Thursday, May 19, 2011

Old Dog. New Tricks.

As a proud University of Texas graduate, I had a dream of my offspring following the same
path of higher education, walking the same halls of the 40 acres-plus teaching facilities, cheering on the Longhorns from the student section of the football stadium, the baseball field or the basketball arena, just like the old man.  With four children, what are the chances that at least one of them would pick up my passion and carry the torch of my alma mater?

The first child out the door, Anne, landed at TCU.  The first-born son and second child out the door, Michael, landed at Texas A&M, and he enrolled in the Corps of Cadets.  How deep can the dagger go, I wondered?  I found TCU to be acceptable.  However, the Aggie experience was a whole different story.

I willingly wore purple on visits to the Ft. Worth campus, but during my visits to A&M, I don neutral white or any other color besides maroon.  In gentlemanly fashion, and as a demonstration of support to my son, I even avoid wearing burnt orange.  What’s a father to do when his house is divided?

When the going gets tough on freshman cadets — to the point of making them want to quit — a father encourages them to hang in there, be tough.  This is not forever, I tell my cadet son.  Just endure, I say.  I wonder who has to endure the most, especially on Thanksgiving Day when my alma mater goes down in flames at its attempt to play football against the Texas A&M Aggies.  My oldest son cheers, and I change the subject.

Now, at the conclusion of the first year for my little Aggie cadet, Michael proudly demonstrates his achievement in his final review march around Kyle Field.  The achievement for Ryan Crawford, Michael’s best friend since first grade and fellow freshman cadet in another corps unit, is receiving the right as Mascot Corporal.  The distinction for the friend — and someone who we consider as part of the family — is that he now is the caretaker for Reveille, the Texas A&M mascot.  The responsibility is coveted by many, and is a 24/7 job.  This means, when Ryan comes to our house to hang out, so does the mascot of the nemesis.

Where does one draw the line, I wonder anew?  How can this be happening to me, when my beloved college campus sits just a mile down the road from my home?  As I offer my congrats to the new Mascot Corporal, I followup with a question, “Does that mean the dog comes into our home with you?”  The heads of loyal Aggie fans surrounding me turn in my direction with looks of disdain.  I used the “D” word in reference to the “lady.”  This is something I never learned while attending The University.  Dogs were dogs, and Bevo the Longhorn was the mascot.

Now, out of support as a father and father-like friend, I must learn a new trick of dog hospitality, shedding hair and all.  The Texas A&M mascot Reveille crossed the threshold of my home, and she fears not.
Take me home, Jesus.  Take me now, for surely these are the end times.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Big City Thinking

A few stories in today's Austin American-Statesman convey to me a larger story, if you will allow me to connect the dots.

The lead story that I have been waiting to read for more than a week reveals the aggressive plans by the Waller Creek Conservancy to cultivate $60 million of public-private support for transforming a 15-block stretch of prime real estate that currently is underutilized, except as a haven for the transient population. The founders of the conservancy are presenting Austin an opportunity to take a giant step forward toward inclusion in a handful of elite U.S. cities. The creation of an urban greenbelt along the eastern portion of downtown Austin mimics what few cities have tackled. Taking on the challenge that cities like New York, Chicago and Houston have accomplished well, puts our capital city in a cluster of good company. Houston's inclusion may be debatable by some. A good dream or vision needs champions, and Melanie Barnes, Tom Meredith and Melba Whatley create a strong founding team of advocates for what will further distinguish Austin's attractiveness from other places to visit. Unfortunately, the conservancy's new logo falls flat on design and appears disconnected to the group's aggressive positioning.

Another smaller story inside today's morning newsprint was a brief about local Austin neighbor (Spicewood, TX) Scott Jeffress, and his idea of pitching a television show about eight young and fearless professionals who have zeroed in on Austin, "the most exciting city in Texas," according to Jeffress. His success as one of the executive producers of Jersey Shore gives him credibility and insight into what captures today's viewing audience. If Jeffress continues his success, the spillover is another rainmaker for Austin's visibility and tourism. Reality shows drive awareness and fuels attraction for places and trends. Dallas experienced this benefit while primetime TV viewers were captivated by oil money, soap-opera scripts.

