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Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Archive for August, 2006

Book Review: Secrets of the Code

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SecretsWhen I first read the Da Vinci Code (DVC) I was captivated. I read the book through in one sitting and then passed it along to my roommate who did the same. While reading the book I found myself constantly hopping out of my chair and heading over to the computer to do research. The more I dug into the art and scholarship relating to the DVC the more I wanted to dig. Fortunately Dan Burstein (accomplished journalist and GP/founder of Millennium Technology Ventures) was doing the same research and I had the idea to compile the best scholarship on the subjects featured in the DVC and put it all in a book called Secrets of the Code.

I was able to get my hands on a copy of the book through a BzzCampaign I was part of (see BzzAgent for more) and started reading it immediately after I received it. I just finished the book over this past week while I was on vacation and I can now officially say it is well worth a read, especially for anyone looking to know more about the themes in the DVC from the “professionals.” One thing that I particularly love about Secrets is the fact that the book takes scholarship from both sides of every DVC related debate so that the reader obtains a balanced perspective and can make up their own mind.

There are other features of the book that are equally as interesting as the scholarship. Two of these sections, both written by veteran journalist David A. Shugarts, should be noted. One section chronicles Dan Brown’s life to show readers where he may have found his inspiration while the other showcases Shugarts’ well researched answers to some of the DVC’s most asked questions including a listing of many plot holes and timeline issues that can be found throughout the book.

The essays in Secrets, numbering nearly 50, are written by top minds from Newsweek, Time, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as well as the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Jesus Mysteries, The Chalice and the Blade, The Gnostic Gospels, The Templar Revelation, The Goddess in the Gospels and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar (just to name a handful). Also included within the pages of Secrets are a guide to all of the DVC characters, a glossary, backgrounders on all of the contributors and web resources for further research. If you want to understand the thinking of the people on both sides of the DVC debate this is definitely the book for you. Give it a read, you won’t be disappointed!

Written by Eric Olson

August 27th, 2006 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Books

Movie Review: Mean Creek

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Mean CreekMean Creek is a very intense coming of age tale that should be seen by all despite its’ R rating.  The story set-up is classic. Sam (Rory Culkin) is beat up by the school bully George (Josh Peck). Sam tell his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) about his plight and Rocky along with friend Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) devise a plan to teach George a lesson.

With the plan set in motion the group of kids get their boat into the water and head out for a day of boating on the creek.  Throughout the day the kids see another side of George.  They begin to realize that he is just lonely and desperate for attention. Sam then decides to call everything off and communicates his wishes to the rest of the gang.  However, Marty is still on edge about somethings going on in his personal life and isn’t fully on board with calling off the plan.  George then proceeds to set Marty off by accident which sends the plot hurdling to the film’s sad conclusion. 

Jacob Aaron Estes has put together an incredibly powerful film in Mean Creek.  However, I did feel that the writing could have been a bit better in the climax scene.  Estes allows George to revert back to his bully side after he sets off Marty which makes the film flow easier and gets Estes off the hook.  However, if the viewer was left feeling completely sympathetic for George the climax would have been even more intense.  Overall the film was well done and is definitely worth a watch.  It also reminds us that there is another side to everyone and we should not be quick to judge people we don’t truly know. 

Written by Eric Olson

August 22nd, 2006 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room

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EnronHaving been in undergraduate business school at Bentley College during the Enron scandal meant that I heard a lot about it inside and outside of my classes. In the classroom, more and more emphasis was being places on ethics which was a great thing. However, with all that I heard about the scandal I still never felt that I knew the whole story. There had to me more to it. It couldn’t just be a simple numbers issue. Time passed and I began to think less about Enron. The trials began and ended. The appeals were filed. Then, one day while I was on netflix I ran across the Enron documentary by Alex Gibney and placed it in my queue.

I thought the movie would be dry but would also be very interesting since it would reveal the story behind the story. Boy was I in for a surprise. The movie, and the scandal as well, turned out to be a high stakes drama focusing on people rather than numbers. In fact, throughout the movie one of the co-authors of the book the documentary was based on, Bethany McLean, continually refers to the Enron scandal as a human tragedy rather than a story about numbers. Those words ring true as the film progresses.

Director Alex Gibney does an incredible job of allowing the viewer to get to know the people involved and how the top people at Enron created a dog eat dog corporate culture that spawned corruption from the top to the bottom of the company. In fact, the moments that really hit me were the audio segments from the Enron traders. It was obvious that a lot of the folks at Enron had lost touch with reality toward the end.

