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Just Sayin’ Blog – Rube Goldberg Machines and Business

I was recently sitting in an airport waiting for a flight and for 30 minutes I stood mesmerized watching an amazing sculpture designed by George Rhodes known as a ball machine. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen one of these ball machine sculptures. The first one of Rhodes designs I saw was in the late 1980’s while walking through a terminal at Boston Logan Airport. I remember almost missing my flight watching and listening to the sculpture. This Rhodes sculpture at another airport attracted young and old alike. The sculpture really doesn’t serve any practical purpose, but is an intriguing piece of kinetic art. It’s hard to pull yourself away from watching all that is going on – a sculpture that often uses a combination of drums, cymbals, gongs and depending on your point of view makes either a virtual cacophony or euphony of sounds.

In a way these sculptures remind me of a Rube Goldberg machine. Wikipedia defines a Rube Goldberg machine as follows:

“A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (1883–1970).”

An Example:

Rube Goldberg Guinness World Record by Purdue Society of Professional Engineers

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Rube Goldberg and Business

While watching the steel balls that roll endlessly though the intricate Rhodes sculpture I started thinking about examples of how some businesses work effortlessly and continuously in a similar endless fashion. Businesses that provide the same exacting levels of customer service and delivery of a product (or products) over and over again that are a key to success. Some businesses have developed very simple processes to find success while other companies tend to overcomplicate processes in an attempt to achieve success.

While at the sculpture I was holding a Starbucks coffee and that company certainly comes to mind as a business that invariably delivers both simple and very complicated orders efficiently and effectively. This Seattle based company that got its start almost 40 years ago has today become the largest coffeehouse with over 23,000 locations in 64+ countries. I just order a Venti black coffee when standing in line at Starbucks. I can never tell if the barista is happy or somehow saddened by my straightforward order. A Huffington Post blog titled “The Most Obnoxious Starbucks Drink Orders“ details some of the complicated orders at Starbucks such as a ‘Venti Iced Skinny Hazelnut Macchiato, Sugar-Free Syrup, Extra Shot, Light Ice, No Whip’. Now that order would be a challenge to any barista fulfilling Starbucks “delicious, handcrafted beverages” mantra. It makes me smile when I hear someone standing in line ordering a similar concoction. It really doesn’t matter where in the United States or the world you place your order; Starbucks seems to always deliver the same level of consistent service regardless of the local. The company has obviously spent a great deal of time and effort in perfecting the delivery of consistent levels of service, but it all seems pretty simple to the casual observer ordering coffee. Everyone knows that you’re going to have to wait a bit when ordering one of the “delicious, handcrafted beverages” mentioned earlier versus my Venti black coffee order, but those who order the complicated drinks don’t mind. They know they are going to be rewarded with a delicious drink made to order by a barista that has perfected his or her craft. In plain sight the platform seems pretty simple. Do you think that behind the curtain there resides a Rube Goldberg machine? Doubtful.

Can you think of other businesses which deliver products consistently in a simple straightforward manner? Maybe FedEx, Amazon.com or even MacDonald’s could come to mind. Fortune Magazine lists 50 of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” and the top 5 are:

  1. Apple
  2. Amazon.com
  3. Google
  4. Berkshire Hathaway
  5. Starbucks

I’m sure you’d agree that each of these companies is the polar opposite of a Rube Goldberg.

I’ve worked in a business or two that have taken great steps to simplify business processes through employee training and the use of technology in an effort to reduce back office costs that keep company investments focusing on people and growing the platform. And I’ve worked in a business or two that seems compelled to use a Rube Goldberg machine mentality. I think that those who insist on making simple processes overly complicated could find greater success by streamlining operating procedures, but as long as shareholders are pleased with the return on investment, changes in operating styles aren’t likely to happen. In a highly competitive industry companies that are overcomplicated ultimately could be disadvantaged versus others in the same industry that have found ways to reduce the Rube Goldberg machine mentality.

Do you know of businesses in your industry which operate more like a Rube Goldberg machine (deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task)? I’m sure that you do. Noted management doyen Peter Drucker is quoted as saying:

“Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.”

It has to be frustrating for people who work for companies that use complicated procedures or policies in an industry where other companies have found a simpler way of delivering the same service. I’m sure you can come up with some examples in your industry.

So, what’s it like at the company you’re working? Does your company operate more like an Apple, Amazon.com, Google, Berkshire Hathaway and Starbucks; or does it operate more like a Rube Goldberg? Imagine the potential for those companies that operate using a Rube Goldberg machine mentality that pivot to find a better way to provide the services or products they offer. If you look at your company and think you see an area of the business that might resemble a Rube Goldberg machine, perhaps you should seek ways to make it a little less complicated. Isn’t that what leadership is all about?

