Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cranes over London

Outside the Tate, Friday was a beautiful early fall day in London.  The weather was warm, the tourists had gone, and the bridges and buildings were chiseled against the sky. Cranes pierce the cityscapes at every angle, blooming in bright primary colors.  ‘really a lovely day to wander and catch a few photographs (and a South American clown show at the National Theater cafĂ©).




London Sept 11 45 Stitch  


Friday, September 2, 2011

Miro at the Tate

Back in the UK, with a backlog of Dutch things to talk about.  I think it’s going to be a week of nibble-posts while I tee up the pictures and stories.

I am glad to have gotten to London today to see the Joan Miro exhibit at the Tate Modern.  It features 150 works, arranged in chronologic order and grouped to reflect the main periods of his work. (there are a couple of similar chronologies available online).

Miro sculptureAlthough there are a few sculptures on display, they aren’t really representative: I prefer the Miro Gardens at the Fondation Maeght above Nice or the Funcacio Joan Miro in Barcelona.  His work are colorful and playful: I like the bold blue fields and red accents in his paintings, the blobby bouncing creatures that fill his imagination.

The Tate exhibit emphasizes his political and surreal roots, though, leading viewers through the symbolism and emotion Joan Miro-Constellation The Morning Starthat they believe dominates the works.  Walking through the chronologic series of Constellation paintings, for example, the commentary described how one paintings reflected his tension, the next his relief; anger anger at a political development ahead of serenity on returning home.  The political emotion was lost on me, and I wonder if it wasn’t a rationalized narrative to like disparate doodles.

Kandinsky - Composition VII

I wish that they would have taken up a narrative contrasting him with Kandinsky (Composition VII is shown above).  Superficially, they both look like collections of lines and circles.  But Miro had a much more obvious symbolism in his works.  The exhibit shows clearly how concrete, specific items became representations in later works: Catalonian caps, men, stars, women, ladders, each with a very specific meaning that was carried throughout his paintings.  Kandinsky evolved from concrete representations to an abstract language where the lines stood for minimalist elements of the scene rather than the meaning within objects.

Miro - Man and a Woman in front of a pile of excrementMiro- Two Philosophers  Miro - Nocturne

Once again, photography is not allowed in the exhibit – I think that’s a mistake when lots of people want to remember a favorite painting that they may never see again, and students arte studying and contrasting detail in the works.  My favorite three paintings, fortunately, were all available on the web: distorted men and women against surrealist landscapes (two philosophers Miro-  Head of a catalan peasantarguing in the blue one).  Their combination of fauve colors, symbolic appendages, and whimsical distortions captures Miro better for me that treatises about how his paintings were intended as sly jabs at Franco.

The exhibit is around for another week – 2-for-1 entry available from the National Rail site.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

We’re all in the Mittelstand now - II

business planFollowing on my previous thoughts, I don’t think that most people have the breadth, the resources, the energy, the desire to be entrepreneurs.  So what are the alternatives when the corporate and government pools of positions are shrinking?

People do have specific skills, domains where their ideas, training, and experiences have made them successful.  They know the processes for doing things; they know who to call to get it done.  At a level of running projects, rather than businesses, they can be outstanding.

A recent article in the Dutch Daily proposes that temp jobs may be the right answer.  In 2010, 6.3 million people were employed in the Netherlands, 6 percent with a temporary contract and the prospect of a permanent appointment, and 9 percent flex workers (agency or standby).  The number of temp positions grew at 2% in the last quarter, while the number of hours worked by temps increased by 4%.

So, salad days for temps?    The Dutch blog Ernst’s Economy for You notes two contrary trends: continuing pressure on the price per hour for consultancy and the declining duration of consultancy contracts.   Both are probably driven by an excess supply of temp workers, allowing employers to choose frugally from a pool of qualified talent without making long-term commitments.

Still, I think that freelancing is probably the right answer, even if  temporary work is problematic.

ZZPThe Dutch promote the idea of a Zelfstandige zonder personeel (ZZP: an independent without employees).  Until 2001, these independent workers had to register within specific professions and have diplomas in relevant fields; rules are now relaxed and ZZP-ers make up 10% of the Dutch workforce.  Their lot might further be improved by building guilds around groups of contractors able to encourage standards, develop reputational rankings, and act as a clearing house for employers seeking qualified labor.

But this is still a skill-centric exercise rather than product-centric one.  I know that when I look for skilled help with a project, I need someone who can design my component or validate my process, not just an electrical engineer or a clinical manager.  It may take a mix of people and skills to deliver on my specification, not an individual.

This is where I like the Mittelstand: small, often family-owned, enterprises which focus on doing one thing better than anyone else in the world (or, as Seth Godin phrases it, being the first, most natural people to call when faced with a particular problem). Mittelstand Stats (2) They gather craftsmen, professionals, and administrators who work together to deliver a focused, innovative, high value manufactured product or service.

The Mittelstand lie somewhere between freelance consultancy and angel-led entrepreneurship.  They focus on leveraging the specific skills and networks that individual workers have, while selling a B2B product as a business.  It seems to me that it may be a more tractable model of how someone could grow an undefined consultancy into a specialty business without taking on all of the distractions of creating and running a small corporation.

The Financial Times ran an analysis on these themes a month ago (A fix that functions: resilient German and Dutch Labor Markets) that I’ve been carrying with me and thinking about.  As always, I’m not claiming that any single economy has all the answers. But in difficult times, governments and markets need to look for new ideas and alternative examples.  A strategy to encourage formation of high-value, product driven Mittelstand, rather than entrepreneurial ventures, is worth exploring.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

We’re all in the Mittelstand now - I

I teach a MedTech course at the University of Cambridge each spring, partly to convey product insight and process tips, but also to inspire students to build a business around their ideas.  “You can do this!” we exhort: Build a company, market a product, raise financing, and exit with a fortune.


Politicians are sounding the same themes.  Obama, Perry, Romney have all given speeches advocating pro-growth policies that unleash entrepreneurship and create new jobs.  In the UK, David Cameron pledged support for "the doers and grafters, the inventors and the entrepreneurs who get this economy going." The high-profile Startup America Partnership seeks to “maximize the success of America’s entrepreneurs – and maximize America’s competitiveness in an increasingly global world”; a similar Startup Britain is up and running.  (No Startup Nederland yet…)

Their goal is to give people with ideas the encouragement, knowledge, tools, cash, and personal support that allow them to take the plunge.  But I don’t think that friction stands in the way of many committed entrepreneurs.

Rather, I believe that most people just aren’t cut out for it.

Startup Britain

Running a business is difficult – I feel like I spend most of my time on things that are off-center from creating an innovative product and marketing it to customers.  I just spent three days (over the weekend) on finances, accounting, and VAT, collecting records and scanning receipts.  I spent months pitching ideas to angels: bank financing was never an option.  A press release is a major negotiation between lawyers, universities, and investors: I’d have guessed it took two days, we’re dragging into three weeks.

No matter how easy you try to make starting a business, it still takes all of these things, and more, to succeed.  I know that starting a business later in life has given me advantages of seeing how things are done inside successful corporations: knowing the process, passing through the regulations, pitching a customer.  I have networks of colleagues who bring skills and resources; I have experiences and presentation skills that reassure investors.  I had a severance package that supported my first year and relationships that let me earn money consulting while the business found its legs.

I’m not surprised, then, that so few students take the plunge.  Similarly, I understand why simple political moves to showcase role models,e xhort banks, and cut regulations fail to spur entrepreneurship.  For most people, it’s just not a practical alternative, no matter how desirable it looks from the macro perspective.

But I think that there’s a good alternative…