2008-07-31: Forward Motion
I went over to a local eatery yesterday. I have been there several times per week since I arrived in Nebraska. One of the employees is C, a high school student.
Yesterday, as I ordered my food, C was telling one of his co-workers that people thought he wasn't very smart, and that he would prove them wrong by graduating mid-year. They started talking about what they planned to do after high school.
I thought about it, and I realized that people probably think negatively about his place of employment. But having worked in food places for somewhere near 14 years, I can attest to the fact that he is learning skills there that will be critical throughout his life.
It seems that people do not give full credit to the people who learn skills from customer relations to time-management to setting priorities in low-esteem industries. I have noticed, however, in my current tech support role that the people who have had retail and similar customer-interacting employment are far better at their jobs than people who have never had an angry customer throw a burger at them. There truly is no such thing as a job where fast food experience is not beneficial.
I have also noticed that C did not include continuing education in his plans. I do not believe that every child should go to college, especially not right out of high school. I also do not believe that sitting in a classroom is the only way to learn. Yet, I have been around long enough to know that the so-called school of hard knocks does not exist. People do not learn by experience; only by reflecting on those experiences and generalizing out some principles or lessons. I would hope that C would be wise enough to do so, as well as to apply the lessons of other people's experiences.
If you are involved in hiring, you should downplay "experience" as in previously performing a substantially similar job. Instead, look for someone who has acquired useful skills in his/her previous environments, someone who will grow a little in the job, and who has done so in the past. The end result is much better with a growth candidate than with a retread.
2008-07-30: Assault On Yahoo: Pickens Folds
Billionaire investor T. Boone Pickens has sold all of his holdings in Yahoo Inc. in a pique over the way the Internet company's management handled sales talks with Microsoft Corp.
Pickens told the San Francisco Chronicle that he sold all 10 million of his Yahoo shares at a loss, because he grew frustrated with the company's repeated rebuffs of Microsoft's advances.
I am assuming that Mr. Pickens was after a fast buck, because he sure made a bonehead mistake. Notwithstanding his lack of understanding the business itself, he bought the stock because Mr. Icahn was getting involved. Even smart people make dumb mistakes when it comes to money and relationships, so you should always investigate for yourself before you invest too much in either area. You do not date someone because your cousin is dating her sister, and you do not buy stock because some famous investor is buying that stock.
Sadly, Pickens and others continue to promote the absolutely false idea that turning down the Microsoft offer was a breach of fiduciary duty. One should understand the industry before one invests, and someone who understands the industry would know that this would be an absolute train wreck for both companies--the only way to redeem the deal is for Microsoft to pay all cash for Yahoo. In under 18 months after a business combination, the new "Microhoo" would have a smaller share of searches than either company had before they joined, with the result that any offer that involved MSFT stock would expose the YHOO board to legal action--the same breach of fiduciary responsibility claims that are being made now, but these would be true and provable, thanks to hindsight.
Honestly, if you do not plan to own it for at least a couple of years, do not buy stock. If a company goes under, stockholders are near the back of the line in terms of getting back their invested funds. Stock price fluctuation merely reflects the confidence or lack of confidence that investors have in a company's short-term (and sometimes middle-term) prospects. It has no direct connection to whether a company is well-managed for long-term success and profitability. It has to do more with how the company management manipulates the short-term market perceptions to convince more investors to buy its stock.
Now, imagine what could happen. Windows Vista's so-far lukewarm reception could become a free-fall, with individuals and businesses moving to Mac and Linux platforms. A combined Microsoft-Yahoo online operation's search share drops below 3%. XBox360 sales plummet as the PS3's growth continues. Microsoft CEO Ballmer, having never experienced failure before, panics and fires half the staff in the Microhoo online unit, and most of the other half head for the exits. The stock his the 5 cents per share level, and Microsoft is picked up by The SCO Group in a stock swap. Who gets sued when stockholders have nearly 100% losses? Well, Microsoft management, of course, but an even more likely target is the management at Yahoo that allowed such a deal to happen.
