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Archive for September 12th, 2009

Many Aspects of Modern Travel Was Pioneered By The Roman Empire

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Modern travelers take the open road for granted. We can hop into exquisitely engineered modern vehicles, pop onto smooth, straight freeways, well lit, with excellent signage and many roadside conveniences. We can cover as much ground as we might like in any direction, in relative comfort and safety.

Much that we love about modern road travel was actually available 2500 years ago to the ancient Romans. They created the template for a system of interconnected roads and conveniences that we have simply adapted during the 20th century as the automobile became the mass method of conveyance.
The road system that they built to connect their far-flung empire is still in use in many places.

As the Roman Empire flourished, conquered and consolidated new lands and needed to efficiently administer these territories the necessity for a durable network of roads became obvious to the ruling class. Prior to Roman ascendancy roads around the world were simple unpaved paths cut into the landscape by pack animals, carts and people moving goods to trade, barter and local markets.

The Romans prospered by trading in the lands they conquered, but they also needed to move great armies, control supply lines and have the ability to quickly transport edicts, orders and news to the far corners of the empire in a timely manner. To build this essential intra-state network of highways the Romans utilized the manpower always available in their army legions.

The quality and durability of Roman roads still amazes. Depending on topography Roman roads were famously straight for as far as the eye could see. This engineering feat was accomplished without any of the modern surveying equipment used by road builders today. The Romans invented a simple device called the gromma and this became the principal tool utilized for accurately surveying roads and thoroughfares.

The gromma ingeniously uses two strings with a weight tide to the end of each. The strings are attached to the ends of a length of wood. The surveyor would simply line up the strings until they appeared as one, and would have assistants plant stakes approximately every 100 yards apart . The surveyor, using the gromma as a guide, would have the assistants slightly adjust stake placement until the strings of the gromma and the line of stakes appeared as one. The result was a roadbed that was true, precise and easily utilized by the construction crews.

The Romans laid rock above the roadbed so the surface was higher than the land next to the road. This enabled water to drain off to the side and meant that roads did not wash out in inclement weather. Gravel was placed on both sides of the roadway to act as a sort of gutter to carry away runoff.

This system, when viewed on a modern map, appears much as the present day system of interstate highways is constructed. Spain, Gaul (modern France), Italy, Germany, the British Isles, Greece and Northern Africa all were tied closely together by this amazing transport network. Modern roadways parallel this grid in most countries where the Romans built their highways.

The Romans built over 2000 bridges. Many are in use, carrying traffic to this day. The arches they crafted were amazingly strong, with strategically placed keystones supporting the massive weight and pressure of these utilitarian edifices. In addition, these bridges are some of the most beautiful structures ever built. The Roman word for bridge was “pontificat”. Today we apply the descriptive name “Pontiff” to the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, as the Pope acts as the bridge between heaven and earth.

Hundreds of tunnels had to be built through the rugged topography of central Europe in order to move traffic to the most expeditious routes. The Romans had no power tools to gouge through rock. They had no dynamite. The technology to construct these tunnels was primitive, but most effective. Engineers would build massive bonfires right against the rock face of the surveyed tunnel. Then they would boil vinegar and have this splashed against the burnt rock face. While the effect of the heat and vinegar was greatest sappers would begin to chip at the weakened surface with chisels and hammers. Some of the tunnels took 20 years to complete.

As the road system grew, the need for roadside services became acute. Travel was typically undertaken in approximately 20-mile daily chunks. As a result every 20 miles or so, along the breadth of the massive Roman network of roads, there were roadside inns, workshops to repair transit vehicles, and stables to care for livestock. Maps were prevalent and indicated not only place names, but distances, accommodations, levels of luxury, services, and military garrisons.

As distance was crucial in planning itineraries the Romans perfected the odometer 2000 years ago. They utilized a 42-inch diameter wheel and a series of gears that engaged each time the wheel made a full turn. The interlocking gear system was calibrated so each gear turned as it was activated until a Roman mile (approximately 5000 modern feet) was covered. Then a gravel pellet would fall into a container as holes in the gears came into alignment. This amazingly accurate measuring system enabled the Romans to mark their maps, and place stones alongside the roadsides marked with precise distances covered and to the next town or service stop.

