Tuesday, February 28, 2012

the end of email?

end of the road?

More articles are emerging about the end of email. This may seem almost as momentous as the end of history. But before you go buy some carrier pigeons, the discussion so far is only about internal company email.

For such email, the future is looking less and less secure. Personally, I don’t mind email for business - for me it is quick, leaves a paper trail, is date stamped automatically...and, importantly, I have the guts to delete now and delete often, where appropriate.

But the people doing the research are telling us that many inside companies, including CEOs, are spending up to 20 hours a week doing nothing but dealing with email. There is a plethora of advice about how to stay on top of email, how to ration the time you spend on it, email etiquette and so on, but still the tool (and that’s all it is) more often produces inefficiency than the reverse.

One of my biggest bugbears with inter-company or inter-firm email is that someone can spend ten valuable minutes sitting on her or his butt carefully composing an email to me, when I’m just a few steps away. How about some old technology folks? Like walking and conversing? It would help your health.

This article in the The Sydney Morning Herald says that French company Atos (74,000 employees) aims at banning internal email completely by 2013.

CEOs are looking at new ways of doing things. Using micro blogging for short announcements to multiple people (that don’t need an answer), electronic scheduling tools for getting people together without the discussion, instant messaging for a quick word with someone on a different floor, and Facebook-style interfaces for more efficient conversations.

This article by Jill Duffy  makes a case for the superior utility of social media style communication tools within companies: “brevity by design”, a team ethos, actually including more people across departments in discussions.

While this is about internal company email, not email generally, you never know how these things can spread. Futurists might indulge in some wild-seeming speculations about this trend -- and who’s to say what the future of email will be? Watch this space.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

the rat race

Office life: can you stand it?

Business people are not all the same just because they all sit at desks. 

Not that they all do just sit. In a recent New York Times report, an article by Eric Copage highlighted the health dangers of sitting all day, and promoted the benefits of getting up from your chair and moving about during the working day. It seems that exercising out of office hours is not enough on its own to combat the risks of sitting on your butt all day. 

Copage reports that a firm in Minneapolis, hoping to help matters, has introduced walking meetings. Yep, you read that right. In their conference room they have set up “treadmill desks” with height-adjustable working surfaces. Employees have also been provided with treadmill desks with computers. Then there’s wireless headsets for walking about while talking on the phone.

As someone who spent a lot of years sitting down in an office, I fully endorse any efforts to change that dynamic and get people moving during their working day. Taking the stairs between floors instead of the lift is great. Going to talk to someone instead of sending yet another rambling email can be good. A small gym within the office is convenient. Breaks for activity would be innovative. I’ll even endorse sitting on a balance ball.

But those guys walking on the treadmill while they work -- that just defines “rat race” for me. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

creativity: group think or solo activity?

'I just want to be alone'

Creative people are famously loners, at least in stereotype. But in business, there is a view that ‘brain-storming’ in a group, and being constantly connected with others in an open-plan office is the way to unleash new ideas and allow people to access their inner Steve Jobs. 

In an interesting article recently for the New York Times, Anita Patil reviews some of the current thinking on this topic. She says that recent research has shown that brainstorming may be inefficient:

“The problem? Well, other people. In a group, people can tend to fixate on one idea, blocking out other possibilities, or they sit back and let others do the work. Eventually...group members start to mimic others’ opinions and conform.”
Sound like a meeting near you? 

Patil also points out that the creative process can have “a quiet part”. Smart ideas don’t always come from the people with the dazzling charisma. And even those people may need some contemplative time out to recharge and connect with their best ideas.

As for open plan offices, Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” is rather scathing:

“...corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted.”

I think that the point here is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the psychology of those who work in offices. Some may thrive on interaction and others may cringe at the constant barrage of people. A wise manager will play to an individual's strengths, and not try to force round pegs into square holes. And with that flurry of cliches, I'll leave you to think about it. Quietly.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

are you really my friend?

do your customers love you?

I’ve commented before about using social media for business, and suggested that it is something most businesses should be looking at. But let’s not close our eyes to the pitfalls. In a recent report in the Australian media, the supermarket chain Woolworths found out the hard way how not to handle Facebook posting.

It seems that it posted a question on its Facebook page: “Finish this sentence: this weekend I can’t wait to....” Perhaps subliminally offended by the inanity of this, some “friends” of Woolworths took the opportunity to finish the sentence with gems such as “...throw out the fruit and veg I bought at Woolworths only 3 days ago that goes off so much more quickly than the green grocers,” and other such complaints. See Woolworths Facebook page here.

