Requiem / Paean for a Dot-Com Darling

It’s a tale that unfolds more than we care to count, but is heart-wrenching to see nonetheless.  We’ve seen it many times: a young star meets with great success early on.  Their ascent is met with many accolades and kudos.  Then, they fall from grace.  Scandal; missteps; a change in public sentiment.  No matter how hard they try, they can’t reverse their fall from the great heights.

Sock puppets and search engines

yahoo pets.comI’m talking, of course, about Yahoo!, the once-revered icon of the late 1990’s dot-com era.  Two young Stanford grad students, Jerry Yang and David Filo, unleashed on the world an indexing service that would help navigate journeys on the increasingly congested “information superhighway.”  In this context, Yahoo! was nothing short of revolutionary.  Even its silly name seemed to capture the slightly irrational, but very fun, mood of the time.  This was when “burn rate” was a proxy for a company’s growth prospects, Herman Miller chairs and foosball tables represented credibility, and Jack Welch could get upstaged by a sock puppet as a company spokesman.

I have fond memories of that era: it’s when I moved to Chicago, fell in love with the woman with whom I just celebrated 11 years of marriage, and arrived at the very satisfying answer to the Frequently Asked Question, “what the hell are you going to do with a History and French degree?”  It’s why I still have a great deal of affection for this Sunnyvale company, even after the Microsoft acquisition debacle, the dustup over Carol Bartz ignominious departure, and the Scott Thompson resume kerfuffle.

Having logged time at two financial services companies, I was obviously a big fan of Yahoo! Finance.  There were two services, however, that capture the era well.

Yahoo! MailWashington University alums will recall standing in line waiting for the sterile “green screen” terminals to check their “Pinemail” in the Olin Library.  I quickly tired of the clunky interface I used to check my email after leaving St. Louis, and abandoned my “@wustl.edu” account for a Yahoo! one.  Granted, I am on the whole underwhelmed by Yahoo! Mail, given their glacial pace of introducing upgrades, and the fact that their integration with Outlook is a joke.   However, my Inbox is an ever-evolving scrapbook, a digital collection of moments I’ve shared with friends, family, and professional connections.  It’s why even though I have a Gmail account I’m still not parting with my Yahoo! account.

Geocities.  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram have found a captive audience in folks looking for exposure – sometimes a little too much, as in the case of the “oversharenting” moms and dads examined in The Wall Street Journal.  It wasn’t always this easy.  I hate pulling out the “in my day” card, but you had to sort of know what you were doing in the late 90’s to publish content.  Geocities was the middle ground between Facebook and WordPress, that offered some primitive drag and drop tools for building and maintaining Websites.  Through Geocities I was able to share pictures with relatives in India, develop a Web portfolio to show hiring managers that a liberal arts grad could write code, and acquire a minor following from folks interested in sound clips from Goodfellas (one of my all-time favorite flicks).   Geocities has unfortunately gone the way of Delicious, Briefcase, and other sunsetted properties.

Holding out for a Hero (or a Good Product)

Ashton Kutcher was recently tapped to play Steve Jobs in an upcoming biopic.  At time of writing, if we were to associate a celebrity with Yahoo!, it would unfortunately be the likes of Lindsay Lohan or some other misstep-prone, washed up train wreck.  I’m holding out hope though.  Few seem to recall that the Apple of today was very much like Yahoo! before Jobs rescued it from the brink in the late 90’s – incidentally, while Yahoo! was riding high.  To win over the hearts and minds of customers and investors, Yahoo! needs to completely reinvent itself like Jobs did with the iPod, as opposed to half-baked, poorly executed attempts at innovation such as Livestand, and now Axis.

I’d like the next chapter of  the Yahoo! story to unfold like the amazing scene in Limitless when Eddie Mora shakes off the cobwebs, gets to work, and starts kicking some serious butt.  It would be nice for Yahoo! to replace “LiLo” with Bradley Cooper as the star with whom they are identified.  As talented as he is, however, I’m not sure Cooper could pull off the Jerry Yang look.  There’s always Eddie Murphy.

