Sandown races - fell at the final fence Friday, May 23, 2008
Image via WikipediaSandown Park racecourse is relatively close to where I live. So when I saw them advertising an evening race meeting, to be followed by a concert by one of my favourite 80s bands, Madness, I was keen to get tickets - a perfect summer evening out.
Sadly using their website to book tickets is an unnecessary pain and a lesson in how not to do business online.
Finding the event page was easy as well locating the big button on the page to buy tickets. Then it started to go downhill as follows
- If you wanted to buy several types of ticket [admission + carpark], then each one had to be added to the basket and submitted, whereupon the page reloaded for you to add the next item. Ok, no big deal but they could have done a single batch submit.
- At this point, I wanted to "checkout" with my items but I couldn't unless I became a registered user of the site. This was a completely separate process. It demanded more personal data than was really necessary but most notably it insisted that I create a unique user name and password before allowing me to proceed. And not just any user name and password, but one that was "secure"! For a one-off purchase this was simply unnecessary and irritating. Even if I did return, it is fairly unlikely that I or the average customer will do so regularly enough to remember these details, necessitating a loop through the user details retrieval process. Why my email address didn't suffice for a user name is beyond me.
If you want to operate an ecommerce site, make sure its easy for people to hand over the money once they've made that decision to place their trust in you - the more hurdles you make them jump, the more likely it is they will lose their confidence/patience and there will be a fall before the finishing post.
If you're a Brit that has done any shopping around on the internet, you'll have come across the following infuriating situation - the goods you want can be found on a US website at pound/dollar parity, but the website refuses to ship goods internationally or is apparently restricted by a manufacturer from doing so. It applies to DVDs, clothing, electrical gear amongst others.
Knowing my affection for arbitrage schemes, I was tipped off about BorderHQ, who provide you with a mailbox in the US and China with related mail forwarding services, thereby allowing you to shop across borders. Hence, you can sign-up and have domestic US and Chinese website deliver to BorderHQ for on-delivery to you. The service operates a membership scheme with varying price levels including a free service.
This scheme won't always work, as some websites also require the credit card address to be a domestic one. This both avoids them incurring international merchant fees charges, which are normally higher, and restricts trade to domestic buyers.
My nagging doubt about the service was that suppose I start sending goods to the service. Who's to say they will actually ship them on and won't instead keep the items? Doubt I'd have any recourse to anyone once I'd explained that I voluntarily sent my goods to an address I stumbled on the internet. I've no reason or evidence to believe that it is a scam, but it's plausible a scheme structured like this could be - similar to the "meet and greet" airport car service concerns I've expressed before here and here.
Image via WikipediaA good friend who recalls my past utterances on the iPlayer, quizzed me this week on whether I had recanted on my view that it had been a waste of money, given the sizeable uptake in use amongst the public.
As I pointed out to him, it's important to distinguish between the service and the infrastructure. On the former, the move by the BBC to make a large portion of its programmes available to view online is fantastic. I've regularly used the service to catch up on programmes I've missed, always streaming the programme, rather than downloading it.
On the latter though, I still believe that the BBC could have elected to adopt one of the mainstream media players and avoided the [development + maintenance] expense and related risk of developing its' own player. I have to qualify that statement by saying I'm not privy to the [licensing] costs the BBC may have faced in outputting its content via a player such as Windows Media player versus in-house development - it may have been significantly cheaper, albeit I suspect that competition between media player vendors may have allowed the BBC to get a good deal. I also have to acknowledge that the iPlayer has improved significantly since I tried the beta version last year and overcame the installation obstacle course that was set.
One notable aspect about the usage success of the BBC iPlayer has been the reaction of ISPs, who bear the distribution burden of carrying the content. Unsurprisingly, their infrastructure has come under greater pressure because of the higher traffic, leading to a potential impact on their quality of service. One of the related articles below has a discussion on this very matter and specifically who should bear the costs of this.
Image via WikipediaWatching the BBC's Question Time programme last night, I was almost moved to scream at the TV in annoyance as the UK Government's Communities Minister, Hazel Blears answered questions on fuel prices.