The other thing that struck me was the fact that Enron accounted for income at the onset of an idea. Andrew Skilling, Enron President and COO, believed that the idea was what was worth something and you should be able to book future profits from the idea immediately. I wonder how this could have ever made sense to people. Any entrepreneur will tell you that the idea is obviously important and necessary but the execution of the idea is where businesses and money are made.

This is a great movie and I highly recommend it. If you aren’t into business you will love the gripping human drama and if you are into business it will teach you valuable lessons and make you think more while at work or while running your own company. If any of you have already seen this documentary I would love to read your comments. Perhaps we can even take a more entrepreneurial bend to the comments and discuss how the Enron scandal has affected the start-up world. I’ll start!

The Enron scandal led to the creation of Sarbanes-Oxley. Sarb-Ox brings a lot of cost into the mix for public companies (I think I heard $3mm per year on average at one point). The extra costs mean that companies need more revenue in order to go public and some companies that went public pre-sarb-ox are now being bought by private equity firms who are taking them private in order to cut out sarb-ox costs making the companies instantly more profitable.

Written by Eric Olson

August 21st, 2006 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Movie Reviews

Cycling - Cleanest Sport Around?

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Trek MadoneI listened to an interview that Bob Roll gave during the recent Tour of Utah to radio station KCPW the other day. I half expected that it would just be another one of Bobke’s crazy and funny talks about cycling but he was actually pretty subdued and he brought up a lot of serious topics (i.e. the Tour conspiracy theory about the French being against the US). The topic that was most interesting and most timely was that of doping in the sport of cycling.

In light of many cyclists being caught doping the sport has taken a really hard hit. This couldn’t have come at a worse time as the sport has already seen the loss of a decent amount of viewers due to Lance not being present. Some of the cyclists that have been “caught” are still in the innocent-until-proven-guilty camp (Landis for one - things still seem a bit fishy in his case so I am not inclined to condemn his just yet) but let’s say for a moment that most of them are proven to have used any of a number of doping substances or methods. Would cycling be the most dope riddled sport around? Bobke thinks not and he makes some pretty compelling arguments to back up his assertion.

Bob says that cycling tests far more than other sports and I don’t think there is any disputing that. During the Tour de France for example, race officials will perform about 1,000 dope tests. Compare that to the under 100 that have ever happened in baseball and you’ll see the ratio of tested to positive is in cycling’s favor (makes you wonder how many baseball players are doping - seems like Jose Canseco may be telling the truth afterall). That said, it seems as if cycling is getting a bad rap because they are out there making testing a priority while other sports are looking the other way. It is too bad that cycling has to take the fall for the indifference of other major sporting organizations. Hopefully other sports will follow cycling’s lead and rid competitive sports of doping for good while also clearing cycling of its’ unwarranted reputation.

Written by Eric Olson

August 16th, 2006 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Sports

Zipcar vs. I-GO: The Battle of Profit Models

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I-GOFrank’s post today about I-GO, a not-for-profit car sharing company based in Chicago, got me thinking about profit models. Specifically, I began thinking about the not-for-profit model versus the for-profit model when it comes to socially based ventures like I-GO. What model is best for this type of venture? What model will create the most social change? What model is best for the customer? Do consumers look at the profit model before they buy and how much does it factor into their buying decision? These questions are even more intriguing when Zipcar is brought into the picture.

Zipcar is a car sharing company that was founded in Boston back in 2000. The major difference between Zipcar and I-GO are their profit models. Specifically, Zipcar is for-profit while I-GO is not-for-profit. Now that both of these companies are entering into the same markets we will be able to see which company prospers and I think the profit models will factor in.

I have written about this subject before in the context of microfinance and I have advocated for the for-profit model. I believe that for-profit models lead to businesses that are efficient and that efficiency will lead to a better, cheaper product for the consumer and a sustaining business that will drive more social good. Detractors of this idea will talk about the passion that can be found in non-profit organizations and how that passion can be lost when socially motivated businesses move toward a for-profit model. I would disagree with this notion.

ZipcarEntrepreneurs who are passionate about something will be passionate about it regardless of the profit model. The key is to bring the social mission to the forefront in the business and work hard to make sure it stays there. One thing that will keep the social mission at the forefront is hiring people who believe in that social mission but also want to run an efficient and profitable business. In the end of the day the for-profit model will lead to more reach for the social mission that is at the heart of the business. The for-profit model is already working very well for microfinance institutions like SKS and for companies like TerraCycle, Zipcar and TerraPass.

