Is Amazon a legit company?

I was recently reminded that the truths we hold as self-evident as technophiles are not universal (sorry, American friends). Specifically, even a company as old, big and ubiquitous as Amazon still has room to grow and skeptics to convince.

2 recent anecdotes illustrate this:

1) I was having dinner with friends at their home when their teenage daughter came back from a day out and asked her parents for help. Let's call her Maria.  Maria wasn't able to find a book required by her school at the local bookstore so she wasn't sure what to do. Her mother suggested that Maria should call a few other stores and she offered to drive her in the following days if required.

I asked Maria whether she was going through all that trouble because Amazon didn't carry that particular title or she needed it right away to do last minute homework. She answered that she had heard of Amazon but wasn't sure how exactly "it" worked. Her mother followed on by asking "Is Amazon a big company? Is it safe to order from them? Where is their warehouse?"

Candidly, I was stunned. I thought that Amazon had long ago crossed the chasm into the mainstream. I honestly never thought that a 40-year old, educated, iPad-carrying professional city dweller would not know enough about Amazon to trust ordering from there.

2) I sent a link to a bike trainer to a cycling friend asking him for his advice. His response? Something along the lines of "Yeah, this is the model I recommend and the price is great. But you'll really order it from Amazon? How do you know it'll be in good condition?". I thought that his second question was a simple confusion with eBay/CraigsList. When I asked him to clarify, he told me that he didn't understand how someone could sell a "legit" new product for 20% less than what it was advertised at the local bike shop. He was not aware of the scale and efficiencies that allowed Amazon to be so competitive [1].

Again, I was surprised by this conversation. Amazon has been consistently featured in the mainstream/mass media in the past few years and here you have a 34-year old who didn't really trust them. Not because he had a bad experience with them but simply because he was wary of the economics.

The 2 examples above just show how hard it is to create an enduring, pervasive brand. No matter how big you are, there are still people who never heard of you. The great news is that opportunities for growth are just endless.

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[1] There are definitely many good reasons to support your local bike shop, but that's a topic for another time.

FitStar

One of my biggest fitness challenges is how travel throws off any workout routine I manage to get into. It takes me weeks to get into a comfortable groove, then I travel a few days and it sometimes feels like I am back at square one when I get back. I've found that the obvious solutions of going for runs or using hotel gyms when away rarely work for me unless I am on vacation. It becomes an additional overhead on the trip.

About a month ago, I came across FitStar. It's an app with guided workouts. They have 4 programs: Daily Dose, Get Moving, Get Lean and Get Strong.

I started with Get Lean but found the workouts a bit too repetitive. I switched to Get Strong and I much prefer this program. 

FitStar is innovative because the workouts are adaptive. After every segment (e.g., 20 pushups), it asks you how it went (easy, ok or brutal) and the next workout will be tailored to that feedback. This means that it slows down the progression of segments you can't complete and it ramps up pretty quickly in areas that are too easy. This is an obvious improvement on video-based programs that are the same for everyone.

The workouts I've tried last ~30 minutes and burn ~300 calories. I am not too hung up on the number of calories but I find that working out in the morning drastically improves my day. 

On my last trip to Paris I just propped up the iPad on the hotel desk and did my workouts every day. I think it helped with jetlag but, most importantly, I didn't get derailed from my daily workout routine and was able to jump right back in when I got back home.

This morning I woke a bit late and didn't have time for the gym. I fired up FitStar, streamed it to my TV via AppleTV and I was done in 40 mins including getting changed and setting up. It doesn't get more efficient.

It's now on sale for 29.99/year, down from 49.99/year. Check it out, I think you'll like it.

#Eatergate: Harrison vs Antonopoulos

Ian Harrison’s takedown of the #HappeningGourmand marketing campaign caused a mini controversy in the Montreal foodie/social media community. Even Dan Delmar and Lesley Chesterman got involved so this must be serious business.

