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The other day I was in a restaurant and saw a sign advertising "Sliders Fridays." From what I gathered, they offered a deep discount on tiny hamburgers, called sliders, on Friday nights. The interesting thing about this discovery is that I own the restaurant and it's the first I knew of it. (Stacey's at Waterford: www.eatatstaceys.com)

I don't just own the restaurant. I also manage it, although I use that term loosely. I've taken the concept of hands-off management to the next level. Most of the time I have no idea what the staff is up to. They organize customer events, execute marketing ideas, hire and fire, change the menu, and pretty much anything else they want. I only get involved if there is a largish expense that needs to be approved. I see the financials daily, by e-mail, but I'm mostly about the bottom line.

As a well-known critic of managers, I painted a big red bulls eye on my back when I started managing the restaurant. For the first year I was involved in the details somewhat, but primarily to establish an operating culture. I wanted to give them lots of flexibility to try new things, and even more freedom to fail. And I wanted them to feel like it was their own business.

I'm lucky because I have exceptional managers, with lots of experience, who appreciate the freedom they are getting. I think freedom partly compensates for the fact that restaurant pay isn't the best. It's a luxury not having your boss breathing down your neck. Apparently something is working because the restaurant quality is better than it has ever been, and January revenues were slightly up from last year despite the tanking economy. I'd love to take credit for that, but lately all I do is eat there.

The principles I tried to establish with the staff early on, that seemed to have stuck, include these:
  1. Have fun. Loosen up.
  2. Try something new. Often. Keep whatever works.
  3. No penalty for a new idea failing. Trying is the thing.
  4. Employees are more important than customers.
  5. Stop asking Scott for approval. Just do it.
  6. Managers get to see the financials.
  7. Being a jerk to coworkers is grounds for termination.
  8. Do whatever seems smart and fair to make customers happy.
  9. Watch the competition closely and borrow their best ideas.

It probably helps that the staff realizes that getting another job these days is a dicey proposition, and they all want to make sure the restaurant stays in business. When someone doesn't pull their weight, the staff weeds them out on their own, either directly or indirectly.

It's a fascinating exercise. Obviously it only works if you have the right people in key positions. But so far, so good.

 
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During the Great Depression the unemployment rate hit 25%. We're flirting with 9% in California. But can you compare unemployment rates across the decades?

Obviously the unemployment rate doesn't include anyone who stopped looking for work, so it tends to understate things. That distortion is often discussed. But there's also a problem in comparing the rate across decades. There has been a huge surge in the number of small businesses over the past fifty years. Many are the "buy yourself a job" type, meaning your income during good years will be about the same as if you had a normal job and salary. But what happens if the economy sours and all of those people who appear to be working at their small businesses are actually using their savings to stay afloat? Can you really call those people employed?

I would argue that any self-employed person, and any small business owner who is losing money, or using savings to stay afloat, is functionally unemployed, or at least underemployed. I wonder what the unemployment rate would be if you included those people, so you had a better apples-to-apples comparison with the Great Depression.
 
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I forget where I read this tip, but I have used it many times with great success. It starts with the notion that most women change their hair all the time. You might not notice, but a woman is very aware of these small deviations in everything from highlights to length to fluffiness. I'm probably not using the official hairdresser terms, but you get the idea. It's different every day, at least according to the woman who owns the hair. To me, hair is either brown or it isn't, and you either have some or you don't. The rest is beneath my radar.

So here's the tip. When you see a woman who you haven't seen for a few weeks, you can pay her this compliment, and it works every time. Say, "You've done something with your hair. I like it."

The woman will feel flattered that you noticed anything beyond her hair's very existence and its degree of brownness. She might even wonder if you can be her new gay friend. But she will confirm that something is indeed different and offer many details about how it got there. You can use that time to think about your hobbies.

So far, this idea isn't mine. I just forget where I stole it from. But I did add a twist to it that I will claim credit for. You know how embarrassing it is when you introduce yourself to someone you think is a stranger at a gathering and the person says, "We met a few weeks ago." This is a sure tipoff that you consider the person non-memorable. If the person is a woman, you can use the hair trick to save yourself. Simply look surprised that you have met before then pretend you are having a flash of recognition, and add "Of course! But your hair is different today. It threw me."