Judging by those companies it seems like consumers prioritize quality of product and social mission while not taking too much time to consider the profit model. If consumers can purchase a quality product that also makes the world a better place than they are more than happy. They don’t seem to care if the companies producing the products and changing the world for the better are doing it for-profit or not-for-profit (if they even know what the profit model is anyhow as it is usually not obvious) and I don’t think that it ultimately matters. If you are keeping the social mission at the core why shouldn’t you be able to make a buck at the same time? I am excited to see a lot of for-profit socially motivated businesses starting-up out there because it just means more good will be done and some great folks who wouldn’t normally take the plunge into socially motivated work due to the lack of pay will jump into the frey and put their minds to use changing the world for the better.

Side Note: I am encouraging the for-profit model specifically for product based social efforts (car sharing, fertilizer, financial instruments, etc.).  There still need to be not-for-profits out there to handle disease research, disaster recovery, bike advocacy, and a number of other things.  These organizations do not sell a product so there is really no “business” so-to-speak. Just wanted to clear that up as I am a strong supporter of many not-for-profits and do believe the not-for-profit structure is needed and very useful.

Written by Eric Olson

August 15th, 2006 at 10:29 pm

Happy Birthday to The Wannabe VC!

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1 Year OldThe Wannabe VC is officially one year old today and what a year it is has been. I started the blog while a VC analyst at Cambridge Associates, LLC and ended the year as a Business Development guy at a great young company called FeedBurner (thanks for giving me a shot guys). Some have commented that my leap from institutional consulting firm to start-up seems a little crazy but I went to Cambridge Associates to learn the VC/start-up business so I could try my hand at it someday and someday turned out to be sooner rather than later.

I have met a number of great people through The Wannabe VC over the last year who I probably never would have met otherwise. To those guys (you know who you are) and to all of the readers out there who have yet to comment or introduce themselves (why not comment on this post or shoot me an e-mail… I won’t bite!) I just want to thank you for reading and for enriching my thinking with your insightful comments. I hope you all continue to read, continue to comment and continue to tell your friends throughout the years to come. You guys are the best. Well, I think that’ll do it for my obligatory one year birthday post. Be back with some more “real” posts soon!

Written by Eric Olson

August 15th, 2006 at 9:27 am

Posted in General Thoughts

One Less Cable Customer & The Future of TV

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Old TVMy girlfriend and I have been thinking about getting rid of cable for a long time. In fact, she never wanted to get it in the first place. Why would we want to get rid of cable you ask? Well, I get sucked into the TV and can’t pull myself away sometimes (usually I am watching the History Channel though so at least it’s educational). I have probably wasted countless hours of my life watching TV that I was only watching because “it was on.” Not only can the TV be a time waster, it also costs a good amount of money that we could use for other things like going to live performances, to the movies or to dinner.

My thoughts on going cableless came up the other day when I headed out to lunch with the rest of my colleagues on the publisher services team at FeedBurner. While talking about it the guys kept bringing up reasons why I should keep cable (they were very convincing actually). I rebutted stating that I can get most TV shows I want on the web or rent them from netflix on DVD. I also mentioned that I only watched a handful of cable channels regularly and that the other 70 were a waste of money. Steve then made a comment that got me to start thinking about the future of TV. Steve said something to the effect of “Hey, he’s the future.” The future, eh? I think he has a point.

Television is definitely heading online. Major League Baseball is already allowing fans subscribe to a service that allows them to watch all the games they want online and PBS allows viewers to view PBS shows right from PBS.org. This is exciting because it means that the technology is out there and it works. Also, all TV channels have web sites already so they are only one small step away from offering their shows through their sites. This could be a huge move for the channels themselves as they will be able to disintermediate the cable providers and work directly with the consumer. The consumer will also love this shift for two reasons:

  1. It is an on demand platform minus the TiVo.
  2. It will allow the consumer to pay for only what they use/want rather than paying for channels they never watch.

The big question for the channels will be how to monetize this new channel. Here are some easy answers to that question:

  1. Use ads to underwrite the content.
  2. Use a pay-per-view model for shows or seasons (seasons could be delivered by feed like a video podcast).
  3. Use a hybrid of ads and pay-per-view.
  4. Let the customer choose to either view ads or pay for the content.

Consumers would be fine with any of those formats as they are the same formats cable TV uses now and content producers will enjoy working direct with consumers using very simple, time tested business models.

Having said all that I am really hoping things move in that direction because I am officially no longer a cable customer as of today! Check out the pictures of my TV with its new antenna here and here. If anyone from the History Channel reads this please e-mail me and we can work toward getting you going with episodes online as I know I will be missing Lost Worlds, Digging for the Truth and The Revolution a lot. Just think, you could lead the revolution that I am sure will come sooner rather than later for all cable channels.

Written by Eric Olson

August 13th, 2006 at 6:06 pm