A Lesson in the Power of Price Perception – Courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Last Thursday, Build-A-Bear workshop announced that they would allow customers to “pay their age” for their products.  For those not familiar, Build-A-Bear workshop sells customizable teddy bears and other stuffed animals for – after customizations – roughly $50-$60, so it’s no wonder that the “pay your age” event garnered a lot of interest.  Around the country parents of young children salivated over the opportunity to get their youngsters a new stuffed pal at a steeply discounted price.

At this point, we all know it was a disaster.  So many people showed up for the event, they had to shut it down only a few hours in.

Hindsight being 20/20, we now know that this was a terrible idea for a variety of obvious reasons:

  • The promotion was announced only three days ahead of time, so there was limited time for everyone to prepare or gauge interest
  • The Build-A-Bear product takes a pretty long time to make, so any sort of significant price promotion was likely to overwhelm store capacity
  • They incentivized parents of the youngest children to come (the younger the child, the bigger the discount) – and as a parent of a young child I can tell you they aren’t great at waiting in line for a long time
  • And of course – an unfulfilled promise of a new stuffed animal to a young child is a pretty serious problem for a parent.

But those issues aside, here’s what I found so compelling about this business gaffe:

The promotion was billed as “pay your age” – which successfully lodged in the minds of their customers that they would be able to get a fully customized furry companion for their three-year-old child for just $3.

However, that wasn’t actually the deal. (more…)

Hey – Do you want to invest in Bitcoin?

I got the text around the start of the year.  Some of you have gotten the same text.  Mine came from an old friend who works in the financial industry – but he was far from the only person asking this question:

“Hey – do you want to invest in Bitcoin?”

Going back over a year I had heard about blockchain – particularly the applications to the digital advertising industry (where I work), but I had never seriously considered investing in any crypto currencies.  Also – I wasn’t really sure I understood what a BitCoin was or why it was so valuable – so I took some time, talked to a few people, and really tried to understand what was going on under the covers.

After a few days of research, I could confidently say I think I understood it.

I work in tech… and after a few days I got to “I think I get it”.

However, the more I learned about Bitcoin the more skeptical I became about it’s prospects and all crypto currencies.  I also learned that the first text I got: “do you want to invest in Bitcoin?” was actually critical piece of what makes bitcoins so valuable.

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Talking About Politics and Online Trolls

If you ask most people, they will say that religion and politics are the two things you should never talk about with family or business associates.  Those two topics are just too divisive – it’s too risky to even talk about them.

Is this really a good cultural norm?  Not being able to discuss things with people close to us?

It’s true that these issues are divisive, but doesn’t that mean it’s more important to discuss them with people we care about so we can all progress our thinking?

No wonder we’re so vulnerable to online political trolls influencing our thinking and polarizing our country – if we have no practice dealing with these conversations in real life, how are we supposed to deal with them online?

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Creating True Long-Term Value

How many different ways are there to create true long-term value?

It’s difficult to even think of how to answer such a question.

Hmm.. let’s see, there are lots of different industries to start, so that makes the problem pretty broad.  Also, there are lots of different methods to improving a business: you can optimize a current business model, you can disrupt a value chain with a new business model, you can just work harder, you can work smarter, etc. etc.

I was thinking about this question over the weekend when an episode of Shark Tank came on the TV.

“Perfect!” I thought.  Here’s a great case study.  The entire premise of Shark Tank is that the “sharks” are gifted business people who create long term value.

However, is that true?

Let’s take a look at Mark Cuban (he just happened to be the one I picked on).  He’s written books, he owns a basketball team, and is overall portrayed as a gifted businessman.  Surely he’s someone who has mastered the art of creating long term value, right?

But how did Mark make his money?  Let’s take a closer look.

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Dopamine and How our Brains Look for Patterns

This past weekend I listened to a really fascinating episode of the Radiolab podcast about stochasticity (which is a fancy word for randomness) and finding patterns.  One part of the episode explored the story of Ann Klinestiver, a teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and later become a gambling addict.  Evidently, it’s very common for people with Parkinson’s to develop a gambling addiction.

When I first heard this, it sounded preposterous.  Why would Parkinson’s disease have anything to do with gambling addiction?

Before this makes any sense, first we need to think about how dopamine works.

My understanding of the brain is pretty primitive – but according to the podcast, dopamine plays two key roles in the brain:

  • Role 1) “Pleasure” or reward indicator. Your brain releases dopamine when you’re doing something that feels good or is enjoyable.
  • Role 2) Movement and motor skills. Your brain uses dopamine as a key component of making your body move.

Parkinson’s is a disease where the part of your brain that uses dopamine to move (Role 2 above) starts to die.  That’s why Parkinson’s patients tend to have trouble with movement.

To treat Parkinson’s, patients take synthetic dopamine drugs to help with their movement (that’s where the shaking comes from – too much dopamine makes it hard to stop moving).

So – what does all this have to do with gambling addiction?

That’s where dopamine “Role 1” comes in.

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On Being a Draftsperson

I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, and in college I took classes in jewelry and metals.  I was taught by a Professor named David Peterson who is an extremely talented (albeit tough) teacher.  After studying with David for two or three semesters, I realized that I had never seen anything that he himself created, so one day a few students and I convinced him to bring some of his work to class.  He brought in one piece – it was a salt and pepper shaker (I found a picture here in David’s now-online portfolio).  I still remember when I saw it for the first time, it was one of the most creative, interesting, and impressive works of art I’ve ever seen.

After he showed us the piece, he took out a very large piece of blueprint paper and showed us his draft drawings.  Holy moly – his drawings were so detailed and intricate that they themselves were a work of art.  He had completed detailed scale drawings of every single component of the piece in immaculate detail.

