Friday, January 30, 2009

Boiling It Together

Soup Ingredients
Originally uploaded by Anne Helmond
So, month 1 done as an entrepeneur. Some reflections are in order:
1. It feels so liberating to be in charge of your own schedule and work load. Everyne should at times try to define to oneself and others what you can do. It is good for your (professional) self esteem.
2. There is bureaucracy involved but you manage if you just get yourself into it. Good accountant helps. Taxation is not rocket science. Pricing is something I guess one learns only by doing.
3. Coming up with ideas and concepts is the best job ever. You also need people skills to make this work. But this kind of work is made for someone with a slight attention deficit because you have to stay alert and keep numerous balls in the air simultaneously.

So here is my Going Up and Going Down list from the first month:

- Lähivakuutus and Fennia: extremely good service doing exactly what an insurance company should do: take the worry away. Understanding that the salesperson should be the one knowing their product catalogue, not the customer.
- Cafes: I find writing in a cafe often more productive than at home. The buzz and soundbites from random discussions are inspiring.
- Verottaja: The Finnish tax authority has one of the clearest website around and superb customer service on the phone. Governmental excellence if you ask me. One of those things where regionalisation of phone service works - the ladies answering the phone outside the capital region are so relaxed and kind of motherly. "Don´t you worry, dear, it is all going to work out."
- Home food: Making pulla, macaroni casserole, meatloaf, meat balls with brown sauce and baking your own pizza is a splendid exercise after a long day in front of the computer.
- K-Market Kamppi: Sometimes size matters. When you have a big space in the centre, you can provide your customers with affordable organic products, fresh fruit and vegetables, great selection of beer and helpful meat&fish desk. Placing this market on top of the bus station and a metro stop is a wise choice.
- Demos Helsinki: cooking up a number of projects with them. People having this fresh and inspiring view on climate change and citizenship are hard to find.
- Blogs: Only now when I have more time for content, I realise really how great blogs there are out there. Some witty, some informative. Looking constantly for more but my current ones are there on the left hand side.
- Public transport: In Amsterdam I barely used public transport. But I must say that Helsinki has a punctual, well-planned and relatively affordable public transport system. HKL is the best argument against buying a car. And it is so much easier to read a book on a tram than on the bike.


- Nordea and OP-Pohjola: The beautiful idea of providing bank and insurance services from the same counter leads to the people at the counter not knowing the basics of the products they are selling and asking the customer to identify the products from their product catalogue. And hey, giving a pile of terms and conditions is not customer service - I could have printed them myself.
- Sonera: changing from Elisa to Sonera (for the iPhone) did not start too well. They for some bizarre reason "forgot" to process my application for two weeks and then I need to wait for my new phone for 3 weeks. What is the logic in individuals getting their phone directly in the store and business customers having to wait for weeks?

So all and all, we are strongly on the plus side. Next month should land a few big projects so we are all set to make this work.

Friday, January 23, 2009

I Want My TV

Today Frost/Nixon premieres in Finnish cinemas. Just yesterday the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best direction, best actor in a leading role and best picture. I have been waiting for this film with an eagerness I have seldom experienced. There are a number of reasons why.

Some years back I was visiting London for work and met up with a friend of mine, a British playwright of Indian descent. The British media had only one issue on that day and neither us or anyone else could avoid the topic: Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 4 showing how nonsense celebrity Jade Goody and a number of other contenders were bullying Indian actress Shilpa Shetty in a racist manner seldom seen on primetime television. The white English women were according to my interpretation intimidated by the successful and beautiful Indian superstar and decided to gang up on her revealing all their prejudices on the Indians.

A large portion of the British quality media took a unified stand: the fuss around the programme was exaggerated. However, during our drink on that London afternoon I got another look into the issue. I still remember her telling me:"I am born in this country and so are my children. My children have been glued to the television during Celebrity Big Brother as they see on screen remarks they hear daily in school. As Shetty, they are told to go back to their own country. What country is that for a 10-year-old child with both parents born in the UK and one of them having Indian parents?"

That personal take showed me a part of the media often forgotten in academic media analysis and journalistic critique. The way the media validates and presents everyday situations and in that way acknowledges that these things do happen. By the media covering them, they are also submitted to a list of subjects suitable for private discussions. This has been the power of telenovelas in South America covering HIV-AIDS or As The World Turns showing a gay kiss.

After our drink she rushed to the theatre to see the "IT" play of the moment: Frost/Nixon. I tried to get tickets to it without success on the last moment.

