Can emerging brands coexist with Amazon?

I think the answer is an unqualified yes.

Certainly, the majority of what we buy today online comes through Amazon.

Luxury items like wireless headphones. Appliances like dehumidifiers and refrigerators. Sundries like Q-tips and toothpaste. Cleaning supplies, fast chargers, and cat treats.

Amazon does so much right and they have platformed new consumer behaviors equally as much as the social nets.

For both commodity sundries and name brand goods, they have won the war.

But in actuality, Amazon doesn’t have a lock on the future of retail.

I believe they will crush the aggressive but uninspired Walmart rollup effort and continue to own the massive volume, logistically focused, low margin part of online commerce. A huge market obviously, but not the most interesting one.

Remember, we go to Amazon to buy stuff we need. We buy little there we didn’t know about prior.

They are the truly the grandest automat of catalog goods, but not a platform for emerging brands and consumer communities.

The more disruptive future belongs to an ever-increasing number of brands who are transforming our buying habits in dramatic ways. We are already in a world where buying jeans and suitcases, socks, shirts and boxers, even shoes without trying them on first is the developing new norm.

These micro brands are cracking the really difficult puzzle of how to build emotive brands solely online, incubate communities and sell branded product direct to the end user. Figuring out how to make this digital process personal and scalable. How to inspire me as a customer so that I’m impelled to share my joy with others.

That is their true innovation.

To illustrate my point, these are new brands that I’ve become attached to:

  • The luggage brand Away, speaking to design, innovation, and quality at affordable prices with hand-holding customer service and no-questions-asked return policies.
  •  Allbirds, my new favorite, making $99 all-wool-footwear that fits literally like a glove, looks great, are every so light and machine washable.
  • FreeFly Apparel, making bamboo fibered, highly affordable casual clothes. Wearing their mid weight hoody right now as I write.
  • The now big one’s–Mott & Bo for jeans and towels, Mack Wheldon for boxers, tees and socks.

There are two key begging questions:

1. How can these brands rise above the deafening market din and ever shrinking consumer attention span?

All of these brands are manipulating the following pieces, each in their own way, exceptionally well:

 -Uniquely crafted product and authentic positioning tied together in one brand emotion from the onset. Invariably in tech products, positioning comes way later and is always a struggle which is often not overcome.

-Community as the key channel, morphing the genius of the Kickstarter innovation to have community exist across the web, not just on their site where the transactions take place.

-Highly customized and perfected, buy and return process. It is now much simpler to buy jeans online and return them seamlessly, then it is to buy them at a store and try them on.

 -Brilliant understanding that the brand narrative gets told differently in each different social channel and a redefinition of how best to use advertising, especially on Facebook.

-Embracing fully that they are lifestyle brands, an extension of what the fashion industry always knew and what early Apple did so well for its more innovative product launches.

-Superlative premium products, smartly priced to feel like it is a deal without always being on sale.

2. Can these brands scale large without the logistical machinery of an Amazon?

Free shipping. Multiple SKU inventory. Open return policies are tremendously hard logistically and require enormous capital.

Can any of these become a billion dollar brand on their own and the next gen household name clothing or accessories brand?

Or is the entire ecosystem in your Facebook feed, simply a feeder for Amazon or Walmart to buy up these properties and let them self-manage on top of their logistical backbones?

Friends who are experts in this world think that at the end, Amazon will simply suck up the best and platform them. Or more so, create copy cats and force them out of the market.

It’s too early to know in my opinion.

What I do know is that when core impulse behaviors across the global mass market shifts dramatically, pay attention.

When the web again feels agile, unbounded and optimistic, like an open incubator for emerging brands, applaud this loudly and dissect it fiercely to understand what is truly going on.

That’s what I’m doing.

Mother’s Day

I’ve been very apprehensive about this day honestly.

My older brother sent a note to me yesterday with a similar recognition of unease as he realized that this is our first Mother’s Day without our mom being around.

The first since her passing last July.

I’m feeling deeply pensive about this, realizing that we discover over time that there are a never ending series of first experiences that stretch along the continuums of our lives.

That a visceral malaise comes with this as we realize that many of these firsts are as well our lasts, bringing equally as much sadness as joy as time goes on.

Today in that context is a profound first for me.

