Thursday, March 26, 2009

Global forces?

I'm listening to an audio book and reading another book right now that are really making me think. The audio book is "The Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. The reading book is "The Post-American World" by Fareed Zakaria. Both are really good.

Mr. Gladwell's book discusses the basics of personal development and he traces several phenomena regarding some of the wealthiest people in the world, some of the successes of the really famous people like Bill Gates and Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems and the writer of Java) and how they 'happened' to get where they are today. Coincidences abound. Expertise is another strong topic. He talks about ten thousand hours of practice to get to become an expert at something. He discusses the relative merits and advantages of genius versus average and above-average intelligence. It's really interesting and gives one pause to consider the sheer number of hours we put in, especially as independent businessfolk, and just how we've spent our time. In seventeen years, I wonder if I've managed finally to become an expert at business.

Mr. Zakaria is as interesting, if not more so, regarding his analysis of the developing global economy and the United States' past, present and future positions within it. His book is fabulous. His analysis is relatively straightforward, logical and not filled with opinions or conclusions so commonly dropped into supposed historical comparisons. He simply gives facts and allows us to create our own opinions.

Both books are incredibly fascinating to me. Both give me reason to hope, especially in these currently troubled times. On the one hand, the United States remains (and will most likely continue) as the strongest economy and global influence on the planet. Zakaria's logic is really quite strong and I see all sorts of proof of this in every aspect of my life even at my current lowly level. At the same time, we have to work hard to continue to achieve this incredible dominance but we need to accept the fact that the rest of the world is indeed catching up. And as far as capability, each individual truly is. The persistence required to become an expert is the only really big thing stopping us.

What are the messages here? That we need to be efficient, positive and inventive. We need to be competitors. We need to be strong and aggressive in all of our work. Oh, and, according to Malcolm Gladwell, I coulda been Bill Gates. Well, at least I was born at just the right time.

Team Mates has been that way during the past year. We've actually been working toward this particular goal of aggressive efficiency (to coin a phrase) for several years, but we are seeing the fruits of this work pay off. I'll try to explain that a little bit more in the future but for now, suffice to say that we work hard to encourage everyone in our company AND all of our customers to push ahead, suggest, badger and work more efficiently in order for us to keep costs down, keep the damages down and keep deliveries on schedule regardless of the deadlines we set.

As we improve, we market. We work to sell our particular skills to the rest of the country and hope that there are enough people who haven't heard of us who might just want to get embroidered goods. I continue spreading the message that someone else is out there adapting to changing times, working within the changing business community to continue to survive and sell and prosper. It is, after all, what we have to do. I really really don't wanna go back to working for someone. It just doesn't sit right with me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Social Conscience

Yes, yes, it's been a long while since I've posted. (confessional here?) Strange, especially since I love to write.

Of late, though, I feel the distinct need to jump on the 'recession bandwagon' and through out about a nickel's worth of verbiage. It all has to do with the title above. Well, this particular tome will address social conscience in any case.

I've been with Team Mates for seventeen years. One of the things that we did originally, when we started doing contract work (doing work for sales people and distributors who then sold directly to client companies), was to protect our customers. At the time when we started doing that sort of work, embroiderers were sometimes prone to go direct to the customers and discount their prices in order to steal the customers, increase their sales and basically be direct competition with the folks who were bringing work to them.

I found this way of doing business to be incredibly unethical. As we grew, quite often companies would come to us directly for bids for embroidered shirts and hats and so forth and occasionally those companies were doing business with one or more of our distributor customers. Our first reaction in each and every case was to call the distributor (if they were our customer) and let them know that their pricing was being shopped. Of course, if they didn't care, we would bid the work directly, but more often, our distributor customers would thank us and get back out to sell to the companies.

There was a direct upside to that sort of process. Our own clients became more loyal. We sacrificed a few opportunities along the way, but we did increase the amount of decorating that we were able to do over the long run. Most importantly, I slept much better at night.

Today, there's a recession. Right now. At the moment I write this blog, it is happening. It is global and it is no longer possible to ignore. I'm pretty sure that it has affected every single person who is presently alive. Business is down, credit has crawled under a rock and there are programs proposed, and passed, by many governments that are designed to assist all of us in some way or other to survive and maybe to get us back to work again.

Social Conscience, though, seems not to be considered, at least not as often as it could be.

Life and business are competitions. In life, we compete for the girl, we compete for jobs, for better homes, for space on the treadmill at the gym. We send our kids to play sports, which are ALWAYS competitive. We compete for time and recognition in expressing our opinions.

In business, competition is the same. Most of the time, more than one company competes in an industry for market share, for goods and services, for employees and for customers. Each business survives through its own ability to compete, whether it be through efficiency, pricing, great advertising or just plain hard work.

Social Conscience, though, is not always considered.

As parents, we try to teach our children that when they go into the cookie jar, they are not allowed to take all of the cookies. They are taught to share. When the kids are old enough to play sports and have a game against an outclassed opponent, they are taught not to run up the score and they are also taught that everyone gets to play. It has always been that way. We teach these values because even though the temptation is there to take it all, to beat someone to death or to simply humiliate them, we are taught that the social consequence is most often a negative reaction, both personally and publicly. You just don't beat someone when they're down, unless you're a really bad person.

So what happens when a credit card company starts raising its rates to cover the large numbers of defaults it is having? And why does the credit card company locate its offices to states that have no usury laws? Why do the heads of the largest corporations in the world insist on taking bonuses that make the lottery look tiny, even in the face of the kinds of adversity that require them to go to the government for bailouts? Why, in fact, do unions (not to leave anyone out) continually negotiate higher rates, permanent jobs for every member, regardless of ability or willingness to work when the non-union employees are forced out of work because the unionized companies are going broke?

I have lots of those questions. And they all relate to Social Conscience. The basic question that leads to the ones in the preceding paragraph is this: "When is enough enough?"

We are all members of a society. We are fast becoming a global society, a global economy where competition creates a need for efficiency and cost-awareness. It also creates the possibility, especially in 'Free' markets, that people can become incredibly wealthy. They can also become extremely poor.

Trouble is, whether one allows for the global concept or insists on making their society local or national, more than one person participates in that society. That means, naturally, that there are competitors. In any competition, the Winner Takes All concept doesn't mean that you get to take everything including the winner's life. Humiliate a foe once and you either make them murderous or you make them go away. Either way, you both lose. Your society loses and eventually, even if you own your market or are the richest kid on your block, you end up with a situation where people hate you. They won't allow you to continue or, if you start making up your own laws, they'll revolt.

It goes back to that social conscience thing. We need one. I can't imagine where it seems to have gone but I see government bailout programs handing out cash like there's no tomorrow and many say it is not enough.

This goes to the high and the low ends of the economic and social scale by the way. We are all expected to take what we need. We are also charged with taking no MORE than what we need. We are not supposed to gouge, steal, vote ourselves corporate cash-gutting bonuses or golden parachutes, nor are we, if we receive unemployment or welfare, supposed to take more than what we are able to survive on. We are certainly expected to go back to work as soon as possible.

So what happened to the cookie jar here? I see a lot of companies and individuals with their hands out and their mouths open and they seem to be taking an awful lot of cookies, stuffing them in their pockets and forgetting about them. There's enough to share, you know. And we ARE all in this together.

Social Conscience. Fairness. There already IS a law about that. Or maybe it's a commandmant. Something important anyway.