Today, travel has become a hugely popular experience enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Whether a brief weekend road trip, a cruise or an international vacation, people love to go. So did the Romans. The Romans were the richest people in the history of the world to that time. The system of roads they built were heavily utilized for recreational travel, the first time in history that people had the wherewithal to move freely about for strictly leisure purposes.

Travel guidebooks were omnipresent in ancient Rome. The travel guidebook for the many attractions of Greece, for example, was 20 full papyrus pages long. Inns and eating establishments were rated for economy, luxury, cleanliness and safety. The modern Michelin and Fodor guidebooks are simply successors of the Roman travel guides.

At most major crossroads on Roman roads there was a sign offering directions, distances and recommended stops for repairs, refreshments or relaxation. Many also included a news board with recent proclamations, travel warnings and local notices. These were the world’s first billboards.

As travel grew in popularity so did the menu of services available to the traveler. Chariots, sedan chairs, carts, wagons and covered wagons with swivel seats and dice tables (for the rich) were available for rent. Accommodations varied widely in cost and quality. Hostels, servants quarters, private sleeping rooms, luxury quarters with fire, bathing and mattresses were on offer depending on one’s pocketbook. Food was offered in similar variety.

The world’s first fast food was also available from some purveyors. The cart simply pulled to a door or opening, the menu card was reviewed and the order placed and delivered to the vehicle to be consumed as the journey continued.

The Roman Empire began to consume itself around the 5th century. The pursuit of luxury, greed and laziness made the Empire corpulent, vainglorious and decadent. The same roads that had been so crucial in their military, recreational and commercial enterprises came to haunt the Romans. Their many enemies utilized this road network to attack their former masters. The Visigoths, the Franks and the Mongols used the Roman roads to carve back lands formerly taken from them and to attack Rome mercilessly. By the end of the 6th Century Roman hegemony was long a thing of the past.

The demise of the Roman Empire meant that the maintenance and continued construction of the roads came to a halt. This had the unintended consequence of leaving huge swaths of the system in areas where there was no effective government. Trade came to a halt. The roads were deserted. In many areas, especially North Africa, Britain, Spain and France the Roman highways disappeared beneath weeds and fauna.

The result was the commencement of the Dark Ages. People stopped travelling for almost any reason. Until the Crusades there was almost no interaction between peoples and cultures. The insularity of tribes and fiefdoms lead to a reawakening of ignorance, disease, superstition and hate.

For six centuries the Romans ruled the known world. Their ability to create, invent and improvise has served mankind ever since. The vast Roman network of interlocking roads, tunnels, bridges, mapmaking, services, commercial enterprises and exploration is the guide we utilize to this day in communication, logistics and locomotion. We have much to thank these brilliant Romans for as we utilize so many of their inventions to this very day.

How To Assure Failure In a New Venture

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

One of the great benefits we enjoy about the consulting work we do is having the opportunity to review the inventiveness of hundreds of entrepreneurs each year. It truly is amazing how many of these creative talents push the envelope of novelty. There is no such reality as the oft stated: “I have seen it all”. None of us have seen it all, as the volume of freshly executed innovative products and concepts being nurtured, is never ending.

And yet, so few of the projects we review ever make it past our initial critique and pre-product development criteria. They will never become widely distributed products, successfully sold in the contemporary marketplace. There are many reasons for this. One reason seems to occur more than most.

Many entrepreneurs become so enamored of their vision and perceive the markets will have positive acceptance for their item that they suspend rationality. We have a term for this malady: “falling in love with the product”. Love is a wonderful emotion. However, it can blur rational thought. The process of gaining purchase into hyper-competitive markets and successfully commercializing new products requires a steady, realistic, but passionate vision. Total commitment to detail and identifying an unfilled market niche, one with scalability, is essential to successfully selling to retailers and consumers.