One assumes that people promoted into senior positions have a basic understanding of politics and economics. Sadly, Ms Blears demonstrated neither as she insisted
(a) "that the "Monopoly on Oil" needed to be broken up and the UK was leading efforts on this"
The geographic location of oil sources is not something one can change, so incumbent producers can't be closed down. Moreover, we are talking about sovereign nations that control the bulk of the oil supply of which the OPEC countries, who act as an oligopoly, account for only 40% of world reserves. Sadly, Ms Blears sound-bite was lacking on details regarding the means by which the UK would achieve this.
(b) "the UK was taking steps to get oil producers to increase supply"
The trend in oil prices is being attributed to many factors, but one of which is the concern that we have reached "peak oil". New oil finds are insufficient to replace existing consumption and current demand is outstripping the available supply, which is seen as a long-term scenario. Moreover, increasing production is not a quick exercise with infrastructure projects involving many years. Hence, price is providing an immediate rationing mechanism as well as prompting investment in oil production infrastructure and alternate energy.
Meanwhile, oil producing countries which sit on ever diminishing oil reserves and who have an obligation to their own citizens to maximise national wealth, are dramatically benefiting from the current price levels. They clearly have little incentive to push prices lower, especially when demand is so strong even at current prices.
(c) "it was the fault of global oil prices that the price at the pumps was going up and the UK Govt could do nothing to ease that"
About 65% of the pump price in the UK is tax with the consequence that any increase in the price of oil is thus materially amplified by excise duties. If the Government wanted an instant answer to the problem of how to dampen/reduce fuel prices it could choose to temporarily reduce fuel duty. However, we have the perverse situation whereby the Government revenues are actually benefiting enormously from an oil price rise. This is supplemented by higher taxable profits by UK oil companies. As such, at a time when tax revenues and borrowing capacity is under great strain, the Government is loathe to cut-off a source of funds.
Whilst politicians will always try to spin a story for their own ends, based on her performance last night, Ms Blears is either ignorant or seeking to deliberately mislead the public, neither of which is an endearing trait for a cabinet minister.
Characteristics of a succesful project Thursday, May 22, 2008
Advanced Trading has an article in which Peter Cooke, head of project and business management at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, offers five characteristics of a successful enterprise project, namely
1. Sponsorship. A senior executive champions the initiative and ensures the commitment of appropriate resources: people, vendors, tools and money.
2. Clarity of Purpose. The objectives, scope and direction of the project are clear. All project participants understand this "road map" and the benefits it will deliver.
3. Resources and Teamwork. The team structure, roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and accepted. The team works together in equal partnership.
4. Project Control. A disciplined program/project management infrastructure exists to maintain milestone and project plans, manage program risks and issues, monitor resource allocation, report on progress, and coordinate communications.
5. Communication. All levels of communication (internal/external, formal/informal) are honest, frequent and consistent. Success is recognized and celebrated along the way.
Based on my own experiences of running large complex change programmes, whilst endorsing his views I do think he missed one fundamental element out - a project can't succeed without having a core group of smart, motivated people who thrive on challenges; that willingly accept responsibility; are happy to take decisions; and who have fun in the process. All projects hit issues of some sort - how a team reacts "under fire" is what differentiates the great ones from the poor and in my view, this is why so many projects actually fail.
Image via WikipediaA good friend suggested that I take a look at the services that Microsoft have bundled up for small businesses as part of their Office Live offering. You can find the details here but briefly it includes
- domain and email hosting
- web site creation and management tools
- contact management facilities
- document storage and collaboration capabilities
- project management tools
Sadly lacking from the offering are online word processing, email, spreadsheet or slide tools, of the kind offered for free by Zoho and Google. Perhaps they will appear in the future........
Madonna knocks bricks out of a crumbling wall Thursday, May 15, 2008
Last week the news emerged that Madonna is endorsing secondary trading of concert tickets, and has negotiated directly with the market operators to get a slice of the action. StubHub will be able to trade tickets for her North American concerts, while Viagogo has been given the rights to be secondary ticket partner in Europe, as well as handling VIP packages and all premium tickets.Having sold her touring rights to LiveNation last year, this represents a major endorsement of secondary markets by one of the world's largest promoters and blows a hole through the "moral" arguments that were advanced by some parts of the live music industry, who condemned such market as scalping or touting. Similarly, it leaves the recently formed industry association that was advocating a revenue tax on secondary markets completely wrong footed.