I ran into Frost again two years ago when visiting the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles and watching clips of his most famous interviews - including the Nixon one. Using the same strategy as he got Nixon to talk, his soft, direct but polite style brought into the surface some of the deepest thoughts of Muhammad Ali on black supremacy or Robert Kennedy opening up in his ideals. As one can see also in this clip from an interview with Thatcher, his background research forces people to answer directly without having to take refuge in hostility towards the guest.

I love television. I really do. In the work of David Frost as well as in the fuss around Big Brother, television has the power to reveal truths of ourselves and our societies - in more and less idealistic manners. It can facilitate people opening up sensitive discussions using commenting of a television programme as the cover up.

I never understood the people who take pride from not watching TV. How would it sound like if I would state at a fancy dinner party that I categorically don´t read printed material as I just don´t have the time?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Change Dot Gov

MixedInk Demo from MixedInk on Vimeo. Thanks, MediaShift, for the link. This is just way too cool. This links well to a project plan we are putting together on citizenship. So the tools are all there, now we just need the content and the motivation and the commitment of government to take this seriously. Something else cool on coverage of the inauguration here, this time by Washington Post. I just love these gadgets.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

This Was A Good Day

hold my hand
Originally uploaded by Phil Bardi
Against expectations, this post will not be about Obama. Well, not much at least.

Yes, watched the inauguration, was moved by Aretha Franklin but that´s that. I want to write about something more personal, smaller. Three years of age and approximately one-metre-high to be exact.

In last month´s Monocle the editorial staff had done a list of 50 promises for 2009 which would help you make your life better and for you to feel happier. The things on the list were actually quite excellent such as overhauling your magazine subscriptions, finding a sunny spot, changing your way to work and starting a recipe book. One of my favourites was starting to plan your dream house. I look at my neighbouhood in a fresh way now. The list is on our fridge door and already two things have been crossed as "done".

I chose 37 from the 50 things on the list but this is one to add: hang out with your little relatives regularly. Today - for the first time - I picked my nephew from day care and we took public transport to his home. It was just awesome.

This little guy in winter clothing looking like a Michelin Man was happy and energetic from playing football outside. He commented on people passing by and was quite excited by the tram and metro. My favourite moment was the three-year-old boy on the bright orange big metro seat chewing on the liquorice bar we picked from the kiosk together. He looked so happy and relaxed swinging his legs in the air.

All through the trip for me the little hand holding mine nearly brought tears to my eyes. Kids are way cool. And so is responsibility. The fact that my sister and brother-in-law trusted me enough to let look after their precious little guy home felt amazing. My godson squeezed my hand so tightly through his ridiculously thick mittens. This afternoon hour goes up there to my list of top experiences.

This day made me think of this comment a friend of mine made once: how would our society be different if the primary goal of the society would be a good childhood? What kind of obligations and duties it would give to us adults? And what kind of possibilities would it open for more adults to help parents make that dream happen? Was it Hillary Clinton ripping an African proverb: it takes a village.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Race To The Bottom

Behind the Bank Counter
Originally uploaded by YY
Another episode on my way towards becoming a real entrepeneur: the bank.

I don´t know how many articles I have read during the last years about the importance of good service in the fight over customers. How the ones who succeed are focused on the customer experience by making the encounter both smooth and clear. Quite often this has been tried through mergers and acquisitions. A phrase you hear often: "we offer all services from one counter."

But as my experience with Nordea today showed, this sometimes means that you get rather vague counselling on all the issues on that very counter. I felt sorry for the bank lady who had been assigned also to handle the insurance policies. When my questions started getting more detailed (as they do when you talk about your insurances or your pension), she was on thin ice. I was also asked numerous detailed questions without understanding their consequences. In the end we ended the interaction by her taking my mobile number and saying that a colleague of hers would call me. Not really how things should go. The experience was rather different than at Fennia where I was suggested to do certain things or set my income estimations on certain levels.

I do understand the need for lean and mean. But when you deal with issues such as health or the end of your days, you wish to have service making you feel confident and taking the fear away. Nordea still has a lot to do to get their insurance customers smile as the people on their ads.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cool with a Conscience

It is rather refreshing to be proven wrong at times. I had seen Tyler Brûlé´s Monocle advertised for months on shop windows of every respectable news store. I kept bumping into his interviews in everything from Kauppalehti to Fantastic Man where he was branded as the definition of cool. I read his Fast Lane columns regularly from Financial Times, which I usually found kind of light on content. I mean two consecutive columns on the perfect men´s bag for a weekend trip maybe explains what I mean.

