Friday, January 20, 2017

A Fish Story

When I was growing up, Friday was fish day: pan fried haddock, creamed tuna, fish sticks, swordfish, halibut, corned chowder. (What I wouldn’t do for some of that corned chowder or creamed tuna just about now…)

Anyway, because Friday’s a fish day, I thought a fish story would be a good one for Pink Slip to tell.

So here goes.

Yesterday, Bloomberg featured an article that focused on Ross Baird, a Sand Hill Road VC who doesn’t follow the VC herd by investing in the tech and bio-tech centers of California, Massachusetts, and New York. He’s not looking what’s called the “ten-baggers” that earn a return of 10x, let alone for the unicorns that get valued at $1B, often on (hot) air alone.

No, Baird, looks for three-baggers. And he’s looking for them in fly-over states.

“If Donald Trump wants to deliver on his promise to create rural jobs, he doesn’t need to create anything out of thin air,” he says. The talent is there, but the capital isn’t. It occurred to him that the problem was similar to one he encountered in India, where he studied microfinance for his master’s degree from Oxford. Grameen Bank and others demonstrated how small loans to poor entrepreneurs could jump-start poverty-stricken places. Baird, an Atlanta native, came home convinced the approach would work in parts of the U.S. that were starting to resemble a Third World economy because of persistent joblessness, poor health, and shrinking life spans. (Source: Bloomberg)

Well, bravo, Ross Baird. Sounds a lot more promising than wishful thinking nonsense about bringing back coal mining.

One of Baird’s bets is something called Fin Gourmet Foods of Paducah, Kentucky. Fin Gourmet:

…buys invasive Asian carp from local fishermen and turns it into boneless filets for gourmet restaurants and fish paste for Asian supermarkets. Asian carp is best known as the biggest threat to the ecosystem of the Great Lakes; the federal government just earmarked $42 million to combat the species. The youngest fish eat their body weight daily, outcompeting bass for plankton, leaving sport fishermen in fear of economic ruin. Asian carp grow into 70-pounders known to jump as high as 10 feet…And because the fish are full of bones that make them hard to eat without meticulous processing, they fetch a third the wholesale price of catfish.

They’re still pretty tiny. The forecast for this year is $1.5M. But that’s a five-bagger over their 2016 revenues, which were roughly $300K. and you gotta love a company, that hires:

…“people who need second chances from incarceration, drug courts, domestic violence”

And whose “family” runs the gamut from Duck Dynasty lookalikes to the PhD founders (Lua Luu, a nutritionist- and refugee from Vietnam, and John Crilly, a “former psychiatry professor at Tulane in New Orleans, [who] has researched mental health and suicide in rural populations.” Take a look. That’s some mighty find workplace diversity.

Baird discovered Fin in 2014 when Village Capital (as in “takes a village?) “organized a three-month training program for agriculture startups in Louisville.” Fin Gourmet participated and made their pitch. Baird put in $50K. Very Grameen Bank, that’s for sure. Very non-unicorn…(But to put that investment in perspective, Luu and Crilly have sunk $1.5M of their own money in.)

The story is not all hope and joy. There are a few fish-bone-in-the-throat twists and turns. But mostly it’s a good story about do-gooders doing good where it’s most needed.

Here’s hoping that there are more fish stories out there. We sure could use them…

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Moola, moola! Moola, moola!

At some point last week, the college football season ended. At least I think I did. There may be some stray north-south, east-west games to be played. But I’ll stick to my tradition of not watching any college football during the year. Even if you don’t watch, of course, if you follow sports at all – and ESPN is on half the time at the gym – you do know a little about what’s happening. So I know that Alabama battled it out with Clemson. Clemson won. And while it’s not exactly s if I’m a Clemson fan, but, surely, beating Alabama is a good thing.

I actually used to enjoy college football – at least I enjoyed it more than I did pro football, which has always seemed so right-wing-y to me. Not that college football doesn’t share many of the same characteristics: violent, militaristic, way too in love with itself. It’s just that college football has always seemed less so – at least on the margins.

But the more you learn about college football, the worse it gets, what with the way it treats the majority of its athletes. I.e., those who won’t be going on to a brain-bashing career in the NFL. Especially the way that the mega-programs treat their poor and minority athletes. It’s ugly and it’s exploitative. Which is why I more or less gave up on college football, other than to go see non-big-time games every few years. The kind of games where the Crimson plays the Quakers, or the Jumbos play the Ephs. Where the kids playing are more or less normal size, and more or less normal students. Where 90,000 people aren’t going crazy in the stands. And where the fight songs have words like “fiercely” and “boola boola” in them.