I've already heard it said that Madonna is an exceptional case and most artists won't be able to negotiate the same deals with secondary market operators, but this applies equally to the situation most artists face with promoters who underwrite tours [primary market].
Live Nations endorsement follows the complete about face by Ticketmaster, who acquired two secondary market operators a mere six months after appearing before a UK Parliamentary Select Committee to advocate such markets were plainly wrong. The hypocrisy isn't unique to them - effectively, many industry incumbents have been arguing it is wrong purely because they don't profit from it, which is a very difficult matter from it being wrong in principle.
UK Government encourages house buying in a falling market Wednesday, May 14, 2008
The FT's Westminister blog rightly highlights two obvious issues with the latest announcement from gaffe prone UK Housing Minister, Caroline Flint.
Caroline Flint has just announced a new £200m fund to buy unsold properties from desperate homebuilders and then rent them to social tenants.
By my calculations, that money could buy…..less than 1,000 average British homes.
In a country of more than 50m people, this is the equivalent of a finger in the dyke.
The government’s other measure to prop up the housing market is no more impressive.
It is - as I predicted in this morning’s FT - opening up shared equity schemes to more first time buyers. I hope, for their sake, the youngsters ignore this temptation - at least until prices have fallen by 10 per cent or more.*
* The government’s own prediction, as spotted on Ms Flint’s cabinet briefing notes yesterday.
Byebye Hello Friday, May 09, 2008
There may be many alternate ways to achieve the same thing, but I liked the photo-messaging service from Google called Hello, which formed part of the Picasa suite. Why? Because it was the easiest way for me to send photos to my parents and reliably ensure that
- they saved to their hard drive without them having to do anything
- I could offer a commentary as she went through them because the application allowed you to see which photos the other person was viewing
Image via WikipediaThe welcome page to "Meet with Approval" underwhelmed me, but after trying this meeting scheduler service out I confess to quickly upgrading my opinion of the site.
It has deliberately been kept simple and free of gimmicks, as a consequence of which I anticipate adoption rates will be high, provided people don't mind paying $30 for a year's subscription to arrange unlimited meetings via the service, after using up their two free attempts.
The site uses a simple form to capture meeting information in text form from the organiser, allowing them to specify multiple dates/times options for the proposed meeting from which invitees can signify their availability.
Invites are sent via the service and email address may be manually entered or imported from a range of services/locations like Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo which is catered for [most sensibly] via Plaxo's address book widget.
You can also send reminders to non-respondents, a process which has to be manually initiated within the site.
Once responses are in, the organiser confirms a meeting slot and all invitees notified automatically.
- very simple to use
- suitable for meetings involving many people
- allows people to indicate all the times they can attend
- highlights most popular meeting time automatically
- attendees may leave comments
- paid-for service includes ability to apply your own corporate branding
- subscription cost is trivial
- excellent log-in, which avoids passwords and simply asks you to provide the answer to a memorable question you determined at sign-up
- Meeting Duration is shown in the comments to the meeting
- Comments are the only way for invitees to suggest alternate dates/availability
- Unfriendly error messages
Unlike Timebridge which limits you to 5 time slots, I didn't hit a restriction on the number of time slots that could be offered to invitees.
Just to note, in testing I did hit "Runtime Error" screens when I attempted to cancel a meeting, which would scare unsophisticated users. However, this is an early version of the service and I hope such wrinkles will be attended to quickly.
Overall, it is simpler to use than Timetomeet, a free alternative, and the use of a list of options rather than a calendar display that needs to be scrolled through, will certainly be easier for most people to immediately comprehend. In my [painful] experience, when presented with a calendar view on these types of service, many people fail to appreciate that they need to scroll through the displayed weeks as some options offered may be out of sight. In contrast, a list view shows them all options in a concise and complete fashion.
The market in pension fund liabilities Thursday, May 08, 2008
FT Alphaville had a report recently on companies offloading their pension obligations
More of the UK’s 100 biggest listed companies are looking to get rid of pension liabilities as the price of offloading their risk has fallen. At least 10 FTSE100 companies are seeking bids from insurance firms that specialise in taking on retirement obligations, including seven that have schemes with assets of £1bn or more, according to a report by Lane Clark & Peacock, the actuarial consultants. The report, issued Wednesday, said the £4.1bn that companies offloaded to insurers in the six months to March 31 was seven times the figure in the preceding six months.