Very early in my career as an entrepreneur, I made the mistake of “falling in love with my product”. I had created a unique cosmetic accessory product. I was able to bootstrap distribution into almost all of the major department stores in the United States. Then I expanded and sold the product internationally through country specific distribution agreements. Seeing your novel product creation on store shelves in the world’s finest emporiums, such as Marshall Field’s, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Preciados, Harrod’s and Selfridges was more gratifying than can be described.

However, I did not spend enough time building my Company. I was a single product business. Initially sales were lucrative, re-orders were positive. I was attempting to handle sales, marketing, product development, operations and logistics. I was too close to my product to recognize my shortcomings and the limit of my resources.

Nevertheless, I had penetrated a difficult, sophisticated market. I was a real entrepreneur. I had achieved a modicum of success and had gained the knowledge necessary to launch more companies and products in the future. I learned from my mistakes.

Most of the new product submissions we receive come from first time inventors. Every entrepreneur is a novice at least once. They believe they have identified a need, created an answer to that need and are prepared to sell their item for millions of dollars to big box retailers or investors. It almost never works out that way. Here are a few anecdotal examples that prove this point.

Items like the “arm mitten” are too narrowly positioned to ever achieve mass- market scale. The “arm mitten” is a patented product that is a simple sleeve the driver of a car places over their left arm, to protect the arm from sunburn. Air conditioning, high speed driving with windows closed for wind noise mitigation and safety glass treated with UV inhibitors all posed massive hurdles to the potential for “arm mitten” success.

Consider the “beach boot” for negotiating sandy terrain. This boot, equipped with tank-like tracks attached to the sole and a miniaturized motor roll the wearer over the sandy beach surface. Why walk over sand when you can roll? Why walk barefoot when you can ensconce your feet in hot, sweaty boots at the seashore? Not much upside here!

The “insomniac helmet” was a sleep aid, sort of. There is a small battery powered motor humming in the helmet and the unit massages your head with rubber fingers until you fall asleep. The straps utilized to attach the “insomniac helmet” to the users head look like preparation for capital punishment. Now I like a neck massage as well as the next guy, but this Rube Goldberg contraption would make falling to sleep a nightmare.

The “cup o golf” was the proposed answer to every duffer’s hope for improving the golf swing. A steady head is crucial to a fine golf swing.
The “cup o golf” was a little cup, attached to the bill of the cap. The cup contained a little ball tethered to a string. When the head dropped or moved the ball rolls out of the cup, and dangles annoyingly in front of the golfer eyes, thus conveying that the swing was imperfect. Some players, using the “cup o golf”, could take nine hours to play a round, and they wouldn’t be good company in the clubhouse bar after the experience.

Another example of an inventor’s blind love in their product was the “dad saddle”. This item took the papoose pouch that parents use to carry infants on their backs to new heights, or lows. The “dad saddle” was invented to enable dad’s to carry 10 or 12 year olds on their back without perpetrating excessive lumbar damage. The “dad saddle” is a leather waist strap that the bigger pre-teen can stand on and hold onto padre’s neck. Cool! Bonding forever!

Each of these items is patented. Each of these inventors, and thousands more, spent considerable time, energy and some capital on their ideas. They had really “fallen in love with their invention”. Unfortunately, the inventor’s view of their product is irrelevant in the long run. The marketplace is the final and only arbiter that counts in measuring whether offerings are truly novel, commercial products. Sales equal confirmation of entrepreneurial assumptions about products.

Successful entrepreneurs must treat their inventions as if they are always works in progress, because they are. They will know what the product’s strengths are. These are usually obvious. Aggressively seeking out the flaws in the concept and addressing and improving these weak spots are essential to achieving success. If you are “in love with your product” you will find it much more difficult to edit, redesign or change direction as needed. If this is so, you will fail.

If you have a product or idea you would like to discuss the possibilities of commercializing, contact Geoff Ficke at Duquesa Marketing at 859-567-1609.

