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TRADE OFF (Unplugged)
A conversation between Kevin Maney & Moe Abdou

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Kevin Maney with Moe Abdou

About Kevin Maney & Moe Abdou Kevin Maney An author and considered as one of the most insightful journalist, Kevin Maney writes for print and online publications for Fortune, The Atlantic, and Fast Company, among other publications. . A contributing editor to Condé Nast Portfolio in 2007, he worked at USA Today as a senior technology writer and columnist for two decades where he wrote more than six hundred columns.

Moe Abdou Moe Abdou is the creator of 33voices — a global conversation about things that matter in business and in life. moe@33voices.com

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Kevin Maney with Moe Abdou

I am fascinated by your book and I think it’s got so much application specifically for the entrepreneurs that we work with. My passion has always been working with entrepreneurs and helping entrepreneurs. It really got me to think that when I was out there in the financial world working with businesses, this whole issue of making decisions specifically when it comes to products and services … crippled people, Kevin. It really did whether a business was small or large, whether they’re making financial decisions for us or whether they’re making business decisions for them. I was attracted to your work. I have to ask you, you talk about the tradeoff between quality and convenience or being the best and being convenient. What do you make of the mayhem of at least here on the West Coast to the new iPhone release yesterday? Apple has been the king of constantly creating this high fidelity version of the product that makes them -- I mean, it’s perfect it fits perfectly in the description of the book that it creates extreme desire and it doesn’t matter if there is, as with the iPhone 4, extremely inconvenient to get. You go stand in line or register to buy it two seconds after midnight when it goes on sale. It has cache and the cool factor, the bragging rights of being able to say, I bought this and I have this. They’re masters at it. They’re just absolutely masters at creating this super high fidelity product that everybody feels like they have to have no matter how hard it is to get. It’s definitely not high convenience although they claim it is high convenience. Convenience, the definition in the book is how easy it is for someone to get something and enjoy it. The iPhone itself is not particularly easy to get. Even on the user experience side of things, there is a certain inconvenience to the iPhone. It’s on a terrible network with AT&T that everybody complains about. It has a history of so many things like dropping calls and not having some of the functionality that actually other cell phones that don’t quite have the same image have on them but it doesn’t matter because Apple has been able to create this aura about the iPhone that just can’t be beat by anybody else no matter how hard they try. Do you have one?

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I don’t. Probably a good thing. I own one of those recent models of the Motorola Android phone. I do a lot of email on my phone. I can’t deal with the onscreen keyboard of the iPhone. I wanted something that had the availability of apps and the kind of capabilities of an iPhone but that had the actual thumb keyboard. Motorola’s Android I think is a terrific product. The Android marketplace is pretty quickly catching up to the Apple app store in terms of number of apps and having pretty much anything you’d wanted as in the other. You make a really, really compelling point in your book about not trying to do both, not focusing on the high fidelity and the high convenience. Yet, one of the triggers that kept ringing in my mind is that there are so many people who are struggling to do that. There are so many people who have convinced themselves they can do that. Where does that illusion come from specifically for some of these smaller businesses? Every business course you take, they draw this kind of matrix of two kinds of desirable traits and always tell you that where you want to be is in the top right, the most involved. In a lot of cases, it’s true. In this particular case, these two traits, this fidelity and convenience are two things that pull in opposite directions at each other. In a much simpler version it’s like saying you want to be the lowest price and the highest quality. Well, you can’t, nobody really succeeds at that. It seems desirable. Obviously, if you could do it, then you should theoretically be able to own the marketplace. You sell your product for less than anybody else’s and it’s the absolute most desirable product. It never happened. Starbucks is one of the examples in the book and it shows you can push and push and you can get there for a moment, but inevitably, there is too much pressure in both directions. The convenience is pulling your fidelity downward and your attempt to try to stay high fidelity is tarnishing your ability to try to make your product lower cost and more ubiquitous. As Starbucks discovered that the wheels just come off. I belong to master-mind/ discussion type groups and about three or four months ago, I brought your book as a conversation starter. A lot of the people there are focused in technology as we are. It seems that there is a major tilt towards the convenience play. People kind of have convinced themselves I guess that what technology has enabled us to do is to really
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Kevin Maney with Moe Abdou