In another Facebook blooper, Westpac bank began deleting critical posts about its interest rate rises, thus indicating that their social media people have not grasped the concept of marketing in this medium. If you invite people - everyone - into a conversation, you don’t get to control what they say. The real skill in using Facebook and Twitter is to see and use the positive opportunities that come with engagement with your clients and customers. 

The article mentioned above singles out Qantas as another victim of social media, with angry tweets filling the Twittersphere during an industrial relations dispute; and the National Australia Bank as an example of successful engagement with customer criticisms, responding to suggestions and critiques positively and pro-actively. Social media is an activist sphere, and a responsive business can actually be changed and improved by its customers’ suggestions.

In the past you may have paid big money to survey your customers to find out how well recognised your brand is, whether it is associated with good value, what customer concerns really are. Welcome to social media, where the customers will tell you all this in a nanosecond, given a platform. 

It’s time not to just broadcast to your customers and clients, but also to listen to what they have to say.

And they are your friends. Really.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

keep calm

British souvenir

I’ve just found a great story from last September about the ubiquitous and quintessentially British slogan KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. I bought my first souvenir carrying this slogan from the gift shop in the WWII bunkers known as The War Rooms. In my ignorance, I thought it was a reproduction of a real war-time slogan. It sounds so awfully plausible. Now I have learnt that although the Ministry of Information did produce posters bearing this slogan, they were (in a rare example of British self-insight) deemed too patronising and never saw the light of day.

In an intriguing backstory, it seems that in 2000 a bookseller in Northumberland found an old poster in the back of his shop. He checked with the Imperial War Museum that it was out of copyright, and started selling reproductions. He never applied to register the design as a trade mark, nor claimed copyright in the image.

In 2007 a more entrepreneurial businessman began selling mugs, t-shirts, and all kinds of other items bearing the slogan. His company is called Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd. The web site happily gives the historical background to the slogan and the poster - and it’s re-discovery in the bookshop.

As Telegraph journalist Gordon Rayner puts it:

“To begin with, both sides did manage to keep calm, but in April Mr Coop gained an EU trademark for the wording of the slogan, thus sparking what must inevitably be described as a right old carry on.”

It seems that applications to register the mark in the UK have been rejected, but OHIM has granted an EU Community Trade Mark.

A brief review of OHIM’s database does indeed show a “right old carry on”. Keep Calm And Carry On Ltd managed to achieve a registration, which has now had an application for cancellation for invalidity filed against it. The company now has a fresh application accepted, in a few extra classes, but no-one has opposed it yet. In between, an enterprising individual managed to have accepted an application to register the words in their familiar graphic form, complete with the crown logo. The Northumberland bookseller has opposed this one.

Interestingly, the slogan has spawned a plethora of spin-off slogans. Examples from the company’s own website include:

KEEP CALM AND COME IN (on a doormat)

and my personal favourite:


Apart from these enterprising variations on a theme, Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd also has products using other war-time slogans - such as DIG FOR VICTORY.

The whole saga has resulted in quite a few people ignoring the maxim in the slogan. Here is a protest site collecting signatures to battle the grant of the EU trade mark registrations, and prevent applications for registration in the USA and Canada. Their slogan: KEEP CALM IS NOT A TRADE MARK.

Everyone should just keep calm. The lawyers will carry on.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

strategy v. goals

Achieving your goals

Strategy: a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.
Goal: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.
(Oxford Dictionary)

It is not uncommon advice - and many people follow it when the New Year dawns - to set yourself some goals. The resolutions for the New Year are meant to invigorate your resolve and give you a definite destination towards which you can direct your self-discipline and efforts. Sad to say, when the goals aren’t reached, the whole enterprise just seems de-motivating. 

But there’s another reason why goal-setting can subtly sabotage success: goals can be self-limiting. Say you decide to set a goal to improve your income by $10,000 in the next year. You may well improve your income by $10,000 in the next year; but with less limits on your horizon it could have been $20,000. The $10,000 became a self-limiting prophecy. 

Alan Weiss has said: “The worst thing about having a plan is that you hit it.”

A goal could be defined as your ultimate objective, while strategy is about how you are going to get to that objective. Try making some “strategic objectives” that will lead you in the right direction, towards an open-ended and non-limiting goal. Here’s an example:

"Our strategy is to increase our client base in X-country by translating our materials, attending conferences in X-country, forming strategic alliances there, training our people in  local cultural understanding; with a goal of increasing our profits from business in X-country by a larger percentage every year."