The Historic Link Between Tulips and The Sub-Prime Mortgage Debacle

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Almost every living individual is being effected adversely in some way by the international economic meltdown we are experiencing today. The genesis of this severe financial downturn is attributed to the United States government encouraging the expansion of homeownership to people who would have historically been deemed unworthy of obtaining credit. The banking systems participation and eagerness to leverage credit risks by extending loans to people with poor credit histories is the principal cause of the current sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Historically, the bursting of the credit bubble follows a long and dubious line of similar scandals. Greed, hubris and suspension of common sense and disbelief are always present before the hen comes home to roost after the gravy time has ended. The panic of 1908 in the United States, the worldwide Great Depression and the implosion of the technology stock bubble in the late 1990’s are memorable examples of euphoric periods followed by great loss and assignation of blame as to the causes of these financial busts.

These peaks and troughs in economic fortune are not unique to modern times. One of the earliest documented financial crazes was the Dutch Tulip Mania in the 17th century. The Dutch, being a tiny, mercantile nation, surrounded by larger, stronger empires were the earliest creators of trade policies and sophisticated financial products. One of their most creative vehicles was the introduction of the futures market.

Tulips were introduced into the Dutch economy and agronomy early in the 17th century. They quickly became prized for their beauty and the floral engineering that created many unique, exotic varieties of tulips. An exchange mechanism developed for speculation in the valuations of the various strains of bulbs. By 1637 a full-scale mania had erupted in evaluating future tulip bulb harvests.

Records from that period are sketchy, but it is known that a single Viceroy Tulip bulb was valued under contract for between 3000 and 4200 Dutch florins in 1637. Contrast this with the annual wage of a skilled Dutch craftsman of 150 florins per year. Isn’t this a definitive example of excessive senseless mania?

The Dutch referred to such trading contracts as “wind trade”. This was because no one ever actually took possession of the tulip bulbs. They simply owned a piece of paper, a contract that documented their claim on the tulip bulbs. Does this example of financial engineering ring any bells today in our current distressed situation?

The popularity of the tulip trade, and the amazing returns, mostly paper gains that were realized by the early speculators created a stampede of inexperienced, gullible speculators. Noblemen, farmers, sausage makers, chimney sweeps and day laborers began to speculate hoping to turn a few florins into exponentially huge investment returns. Of course, the last investors in, were the most harshly abused by the implosion of the tulip bulb speculative bubble. This is true in all bubble cycles.

The British economist Charles Mackey wrote a tome in the 18th century cataloguing the history of the Dutch Tulip Mania. His “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” remains in print to this day. Business schools and economists refer to Mackey’s study of the herd mentality of people during manias. Nevertheless, though Extraordinary Popular Delusions is still studied, its lessons have hardly been taken to heart.

The greed and hubris that are always present in manias too often define the human condition. People tend to see someone profit from an enterprise and try to emulate their perceived success. This engenders ever more people attempting to participate in the affair and the result is a panic, a mania, a bubble, then disaster.

The no money down payment, zero document loans, offered in the last decade created a completely different type of borrower and lender. The borrowers have no skin in the game. They get to possess a home in which they have no equity. As long as their condition is stable they can maintain possession. However, if their fiscal condition recedes, or the value of the property declines, they are in deep trouble. Foreclosure is a reasonable action for them to undertake to simply walk away from a gamble that did not work out for them.

The lenders have suspended proper underwriting standards in order to induce entry into these risky home sales transactions. They have little skin in the game, because they have conceived exotic packaged investment vehicles where mortgages are bundled and sold to investment speculators all over the world. The owner of the mortgage is actually unknown to the mortgagee, or even the originator of the loan. The loan originator collects their fees and offloads the loan obligation from their balance sheet. The risky transaction is now someone else’s responsibility.

As a result we have endured a period of fake prosperity built on credit swaps, personal irresponsibility, corporate irresponsibility and governmental corruption. The mania of our time is cheap credit. This bubble has burst, and every homeowner faces shrinkage in the valuation of their property because of the greed of speculators and the attempt of government to secure homeownership for people who should be renters. Community banks and credit unions that have maintained high lending standards are being hurt because of the recklessness of the giant money center banking institutions.
Retirees and prudent investors have seen their savings and investments slaughtered because of the inane greed and corruption of others.