Unlike the big time, NFL farm league, black-spoiltation teams, where the war cry is “moola moola.”

And as I saw on Bloomberg earlier this month, it really is true that the more you learn about college football, the worse it gets. Bloomberg’s finding: College Football’s Top Teams Are Built on Crippling Debt. This article was part of a multi-part story on the financials behind major programs. It is, for the most part, a tale of the haves and the have nots, with the major conferences – SEC, Big Ten – mostly doing okay, thanks to TV revenue; and the lesser conferences foundering.

But even being part of one of the “good” conferences doesn’t necessarily make for solvency.

Last year, Cal Berkeley’s athletic department (Cal is part of the Pac-12) ran a deficit of $22M, thanks in part to “the most expensive college football stadium overhaul ever.” (Price tag: nearly half a billion.)  Cal is not alone:

Football critics nationwide often point to multimillion-dollar coaches as emblems of excess. They should be more worried about debt, which costs more and lasts longer. A high-priced coach might earn $4 million to $5 million a year. Meanwhile, according to public records, athletic departments at least 13 schools in the country have long-term debt obligations of more than $150 million as of 2014—money usually borrowed to build ever-nicer facilities for the football team.

Alabama – The Crimson Tide, not to be confused with The Crimson – is among the schools that have rolled up big debt: they owe “$225 million over the next 28 years.” Talk about Roll, Tide. Sure, they’re a powerhouse, but what happens if the rich TV deals that are supporting them disappear over the next 28 years – either because people just plain grow away from football, or the media picture just upends in ways we can’t imagine. How does the debt get financed then?

“Leaders need to be very careful that long-term expenses and commitments cannot, and should not, be balanced on the assumption that these traditional media rights deals will hold up,” said Karen Weaver, a sports-management professor at Drexel University and specialist in college media rights.

Many in college sports are more optimistic. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, for example, has said he expects that his schools will make more money from media as rights get carved up among traditional broadcasters and digital streaming platforms. All of the biggest conferences signed rich, multiyear television contracts recently, and most athletic directors believe the money will continue to flow into the next round of negotiations as well.

We’ll see how all this plays out. No doubt, the big ol’ semi-pro teams/schools will survive all this debt. And maybe the lesser lights will drift down to fielding lesser teams, more along the lines of the Quakers and the Ephs. Or maybe, over time, football – college and pro – just kind of quietly goes the way of boxing. Boxing’s still around, but it’s not quite the same as it was when the Friday Night Fights were broadcast, and most sports fans followed the sport enough to know the difference between Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano. Maybe there’ll come a point where no one knows the difference between Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.

Here’s hoping.

Until that day, I will somewhat hypocritically keep on following the NFL in general and the Patriots in particular. Still, if it all went away tomorrow, I wouldn’t exactly be heartbroken. Baseball, on the other hand…

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Bites the Sawdust

When I was a kid, the Mickey Mouse Club (a daily TV show) had a different theme for each day of the week. There was Anything Can Happen Day. And Talent Rodeo Day. (Giddyap, ponies, here we go…) And Circus Day, which, as I recall, was Thursday. The intro song for Circus Day began, “Here comes the circus, everyone loves the circus. And that includes the Merry Mouseketeers.”

Well, it may have included the Merry Mouseketeers, but it didn’t include anyone that I knew. “Everyone loves the circus” was as phoney-baloney a line as “all the world loves a clown.” As Jackie Gleason used to say, har-har-hardy-har-har.

I hated clowns. And I never went to the circus. No one I knew had ever gone to the circus. If the circus ever came to Worcester, that was news to me. Maybe it came to Boston, but if we were going to trek into Boston, it was to go see that Red Sox play.

Circuses were something you read about in old-timey books. Kids went to the circus in 1890. Or the circus was something that goody-two-shoes kids on TV went to. You know the type. They lived in nice houses, their mothers wore pearls, their fathers never hollered, and their sibs never hit them. Plus their teachers weren’t psychotic. Talk about phoney-baloney. Sure, we all sort of envied them the grandeur, peace, and quiet of their existences. But we also knew that those TV kids, so polite and well mannered, were total weenies. Seriously, was the sneaky, wise-guy Eddie Haskell the worst they had to contend with? Sit-com children of the 1950’s and 1960’s made the kids I grew up with look like the Dead End Kids. The Dead End Kids wouldn’t have been caught dead at the circus, and neither would we.

