Solving the Omnivore’s Dilemma

wpid-20150630_150828.jpgIf the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan had come up while the Kalamazoo Business Book Club in person meetup still existed, I definitely would have approved it as a choice. Where I ended up learning about it was at a (Kalamazoo) Startup Grind event in May. The guest, Erika Block, founder of Local Orbit, stated that the reason she finally received funding was because an investor had read  a couple of Pollan’s books and it changed how he thought about food and eating. After reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I can see why!

I’m not sure what the difference in content is, since I happened to checkout the “young reader’s” edition. Pollan did a good job of narrating his journey and answering all of the types of questions there might be. In fact, he stated near the end that because of the book some vegetarians went back to eating meat, while others became vegetarians.

The definition of the “omnivore’s dilemma” given in the book was that we (humans) have access to a wide variety of food without knowing what is best for us. The experience has also changed where many were farmers and now there are only a few. In addition to this change, we have lost much of the knowledge of what is safe to eat from the land, contributing even more to the dilemma.

Have you ever wondered why corn exists in so many items, even when it is not a food item? Pollan started with the history of corn and how it became “King.” I can’t say that I have changed anything in my diet yet. It has definitely encouraged my thinking that I am on the right path and need to look more closely at the ingredients of what I do eat, and where it comes from and find ways to eat healthier overall with “real” food.

Another of Pollan’s points was about what is considered “organic.” According to the book, there is “industrial organic,” as one form of organic. In the case of the industrial version, the farms are created to have mass production. Because everything is geared towards mass production, the crops are limited (corn, at the least), and the animals are fed and treated for fast growth. The farms in these cases accomplish what they want and can  ship to anywhere. The farmers are always successful, too, because if the crops aren’t selling as well, then they receive government subsidies.

On the other side is the local sustainable meal which primarily comes from grass farms. Pollan wrote about his experience working at a grass farm for a week. The idea to do that was inspired by the fact that the farmer would not ship anything and told Pollan he would have to visit if he wanted to buy any of the food. Pollan’s work as a farm hand included being a part of the assembly line when it was chicken killing day. What freaked out Pollan the most was how fast killing chickens became “work.” The interesting part of the process was that it was all in the open so anyone who was going to purchase a chicken could see exactly the method being used. While at the farm, visitors could also see how the farm was run. According to the farmer, a grass farm helps create a natural ecosystem where each animal and plant has a part, all the way to the table. The grass farmer feeds the local community and does not ship far away. These farmers don’t receive the same subsidies as the industrial farmer since they grow and raise a variety of crops and animals. What they are able to do is feed themselves almost completely from the land, which I personally think is awesome.

The final part Pollan talks about is the hunter and gatherer. Pollan finds others who help him learn to hunt a wild boar and to gather mushrooms. After his experience hunting, Pollan decided to step back and be a vegetarian for a short while in order to check himself on the idea of eating meat.

After reading all of the experiences, I was thinking, “Ok, now what?” Pollan anticipated that and has sections with resources and ideas for how to handle the food dilemma. I appreciate the resources and afterword most of all and hope to follow up on some, such as buying more from the local farmer’s market or learning to grow some food myself.

If you haven’t read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I highly recommend it. If you have already read it, what was the one point that you remember most?

Thanks for reading! (and commenting/liking)

Stacy (a.k.a. “The book lady”)

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The Secret to Raving Fans

Raving Fans book coverI first heard about the book “Raving Fans,” by Ken Blanchard, while listening to a Startup Grind Kalamazoo interview with Chris Lampen-Crowell. Chris talked about it as required reading for the “world class training” he runs at Gazelle Sports. That sounded like a great reason to read it and, if the book club meetups were continuing, it would’ve been the next choice.

“Raving Fans” is different than many business related books since it is written in a parable style. Personally, although an easy read, I’m not sure I liked that style.

The parable revolves around an Area Manager and his Fairy Godmother, Charlie (yes, a male), and the journey to teach the Area Manager what it means to excel at customer service. The point is that satisfied customers are not loyal. If the customers rave about the service, than that is a different story.

The journey includes traveling, sometimes quite far, in order for the Area Manager to experience the concept and even become one of the raving fans. Three secrets are revealed, one at a time, until the Area Manager graduates and then is able to be a part of the journey for others.

The book definitely does a good job at creating the points and the support for them. What I wondered, as I was reading it, was why the concept of “Raving Fans” isn’t a “duh” factor. Why is the world ok with just being satisfied and having that as the expectation? My question to Chris would be “Do the employees have to buy into the concept, or is it a matter of how to provide the “world class customer service” at your company?