My mom’s passing was a closing of a doorway to an active connection to my childhood and a holding on to that special group of characters, that each of us has that define family and the norms of our lives.

And invariably when fortunate as I consider myself to be, the keys to values and beliefs that have shaped who I am.

We all come to grips that in the hurt of these losses there lies a balance of who we are in the face of these inevitable changes.

As I watched my mom age with considerable grace and experienced her death suddenly with such dignity, I can’t help holding on the loss of it. To the the hurt of it.

It reminds me of the powerful distinction that Buddhism makes between the states of remorse and regret, and that in the nuance of understanding this you either find stasis and unhappiness or comfort and forward momentum.

I’m realizing that there is a similar dichotomy between sorrow and sadness that is relevant to my feelings today.

I am truly sad when I think of my mother. Painfully so, not for her but for me. But in this sadness, there is no real sorrow.

Just as in the best of times, I don’t regret the passage of time along this continuum of my own timespan.

My mom was a really terrific lady.

It was my great pleasure as we both aged to see the switch of my role as the child to her as one in many ways.

To her as the needy one. To her the center of attention. And to her whose presence required attention, even in the most insignificant thing.

My mom, and all of ours I’m sure are exceptional because they are ours. Yes, some are more accomplished in the eye of the world. Or successful. That matters really not at all.

In our own lives, looking back, we see ourselves young and raw. Needy and taken care of. Foolish and protective. Loved in spite of all the shit we did. It’s a messy warmth that bears no equal in life.

I’ve already written in my memorial post how much she meant to me.

Today I simply share this with my family and community who may have similar thoughts of sadness today or something they can file away.

Life is better for the things we remember that helped us become who we are.

My mother. All of ours, are as formative in making this so as anything can be.

This is an opportune time to celebrate their unique importance to those who are with us still. To say thanks to those that are not. To find a place for sadness that is a type of joy in its own special way.

I’m going to head up to the MoMa today to visit the Jackson Pollack painting that my mom and I so loved together.

We made a trip to the museum a few times every year over the past decades.

She would get dressed up with the special clothing and jewelry that I bought for her as presents. We would have lunch at the café overlooking the sculpture garden and then we would sit in front of this magnificent painting.

For some unexplained reason, abstract expressionism touched us both. And this painting more than any other.

There was approachability in its shapelessness. There were so many nooks and crannies for both of us to find our own meaning there. To experience the strength and power and inspiration of it.

I’m leaning hard today on intellectualisms about the inevitability of life and change.

It’s truthful but I need a heavy dose of something we touched together, that is palpable and special to the both of us.

I’m off to find it.

Happy Mothers Day to all mom’s everywhere!

A surprising experiment with Cryotherapy

The things we do to keep our bodies strong…

We’ve all done hot saunas, then freezing cold plunges. We’ve all iced sore parts of our bodies to combat inflammation.

But with frozen liquid nitrogen wafting around your body, unconsciously stomping your sock-covered feet and clapping your wool-gloved hands to simulate warmth, this was an experience unto itself.

Why do this you might sensibly ask?

I ended up trying this as I do with many wellness or functional medicine procedures I’m drawn to. I go to address some specific medical concern, then let it push me to something more holistic, more generalized.

This is how I started using acupuncture and Chinese medicine years ago to treat muscle pain after long days skiing.

In this instance, a 10-minute spot treatment of the same -240 degree cold on a chronic case of fasciitis in one foot was the thing that got me in the door.

This problem was not going away without surgery, so I simply ignored it as best I could, and spent evenings with ice packs underfoot and wine in glass for solace and looked for other solutions. (Thanks to Lianna for this one.)

I can honestly say that ice packs are gone and 85% of the pain with them. A once a week, 10-minute, $40 treatment basically gives me back a New Yorker’s life. Work out at dawn, walk everywhere all the time for long days and nights.

It simply works.

It was that unqualified success that got me to do the full immersion in the picture at the top of the post.

For some context, the practice of cryotherapy started in Japan in the 1970s, then migrated east with a foothold in Northern Europe and now is in most urban centers. Many in NYC.

While traditionally cold therapy and cryotherapy are used in sports medicine, clinical studies are spotty as proof points. Like most non-medical therapies, people do it cause it either works for them or they don’t.