The only circus we saw was on the lame-o International Showtime, in which Don Ameche would travel to world looking for dancing bears and fire eaters. We recognized that the USSR wasn’t as good as the US of A based solely on our observation that we had Elvis while they had dancing bears. Anyway, we loved watching International Showtime, because my father liked to make fun of it. What was better than sitting around with Dad eating popcorn and laughing at Bulgarian plate-spinners, listening to Dad wonder out loud exactly how someone figured out that their talent was plate spinning?

I did get to the circus once, my senior year in high school. My friend Kathy and I went to NYC during our spring vacation week, and stayed with her “single gal” Aunt Mary who worked for Pan-Am and lived in Long Island City in Queens. Aunt Mary took us to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey at the old Madison Square Garden. All I remember was feeling depressed by the bearded fat lady and the giant, and the major fear factor that occurred when one of the clowns started roaming around the crowd and got really close to where I was sitting.

Fast forward several decades, and did go a couple of times to see the Big Apple Circus – a one-ring circus that didn’t come with a lot of glam and glitz, and treated animals more kindly and gently than mega circuses did. And once I did take my nieces to a three-ring, Ringling Brothers extravaganza. Big mistake. It was way to overwhelming and noisy, both for me and one of my nieces. The only bit we enjoyed was when a clown snuck up on my husband and dusted his bald head with a feather duster. But mostly it was the dreadful combo of completely boring while at the same time way too much.

So, no, I will not miss the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus when they bite the sawdust and take down the big top for the final time this May. The business has fallen on hard times. Revenues too low, costs too high, and today’s jaded, sophisticated kids – with so many slick entertainment alternatives – apparently like the circus even less than us Main South anti-circus kids from back in the day when the entertainment alternatives were black & white TV, playing Clue, and Little Lulu comic books. Plus, once the circus – under intense pressure – gave up having elephants, The Greatest Show on Earth lost much of its allure. (At least to humans. The elephants were probably pretty darned happy.)

While I won’t miss Ringling Bros., I do feel a bit badly. Sure, I’m cool with sending out the clowns. But what’s to become of the tiger trainers, the camel riders, the aerialists, the human cannonball? And what, pray tell, does a ringmaster do for his next gig?

I will note that, before its last show, the circus will be in Worcester.

Too little, too late…

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Just what IS a fake Mermaid tail blanket?

A few weeks ago, a family featured on House Hunters International had decided to relocate from Idaho (or Montana or one of the Dakotas) to New Zealand. I can’t remember what the husband’s job was – something to do with machine repair? – but the wife’s big dream was to work as a professional mermaid.

I wasn’t aware of that job, but apparently it entails putting on a mermaid tail and swimming around in an aquarium, smiling at kids. And I do believe she found her dream job. She’s even got a website to prove it.

Most of us, of course, do not aspire to be professional mermaids. For one thing, professionally speaking, there’s just not that much demand for it. Last time I looked, the New England Aquarium had seals and penguins but, alas, no mermaids. So even if you’re really good at holding your breath, don’t hold your breath for a lot of job openings to appear.

But you can get your mermaid on with a mermaid blanket, thanks to Hattie Paze who:

…built a multimillion-dollar business hawking mermaid blankets. Yes, mermaid blankets. Launched in the fall of 2015, her company—Blankie Tails—sold about 136,000 of them in the run-up to its first Christmas. It was a fairy tail success story. (Source: Bloomberg)

Apparently, I need to get out more. Less watching professional mermaids move to New Zealand, more looking at consumer trends. I missed this one entirely.

Not that I would have Blankie Tailswanted one. It actually seems super uncomfortable to me to hang around in a sack that you can’t kick your feet out of. And no way would have spent that much for a Yankee Swap gift. We have our limits to observe!

But I just plain missed this one.

Although I missed it, Allstar Marketing Group – the outfit behind the Snuggie – recognized a good thing when they saw it, and came out with Snuggie Tails, “the fun blanket that brings imagination to life.” Whatever that means. (Silly me, I thought that imagination brought imagination to life. Where’ve I been all these years?) Snuggie Tails, as befitting the Snuggie brand, is cheesier and cheaper than Blankie Tails.