The final story of today puts a silver lining on the future of our U.S. economy. Pent up purchasing demand is beginning to rip the seams of fear that have suppressed people from spending as much as they would like. A recent AP survey of leading economists express optimism that our economy will grow faster every quarter this year. Even the higher cost of filling a Texan's F-150 pick up is not preventing the spending necessary to encourage the economy. This is the same encouragement that helps fuel optimism for the Waller Creek Conservancy, and adds energy to the Austin lifestyle that Jeffress most likely wants to capture and convey to the world.

Connect the dots for yourself. Austin is on the move, and the world is going to be watching.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

You Will With Apple

Imagining a future that leverages the benefits of innovative technology is not a dream reserved solely for Millennials. The Baby Boom Generation helped stretch our imaginations about what was possible. A company called AT&T, in an effort to reposition its brand to be more innovative and to appeal to a younger demographic for its loyalty, launched an aggressive campaign in the early 1990s called, "You Will."

The repositioning placed heavy emphasis on technology's influence on mobility and flexibility, and it blurred the lines between work and family lives. Today, that is our reality. In the course of a regular business day, we bounce in and out of different worlds, depending on the phone call, email, text or Twitter interruption. Work, marriage, kids, school, and new opportunities clamor for our attention. Technology got us to this place and technology will be our savior.

AT&T's attempt to be the iconic innovator worked well in its advertising campaign long ago, but failed miserably in the marketplace because the company could not deliver fast enough on the expectation it created. However, Apple is standing in the gap quite well as today's innovative brand. The, "You Will," concept works well with Apple, because it creates a vision for reinvention at a time when we need it most. And because we "need" it, we will buy it. We seem to be buying it from Apple more because it delivers to our needs with creativity and style.

Just when I began to detest Apple (see my earlier blog post, One Bad Apple), I now covet its products all the more.

The new iPad 2 made its Austin debut during the recent SXSW Interactive. For a few days, downtown Austin hosted an Apple retail outlet, and the destination felt like you were in Manhattan. The iPad 2 in AnyTown, USA, was the center of the world, and the world was filled with promise when the new product hit the market. The promise of Apple is that you will be able to do more than you can imagine with its products, and the company creatively carves out a companion-like relationship between you and its brand.

Scale creates intimacy with its products. The iPhone slips into my hip pocket nicely. I can feel it. My daughter's key ring is attached to mini-purse just big enough for the iPhone or an iPod Touch. Like a little puppy, the new iPad 2 sits easily on your lap. Owners caress it with care. It's personal. At the same time, iPad owners willingly share their tablet. It's a bragging right. "Oh, you don't have one? I do. Try mine. It's cool."

Color plays into the brand prominence of Apple, and it enhances the customer experience. Again, it's personal, not generic. The personal relationship with the iPad 2 is more than skin deep. More than 65,000 applications are available via Apple to expand your imagination about what you can do, if you will. It’s like a marriage that never gets old -- always exploring, revealing new possibilities, always serving with creativity. Apps like, FaceTime eliminate distance. Touch-edit features with iMovie and creative music mixing with GarageBand open your eyes to what you never thought possible. Apple's brand is transformational, and its brand essence spills over to complementary product lines.

Get ready for sleek, creative iPad 2 covers to help personalize the Apple product further with distinction. The launch price for the newest Apple product makes it approachable. And, although the world was not clamoring for a newer version of the iPad, Apple saw the need for it nonetheless. Estimates indicate a strong consumer demand. Bringing forth the new iPad 2 is like opening a new Starbucks. The new kid on the block gratifies the thirsty and market demand grows.