What do you think?

Thanks for reading (and commenting/liking)!

Stacy (a.k.a. “The Book Lady“)

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Learning about “The Great Game of Business”

wpid-20150209_195200.jpgPost written by Larry Baumgart

We had a great conversation on The Great Game of Business, by Jack Stack. This book follows along the business events in a company that was involved in a management buy-out. The Company is a manufacturing firm in Missouri. They were one of the first “open-book” management style management teams to have great success. Here are some high-lights of our conversation:

Competitive spirit – The Company asked these questions — “how do we get everyone in the competitive spirit? How do we get everyone pulling in the same direction?” They changed people’s perception from that of an employee to that of an owner. This allowed everyone to have a chance to win and have fun at the same time.

Sharing information was critical in their journey. They felt that in the absence of information people will fill in the blanks with their own ideas and bogus facts. They wanted to avoid misinformation and filled the gaps before it really began.

It takes a global perspective to fully understand how a business runs. Understanding of the production function or the sales function is not running a business. It took a breaking down of the silos that allowed everyone to see the entire field. The best, most efficient, most profitable way to operate a business is to give everybody in the company a voice in saying how the company is run and a stake in the financial outcome, good or bad.

The firm started out refurbishing large industry engines. But in some ways they felt that engines were incidental to what they did. They defined themselves as an education business. They taught people about business. Everyone was instructed on how to read an income statement, balance sheet and cash flow report. They taught their staff the difference between income and cash flow. Their primary objective was to focus on and increase cash flow. The only way to be secure is to make money and generate cash. Everything else is a means to that end. You can have great customer service and fail.

In most companies, people are taught how to do their 9-5 tasks and not given information on the larger picture. They are not taught how they fit in with the larger picture. So a gap grows between managers and workers. Sharing information and giving them a stake in the game can reduce that gap.

They firmly believe that every department should make forecasts of the business activity. Business got off track when they stopped asking people to make forecasts.

These are some of the highlights of our conversation. If you did not get a chance to finish the book, you might want to keep it on your reading list. It is worth the read.

Thanks!

 

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A “Capital” Discussion

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The choice of “Capital” by Thomas Piketty may have been slightly crazy to choose, at close to 700 pages.  Larry, LuMarie and I read between 100 and 300 pages each. Hikaru read the entire book last year for a class at Kalamazoo College and filled in some of the points. Thanks to LuMarie, we also had the following articles to browse while waiting at the Michigan News Agency: “The short guide to Capital in the 21st Century,” “Piketty’s “Capital,” in a Lot Less than 696 Pages,” and Tom the Dancing Bug (cartoon). You can find these articles and more at the publisher’s website.

Our particular discussion included the point that Piketty used literature to study wealth since not many metrics existed otherwise. In fact, it was noted that there was a high amount of Jane Austen moments. Piketty also referenced Balzac quite a bit. What the literature angle suggests is that the general population was aware of the differences, and expected certain incomes for certain positions. It was also noted in our discussion that not much changed in the 19th century, yet going back 50 or 60 years now would not work without converting the difference to be able to compare.

Capital

Big changes came because of World War I, World War II, and a population growth (that has since slowed down). One addition mentioned at our discussion was the effect of labor unions. We also returned to the point of education. Could education be the answer? Piketty’s suggestion is to have a world tax.

The articles mentioned above do a great job of clearly summarizing the book. Knowing that, is the book worth reading? What I liked was how the book was organized, and that you don’t need to be an expert in economics for it to make sense. While LuMarie still plans on finishing “Capital” because it is being considered such a keystone book, I may pass, at least for now, and move on to the next one. However, I definitely recommend reading what Piketty wrote if you have the time to do it.

A few other points to note:

  • Some inequality is desirable cause it provides incentive to improve.
  • People with capital have power to make better investments.
  • A question that came up: Is there a huge inequality in non-capitalistic countries? One conclusion is that it is human nature and does not specifically exist in a capitalistic society, which many are interpreting from the study.

Is there an answer to the question of evening out the difference between the wealthy and the poor? Will the wealthy continue to inherit and be the most powerful? What are your thoughts?

Thanks for reading!

Stacy (a.k.a. “The Book Lady”)

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Going from Zero to One

Sam Altman, CEO of Y Combinator, offered an awesome class in the Fall at Stanford on “How to Start a Startup.” The book “Zero to One” was recommended during one of the early lectures. For class #5, Peter Thiel, the author of “Zero to One,” was a guest lecturer. I had put the book on my list to read, and even though the homework for his lecture included the first three book chapters, I opted to wait until I could read the entire book. Since I made the choice to wait, I wasn’t sure I would actually like reading the book, based on the video. I was wrong.

The first point to know is that although it makes sense, if you do watch the video, the presentation has been condensed compared to the information in the book.

The second point to know is that Thiel offers many opposing views compared to what we are used to in the mainstream. He presents all of it well (book and video). In fact, even if you disagree with what he says, how he explains his points are clear and include evidence that is more than just his opinion. For these reasons, I highly recommend reading “Zero to One.”

Zero to One

Some other points:

  • Horizontal progress=globalization – taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere (p7)
  • Vertical (0 to 1) progress=technology – any new and better way of doing things (p7)
  • A Startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. (p10)
  • Why monopolies are important – see video above
  • You can expect the future to take a definite form or you can treat it as hazily uncertain. (p61) Shape vs randomness.

This one is longer (and more important) than a bullet point (p90): “The power law is not just important to investors; rather, it’s important to everybody because everybody is an investor. An entrepreneur makes a major investment just by spending her time working on a startup.” Also: “But Life is not a portfolio: not for a startup founder, and not for any individual. An entrepreneur cannot “diversify” herself.”

I took over three pages of notes, which is quite a bit and the content is barely included here. The last part I am going to write about before encouraging you to read the entire book are the 7 questions Thiel states that every business must answer (p153-154):

  1. The engineering question: Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. The timing question: Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. The monopoly question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. The people question: Do you have the right team?
  5. The distribution question: Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. The durability question: Will your market position be defensible 10 & 20 years into the future?
  7. The secret question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Thiel states the bottom line as being able to see the world new and fresh as if for the first time and creating the change which will make the future different and better.

Thanks for reading!

Stacy (a.k.a. “The Book Lady”)

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Book Club Turns Two

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What better way to celebrate the Kalamazoo Business Book Club’s second birthday than to talk about the past year and look ahead to the next year?  Matt commented that by completing the second year we had already surpassed the average length of a book club. Yay!

Although the discussion in the back of the Michigan News Agency veered to business and not just the business book club, Jessica, Matt and I did cover both areas. Are you wondering what we read as a club in 2014? Check out the list for the ten books and the blog posts for each one:

The book choices are based as much on lists as requests from those in the group. One of the goals is to help Learners (members) read the business book that is at the top of their list. Sometimes it is taken a step further and the person who made the choice also leads the discussion. What’s at the top of your list?

Happy reading!

Stacy (a.k.a. “The Book Lady”)

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Have you seen a Purple Cow?

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The book, “Purple Cow,” by Seth Godin, was nothing to sneeze about. Or was it? A topic that the five of us continually returned to while seated in the back of The Michigan News Agency was the group Godin referred to as the “sneezers.” These are the people who seek out the new ideas and not only try them out, they spread the word, too. These are the people who will be your early adopters if you have come up with a “Purple Cow.”

A “Purple Cow,” then, is another way of saying that something is remarkable. This means that your business is doing something different and original and it’s worth being noticed and talked about.  By the way, Godin states that the opposite of remarkable is “very good.” Another way of stating that would be “boring,” “average,” or “nothing special.” The Purple Cow, on the other hand, stands out, at least for a little while. Just like everything else, there are cycles for the Purple Cow products. The goal is for the early adopters (sneezers) to help move it to mass use and create a “cash cow.” After that, Godin states,  let the team who is good at “milking the cow” continue on while you reinvest towards the next time of doing it again. What happens if it fails?

Failure was another topic we discussed as part of why there are not more Purple Cows. According to Godin, in America, we learn to fail in first grade. It is where we realize it is best to try to fit in and color inside of the lines. In general, we are raised with the belief that criticism leads to failure and that being noticed gets us sent to the principal’s office, not to Harvard.

How are remarkable products discovered? The group discussed crowdsourcing, and Kickstarter as sources, which are newer ways of spreading the word. One question was if venture capitalists were specifically looking at those areas for investments or if it really is more of a grassroots support.

A few more points:

  • (p21) The old rule is to create safe, ordinary products and combine them with great marketing. The new rule is to create remarkable products that the right people seek out.
  • (p113) Marketing is in the core of the product and sharing the value. The better description for previous versions would have been advertising.
  • Reference to the book “Business Brilliant” by Lewis Schiff – the difference between dwelling and analyzing failures is what is learned. Or, as mentioned through a quote by Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I ask again…have you seen a Purple Cow?

Happy reading!

Stacy (a.k.a. “The Book Lady”)

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