Thursday, September 27, 2007

Personal Inspirations

If you haven't already seen it, take a few minutes to look at Carnegie Mellon computer science professor's now famous "last lecture." Here's a man that is leaving life with elegance, courage and a sense of purpose. It's in the lives of "ordinary", extraordinary people that I'm finding the biggest sources of inspiration these days.

Another example: a friend of mine left a Wall Street position for military service after 9/11 because he thought it was the right thing to do. He completed his service and at the same time set up a charity called "Give to the World", which uses US troops to get basic supplies in to war torn areas where humanitarian organizations are unable to reach. This is worth checking out as well. My favorite quote from one of the founders is this: "Someone once said to me, 'you can’t save the world.' Hopefully one day, no one will ever believe a word of it."

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Hong Kong

A semi-sovereign state now administered by the Chinese government, Hong Kong gives the appearance of an entirely different country from China itself: Chinese by ethnicity and culture, to be sure, but very different from the mainland. The city will be more familiar to westerners, though I would not describe it as western per se. This is a truely international city. While I was there, I saw plenty of British, Japanese, some Americans, French, Indians, and of course the majority Chinese population. The city is lit by neon and dominated by tall buildings, both offices and apartments with awesome views.





This is a mature economy. Sometimes Hong Kong is more reminiscent of parts of Tokyo, than Shanghai. Hong Kong continues to seek immigrants "of quality", which I take to mean professionals. The residents are clearly wealthy by world standards or in fact by American or European standards. The main economic driver is in finance, though retail and shipping are visible as well. A night time cab ride wound up behind two different Ferraris in 20 minutes. Hong Kong is certainly suggestive of the level of economic development that major Chinese cities will reach in time.

Hong Kong, of course, maintains it's own financial system (though currency is issued by private banks: my Hong Kong dollars were issued by HSBC). The Hong Kong stock market is highly successful. In fact, Hong Kong seems to be almost a pure capitalist system. Like the Chinese cities I visited, Hong Kong felt utterly safe. It also seems like a very attractive place to live and work. I can't think of a better location for sampling authentic foods from around the world, night after night.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Beijing

A note from the seat of the central government. Beijing is more interesting from a tourist perspective than Shanghai, though I have only been able to see things from a taxi en route to meetings. The buildings in Beijing are different: the layout is typically large and low, with buildings occupying a whole city block. The city has a feel of strong growth as well, but more planned and orderly. The feeling is less international and more distinctly Chinese. The air in Beijing was decidedly cleaner than Shanghai.

Private business is everywhere, but so are government offices. The government employees I met were extraordinarily smart, serious, but also very friendly. I saw little difference in form or function from what you might expect in the US. The more I travel, the more I learn that despite our differences, people everywhere are people: same basic concerns, same basic desires, not always the same perspectives on everything.

The food in China is amazing. Two evenings ago, I had traditional peking duck from a hickory wood fired oven. Most of the food I've had has been delicious, but the duck was just awesome.

As you drive by Tiananmen Square, you can see the new opera house, which is set to open shortly. Opposite the square is the smiling portrait of a benevolent looking Chairman Mao. The city is also a city of contrasts: as you drive past Mao, you also drive past a mini-Rodeo drive, replete with shops for Swiss watch brands that routinely sell for over 20,000 USD. Another striking statement on how much things have changed here.

The red government buildings are another study in how things have changed: does the red represent communism or prosperity and good fortune? Both or neither?

I write from Hong Kong, now administered by the Chinese government, yet under a completely different system. I have talked with Hong Kong natives who describe the arrangement as a family reunion, where earlier concerns have largely been put to rest. Again, not what I might have expected as an outsider and the different systems are another interesting contrast in China.

The excitement over the olympics is infectious. I picked up some souvenirs for the 2008 games at the airport. I have never traveled to the olympics before, but being in Beijing during the games may be worth the effort.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Shanghai

I just wrapped up a week long business tour in Shanghai, where I had the opportunity to meet with executives at MNCs doing business in China. Fantastic experience and I'll try to share some thoughts on this in a follow-up note. Just a few quick observations now.

It's difficult to describe the explosive growth and the level of investment that is happening here: I have not personally experienced anything comparable.

I did not know what to expect when I came here and my number one takeaway from the trip is this: you have to come to China to begin to understand what it is like here and to have any clue about what is happening here. I can say frankly that reading the western press does not prepare you for the experience at all.

The Chinese people are open and frank, as are westerners living here. The presence of European shops and the ubiquity of American and European brands was surprising. Retail business is huge here, and families appear to be always out and always shopping. Prices vary dramatically, depending on where you shop. A full dinner (and a couple of beers) at a popular Shanghainese restaurant topped out at 6 USD. On the other hand, a tall cup of Starbucks coffee was nearly 4 USD! There is clearly wealth asymmetry. Workers live in small and old apartments. On the other hand, nice Western style apartments appear to cost on par with Manhattan.

When you talk to the Chinese about how the country is governed, they talk about understanding the Chinese government in terms of Confucius, not communism. The people are fiercely proud of the success here and the middle class and business class seems very supportive of the government. I got no sense that this was anything but honest: in fact, Chinese were also quite willing to make critical comments on specific issues and openly acknowledge problems they face.

The best and brightest are said to go into government here. One executive compared the party education as on par with top MBA programs worldwide and emphasized that the leaders are thoroughly schooled in liberal economics.

There is a very strong entrepreneurial spirit here. I have talked with small business owners as well, some of whom fled China, then Hong Kong, only to return to live in Shanghai.

An amazing place. And I think it's fair to say that this is only the start of China's resurgence.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Marketing for Dummies

Having a platform for multiple consumer products is a marketers dream, especially if it can give effective differentiation with economies of scale in production. The danger of course is that the differentiation is not strong enough to prevent the lower margin product lines from cannibalizing higher margin products. Of course, the challenge is to make sure that all products are attractive to at least some segment of buyers. Wharton runs all MBA students through a great multi-period market simulation that really drives this home.

The ability to exploit a platform is why the iPod Touch was inevitable. On its face, it looks like one of the best moves Apple has ever made. But when you look at what they didn't include, the picture changes: no email client, no microphone, no bluetooth. Think about that for a moment: an Internet device without email. Wow. I'd say that it's not really an Internet device after all, just an incremental feature on the iPod.

Folks, people buy the iPhone because it is a phone. People won't buy this in lieu of a phone. People will buy the iPod Touch because it looks like the Internet device it isn't and because the last generation of iPods break too easily. Hopefully, the next iteration will get it right, because I know a lot of people that want the device that they are marketing but not selling, myself included.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Eternal Life

I was saddened to see the news that Luciano Pavarotti passed. There is nothing like the human voice as a musical instrument, though only a handful of singers have the capability of moving a crowd to tears by virtue of their natural gifts.

I have little hope for a life after death. But some people will live forever, or at least as long as civilization lasts. Pavarotti is one of them.

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