Saturday, September 26, 2009

Beelden van mijn buurt

Take a look out your window: take in your familiar sights and sounds. Houses, streets, trees, people: you instictively know where to fgo to ind your friends, and where you'd go for good food once you met up. It's become a neighborhood.
Scholars say a neighborhood is more than just a local geographic region, rather, it's a community where you know people on sight and everyday goods are convenient and accessible. It may include elements of culture, trust, heritage, or safety: a place that you fit into. To me, it's just a place that is familliar without thinking about it, where I know where to find the things I need, the people I know, and the services I depend on.
So, this first weekend in autumn, I thought we'd just walk around the block together; taking in some beelden van mijn buurt (images of my neighborhood)...

My immediate block is an area of Dutch row houses along the Maas River. It lies between the De Hoge Brug (the High Bridge) and Sint Servaasbrug (St. Servius' bridge), running two streets back along the shore. The Wyck (from wijk, quarter or district) is a conmfortable jumble of shops, restaurants, and residences with more river traffic than automoble. In the US, we'd somewhat dismissively call this a mixed-use area, unusual as compared to our homogenous and partiitioned suburban zoning.:

The shoreline where I live is closed to cars, so the only sounds drifting up to the balcony are the clatter of bicycles on the cobblestones (left) and the murmers of pedestrians enjoying an outing. The south end of the neighborhood is bounded by 1992 Plein, created by local architecht Jo Coenen during redevelopment of the old ceramic factory site (he also created Amsterdam's Openbare Bibliotheek). In addition to holding the city's library and theater complex (right), the square contains essentials like our Albert Hijn (grocery) and Blokkers (housewares) stores.
Just around the corner from the Plein is the favored ice cream store, Luna Russa. Filled with parents and children on warm aftternoons, its mountains of iridescent flavors are as much a lanndmmark as.the nearby architectural towers.

The street behind the riverfront, Rechtstraat, is filled with specialty restaurants and boutiques, laced with allleyways like Kattenstraat (yes, there are cats...). But I also enjoy the trees, already shading into their fall colors, and the distant view of St. Martinus Church (right, below) each time I come through this part of town. Where the old city can feel winding and close, the gentle curves and longer sightlines keep this area feeling more open and warm.


Left around the corner again is Wycker Brugstraat (right, above), our main thoroughfare linking Maastricht's train station with the city across the St Servius bridge. Bicycles and pedestrians far outnumber cars, especially the mornings as students flow to school and again in the evening after the shops close at 5.
The best thing about the neighborhood is how it's always full of ordinary people and everyday life, whether sharedas a couple, in a crowd, or at a festival.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Definitions of success

I try to set aside time for reading and writing each morning: today I ended up reflecting on an essay from the E-Myth business group regarding their definition of success as "The process of building a business that 'works'". More specifically,
  1. It fulfills your life's passions and dreams
  2. It is an asset that supports your life
I like the ordering, first viewing my business as a vehicle for creating the life I want and for having a positive impact on others. Yet it's easy to see success strictly in terms of the second, in terms of commissions, structures, and cash-flows. In the rush of leaving the corporation and starting my new business, did I get the balance right? I've been an 'expat-indie' for a full quarter now, so this morning felt like a good time to take stock of how things are going in light of these ideals.
Why create a new business in the Netherlands? For myself, I wanted to work with creative energetic people on innovative medical technology projects, and I wanted to live in Europe. For impact, I wanted to bring significant clinical innovations to patients, and I wanted to build a mentoring / incubating consultancy that could assure that good ideas don't get lost.
My expertise is in clinical diagnostics, remote monitoring, and patient data management; my passion is for shepherding great ideas through a process that establishes feasibility, packages the product, and defines the business.  There's an underlying image of connecting raw concept with established feasibility through a solid process, spanning a difficult gap and providing people with passage. It led to adopting the metaphor of a bridge as the basis for thinking about the company.
Stone Bridge Biomedical BV, with an image of the venerable structure over the Maas River and a 'leaping span' symbol, was incorporated with this purpose. Its niche domain is remote patient monitoring systems, and, with a European base and an operating arm in the US. it can take advantage of geography to speed development and reduce costs for new product introductions. I've been fortunate to find early opportunities to work with companies actively developing great product ideas in this area, and am pleased that Stone Bridge hits its first full quarter with a solid structural base and positive cash flow.
Personally, it's been a tumble of activity: half time spent on client contracts, the other half on raising the BV's structures and services. I've simultaneously needed to make a complete transition from corporate expatriate contract to independent residency. It was both exhilarating and frightening: the opportunity to define a life and get things moving again, but still limited by time and funds available for the transition. Cutting the corporate connection was a constant tug between regret and resolve, giving up friends and security to get opportunity and momentum. The question "Why Europe" came up again and again: the answer was always connections with people, lifestyle, travel, and life balance. It was a conscious choice that forces future commitment to embrace the people, language, and economics of living in the Netherlands. Giving up the car for a bike and a train pass is only a start.
Still, it's been a full and fun few months, and I'm looking forward to Autumn.