The 1990’s technology stock bust decimated a generation of people who came to believe that investing in the internet was the new “Holy Grail” for prosperity. Startup companies with no sales, no balance sheets and inexperienced management were given huge market valuations. Investors were advised that the tech boom was just in the first or second inning of this nine inning game. Brokerage firms provided guidance on equities that they actually made markets for. This bit of double dealing lead to constant buy calls on tech firms stock that insiders knew had no prospects for success.

The Dutch Tulip Mania, the Mississippi Company, the South Seas Company, the South African Milk Culture craze and the many modern crazes, Ponzi schemes and asset bubbles that we continue to experience are testament to man’s inability to control emotions. Greed, power and wealth are aphrodisiacs for many. We are imperfect beings, susceptible to herd mentality, even when we have knowledge of history’s lessons and could apply these to spare ourselves the pain of participating in activity that will assuredly lead to great pain and loss. Discipline, responsibility and thrift are essential to long term success.

The World’s Most Successful Board Game Was Created As A Metaphor for Hard Times

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Successful entrepreneurs are people that always see opportunity in any situation. By nature they are positive and constantly seek innovations that address wants and needs that they identify in their contemporary environment. Currently we are in a dark economic period, and this will prove to be a fertile time for the introduction of novel innovations that will reward their creators with significant profit.

The world’s most famous, widely played and sold board game is Monopoly. Lizzie Phillips created the first version of the game that was to evolve into modern Monopoly. Her game was meant to promote the single tax theories of Henry George, and the play rules were heavily influenced by his populist philosophy. Ms. Phillips filed several patents on versions of her game around 1904. She enjoyed modest commercial success.

The game and its play rules were tweaked through the years. Subsequently, the various forms of Ms. Phillips rudimentary game that were introduced never enjoyed great sales but the game never quite disappeared. Then came the Great Depression.

The many causes of the Great Depression have been well chronicled and today most people are aware of at least the broadest reasons for the implosion of the world’s economy. Greed was the cause most often stated at the time to assign blame. Society was highly segmented by wealth, education, geography and class. Charles Darrow recognized opportunity in the misery of so many and crafted his classic version of Monopoly to address the perceived social sins of the times.

The play rules and component elements of Monopoly, little changed to this day, reflected the deep divisions in society. Darrow’s game, launched in 1935, displayed the whole range of opportunities for failure and success that could occur in a capitalist society. You could go to jail, be taxed, be fined, go bankrupt or land on owned property and have to pay rents to the hated landlord if the dice were unlucky for a player.

Likewise, you could “pass go” and collect $200, win dividends, buy property, build houses and hotels, own railroads (the classic metaphor for greedy capitalists) and collect rents if the roll of the dice favored you. Also, you could bankrupt your opponents and this occurred with frightening regularity in real life during the 1930’s.

Clearly Monopoly was a game that resonated during the darkest days of the Depression and still works as a leisure activity to this very day. Darrow attained great wealth from the sales of his version of monopoly. Monopoly was licensed by the British Secret Service through John Waddington Ltd. during World War II. The International Red Cross forwarded Monopoly sets to British war prisoners incarcerated in Nazi camps. These games included hidden packets of real money, maps, communication devices and tools for use in escape attempts.

Parker Brothers secured the rights to Monopoly and succeeded in internationalizing the game by assigning country-specific play features. For instance, in the American game, the most prized real estate deeds to own are Park Place and Boardwalk. In the British version the most prized blocks of real estate to own are the very tweedy Park Lane and Mayfair.

The game’s origins, history and ownership are surrounded by significant controversy. Parker Brothers attributes all of the creative, copyrights, play rules and component design of Monopoly to Charles Darrow. This lead to decades of legal wrangling over the true ownership as Lizzie Phillips and others claimed creative ownership of the game. These legal issues were not settled until the 1980’s.

There are a number of lessons for modern inventors to be taken from the profitable, but stormy history of the simple board game of Monopoly.