Of the estimated 24.1 million tablets expected to sell in the U.S. this year, 20 million could be branded with the iconic Apple. That is an impressive market share, but one day soon the pool is going to attract more swimmers, and the real olympians will survive. This is the pool of technology and the future. "And the company that will bring it to you," is not AT&T. Today it's Apple.

Monday, March 21, 2011

SXSW 24/7

Flights into Austin Bergstrom International Airport always seem full. The Texas Capital City always attracts a crowd, and unlike passengers flying into Newark, airline passengers heading into Austin always appear like happy campers. It's not Disney World, but Austin comes close, especially when you compare the fun factor. Just ask one of the thousands of SXSW happy campers who are back at work this week. Most likely their story of Austin and SXSW will be a lasting memory. It's the kind of memory that any chamber of commerce dreams of for its city. It's the kind of memory that lures people to move here, not just visit here. However, these are the memories residents create here every day.

Austin is no longer the sleepy college town where hippies hang and politicians periodically hover. The energy level is high, always. And energy attracts energy. The University of Texas, Concordia University, Austin Community College and St. Edward's University all generate an energy of intellect. Countless coffee shops churn out creative works by a covey of entrepreneurs collaborating behind their laptops. Artistic expressions don the walls of museums and informal galleries, and music fills the air from a random corner, a footbridge over Lady Bird Lake or from atop a rooftop lounge downtown. These are the daily habits of a city I call home. And one of the fun periods to tap into the city's rich brew is when so many residents flee it.

As Austin locals turned their homes into short-term hotels and escaped for a spring break, visitors poured into Waterloo like a tsunami and flooded our restaurants, our trailer vendors, and our streets with a carefree feeling that makes Austin a magical place. And for the locals who stuck around, the show was practically free. No hotel fees. No HomeAway rental expenses. No airline tickets. No real hassle.

A strategic drop off point put me and my high school- and college-age kids into the thick of all things SXSW. Free music, free drink, free food samples and a free-flowing crowd made for great entertainment. It was an instant flashback to college and a time when living in Austin was affordable. The abundance of music was compelling. I could not keep myself from dancing freely in the streets, much to the embarrassment of my offspring who wished I was elsewhere for this March madness. They would say, some things are best kept at home.

Our Downtown Austin Alliance could not have ordered better weather, and the SXSW organizers pulled together an incredible array of talent. A National Public Radio crew from New York was on the scene at Auditorium Shores for a live simulcast. The Big Apple was getting a taste of the real fruit, and the NPR crew was thrilled to be here because Austin was delivering on its promise of being a fun city, a creative city, a city of collaboration and cause to celebrate.

The City of Austin's brand profile is very high right now. Mickey Mouse should consider being a rock star.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

One Bad Apple

Everyone has a computer story. This is mine.

Within the past year, my family made the leap into Mac World. Farewell to PCs and to the treat of viruses. Hello to hipster computer technology, innovation and superlative customer service. The purchase of two 13" MacBook Pros for my two college-age students, an impressive looking 21.5" iMac for the home, and a 17" MacBook Pro for me to use for my small business. Who needs a secretary when you have Apple's Mac and iPhone?

Fast forward five months.

Wednesday. My laptop assistant performs with precision during one meeting. However, during the next meeting, without warning or any hint of disaster, the MacBook Pro does not respond to a restart. The convenience of making an appointment at the nearest Apple store lets me belly up to the Genius Bar within the hour for a technical consult. David, with title of Genius, kindly evaluates my problem. The hard drive is bad, and needs to be replaced. Thank goodness for warranties.

Unfortunately, Apple does not have my hard drive in stock. Sending the computer out for free repair will take from three-to-five business days. I wonder to myself whether I should take an unplanned vacation or just file for Chapter 11. Furthermore, Apple does not provide assistance to help recover the data from its failed hard drive. I am kindly directed to a local service provider that can help me figure that out. I am welcome back to the Genius Bar at my convenience and Apple will send out my computer for a hard drive replacement. However, the expense to recover my data is my burden to bare. I need my data. It's my business.