I am traveling so a bit late to the party but wanted to weigh-in nonetheless to add some nuance to the conversation. If you are not up to speed, here are the specific posts I am referring to:

First, let me start with my own disclosures:

  1. I am friendly with a few members of the younger generation of the Antonopoulos clan. We are not close friends but I went to CEGEP with a couple of the guys and we sporadically bump into each other at events. Great people. 
  2. I am friendly with Na’eem Adam, who works at 1Milk2Sugars and apparently orchestrated this event. Again, we are not close friends but we worked on a project in the context of PoutineWeek and we see each other at events. Na’eem’s a cool cat and his passion for food is contagious.
  3. I’ve dealt with PR firms and lifestyle/food bloggers extensively in the past 6 years. I’ve had PR firms on retainer, I hired PR consultants for specific consulting gigs and, yes, I have even given freebies to bloggers in hope of getting exposure to their readership (big gasp!). I am eternally grateful to the benefits I received from such exposure but I can still call a spade a spade.

Alright, now with this out of the way, let’s directly address Ian’s issues with what happened. If I understand correctly, he has two main gripes with how things went down:

  1. Ian does not like the fact that the Antonopoulos Group paid local influencers to host dinners at their restaurants. He goes so far as to call it payola.
  2. Ian does not like the fact that these guests were all over social media praising the restaurants without a single mention that they were invited.

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Ian is absolutely right that if you accept money or freebies you should disclose it. Look, you don’t need to hire Stikeman to write you a disclosure notice but it is lazy and deceitful to not even mention that there was a quid pro quo, no matter how small the quid. 
  • There is a big difference between doing a comprehensive restaurant review and attending a PR event. #HappeningGourmand was a PR event and the bloggers were there to cover that event. Just like when a car company launches a new model, hires a PR company to put together an event and invites journalists to cover said event. Most of the attendees treated it correctly as a PR event so no harm done (see below).
  • Neither the Antonopolus Group nor 1Milk2Sugars asked their guests to say anything positive about the events. They simply invited the guests and encouraged them to share on social media. I know it’s a fine line but the “payola” email was in fact pretty benign. 
  • I don’t understand Dan Delmar’s argument that bloggers shouldn’t be held to the same high standard of journalism as “serious” food critics. Again, I am not saying that bloggers should remain anonymous, invent elaborate disguises and adopt a star system. But a simple phrase stating a potential conflict of interest is appreciated by all. 
  • Ian’s accusation that Dan is somehow involved in all this drama was mind-boggling and I am glad he updated his post.

I took the time to go through all the social media mentions I could find and they fall in three camps:

  1. Bloggers who went to the media event and simply reported the fact that there is a food festival at the Antonopolous restaurants during the month of January. Good examples are EnRouteVitaminDaily and Zurbaines. Absolutely no editorializing or reviews of the restaurants. I cannot find anything objectionable in this.
  2. Bloggers who went to the event, disclosed that they were invited and offered light opinions on what they saw. Good examples are Montreal Food Divas and EatingOut. Again, I cannot find anything objectionable in this since there is disclosure and it’s up to the readers to decide whether they trust the . 
  3. Bloggers who went to the event, didn’t disclose the fact that it was a media event or that they were guests and generously commented on the merits of the restaurant they visited. I am not going to throw anyone under bus here because I want to keep things positive but, come on guys, it’s not hard to preface whatever you are going to say with “I was invited to the lauch event for this year’s Happening Gourmand and here are my thoughts….”. This last group mostly consisted of bloggers with smaller followers suggesting that either it’s simply a rookie mistake or that the market is indeed efficient and rewards those who are more serious about their craft.

Since most of the coverage I found was not offensive in any way, I cannot support Ian’s condemnation of the #HappeningGourmand as an elaborate grand scheme by the Antonopolulos Group to fool the public and an example of corruption in the food bloggers’ circle. His arguments about disclosure are perfectly valid but he picked the wrong example to prove his point.

