Looking for diamonds

Yesterday I was having lunch at Zivaz (my new favorite Mexican restaurant in Tucson) with Adam and Susan.   They’re back from Los Angeles with their Airstream, and eager to talk about all things new and interesting, which is part of why   the lunch went on for nearly three hours.

Sometime after the plates were cleared, our conversation turned to the incredible array of Internet-based communications technologies that people have adopted lately.   We were specifically fascinated by the options for self-promotion: blogs, forums, Facebook, MySpace, etc.   I was interested in how those technologies might merge with other Internet communications like Skype, instant messaging, video conferencing, and with communities like online forums, Yahoo Groups, Gather, and LinkedIn.   It feels like an important evolution is in the wind.

It feels this way partly because there are so many overlapping offerings, and partly because the speed of self-promotion has accelerated.   Blogs allow you to post your thoughts every day or even every hour if you care to.   With micro-blog sites like Twitter, you can now keep the world abreast of your activities on a minute-by-minute basis.   “I’m having lunch with friends at Zivaz,” my Twitter post might say, and later, “I’m shopping for hiking boots on the east side.”   People can subscribe to your Twitter stream and keep up with your updates via mobile phone, if they want.

Amazingly, people do. To   me, posting every turn on the road and every snack you eat on the Internet seems narcissistic, and this is coming from a guy who posted his daily activities on a blog for three years.   But people do it, and on that basis alone I have to study the phenomenon to understand why they do it.   The trivialities of another person’s life can be very relevant if that’s someone you care about.   There is value to almost any information, for someone, even if it doesn’t work for me.   (I imagine myself trying to keep up with my hourly activities and it feels like something you can only maintain with extreme diligence or an abundance of ego.)

The other reason I am watching new communications and networking technologies is because they are surprisingly relevant to publishing a magazine.   Being a publisher means you need to take an interest in all things, and being a print publisher means you are selling horses in a Model T world, so you’d better be looking carefully at The Next Big Thing.   I don’t want to end up like the guy who sold typewriters, telegraphs, or film cameras.

zoltar-speaks.jpgBack in a former career I was charged with sitting around my office and thinking about things like this.   It was a great job, because I got to dig into technology and sociology subjects that I found interesting, and then do a ZOLTAR act, presenting my best guess as to what the future held.   People paid well for this, because I was part of a tight little team that usually got it right.   (A few of my minor blatherings live on in the Internet as archived columns and press releases.   The things that survive that period are not necessarily representative of my best work, but the Internet answers to no one.)

Now in the publishing business, I find myself spending a lot of time doing the same work.   I’m not in the paper business, I’m in the information business, and so there will inevitably come a time when I need to disseminate my information in a different way.   The only questions are:   when, and how?

Everyone loves a crystal ball, even if it’s not always 100% spot on, because any hint of what’s coming helps ease our collective anxiety. It’s useful to me to build forecasts of the future so I can plan ahead, since Airstream Life is a quarterly with very long lead times.   The changes I want to make next summer and fall have to be planned today.

The trick is simply to listen critically, a skill not taught in most schools.   I trust my analytic skills but I’m not so vain as to think I know it all, so I listen.   I also don’t trust any single media outlet to be unbiased and accurate, so I criticize.   The media like to base their views on “consensus” of analysts, but having been in that industry I can tell you that the entire analytical field can be dead wrong and often is.   Just because a lot of people in the industry think (or want to believe) something is going to happen, doesn’t have anything to do with whether it does.   If you projected the accuracy rate of most analysts as a percentage, you’d find that weathermen do a lot better.

I’ll teach you how to be an analyst.   It’s like making jewelry.   You don’t start with a design in mind.   You start by digging through millions of tons of muck (perspectives of other people) trying to find a few diamonds in the rough (good ideas).   Then you clean up each diamond, check it for flaws (fact-checking), and if it meets your standard, you trim it up into something better.

Each diamond directs you to the ultimate jewelry that it should be.   Once you’ve got enough diamonds, you’ll see the finished pattern, and you can assemble your piece into a beautiful theory.   As long as you don’t force the process, it almost always works.