Thursday. I deliver my MacBook Pro early in the morning to trustworthy Heroic Efforts , and explain the issue. A very computer-savy Matthew explains the process for data recovery, and if successful, I may incur a $400 price tag. It's worth it, I rationalize to myself. I need my data. It's my business. I leave my ill laptop secretary with Matthew, and drive to Houston to pursue a new potential client opportunity. I'm grateful for my iPhone to keep me tethered to email.

Thursday afternoon. Kind Matthew calls with the bad news. My hard drive failure is beyond his capability. The next step is to send the device to a formal clean room for exploratory surgery to discover if my data can be salvaged and restored to me. If successful, the cost will run me approximately $1,700, equivalent to the cost for a brand new Apple MacBook Pro product. Unfortunately, my laptop secretary is not included in my healthcare coverage, and this expense is equivalent to paying my out of my pocket annual deductible. It does not require an Apple Genius to determine that this is the point of no return.

Friday. I pick up my MacBook Pro from Matthew. There is no fee for his bad news. I am grateful, but as I drive to the Apple store to deliver my laptop for a replacement hard drive, my anxiety begins to build.

Friday, 11:45 AM. The Apple attendant greets me, and within a few minutes, I take my seat at the Genius Bar, across from Holland, no Genius title. She gets the serial number from the computer, as I discreetly explain my disappointment in the Apple product. Now that I am in front of an Apple employee, I can feel my disappointment becoming personal. It's not personal with Holland, but it is personal with Apple and its brand.

My deliberate display of discretion at the Genius bar is in response to the store setting. Other Apple customers with their own problems intimately flank me on the left and right. There is no privacy for complaints here, and I don't want to be the screaming customer that others stare at and wonder whether he is concealing a handgun. I express my position clearly: I'm disappointed in the performance of the Apple product, and I do not want to wait three-to-five days longer for a repair job. I want to walk out with a working computer, preferably a new one.

My request is an impossibility, explains Holland in a calm but equally deliberate clear tone. I ask to speak with the manager. Michael -- not a manager but the lead -- comes out to greet me in front of the Genius Bar. His willingness to come to my side of the counter is a personal display of concern, and creates intimacy with the customer.

In response, I put on my kind consumer face and use my calm but condemning consumer voice as I explain my situation. I do not play frisbee or toss my laptop around like a toy, I explain to Michael. I express my understanding of Apple's brand promise, and express my appreciation and expectation for superlative customer service. However, the product did not live up to my expectation as a customer, and leaving without a working computer was not acceptable to me. Michael, the lead, listens carefully, but expresses the same response as Holland. Unfortunately, he is not able to replace my five-month-old computer. I asked if he clearly understands the expectation that Apple's brand creates with me as a customer, and if he clearly understands that I am not satisfied with Apple's lack of fulfilling, or coming close to fulfilling, that expectation. He understands. It does not seem to matter.

What I really wanted to say was that if Michael, the lead, did not do everything he could to replace my computer, I would leave the store prepared to begin the loudest virtual scream I could possibly muster. However, I politely acknowledge his position, and request that he begin doing what is necessary so that I can begin doing what I must do in order to recreate everything that was lost because of Apple's product failure. Michael, the lead, retreats to the back, and I sit quietly at the Genius Bar wondering if Apple considers it genius not to satisfy this customer's request.

Within a few minutes Holland returns and tells me that they were able to find a hard drive for my laptop, and that within a few minutes I should be up and running, but without any historical data. Hmmm. One minute, there is nothing available (not even at the other Apple store in town) and I'm faced with up to five days of delay. The next minute there is a hard drive for my laptop. I believe in miracles.

Was it genius to find a hard drive or genius to get me to purchase the $300 Time Capsule product that backs up my computer and protects me from a future similar encounter at the one bar in town I do not care to frequent?

