Thursday, March 29, 2007

We're your government, and we're here to help

Albeo has spent the last few weeks trying to unwind the 'help' that the government is providing us.

Recently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has begun publishing a series of test results of solid state lighting (SSL) efficacy. Among their stated goals are to:
  • Provide objective product performance information to the public in the early years, helping buyers and specifiers have confidence that new SSL products will perform as claimed
  • Guide the development, refinement, and adoption of credible, standardized test procedures and measurements for SSL products
We recently found out that the DOE had purchased an Albeo fixture for testing, and they provided us with their results of that testing. We were dismayed, although not completely surprised, to learn that their results differed dramatically from our own results; results that we had touted in our marketing materials.

Why are the results so different, especially since Albeo's results were measured by an independent testing lab? (In fact, the lab we used was just selected as one of five candidate laboratories in the country to conduct SSL product tests in support of the DOE SSL Commercial Product Testing Program.) There are two major reasons for the discrepancy:
  • The DOE includes the power supply in the measurement. Albeo does not, because we buy these power supplies from a third party, or our customer supplies them. (California does not include the power supply in its Title 24 efficacy standard.)
  • Efficacy results can vary dramatically with the product options (desired color temperature, use of a lens or a diffuser) and with lot-to-lot variations of LED component efficacy.
It turns out that the DOE ordered a version of our fixture that has the worst possible combination of characteristics. It's not wrong from them to do so, but it provides the opportunity for confusion among our customers.

For that reason, last week we published a news release to try to clear up the confusion. What's more frustrating is that, for our customers, efficacy is not commonly one of the top selection criteria for our part compared to other alternatives.

To be fair to the DOE and Jim Brodrick, Manager of the DOE's Lighting Research and Development program, (according to this article) they're just responding to a request from the solid state lighting industry for assistance. According to Jim,
“We have planned a number of commercialization-assistance activities to make certain that the DOE’s substantial investment in new SSL technology results in widespread use of these technologies and in large benefits to the US economy.”
However, isn't the free market better equipped to provide this kind of information, or to even decide if this information is useful?

If SSL is going to succeed, it will do so on its own merits when it is compared other available alternatives. The market is ruthlessly efficient in sorting these things out. It doesn't really need 'help' from Uncle Sam.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting the message right

The other day at Albeo, we were interviewed by a writer for the Boulder County Business Report. While the reporter was nice enough and we chatted a long time, I'm not sure we got our points across. That's our own fault, because we hadn't identified what those points were.

I have posted in the past that I'm a marketing fundamentalist. One of the marketing fundamentals is identifying what your important corporate messages are, and making sure those messages are communicated at every opportunity. Well, we hadn't taken the time to do that and I think it will show in the final printed piece (due out in a week or so).

BCBR is not going to make or break us as a company, and the piece that gets printed will probably be fine. However, we will do better next time because next time might just be a make or break opportunity.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Keep it clear - use an elephant

I saw a commercial yesterday for an insurance company. It was an eyecatching commercial because it had a huge talking gorilla in it. (You can see the commercial here.)

Actually, the gorilla caught my eye, then confused me to the point where I missed the product and the company. I had to use Google to track it down to reference it here.

Here's my problem with the ad. The basic setup is a guy leaves his company retirement party, gets into an elevator, and there's a huge gorilla in there telling him that his retirement nest egg isn't what it should be. Again, I missed the details on the product because I got hung up on the "800 pound gorilla in the room." It seemed like the ad was getting the metaphor mixed up with the elephant in the room.

The 800 pound gorilla is a metaphor for a large, uncontrollable force, like being partners with Microsoft. But that's not what the ad's gorilla was supposed to symbolize. He was supposed to symbolize the uncomfortable, unspoken, but obvious problem. That's the elephant in the room, not the 800 pound gorilla.

Then I looked up elephant in the room on Wikipedia, which states that it is "Also sometimes seen is the variant 800 pound gorilla in the room. This is a contamination from a separate idiom, '800 pound gorilla,' meaning a powerful contender."

