Rethinking the food chain

This one is personal for me. For all of us.

Not just a significant opportunity but the most broken, most important layer of our lives that is ripe for change.

I can think of little that will have a greater impact on our health, on our crippled health system, on our economy, on the way we live than rethinking the supply chain that is behind what we eat and drink.

This is a tough one to crack assuredly.

It’s not a tech platform solution, though tech will be part of it.

Not simply a cultural change, though that plays a major part.

We are short on education and research, heavy on governmental controls. On the production side this is a contaminated industrial system laboring under FDA rules and regulations that are cumbersome, expensive and compromised.

On the retail side, the number of outlets themselves with brand integrity has shrunk to a few.

They are by the financial rigors of the retail distribution model, driving back through the chain, all the way to the farmers, a razor thin business that by its very essence challenges innovation through the grinding challenges of keeping margin above the line.

This we all know.

There are many good people and companies, large and small within the system, acting with heartfelt intent trying to solve this problem. But the system itself, by its very financial structures makes it hard to serve a common end.

It is damn hard to make and get to market products that are healthy at a profit.

So how does this happen? How do we do this?

There are four questions worth exploring.

Is local the answer?

If you are affluent enough to live in NY, shop the green markets, frequent the huge variety of healthy, delicious, accountable restaurants and buy in outlets like Whole Foods, you can indeed eat and live healthy and support a local ecosystem.

Dense vertical centers of population, markets as distribution points for the artisans selling without storage or retail costs, does support back to the farm pieces of the puzzle in a microcosm.

If you can strip away the need to process for longer shelf life, distribution and retail systems that add crippling cost, it works.

This is a greenhouse experiment of course.

But I believe that unless you can find a way to break the stranglehold of global brand domination that impact how things are made and how much they cost based on the systems needs, we won’t evolve this system.

Where does technology play in to this?

The food industry from the producer side is a big brand play. No networks effects, just straightforward brand and distribution.

Tech is focused on logistics. On very cool and well-intentioned programs like Wholes Foods demanding accountability by the boat for fished goods.

But for the most part, technology today plays into the current system of making food remain unspoiled longer to work at retail in ever larger geographical area.

Got to wonder whether with innovation in a local paradigm this can change.

In a thread recently, the idea of using advances in indoor climate technology developed for the marijuana industry, buying old defunct stores and applying hydroponics to solve the local food chain surfaced as a possible answer.

Crazy?

I’m not so sure.

Does it have to be in store to work?

Direct to consumer for our daily food needs hasn’t found a behavioral connection.

We buy lots online. There are a number of delivery grocery services but for food, nothing beats shopping in the store with touch and taste and smell.

Many make the loop to their Green Market then back through Whole Foods. That’s food shopping to me and I personally like the touch and feel of it. Farmers in the market, broad array of staples in the stores.

Can this be changed or augmented online?

It has certainly for clothing through innovation in manufacturing, just great e-commerce and customer service as the core sales channel.

They said it couldn’t be done for jeans and underwear.

Can it be done for green beans, pickles and Kale?

How do we support innovation in the food business?

This is about funding outside the traditional model of VCs betting on a home run.

Is the only game the big win? For food, for a local solution I think we need a small business, artisan point of view.

We need an Etsy effect as well for perishable goods.

On one level this is working, though not widespread enough. Companies like Whole Foods, distributors as well do support local brands.

There is a built-in gotcha here.

Where is the capital for this when the endgame is not acquisition by a large brand?

It’s today serviced not by the banks well and not by the tech funding cycles.

This piece, I think, is where the nearest-term change can make the greatest impact.

This post is literally food for thought.

This is a collective challenge for all of us.

Artisans. Capital lenders. Tech and scientific entrepreneurs. Distribution and retail innovators big and small to give this attention, resources and priority.

It is timely and benefits all.

It may be as my friend Jeff Carter says, the only idea that everyone in this country can agree on that is good for all.

I am hopeful that he is right as we, collectively as a community of consumers and producers, are the only way to make this happen.

 

Nuance as a virtue

The social nets feel fatigued to me.

Cacophonous. Unfulfilling. A shouting match.

I’m find myself pining for the dirt under the fingernails of life.

Wanting that nuance and exhausting pensiveness that comes from spending your Saturdays deep into a book that has nothing—and everything—to do with life.

Replacing music in my gym time with podcasts, though less the endless palaver of syndicated startup talk, more the long-form conversations on random topics like just recently, the early intaglio work of William Blake or behaviorism of open spaces in smart cities.

Forsaking time-sucking sitcoms for the story of ideas, novellas of surprise and the deep ambiguity that only comes from focus, from work of the mind, from abandonment to the process of laying out complex ideas.