The failing of this process is when the underlying assumptions of the entire world are wrong.   You’d be amazed at how often that happens.   When the underlying assumptions are wrong, everyone’s theories are wrong by default.   For example, imagine all the weathermen predicting tomorrow’s high temperature.   If the sun goes nova, they’re all going to be wrong, aren’t they?

Analysts and academics excuse their errors in this regard by blaming “disruptive technology,” “quantum leaps,”   “hidden factors,” and a whole host of other terms.   What they mean is, “We didn’t see that coming.”   Technology people love this, because it always sounds good for them to call their latest invention “disruptive” or “game-changing” even if it isn’t.   It helps with raising money.   But a good analyst should never fall in love with their theories to the point that they forget to consider that all the underlying assumptions are dead wrong.

This explains why I like looking at our self-absorbed, noisy, and wildly diverse opinions. Sure, we may be becoming a nation of narcissists who post rants and idiotic opinions in public forums, but we are also a nation of people with ideas. Those ideas are going to form the basis of our future.   I want to know what those ideas are.

This is also why I am a rabid First Amendment supporter.   Some ideas are bad ideas, but quashing ideas is never good.  Once in a while I get a letter from someone “disappointed and disgusted” in the magazine for something I allowed to reach print.  Once it was a cartoon that was perceived as sexist, another time it was a photo considered racist.  Once I said something about a campground in a blog and a couple of people told me I shouldn’t criticize.  All of these people ran to what I call “the free market defense,” threatening to cancel their subscriptions.

I encourage that.   My opinion is that someone who thinks only their ideas and perspectives should be allowed in print, doesn’t deserve the benefits of a free press.   Those who are so inured to conflicting opinions or standards that they must refuse to accept a harmless travel magazine should probably stay home with the shades drawn.   So my approach is to politely share my view on the offending item, and then invite them to cancel if they can’t see their way to continuing to support the magazine.   I have never caved in to pressure of this type and I never will.

I think the magazine’s readers are generally tolerant people.   In four years of publishing I’ve gotten four or five hate letters.   Mostly the letters seem to come from unhappy people who feel victimized about all sorts of things. The rest of the bunch put up with whatever I produce.   I’m curious, however, to see if I get any reaction to the photo on page 44 of the new Winter 2008 issue (in the mail now).

We live in communities of people bound together by ideas and commonalities.   The magazine represents the centerpiece of American freedom and a centuries-old publishing tradition that helps hold communities together.   Somewhere down the road — soon, I hope — we will expand the role of the magazine to encompass the fascinating Internet technologies that are developing and integrating right now.   If we do it right, we’ll grow stronger (both as a business and as a community), and have more fun. I’m looking forward to that.

It’s the end of the mall as we know it

The economy is collapsing and it’s partially my fault.

You see, for the past three years I wrote about how happy we were in the Airstream, traveling full-time and living cheap. We didn’t buy much, we didn’t throw much away, and we were happy with less stuff in our lives.   We were free of the trap of consumerism, having less and enjoying life more.   And this was bad.

Bad because apparently, other people listened.   They listened to me, and to Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, and the people who advocate “Buy nothing day” the day after Thanksgiving.   They listened to newspapers and TV stations too, who told them that we were all going to consumer hell this year, and consequently people slowed down their shopping and now we’re all in economic quicksand.

I will admit that I was happy during our three years of minimalist living.   Heck, it took that long just to get rid of the surplus stuff we’d acquired during a dozen years of homeownership.   (We’re still using up the last of the hotel soap collection.) In those three years we had less each year than the year before, and we liked it.   Life was simpler, we didn’t have to worry about money nearly as much, and we didn’t waste energy coveting or caring for expensive things.

But now my frugal message has come back to haunt me.   Earlier this year people started to think twice before buying big-ticket items, and the toys went first.   That meant RV sales slowed down.   Manufacturers of RVs started dying (Nu-Wa, National RV, Western RV, Alfa Leisure, Weekend Warrior, Pilgrim International, Travel Supreme, Ameri-Camp).   All the rest have cut back production and laid off staff.

Then the OEMs who supply parts to the RV industry slowed down — things like vent fans and hitches.   And so all the OEMs called me up and said, “Sorry, but things are slow, so we’re canceling our advertising program.”