Finally, and most importantly, singling out the Antonopoulos Group like Ian did is disingenuous and sensationalist. First, they are hardly the only restaurant group who hosts blogger/media events. Second, they are being proactive to drum up business in a notoriously slow month for restaurants instead of using the usual “Montreal has too many restaurants” or “Montrealers don’t like to spend money like they people do in Toronto and New York” complaints. Third, this family is instrumental to our city and particularly the revitalization of Old Montreal. They bet on this neighbourhood when it was a deserted. Sure they profited handsomely from their prescience but so did all Montrealers. Anyone living, working, dining or going out in the Old Port owes them a huge debt of gratitude. I cannot think of another group who embodies Montreal hospitality more than the Antonopoulos’. They also personify the entrepreneurial gritty ethos of our city and their meteoric rise from operators of the Casse-Croute du Vieux Port in the late 1960’s to what they are today is nothing short of breathtaking. I estimate that they employed over 20,000 people throughout the years and the indirect economic benefits of their activities are innumerable. And that is beside what they have done to preserve the city’s patrimony and architectural heritage. Of course they should not be given a free pass on ethics but making them the scapegoat of a wild goose chase is ridiculous. They surely don’t need my defence but it’s important for me to state the above because they are simply too classy to get involved in the mudslinging.

Peace.

PS: In Setting the Table, Danny Meyer talks candidly about the symbiotic relationship between restaurateurs and critics. Both groups need each other to thrive and learning how to manage this relationship is primordial for both sides. If you love the food business, I strongly recommend that book.

Marvin Malton 160 M117 review

I bought my first “nice” watch in 2006 with the first bonus I received after 6 months at McK. It was a Panerai Luminor Marina 40mm (PAM00048) that I picked after two or three months of research and seeking opinions. I found a pre-owned version of the exact model I wanted and authenticated it with Chateau d’Ivoire, a reputable Montreal-based jeweler. After receiving the watch, I immediately got rid of the stock leather bracelet to replace it with a black diver-style rubber band. I started with an original Panerai diver band but when that was worn out, I’ve had a series of generic bands mostly purchased on Panatime.

The original plan was that would be my “sporty” watch and that I would buy a “dressy” watch later. However, I was so happy with the Marina that I never ended up buying the other watch. Anyone who knows me will tell you that this watch essentially never left my wrist for over seven years. I am still deeply in love with my Marina as I find it to be the perfect every day watch that fits well with my lifestyle. I went to school and work with it. I sailed, cycled, skied and bummed around on the beach with it. I wore it at weddings and black-tie shindigs. It worked so well for me because it isn’t too bulky (remember I have the less popular 40mm), the rubber strap is supremely comfortable and it’s rugged (I’ve banged it on more door frames that I care to admit). Most importantly, it’s relatively discreet for Montreal, where Panerai is not really a trendy brand. It’s not nearly as conspicuous as walking around with a Submariner or bulky Navitimer.

But as much as I loved my trusty Panerai, my eyes starting wandering. I started longing for a simple white-faced dressier watch that I can wear occasionally. Since I don’t have the same kind of extra cash lying around as I did when working for my corporate overlords, I decided that I didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg on my new purchase. This budget constraint obviously eliminated a few of the usual suspects (IWC, JLC, etc) right off the bat.

My criteria were:

  • Provenance: Real Swiss-made watch with Swiss parts and Swiss craftsmanship. Not one that was made in HK and assembled in Switzerland just to get the “Swiss Made” stamp.
  • History: A manufacture with an interesting history. This eliminates a few of the newer brands.
  • Movement: Solid automatic movement with at least a date
  • Design: Simple white face, preferably with blue hands
  • Band: Leather
  • Glass: Saphire
  • Case diameter: 40-42mm
  • Budget: Under $1k

After looking around for a while, I settled on the automatic Marvin M117 in the Malton 160 family with white face and blue hands (exact modelM117.13.22.68). It was slightly above my budget at $1,220 but exactly fit all my other criteria.

