Friday, March 10, 2017

Don't Make Me Hollah...


He was a droopy-eyed old timer, heavy around the middle, and when he strained in his folding chair to make change or rearrange his buckets you could see he had something wrong with one of his legs. But that didn’t prevent him from making serious eye contact with potential customers while bellowing like a beer vendor at Fenway Park.

“Don’t make me hollah, they’re only a dollah!” he would boom as I and hundreds of other commuters trudged past him to board our trains home. He was selling flower bouquets for a buck, and they were just the right size to carry on the train. Since he set up his cart at the main walkway to the platforms every weekday afternoon, anyone boarding a train had to walk right past him.

In the 1980s I walked by that guy most weekdays for almost five years, and I bought plenty of flowers from him, but I was young and preoccupied with my own issues so I never gave much thought to him or his business—and then I moved away. But recently, while planning a lesson on competition and competitive strategy, I started thinking about him and his business once again.

If you have studied economics at all, you probably know about Michael Porter and the work he has done on industry competition, particularly his “five forces” of competition model. You can watch him talk about that model here, but basically, Porter's five forces include competition from established and known rivals, new or emerging rivals, the threat of substitute products or services, as well as threats tied to the bargaining power of suppliers and customers. The weaker the forces, the more attractive the industry in terms of profitability.


As I remember it, the flower seller at North Station had no rivals on-site other than a more traditional flower shop inside the B&M terminal which offered a larger assortment of flower arrangements at much higher prices. I have no idea how he secured what seemed to be the exclusive right to sell flowers near the walkway to the train platforms, or why other competitors didn’t try to enter that space. Maybe he had competitors originally but drove them out of the market with low prices and superior location. Or maybe he had a special flower vendor’s license that was no longer available to potential competitors. I don’t know where he got his flowers, but I remember the wholesale flower exchange was not far away from the train station.

His sales transactions were quick, his product inexpensive. Impulse purchases were accommodated effortlessly--a commuter running for a train who decided to buy flowers from him could do so almost without breaking stride since he had just one price and he only accepted cash. Factor in the convenience and social usefulness of being able to purchase flowers at the last minute, particularly on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, and it’s not hard to understand why buyers didn’t try to negotiate purchase prices with him.

I don’t have all the details, of course, but at least in my memory that flower vendor seemed to be operating in an ideal market featuring weak forces of competition, steady product supply, reliable and predictable product demand, low price sensitivity and the opportunity to make a profit. In other words, he was one lucky flower vendor! He had no real competition, so he didn’t need to worry about sources of competitive advantage, but I am sure he had a value proposition in his head built around what benefit he provided, to whom, and how he provided it better than anyone else. Using Geoffrey Moore’s template (from Crossing the Chasm) to outline his value proposition, I imagine it might have been something like this:

Value Proposition
For Target Customer B&M Railroad commuters at North Station, Boston
Who Need or Opportunity
who want to bring flowers home as a surprise, or gift, or symbol of love and affection
Our Service/Category we are the only flower stand directly on the walkway to the trains
That Statement of Benefit and we offer a wide selection of fresh flower arrangements—quick, one low cost, no waiting.

The good news is that after reminiscing for a while I was able to include the flower vendor scenario as a case study in the lesson I was developing. The bad news is that my efforts to get additional details about him came up empty. I’d still like to know which of Porter’s five forces of competition eventually impacted his business, when, and how, and what he did to manage them.

I plan to keep digging, but if you (or someone you know) commuted by train from Boston’s North Station in the late 1980s, please send me an email (dean.harring@gmail.com) describing whatever you remember about that flower seller, his competitors, and the North Station marketplace in which he operated. It would be great to know the rest of his story.


Dean K. Harring is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at dean.harring@gmail.com or through LinkedIn or Harring Watercolors

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Work Doesn't Work

“The price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” –Henry David Thoreau
I spent most of my working life inside insurance companies, and as my job responsibilities increased, my workspaces improved dramatically. I started my career at a desk in a noisy bullpen with about fifty other people, and I ended it forty years later in a hushed and private executive office suite, but one thing was constant: I always had difficulty getting my work done while at work.

Noisy people, piped in music, ringing phones, scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings, offsite meetings, committee meetings, meeting invitations, scheduled and unscheduled visitors, emails, text messages, and seemingly endless requests from colleagues for input, collaboration or assistance interfered with my ability to focus and concentrate. So I came in early, and stayed late, I worked at home at night, or on the weekends, and on flights, in the quiet car on the train, and in hotel rooms, just so I could function without those interruptions and distractions. Many of my colleagues did the same thing. We were convinced that there weren’t enough hours in the work day to get our important work done, so we willingly exchanged “life” time for more “work” time.

Once I retired I realized that most of the work accomplished in those extra hours might have been urgent, but it wasn’t really that important. In retrospect, we probably would have been better off tackling the underlying problem, i.e., redesigning our workplace and reframing our work styles to make it possible for folks to actually get their work done while at work.

This all came back to me again recently when I listened to an HBR IdeaCast in which Basecamp CEO Jason Fried was interviewed by HBR’s Sarah Green-Carmichael. The topic: Restoring Sanity to the Office. You can read the full interview transcript and/or listen to the interview here. Some highlights of Fried’s observations:
  • You know, people go to work. And when you actually ask them when they get the work done it’s not typically during the day. It’s early in the morning, late at night, on the weekends, on a plane, on a train, somewhere else. And that’s always bugged me. It just doesn’t seem right.
  • It seems like something that, for whatever reason, people put up with. But they really shouldn’t.
  • It’s very hard to do really good work when you’re constantly being interrupted every 15 minutes, every 5 minutes, every 20 minutes, every 30 minutes.
  • Certainly there are some meetings that need to happen. But my point is that I want to push back on the fact that the meeting is the first resort. I think it should be the last resort.
  • The idea that we should just layer in more time because we’re inefficient with it and we waste it– I think, basically, if you really break down your day there is more opportunity to waste time than to use time in many companies.
Fried delivered a TED talk in 2010 (Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work) in which he identified the cause of the “work not happening at work” problem as M&Ms (Managers and Meetings.) Both interrupt work, and work interrupted can be every bit as damaging as sleep interrupted!

I work from home now and I control my own time and project schedule, so almost all my interruptions are voluntary and any distractions and time-wasting are of my own making. I work in a comfortable, quiet room, at my own pace, and I take breaks whenever I want to walk, or play with the neighborhood dogs, or fill the birdfeeders, or work on a watercolor portrait. I don’t have a manager interrupting me, and I only go to meetings I find interesting. I still keep a calendar, of course, but I have a different tool installed on my desktop that helps me think about how I am spending my time. It is called the countdown clock, and I installed it right after I heard Kevin Kelly (founding executive editor of Wired magazine) describe it during a Tim Ferriss podcast a while back. Based upon my birthdate, actuarial tables and a few other factors, the clock estimates how much time I likely have left on this earth.


You don’t have to be retired to use the countdown clock—it is nothing but a gentle, sobering reminder that time flies, no matter how you spend it. Kelly said it helps him think about what’s important each day. It helps me do the same thing, but it also helps me remember that exchanging “life” time for “work” time during my career probably wasn’t quite as important and necessary as I believed it was at the time.

Intrigued? You can read more about the countdown clock at Kevin Kelly’s blog and hear him talking about it in a short 2007 NPR interview here.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at dean.harring@gmail.com or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors