What to do with a problem like the Arab Israeli conflict?

Prompted by my friend Joe’s recent post of an article from The Economist on Facebook and a subsequent comment which was very much sympathetic to the Israeli point of view, I found myself writing this stricture in reply.

I think one of the biggest issues people have particularly with Israel waging war on others, is a feeling that Israel positions itself as a civilised country and is in fact an extremely wealthy advanced nation with evolved legislature (alongside $3B in military gifts each year from the USA) but that it’s conduct in defending it’s  people is not appropriate or proportional, for such a nation.

While it is true Israel is surrounded on land in a way the UK was not (and arguably the rate of attack was also lower) had Britain used the same weight of response to the 50 year campaign of the IRA on mainland England for IRA bombings it would also have been out of proportion. Attacks were a very regular occurrence during my childhood, including multiple assassinations of key public figures in the years before I was born. Proportional response is a key facet in the contradictory and imperfect world of international crisis, one which I believe people struggle to see applied by Israel in the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbours.

While my own country, Britain, has its share of blame for it’s bloody Imperial exploits (and other wars) I’m not defending those actions and nor does that mean Israel’s current actions are defensible.

The comparisons other made by some with Syria (run by a dictator) and other similar regimes are a weak analogy, if trying to deflect condemnation on the basis that ‘Many more 1000’s are dying in other conflicts yet not so much scrutiny or interest is levied’. This is also a flawed defence for obvious reasons.

It’s also the case that the inevitable cycle of violence will never be ended while Israeli leaders don’t take the moral high ground, by being the bigger society and swallowing ego, pride, loss and retribution in return for a serious chance at peace. Isolating Hamas internationally and bringing around public opinion globally, would be infinitely easier if that was the path taken, an approach of restraint. From an -I admit- relatively uninformed position (at least compared to those who know the region intimately) surely it must be possible to focus on resolution, which necessarily using Israel’s famed secret service to target and remove Hamas leaders, or those perpetrating and leading terrorist attacks.

The last time there was any really serious momentum behind change by political means, Israel’s own people assassinated Ritzhak Rabin.

The bitter fact is that many leaders in Israel do not seem to want peace, are stuck in a cyclone of home politics, power and their own distorted perspective, one which is clearly unacceptable for a state which claims to be both just (based upon religious teachings which are supposed to abhor violence and forgive) and a victim mentality itself.

Like an abused child by its parents, Israel seems unable to escape the horrific abuses of its own people in the last Century and now wages war on a minority of terrorists while decimating the lives of the majority in the targeted society. You don’t bulldoze houses if you just want to stop rockets.

There are too many in Israel who continue to wage violent war for land, while opposing extremists on the other side continue to use bombs and rockets to terrorise, while both sides hide under their umbrellas of religion. In that regard neither side are any better than each other, or for that matter all the other religious terrorist organisations whose hypocrisy is only eclipsed by their disregard for human life.

I’m not so naive to suggest that there is a simple solution, or even that the majority of the population on either side want continued conflict. But with generations of hatred fuelled by loss on both sides of the conflict, the prognosis for the future is depressing unless the people champion leaders who want change and a different future, who value peace over historical lines on maps. Are there any such leaders on either side?

I believe it is the richest, strongest nation in the conflict, is the only side which can stop the violence, and we all know which side that is. If Israel applied the same level of professionalism, money and will, to ending the conflict as they do to defending their homeland, the war could and would end and a permanent peace could be constructed, however difficult the choices and compromises were, that would inevitably have to be made.

Ultimately, perhaps the people on both sides have more say in this than they choose to think. After-all, leaders have to be followed in order to lead.

Why do we Do?

Recently I posted a link to an article about what might be the world’s next tallest building (as at 2014, anyway). A friend responded to my post asking “Isn’t the question why?”

It’s a fair question but one I have never asked myself. It’s always seemed to me an intrinsic part of the human condition that we should strive to improve and push the boundaries of science, engineering and technology – preferably for good not ill. I have always felt a close affiliation to that need to go beyond what is possible today and create something awesome, even if I’m not gifted with the intellect or skills myself to be the one building those modern marvels.