Anyway, with Snuggie out there, not to mention all those crafty copycats on Etsy, Blankie Tails:

has also been forced to wage intellectual-property battles against larger rivals like Allstar.

Silly me. I thought that intellectual property had something to do with intellectual property. Where’ve I been all these years?

“You can work your butt off and have a great idea,” Peze said, “but I don’t care how hard you work: Life isn’t always fair.”

So true…

And now Peze is having to work her butt off on multiple fronts, going after Allstar, which counterclaims that Snuggie is the operative part of their brand, not Tails. And going after Magic Tails, yet another tail vendor. And going after Amazon and Alibaba, for “products believed to be counterfeit.”

Then, although she estimates that her company was losing about $90K a day during prime wacky gift shopping season, Blankie Tails decided to drop their suit against Allstar. (There was a settlement, but both are still selling tails.)

Perhaps that’s because Peze didn’t come up with the original idea to being with. She saw a handmade one on FB and, when she couldn’t find one to buy, decided to get some made and bring them to market. Or, as it turns out, even if you think you may be losing $90K a day, it still costs a boatload to sue.

Looking to understand its chances of winning a jury trial, in-house lawyers for Blankie Tails sought the advice of intellectual-property law firms, which put its probability of winning outright at less than 40 percent, said a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss it. Not bad odds, but not great either. Soon after, settlement talks began, the person said.M

Meanwhile, Allstar is going after Amazon for allowing “fake” mermaid tails to be sold online.

What, pray tell, is a fake mermaid tail?

Even if there is one working at an aquarium in New Zealand, aren’t mermaids kinda sorta like unicorns?

Monday, January 16, 2017

MLK Day, yet again

One good thing about having been a blogger for so long – ten years+, now  –  is that I have a vast store of “content” to draw on. And as every good marketer knows, repurposing “content’ is where it’s at.

And so, out of nearly sheer laziness – not to mention pre-inaugural Trump fatigue – I’m repurposing last year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day post, which you can find here.

Not much different from what I would write today, anyway. Mostly about growing up in a lily white world with next to zero interaction with African Americans. And about how racial issues continue to plague our country. Sigh…

Besides being somewhat observed as a no-school, no-mail day, MLK Day is somewhat observed as a national day of service, in which people take on some volunteer task or another. This is in response to Dr. King’s words that “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'“

I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the good doctor here. To me, the most persistent (if not exactly urgent) questions are: What’s the point of all this? Is there anything afterwards? And (increasingly) WTF???

But I guess as a reframing of my first question, “What are you doing for others?” ain’t bad.

In truth, I won’t be doing much of anything for others.

The HVAC folks are coming for the semi-annual checkup. Once they leave, I’ll head out for a physical therapy session for my no-big-deal tendonitis. I have something due to a client. That’s about it.

On Thursday, I am doing some volunteering at St. Francis House, which this year I’ve vowed to get better at. (So far, I’ve put in a couple of shifts in the kitchen; on Thursday, I’m learning the ropes in the clothing room.) But it has nothing to do with MLK Day.

And yet, since something will have to do with MLK Day, I’ll make it this:

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously  - certainly more famously than the “What are you doing for others?”, which I’d never heard until I started googling about volunteering on MLK day - said:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

These words are hopeful, and they’re trenchant. Certainly more trenchant than the words of Theodore Parker, Unitarian abolitionist – words that King so concisely summed up. In a mid-19th century sermon, “Of Justice and The Conscience”, Parker wrote:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right.* I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.**

Well, I can’t calculate the curve, either. But I like the point that “things refused to be mismanaged long.” For those at whose expense they’re being mismanaged, I’m sure it’s plenty long enough. But I like to think that it can’t go on forever. With slavery, Jefferson had plenty to tremble about. And, as Parker predicted, the Civil War was soon going to be making the country tremble big time.

I don’t think that’s what we’re looking at in the here and now, but we’re sure not in a good spot.

So I’m going to hang on to the thought of the arc of justice bending toward justice. And that “things refuse to be mismanaged long.”

Both pithy sayings, by the way. Ones that can easily fit into a 140 character tweet. Would that we had someone in a high place twittering with grace, intellect, heart, decency, and good will.


*No, not that right. Right as in “right thing to do,” not right as in alt right.