So, if you're creating a commercial to get a message across about a product, do you really want your audience struggling with your 'contaminated idiom,' or do you want them listening to your message? Just use an elephant.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe everyone else got it.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More on artificial barriers to the free flow of goods

Generally, I don't intend to use this blog to make political statements. My posting yesterday was a rare exception, but now that I brought up the issue of free trade (or artificial barriers to it) it has come up again and I can't stop myself.

Today, NPR broadcast a story (here's a summary) about how the Bush administration is trying to make the distribution of food for aid more efficient. The administration is trying to change the Food for Peace program to allow food to be purchased closer to where it is needed than requiring that all food in this $1B program to be purchased from US farmers. American farmers, of course, are fighting this hard.

The thing that drives me crazy about this kind of stuff is the awkward consequences of these artificial barriers. According to the story, it takes an average of six months for food to arrive at the needed location after the request has been made. This could be reduced by months if more local sources are allowed. Are we trying to help the starving people, or the American farmers? Why don't we take the money that we save in shipping American produce (and thereby artificially propping up US prices) and use it to retrain the impacted American farmers to pursue alternative employment in a more needed area?

The best part of hearing this story on NPR is that I had a chance to describe it to my 8 year old son and discuss it with him over dinner. I like sharing with him difficult problems with no clear answer as a bit of a mental and philosophical exercise.

His solution was remarkably simple. Buy a limited amount of local produce to only meet short-term needs, then replace the supply with American food when it is able to arrive. In that way, we help both the starving people and the American farmer. Brilliant.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Capitalism or communism?

I just returned from several days in Shenzhen in southern China. This is only my second visit to China, and I find it a confounding country.

The Chinese people seem to be very entrepreneurial, always looking for opportunities for profit and willing to start new businesses at the drop of a hat. The Chinese government appears to encourage this behavior, giving the impression of supporting, even nurturing, capitalism.

But everywhere you look, you see the economic inefficiencies of the communist system of government. For instance, the way I got into Shenzhen was to fly to Hong Kong, then I took a bus across the border into China. Of course, at the Chinese border, I got off the bus, went through passport control, then reboarded my bus on the other side of the border. I thought that was it and we would then drive right into Shenzhen.

However, when we got to the edge of Shenzhen, the bus stopped again and they checked papers again. They seemed more concerned with the Asians on the bus than westerners like myself, and I asked my Chinese host what was going on. He stated that Shenzhen is a special economic zone and that Chinese citizens from other parts of the country were not allowed to enter without the proper papers.

I don't know what criteria they use to define that permission, but any artificial barrier to the flow of labor capital (or currency, or information, or anything else) means inefficiencies and inequities to me. (Can you tell I'm a free trader?)

Other examples of labor inefficiencies were everywhere. The new, modern, beautiful hotel where we stayed had a spa that covered one floor, with a pool, workout room, and spa service rooms. At the pool, there was a "California Juice Bar," where a woman stood ready to serve up smoothies. However, I never saw anyone in the pool the whole time I was there, but she stood there at her bar all day long.

Another example was the woman whose job seemed to be to clean off the tops of the stone benches in the formal garden across the street. That's all she did, all day, every day that I was there. How can that be a good use of the labor resources?

These are the kinds of stories we used to hear about the old USSR, and we know its fate. If China somehow manages to smoothly transition away from centralized planning to true capitalism, they will be a formidable economic power. But they need to remove these types of artificial barriers, and it's hard to see how they can do that and remain consistent with communist rule.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I'm making a public commitment

I hereby announce that I am going to do Triple Bypass again this year. For those of you who don't know, it's one of the most difficult citizen's bike rides in the nation, with over 10,000 feet of climbing on a 120 mile course through the Rockies.

I have done the Triple Bypass once, in 2001. It was amazingly difficult, and I spent a couple of months in physical rehabilitation recovering, but it was one of the greatest events I have ever done.

I am finally getting around to committing the time to do it again. The reason that I'm telling all of you about it is that the more people I tell that I'm going to do it, the more likely it is that I actually will. Training for Triple is a huge time commitment, and it's very easy to let it slide when other things come up. This announcement is just my small way of ratcheting up the pressure on myself so that I follow through.

Maybe soon I'll publicly commit to writing that Next Great American Novel that's been floating around in my head.