A poster for the 1958 film adaptation of Jules Vernes book From the Earth to the Moon (French: De la terre à la lune) written in 1865, 101 years before the first men landed on the moon.

A poster for the 1958 film adaptation of Jules Vernes book From the Earth to the Moon (French: De la terre à la lune) written in 1865, 101 years before the first men landed on the moon.

I have been driven to affect change in my own small way, running my technology startups (largely in the consumer and mobile space) and trying to create the next big thing, even if I did after many years fail in my attempt to create a Facebook-esque location based mobile social network back in 2001!

Curiosity and exploration of our own capabilities to create and engineer are crucial to the human spirit. Modern marvels from the first horseless carriage to putting a man in outer space have inspired children to learn, to thrive. It’s closely connected with and fed by, our ability to imagine beyond what we know mankind can achieve today.

At a practical level, technologies often have secondary applications in more down to earth ways.

Finally, personally I believe we should do it because, as unique animals on this planet and in this solar system, we can.

What will you do today to go the extra mile and change the world (even if only in a small way)?

* and I mean that in the correct use of the word, to create something awe inspiring

Does @O2 Hate It’s Customers?

I’ve had another awful few days as a customers of O2. And this experience is not unique to me. 

I am a customer of 15 years at O2 yet they are incapable of providing a consistent quality of service. I wrote a similar post about O2 in February 2008 yet here we are again – and inbetween I could have written many more.

My biggest gripe is that their incompetence costs me money, time and a deep amount of stress. Yet importantly, there is no policy of fair compensation when things go wrong.

Hypocrisy

Companies make mistakes, because people make mistakes. Computers make mistakes because people that program computers make mistakes. This is life. Yet if I make a mistake and don’t pay my bill on time, I am penalised. Credit card companies charge late fees, telecoms companies cut you off.

What happens when a company who has committed to you to provide a service, fails to deliver? The answer sadly is very little, if anything.

oh-nooooooo

Problems, Problems, more Problems

My general complaint about O2 is that most months last year I had to call them to have data charges credited back on to my account (I have a older Blackberry tariff, which includes international data roaming, unlimited. Despite this O2 regularly charges me for data).

Additionally, I spent weeks in the USA last year with no data, where O2 bounced me back to AT&T blaming them, and AT&T blamed O2 saying it was an issue of barring with O2.

O2 when questioned claimed “we cannot guarantee service when roaming” …So what am I paying my £70 a month tariff for exactly then?

And OK, that’s fine. You can’t guarantee it. But since I’m paying for it, are you going to credit me a portion of my bill when I cannot use the service I am paying for? This would be fair. But of course, O2 refuses to.

O2 Promise To Compensate Me

Ultimately, after investing literally hours of conversation and correspondence, I was promised 3 months credit.

O2 Go Back On Their Promise To Compensate Me

The credit never arrived. When I chased up the credit, O2 claimed they had no record of the call. I refused to pay my bill until it was fixed, because last time the promise of a credit was made, it didn’t materialise.

O2 then cut me off.

After a few months of using my iPhone (registered with 3) I missed using my Blackberry (I find the messaging, the physical keyboard and battery life, all far more efficient).

In another exhausting effort to get to the bottom of the problem, I re-engaged O2 to have it sorted out. O2 then claimed “we have no records of calls after 6 months” Is this true? I suspect it’s a lie. I am confident if ordered by a court to reveal conversations prior to 6 months, OR if they wanted to use evidence of a call to their benefit, O2 would find the recordings of the calls.

In frustration, I capitulated, paying my bill in full in order to get back my global data roaming.

O2 Promise To Look At A “Good Will” Credit

I was promised that O2 would then look into providing a credit.

O2 Break Their Promise Again

I’ve heard nothing. On calling back an enquiring, guess what? There is no record of the call or conversation.

AND Another Problem This Week

That was all last month. This month again I’ve been charged data roaming when I should not. On Tuesday 20th August at around 6pm I called (at my own cost, from Sweden) to enquire about the incorrect data charges.

After I went through the usual process (of explaining that my account was an older account on their “DICE” system and that I had bundled data … 10 minutes of my time, and cost for the call I’m never getting back) eventually it was concluded that the issue would escalate the problem to Credit Control who would text (SMS) me within 5 days to confirm the credit amount. At that time I could then pay my bill.