So, Mr. Pickens, I cannot sympathize. You took the risk willingly. If you failed to do your research, that is your own fault, and not anyone else's.
2008-07-25: Home Sales Still Slipping
Sales of existing homes tumbled more sharply than expected in June, pushing activity down to the lowest level in more than a decade.
With an already huge glut of homes on the market, median prices fell compared to a year ago and analysts predicted prices would keep falling until next spring as tighter credit, a slipping job market and rising foreclosures scare potential buyers away.
The median home sold for $215,100, according to the article. This is lower than the recent past, but still not low enough. It is not surprising that sales continue to fall, after being inflated far above any sensible level, it takes a large drop to make them reasonable for most potential buyers again.
"California is on the leading edge of a housing recovery and that is because prices are falling fast in many areas and that is restoring affordability," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. But he predicted any rebound nationally will be slow in coming, reflecting the continued surge in foreclosures as many subprime mortgages reset to higher rates.
I think the man is deceived. California's housing prices far outstripped the ability of most residents to live and work in the same areas. They fueled the growth of far-away suburbs and bedroom communities where the only local industry is restaurants, gas stations, and the occasional supermarket or shopping mall. These are places where the only chance for most residents to make decent pay is for them to spend hours each day commuting. Until homes in those areas reflect their true values (probably sub-$100K), and until homes closer to larger cities also reflect their true values (probably sub-$200K), the market will continue to stumble.
Over the past thirty years or more, California real estate prices have been driven up, not by fundamentals, but because of speculation: buy now, and you can sell for double in five to ten years. Instead of homes selling because the buyers wanted to live in them, homes sold because the buyers were gambling that the price would continue to rise. (I am sure this was also used by real estate sales people to stampede reluctant buyers into purchasing--if you wait, this home might attract a higher bid). One hoped-for effect of this financing crunch is to chase the speculators into pork bellies, leaving residential housing to those who are serious about it (resident homeowners as well as landlords).
The Justice Department in 2002 told the CIA that its interrogators would be safe from prosecution for violations of anti-torture laws if they believed "in good faith" that harsh techniques used to break prisoners' will would not cause "prolonged mental harm."
This is potentially a blockbuster story. Suddenly, tactics like waterboarding, forced nakedness and humiliation, exposure to temperature extremes, threatening with guard dogs, and sexual humiliations were all fair game, as far as legal enforcement goes. The CIA and its interrogation teams had been given a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card. It has long been rumored that the highest levels of the administration had to have approved the tactics, since they happened in widely-separated locations, among different groups of individuals. It was rumored that the CIA interrogators had encouraged the abuses, seeking to soften prisoners' resistance to questioning. This memo may prove to be the match that ignited the fire of abuse and misconduct.
The Aug. 1, 2002, legal opinion signed by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee was issued the same day he wrote a memo for then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales defining torture as only those "extreme acts" that cause pain similar in intensity to that caused by death or organ failure.
I want to point out that when those tactics and others were put into place in Iraq, it was not the military officers or CIA interrogators that were prosecuted for it--the run of the mill soldiers were the ones who faced prison. And so it is with real life: it isn't the top leaders who mastermind and run the operation that get punished; only the people at the bottom bear the brunt of the consequences.
I want to point out that conservatives--real conservatives that believe in the Constitution as written and not as distorted by out-of-touch judges--must naturally oppose such conduct. After all, the Constitution constrains the actions of the government, without ever considering whether those constraints apply only to actions inside US borders or to actions taken toward/against citizens of this country. We must look with horror upon the misconduct approved by pseudo-conservatives. Let us make this clear: conservatives believe in the Constitution above all else. We do not cherry-pick. We do not ignore it when it becomes inconvenient. That this administration has not followed this is prima facie evidence that it is not conservative.