Now you have flipped it from being the idiot who can't remember a new person for a few weeks into a person who has such intense memory for detail that any deviation is the same as a mask.

Yes, I've used that method often. I can't say it works every time, but it sure beats my old method of arguing that I must look like some other person and I just arrived in town an hour ago.

You're welcome.

 
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How bad is the economy? My wife and I have been shopping for a vehicle this week, out of necessity. I didn't see another prospective buyer at the dealerships we visited. Not one. It was a hassle trying to test drive vehicles because the batteries were dead, and even the electronic keys didn't work because they hadn't been used for so long.

I think it will be years before many new homes are built in this country. Between the price uncertainty that will linger for years, and the ever-increasing regulatory hurdles, it's no longer rational for a builder to build. My wife and I started building our home before the economy cratered, so stopping the project wasn't an option. But the process has taken over four years to get approval, and even though we do expect to finish on budget (sort of), the market price of the home will be worth maybe half what it cost to build, assuming home values keep dropping. I can't recall seeing any other homes under construction anywhere in this area.

Restaurant business is down about 40% nationwide. That puts almost all of them underwater. No independent operator who has a lease will renew it when it comes up in the next three years or so, unless they can fund the operating losses from some other source. I expect about half of all the restaurants in California to close. When that happens, it will free up enough customers for the restaurants that stick it out.

I think we'll all survive. And we'll find ways to be happy. But I don't believe the economy will roar back in 2010 as the experts are fond of predicting. I think this is the new reality until some innovation comes along to drive another bubble.

One could argue that previous economic bubbles were driven by sex, directly or indirectly. Guys bought cars to attract girls. The VCR business thrived because of porn. So did the Internet. If you want to predict the next economic boom, figure out who is inventing technology that 19-year old boys will crave in order to increase their chances for sex.

Any ideas?
 
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Mugs
Mar 2, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
A reader sent this story. It helps explain why your economy is in shambles.

---
A new group was formed at my work called the "Business Information Group" using the acronym BIG. The Information Technology department for this group added the initials IT to this acronym. Recently they had mugs ordered with the letters BIGIT. It was only after these mugs showed up on many desks that someone from another department asked "You guys are calling yourself bigots?"

They didn't return the mugs, but they do turn them around so the letters BIGIT are not facing outward.
---

This reminded me of a story from childhood. In sixth grade one of the tough kids in the class decided to put on the back of his new leather jacket "Hell's Angels." But he spelled it "Hell's Angles." This misspelling was gleefully pointed out to him by the nerdier elements of the class (okay, me). Unfortnately for him, there was no way to correct it without ruining the jacket. And he couldn't afford a new leather jacket, so he lived with it. I guess he figured most people wouldn't notice. I like to think he was wrong about that.
 
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Single people are free to take more economic risks than married people. It makes me wonder if there is a correlation between the average age of marriage in a particular area and its economy.

My hypothesis is that places where marriage happens early, by custom or religion, will also be the places with the slowest rate of development. In such places there might be fewer entrepreneurs and everyone would take fewer risks.

Exceptions would abound since economies are influenced by many factors, so if there is a correlation it would be on average and not apply to every region. And obviously the causation could work the other way too; a good economy provides the option of staying single longer.

On a similar theme, easy access to divorce, and a high divorce rate, might also contribute to entrepreneurial energy. And again this could work both ways because a risk-taking spouse is probably more likely to get a divorce.  

Name three vibrant entrepreneurial countries where people also marry young.

UPDATE: Reader Brant provides a link to statistics that support this hypothesis:

www.un.org/esa/population/publications/worldmarriage/worldmarriagepatterns2000.pdf

 
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Every once in a while I get a check for some miscellaneous activity of life. It's usually a rebate or refund, or a friend paying up for some group activity I organized. And every time it makes me angry because I have to take that stupid check to the bank and deposit it. It feels so 1990s.

I am frankly amazed that checks still exist. And you know how happy you are when standing in line and the person in front of you whips out a check.

I will have limited time to blog for a few weeks, so today I'm just wondering what else you encounter in your daily life that seems like it should have gone the way of buggy whips ten years ago.

 
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My wife and I are doing our part to stimulate the economy by building a house. The construction will take about a year, but the planning, design, and approval process took about three.

Financially, it's the worst timing in the world because buying an existing house is getting cheaper every day. But we wanted some specific things in a house that just weren't available, notably my studio.

