The Business of Long-Distance Triathlon: A Follow-Up

Last August, I was thinking about the business of professional long-distance triathlon. As I was thinking, I created a chart.

The chart illustrates the challenge facing pro triathlon and its athletes: the sport has an incredibly small audience. Even smaller than other niche sports, like cycling. Even surfing. This makes it hard for pro long-distance triathlon and its athletes to attract and keep major sponsors. 

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Transparency Trustfund

Back in June I enthused about just-launched flash sale site Fab.com. My ardor was fueled not only by the site's great product and design, but also by founder-CEO Jason Goldberg's commitment to a level of transparency surprising in any company, especially an early stage, venture-funded one.

From Day One Jason has shared liberally, publishing graphs, charts and notes on his personal blog revealing Fab's strategy, traffic levels, conversion rates, sales volumes, even sales breakdown by product category--information extremely valuable to anyone else selling design- and lifestyle-related products online.

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Tension of Either-Or

Back in July Seth Godin published a blog post entitled No Such Thing as Business Ethics. I've never read a book by Godin. I'm not a regular reader of his blog. So, I didn't happen to see the post until mid-August. It's stayed with me since.

Around the same time that I read Godin's piece there was a front page story in The New York Times about a labor dispute taking place in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. 300 foreign students walked off the job at a Hershey's plant to protest what they claimed were unfair labor conditions in summer jobs they had paid to obtain, under the auspices of the State Department's J-1 Visa designation, a short-term cultural exchange program for college students.

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A Little Bit Obsessed

I am a little bit obsessed. Which is exactly what Elizabeth Cutler, Julie Rice, Denise Mari and Holly Thaggard want me to be.

These four women are founders of three great companies whose terrific products make my life a little bit better, easier, happier and healthier. And they do it with flare, smarts and style--which, naturally, I love. It keeps me--and many others--coming back for more. Cutler and Rice co-founded New York-based spinning studios, SoulCycle, Mari founded raw, organic, vegan food purveyor, Organic Avenue, and Thaggard created sensitive skin-, workout-friendly sunscreen Supergoop!.

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Five Books Every CEO Should Read

This is a list to embolden.

Earlier this summer, I dipped my toe into the waters of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in an article entitled Love is the Single Bottom Line. As I wrote then, I've been following the evolution of the conversation about CSR for a number of years. Over time I have come to conclude that the CEOs who take a truly responsible approach to their work simply get down to business, doing the right thing because it's what they believe in, commit to. In their companies goodness is not a department, it is naturally embedded into every fiber of the organization.

These five books have influenced and bolstered my views. All are firmly rooted within the framework of capitalism, profit-making, girded by a passionate belief that companies run well are powerful forces for good in society. Three are written by CEO-founders of large, global enterprises. Two by investors (there's overlap--Vanguard Group founder John Bogle is both).

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Getting Down to Business

Over the past few months more than one observer has pointed to the cash-rich balance sheets of America's large companies and asked why some of that money isn't being put to use putting people back to work. The inevitable--and not entirely unreasonable--reply is that the tax, regulatory and trade environment in Washington is so muddled that business is paralyzed, unwilling or unable to make long-term commitments in the face of fluctuating and often escalating government-imposed cost overlays.

Earlier this month former Medtronic CEO Bill George published a clear, constructive eight-point list of pragmatic steps for Washington to take in order to get business hiring again. But without keepers of accountability, even straightforward initiatives like George's drown in Washington's political wrangling. Solution: apply positive outside pressure.

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Get Out and Play

 

Stuart Brown champions play. Doctor, psychiatrist, founder of the National Institute for Play, I first learned about his work when he appeared in conversation with Krista Tippett and Paul Holdengräber several years ago at the New York Public Library.

Since then he's been a featured speaker at a TED-sponsored conference on play, published a book--Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, and regularly co-teaches a Fast-Company-featured class--From Play to Innovation--with IDEO's Brendan Boyle at Stanford's d. school. At the same time, in the spirit of that d. school class, play has become something of a trending topic for companies seeking to catalyze creativity and original thinking in their employees and workplaces, and it continues, as always, to be a subject of passionate consideration in parenting.

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The Challenge of China

China is a hot potato. In March I addressed the anxiety, complexity and--ultimately--benefits surrounding economic ties with China, specifically investment by Chinese companies in the United States.

Since then, the 2012 US Presidential campaign has officially launched, and public rhetoric surrounding relations with China has heated up. The dialogue was punctuated last week by comments from candidate Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, hinting at the need to reconsider terms on which the US conducts trade with China--partly in response to the very real, ongoing intellectual property issues that factor into trade and exchange with Chinese companies.

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Hacking the City

Michael Bloomberg gets hacking. In a 1995 profile of Bloomberg, the company, Fast Company wrote:

His theory is simple: shove lots of well-paid young upstarts (2,200 employees, average age 31) together in a small space for long hours, give them the best equipment possible, and you'll get magic.

It's fitting, then, that in his role as Mayor of New York he pushed early to engage developers to address the city's, its citizens' and its visitors' needs. Under his leadership, over the last two years New York has opened up its databases and run two contests--Big Apps--challenging developers to use the data to create apps--desktop or mobile--to make the city more usable, livable, lively.

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Love is the Single Bottom Line

Over the past several years I've followed the evolution of the conversation about Corporate Social Responsibility with great interest. The notion first hit my radar screen when I was an investment banker working with retail companies and apparel manufacturers and Nike was challenged to address working conditions at its factories in Asia.

On a trip to Vietnam in 2003 I had the opportunity to visit several of Nike's plants outside of Ho Chi Minh City.  The company's routine jobs--mostly for women--carried education, health care and meal benefits. When measured against the alternatives I saw in the rest of my travels throughout the country--back-breaking work under hot sun, knee deep in water-filled rice patties--it was hard for me to conclude that Nike was being anything other than socially responsible in its day-to-day operations, creating steady income and positive opportunities for its employees and their families.