Ouch. We just lost another one this morning.   It’s very frustrating when you lose customers, even more so when they are long-term customers who love your product but are just hitting hard times.   It’s downright scary when you realize that if too many more of them bail out, you will be next.

So I take it back.   I didn’t mean it.   Buying stuff is really fun, it’s educational, it will make you sexier and improve your skin quality.   Especially if you buy things for your RV.   You need stuff.   Stuff makes the world go round.

Perhaps it’s not all my fault, however.  It’s very popular to blame “the housing market,” as if the houses themselves were somehow at fault.   Apparently those houses were building themselves into a frenzy, and they told people to buy them for ridiculous prices on speculation, and encouraged people to take out huge loans against theoretical value.   Then those darned houses decided not to perform anymore and tipped over the world economy.

At least, that’s what the Administration is claiming.   The banks, the mortgage companies, the developers, the speculators, and all the regulators from the local to federal levels were just victims of this terrible, house-instigated tragedy.  As were those of us who took out huge HELOCs to buy even bigger flat-screen TVs.   At least, that’s the theory.

I have a little trouble buying that, because in many ways the decline of consumerism has been forecastable for a while. “Is the mall dead?” asks Newsweek, citing the fact that 2007 was the first time in 50 years that a new indoor mall didn’t open somewhere in the country.   It’s one of many signs that our society has peaked in its interest in buying stuff.

The idea that we could just endlessly increase our consumption to drive the economy was fun for a while, but in the end it is just another Ponzi scheme doomed to collapse eventually.   In addition to selling stuff, you’ve got to build value, not just keep landfills busy.   Besides, economics aren’t just numbers, they are the result of human behavior, and in this case we have a huge wave of people called Baby Boomers who are changing the entire world with their economic clout.   Right now they are retiring, which means they don’t buy big houses as much.

But they are interested in RVs, thankfully, and Boomers drove an enormous wave of RV industry growth from 2001 through 2007.   In total self-interest, I hope that they will resume their profligate RV-buying ways very soon.   We don’t have to worry about RV speculation becoming a plague on the economy later.   Everyone who buys an RV accepts up-front that it will depreciate like a car, and they don’t harbor hopes of selling it at a killer profit next year or taking out a second loan on it to buy a house.   It actually makes a weird kind of sense for Boomers to crack that piggy bank 401-K and go shopping for the travel trailer of their dreams.

Incidentally, I suggest an Airstream. Not only are dealers hungry to sell, but each new Airstream comes with a free one-year subscription to Airstream Life magazine.   See, you’ve already saved $16.   Everyone knows that in America it’s not how much you spent, it’s how much you saved.   So go out there and do me a favor: save me.

Even though you’ll be buying something, in the end your Airstream will return more on your investment than any other thing I can imagine.   You’ll find quality of life that is independent of how much stuff you have.   You’ll discover the joy of simplicity and less obligations.   Like us, you’ll find that once you’re out there on the road, less is more.

But this time, let’s just keep that a secret.

Good news from the economic downturn

There were many reasons we decided to settle into a house without wheels for a while, but one was to get serious about my small business.   For the past three years I’ve juggled work and travel, and it has worked, but I often felt that if I spent more time concentrating on the business, I’d be able to come up with ways to make it run better.   Parking ourselves in a house would yield bonus time that was formerly spent driving and dealing with other overhead associated with travel.

The economic recession has only spurred the need for me to really concentrate on the business.   Niche magazine publishing is not a great way to get wealthy even in the best of times.   With a worldwide economic crisis coupled with a recession in the RV industry, my little magazine is in the crosshairs.

We’ve already been pummeled a bit in 2007.   While people keep subscribing to Airstream Life at the same rate as the previous year, several advertisers have abandoned most or all of their advertising program.   (Talk about a self-defeating strategy.   People are still traveling and using their Airstreams — check any state park or campground for proof.)   Panic is never pretty, and it’s never the right choice.

I’m writing very frankly about this because I think there need to be a few voices to counter the constant negative bombardment in the popular media.   People are getting too caught up in what happened on Wall Street this morning, and forgetting to see the bigger picture.   There are opportunities in a downturn.   In times of war, promotions happen fast.   You can sit on the sidelines and wait for it all to be over or you can get in the game.   However you say it, adopting a position of passive fear or active retrenchment is not going to advance your cause.