I have been now wearing the new M117 almost daily for over two months and I am thrilled with my purchase. Let’s see why:

Strengths:
  • Discreet. I have received very few comments from strangers since I got the Malton. To me this is a feature, not a bug. One of my pet peeves is when people make assumptions about others based on the watch they are wearing. Yes, I like nice watches. And yes, I will also negotiate my lease agreement to the last detail. They are not mutually exclusive.
  • Beautiful. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I find the M117 absolutely stunning. To me, the proportions of the face are perfect even if the case could use a slight haircut as I explain below.
  • Interesting history. Marvin was founded in 1860, went through some tough times in the middle of the last century and had an interesting story of rebirth. I sent some questions to the new owners and I will post the answers in a new post when I receive them.
  • Attention to detail. Marvin watches all have some details that are fun to discover: a red marker dot at the 8 o’clock position, a stamp with the founders’ initials on the left side of the case, the Marvin crown on the stem and bracelet clasp and a red lining inside of the leather band.
  • Push-button straps. The push button mechanism allows you to change the straps very easily with no tools necessary. I bought an additional black leather strap to supplement the dark brown one that comes with the watch and it is I had heard of this feature before but never seen it in action. I like it!
  • Solid movement. The Sellita SW200 powering the M117 is a standard, if not boring, movement. It is essentially a clone of the ETA2824 workhorse and there is really not much to add here. It does the job, does it well and without fanfare. Expecting anything better at this price range is just not realistic.
  • Great value for money. When you take into account the history and craftsmanship of this watch, I think that you are definitely getting superb value. Of course it’s all relative and I am fully aware that spending $1.2k on a watch is kind of frivolous but we all have our sins.
  • Service. Last but not least, the customer service was spectacular. I emailed the general mailbox with some questions and got an answer in less than an hour. For the following two weeks, Francisco in customer service answered my follow-up questions with speed, first-class competence and empathy. I ordered the watch on a Friday and it arrived on Monday. An impressive feat for a Neuchâtel-Montréal shipment.
What I would have done differently:
  • Leather band. The leather band is slightly uncomfortable because the edges are too thin and not well rounded. I would have personally chosen a broader, more supple band with a better edge finish.
  • Case. The case is ever slightly bulkier that I would have liked. Of course this is pure subjective but I would have preferred to shave a millimetre or two from the diameter and depth of the case. I am not sure if that is technically feasible with the size of the movement but it would have given the watch an even more refined look.
  • Hands. Again this is subjective but I think feuille style hands would work better than the lancette ones currently on the Malton 160.

Verdict:

I am very satisfied with the Marvin Malton 160 M117 and would recommend this watch without reservations. If you are looking for a well-built, well-designed watch with an interesting heritage but without breaking the bank, you should seriously consider the M117.

I must say that now that I have a taste of the Marvin brand, I am lusting over the M115 regulator (exact model M115.13.24.68). She is a beauty powered by a Dubois-Dépraz regulator movement and I will try to get my hands on one for a review.

Feel free to ask if I have left a detail you’re interested in. Thanks for reading!

Working alone sucks

I am the CEO of a small healthcare tech company. My biggest source of job-related dissatisfaction is the fact that I work alone most of the time. I’ve always disliked the “It’s lonely at the top” arrogant cliche but now I must say I am feeling it.

My team of about 20 is distributed around the world. We have sales reps in the US and in Europe, all working from home to be closer to their markets and travel to see their clients. Due to legacy reasons, we have engineers working out of one European facility and a clinical team working from another European facility. I am sitting in an office in Montreal with two colleagues. I don’t have a CFO, COO or other peers with the same overall picture of the company and incentive structure that I have. I send progress reports to my Board of Directors once a quarter who nicely acknowledge receipt and ask some questions but don’t challenge me in a meaningful way.

Because my team is mostly remote and we don’t have any local customers yet, I spend the vast majority of my time dealing with emails and talking on the phone. Just thinking about my daily office routine reminds me of a Hemingway quote:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am (hyper?)active, extraverted and social. Sitting in front of the computer alone all day is as sub-optimal as it gets for my character.