It is to our shame that supposedly conservative commentators and politicians are not actively opposing these tactics, even to the point of refusing to fund ANY government activities until it stops.
DISCLAIMER: This is my personal opinion only. It does not necessarily represent the opinions or beliefs of any other person or organization. I speak only for myself, and not for any employer or business or government agency. This is not written to influence your vote in any election, but to inform you and to make you think about what and whom you support. From that point, you can draw your own conclusions, which will not necessarily match what I may believe.
2008-07-18: Scary Economic News Continues
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Merrill Lynch booked its fourth-straight quarterly loss Thursday, this time losing nearly $5 billion, as the nation's largest brokerage was forced to once again take massive writedowns.
I encourage you to go to the site and read the article. I won't have any commentary this time, because I believe the facts speak for themselves.
2008-07-17: Abu Gharaib And Guantanamo Bay
A friend forwarded me an e-mail message using General Patton's name to justify the acts that have occurred (and may still be occurring) at Abu Gharaib prison in Iraq, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and other, similar camps in other countries.
Abu Ghraib is not 'torture' or an 'atrocity'. This is the kind of thing frat boys, sorority girls, and academy cadets do to newcomers.
A little fun at someone else's expense.
Certainly no reason to wring your hands or get your panties in a wad.
It goes on:
If they manage to get their hands on a nuke, chemical agents, or even some anthrax -- you will wish to God we had hunted them down and killed THEM while we had the chance.
First of all, let me be clear about something: I opposed invading Iraq before it happened, I opposed the kangaroo court that convicted and executed Saddam Hussein, and I oppose both the extreme of "just stop fighting and go home now" and "we'll stay forever, if that's what it takes". I too, believed that the weapons were there, but I felt that Iraq was not a threat to us. Furthermore, we had made some important promises to the Afghani people, and I wanted us to keep our focus on wiping out Al Quaeda and similar terrorist groups, along with the radical governments (such as the Taliban) that harbor them. Because we let that opportunity pass, the Taliban is resurgent, as expected. So far, we have been fortunate that the terrorists have not been as active. As the son of someone who died in Vietnam, I know that America tends to start these things, then lose interest and leave things in an unstable condition, meanwhile ignoring the families of those who lose their lives in these wars.
Oh, believe me, I know that freedom is not free and that you don't fight wars according to the rules of boxing (no biting, no hitting behind the belt, and so on). And yet, Abu Gharaib, like Guantanamo Bay, is absolutely a negation of everything that our country stands for. It is a repudiation of our 'specialness' which we have by virtue of our unique commitment to principles of freedom and equality, as encoded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
When you read the Constitution and it says that the government shall not do something, it does not make any distinctions about whether the people that it is happening to are citizens or not, nor whether they are present on American soil or not. The purpose of the Constitution, more than anything else, is to limit and restrict the things that the federal (and to a limited degree, state) government is allowed to do.
The conduct that happened at Abu Gharaib and other places is a gross violation, not some college prank. Think about it: when the twenty year-olds at Harvard decide to make another twenty year-old wear women's underwear, that person has the choice to say 'forget it, I don't want to join your group that much' and walk away. Further, the college frat boys are not acting under orders from someone higher up in the government. On the other hand, the people held in Iraq and Guantanamo are not there by choice, but because someone accused them (often for payment--how's that for a motive?). They have no option to leave, and they have no way to confront their accusers, see the evidence against them, know what they are accused of doing, or prove themselves not guilty of the things they are accused of doing. Instead, they get tortured--yes, waterboarding is torture--humiliated, and kept confined for years without trial.
Now, I want to point out that I am mostly conservative, with a little bit of libertarian slant. I am above all a constitutionalist. That means that I do not believe that corporations deserve special preferences that enable them to nearly enslave America's work force, and I do not believe that we should have lots of secret agencies who violate the law in order to protect us. I'm not an extremist about it--there is certainly some basic level of protection that has kept us alive since the end of the second world war. When I say this, it with sadness about an administration that sold itself as conservative, but proved to be more liberal than I would have chosen. Conservative, Constitution-preserving leaders do not enter into unnecessary wars on foreign soil. Neither do they continually promote the interests of corporations (an accretion on the Constitution, which recognizes no such entity) over the interests of our citizens. Those are traits that Constitution-eroding liberals would choose. Let me continue...