I also double checked with her both that I would NOT be barred or cut off and also that as I was travelling to the USA I would also not be barred. All seemed well.

O2 Breaks Their Commitment And Promise, Again

Wind forward 48 hours later. Thursday 8am, guess what? I wake up my phone is barred. I can’t get data. Or call.

I try to dial out – the phone says “Your calls are being automatically transferred, please hold”. Instead of transferring me -as promised- I then get another message saying “The speed dial you have called is no longer available. Please call your team manager for help <hangup>”.  In other words, their call system was broken and I was arriving at an internal automated message.

I had to borrow a phone to call O2. I then had the usual 10 minutes explaining I have global roaming, that I on the DICE system, and that I should not be charged. “If you’re using your phone abroad, you’ll be charged for data roaming” says the woman. “No, really, I won’t, and I have not been for 5 years. Check my tarrif” I exhaustively retort.

O2 Magically Loses All Call Records Again

I then also explained that I had a call only two days before, dealing with all of this. The lady said there was no record of my call “The person has not tagged your account” she said. Unbelievable.

“Didn’t you ask her name” said the O2 operator; “No” I replied, because even if you do, the operator will not give their last name, so you have the first name of someone who could be in any one of numerous call centres who is impossible to track.

The Incompetence Is Laughable

Not only that, but gallingly, O2 had sent me a text customer satisfaction survey to ask me my opinions of the call, which I had responded to. Yet, now, despite sending me texts from the number “24442” asking me about the success of the call, this very call was untraceable and did not exist!

So just to clarify: O2 say there was no call, or at least, there is no record of it. Yet they are sending me SMS texts asking me to complete a survey on the quality of the call they have no record of.

Eventually she passed me to her supervisor who explained that something on my Blackberry was doing something routing data the wrong way, that they couldn’t tell me what, but that if I carried on doing whatever it is I was doing, I would be charged.

I am not tethering (I appreciate this attracts charges) and I am only using the regular BB services I have always used.

I understand that Blackberry, having their own proprietary international network integrated with the telcos use their own APNs etc so that yous have to use Blackberry’s conduit to carry data. But I have not changed what I’m doing in 3 or 4 years. I still simply use email, the inbuilt browser, Twitter and my Facebook apps. And Google Maps. That’s pretty much it.

The Crux

None of these things should be my problem. O2 have now raised the bar, temporarily, while the credit team look at my account (which they were already looking at, allegedly). But I have no recourse if they don’t, or if they cut me off again.

O2 owes ME money

And meanwhile, as a consequence of the call (which I had to do as I needed my phone for meetings first thing so needed it unbarred) it has meant I missed a train, which meant I missed an appointment (£45), the attendance of which I’d lost half a day of consultancy (a few hundred pounds, which ironically is on an mobile app project for O2!), paid train fares to get to Cambridge from London the previous night, and back this morning (£35) for an appointment I missed. Not to mention the costs of calling from Sweden two days before, which O2 will no doubt bill me for (another £10?)

Who is going to pay for my time and expense, dealing with O2’s incompetence?

Yes I can take my business elsewhere, only to run in to the same problems across all the mobile networks.

Competitive Pricing, Awful Service

“Competition” for quality of service, is not working. Pricing, may be. But there is no recourse for the average customer.

I must be in the top 3-4% of O2’s customers in terms of expenditure. Over the years I’ve been called an “O2 Select” customer, or “O2 VIP”. My bills are frequently over £200, despite the bundled roaming data (even when O2 don’t charge me!). But I’m sick of being promised a reliable service and being delivered the contrary. I’m sick of the contract I enter in to with O2 and other corporate business not being a two-way street. I’m sick of being treated like I’m an idiot. You can’t track that there was a call? Balderdash. Your computers have a record of my incoming call two days ago, your computers are recording my survey answers which I’m STILL answering, and I’d be amazed if actually, you only keep call records for 6 months.

No engagement by people who will solve the problem.

Worst of all I’ll get no response from this complaint, even if I send it to the head of customer service, let alone the CEO.