And realizing—for me at least—that I only truly find the subtlety and assurance of thought in these stories and posts, infrequently in the short fuse of tweets.

It’s a reaction to a need for conversation and discussion. A hiatus from posturing. And exhaustion with speed pitching.

Embracing the truth that engagement is not a measurement, it’s a connection and we are mistaking as a culture—certainly as marketers–the measure for the truth of what we are seeking.

A firm rejection that life or work or friendship or the dynamics of startups can be captured in a phrase.

They can’t.

The collars of character counts in Twitter, the unfriendliness of words in Instagram, the enforced triviality and poses of Facebook, are like glances in the mirror.

Like Zoolander’s Blue Steel.

We are entering the most empowered, the most possible, the smartest data-driven time period that I can remember in my career.

But we need to truly redefine listening as an action with purpose to take advantage of this.

We need fuel for detailed imagining. We need stories that weave through the vagaries of inspiration and the foresight that only come from truly letting go.

We need articulate points of view that are owned by people not afraid to be dramatically wrong.

We need to surround ourselves with studied conjecture. With a thermal blanket of long-form thoughts.

There’s an ebb and flow of excitement and reflections, blogs and microblogs, phrases and expositions in thought.

We bob on top of these cycles, riding the wave in and out of cultural highs and lows.

I think today we are churning in the mire of trivialized socialization.

And it is calling out for for something with more depth. For something that takes digging in, with more touch and purpose.

That’s where the opportunity lies.

Technologists will see this as an evolution of platform types. Behaviorists will see it as the stair step of new platformed behaviors and collective drives for different types of communications.

I think it’s a combination of both, not a rejection of either.

The power of the nets as the origin of community is obvious.

But the more wired we become, the more connectivity is the given, the more data serendipity and UX clarity becomes the norm, the more the need for stories that bind. And thoughts that fight against simplicity and too easy understanding.

I see this as a nudge to step outside the metaphors that are stale and unfulfilling cross our social nets.

And in business, beyond the glorified, misguided tactics of growth hacking. Beyond the mania for simplification.

We need taglines, mission statements and clarity of course, but they are the tips of the iceberg, not the iceberg themselves.

The takeaway for me as I look into the new year, past the exhaustion and malaise of this political season and to the opportunities for work and culture, is in a commitment to understanding and listening.

And to me, this comes from immersive, multi-disciplinary thoughts and meditations. From allowing ourselves to discover the true story and forsaking the easy phrase.

I love a great tweet. They are simply not enough.

Who doesn’t love a pic that touches the imagination. We need more though.

We need thoughts that bind through our individualized understanding of them.

We need a process that understands that ambiguity and nuance are not a miss, but often the the only place where clarity can be found.

Solving local connections through global solutions

Ever since my return from Europe, I’ve been musing on whether we can only solve our real-time, local information needs through global platforms at scale.

Whether local—that space outside our doorsteps—is more effectively targeted from a top-down global view than a unique bottoms-up local one?

And whether is it really possible for anyone but the largest platform players to truly accomplish this?

This came from being in a different place every day when I traveled, navigating by phone as I wandered about, in and out of WiFi spots.

The truth is that I’ve been a passionate proponent of ground up, local solutions as the key to discovery and engagement for as long as I’ve been building communities

I’m seriously questioning my prejudices after this trip.

Realizing that the idea of a global local is not a phrase, but reality.

I loaded up my phone pre the trip with local apps. Not one of them was opened.

Platforms got used constantly.

Gmaps solved navigation. Uber worked as perfectly in the middle of the night in Porto as it does in LA. Sharing was Instagram and Facebook. Calls were WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime audio.

The net of this is that how we define local for certain, and possibly community, has shifted.

Local is no longer a secret ensconced in the cobblestones outside a quiet corner cafe, only unlockable through friendly strangers at the bar or a savvy concierge.

Local–wherever it may be—exists under our feet but is informed by the aggregate of our extended networks, parsed by the inclinations of friends and driven by the data that smart networks surface on demand

Case in point–I wanted to know the very best local natural wine bars in Paris, accessible by subway, great to go to by myself.

I simply asked–and the answers came back.

Some from friends, many from their network connections, and invariably with personal intros to proprietors or people behind the bar. Discovery was personalized to me in most every case.

Certainly the interfaces delivering this information are crude at best, but the smarts of these large platforms to surface community on demand is the secret sauce that only networks at scale seem to be able to provide.

You have to ask what is the relationship between these platforms and the communities that provide the information.

Is it only our tech or art communities that can truly guide us to local solutions? Do we need massive verticals to make this happen?