When I saw the drawings, I couldn’t help but thinking how much time the drawings must have taken.  Hours, days probably.  At the naïve age of 20, looking at those drawings, I remember having only one thought:

“What a waste of time!”

In college, when I worked in jewelry, I never spent a long time planning.  I would get a general idea, maybe do a quick sketch in a small sketch book, then just sit down at the bench and start sawing and soldering until I got results that I was happy with.

“Dive right in”

It was the method that I used for a lot of projects in a lot of areas.

Looking back – I now understand why David spent so much time drawing out his creations.  But the lesson took me a very long time to learn.  Here’s why: I often got good results by just diving in!

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Follow up on Taxes and Distrust for the Government

It’s been about a month since the article about my family appeared in the New York Times and a lot of folks have been reaching out to ask if we ended up pre-paying our taxes.  The answer is yes!  But, it’s a pretty disappointing “yes”.

Let me explain.

After Governor Cuomo signed the emergency order on December 22nd that would allow New York residents to pre-pay 2018 property taxes in 2017, (and after the article about my family was published in the Times) the IRS made their own announcement (on December 27th) stating that pre-paid property taxes could only be counted as a 2017 income deduction if the taxes were assessed in 2017.

The IRS announcement really blew me away.

Thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people had already pre-paid their 2018 property taxes in full between the time Cuomo made his announcement on the 22nd and the IRS’ announcement on the 27th.  Those poor folks ponied up big bucks thinking they were going to save some money, then the IRS changed the rules on them with only three days left in the year – truly crazy.

Luckily, we did not pre-pay our 2018 taxes prior to the IRS announcement – we were planning to, just were unable to submit the payment due to holiday travel.  What isn’t so lucky is that the vast majority of the $21,000 we pay in property taxes goes to the local school district, and the school budget isn’t finalized until Q2 2018.  The amount of our total 2018 tax bill that we were eligible to pre-pay was actually quite small – just $260.00 out of our overall $21,000 bill (just over 1%).  As it turns out, in Westchester it’s very hard to assess taxes on short notice, it usually takes a few months.  The only people who were able to scramble together and assess taxes in the last week of December were the local town firefighters – who were the recipients of our $260 pre-payment.

Our expected total tax savings from our pre-payment?  Probably around $50.

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My Picture in the New York Times and My First Significant Encounter with the Government

Yesterday (Saturday December 23rd), a picture of my family appeared in the New York Times.

For those of you who still have a print copy laying around, turn to page A19.  Alternatively check out this link.

It all started 12 days ago when I emailed our local tax collector in Westchester to ask about pre-paying our 2018 property taxes.  Like many residents of New York, the recent GOP tax bill will effectively raise our taxes because the bill eliminates the ability to deduct state and local taxes from our federal taxable income.  As the world now knows (since it was published in the article), my family pays $21k per year in property tax – so losing the ability to deduct that from our federal taxes is pretty significant (on the order of $5k-$6k per year).  If we can pre-pay our 2018 property taxes in 2017 under current law (and deduct that payment from our 2017 federal taxes) – it would save us some money.

Sending the email to our local tax collector was really one of my first personal interactions with the government.  That is, of course, outside of the normal stuff like getting a passport or driver’s license.  Up until now, I haven’t really had any reason to contact the government.  I suppose I’ve lived a very fortunate life – this recent tax bill is really the first piece of legislation that has impacted me and my family on a direct and personal basis.

I did a quick internet search for who the tax collector for my town was and sent an email to Edye McCarthy (Assessor for the town of Greenburgh – which is technically where the Village of Tarrytown is located – where I live).  The email was short, just two lines.  I listed my address and asked very courtly if we could pre-pay our 2018 taxes now.

When I sent the email, I wasn’t really expecting much of a response.  To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if the email was going to go to Edye directly or if it was going to be redirected to some sort of government customer service center where I might get an automated response or have a to wait a few days to hear back.  In my head, I was expecting an experience similar to contacting Verizon or AT&T customer service.

To my surprise, I got an immediate response directly from Edye, who put me in touch with someone named Paul Feiner, the supervisor for the Town of Greenburgh.  For those of you, like me, who are really fascinated by New York local government structures – you can read this very informative Wikipedia page – for everyone else: Town Supervisor is like the CEO of our town.

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A Roaring Economy, Easy Money, and a Bunch of Restaurants that are Going to Go Out of Business.

In the morning before work I go to the gym on the corner of 38th street and Broadway.  Here’s the intersection (above) – courtesy of Google Street View (at the very left of the picture above, on the second floor, are the windows to the gym).

This image is from just over one year ago (October 2016) – you can see directly ahead (on the northwest corner of the intersection) the large green plywood boards covering a construction site.

In place of those boards today exist five new quick service restaurants.

And finally, occupying the 1000+ square foot prime corner lot:

If you actually go to the Wichcraft website – you will see a picture of this new restaurant as the first image in their carousel.

(Look carefully and you’ll see the gym equipment across the street on the second floor.)

If five new restaurants weren’t already enough, if you turn around and look the other direction, you’ll see six more places to get lunch at this same intersection.  Pret a Manger, Hale and Hearty, Chipotle, Maison Kayser, Mr Broadway (Kosher), and Sweet Greens.

Eight out of the eleven restaurants on this corner have opened in the last five months.  And note – I’ve only highlighted the restaurants at this one intersection.  Look closely at the map above and you’ll see ANOTHER chipotle just one block west as well as Moe’s Southwest Grill (effectively the same thing as Chipotle) one block east.

Holy moly.

Ok – let’s do some napkin math here.

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