Today were I running Fortune 500 company with 1000’s of staff, I’m so annoyed I’d switch telco. At least that business might impact O2’s bottom line. Instead, as a lone mobile subscriber, there is no recourse to taking my business elsewhere except to another telco that will care equally little and I won’t even have the retort that I’ve been a customer for over a decade.

All I can do is post here, to my Twitter feed and to Facebook, which is a combined reach of 12,000+ excluding reposts or RT’s. I’ll put it on LinkedIn too, and the MomoLondon list – a list of telco industry luminaries.

The Cost To Shareholders of Bad Customer Service

It’s a sad day that companies who spend so much money to convince customers to purchase or switch from another provider, have such a poor ethos to supporting their existing customers.

When was the last time a large company caused you to react “Wow, what amazing customer service?”

This is caused by many things, but includes a lack of ownership of problems by the staff at the coal-face, those dealing with customers directly. That in turn is because the leadership at O2 and other corporates favours ignorant process over staff who have real authority to make sensible decisions, who have been devolved responsibility, and thus would care more about what they do, when they do it, why they do it, and for who.

I discussed this corporate customer service problem years ago here and how it actually how problems provide an opportunity to create a more loyal customer.

Company Culture (and Customer Service) Comes From The Top

The biggest problem is that if you’re aiming to capture the mass market, giving bad customer service -even pro-actively rude and contemptuous service- often works. Just look at RyanAir (who I refuse to fly with on principle!) and the attitude of Michael O’Leary.

The culture of a company comes from the top. And not getting a response of any kind, or a true resolution, or the financial credit that I deserve as a consequence of the incompetence of O2, is atypical of corporate customer service today.

Long may the social media revolution grow – and power to the people in doing so. We pay your wages César Alierta (CEO, Telefonica ..who of course isn’t on Twitter himself). You should be doing everything in your power to make us feel good about doing so, not hating your brand; because THAT is the way to maximise your share price and shareholder return, not the equivalent of slash and burn.

Meanwhile, if you want strike a blow at corporate greed and incompetence, and champion the voice of consumers, why not re-post this blog CC-ing O2 ..and do me a favour in the process! ;-)

The Great Startup Famine of 2015

Starting (if you’ll excuse the pun) with bad weather in the Spring of 1315, universal crop failures struck Europe creating what became know as The Great Famine. It lasted through 1316 and well into 1317 from Russia and Great Britain all the way down to Southern Italy.

Angels Bootcamp has just announced that it is to train over 1,000 new angel investors by 2015 starting this June in Berlin. We should all cheer the announcement of Angels Bootcamp, which aims to do what it says on the tin:

AngelsBootcamp is targeted at executives, entrepreneurs and finance professionals who have money in the bank to put into tech startups but who lack the knowledge about exactly what an angel investor should do.” (as TNW reports)

But Berlin, we have a problem.

While I heartily support anything which will accelerate Europe’s entrepreneurs (especially if it helps consolidate London’s position as Europe’s leading tech startup hub) where is the money going to come from so that all these newly invested startups can continue after their first $250,000 or $500,000 of investment?

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but there’s no point encouraging people to start a large family, if they won’t be able to feed themselves!

Europe and even London, Europe’s foremost tech cluster, already has a funding gap for adolescent startups. In actual fact, so does New York’s tech cluster.

“New York and London have more than 70 percent less risk capital available than Silicon Valley for Startups in the early, Pre-Product pre-Market Fit” Stages of the Startup Lifecycle.”  Startup Genome Report

And moreover even at the end of the rainbow, in the home of funding-food and plenty Silicon Valley, startups are experiencing an issue with follow on funding. Check out the graphs below, tracking the number of seed deals versus Series-A for U.S. startups: (courtesy Techcrunch, read the full article here)

 Capturegraph Capturevc2

“The “crunch” is perceived because of the boom in seed funding, which has brought a greater quantity of startups to the table looking for Series A funding…” (from the article Mining The Crunch)

Europe must find a way not to end up with a worse funding famine that of Silicon Valley now, which is that hundreds of startups funded by Xoogler’s and X-Facebooker’s are going bust -or becoming startup zombies- because they are either not worthy of further funding or because the market cannot sustain so many startups.

