Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ordinary Bills

A few months back, NPR featured GlobalGiving on a podcast titled "Ordinary Oprahs." The host, Michel Martin, wanted her listeners to know that they did not have to be Oprah or Bill Gates to be philanthropists. GlobalGiving enables them to have a significant impact in countries around the world for $10 or $100.

Bill Clinton's Global Initiative meetings start today in New York, and I can attest from personal experience that they are quite the jamboree for heads of state and large philanthropists. Clinton has done an extraordinary thing by bringing together so many powerful people to focus on international giving.

Of course, not everyone can be in New York those meetings this week. But not to worry. GlobalGiving allows us all to be "Ordinary Bills."

Ning hits 100,000 networks

In his book At Home in the Universe, Stuart Kauffman creates a framework for predicting whether autocatalysis will occur. Autocatalysis is a form of emergence whereby molecules or other agents catalyze the creation of other molecules or agents in a manner that builds on itself. Stuart uses this framework to construct a theory of the emergence of life. His approach builds on complexity theory and is related to the "New Kind of Science" tools developed by Stephen Wolfram.

Stuart posits 3 main conditions for autocatalysis, as I recall. There must be (i) a large enough number of agents; (ii) enough diversity among agents; and (iii) the right number of connections between agents (too many connections between agents is as bad as too few). His model provides actual coefficients for these variables for certain types of systems. I have always thought that it might be possible to apply the same theory to fields such as economics and the emergence of cities.

The Ning platform has now reached what may be a critical mass in terms of number of agents. Ning's founder, Marc Andreesen, says in a recent post that people have now created over 100,000 social networks on Ning. He also says that there is huge diversity in the nature of the networks being formed: some are small networks of friends formed around an event - say a birthday party. Others are larger networks formed around an affinity - say for a particular sports team.

The interesting question is the optimal number of connections *between* networks on Ning. Marc argues that the social networks themselves are starting to interact. If Ning can surpass critical mass in terms of numbers and diversity, and settle on the right number of links among networks, it could potentially become as big or bigger than Facebook.

Just like Stuart's theory, the jury is still out. But it is worth keeping an eye on Ning.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

"I guess we should have let you know"

"We are sorry - that item was on backorder from our vendor. I guess we should have contacted you to let you know that it would be late."

I hate shopping, so I do most of it online, and use Amazon for the majority of my purchases.

But this email was not from Amazon. In this case, I had decided to give another company my business, since as much as I like Amazon, I don't want them to become the Walmart of cyberspace.

Here is the story: I had purchased some wildflower seeds. Because of my travel schedule, I had a window of opportunity to plant them last weekend. Unfortunately, even though I ordered the seeds over a week in advance - and agreed to pay a $13 shipping charge - the seeds took over two weeks to arrive, and I missed my chance to plant. I was mad, and complained to the company.

The seed company's response was pathetic. Maybe ten years ago it would have been acceptable, but no more. What's worse is that this is the second time this happened to me in the last six weeks. I ordered a life jacket so that my god-daughter would be able to swim safely in the Shenandoah. It did not arrive in time, and when I emailed customer service I got the same exact response...

When I order things from Amazon, I get a good price and free shipping. Amazon promises two-day delivery, but many times I actually receive the item in one day. Amazon's exceptional service has created new expectations that other companies either must live up to or die.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what this implies for customer service in the philanthropy business.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pandora Poster Winner

Congrats to Charles Badua, who won the Pandora poster contest, which was created to raise awareness about global causes. His design was chosen as the best among over 750 entrants.

Charles's poster, along with those of runners-up Dora Radut and Andy Yamashiro are being produced in limited editions.

A $10 donation to one of the projects promoted by Pandora on GlobalGiving will get you one of the posters. A $25 donation will get you all three.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

And now for something completely...technical

My platform shoes from "Saturday Night Fever" are in my closet. I don't wear them, but once in a while I peek at them.

-John Travolta

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 70s, "platforms" frequently referred to a certain type of shoes, which were all the rage. Nowadays, a platform generally refers to a "system that can be programmed and customized by outside users."

Those are the words of Marc Andreessen, the creator of Mosaic (the first real web browser) and then co-founder of Netscape. He has recently founded an interesting service called Ning, a new type of web platform.