be tilted more towards the convenience aspect of it as opposed to being so focused on creating the best product out there. You see on the internet, “Hey get it out there and make it accessible to people and you’ll probably be better off.” Do you see that more in the technology world? In the internet world, yes. The internet has enabled convenience in a way that few other inventions or media that have landed in the U.S. or on the world lap ever had. There is this whole thing on the web about free products, free ubiquitous products like Google and Google apps. They’re all about ultra convenience. It pushes so extremely towards the convenience end that then the war end up becoming, you know, if everything is available for free and everything is completely ubiquitous. I mean, all you have to do is click on a few things and it lands on your screen so there is nothing easier to get. Well then the war becomes between all of those things clustered at the super high convenience end, then who can make the best quality product out of that cluster. So there are gradations. If you’ve got five things that are all online calendars and they’re all free and they’re all a click away, they’re all equally as convenient and then in that case, the one that’s going to win because you can’t get more convenient as that, the one that’s going to win is going to be the one that creates the highest fidelity product out of that group. The internet itself has rarely been about creating the super high fidelity version of almost anything. Don’t you think we’re becoming at least astute enough as consumers to realize that when everybody is pushing these free things and these free products and these free samples, at some point in that cycle, in that ecosystem, they’re going to sell you something because you can’t survive any other way. But it seems everybody still follows that model whether it’s launching products or launching services. It’s here, take a free this, take a free that, and then bingo, pay $1800 for that. Well, yeah, I guess of course there would be an advertising angle. They’re still trying to sell you something. They’re trying to sell you on spending your time and attention on this particular product and you are not having to pay for something. But you know, some things are going to happen. It will take both media as we all know publishing seems to be falling apart, print publishing. Right now online, it’s all about convenience. It’s about creating free easily accessible versions of what people used to pay for. Eventually, it’s going to create this whole new marketplace where a lot of people are no longer going to be getting prints or anything. Instead, there’s going to be a range from fidelity to high fidelity to high convenience of media
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on the web. It’s going to be in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and New Yorker magazines that are going to try to cluster in the high fidelity corner and make you pay for it as they should. The trick for them is to create content that is desirable enough that you’re willing to do that even though it’s not as convenient as clicking on something and getting it for free. And then there is going to be Yahoo News and Google News and all these other blogs and stuff like that that cluster at the high convenience end continuing to offer what they do for free. Eventually in any new marketplace you end up getting that range. Do you see that in terms of creating quality obviously when it comes to this content stuff, it certainly has to be in the power of the content, I assume. How else do you distinguish quality between these various content providers out there that are infinite? Everybody is a content provider. That’s right, if you’re going to be the Wall Street Journal and charge for it as Rupert Murdoch seems to want to do, then the Wall Street Journal has to have incredibly good content that you can’t get anywhere else. I don’t know because it also has to create a cache that the others don’t have. So that it’s important for you to be able to talk about what you read in the Wall Street Journal online with your colleagues at work or something like that. If you don’t know what they’re talking about, you’re out of the loop and in the end the only way to get it will be by paying for it. The New York Times or the New Yorker, that’s what they’re going to have to do is get to that place where not only is it great content but it’s great content that for some reason, you have to have or you’re out of it. Kevin, you know when you look at a lot of these entrepreneurs, you’re not too far off. I remember that Dulles Corridor used to be nothing. In fact we used to go play football behind the airport. It’s obviously a pretty prominent little area there. When you take a look at what’s happening in the technology world, one of the things that these entrepreneurs I think should think about is certainly when you’re starting a business or you’re coming up with the idea, that old hedgehog concept makes a heck a lot of sense. I think if you gear the questions of why are we doing what we are and what value we’re adding with the context in mind of trying to figure out what is the one thing that we can do and do it better than anybody out there or the convenience factor. If you’re coaching these entrepreneurs, how do you lead their level of thinking into these small businesses that are springing up all over the place.
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I think one of the values of this model is that idea of first of all not thinking about what you’re doing in a vacuum. In the book there is sort of a grip with the fidelity on one side and convenience on the other. I would encourage anybody who is starting a business to draw that grid and every competing product or company that is right in that same ballpark that you’re after put it on that grid somewhere. Think about it in terms of the way customers are going to look at it, not the way you look at it or not the way other business might classify it. Look at it in the way customers look at it and say, do customers consider this a high convenience product or a high fidelity product or something that sort of fits in the middle. Plot all of those on that grid and then put where you think you are on that grid and then make some decisions. The best thing that you could possibly do is to look at that grid and say, either convenience or fidelity and if we’re deciding that we’re convenient, look at where that outermost wire is, you know, convenience and figure out how you can beat them. How you can either get as convenient as they are and be a little bit better in quality or get more convenient than they are. Or, have the discipline to say, we’re going to drive forth towards fidelity. We’re not going to be all things to all people but we are going to be great to some people. And then figure out who that highest fidelity competitor is and figure out how you can beat them at that. You can be at least as good as they are, and maybe be a little lower priced. That’s one way to do it or decide you can figure out how to be better and higher fidelity than they are and you serve them. That takes a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of discipline to decide that you’re going to be one or the other. By doing that, I think you could create a very clear direction for your company. You have certainly been in front of some pretty established companies. Everyone who has had an opportunity to read your book at least, see the value in it. What questions are these organizations asking after you spend time with them or what questions are being raised in your conversations with business leaders based on this concept of trade-off? I’m actually more fascinated by the conversations I’ve had with smaller companies. I think it’s because a small company tends to have a single purpose, you know, a single product and a single service. They’re not trying to create range of brands or anything like that so they’re focused. I’ve done talks in front of a group of small businessmen a number of times.