I’m doubting this.

We need experts of course, but more, we need reach and connections. We need platforms to insure that our questions get to the right people with the answers at the right time.

Someday—possibly—someone will discover the key to platforming community as an infrastructure.

But in actuality community simply happens at a flash around points of interest built on the core human drive to share what we know, what we care about.

A year ago on this blog, a commentor stated that I get away without the need for tools and vertical apps because my networks are so well developed. Per him, I’m an exception not the rule.

Not sure this is true any longer.

That one-to-one-to-one connections of the early days of Facebook are not the strength of the platform. In fact, I bet the phrase ‘social nets’ looses ‘social’ pretty soon.

What makes these platforms at scale work is the ability to surface memes, the innate data integrity to let questions drive aggregate communities of interest around an idea. Communities that are by definition, as broad as the interest of the topic itself, not the popularity of who asks the question.

As users, this is all goodness.

We trade our personal info and our privacy, we tolerate the platforms media-based business models, and we get a global, connected and responsive platform in return. One of true reach and personal empowerment.

As entrepreneurs and market builders, my thoughts are more nuanced.

How can we build brands that stand above the networks we live on? How can we build populations of users for local services when the idea of place is no longer lodged in the coordinates of the place itself?

Can the blockchain promise of decentralization of networks, disrupt this reality?  Possibly splintering it to create near-time opportunities for new community structures that are viable at smaller scale?

And, the most telling to me, whether what we do wherever we are is in many ways more germane to the identity of a place rather than the uniqueness of where it is.

That the idea of local, is what we bring to wherever we, is based on the sum total of our networks definition of it.

What a great trip this truly was.

Walking about Europe

I woke this morning to a mix of unrelated images and seemingly disparate thoughts.

On one side, the somber and desultory scenes from the Australian classic movie Walkabout wafting through my head, counterpointed against a myriad of New Year well wishes for the beginning of the year 5777 on the Jewish Calendar.

All this while on a few weeks of wandering around Europe, partially focused on work but mostly searching to find some moments of realization and reflection in the busyness of my daily life.

Some people choose the beach for this, I choose places rich in culture not my own for the same purpose. Haphazard experiences on the streets of Paris work better for me than sinking into the reflections of sun and surf.

Before first light today, I felt compelled to ask for the traditional apples and honey along with my double expresso and croissant in the all night café around the corner from the hotel in the 9th in Paris where I’m staying.

I’m very cognizant that for this totally secular Jew, the ceremonial embrace of a bit a sweetness on a tart apple as something to trigger thoughts of the year gone bye is a bit of a stretch.

But today, waking to have the New Year already past at home, I do feel an ache of loneliness for family, hopefulness for a good year and in need of emblems to lift my spirits and channel my energies.

I’m hardly comparing my jaunt through Europe at luxury hotels and the welcome of friends to the painful and eerily somber coming of age saga from Nicolas Roe. But somehow, my need for finding the moments in my life this year is triggering this confluence of seeming disconnected images.

And if I can use the amalgam of these thoughts as the kickoff to the year, I’ll take this reset in October rather than rethink and reevaluate what has occurred since January 1st.

It’s been a year of difficulty for many.

For me personally with my mother passing, with the viciousness of the political debate in the states and the rising unease of hate crimes that for the first time in my life since the single day of September 11th, I’m aware that indeed none of us are truly safe from the crazies out there.

All this in contrast to a world in many ways better, more ripe for change than every before.

Where technology has wired people together on a global basis giving rise to layers of community for every interest and place.

Where there is a growing popular understanding, I think, of caring for our bodies, our planet and even the recognition that we should be generally be more civil.

The contrast is palpable though.

So many avenues for communications and community. So little real conversations about the state of the world.

So much possibility as we look at the changes that an entrepreneurial approach towards work can offer, yet the fundamental anger that the election in the states is surfacing about the overt inequities of the distribution of wealth.

It didn’t just occur at this moment obviously, but I’m letting this reflective tradition of the Jewish new year take me for a bit of a ride. And without an iota of religiousness in me, the image of it all seems to be holding true.

If I’m really truthful about this moment, it is as much about me, as the world. My addressing what I need at this point in my life pushed to the surface by the events external to me throughout the year.

And I think that is what makes the tradition of the New Year and the after effect of great art and a haunting story have value.

The only way to impact change beyond ourselves is to make those changes in how we ourselves think and act.

We all need to stop doing shit that doesn’t matter. Stop rationalizing.  Stop looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing how we were rather than what we should be.

There’s an old saying that I often repeat—that the way to make each day better is to always look at yourself as being in the middle of life.