If you want to learn about both startups and technical issues related to web software and services, his blog is an excellent place to start. He has the ability to give the reader a broad overview with just the right level of technical detail. He is also a great writer.

And if you have been hearing about Facebook's amazing new "thing" but can't understand what people are so excited about, I highly recommend this blog post by Marc.

Monday, September 17, 2007

How not to treat your customers

The last thing I feel like doing is getting a new cell phone. The last time I did this, I lost almost all of my contacts, and setting up the replacement was a major pain.

But Sprint gives me almost no choice. And the worst part is that I have been a customer for more than ten years.

Last week in CA, my phone decided that half the time it would ring but not allow me either to hear the other person nor be heard. So I went into a Sprint Store in Palo Alto, and described my problem.

"I am sorry; I can't help you," the clerk said. "You will have to send it in."

"Send it in?" I cried. "What do you mean?"

"Well, sir, you will have to send it in to our service depot."

"But what would I do for a phone while it was in the mail - can't I take it there?"

"Oh, yes, you could do that. There is one in San Mateo (about 15 miles away)."

"So will they fix or replace it on the spot?" I hoped.

"Oh, no sir. They will take it and notify you when it is ready. It can take 2-5 business days."

"But what would I do for a phone during that time?" I asked.

"Well, you could always buy another one," he replied.

I was so stunned that I just left the store and nursed my phone until I got back to Washington, DC. Each time it rang, I said a little meditation and hit the 'answer' button. Half the time, it worked.

When I returned to Washington, I decided to bite the bullet and go into a Sprint service depot, here on Connecticut Avenue. I went in. There were several lines, but no one to tell me what to do. Finally, I found a desk that said "Please sign in and we will be with you shortly." I signed in, and there were only a few names ahead of me. I was optimistic. I waited. Some time later, I saw a sign that said Drop off phones for service here. I walked over to that desk, which was empty. But I was hopeful, because I knew at least I was in the right place. No one appeared for ten or fifteen minutes.

Finally another customer came over, and I told her not to get her hopes up because I had been waiting 30 minutes total and had gotten no service.

"Oh, that's nothing," she replied. "I have been here more than two hours!"

Five minutes later, a woman who looked like a customer service rep came in from what looked like her lunch hour, carrying various shopping bags. She said nothing - she just went into the back and disappeared. She came out a while later but would not greet any of us who were waiting. We stood there, and someone mumbled something along the lines of How can they have such bad customer service when there is such competition among phone companies?

After five more minutes, I left.

As you can imagine, I will be switching to another cell phone carrier soon.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Silicon Valley

I have traveled to Palo Alto about 8 times per year over the past 6 years, and I have therefore watched the dot.com boom, bust, and now boom again. What an amazing time.

Mari, Donna, and I have just spent two very productive days in the area discussing GlobalGiving with funders, advisors, potential users, and business partners. It is amazing how much we can get done in 2 days here, since there are so many people inventing so many interesting things.

The money here is an important factor, but what is most powerful about Silicon Valley is the attitude: When you float a new idea out here, people generally try to think of a hundred ways it could succeed. This is a refreshing change from the atmosphere in many other places, including Washington, where people generally respond by telling you a hundred reasons why your idea can't succeed.

To be honest, I am pretty tired of flying so much. But the energy and openness out here (almost) make up for the cramped seats and delayed flights.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Presto, several months in....

A few months ago, I blogged about a new service called Presto, which allows you to email your mom or grandmother even if she does not have a computer. What happens is this: You send an email to her special email address, and the email - along with any attachments such as color pictures - simply prints out at her house. Presto!

I love this device because (a) it delights my mother (she can get quick email notes from her six kids scattered around the world, along with pictures of her grandkids) ; and (b) it elegantly solves a problem. Many older people are simply not comfortable with booting up a computer, logging onto email, figuring out how to launch attachments, and then figuring out how to print. In my mother's case, she can run her computer, but it is such a hassle that she rarely logs on.

The nice thing about Presto is that it only prints out emails from people on my mom's white list. So no spam. I can also think of many other enterprise-related uses for Presto - printing out orders and work tickets from customers and workflow colleagues automatically comes to mind.

So check this out. Even if you don't get one, you can admire it.