Sounds good to me. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Baby Blue

Baby Blue Ivy Carter: welcome

You may have heard - I must admit it passed me right by - that Jay-Z and Beyonce recently became the parents of a baby, whom they named ‘Blue Ivy’. In the wonderful world that is entertainment, this sparked some enterprising people to apply to register BLUE IVY as a trade mark. In response, the proud parents have filed their own application. One wonders what goods are specified. What is the classification for “babies” anyway? We may need another Nice conference to sort that one out.

I guess it could be argued that the mark is not being used in the course of trade when it has merely been applied to a baby. We can only assume that the happy couple plan to make a scad of money out of their tiny bundle, or the merchandising rights associated therewith.

Here’s a report on this baby business from CNBC  One breathless contributor speculates that BLUE IVY could become a brand for “fragrances, strollers or clothing” and earn “$5 million”. Indeed.

I checked on the USPTO database. The parents’ company has in fact filed for BLUE IVY CARTER, the child’s full name. The goods and services cover fifteen different classes, and range across the usual merchandising items for entertainers, with a definite emphasis on baby items. The services covered include live musical performances and fan clubs, so Baby Blue seems destined for a successful future.

As to the gender of Baby Blue, having missed the birth announcement, I had to do a little searching to find out.

It’s a girl.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

ghostwriting for blogs


I recently came across this interesting blog post on the subject 'Are ghost-written lawyer blogs unethical?'

It raises some crucial points, as do the comments left by readers. Setting aside the question of whether a ghost-written legal blog offends US advertising laws for attorneys, it seems to me that having a blog of any hue ghost-written by an unrelated provider misses something fundamental about blogging. Posting your thoughts, musings and reactions to events on the internet grew out of bloggers’ personal desire to connect. The style of blogs retains something of those origins, even when transplanted into the business world. If you merely wish to give information or pontificate, that’s a newsletter. A blog has much more of the personal stamp of its author.

Which is both its strength and its weakness in the world of blogs for business. Despite my initial reaction, which I stand by, it doesn’t take much further thought to conclude that busy lawyers (for example) are going to need some help with content if their firm is to run a regular blog. Using such help is far from unusual for busy attorneys - from having the in-house marketing people draft some information for the firm’s newsletter, to co-authoring a longer article with a junior associate, collaborative authoring is everyday. A couple of things need to be highlighted, however. No such work should be done by people with no expertise in the field. And no such work hits publication without review and sign-off by responsible attorneys.

The same rules should apply to a legal blog (and the idea is transferrable to many business blogs). Certainly there is no sensible, let alone ethical, basis for hiring a bunch of students to pump out content. How is that keeping you connected with your clients?

I’d also suggest some transparency. The contributors to a blog can be identified with a brief introduction or bio. There is nothing wrong with a blog having multiple authors, so long as one person doesn’t pretend to be the lone author. That’s deceptive, and a bad look. In fact, for a legal or business blog, having reputable and interesting co-authors or guest contributors keeps things fresh.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Performing: anyone can be a critic

It must be a tough life as a stand up comedian. Not only do you have to get the timing right, and be funny and personable, you also have to know how to deal adroitly with hecklers and turn their interventions to your advantage rather than disadvantage. It’s not a good look to leave the stage in a huff when the hecklers have a go at you.The position is not dissimilar for businesses exposing themselves to the great audience of internet users.

Timing is important. No business wants to be seen as a follower, a late-to-the-party slow poke, an old-fashioned outfit that’s only just figured out that everyone checks the Yellow Pages online these days. But neither do you want to be merely a follower of every new fad to hit the ether. It’s about keeping an eye on what’s going on and slotting in your business where you can make the most of new developments.

And yes, the ‘personality’ of your business also needs attention. Your values should show through the face you present to the world. Responsiveness, integrity, ingenuity -- what do you value?

But now we come to the hecklers. As discussed in a previous post, using certain tools on the internet for business can leave you wide open to public comments from any Tom, Dick or Martha who has a view to express or a bad hangover. And they don’t have to have bought a ticket to your show - you may never meet them, never see them, but they can cause you headaches. Be careful how you respond (or not) to negative comments. Be seen to engage in constructive discussions - it’s a chance to put your view. Correct your mistakes, thank people who point out genuine errors, and don’t engage with the nut-cases. And if you need to correct a blog post or other article posted on the web, note clearly that you are editing, or post a follow-up instead.

The ‘Net has been called a public relations disaster. As American historian Daniel Boorstin apparently said,

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.”

But it’s not all bleak. With a little savvy thought, any publicity can be good publicity (up to a point, anyway!) Alvin Adams, an American businessman said:

“My view is different. Public relations are a key component of any operation in this day of instant communications and rightly inquisitive citizens.” 

He made this comment in the 19th century. You were so right, Mr. Adams, more than you’ll ever know.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

the brand battle


The blog Markify recently posted an interesting item about the overwhelming number of boring everyday words that are used in trade marks. Markify was underwhelmed, and made the perfectly correct and lawyerly point that these common words do not help brands to stand out. Additionally, a common or descriptive word is difficult to register, meaning that it is difficult to claim any exclusivity. A trade marks attorney will groan (metaphorically if not literally) when a brand owner comes up with yet another mark containing the word STAR or SOLUTIONS or POWER or SMART or GREEN, or one of the two newest (according to Markify) to join the list : SOCIAL or MOBILE.

This set me thinking.

The attorneys reading this will nod - so what? That’s ‘Trade Marks 101’. Always advise your client to choose a distinctive mark, so that they can protect it and so that they can stand out in the marketplace.

But attorneys are not marketers, and marketers may disagree about what a brand can and should do in the marketplace. It’s not that easy to establish a completely invented word (that Holy Grail for ease of registration) as associated with a particular product. Brands often need to at least subtly, and maybe not so subtly, suggest what the product is, what its qualities are, what the brand owner’s ethos is. An invented word may not cut the ice.

And so the perennial battle quietly rages: the attorneys wondering why marketers can’t be more “original” and come up with much more distinctive marks which would make their life easier; and the marketers wondering why their attorneys seem to be working against them and not with them.

Somewhere in between lies the perfect brand choice: creative enough to carry the freight of suggestion that good marketing needs, but clever enough to be considered distinctive at law.

Here are a few examples to ponder:

THE SOCIAL GETWORK for employment services

TREND FOOD for food products

JAVA CITY for coffee bar services

THE MONEY STORE for money lending services

Good attorneys need to be able to explain the distinctiveness concept, but appreciate that there may be other equally important issues in brand selection.

Good marketers need to be able to include the magic ingredient of distinctiveness while still creating a brand that works for them.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Contented cows.

I’ve begun reading “Happier” by Tal Ben-shahar, and one insight struck me: we can very easily “learn” to be helpless. Tal tells the story of an experiment where dogs were grouped into three: one group was given an electric shock, but could turn it off; another was given an electric shock but couldn’t turn it off; the third group was given no electric shock. After this treatment, all three groups were again subjected to an electric shock, but in a situation where they could easily jump over a barrier and escape it. The dogs from the first and third groups quickly escaped; but the dogs who had learnt that there was no escaping the earlier shocks simply lay there and whimpered.

Now, (setting aside for the moment the ethics of giving electric shocks to experimental animals), ask yourself if you are one of those who lie there whimpering when life continues to give you a few shocks. Have you learnt to be helpless?

Tal goes on to recount a similar experiment on people, this time using loud noise: the first group could turn it off, the second could not, and the third was not subjected to the noise. When all three groups were subjected to the noise but all could turn it off if they tried, the first and third groups did so, but the second group just endured.

Are you just enduring?

(As an aside, with a two-storey basement about to be built below the house next door to me, this experiment could come close to home - pun intended.)

Tal is talking about “learned helplessness” - and it is an inaccurate view of reality. An analogy can be drawn with people who have lived unhappy lives (perhaps stuck in a rat race of work and long hours to get ahead in their career) and who have mistakenly “learnt” that this is the only way to live.

The good news? Our learning reflexes can be put to good use. If you initiate a useful, healthy, happy ritual - think something like exercise, reading for relaxation, eating well, cutting out sugar in your coffee, cutting out coffee - it only takes about a month for the ritual to become a habit. That hamburger will look like poison.

Sometimes a simple insight can make a big difference.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

trademark blogs

There's a lot of strange fruit out there.

So you wonder if there’s any blogging going on in the IP world? It doesn’t take long to answer that question. There are some very impressive articles and brief updates being pumped out by savvy attorneys. The nature of the world wide web is to be ridiculously massive, so no-one can hope to give an accurate overview of all that is out there, so here I offer just a very few personal favourites and some interesting stuff I’ve stumbled upon. If you know of any other great IP blogs, do leave a note in the comments.