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Monday's Miscellany

 

Fab.com is a daily deal site à la Gilt, targeting design aficionados. Launched less than two weeks ago, it truly is fab. Beautifully executed--naturally--it features a great mix of small items and serious investment pieces by household name and emerging designers, as well as small, regional artisans. Upcoming sales include mod furniture from Objeti, hand crafted New Moon rugs from Nepal and super-glam chandeliers from Avenue Lighting.

The other reason that the company is fab is that CEO and founder, Jason Goldberg, is an active practitioner of transparent management, and his blog posts, both pre- and post-launch, are a terrific companion guide to the site. They provide insight into the behind the scenes ins and outs of launching a start-up from a CEO who is clearly interested not only in building a great product but also a great company--and, so far, is hitting the ball out of the park.

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Phil Jackson's Spiritual Mashup

This photo makes me laugh--especially Dennis Rodman, second from left. What a handful. It was taken in 1997 after the Chicago Bulls had won five out of the six NBA championships they would take under Phil Jackson, before he moved on to coach the LA Lakers.

This past weekend I had a conversation with a friend that prompted me to pull Jackson's book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior off the shelf. He wrote it in 1995, when he was in the middle of his run with the Bulls. It was re-released in 2006, and I read it after that, several years ago.

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Clean Start

Last week, as I was writing about the Zayed Future Energy Prize, I came across an article about Martha Wyrsch. Martha is President of the Americas for Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, this year's winner of the Zayed prize. I made a note of her background and her career path--it followed the same pattern as two others I'd heard of in the last few months: that of Cynthia Warner, President and Chairman of renewable fuel company Sapphire Energy, and Phil Murtaugh, newly appointed CEO of electric vehicle manufacturer CODA Automotive.

What Martha, Cynthia and Phil share is an appetite for very specific take on career risk that wasn't available to executives with their resumés even ten years ago. All three of them come from old school--dirty--industries--Martha from Duke and then Spectra Energy, Cynthia from BP and Phil from GM and Chrysler.

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Rational Conversation

I've never met Fred Wilson. He writes a blog, AVC. I don't read his blog regularly. But I find reason to visit once or twice every couple of months. When I do, I am always struck not only by the easiness of Fred's style, but also by the caliber and depth of the smart conversations that follow in the comments to his posts.

Fred is one of New York's most visible and successful venture capitalists. He's a champion of the New York tech community. He and his partners run Union Square Ventures, they have invested in Twitter, Etsy and Zynga, among others, and they announced a new late-stage fund in January.

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Girl Power

First Natalie Massenet, now Arianna Huffington. In less than twelve months' time, two super fabulous female entrepreneurs have inked high-profile, multimillion dollar deals for the companies they founded, using the internet as their launch pad. Natalie started online luxury retailer Net-a-Porter in London in 2000. Arianna, of course, founded eponymous news aggregator Huffington Post in 2005.

Both women are game changers who began from scratch, trusted instinct in the face of adamant naysayers and have personally netted millions as a result. Natalie pocketed $75 million in April 2010 when Richemont bought out the portion of Net-a-Porter it did not yet own for $530 million. Figures have not been made public in the Aol-Huffington Post transaction, but based on the Company's investor base and reported valuations of earlier rounds, Arianna will likely take home somewhere between $15 and $50 million cash and stock in the $315 million deal. She also is said to have a multi-million dollar annual contract to stay on and run Aol's collected news services.

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Ferocious Integrity

Last summer as I was thinking about how to tackle several thorny personal and professional situations in my life, I picked up Susan Scott's book Fierce Conversations. At its core this is a book about relationships, not conversations. But as Scott says, "The conversation is the relationship." And when conversations are superficial, controlled, inauthentic, avoided, heated, dishonest, or uncomfortable, then so are relationships.

Fierce Conversations is a self-help book for leaders. Scott wears no kid gloves, though she's not tough, just direct and straightforward, detailing a clear, methodical approach to conducting honest, effective conversations, accompanied by underlying principles to keep those conversations on track.

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Vital Energy

There's nothing I love more than a maverick. By that measure, Boone Pickens has my heart.

Trained geologist, Texas oilman, vintage corporate raider, 21st century billionaire investor and philanthropist, at 82 years old he's going strong. And for the last two and a half years he's been a visible, dynamic force focused on a topic of vital importance to the United States: energy independence.

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Catalyzing Creativity

Innovation--the creation of a product or process that is radically new, unique and different--is the holy grail in today's business world. What many of those who beat its drum rarely mention is that the path to true innovation is rooted in pure creativity. To innovate brilliantly requires facing down the deepest challenges of the creative process: high anxiety, ambiguity, seemingly impassable roadblocks, even failure.

Although the business world has tried to translate creative processes into business-speak, I still find artists the best guides on navigating and channeling creativity effectively. Their processes are rooted in tolerating, working with and even valuing uncertainty and failure. Their lessons carry great weight for those seeking to understand and catalyze creativity in the business world--to innovate brilliantly.

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Innovation Lab

On January 28th nominations for the Aspen Institute's 2011 First Movers Fellowship are due.

If you are a CEO or Senior Manager focused on integrating the fundamentals of what is variously called Shared Value (discussed by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in this month's issue of the Harvard Business Review), New Capitalism (described by Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth and David Wolfe in their book Firms of Endearment) or Conscious Capitalism (a term popularized by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and now promoted by the Conscious Capitalism Institute) into your corporate strategy and business practices, consider sponsoring one of your team members for this terrific program.

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