**Thanks to the Quote Investigator for this one.

Friday, January 13, 2017

"The high priest of fraud..."

It’s Friday the 13th, and that should be unlucky, no?

But, as it turns out, anyone who’s a fan of old Westerns has a treat in store for them. Not to mention anyone who likes weird little eerie foreshadowings. Not to to mention anyone who likes making fun of a certain president elect. ("What are you selling, mister, snakeoil?")

I don't trust that this embed is going to work, so here's the direct link:

Whether you direct link or cut and paste, this is well worth it. (And Snopes has checked it out and it seems as if it's legit.)

Where's Robert Culp when we need him?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Home away from home office

One of the downsides of working from home is that you’re alone in there: no colleagues to grab lunch with, no buddies to chat with over the water cooler. No water cooler, in fact. But, of course, being alone is also one of the upsides of working from home. And having done it for well over a decade now, I pretty much get the upsides and the downsides.

As a loner you likes to socialize – or is it a social animal who, like Greta Garbo, just vants to be alone – I recognize the necessity of having some social interaction. When my husband was alive, that social interaction was built in. But these days, I have to make sure that I never go more than a day without speaking with someone. For me, the gym takes care of three days, and I’m not exactly a friend- and family-less hermit. I go out a fair amount. And even on no-speak days, I always have plenty of email exchanges (work and social) and texting sprees (social). But no-speak days are, frankly, weird to me, and I mostly make sure I get out to run an errand so that at least I have a hiya-howaya exchange with a clerk.  Or I just pick up the phone and grace a sib, cousin, or friend with the mellifluous sound of my voice. (I refuse – or at least I hope I refuse – to become one of those garrulous old bags that everyone dreads seeing coming. Duck and cover, she’s here!)

Long-winded way – I am admittedly garrulous in writing – of saying that I understand the loneliness of the long distance worker.

Still, I’m not wild about the Hoffice movement, which I read about recently on BBC. (I’ll have to go by the BBC article, as Kaspersky kept blocking the link to the Hoffice site, and I didn’t want to press my luck.) Hoffice:

…invites workers — freelancers, entrepreneurs, or full-time employees who can do their jobs remotely — to work at each other’s homes to boost productivity and tackle social isolation.

Those attending pop-up Hoffice events advertised on Facebook are typically asked to work silently in 45 minute blocks, before being encouraged to take short breaks together to exercise, meditate or simply chat over a coffee.

Maybe this works better in Sweden, where the movement was founded in 2014, but I can’t exactly see welcoming a stranger into my home, unvetted. One thing to get in a strange car with an Uber driver. Quite another to show that fellow home worker the bathroom and kitchen, only to find out he’s Ted Bundy or someone who’s got her eyes on your salt-and-pepper shaker collection.

Hoffice is free, but in some other countries, services similar to Airbnb are popping up. In London, it’s Spacehop; in France, it’s OfficeRiders.

Both companies give homeowners an insurance policy that covers theft and damage and gives users the chance to rate their temporary workspaces.

Well, that takes care of the salt-and-pepper shaker problem, but doesn’t do much for the Ted Bundys of the world. And one of them just has to show up with his laptop once to make this a bad idea.

Of course, while I’ve done the vacation-rental-by-owner thing many times, I’ve yet to use Airbnb. I’ve rented through services that more or less vet the apartments, and for the most part it’s worked out. In the early days, my husband and I rented a dud or two – nothing unsafe, just lacking - but that was pre- the take off of social media, and the places we rented in NYC, Paris, and Galway have been great. In May, I’m going back to the same place in Galway for the third time, in fact.

But I would absolutely NOT rent space in a place where I’d be sharing occupancy with some stranger. Nor would I rent my own home out like that. Yuck, yuck, a thousand times yuck. 

While there’s a difference between overnight space rental, and eyes wide open work hours sharing, I really don’t like the Hoffice idea at all. Maybe if I were 25 and Swedish, it would be all well and good. But it’s just not for ancient, non-Swedish me. I’d be worried about security. And also worried that perfectly safe but completely weirdo weirdos would show up. I’d fret that the oddball guy who walked around staring into people’s offices would be on my doorstep, ready to office share. Or the mean-girl colleague I had who was always trying to stir up enmity where there was none. Or the cleanliness-challenged techie…

Guess I’ll just stick with my me-myself-and-I home office – and make sure that I get out at least once a day for a tube of toothpaste or a cupcake.