There's lots to do in the next quarter. I need to establish a brand and message, supported by a web site and occasional blog. It's time to reconnect with my professional network and to qualify contractors able to support the business's tasks and needs better than I can. I'd like to ramp up the level of activity, expanding or adding work.
Personally, establishing the right balance in life will be important, more fully adopting the firm Dutch distinction between work and not-work time. My residency needs to get firmly established and I need to build in time for travel, friends, and language. I especially want to figure out how to integrate the important personal connections to family and to Cambridge.
In the end, I come back to the principle of building a business that enables and supports the life I want, to have the business work for me rather than the other way around. The ways that ambition, balance, and connections get defined and realized in both professional and personal life continues to be a constant issue for study and reflection.
And I'm making good progress.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Struggling with Sony service

Why do companies that make great products back them up with abysmally poor support and service?

The Global Command Center needed a smoking hot computer to keep it humming, and I spent months researching specs and visiting showrooms to qualify the candidates. There is nothing worse than having a consultant drag in a cheap netbook or underpowered laptop, then waste everyone's time waiting for it to boot up before a document can be retrieved or a presentation started. I wanted something light, peppy, stylish, bright, a pleasure to use, a featherweight to carry.
After a lot of looking, I settled on a Sony Vaio Z, a lovely 13-inch laptop in a rugged carbon-fiber case with a nimble 3 GHz processor and shockingly bright screen. It has a full-sized keyboard and skinny little form factor: after 10 years of dragging corporate Dells through airports, this is a delight. I keep it in a small (Apple) carrying case slipped into my shoulder bag: when I reach the worksite it boots in about 20 seconds. The long-life battery lasts for a full plane ride and there's enough memory and drive space to keep even Vista happy. I'm thrilled, especially since Sony cut a deal for 15% discount and two-years no payment / no interest financing.
'Ordered in early July, shipped mid-month, arrived for my visit to Seattle. No problems at all for the first two weeks as I configured, loaded software, and made friends with my new laptop. Then, in mid-August, trouble: a blue screen of death appeared every time I unplugged a USB cable. It turns out that Microsoft had shipped a bad update that corrupted 64-bit Vista; eventually they sent a patch that resolved the problem.

But in trying to figure out the cause of the problem, I discovered a small crack in the lower case at the upper right hinge. It loomed large immediately; it's a stress point near the socket for the power cord and next to an airflow vent. So I called Sony Service to see if I could get the plate swapped.
  • Call Sony Netherlands, please, and they will help you. Sony Netherlands has never heard of a Z-790 and cannot help with the problem (1 week).
  • Call Sony Customer Support, please, and they will help you. No, your warranty covers internal electronics, not external parts. Please call Sony ServiceNet (1 week).
  • You need an accidental damage warranty: please call Customer Support. No, you can't buy that warranty more than 30 days after placing the order. Let me try to get my managers to agree to an exception. (1 week, then an e-mail saying 'No').
  • To Sony Sales: I just purchased a new computer and I cannot get a potentially pre-existing problem fixed. Can you help me? Let me transfer your call and file to someone who can. (A series of baffled agents, each without a file and only some of whom have working computers, swat me from desk to desk for three hours).
  • To Sony Customer Care Ombudsman: Can anyone help with this? Of course we can, let me get a supervisor (hands the phone to the agent at the next desk who lowers their voice and sounds official). Transferred to service / sales, they tell me that there is no credit for time spent chasing through the system, I am outside the period for buying a warranty, the problem is not covered, thank you for calling Sony.
  • Three days later I receive an e-mail survey asking whether I am pleased and satisfied with their customer care. I dump my experiences onto it, but there is no follow-up.
It's a frustrating experience: I probably spent ten hours on the phone trying to get a replacement part that should have been trivial for a six-week old laptop. Every department was disconnected from the others, nobody had responsibility or accountability, everyone handed the problem off. Inevitably, this will factor into the recommendation I make to others and into any decision to purchase Sony products in the future.
Yet companies do it all the time.
Customers have a longer connection with service and support than they ever will with sales and shipping.  So why make the sales relationship so warm and supportive, then make the user experience so difficult and unproductive?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Paying my income taxes