1:00 PM. I walk out with my MacBook Pro freshly recovering from its lobotomy, and I am careful not to let the door hit me on my way out. I begin anew with a clean slate. I for one do not believe that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. However, one bad Apple can spoil the brand.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fit to be Old

News of the recent death of Mr. Fitness, Jack LaLanne, came to me via my iPhone. It was news of interest, but life for me that day continued as usual. I worked. I attended a lunch meeting. I participated in a meeting over dinner. I did not exercise beyond the necessary walking to and from my car, and the swivel from my laptop to the writing surface of my desk. I'm a fit man of the 21st Century.

Jack LaLanne, way my senior, opened his first health club in 1936, almost 20 years before my parents even considered having me as their fourth child. His influence on me in particular was a blip, a brief few encounters on a black and white television screen. However, his physique made an indelible impression on my brain.

Fast forward to 2011. Everyone, especially the Baby Boomers, wants to be fit, or at least look it. Fitness clubs abound, and before work, people are in a frenzy running on treadmills and spinning on cycles to nowhere. Meanwhile, I am enjoying my morning coffee, grateful for the comfort it gives me and the mild sweat it causes on my brow. A few calories burned.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to stay in shape. I like to run a four or five mile loop around Lady Bird Lake every now and then. I want to do it more often. I like to participate in fun runs, and I especially like being the first in the family to cross the finish line. "It's not a race," I always tell my kids. "It's a fun run." Then, I strategically use my wisdom to pace myself so I can have the speed in the end to pull out a win! As age gains its advantage, I feel like I am loosing mine in the fun run category. I must stay in shape. If Jack LaLanne could do it, so can I.

I enlisted my youngest son, Matthew, into joining me for a simple training program to add strength and speed to my running. This is the beginning of my training for the 2011 Capital 10K fun run. I pulled the "how to" from browsing through a recent issue of GQ Magazine, while waiting for a haircut.

Day one: I tell Matthew, "This training is not a race. We are running against ourselves to make us stronger and faster." He waxes me on all four quarter-mile sprints. The two-minute rests between sprints was not nearly enough for me to collect my aging thoughts about why I wanted to do this. Yet, on day three, it's me out there on my own, focused like Mr. Fitness to make the exercise fun and productive. I can do this. I can do this until I'm 96. I can do this 'til my legs fall off.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Supersize Me, Starbucks

My love for coffee -- caffeine really -- began as a student at the University of Texas at Austin. It was the perfect introduction to civility and to cheesecake, which became my favorite dessert at Cafe Camille, a little house-turned-restaurant nestled on Kerbey Lane.

During the late 70s, enjoying company and conversation over a cup of coffee was far from both Wall Street and Main Street. Our culture's taste buds and high octane lifestyle were fast asleep, and the brew from Seattle was merely beginning to perk.

Fast forward to our current "fast food nation" and the epidemic spread of Starbucks. After our long collective gasp of disgust over the audacity of McDonald's to supersize practically everything, the company responded by downsizing its portions of poison so deliciously deep-fried or coated with special sauce.

Meanwhile, a growing number of consumers were settling comfortably into the soft seating of a neighborhood Starbucks, feeding our addiction to the coffee bean. Starbucks was the fast-food cultural trendsetter; its corporate social responsibility platform made its coffee smoother, worth the price. Forget the jumbo fries and extra-large drink. Ordering in Italian was all the rage. Americans wanted Grande or Venti.

The wise Solomon got it right when he penned, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." In the nothing-new-under-the-sun category, Starbucks supersizes its coffee. The only thing new is another Italian word in our vocabulary. Can you say, Trenta?

Starbucks turns its back to the customer while pouring us an extra large serving of joe. It's as if the new Trenta and its supersize price point signal salvation for Starbucks, which means salvation for our country. The over-caffeinated will lead the way to our economic recovery. After a couple of Trentas, our energy level for business will be like a frenzied day on Wall Street.

The new Trenta by Starbucks will eventually supersize the heart rates of our obese nation, and we will find ourselves dying on the dotted line before our jittery hand can sign on it. Do you smell a bad deal?

I think I will stick with Grande, thank you very much.