Just sayin’.

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Just Sayin’ Blog – The American Dream and Garages

Have you seen the General Motors (GM) commercial selling the new electric 2014 Cadillac ELR? Interestingly you actually don’t know what the commercial is selling until the very end. When I started to watch it (click on this link to view) I recognized the voice of FX television show Justified bad guy Robert Quarles played by Neal McDonough. McDonough also appeared in the great film “Band of Brothers” portraying 1st Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton who passed away in 2012. The commercial begins with our seeing from behind Mr. McDonough standing facing a swimming pool dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirt in what could be a Southern California back yard. The actor starts out asking:

“Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries that work stroll home; stop by the café and take August off. Off! Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?“

Six quick questions and two statements set up the commercial. McDonough is then shown walking through his home pointing to his two daughters; then high-fiving one of the girls:

“Because we’re crazy hard working believers that’s why.”

“Those other countries think we’re nuts. Whatever…”

Next he’s seen walking down a hallway heading to the kitchen where he passes a newspaper off to his wife and continues his trek through his nice home.

“Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul? Ali? Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right. We went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left. Got a car up there and left the keys in it. Do you know why? Because we’re the only ones going back up there that’s why.”

Mr. McDonough walks into an opening and then re-emerges dressed in a business suit and walks out of the house to his Cadillac ELR. He then delivers the overriding message, besides selling the ELR of course:

“But I digress. It’s pretty simple. You work hard, create your own luck and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

As for all the stuff. That’s the upside to only taking just two weeks off in August.”

“N’est pas?” (The French expression impossible n’est pas français is actually a proverb, equivalent to “there’s no such thing as can’t” or simply “nothing is impossible.”)

One heck of a great commercial in my opinion delivering the message of the American Dream being available to anyone and more importantly owning a Cadillac ELR of course. Wikipedia defines the American Dream as, “a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.” Sounds right.

The commercial clearly points out that you’ve got to work hard to get all the “stuff” you see from the beginning to the end of the commercial. No one is going to give it to you. Pointing out in a very quintessential American way the commercial finishes with “N’est pas?” – a French proverb meaning “there is no such thing as can’t”. Words to live by. The owner of Cadillac is GM and as everyone remembers the company went into and out of bankruptcy protection during the summer of 2009. In a way the commercial was an analogy of all that GM and countless thousands of dedicated employees accomplished – “You work hard, create your own luck and you gotta believe anything is possible.” Granted they also did it with the help of $ 50.1 billion from U.S. taxpayers….

The commercial hasn’t necessarily been greeted all that well by the some in the media as they view it as American being arrogant, but the very simple message in the ad is that if you want you can own a Cadillac as long as you work hard and do what you do well. Simple message.

This commercial follows one aired earlier this year from Cadillac called “American Garages” (click here to view). The commercial is pointing out the value of Motor Trend’s Car of the Year – the 2014 Cadillac CTS. Mr. McDonough does the voiceover for this commercial telling us:

“The Wright Brothers started in a garage. Amazon started in a garage. Hewlett-Packard and Disney both started out in garages. Mattel started in a garage. The Ramones’s started in a garage. My point? Some of the most innovating things in the world come out of American garages.”

This commercial finishes with “Ain’t garages great!” Indeed they are. I know many auto glass repair and replacement (AGRR) companies that started out in a single garage.

It has been a long time since I’ve owned a GM product (a 1985 Chevrolet Station-wagon) and I don’t have plans on buying one anytime soon, but these two commercials celebrate what America is all about and why people from across the globe continually come to our shores. The opportunity to try like hell to catch the American Dream by working hard and then anything is possible, especially owning a Cadillac. Plenty of people work hard and then haven’t accomplished what they most wanted as their own American Dream, but it’s all about the opportunity. Nothing is guaranteed.

Don’t let any company or anyone keep you from whatever may be your American Dream.

You work hard, create your own luck and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

Just sayin’.

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Just Sayin’ Blog – Inconvenient Truth(s)

An inconvenient truth is a truth that no one likes to admit, but it is the truth nonetheless. A number of these inconvenient truths exist in the auto glass repair and replacement (AGRR) industry and everyone in the industry deals with them every day.

 

 

Over the years it has become more and more difficult to find success in the AGRR industry. Once upon a time, anyone could own a retail auto glass company and survive, but I think that has changed. One inconvenient truth is that some in our industry aren’t going to survive. As an owner you’ve got to master many new tasks that didn’t even exist 10+ years ago and some owners just aren’t capable of doing so. As a business owner you’ve got to figure out how to attract customers, especially in a time when the weather, the economy and miles driven are working against your business.

