “Carma” via agency The Richards Group. The commercial, which debuted during Super Bowl XLV, features a beaver that repays a surprised motorist’s kindness. The spot makes a sly reference to Bridgestone’s “Scream,” which debuted during Super Bowl XLII in 2008. [Source]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBUcG7xZB-g[/youtube]

10. Coca-Cola – Guards (Wieden+Kenedy, Portland)

Four Wieden+Kennedy ads aired during this year’s Super Bowl, the most ever for Portland’s powerhouse advertising agency.

In an era where digital media is ascendant, these old-technology wins highlight the breadth and depth of work coming from an agency that is still best known to many for its iconic Nike work.

Wieden+Kennedy has created Coke Super Bowl spots for several years running, and won an Emmy award for last year’s “Heist” ad for the soft drink maker. [Source]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-STkFCCrus[/youtube]

The Beginning of the End for Bookstores

Bookstore

For all the societal progress the future promises, there is one inevitability that saddens me the most: not being able to bring my children to a bookstore.

Indeed, the proliferation of e-readers and digital books has led to a steadying decline in retail book sales. Borders, the second largest bookstore chain in the U.S., teeters on the edge of bankruptcy; the company has already closed down bookstores and is delaying its payments to publishers in order to preserve liquidity.

A rosier future lies ahead for Barnes & Noble, as they announced its best sales in over a decade due mostly to online book sales for it’s e-reader, the Nook. Yet, it’s brick & mortar stores continue to be declining in revenue, and as a result, are closing at an alarming rate.

However, on a recent trip Barnes & Noble I came to the realization that these bookstores serve as more than just places to buy books, they are important threads in our cultural fabric. Whereas libraries are too staid and inhibiting to encourage social interaction, bookstores became a community hub. Anybody can discover something of interest to them at a bookstore, with magazines and music CDs to augment their attention and coffee tables to convene and discuss.

Unfortunately, bookstores are a dying breed that must give way to technology and convenience. Amazon has already announced the Kindle as it’s most popular retail item in history, and will continue to encourage this trend with its full financial weight.

The story didn’t (or doesn’t!) have to end this way. If Barnes & Noble, and hopefully Borders, can only muster enough encourage to innovate or change their bookstores to accommodate in digital readership, they stand a fighting chance against their demise.

One thing Amazon and Apple will never be able to compete with Barnes & Noble and Borders is their lack of brick & mortar stores. While the Nook was a noble attempt to compete on equal terms with Amazon, they are already fighting from behind. To catch-up you must run faster, not at the same pace.

Barnes & Noble should make all physical items in their store available to be purchased and transferred into a Nook, a Kindle, or an iPad. If these items aren’t available as digital copies, the Company should be pushing publishers towards that goal, much like Amazon is doing. Internet-capable kiosks should be next to every bookshelf  to induce seamless, immediate and available purchasing as soon as a desired book is spotted, as well as provide reviews and other social tools for the discerning buyer. Music, as well as magazines, could easily fit into this model, especially with the iPad.

Of course, real books, as opposed to eBooks, will always be available to purchase, but now they’ll also serve as a discovery and confirmation tool.

Unfortunately, by closing down these bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Borders are destroying the one inherence advantage they have over their technologically experienced competitors.