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Generally, one of the things that I get is that they’re fascinated by trying to take this land and place themselves in there. Most of the time, a very large number of times, they come to a kind of an aha moment and say, we’re confused about what we’re trying to be. I remember one woman who owned a limo company. They started out as being the absolute best service anybody could get. You know we’re going to have great drivers. They’re going to be there on time. They were going to have perfectly clean, nice cars for everybody. So they got this reputation and then they started feeling like they had to start competing at price with all these other different competitors and couldn’t figure out why their business kind of stalled. She came to me after one of these talks and said, it just made me realize that we have to stop doing that. We have to focus and make sure that everybody knows that we’re all about being the absolute best and you can’t call anybody better. I’ve gotten that quite a bit. I recently gave a talk to a group in Minneapolis. There was a guy who came up to me -- it’s funny, things you don’t even really think about it. He said, I owned a company that did heating systems for buildings in Minneapolis. Our whole thing was that we got a reputation for doing really difficult high end jobs that we were considered the super high end, the super fidelity company in this area in our region and we got bought by this other company that had the exact opposite business which was mass market under price everybody and just do volume. When the two companies were put together, the management kept trying to sort of merge them somewhere in the middle and create something that was both. He was saying, it just kept not working, it kept not working. I realized I got to go back to the leadership of the company and say the best thing we could possibly do is actually keep those brands separate and have one be very clearly focused on super convenience, one clearly focused on super fidelity and not try to mess it up in the middle. Kevin, I have to tell you, the first time I read your book; I went through the whole thinking model myself about what we were doing. I came to a different conclusion that’s when I mentioned in the beginning we’re heading in a different direction. One thing that is really important for me was certainly to be convenient to as many entrepreneurs around the world as possible. But what was tipping me was that we really need to do is provide the best content from the best content providers. So we shifted our thinking… what we want to do is everyday profile somebody like yourself, profile your material, and say, hey, this kind of
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fits in one of the three categories. It’s either going to fit in to your life or lifestyle, your business and/or your significance. If we can focus on just trying instead of 5000 authors, we just want 30 month. Profile one a day and try to build on that so it definitely tilted my thinking. As a member of the audience out there, that seems more appealing to me. On this great wide open internet thing that has all the content you could ever want to find, I think more and more people are looking for those niches of quality that they can really trust. They can go there and say, I know I’m going to get the best if I go there. Where do you take this work? What’s next for you with this stuff because I can tell at least in my world, this world of entrepreneurs and primarily technology entrepreneurs, this is a kind of thing that doesn’t really exist out there because this simplifies our thinking process. That’s good. I’m glad to hear that. I think I have a fatal flaw. I’m too intellectually curious to end up being a very successfully focused businessman. That’s a good thing. At least it keeps the mind stimulated. If I were better at it, I know there are people who do these kinds of things. Look at Jeffrey Moore with Crossing the Chasm. Jeffrey was great. He wrote a book that really hit a homerun. He simplified some ways of thinking about things. He zeroed right in on it. He built a business around it. He built a bunch of follow up books that were directly related to it. He’s probably made a whole lot more money than I have on it. That’s great. I actually wish I had the discipline to do that. So I do have another book that I’m working on. One thing that it does have in common with tradeoffs is that I think it’s going to take some big concepts and make them very simple for people and maybe that’s something that I’m good at but it’s a different topic. It does have to do with technology and the way businesses work and things like that but also very different. On the other hand, it should take some very complex things that are going on the world and hopefully simplify them in a way that’s very helpful to people. Do you do any consulting for small businesses kind of like in groups or virtually? Do you do any type of coaching for these people? I left my mastermind session that day and I said, okay great. There is some fabulous information here maybe we ought to have this dialogue once a quarter together to just keep those thoughts in mind. Is that appealing to you at all?
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At this point in time, what I have done is more like in a category of giving talks to groups. I actually had a consulting practice approach me. I don’t know where it will wind up going …about the idea of building something more regular. It’s just been around the book idea and using me in something very similar to that. I don’t think that I would just pursue it on my own because I end up getting pulled in the direction of the next book or continue to write for publications like Fortune and The Atlantic. I like to do that. I like to get out there and learn about a wide range of things going on in the world and find ways to write about them that entertain and help people. There maybe ways out there to use what I do to make more money but I’m not sure it will be more fun. You know what, that’s what it’s all about in the end. I guess the fortunate and the unfortunate matter is that there a lot of people doing some great things in the world but probably aren’t having the fun that you’re having. It does seem in the world of entrepreneurs that the people that are the most successful, are the ones that enjoy what they’re doing the most. So there is a correlation. It’s not our message with the book but it’s another message that I hope your audience will get is that you got to love what you’re doing. Absolutely and it seems like you’re thinking is tilted more to technology. I’ve been writing about technology almost my entire journalism career. I’ve never really been somebody who has done like reviews in the latest gadgets and things like that. That’s not my interest. My interest is in the big development in technology and how they change the way we do things. How they change the way we run companies or the way we live our lives and the way we make friends and everything else that’s going on. That’s what’s interesting to me. It’s going to keep you busy for a long time. I appreciate you taking this time. I hope that you and I can stay in touch and I’ll keep you updated on what happens on this end. Perhaps there might be an opportunity in the future to get you to do a webinar for our people. Thank you for your time today, Kevin.

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