China, Vietnam, and North Korea, all communist, are known to have done similar things to American POWs. There are persistent rumors that they kept some prisoners after the war, and that they finally killed them to prevent any loss of face over being caught lying. We still fly the POW flag in memory of those individuals who suffered under those regimes. Every few years, we send a search team to Vietnam to retrieve a few more bodies of POWs. In a nation that goes to war as often as we do, we should avoid doing anything that is going to compromise the safety of our POWs. The next captured GI might be someone we know.
War is necessary, but war should not be entered into lightly. Neither should its conduct reduce us to a level of barbarism that only 100 years ago was thought to have ended with the Spanish Inquisition.
After World War II, we gathered up people who had helped the Nazi regime run its POW camps and concentration camps. We tried them, found them guilty of "crimes against humanity" and executed them. While nothing the US has done approaches the atrocity of the death camps, many of the psychological techniques that we are seeing our troops use originated in the German POW system of that time. There is even a rumored CIA interrogation manual that dictates many of these techniques. While our young men and women are merely following orders, at some point that could lead to their executions for war crimes.
At some point, there will be a different leadership in Washington, and some of the "following orders" people who actually do/did these things will join those already convicted in prison. The leaders and officers who actually gave the orders will, for the most part, get off scot free. Now, I admire what Oliver North did, refusing to admit that he was following orders, even to the extent of going to jail for Iran-Contra, but I'm not him, and I would never shield someone else at the cost of my life. We are asking these young men and women, many of them barely out of high school, to put themselves in positions where they may be imprisoned or worse for things that went on in Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo, which they were ordered to do.
Update: A different opinion.
2008-07-16: New Camera
About a year ago, I bought myself a point and shoot digital camera. It has been a fascinating experience capturing moments with that camera. In the process of traveling by airplane from Central Ohio to Eastern Nebraska, the camera disappeared. My suitcase contained a notice from the TSA that it had been inspected
For the replacement, I bought a Canon A-200 digital SLR camera. It is a totally new experience trying to use a camera with as many buttons as my computer's keyboard. So I stopped by Barnes & Noble and bought PCPhoto Digital SLR Handbook, by Rob Sheppard.
I am no expert or professional. And yet, I did take the beginning photography class in high school (back when photographers used hammers and chisels to engrave images on stone tablets). So it really helps that Sheppard starts with the most basic. It is not one of those "talk down at you" introductory books, either. While I have not yet finished the book, it appears to be a very useful book, especially for someone who has bought or is considering buying his or her first digital single-lens reflex camera.
A good book to have when you are getting started, it looks like it will still be a valuable companion when you have a little experience under your belt. I recommend this book.
2008-07-15: Your Field Force Matters
In any enterprises, there are several different groups of people. For the most part, members of any particular group may or may not also be a part of any other group. But for our purposes today, we will consider two groups, and we will consider them to be more or less exclusive. I am aware that this is a rank exaggeration, but I am purposely ignoring that in order to illustrate my point.
Our first group is the general staff. These are the hangers-on that congregate around the boss, whomever he or she may be. For members of the general staff, days consist of meetings, followed by rumor-mongering and intrigues meant to increase the person's apparent power in comparison to other general staff members. Seriously, it resembles any daytime drama series (soap opera) you have ever seen. Schemes, alliances, betrayals. There is a second group, the support staff for the general staff which are smart enough to realize that they are expendable, and so they generally do not participate in the intrigues.