This is a fascinating area, since the big attraction to a company of selling it's pension fund is that their existing liability to fund a scheme can be capped/fixed. With depressed markets and changes to tax in relation to pension schemes, many schemes were pushed into deficit [forecast liabilities to pensioners exceeded forecast pension fund assets]. Legislative and regulatory changes in the UK meant that companies had to address how these deficits would be funded, but
a) the deficits in some mature schemes represented a substantial proportion of the market value of the company; and
b) depressed market meant raising finance to fund such deficits was problematic, especially since such fund raising did nothing to grow the underlying business
A growing number of companies were facing this issue and it began to overshadow their normal activities. Indeed, one joke in the City was that British Airways, via its pension fund, was a hedge fund with a struggling airline attached. The greatest concern was that companies had no easy way of capping their liabilities and, perversely, these liabilities could drive the companies into insolvency if they continued to grow. In this scenario, pensioners interest would be materially harmed.
For companies, their risk falls into two broad areas, namely
- investment risk [pension assets won't grow sufficiently to fund liabilities]; and
- mortality risk [pensioners will live longer than expected and hence draw a pensions for longer thus draining the fund]
As consequence of this, there has been an enormous shift in the UK from defined benefit to defined contribution pension schemes under which employers agree to pay defined contributions into a scheme but the employee bears the investment risk related to what the pension fund will be worth at retirement. Many existing defined benefit schemes have been closed to new members, with pressure placed on employees to switch into defined contribution schemes.
To obviate their ongoing investment risk on existing funds, companies have been presented with opportunities to fix/cap existing pension deficits by insurance-like firms who offer to assume the ongoing risk.
Firms such as Paternoster set up ready to benefit from the resultant opportunities, but few deals actually materialised. As the FT mentions, the main deterrent up until now has been the high cost to a company of offloading its pension fund since acquirers need to be compensated for the risks they are assuming. However, rising bond market yields have caused forecast deficits to shrink thus encouraging firms to sell.
For the buyers, the main appeal of the deal is to widen the gap between the assets of the pension funds and the liabilities in their favour. Several things can assist this process
- improved investment returns via more aggressive management of the funds
- encouraging pensioners to cash-in early at a net present value that is less than the payout foreseen were the pension run its lifetime. Many pensioners value cash now rather than a delayed payout, as it seems many people expect to die sooner than they actually do and hence they believe it to be a better deal.
- hedging mortality risk so that that increased costs of extended lifetimes are covered/capped
The ramifications of Greg Coffey's departure from GLG will be reflected upon by many other CEOs in the hedge fund and fund management arena. At minimum, it should have forced a review of key personnel risk within their own organisations, if only because they are likely to be asked about it by their own company investors.
Greg, who managed $7bn out of GLG's $24bn of funds under management announced last month that he was leaving the firm to set up his own firm. This initially caused a sharp fall in GLGs share price, which then recovered most of those losses. In leaving, Greg is foregoing $250m of stock options and $300m ish of annual compensation.
Today was GLG's results briefing at which, according to the FT, GLG boss Noam Gottesman spent most of his time fending off questions about the impact on the firm.
Mr Gottesman said in the worst case scenario, he expected about $4bn of the $6bn Mr Coffey managed would leave GLG when he exited in October, adding that he wouldn't be surprised to lose most of Mr Coffey's team also.
Mr Gottesman, who had "spent the last month dealing with the ramifications of Greg's departure", said he "would never have imagined that a few $100m was an insufficient amount to retain somebody".
Asked how much each of GLG's remaining portfolio managers individually controlled, Mr Gottesman acknowledged that in hindsight it was a "risk to the business" for one person to manage as much as Mr Coffey did.The star culture that permeates through the hedge fund and fund management sectors is actually one encouraged by the employers, who seek to crow about how fantastic their latest hire is or the performance record of particular managers. Intended to encourage new business it specifically sets the firm up to fail when that Star a) under-performs or b) demands higher pay/equity and/or c) elects to leave. Obviously the employees are more than happy to play along since its ups their bargaining power in negotiating for higher compensation.