The science behind cryotherapy goes something like this–

During a session, blood vessels in your skin’s surface and muscle tissue constrict, forcing blood toward your core where the body’s natural filtration system works to remove toxins and inflammatory properties of the blood.

Then the filtered flows back to the peripheral tissues, cleaner and enriched with oxygen, nutrients, and enzymes. Skin and muscles are consequently enriched and healed.

Or in simpler terms, your brain thinks you are freezing and your central nervous system triggers an anti-inflammatory response. The rationale is that it purifies, boosts immune system activity, increases metabolism and energy.

People who know me personally know that I’m as wellness fanatic with exercise, nutrition, and mental conditioning as the keys to ensuring that our longer life spans today end up in the middle of life, not the end.

I’m also a student of and investor in the wellness space.

For spot cold therapy for injuries or chronic pain connected to tendons and ligaments or muscle fatigue, this demonstrably works.

For the Full Monty, 3-minute whole body immersion, we shall see. I’m in the first 24 hours of this and after feeling a bit spacey, and very slow to warm, I’m feeling a strong sense of maybe on this.

There’s a spring in my step and a flush to my skin that makes me optimistic that what works for an injury can work for a whole approach to my body and well being.

I’m going to keep at this for a bit on a weekly basis to see what my body tells me.

So far, surprisingly so good.

I’m optimistic to the point that I’m starting to search out places for this treatment on my upcoming travels.

 


A thank you to my local shop, Kryogenis in Tribeca for being so generous with letting me try these out.

 

A tech product that truly delivers: Bose QC 35 wireless headphones

With the Bose QuietComfort 35 Bluetooth noise-cancellation headphones, it was love at first pairing.

I need to think back to my initial obsessions with the iPhone or Mac Air to find a product that I fell for so completely on first touch. And that immediately changed my behavior.

I heard about these headphones over at AVC (thanks, Fred!), bought a pair for a present last January, was immediately smitten and ordered my own after trying them on.

From an industrial design perspective, they are a thing of pure beauty. Attractive to the touch, diminutive in profile, perfectly balanced, so light and comfortable. Work, pack up in a sec and use again everywhere.

It’s not geeky stuff that matters here (though they nailed the specs on this). What keeps me delighted after months of use is that they’ve made work and play better in very specific and demonstrable ways.

These are the game changers for me with this product.

Provide a quiet and concentrative space wherever I am.

I love the streets and am always out, but I simply can’t work in noisy places.

If you travel frequently, work in acoustically-challenged co-op workspaces, or move around from coffee shop to park to restaurants as I do, the biggest issue is noise as a distraction.

No longer.

The number one change for me is focus and quiet wherever I want it, wherever I am. The QC 35s don’t reduce noise, they literally cancel it out.

Seamless auto-answer through Bluetooth for voice and video calls.

From deep concentration writing or modeling out a plan to taking a call and with a touch, then back.

I still have a childlike delight in the seamless ease of this.

The secret sauce is that there’s noise reduction tech in the microphone itself. You can have conversations in very noisy places, and others can clearly hear without dragging in all the ambient roar of a coffee shop or communal workspace.

The big deal, in a nutshell, is that it no longer matters where you are. You can work or do calls anywhere.

A heads up that Bluetooth is a bit funky at times but the tradeoff is an easy one.

Normalizes audio in multi-location video conference room systems

This is a big one for me as I live on Skype and Hangout, one on one and group meetings.

In normally challenging acoustical environments, I can now listen and work, not make listening to others, the work.

This audio problem is exacerbated in acoustically poor places like WeWorks, using their built-in conferencing systems or even most high-end standalone systems. Emphasis is always on video first and the audio is invariably poor. With the standard meeting config where I call in with others to a team on location in a conference room, this was a nonstarter for long meetings. It just doesn’t work.

Problem resolved with these headphones. It’s put listening in the background and understanding up front where it belongs.

The QC 35s are actually kind of the dream solution– high-tech, beautifully designed, so comfortable you forget you are wearing them. They simply do the job above and beyond.

My pair are part of my go-to bag, phone, Mac Air, fast charger and these. Ready for anything the day has to throw at me.

As exceptional for play as for work

Not many products make it to the top of the list for work and play. These do.