General staff members tend to be driven, ambitious individuals who are loyal to no one but themselves. They tend to be very moral when it suits their purposes, and amoral otherwise. In general, they try to say soothing and comforting words when they converse with members of the field force, but secretly, they plot to reduce the number and pay of field force members, so that there will be more money left to pay themselves.
The only problem is that general staff members are remarkably unproductive. There is no task so mundane that they cannot spend a few hours discussing it in meetings. They spend many hours in telephone calls also, with (again) little to show for all the excess hot air they produce. An organization is most effective and less self-centered when general staffers are kept to a minimum and kept from congregating, so they cannot plot against the enterprise as a whole or the field force that makes it work.
For productivity, an organization depends upon its field force. This group includes everyone who gets away from the baleful stare of general staffers, going out and doing more of the things that bring money into the organization, the things the organization gets paid to do. The field force is often despised and disrespected by self-celebratory general staffers, but it remains a vitally needed part of any organization.
If you still work in a larger organization, you can look around you and see how useless and parasitic general staffers consume an outsized portion of the company's resources, while contributing little or nothing to the organization's success, profitability, or continued existence. In starting your own enterprise, resolve to celebrate the people who actually do the work, who make the product, produce the service; honor those who interact with customers, convincing them to buy; and keep in check the strutting peacock syndrome common to most people who work close to the top of an organization.
2008-07-14: Think Long-Term For Your Plans And Investments
Have you ever planned something, executed your plan, and then found that something totally unexpected came out of left field and blew your planned outcome to smithereens? This is a common experience in our lives. In part, it happens because we have limited knowledge and cannot predict the future with any degree of certainty or accuracy.
I used to say that it is useless to plan for periods beyond five years, because you never have any idea what can happen beyond five years from now. It is in fact true that we cannot accurately predict most things five years out. But we do have some general ideas of what trends are going on in the world around us, and we can project what will happen if they continue that long. If we do a little digging, we can uncover some budding trends which may pop up in the future.
It is still true that you cannot have a detailed plan for periods further than five years away. Very little of what you expected when you made the plan will be true that far in the future. But the benefit of planning that far out is that it can make you think about the contingencies and the trends that can affect your plan. It can also help you to see short-term course alterations for what they often are: major changes in direction that will make your pre-existing goals unattainable, but which could get you to equally desirable goals if you think about it.
Investing is a special case of planning. If you buy stocks just because you can get short-term (less than a year) gains, you are not an investor, you are a gambler. If you invest only for mid-term gains (two to five years), you are not an investor, you are a speculator. It is only if your investment plans encompass periods longer than five years that you should consider yourself an investor.
How can I say that? Because investments have one simple principle that underlies them: reward follows risk. If you are able to gain 10% per year on an "investment" when other investors are taking five years to obtain the same return, you are taking higher risks in order to get that return. There is a higher chance that you will lose your money or get a return that differs from your expectation for that 10% per year, versus the other investor's lesser return.
|Principal||Annual Return||Value After Year 1||Value After Year 2||Value After Year 5|
This is why schemes such as "borrow against your home and then invest the proceeds" are such bad ideas. Those investments are not risk-free. Neither is it without risk to pull equity out of your home--that payment (or increase in payment) is more money you have to have each month, whether the weather is bad or good, whether you are sick or healthy, whether you are working twenty or eighty hours per week. I have heard of people who had been working sixty hours or more per week for years, and were suddenly cut down to forty hours, a cut of over 40% in pay. If your budget is based upon that overtime, this could put you on the street.
We can see this illustrated in the rental housing business. People attend one of those "low money down" real estate investment courses, and they wind up buying a home or duplex. Through scrimping and saving, doing a lot of the maintenance themselves, they pay off enough of the loan that they can then refinance and take equity out--which goes toward a down payment on another property. This is repeated, and soon the person owns seven or eight properties and can no longer do the maintenance work himself. At this point, a smart person will sell one property and put the proceeds toward getting his whole business out of debt. Most people, however, wind up hiring a management company to run the properties and handle the maintenance for them, so they can add even more properties to their holdings. Then, there is a local economic crunch, or even a national recession, with a reduction in rents and in occupancy rates. Before you know it, that person is being sued by his lenders, who repossess the properties, evict the tenants, and leave the buildings abandoned until the economy picks up.