Having worked with many fund management companies in my career, I've seen instances when it has also created an undercurrent of resentment and bitterness amongst colleagues/teams, which is another key reason why some firms insist on downplaying the importance of any one individual.
Allaboutalpha reports here on a study about secondary market trading of hedge funds based on Hedgebay data.
Having been closely involved in a venture that sought to launch a regulated secondary market for the trading of hedge fund interests via underlying and synthetic instruments, with related clearing and settlement, I found the findings fascinating. Most notable were the size of premiums/discounts operating, which re-enforced my beliefs that investors always prefer to have competitive liquidity venues and the price they pay/accept depends upon their circumstances regardless of underlying reported value, with immediacy of execution being a key determinant.
WBA - Championship Winners 2008 Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Image via WikipediaLast Sunday was simply the best day I've ever had as a passionate fan of West Bromwich Albion, when the Club won its' first title in 88 years and its' first trophy in 40 years by winning the Coca-Cola Championship.
WBA were playing in front of a sell-out crowd at Loftus Road, QPR's home ground. Sadly I'd failed to get a ticket in the WBA section, but had been given two QPR season tickets for the game by a friend so that my youngest daughter and I could go along.
The Shepherds Bush neighbourhood bore witness to a party atmosphere before the game, given that West Brom had already secured promotion the previous Monday and the fans had decided to wear Superhero costumes to the game in honour of our leading goal scorer "Super Kev" Phillips.
Sitting amongst the QPR fans, my daughter was under strict instructions not to do anything to highlight she was an Albion fan, lest we annoy the home fans or get kicked out! This was a tall order, especially when our two goals went in. But at the end of the match after we had sealed the title with a 2-0 win, we peeled off our jumpers to reveal our true colours [WBA shirts] to join in the celebrations.
Evidently the Football League must have thought we would win the title, as the trophy was on hand and was presented to the team at the end of the match to our great delight. To their credit, the QPR fans took it in good grace and delayed their end of season lap of honour by 20 minutes.
Walking away from the ground, West Brom fans [Baggies] were beaming with joy and hugging each other. I was so elated to have been there and experience the occasion in the company of my daughter, which is a memory I will always treasure.
RSS service Newsalloy on the brink of closure Friday, May 02, 2008
Image via WikipediaWow, the May spring clean must be in full swing as I've just received an email from Newsalloy advising that it too is to close.
You received this email because you are registered user of News Alloy Project - Web2.0 based Feed Reader. (http://www.newsalloy.com/)
Bad times finally came, my contract with our hosting provider is over so i will shut down the site in a couple of days, please grab your OPML for your convenience.
If you are interested for project to stay alive and get it under your wing please contact me, we need new dedicated hosting (quite powerful).
In case you want to get full ownership of the domain and grab all sources feel free to ask. It will cost not that much as fat cats are asking.
Also i've developed new version about 6 months ago which is half ready - News Alloy 2.0.
But to make it complete i need funding. Thats for sure.
If You want to have look - please let me know to get an invitation.
If noone is interested i will put other project on the top of News Alloy domain.
Please keep in mind that News Alloy project was developed by one single person who was in charge of everything - coding, design, promo and PR.
Now I'm open for interesting contracts and custom jobs in the area of web development and system administration.
Thank you for staying with us,
Project Developer and Maintainer
I'm sad to see this service close as it was the first online RSS reader I used and found it far superior to many others. Unfortunately, its' occasional outages prompted me to move to Google Reader, and from the site stats it looks like many others deserted the service. It never gained traction against more established services and was possibly doomed once Google introduced their reader.
Service Stats at 2 May 2008
Yesterday I received an email from online slide show service, SlideAware, advising that it is
to shift our business to focus on larger deployments of our service. In preparation for this shift, we are discontinuing our service effective May 15, 2008. Until May 15, 2008 you can continue to use the service, however we suggest you use this time to remove any materials or content you have uploaded and to identify a replacement service.
Unless you have an existing account, you can no longer access the service and the home page provides the same message.