Think it is time to change that as it becomes less true daily.

Time to take more hold of the moments of our days. Lean more heavily on the strengths that we have learned from our experiences and use them better to be more open to the present, to create a new future.

Be smarter. Embrace nuances. Act with more intent. And generally be less content without being unhappy.

Time is certainly not on anyone’s side and that should excite and incent us, not slow us down.

Maybe I’ll change and start each year in October and embrace the variability of the lunar calendar and the emblematic nature of the Jewish new year as my new point of reset each year.

If I can actually have a second chance to make the year better and me along with it for every one moving forward, I’ll take it.

Maybe it’s a gift we should all latch onto.

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As a note, Paris is simply touching me at a new found  place. I should find a way to revisit more often.

Pic below is me every morning before dawn, doing my morning words to capture something anew.
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Sleepless in Paris

I’ve been traveling through Europe working with clients, visiting friends and exploring new wine regions.

Invariably after work is over and the exultation of the beauty of these places winds down, talk turns to the state of the world.

To Trump as emblematic of a view of the US  that neither they—nor I—knew existed. To refugee situations everywhere and to the rising tide of racism and hate crimes that is threatening our world.

It always starts with discussions of Trump.

Disbelief that this sociopath, misogynist, lying, bigoted scum could possible become next president of the US. Realization that all of us, 90 or so days ago, thought the voting population of the country was well, like us–aware, somewhat informed, and rational.

And a bit reeling over the fact that indeed, we are in a bubble of education and affluence. Oblivious to the realities of a population segment that is front and center, represented so unfortunately by this monstrous caricature of a leader.

But while this is unimaginable, the refugee and immigration debate in Europe (and the US) boggles the imagination as well.

And equally as heated, especially here in Europe, Brexit of course.

These conversations invariably end with me painfully wide awake, cross the table or bar top from smart, concerned, intelligent human beings from multiple countries and backgrounds, thinking on the schism of logic, the rising tide of anger and the somewhat tenuous state of the moral and logical fabric of our global society.

Sitting in my friend’s chalet in the Alps the other evening, after one of these conversations, we both realized that we were both seriously angry at our governments, frustrated at the strata of democracy that obviously has failed and is no longer structured to manage the changes of the world.

And unnerved that while ostensibly we live in a democratic framework with elected officials, in some way we, like those who feel disenfranchised by the state of the economy in the US, were a bit helpless to truly change things with intent.

Certainly we are the fortunate. Through hard work, luck and in some cases birth, are doing just fine.

To a person, each of us, whatever we do for a living, are more informed this year of the politics of our countries, more studious of global economics and more stymied to put words on the growing anti-Semitism that is growing without harking back to thoughts of Hitler.  That while he was a hero to a truly disenfranchised German population, was at his core—well we all know what.

Here’s the huge rub.

To a person, we all feel frustrated with lack of ability to truly impact change on a large enough stage.

We can donate to the limits of our political contributions.

I can speak for myself that I am more informed this year politically than ever before.

But am I really doing anything to drive change?

Not simply to insure that Trump, truly a modern Golem of stupidity and backwards values, doesn’t get a seat in the White House.

But to raise the discussion about WTF we can really do in the face of these untenable realities of the human catastrophe of refuge camps and a population without places to live or create lives for themselves?

How we address the reality that racism and bigotry are on the rise? That hate, the most blinding of all emotions, is becoming more and more prevalent everywhere.

That the schism of political discussion even amongst my peers and friends has in many ways stopped.

That in the most open forums and blogs, the smartest and most successful people I interact with immediately fall into rancor and the discourse turns from intelligence to hyperbole and viciousness when we address the growing shooting of civilians and its connection to gun laws in the country.

Why I, who have all the advantage, am starting to feel angry, not at the disadvantage of my situation certainly but at the very structures that have supported my life that are seemingly unalterable. Not open to a new way to address these issues and create discussions that can possibly—hopefully—lead to some change.

As much I am the beneficiary of the social nets personally and professionally, they seem honestly inappropriate for this conversation.

Facebook and Twitter, our strongest platforms for connectivity are unaccepting of these discussions by nature. They simply repel these conversations.

The trends towards removing comments from news sources are indicative that even what we held as the highest form of information, our news sources, are unable to host this discussion. Nor honestly are they able to remain impartial in the heat of the situation.

So this is my little part.

On my own blog to not open the political discussion, but see if there is amongst my community a similarity in frustration as maybe in the bond, there is a direction to find a way for change.

Or maybe it is just around some corner of my experience and someone will show me.

I’ve always believed that expression is an action. I still believe it now but it seems in the face of it all, somewhat less than enough.