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It Etches! It Sketches! It Helps You…Stay Productive?

While scanning the elements of my News Feed on LinkedIn the other day I came across an interesting post by Jeb Ory, CEO of the mobile relationship management startup 5Degrees, and a fellow Chicago Booth graduate.  He wrote about a skill that has all but died on the vine in the business world, of taking notes. 

Jeb’s post prompted some self-reflection about the importance of note-taking in my life.  Consultants are always exploring the new: new clients, new industries, new functional areas.  Throughout this discovery process, there is a dangerous tendency toward overestimating the power of focus, as noted in The Wall Street Journal recently.  Note-taking is an important tool for augmenting our abilities for recall.  In meetings, conference calls, and even the informal “stop and chats”  that (Larry David’s criticism notwithstanding), putting pen to paper can really help manage the information overload.

As I’d noted in a previous post, traveling consultants face myriad challenges.  We can add one more to this list: solving the question, “what to do with the pile of legal pads on which I’ve jotted down great ideas, notes, and million-dollar ideas?”  Reams and reams of paper with notes do not fit in well with the peripatetic lifestyle of a consultant.  The risk of considerable back pain aside, it is nearly impossible to glean insights from illegible chicken scratch jotted down a few days ago, especially after a red-eye flight or ten.

And Now for Something Completely Better…

I tired quickly of cramming legal pads for cross-country trips into overhead bins, and knew there had to be a better way. Enter into this conundrum Penultimate, a revolutionary iPad app that brings method to the madness, and does it with style.  It shatters the notion of the iPad as a frivolous toy, pushing it more into the realm of productivitySteve Jobs’ criticism of the stylus notwithstanding, I ponied up the $20 bucks for the RadTech Styloid and was soon “off to the races,” as they say.

I quickly discovered that Penultimate rocks the house, because it:

  • Allows for a more natural, free-flow note-taking experience than tapping furiously on a laptop keyboard a la Carrie Bradshaw
  • Integrates with other productivity tools.  As Apple has spawned a robust cottage industry of apps, it is not surprising that Penultimate seamlessly integrates with leading edge applications such as Evernote and Dropbox (another tool that I am passionate about).
  • Appeals to your eco-friendly, tree-hugging instincts.  Think about it: a week-long workshop, or marathon brainstorming strategy session will likely yield a lot of great ideas, but also a lot of pads of paper.  Think of how many trees in the Brazilian rain forest you could save by capturing that stuff digitally.
  • Great for brainstorming interactively with clients and prospects.  You can reap the collaborative benefits of a whiteboard without the noxious fumes of Magic Markers, or the damage that endless erasing can do to your wardrobe.
  • Convinces your spouse or significant other that you didn’t just blow a couple hundred bucks on yet another gadget, but have instead invested in a productivity-enhancing game changer.  My wife will back me up when I say this is the most important one.

Couple O’ Caveats

Don’t get me wrong.  There is something pure and organic about capturing notes with a ball-point pen.  When speaking with clients informally, it’s better to casually jot down notes rather than pull out a computerized device.   And yes, the touch-and-feel aspect notwithstanding, the iPad screen can seem a bit cold and sterile.  And as with most apps, Penultimate may have limited appeal to change-averse technophobes loathe to introduce modifications to their comfortable routine.  Finally, after an all-day strategy session you can keep writing away without having  to plug your legal pad into the wall for “more juice.”  The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about the iPad / Penultimate approach.

Cure the Pain, One Meeting At A Time

Nonetheless, this app puts the “ultimate” in Penultimate, and does so in spades.  It turns your iPad from a cool gadget to an “Etch-a-Sketch on steroids.”  Next time you’re trying to quickly jump to conclusions through stacks and stacks of paper, consider a better approach.  Hop on over to the App store, and shell out the whopping 99 cents (Stylus not included) to take your productivity to the next level.  Your clients, your spouse, and your long-suffering back will be eternally grateful!