As we entered the new millennium, who in our industry really would have seen the need to understand the concept of search engine optimization (SEO) for a “website”? Who would see social media sites such as Facebook™, Twitter™, Craigslist, etc. becoming such an important way to market and communicate with customers; or that the Yellow Page Book™ that we once relied on would become a relic of the past?

Who, other than Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple®, would have thought that you could ask someone called Siri, the lady that lives inside my iPhone to list the “closest auto glass shops” near where I live in Chicago. Siri told me “Careful with the broken glass, David,” and then she gave me a listing of fifteen AGRR shops with two names (Safelite® Auto Glass and Gerber Collision & Glass) you’d easily recognize in the market because both are big advertisers in the local media. I also told Siri I was looking for “auto glass in Chicago” and she told me “I found fifteen glass repair shops in Chicago:” followed by a slightly different list of companies, but including the same two names aforementioned. Somebody is paying attention to their internet strategy aren’t they? Are you?

How convenient you make it for your customers to interact with you online will contribute to your future success. If you’re not willing to embrace innovative ways to grow your business in the ever changing marketplace you compete, you will not attract the customers willing to pay you the best price for the products and services that you provide. The truth is that if you’re going to survive and thrive as an AGRR retailer or as a network, you have to know that no one is going to turn the clock back to make it easier for you to be successful in your business. You have to compete in the marketplace with the hand that is dealt to you each day and if for some reason the way business is done changes tomorrow, you’ve got to figure out how to deal with it.

 

Another inconvenient truth is that AGRR networks provide great value to the clients that utilize the various services offered. As much as those who don’t participate in networks complain about the existence of them; clients vote with their feet and they obviously perceive value in the bundled services that networks provide. Can, or will, that change? Certainly it can change, but in the absence of a client deciding to take back direct responsibility for managing its AGRR losses (or a new platform that could take the place of the current networks that operate in the AGRR industry) it’s unlikely. We could certainly see movement of clients from one network to another network in the coming year(s) of course; and depending upon the relationship that your company has with the network that “wins” a new client you can hope that more profitable jobs come your way. But if that hope is what you need to make your business successful you might look for another source of jobs that you have more control over.

 

And staying on the topic of networks; I don’t think that a network that utilizes a “buy/sell” or “spread” (when the network “buys” the glass repair or replacement from an AGRR retailer providing the repair or replacement and then “sells” the repair or replacement to its client at a higher price) pricing model for its clients can continue to exist long-term in the marketplace. Relying on the AGRR retailers who actually do the repairs and replacements to accept lower and lower prices, while continuing to provide high quality repairs and replacements has to someday hit a wall. At some point AGRR retailers will push back and the networker that only makes profit on the “spread”  is going to have difficulty providing its clients with the same levels of service other competitors can provide in the marketplace. Those networkers must know this.

 

You can’t really find the greatest success in your business without surrounding yourself with the best people you can find. Basketball legend John Wooden was quoted as saying,

Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.” 

Sound advice from a true winner.

If you’ve been in the AGRR industry for a while you’ll remember one of the true gentlemen that help build it –Larry Anderson, President of Harmon Auto Glass back when it was a part of Apogee Enterprises, Inc. On his office desk in Minneapolis there was a small sign that read “Delegate Authority. Ruthlessly.” Larry surrounded himself with many of the best in the industry. There are some owners in the AGRR industry who don’t value the people that work for them. You can’t be successful if you don’t take care of those who work for you and let them have a voice.

 

Yet another inconvenient truth is that just because you have money, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to find success in the AGRR industry. History has proven that businesses owned and managed by those who have direct experience in the industry find the greatest success. Sadly, those that don’t have the experience, regardless of the size of their checkbooks, historically have tended to not be successful.

 

In writing my blog posts over the past year I’ve tried to raise issues about which I think those in the AGRR industry (or are associated with it) should give thought. I know that there are more inconvenient truths regarding the industry that no one likes to admit that I’ve not touched on, so please let me know what yours are.

Just sayin’……

 

  

 

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Interview with David Carnahan from Mainstreet Computers


Today I’m talking with David Carnahan, the owner of Mainstreet Computers, Inc. Mainstreet opened for business in May 1982.  Mainstreet is a leading provider of software solutions to the automotive glass repair and replacement (AGRR) industry. I’ve been fortunate to have utilized David’s software products to help manage AGRR businesses in the United States, as well as Canada. Over the years, I’ve found David as a businessman who has the highest of values, principles and ethics in operating Mainstreet. This April Mainstreet celebrates its 30th year in business.