In the first company I started, I had 2 co-founders who were also best-friends. We all sat in close proximity and had a weekly “Partners’ Dinner”. These dinners were a great time to share the ups and downs of the week and jointly steer the vision of the company. Later, when I worked in a management consulting firm, I mostly sat with my team around a large table in the client’s office. We traveled together, worked together, ate together and went out together. We also had frequent client interactions during the day. Overall, the sometimes annoying loss of privacy from Monday to Thursday were outweighed by the friendship, camaraderie and strong professional ties that we formed during that time.

I have only started realizing the negative effects of working alone on my mood and performance. As a result, I started getting involved in many activities outside of work to try to solve this problem. Some activities were helpful, while others further exacerbated my feeling of aloneness.

As example of a not so helpful activity, I went yesterday to a lunch event were I was told we would discuss the main issues affecting Canada/US trade for SMB’s. As about 50% of our business is with the US, I figured that would be an event worth attending. As it happens, we were probably only 3 entrepreneurs (out of 50) participants . Everyone else there was from some kind of government organization pushing their “program” or a service provider who was there to network. The lunch lasted 2.5 hrs and was filled with non-practical macro generalities (US exports represent 67% of Quebec foreign trade) and needless ceremony (“we are so honoured to have with us today Mr X, he is Honorary Chairman of Y committee”). It is impossible thatanyone gained something practical and valuable from the lunch. Driving back to my office, I felt even more isolated. I felt like I wasted time without any benefit whatsoever.

Of course this is only one failed example in a series of more successful attempts to find a solution to my situation. This post is getting longer than I intended it to be so I will stop here and write again soon about some of the things I am doing to improve my solitary working environment.

Update: This post has generated an interesting discussion on HN (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4921047). I should emphasize that it is not physically being alone (i.e., not enough contact with other people) that bothers me, it is the lack of peer-level teamwork towards a common goal that I lack. 

Please stay classy and stop copying Birchbox

I just got off a transatlantic flight and I am writing this on my iPhone so please excuse the rambling.

I met BirchBox’ Hayley and Katia in the summer of 2010. They had just graduated from HBS, had a few hundred monthly customers on their service and weren’t sure whether they would be able to raise a seed round.

They were two lovely ladies trying to make it as first time entrepreneurs.

Fast forward 2 years and the story is completely different. They are darlings of the NY startup scene. They are poster childs of the tech+fashion trend. They raised more money than I’ll ever see in my life. They are signing up paying and recurring users by the boatload. They are apparently very profitable.

And they are still two lovely ladies. They haven’t become too cool for school.

I went to an event where they spoke about the experience last year. After their talk, a couple of guys I knew went up to them and asked them for all kind of operational metrics. Hayley and Katia were gracious enough to indulge them with as much info as possible.

A week later, these guys wanted to have coffee with me to get my thoughts about a new startup they are launching. You want to guess what it was? Yup, a BirchBox for guys. “Imagine every month you get a tightly curated box of shaving cream, hair gel, condoms, etc”. I

don’t know about you, but I really don’t need a tightly curated selection of condoms every month. I am also quite satisfied with my Kiehl’s shaving cream I have been using for 10 years. Would I consider switching? Absolutely. Would I pay $10/month to two clueless frat boys to “curate” my grooming products? Absolutely not.

BirchBox is successful because the girls are passionate about their product. Katia worked for Estée Lauder and has an intimate knowledge of how the beauty industry works.

That first clone launch an folded a few month later. Nice lesson for the founders, no harm done. My problem is that people are still copying them every day. I received 5 BirchBox clone plans in the last 6 months. One of them is a legit twist on the subscription model by people who know something about their market. The other 4 are just plain rip offs with either a different geographic focus (“Europe is completely greenfield for this”) or a different gender focus (“curated condoms”).

Please stay classy and stop copying BirchBox. You will not succeed unless you somehow innovate on their model or know something extra special about the market you are entering.

Update: BirchBox Man launched a few weeks after I wrote this. I hope this taught everyone who ripped off the original BirchBox that you can’t just blatantly copy someone’s else idea without having a secret sauce or a unique differentiator.