Nikhil Torsekar is a Senior Manager with Peritius Consulting, a management consulting firm focusing exclusively on strategic execution.  He has over 10 years of experience delivering innovative solutions to clients in health care, telecommunications, automotive, and financial services industries.  When not talking about his fanatic interest in Penultimate, Twitter, or devices that start with a lowercase “i,” he enjoys running, reading, and spending time with his awesome family.

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Drop the Brick, Pick up “The Box”

Ah to be young and a traveling consultant.

You travel to God-forsaken locales; you spend your nights sleeping in horrible Motel 6-esque chainManagement Consultants, driving in tuna can-like rental cars, subsisting off of unhealthy food, and you can probably name all the stores in Terminal B of O’Hare by memory.

And then of course, there’s the numerous conflicting images that you have to contend with.

One lesser-mentioned, but equally frustrating, challenge of being a consultant that bears mention is a logistical one: managing your data.  Typically consultants work on bulky, cumbersome devices which do not always have the full suite of applications they require.  And sometimes after looking at data day in, day out it’s easier to whip out an alternate device such as an iPad or iPhone.

There are a couple different options for getting around this hurdle in managing data:
1. USB drive.  Brick, stick, thumb drive, jump drive.  There are many different variants to the term.  At the end of the day it is a ticking time bomb.  Let’s say you’ve put the finishing touches on a slide deck that will knock a client / prospect’s socks off.  You accidentally leave your trusty SanDisk device in the tray and walk through airport security screening at EWR, LAX, PDX, or the other airport of the week.  With it goes the deliverable that could’ve changed their life (and yes, I am still working through the afore-mentioned image issues).

2. Email.  I chuckle every time I receive multiple copies of a document with files that contain the author’s initials, the version, the date, their high school locker combination, and numerous other data points to help manage the document history.  Regardless of the versioning system, the upshot is always that this is a space-hogging, highly inefficient way to manage information.

3. Carrier pigeon.  Hey, sometimes the old tried and true is the best way.Photo - Dropbox

A Better Way

There is a far more logical, and cooler alternative to all of these approaches, known as DropBox.  This is one of those multi-million-dollar “why didn’t I think of it” ideas that has taken the business world by storm.  The cloud-based file hosting service has attracted interest from your rank-and-file knowledge workers to more high-voltage names such as U2 (yes, that U2).  The Y Combinator alum has earned a place alongside Facebook, Linkedin, Yelp and others in the startup glitterati, and with good reason.

Dropbox has been good to me.  Over the course of my career, I found it maddening to keep my work in sync across numerous laptops.  This was especially true during graduate school, where I’d often deliver presentations and have to keep making updates until the very last minute.  Additionally, collaboration was a nightmare, as it was nearly impossible to reconcile each member’s contribution or modification to group project deliverables.

DropBox removed the complexity and headaches from managing this information, as we were able to reference one unified copy of a document instead of foraging through our inboxes, or playing “Musical Thumb Drives.”  Additionally, I loved the ability to review presentations and other deliverables from multiple devices, including my trusty old iPad.  Finally, given the tendency of PC’s to gobble up key documents via hardware / application crashes, it’s nice to have the data backed up in the cloud.

Lucy, You Got Some Disclaimin’ To Do

Obviously there are caveats to this recommendation of DropBox.  The firm’s recent introduction of DropBox for Teams notwithstanding, it is still very much geared toward the individual user and small businesses.  Enterprise customers will more likely need a more robust solution such as industry standard Microsoft SharePoint, or the recent cloud-based entrant Box.  And, as with any other wildly successful product, DropBox is not without its share of detractors.

Drop in on the Box

At the end of the day, DropBox is truly a Swiss Army knife that provides benefits to nearly every profile.  Consultants will love the enhanced ability to keep files in sync across multiple devices.  Students working on group projects will benefit from a virtual file server that provides greater security than thumb drives.  And folks less than enamored of Facebook’s byzantine privacy policies will love the ability to share photos in a more secure manner.

From one consultant to another, I highly recommend that you click here to sign up for a free trial, which gives you 2 gigs of space.  You’ll thank me next time you’re delightfully syncing files during a flight delay in Flagstaff, or noshing over some delectable Panda Express in Des Moines.

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