The IPKat

Jeremy Phillips and his team of bloggers give loads of juicy content about all aspects of IP: copyright, patent, trade mark, info-tech and privacy/confidentiality issues. And quite a few cat jokes. Get your European perspective here. Also includes links to other IP blogs in the sidebar.

The Trademark Blog

For a US perspective, and plenty of regular short updates on what going on in the trademark universe, Marty Schwimmer is your host.

The TTAB Blog (R)

John Welch “keeps tabs on the TTAB” in the US with this blog, commenting on recent US decisions of the Trademarks Trial and Appeal Board.

Anticipate This!  (TM)

If you like a little patents with your trademarks, try Jacob Ward’s blog, from Ohio.


Here’s a blog from a London firm - nice content, but getting a little out of date. One of the pitfalls of blogging - your blogger needs to be passionate about regular communication.

Bay Oak Law

And here’s a personal favourite: the blog-style web page of Bay Oak Law of Oakland, California. The blog posts make the whole page vibrant, up to date and interesting.

IP Komodo Dragon

And from South East Asia, this great one from Nick Redfearn at Rouse & Co.

Looking fresh and on top of things is the name of the game. Give your readers - prospective clients all - a reason to return to your site, other than to look up your address. Keep them coming back with short, digestible, interesting snippets about IP and what you can offer.

Encourage them to join you in the conversation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

it’s a jungle out there

As everyone leaps with enthusiasm onto social networking platforms - well, perhaps not everyone! - it is good to pause for a moment and consider some of the pitfalls of the changing dynamic. With blogs that allow comments, Facebook pages that encourage comments, and Twitter, which is one huge round of chatter, it is important to state the obvious: ANYONE can join your conversation.

With a blog you have (or should have) the ability to moderate comments - that is, to check them before they appear. Always enable this feature, so that you can prevent spam and malicious comments. But don’t use it to stifle lively discussion, or readers soon won’t want to talk with you.

The well-known website TripAdvisor is a platform for travellers to post reviews of accommodation businesses. It was reported recently  that the site has been rapped on the knuckles by the UK advertising watchdog for using phrases such as “reviews you can trust”, when in fact there is a risk of fraudulent posts (despite TripAdvisor’s efforts to prevent it). Even discounting outright fraud, a disgruntled patron, whether they are in the right or not, can potentially threaten a small business. Here's a story like that: a small B&B has to battle what it claims are slanderous comments by one disgruntled former guest. Whatever the rights and wrongs of individual cases - beware. TripAdvisor has a facility for proprietors to publicly answer any negative (or positive) comments - use it judiciously. But even that may not protect you against a malicious person.

The ordinary folk who post their comments all over the internet - as invited - often have no conception of the havoc they can wreak, of the potential power in their hands. The general consensus is against censoring the internet - witness the (rather unthinking) backlash against Twitter for trying to comply with specific country laws. After all, the freedom of the internet has opened so many doors and empowered so many people. But like copyright infringement, slander is still illegal. It’s just that both are more or less impossible to enforce if you are a micro-business and the perpetrator is sitting at their computer in a foreign land.

But what about the lovely concept of “community”? The internet has enabled many like-minded folk to congregate in conversation, and business. The wonderful site for indie craftspeople, etsy, would be a safe haven for small creators, you’d think. But small creators are plagued by copyright rip-offs of their designs. Etsy will take down the sites of sellers who are proven to engage in this nefarious practice deliberately.  Most indie craftspeople are very careful indeed about their work, and place a high value on originality.

But what if the worst happens and an item you use contains an image which is not in the public domain, and - horrors! - you’ve stepped on another artist’s rights? Of course you take the image down right away, apologise if there’s been a complaint. Your indie community will understand, surely. Not necessarily: the internet is a wide open forum, and not everyone who posts does so with thought. You can more likely expect a savaging and a threat to the good name of your micro-business. The lesson? Even in the close-knit indie world, don’t expect “the community” to worry too much about the damage they can wreak.

It’s everyone for themselves in the jungle.

Oh, and for another side to this cautionary tale, there was news this week of two young English people blacklisted from entering the USA, where they were bound on holiday, because the content of a couple of (they thought innocent) Twitter posts which offended strict US sensibilities about potential troublemakers.

Think before you tweet.