A longer-term perspective would help, because the property investor would have thought about the near-certainty that there will be some economic disruption affecting his business at least once every ten years. He (or she) would then have thought about things that could help his business come through such crises successfully, such as cutting debt, weatherizing the properties, installing more energy-efficient appliances, and so on. Even things like selling properties in boom areas, to use the proceeds in stable areas where prices do not inflate and contract as much will help.
Because, even with all the noise, it should be entirely clear by now that Microsoft and Yahoo need each other.
And, more importantly, both Microsoft and Yahoo will both suffer in the end if they don?t stop driving toward what is increasingly looking like a point of no return.
I do not understand it. YHOO is profitable and growing, even if its stock price is not. Microsoft has not been able to beg, borrow, or steal profit in its online business, despite over a decade of trying and plenty of subsidies from its Windows and Office businesses. Any kind of merger is guaranteed to leave the same people in charge who have failed already, because they obviously have the confidence of MSFT management. Microsoft is already limping from the failure that is Windows Vista, and is not going to benefit from a massive and very public Zune-like failure in a combined MSN/Live-Yahoo!.
This does not even begin to address the drawn out and expensive re-architecting that the remains of Yahoo! will face once it is required to use only Microsoft technologies. Nor does it talk about the trimming of redundant operations and personnel that will paralyze a combined business for the next two to three years. I have noted before, as has Jim Robertson of Cincom Smalltalk, a combined business will have a smaller share of search queries in eighteen months than either business has today.
That Microsoft is even considering buying part or all of Yahoo! reveals two important things:
- Microsoft's venture into the online business is a dismal and irredeemable failure. None of the tactics or techniques they have attempted to date have succeeded in attracting large and repeat audiences to their properties. The sole success, as far as I can see, was purchasing Hotmail. Buying and allying with other properties has failed. Tying the sites deeply into Windows/Internet Explorer/Windows Media Player/Outlook has failed. Making the sites unfriendly to users of Opera and Mozilla-family browsers also failed.
In the online world, the way to attract more users is to use lots of links to the places where compelling content may be found, whether those places are owned/controlled by you or not, and whether they use your particular software platform or not. Because Microsoft is first and foremost a software company, this is something that the company hates to do. It makes MSN/Live less compelling.
In search, one of the main factors is accurately finding what site visitors are search for and presenting it to them early in the results list. There, MSN/Live Search is far behind its competitors (Google, Yahoo!, Ask, Mahalo, Snap, Hakia, ...)
- Microsoft management, while willing to admit that, is not willing to make the changes it needs to make that would make MSN/Live competitive. Why is MSN/Live Search, which is the built-in default for the built-in Web browser for the top-selling operating system, not the most-used search engine? Could it be the results? Could it be that searchers really care about getting relevant links, and not the rich-media ads that move and expand in ways that make the site harder to use? Not too long ago, I was searching for an article I had read on MSN Health. I found it on the first page of Yahoo and second page of Google results, after I had first gone through ten pages of MSN/Live Search results without finding it. That's a pretty sad story when you cannot even present desirable results from sites you control.
It wasn't too long ago that all the best and brightest computer science grads went to Redmond the way they now go to Mountain View. Surely there are still enough of them there that can find a more accurate way to present results of searches, which seems to me like there is some management directive that prevents MSN/Live from presenting accurate search results--and that directive will not change, even if they bought Yahoo!, Snap, and Ask tomorrow. Until that changes, nothing else will make them competitive.
Like Google, Yahoo!'s original appeal stemmed from a better system for organizing and finding things on the Web. Yahoo! has branched out into a multitude of other areas, some successful and some not so successful, much as Google has met mixed results outside of its core search. I believe that Yahoo! can compete with Google, simply because its search results are nearly equal in quality and most of its other properties are outside of Google's current focus.