If the game has play rules that anyone can easily understand, play is fluid, play pieces are simple and attractive; then there is potential for commercial success.

You must protect your game with copyrights, trademarks and patents where applicable. Not properly protecting these valuable assets lead to much disagreement and expensive, extended legal wrangling in the case of Monopoly.

My consumer product development and marketing consulting company sees more toy and game submissions than almost any other product category. The barriers to entry in this class of trade are reasonable if the inventor is willing and able to bootstrap their offering. We recommend a play focus group to confirm that target players affirm the attractiveness and commercial appeal of the game or toy.

Recently, for a class project, a third grade teacher let us borrow her class of 23 students to play a new sports board game for half a day. We filmed the session. We also had the kids answer a series of simple questions of their play experience. Based on their reactions, we were able to adjust one basic play rule to further simplify and expand the appeal of the game. The change resulted in the final result of the game becoming much more closely contested, therefore exciting.

The perfect time to launch a new product is always now. Time is never the friend of the entrepreneur. If you wait for the perfect time, the best market conditions to appear, someone can beat you to market with a product that cannibalizes the best parts of your idea. This happens all too often. Waiting for a better climate is an excuse for inaction and a sure path to mediocrity. Charles Darrow’s launch of Monopoly in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression is a wonderful example to study.

The Simple Road Reflector Saves Lives And Provides A Great Teaching Experience

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

One wintry night in 1933, Percy Shaw found himself driving his automobile on a remote country road in England. The night was moonless; the fog hung densely and there was a persistent mixture of rain and snow belting against his windshield. The road was little more than a lane, with no signage, no shoulders, winding and curvy. Any error in judgement would be very costly indeed.

As Mr. Shaw slogged along he suddenly came upon a rise in the road and was startled when a small Morriss Minor automobile appeared right at the crest of the grade. The approaching car was headed directly at his vehicle. He was on a slight curve, it was pitch dark, the road was slick and unmarked. In the split second he had to make a decision a small housecat scampered across the road. The headlights of Mr. Shaw’s car illuminated the eyes of the cat, and the reflection from those iridescent orbs provided Percy Shaw with just enough perspective to gage his distance and edge safely around the Morris Minor.

As Percy Shaw gathered himself after his close call, he began to think about what had occurred. Why were roads of the time so dangerous? What had just happened that he could take advantage of in a way to help all motorists? He became motivated to improve road safety for every driver everywhere. But how?

The reflection from the cat’s eyes was the key to the solution Mr. Shaw sought. He began tinkering in his garage workshop. After a number of attempts, he perfected the first “cat’s eye road reflectors”. Today, the ubiquitous illuminated reflectors implanted in roadbeds and placed strategically along roadside rights of way are part of the driving experience that we take for granted. They provide safety and guidance at night, and in horrid weather conditions. In the 1930’s they were considered an amazing safety advance.

The British Government immediately endorsed and implemented the installation of the reflectors on roads across the British Isles and then across the Empire. Millions of Percy Shaw’s “cat’s eye road reflectors” enhance driving safety around the world to this day. Mr. Shaw was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth and profited mightily from his invention. He was always most proud of the safety benefits his simple invention had provided mankind.

Modern entrepreneurs and inventors can take a simple lesson from this seemingly elementary invention. Percy Shaw was not thinking about inventing the “cat’s eye road reflector” that stormy night in 1933. An event occurred that made him consider possibilities. He sensed a need. He addressed that need. He profited from his answering the need he had identified, and all motorists realized the benefits of his inventiveness.

Creative entrepreneurs are always seeking to offer products and services that provide improved features and performance benefits not available in current items. The simplest of ideas and concepts are often the most commercial. The example of Percy Shaw’s invention of the “cat’s eye road reflector” is a wonderful template for aspiring inventors.

Opportunity can appear at the most unexpected moments. Be aware, be flexible and be opportunistic if you want to enjoy the fruits that come to successful innovators. The market always is open to new novel products.

If you have an invention or an idea that you are interested in commercializing, contact Geoff Ficke at Duquesa Marketing to discuss the opportunity.