Remember Steve Forbes' pitch that your tax return should fit on the back of a postcard?
My US and Dutch tax returns arrived from the Deloitte last week, and they were a study in contrasts. The US return weighed in at 71 pages of dense pose, boxes, exhibits, and supporting declarations. In all fairness, a typical year runs about a third of that, and I did manage to avoid the dread Alternative Minimum Tax this yes. The foreign earnings declarations and various tax equalization qualifications bulked it up considerably; I appreciate having good help to get all of this information organized. Still, the instructions to "Review and approve" the transactions and reports in the forms, many of which were hidden all year, is an exercise in trust and faith. Beyond the obvious mistakes, there's little to argue with.

Contrast that with my corresponding Netherlands tax return.
The Dutch divide income into three groupings, called Boxes.
Box 1 captures wages, with a progressive tax for each earnings band up to the maximum of 52% above 55,000 euro. Mortgage interest and savings plan contributions are deducted from this number.
Box 2 is a flat 25% tax on business income, including dividends and capital gains.
Box 3 is a flat 1.2% on the total value of savings and investment (not just interest).
In practice, it makes for a very simple return, even for a complicated person like me.

     Two pages.

         Steve Forbes would be proud.

(and, no, seriously, I never voted for Steve)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

At home with Installation Art

The Wall Street Journal magazine (European edition) is a glossy quarterly dedicated to the good life, as envisioned by corporate high-fliers. It has articles on fast cars, oversized jewelry, exotic destinations and world culture. I ended up thumbing an issue left on my seat at a recent layover, and was fascinated by an article depicting the hazards of Installation Art.

The business of creating, trading, and collecting art is complex and subtle (Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World is a fun introduction). Much of the art that patrons take home can be hung or mounted beneath a focused spotlight, giving character and style to the surrounding space. Installation Art, though, is different: they are designed to transform space rather than to complement it.

Ron Mueck’s outsized, lifelike sculptures of distorted human figures are a good example. These compositions are amazing in museums, but what would it be like to have one move in with you? They require outsized rooms for display and laborious cleaning to maintain their integrity. They dominate the space around them. It’s hard to imagine normal life in a room occupied by one: could you encourage casual dinner conversation when a naked giant hovers over the table?
The article concludes that few buyers are able (or willing) to adapt their homes and lives to the demands of these three-dimensional compositions, even questioning whether these pieces can still offer some promise of profits and respect. It’s all relative to scale, I suppose. In a small space, any work that dominates the room also defines it. In my apartment, the only thing that carries that weight is my collection of books, overflowing shelves along the facing wall. Many Dutch homes are similar: plants, pianos, and bookshelves paint a public face behind curtainless windows to tell passers-by something about the tenant.

Still, maybe it would be fun to be the only one on my street with a giant looking back out.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The aspirational elite

Back in town, back on-line. I didn’t anticipate being scarce for the whole week, but it’s harder to justify $10 for an hour of Internet time when I’m paying for it myself. So, the week became a good opportunity to enjoy travel, new places, old friends, and a variety of experiences. Not a bad thing. And it’s nice to come back to lots of unread mail and blog posts and to catch up with what everyone has been doing.

Air travel always seems like a difficult gateway to any trip: the airports are regimented, security is a constant problem with packing and unpacking, dressing and undressing, airlines are indifferent and sometimes punitive in their interpretation of customer service. But the ads demonstrate that they all know how they could get it right and that, for upper-tier passengers, they do.

The airports are full of movies showing the privileges awaiting first-class fliers. I watched one where an immaculately tailored businessman dashed out the front door of an airliner, smiling into his phone, giving the flight attendant a quick handshake, then diving into an adjacent car. I have to wonder what he does and how he managed to do it before age 30. (…and more first-class moments with Susan and Brandon can be found here). As a frequent traveler, it’s all unrecognizable: I’m waiting for a delayed flight, surrounded by carry-ons, reading a second-hand newspaper, trying to decide whether to spend ten euro on a salad-in-a-cup.

I know, it’s aspirational, not real. But there are two things that grate.

First, it demonstrates that the air travel industry knows what people want, can communicate it back, and can even deliver it when asked nicely. For the heaving masses, though, they simply refuse.
Second, it plays to a sense of entitlement that I think is at root of the banking and bonus issues. Respect should be earned by deed, but the subliminal message is that it can be conferred by wealth. Money buys perks; perks signify status, status demands deference, an anonymous form of respect. If video games desensitize our children to violence, would aspirational ones drive rising executives towards excess?