Arguably, this process started back when I designed what was known as the Dilbert Ultimate House. That home only existed as a computer simulation that the user could "walk" through, and it included lots of features that had been suggested to me by readers. I thought you might be interested in some of the ideas that made it from the Dilbert Ultimate House into our own house design.

First, we're building the greenest home in the area, at least for its size. Obviously the greenest home would the tiniest house you could build. But my definition of green isn't about giving up what you want so much as finding the greenest way to do it. Some of the energy-saving features include:

- Solar panels

- Clay roof with lighter colors for best reflective properties

- Thermal barrier in roof

- Windows minimized and shaded on the hot West side

- Lots of thermal mass inside house

- Argon filled windows

- Chimney effect airflow (warmer air goes up and out)

- AC unit on the shady side of the house

- Efficient lighting

- Energy Star appliances

- Heat and AC ducts inside the house envelope


The list goes on. Our goal was to get our use of AC use down to a few days per summer. This design should get us there. (For comparison, my current office is in a townhouse that is only 5-years old and I have to run the AC full-blast for about 9 months a year.)

As far as the living spaces, we did some interesting things there too. We built a small cat's bathroom for the litter boxes.  And we have a Christmas tree storage closet just off the room where the tree will be displayed in December. Now I just need to talk my wife into using an artificial tree and we're all set.

We don't have a fancy foyer inside the house. That would be a waste to heat and cool. No one lives in a foyer. Instead we have a turret around the front door, so the initial visual appeal comes before you enter the conditioned part of the house.

We didn't want a formal dining room that only gets used twice a year. Our dining area will be relatively informal and just off the kitchen, serving as both the everyday table and where we entertain. I don't want any visitors who feel they are too fancy to eat where we eat.

My office will be in the house. I won't be driving to work every day and adding to the carbon overload.

The back yard will be artificial turf. Water is a big issue in California. The newer artificial grasses are impressive.

Those are a few of the features. Maybe someday you'll see the rest on Cribs.

 
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The idea of keeping immigrants out of your country is starting to seem outdated. In many cases you need them more than they need you. Obviously you can't let people cross borders all willy-nilly, but the immigration policy in the United States seems a hodgepodge. I say this not because I have studied our immigration policy but because I wanted to use willy-nilly and hodgepodge in the same sentence.

A better immigration policy would be to make the U.S. as inviting as possible so everyone wants in. Then choose the most worthy applicants based on how much they would contribute to the economy, or how attractive they are. And obviously all applicants would have to pass a physical exam so they don't burden the healthcare system.

I know, I know, it smacks of eugenics. The Nazis gave it a bad name. But every corporation hires employees based on some sense of economic worthiness, or in some cases hotness. Why should a country settle for less. Technically we wouldn't be practicing eugenics if our selectivity was based on what a person can contribute today. Improving the gene pool would simply be a bonus. So get over it.

With this sort of immigration policy our competitive advantage would include anything that made living in the U.S. more enjoyable than living elsewhere. We would focus all of our energy on cleaning the environment and keeping crime low while giving people as much freedom as practical. And of course we would want a top school system and lots of entertainment options to keep our new immigrants happy. Everything we did to attract the cream of the immigrant crop would be good for the current residents. It's a win-win.

Canada is already doing something along these lines. They welcome immigrants who have valuable skills. The U.S. can't match Canada in friendliness, crime rates, personal freedom, or the environment. But no immigrant wants to walk around in a snow suit trying to understand French either. So I think we can be competitive with our buddies to the North.

Game on!
 
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Did you hear about the racism controversy over this editorial comic in the NY Post?

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/02/19/chimp.cartoon.react/index.html


The cartoonist fell into a trap I call a "remindsmeof." His comic was clearly about Congress, since President Obama didn't "write" the stimulus package. But the comic reminds the reader of racism and the risk of presidential assassination even though the cartoonist clearly wasn't addressing either topic. That was enough to get him into trouble.

In my early years of cartooning my editor rejected a few Dilbert comics because they were remindsmeofs. I thought it was overprotective and ridiculous. But I've since learned that you can't underestimate the public's ability to find offense where none is written. Now I recognize (usually) when I am about to blunder into a remindsmeof and I edit the comic myself. It saves time and trouble. When I offend, I prefer it to be intentional.

 
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