Unfortunately for the dealmongers, Microsoft's online properties, for the most part, overlap with Yahoo!'s properties. If Microsoft wants its online properties to thrive, they need to spin them off into a separate company and force them to change everything in order to survive, grow, and become profitable--no more dependence upon free links in Microsoft software, no more default home page for IE, no more subsidy payments from Windows and Office--force the online properties to grow up like a young adult on his own for the first time.
All the years I've read of Mr. Icahn's wizardry, but he seems to be more of an opportunist, taking advantage of confused stockholders who read the financial press but don't understand what is happening underneath the financial statements. This merger, if it ever completes, will be disasterous for both online businesses, and for the stockholders of the combined company. Mr. Icahn may not know this, but anyone who has stock in either company should understand enough about these companies' businesses to know it. If you invest without understanding the underlying business of the company you are investing in, you are a fool, and you deserve to have Mr. Icahn pirate away your money.
2008-07-05: Attracting Traffic To Your Site
still think about how to get users to my website and to convince them to become a member.
We all want the same thing. We want to attract thriving communities of site members that participate in a constructive and enjoyable way. Naturally, we want to get a little income from advertising on the site (otherwise, we'd need to charge membership fees). The question is "How do we do this?"
In Oozzl's case, it is not an easy task, seeing that he is building a social networking site in a world that already has MySpace and Facebook and Classmates and Friendster and Twitter and Pownce and Jaiku and Plurk and Xing and Ning and LinkedIn and Flickr and Zooomr and many more.
In general, if you want to attract people to your site, you have to offer something that is not a carbon copy of every other site out there. Years ago, we used to do brochure sites and that was enough. A brochure site is where the site reads like a brochure and the content rarely changes. The Web was still new enough to most people that if you put up a sign "Visit our website: http://www.example.com/", people would visit to see what it said and what it looked like. Those days are over. It would be like saying "Watch our commercial" these days.
MySpace was a hit with the high schoolers and then caught on with the music industry. Facebook was a hit with college students and then caught on with business leaders. Twitter appealed to people who are nearly always connected, and spread from there to pull in large numbers of intermittent connectors. Oozzl will need to offer something different: maybe a distinctly European flavor that may be missing from the major networking sites, or a different set of activities. A cursory look around reminded me of an earlier version of MySpace, without the dark colors and without all the thirteen year-olds putting their home addresses and telephone numbers online.
What does a site need to attract visitors? The most important thing, in my mind, is compelling content, conceived around a well-defined group of people. It could be model train enthusiasts, home baking enthusiasts, hunters, environmentalists, or political activists. It could be devotees of the Apple iPod and iPhone. It could be residents of North Dakota. It could be people who are interested in the language, cuisine, and culture of Italy. It could be fans of a particular sport or style of music. The point is this: it takes an awful lot of resources to become the one-stop shop and information clearinghouse for multiple subjects. It takes far fewer resources (and that includes money as well as developer time) to pick one area and then build and maintain exhaustive coverage of it. Keep in mind that your site's appearance cannot stay static. Even when your content does not change, you have to update your site's look every year or two, not counting the multiple little adjustments that you have to make during the year.
The second thing that is needed is presentation. I already alluded to this, but you have to understand that an unattractive site will chase off visitors. I am going to add here that you need to test your design to ensure that it is usable. Many sites these days are being created purely in Adobe's Flash. They are more attractive than other sites, but they are usually a usability nightmare, because a Flash site does not respond the way that HTML/XHTML sites do. I struggle with goWebtop's interface every time I log in. It never remembers how I want it to look, it presents normally clickable elements that are not clickable, and it generally makes me have to stop and think about what I am trying to do and how to make it happen. Flash is good for small areas of the screen that need additional graphics capability, but the majority of your site should not be Flash.