I always found Wallpaper extremely snobbish and pretentious so the expectations were not high when I purchased both Monocle and Intelligent Life yesterday from Stockmann. Intelligent life unfortunately proved me right - I glanced the magazine through and found very little worth reading. It somehow reminded me of Finnish Gloria women´s magazine´s failed attempt to make a men´s lifestyle publication relying on the holy union of cigars and sports cars.

Monocle, however, I found myself reading from cover to cover. Of course it is filled with luxury product ads but you kind of know that already when you pay 12 euros for a magazine. And then again, luxury product ads never weakened the content of Vanity Fair. But I was fascinated by Monocle mainly because:

- it promotes good ideas and people behind them (like Italy´s minister of public administration suggesting an Erasmus programme for civil servants in order for them to think outside the box or a coffee shop owner in Portland showing his customers where the coffee beans come from and bringing producers over to the US to see the other end of the service chain)
- it addresses sustainability as the thing to do, not a phenomenon we need to react to
- its graphic design is amazingly fresh and playful
- it uses a lot of illustrations
- it is strongly global with a broad correspondents´ network and not a Western publication with "voices from the rest of the world"
- it shows me a lot of Japan, a society that I find superinteresting
- it talks about ethics, local produce, making things well
- it dares to feature technological breakthroughs that will actually make our life better
- it features well-made, beautiful products that I actually would like to buy

I am hooked. Some might say that this post should have been written like 18 months ago but that is exactly the Wallpaper attitude I detest. Well done, Mr Brûlé.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Government Buddies

In today´s Helsingin Sanomat the Minister of Culture makes public his plans for reforming the funding for the arts. If Stefan Wallin gets his way, the Central Committee of the Arts would develop into a strong and largely independent body much like the Academy of Finland.

I would fully support a change where like in science, the arts funding decisions would be taken by experts of the field with a greater arm´s length from the government. This sounds more like how things were done in the Netherlands. I would also take the reform to the same level as in the Netherlands where the evaluations of arts institutions are made public so that people and the media can scrutinise and understand why dance group X gets a certain amount and why theatre Z loses half of its funding. Making government more transparent is something that I feel quite passionate about.

As a somewhat veteran of the civil society, I would encourage Mr Wallin to take a careful look also on the ways NGO funding decisions are taken. As much as I support government funding for the civil society, I am slightly troubled by the relationships emerging when civil servants or politically appointed bodies make decisions on NGO funding. I fear that the dependency on decisions by the Ministry of Education creates a civil society less willing to attack the government fiercely and a civil society serving the government rather than acting as a healthy counter force. It is only natural that a NGO leader concerned about the budget for next year feels inclined to buddy up with the Minister or the top civil servant.

In this sense I do understand bodies like Amnesty or Greenpeace which guarantee their independence by refusing government funding however this is not the solution for all civil society. I do support civil society funding as one of government´s core responsibilities. But it troubles me that it does not take years of research to identify a relationship between decreased peace NGO funding and a centre-right government, increased environmental NGO funding and the Greens in the government or the Swedish People´s Party in the government and increased funding for organisations taking care of the largely Swedish-speaking archipelago.

I would encourage Mr Wallin to look into creating an independent body deciding on funding for the civil society and making public their criteria and evaluations. This would make government more transparent, decrease risks of corruption, feed political debate and in the end support an emergence of a more active civil society.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Not On Automatic

Gear Shift Knob
Originally uploaded by Еmre
Yesterday I read a big piece from the Finnish financial magazine Optio on the concept of downshifting, a notion of slowing down apparently raising interest and popularity amongst professionals in their 20s and 30s. Less work and more life kind of sums up the idea.

I am looking at things slightly differently. Starting my own business and working for myself does not automatically mean that I would start working less, more likely is the opposite. As regular working hours are gone, it is easy to extend the working day from both ends. But at least now, after a humble experience of three days, being in control of my own schedule feels quite empowering.

I meet a lot of people who tend to act like their life would be on automatic gear and constantly accelerating. Ending a regular job and taking the entrepeneurial risks on my shoulders means for me that I go back to the traditional gear shift. I drive my own vehicle and I am therefore responsible for its road safety and maintenance. I started this yesterday with a visit to the insurance company.

Even when I will be most likely working more and longer days, on times like these it feels good to be closer to the ones you love and being able to plan personal matters into the middle of my day and not only after 17h00. Having a one-day-old nephew and having 3-year-old nephew with the need of daycare every now and then, it feels good that I can put my work-vehicle on gear 1 (or even lower) at times and take time for going to the park.