Similar to Slideshare, you could upload powerpoint slide decks for public and private viewing via links or embed the slides in web pages. Additionally you could operate the slide show for remote meeting participants e.g. telesales meetings or conference calls.
Image via WikipediaIn the scheme of things it's not huge, and they claim it's not embarassing, but Standard Life has injected cash into its £1.8bn sterling 7 day money fund. In doing so, the FT reports [free version here] that
The restructuring of the £1.8bn fund,which involves it moving to a mark-to-market pricing structure, will trigger a £52m pre-tax loss, or £37m post-tax, in the group’s first-half figures, it said. However, the cash cost would be only £17m.
The restructure has included swapping out some asset backed securities for corporate bonds.
In a recent blog post I expressed a negative opinion on the usefulness of Xobni and astonishment that Microsoft would have shown any interest in buying them, particularly at a reported $20m.
Evidently I wasn't alone in this view. It certainly caused something of a storm on Y Combinator's forum, Hacker News, partly because the venture is Y Combinator backed.
Now it appears Xobni have walked away from the deal discussions. According to Techcrunch,
[Xobni felt un]comfortable it felt about its eventual fate inside the Microsoft machine. The fear was that Xobni would end up nothing more than a feature of Outlook. Microsoft wanted the entire team to move up to Redmond, and was vague in its answers about what it had planned for that team, or the product. In the end, the body language just wasn’t there.
Duh? What is Xobni OTHER THAN a feature of Outlook? Whilst I've seen it rumoured that they want to replicate their offering on other email clients, how can it be anything other than a feature? You have to suspect these folks are simply holding out for more money. But that is a dangerous game since it's hard to see another obvious buyer for Xobni who they can play Microsoft off against, especially since there is no clear revenue stream opportunities with the product - do you really want ads inside Outlook or would you really pay in order to get the "information" being thrown up about email traffic?
This is one lucky lottery ticket that Xobni should quickly cash and congratulate themselves on getting so much for so little.
Image via WikipediaI recommend reading this post by Guy Kawasaki on The Art of the Board Meeting. Guy provides some excellent observations on the characters that can help provide rounded input to discussions, and some comments on effective board meetings.
Board chemistry is the most important thing. An overbearing CEO who stifles discussion is really wasting everyone's time and missing an excellent opportunity to get peer feedback. Likewise a weak CEO who is too consensual, eager to please and be led, and lacking in vision is the wrong person. A good CEO runs the board meeting, present solutions but listens to advice and encourages debate.
Labels: Guy Kawasaki
1421 - The year China discovered the World Thursday, May 01, 2008
Image via WikipediaHistory has always been one of my passions, and I devour historical material, including historical "faction" novels. One of my favourite authors is Edward Rutherfurd, who has produced some fabulous works including Sarem, Dublin, The Forest, Russia and my favourite, London.
However, one book I think everyone should read is 1421 by Gavin Menzies, a retired British Submarine Commander. He advances a theory, supported by substantial evidence, that the Chinese were actually the first to circumnavigate the world in 1421 and it was their discoveries and maps that enable subsequent European explorations to occur. Their expedition was led by Zheng He, who commanded an enormous fleet of ships.
"...On the 8th of March, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, huge junks nearly five hundred feet long and built from the finest teak, were under the command of Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was 'to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas' and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. The journey would last over two years and circle the globe. "
The book challenges much "accepted knowledge" about history and some of the greatest explorers. Everyone I've recommended the book to has come back to say how entranced they were by it and shaken by the compelling case made.
My reason for posting on this matter is that Gavin has followed this book up with another entitled 1434 - The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance.
In the new book Gavin presents evidence that it was Chinese advances in science, art and technology that formed the basis of the European Renaissance and our modern world. Until now, scholars have considered that the Italian Renaissance came about as a result of a re-examination of the ideas of classical Greece and Rome. However, through a detailed analysis of recently uncovered source material, Gavin describes the visit of a sophisticated Chinese delegation to the Papal Court at Florence, Italy, in 1434 - a visit which sparked the Renaissance, forever changing the course of Western civilization and global history. After that date the authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy was overturned and artistic conventions challenged, as was Arabic astronomy and cartography.
The book will be published by HarperCollins in the U.S.A. and U.K. in June 2008 and I am eagerly awaiting getting hold of a copy.