Listening to podcasts and music while I hang around, doing chores or cooking dinner. Late nights in a quiet house watching a movie or talk shows in my comfortable chair with a bottle of wine. Hanging around with samthecat, catching up on the news on Youtube.

They just work as you need them to.

The QuietComform 35 is a truly great product that solves problems, creates new solutions and simply makes my life better and more fun.

That is not faint praise.

If you are looking for a Bluetooth, noise cancellation headphone, this may be it.

____________

Not to forget colors, they come in a variety of them and you can customize which component are which color. Go to the Bose site for these configurations.

Making decisions

Making decisions is what we do for a living.

How well we do it, how effectively we step ahead of the market, and how dynamically we inspire others to embrace the resulting changes is the mark of our success.

If you map out your days across your career, it breaks down to a cycle of strategic decisions, tactical executions, market feedback–then repeat, ad infinitum.

In the last week—a discussion over at AVC and the must-read letter from Jeff Bezos to his shareholders touched on this in uniquely different ways.

Fred Wilson succinctly articulates that decisions drive change and change engenders more data that initiates more understanding and ultimately kicks the process forward.

Jeff Bezos’s truly profound treatise touches on the role of that data in how management works at Amazon.

Words to the wise from people truly in the know.

My career in the operational trenches of startups corroborates this and can be summed up as an endless array of ‘what should we do’ meetings and decision-focused retreats.

Locked with the team in rooms, taking all the data we have, all the anecdotes we’ve heard, mapping it out–then making a decision and moving forward.  I can remember literally dozens of these, especially the most gut-wrenching decisions to both good and bad end results.

What is invariably true is:

The quality of data gets significantly better as the tools for gathering it are built more and more into the process. We have more and profound insights than every before.

– Yet the percent of data useful to our strategic decision making has remained the same over time. The quality of the data has not impacted its use in decision making proportionally.

Here’s the rub.

Operational and market data invariably tells you that change and reevaluation are needed much more that it indicates what to to do. It’s an alarm to pay attention more than anything else.

It is true that the less critical the action, the more data you have to guide you. The more directional and strategic the change, the more the data indicates issues to fix and the less it outlines what to do.

This is simply as it is.

The brilliance, as an example, of growth hacking as a tactic and its failure to function as a strategic platform stems precisely from this. The confuscation of data and mistaken process as being the end game. You don’t a/b test change at a strategic level.

Our success as entrepreneurs and leaders of this ongoing process of evaluation and change is invariably tied to the tangibility of our vision, how that drives momentum and defines the messages we champion.

This is what propels us to cross the never-ending market chasms to get stuff done when everything is just so impossibly hard. Our belief in trusting our gut. Our ability to inspire and direct while still being flexible is what it is all about.

I wonder often where experience plays into this. What does it really mean in an environment where everything including the market and the skills to capitalize on it are changing so rapidly all the time.

It’s actually challenging to quantify experience in this process as it is not simply exposure. Or putting in your time. Or working off a large win. And certainly not the been-there-done-that composure of someone who thinks that one blueprint suits all.

Experience to me is the poise of being comfortable in that gray zone, bouncing off the ropes time after time under an onslaught of market and organizational blows.

The muscle memory we develop after endless cycles of this process. Learning from failure certainly but tempered by knowing how to win by keeping going. We have loads of tips and tricks but it’s composure and leadership that we can bring to the process that sets it apart with true experience that helps shape a different future.

This cycle never stops and leaders rise over time with experience by mastering this, being comfortable and poised in that zone of uncertainty.

When I meet new entrepreneurs or evaluate a project or a leadership team to join—this is what I look for.

Their depth of visceral shared beliefs. Their articulation of a vision that makes me feel their narrative under my skin.  Their resiliency to throw themselves into this decision-making process, time after time. The humility to know what they don’t know and the propensity to embrace change

Making decisions is simply what we do as entrepreneurs.

In enterprise mobility, group connectivity, wellness or the food biz it is common ground. And at all levels, from the exec team down to the individuals that sell, market, write and tell stories across the multiplicity of channels.

That’s just what it is.

In building a company, there are many good days and way too many really challenging ones. What we can count on that change is a constant, that complacency is death and that full assurance in decision making will simply never be. It will always be hard.

This is the pulse of it all and the gist of what we do.