DR:   Congratulations David! That is quite an accomplishment in the longevity of any business and one you and your employees should be most proud. How did you find yourself providing software solutions to the AGRR industry?

David Carnahan:  In those early days we sold to virtually any industry, but we concentrated on smaller businesses.  This was before the days of “off the shelf software”.  We wrote or modified our programs to suit each company we sold.  After selling to several glass shops we became more familiar with their needs and saw an opportunity to become a complete solution to glass shops across the country.  So beginning in the mid 1980’s we began focusing on glass and Glas-Avenue born.

 

DR:  What do you feel are the keys to your success in being able to build, sustain and grow Mainstreet Computers over the past 30 years?

David Carnahan:  Though there are many “keys to success”, I’d like to mention two …

1.     A mentor to Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple Computer) is quoted as saying that a company that lasts must be willing and able to reinvent itself.  I believe that is true and particularly true in the technology field.  When we started serving the glass industry back in the 1980’s we concentrated as much on selling hardware as we did on selling software but by the early 1990’s customers were better served buying hardware locally, so we changed our whole model and focused strictly on software and software solutions.  Then about seven years ago we extended that service into designing and developing websites which has proven to be a great “re-invention” as we have helped scores of glass (and other service industry) shops “re-invent” themselves and move from dying to thriving.

2.    A lasting company must have a long term mentality.  We have always hired people with the idea they would work here until they retire.  The cost in time and customer frustration of hiring and training new people is much greater that most people realize.  Most of our people have well in excess of 15 years with us.  When your people don’t expect to be around in a few years it affects every facet of the company from new product development to customer support.  It’s also makes the work environment more rewarding.

 David Carnahan (left) with Programmer Dave Daniels (right) who recently celebrated his 25th year with Mainstreet.

David Carnahan (left) with Programmer Dave Daniels (right)  who recently celebrated his 25th year with Mainstreet.

DR:  How would you describe your management style and who has been a great help to you in building your business?

David Carnahan:  I am a Christian and my faith impacts the way I lead the company.  I view Mainstreet as God’s company not my own, so I’m responsible to be a good steward of His company.  My philosophy is to find good people, treat them right and provide an environment where they can shine and excel in their strength areas.  I have a speech that I give prospective employees.  I tell them that I don’t believe in micromanaging, so … “if you’re the type of employee that only performs well with someone constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you do your job, you won’t fit in here.”  Our people know their jobs and the mission of our company and they “just do it”.   I believe the longevity of our staff speaks for itself.

 

DR:  What lessons have you learned in growing your business that you think could be helpful to others seeking similar success?

David Carnahan:  Don’t give up.  Success is not an event, it’s a process.  I believe slow steady growth is much more stable than explosive growth. Never stop trying to improve and never take anything for granted – customers, sales or employees. 

 

DR:  What are the services that Mainstreet Computers provides to its customers and how have those changed over the past 30 years?

David Carnahan: We provide fully integrated Point Of Sale and accounting software to retail glass businesses – from small “mom and pop” shops to large multi-store chains.  We also offer website design and web hosting geared toward helping the glass shop market themselves and increase sales through the internet.  The biggest change in our strategy came 25 years ago when we began focusing primarily on the glass industry.  This strategic decision of ‘narrowing the focus to broaden the impact’ has enabled us to really gain an understanding of the needs of the glass industry.

 

DR:  How do those differ from your competitors? 

David Carnahan: Mainstreet is the first and only glass software provider to offer a fully integrated accounting system.  We wrote it ourselves and it’s specifically designed to work with our Point Of Sale program. Since we wrote it we fully support every part of it, so we’re the only contact a glass shop has to make for help with their software.  We are also the only glass software provider designing websites for the industry.

Beyond basic products, the other characteristic that sets Mainstreet apart is our level of support.  We have more people with more years of experience supporting our products than any other company.  We are relentless in our commitment to provide support that is unparalleled in the industry.

 

DR:  You’re an innovator in the industry. What were the main reasons you felt that strategy would work as successfully as it has?

David Carnahan:  The reason for our success is simple.  Mainstreet’s software and services meet a real need by enabling glass shop owners to benefit from technology without being or becoming technology experts.  We provide the technological expertise while they concentrate on running their glass business.

 

DR:  I very much appreciate your taking the time to talk with me today. In closing, is there anything further you’d like to share with the readers of this blog?

David Carnahan:  Thank you David for all you do for the glass industry.  You have a depth of knowledge and experience in this industry that is very rare.  I hope you continue to advocate for the independent glass shop owners.

Thank you David and thanks again for taking the time to talk. I know that you, your employees and company will continue to have great success in the years to come.

Just sayin’.

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