At a macro level, many of the much larger funds – the grandfathers of the tech VC in the U.S. and Europe – don’t perceive a problem. Possibly because they invest later stage and have extremely large funds (so are somewhat detached from the mass of earlier stage startups) or perhaps because those famous names get the very top pick of deals.

I was lucky enough to get Felda Hardymon from BVP on my panel at the recent Innotech Summit, along with Steve Schlenker from DN, plus others from Silicon Valley and L.A. to discuss this very topic (we even managed to co-opt Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London).

Boris gets to grips with a transatlantic Google Hangout

Boris gets to grips with a transatlantic Google Hangout

Perhaps not surprisingly (given that Felda has been at BVP since 1981 a full 16 years before I did my first startup) I agreed with almost every word Felda said. All of which was extremely insightful except that there isn’t a funding gap for startups in Europe.

There’s not a lack of capital for sure, but capital which people are prepared to risk at that critical, very high risk, very early stage of the startup life cycle? For sure there’s a dearth.

Perhaps the Series-A problem is that the whole approach to funding at that stage of a startups lifecycle needs to change, as one or two people I spoke to afterwards suggested.

After all, seed funding and angel funding has evolved immensely even in the last 5 years. But until that mid-stage funding environment does change, or until we teach our startups how to make a whole lot of revenue very very early on, it means that we need to educate our new European Angels not to make un-fundworthy investment decisions(!).

At the same time as a community we must find ways to open up the $1m to $4m investment bracket to more startups, by lobbying those with capital and the government for favourable incentives, alongside championing the value of technology startups both to society as a whole and as a vehicle for investment.

Venture investment (realistically, Series-A and above) create jobs. Fact. As crusades go, that's a good a reason as any. (Read Nic Brisbournes full post)

Venture investment (realistically, Series-A and above) create jobs. Fact. As crusades go, that’s a good a reason as any. (Read Nic Brisbournes full post on his excellent blog, which is where I stole this graph from)

In summary, Angel Bootcamp will go head and I wish it every success, but something needs to happen in the Series A world too, and there is much less chatter about solutions for this, or even talk of the problem, unless of course you’re a Founder trying to raise a Series-A round in Europe, and then you talk of nothing else..!

Europe did not fully recover until 1322 from the Great Famine of 1315, and while medieval starvation on a grotesque scale is more a human tragedy than any future mass deadpooling of startups, however severe, we should ask what can be done to ensure the tens of thousands of potential European jobs and startup Founder’s dreams, are not wasted away for lack of follow-on funding or Series A.

While supply and demand and market forces are one answer, I’m not sure a pure Friedman-esque approach to this growing problem is the only solution we should rely on.

Why The 350 Dead Bangladeshi’s Are Our Fault

Ever shopped at Primark or any of the other 100’s of clothing stores who turn a blind eye to their supply chain?

How's that cheap t-shirt you're wearing feeling today?

How’s that cheap t-shirt you’re wearing feeling today?

The terrible irony of Primark (which is often the target of choice by campaigners against cheap labour etc)  is that it’s actually owned by Associated British Foods plc, which is a conglomerate which is 54% owned by a not-for-profit trust which does a lot for charity in the UK. I know this because on my way to Sweden last week I sat next to the Marketing Director (of ABF, not Primark) who explained this. According to omnipresent Wikipedia:

“Some 54.5% of ABF is owned by Wittington Investments.[17] and 79.2% of the share capital of Wittington Investments is owned by the Garfield Weston Foundation, which is one of the UK largest grant-making charitable trusts, and the remainder is owned by members of the Weston family.”

Garfield Weston are a family-founded, grant-making trust which has been supporting charities across the UK for over 50 years (check out their good work here) but lets get back to clothing and 400 dead Bangladeshi’s

Your leverage to affect change is directly related your choice to buy from a retailer who guarantees supply chain good standards and ethics, or not.

Your leverage to affect change is directly related your choice to buy from a retailer who guarantees supply chain good standards and ethics, or not.