Of course, no one just randomly enters in a URL to see what is there any more. It is too often that this leads to a squatter site, a malware infector site, or a porn site. Instead, they go to sites they already know about or they use a search engine (usually Google or Yahoo) to find the site they want. This means that you will have to get yourself listed with at least those two search engines, and hopefully many more. You will want to join their (or another) advertising program, also.
And that brings us to our third attractor that will be needed in order to get your site some visitors or members: advertising. There used to be a saying: "If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." Unfortunately, with so much advertising, so many companies blowing their own horns, no one has the time or energy to invest in uncovering sellers of useful products and services. You have to make the effort, so that potential customers will know about your business and what it offers to them.
Remember the brochure site we talked about? They generally read like this: "Portuguese Man O' War is a naval-themed seafood restaurant with an Iberian flavor. We have the best wines and spirits of Spain and Portugal. We have been in the same location since 1984. All of our waiters speak Portuguese and Spanish, in addition to English. Our chef spent thirteen years in Lisbon, studying under Luigi Bernardo. We have the perfect ambiance and the freshest seafood in Kansas. We do our best to make you happy."
It isn't that this is particularly bad, it is just that they spent all that time and never once told you why you should want to eat there. Tell me about the food, how it tastes, how fresh it is, how clean your kitchen is. Tell me about the delicate bouquet of the wine and the bitter tang of the European dark beer. Tell me about people that come there and have such a great time that they return year after year, from around the country.
After my stomach is already rumbling, then you can tell me your story and seal it with a map of how to get there or how to order for pick up / delivery. If I am logging in from Dublin, Ohio, (or Lincoln, Nebraska, or South Brunswick, New Jersey) maybe you should automatically display rates for shipping frozen fish from your location in Kansas to me.
Fourth, think about on-site advertising. There are some products or services that are complementary with yours. If you sell fresh-grown carrots, someone who sells celery, lettuce, tomatoes, salad dressings, or even fresh and natural peanut butter could be a natural partner to you. Instead of going out and negotiating these agreements yourself, you may be better off using one of the major ad networks( or even better, a locally-owned network) to connect you. In this way, you can get a little income from people who leave your site to go visit a site that is advertised on yours.
On-site advertising is tricky, because you have to monitor to ensure that you are not promoting competitors. If the add reads, "Joe's Natural Carrots are the best carrots anywhere!" and suddenly you aren't selling any more carrots, you can guess why that is. You also have to monitor to ensure your advertisers are not promoting something that conflicts with your site's values. On a family-friendly site, adult subject matter should not appear, and neither should political ads about gay marriage. If your business is based around your Christian faith, for example, you probably do not want ads featuring scantily clad women (or men, for that matter) on your site, even if they are perfectly acceptable elsewhere.
Fifth: "Under Construction". Either you are or you are not building the site. An under construction sign tells people that you were not really ready to launch yet. Try to replace the sign with some content pretty quickly. It is better to have a partially-functional site up (slap the word "beta" on it) than to leave the under construction sign in place for too long. If your site involves membership, have a limited "alpha" while you are getting the site up, then move to a beta while you are refining it and ironing out the bugs.
Sixth: Learn all you can about your subject area. Become the online expert for that subject area. Whether your area is Black cowboys in American history, or recipes for clams, learn all you can about it. Teach seminars at your local library about the subject. Write a blog about it. Write articles for your local paper or for magazines that delve into your topic. Buy books about the subject. Learn who else is in your area and refer to them as recognized experts, even linking to them from your site. Once your site becomes a hub for information about your topic, even people who were going to buy from your competitors will come through you first.
Seventh and final item: No one builds anything of lasting value alone. Get your family and friends involved. Hire the neighbor's high school kid. Offer internships and work-study to local college students and ROP students. Do not hog all the benefit for yourself. Build up your team, so that they are highly-skilled and highly-compensated. You want the most motivated workforce in town working with you to make your site and business behind it the best and most profitable in the business.