The RV industry slowdown has been apparent since the beginning of 2007, so we’ve been working to mitigate the damage all year.   To get the message out, Brett has posted some essays about the value of advertising in a downturn, and privately he’s been counseling our advertisers on ways to intelligently respond to market conditions.   A few have listened, and they seem to be surviving very well.   The companies that understand the value of marketing intelligently when others are running scared will have long-term advantage over their competitors.

Of course, when you sell ads to people, those ads had better work.   So we’ve offered free ad re-designs to our clients, to improve the results they get from their ads.   Those who have taken advantage of that service are reporting great results.   We’ve also been seeking out small businesses with relatively recession-proof business models, as new clients, and we opened up a new — inexpensive — advertising section just for them. We’ve also offered creative ways for our advertisers to be able to afford their ads, including accepting credit cards and product or service trades.

But in the last few weeks, it has become obvious to everyone (even the Commander-in-Chief, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Alan Greenspan, apparently the last three people to figure it out) that the financial crisis is deeper and will last longer than at first expected.   That means my efforts have to go far beyond just shoring up the current clients and seeking new ones.   It’s time to look for efficiencies and cuts that can help sustain us for a long time.

Now, all this might seem enormously depressing.   I admit that at first I was dismayed as well, but then I realized that finding efficiencies in my business could actually be fun.   Like selling, it’s a task that can be a rewarding game. The trick to stretching a recipe is to make the end result taste the same, and that requires creativity, which is the fun part.

So every few days I try to come up with another idea to either save money or increase revenue.   The ideas can range anywhere from sweeping changes to little tiny ones.   It doesn’t matter how big the savings are, just that I keep coming up with new ideas.   I figure that if I keep up the challenge long enough, eventually I’ll find ways to secure Airstream Life against the storm.

For example, a week ago I talked to the guys at the Verizon store and discovered that by combining our two cellular phones (one on Sprint, the other on Verizon) into a single “Family Share” plan, I could cut monthly expense by $50.   That’s a no-brainer, so we did it.   Two weeks ago, we finalized two new products that we can sell through our online web store for the holiday shopping season, so they are on order and should be available by Nov 1.     (We’ll have a cute little Airstream model and some improved aluminum tumblers.)

Other ideas:   We’re reducing complimentary copies sent to advertisers, to cut waste.   We’re using a slightly lighter paper on the magazine cover.   I switched my Amex card from a Gold card with $100 annual fee, to a no-fee card that gives 5% back on fuel purchases.   We’re offering discounts to advertisers who pay for their ads early.   I’m cutting back on travel mileage and rallies (but still planning at least five months of travel in 2009). We’re promoting back issue sales a little more aggressively.   It all helps.

Some ideas actually increase our expenses but will pay off in the long run.   For example, we switched web hosting providers.   The new web host costs $500 per year (compared to $99 per year for the old one).   But the magazine will save money and time overall, because the new host is much more reliable and I won’t have to pay a tech $1,000 per year to fix the problems caused by the cheap-o service we used to use.

I’ve also looked at the long term, and used the “what-if” scenarios to develop strategies to ensure that we’ll be a survivor no matter what happens.   That means having a plan for emergencies, building up savings, reviewing and sometimes renegotiating contracts, etc.   That’s good too.

In the past few months of thinking about this, I’ve come up with literally dozens of small changes that have made the business more profitable.   Some of them are big ideas that will take months or even years to implement.   A lot of them are penny-ante things.   But even if they don’t add up to a lot of financial difference, it has been worth the exercise simply for the improvement in efficiency.   Because I’ve been forced by economic conditions to re-evaluate everything, the business has been improved — tempered by fire, in a sense.

So I am glad for the challenge.   The slump, downturn, recession, or whatever you care to call it, has been a good thing. Once in a while a little bump is good to shake you out of your complacency. Our advertisers will get better service from us, the business will be stronger, and you’ll keep getting Airstream Life magazine.

So never mind what’s happening on Wall Street this week.   Don’t get paranoid and start stocking up on beans, Band-Aids, and bullets.   Plan to thrive on the downturn and you’ll be one of the first folks to smile when things turn around.