Specifically Primark, with revenues of £2,730 million and 36,000 employees, itself has the resources if it so wishes to ensure it’s entire supply chain adheres to certain standards. The market (in this case the supply chain itself) would accordingly respond if this is what was demanded of it by the buyers (e.g. Primark).

The future is in your hands

So, the fix, is actually really rather straightforward. All that is needed is the impetus – best demonstrated by our own purchase choices along with -ideally- a PR outcry, in the same way that most people don’t want horse meat in their burgers from some far flung country, resold and transported half way across Europe.

So friends, the power to prevent another 350+ dead clothing workers really is in your hands; or at the very least, the catalyst for change resides in your wallet/purse.

UPDATE: Primark (and some other companies) have offered compensation to the victims (BBC News link)

Co-CEO’s: The Bubonic Plague of the Board Room

..or Why I Believe co-CEO’s Are A Bad Idea.

Not so long ago I was invited to take a CEO position at an 18 month old start-up. There was a small team of seven, only three full time. The business guy in the team was one of the part timers and had also invested some money, but chosen to retain his existing position at a large corporate with a full time job and salary.

The two initial meetings, with one of the Founders who was the real day to day engine behind the business, went well. She was eager to bring in a CEO, part time or full time, to help put in a solid strategy – including raising money – and to hire new team members and ensure milestones were being hit, financials kept up to date, people managed etc; all the usual jobs of any CEO.

But when it came to negotiating terms the other part-time co-Founder I mentioned sprung on me a two character prefix to my title which meant I walked away from the deal. He wanted to add “co” to my CEO title. I was pretty surprised as he’d said previously he was happy bringing in an external person to be CEO and run the business.

There are a raft of reasons why I believe having co-CEO’s in your start-up is a thoroughly dreadful idea. Even if you’re both co-Founders of the business.  Reason number one is because it doesn’t work.

At least with a pantomime horse the front is in charge (unless the back disagrees of course). Enough said.

At least with a pantomime horse the front is in charge (unless the back disagrees of course). Enough said.

Quite simply co-CEO arrangements in my experience don’t work, or don’t work as well a different structure. This conclusion is both from being in situations myself where CEO responsibilities were split between two people (even if the actual official title wasn’t) and also from seeing some others trying to run their company’s this way. Having Co-CEO’s creates its own set of problems, outside of the challenges inherent in being a CEO.

Here are some of the problems (and please feel free to add your own in the comments!):

  • Someone has to have the final decision, because people do not always agree.
  • Legally, someone must be responsible to report to the board of directors
  • Someone must “own” the over-arching business strategy and the milestones on it.
  • Logistically, if you have co-CEOs, in reality for both people to be equally well informed they must both attend every meeting which might impact any significant business decision a CEO might make OR one co-CEO must relay and discuss all this with the other co-CEO, to convince them it’s a good idea and bring them up to speed
  • If you have co-CEOs the team do not know who their boss really is
  • If you have co-CEOs there is always the risk of the team or the board or investors playing the CEO’s off against each other
  • If you can’t sort out with your team and co-founder who is going to be CEO and what that means, how on earth are you going to sort out other problems
  • If one personal isn’t responsible, it’s not really fair to measure them entirely for not performing the role
  • There’s a danger you can both re-enforce your own errors of judgement, making those miscalculations or oversights further entrenched
  • Measuring performance becomes harder. If CEO responsibilities are split, or the CEO isn’t driving forward the things they should be, someone needs to call it out. Another co-founder, a Board Director, shareholder, the team. That’s harder with co-CEO’s and there is one less person who could be devil’s advocate.
  • If makes it harder for both people to perform well. If two people are sharing the co-CEO spot (even as a shadow CEO rather than named title) then it’s all too easy for things to end up dropped on the floor, between the two people – who most like are both very well meaning souls who want success for the company as much as anyone.
  • And my personal favourite, if you have co-CEOs it simply looks stupid. Investors and the outside world will probably think “why not just get one competent person to be CEO, rather than two who individually are not?”

Indecision, confusion, mixed messages and an increase in communication workload are the last things you want in a start-up or any business, and I feel co-CEOship encourages just that.

In summary, avoid being a co-CEO or working in a start-up which has them. And don’t take my word for it just look how well it worked for Blackberry.