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Why is the law so hard to read?

If I could wave a magic wand, I would pass a law that read,

“Every law must be comprehensible by the people it is meant to govern.”

and then I would pass another law that read,

“For the purpose of the law, attorneys are presumed to have infinite intellect, and can punish themselves with whatever legalese in law or regulation they so desire to inflict upon their own profession, but may so punish no one else.”

That way, everyone’s in heaven.

Montien Thai Restaurant Pricing Practices

Last night I ate at Montien, a Thai restaurant in Boston.  The food was good, as usual.  When we got the check, I noticed one entrée was $2 more than the menu list price (about 10%).  I didn’t think much of it.  It seemed pretty normal that a printed menu might have fallen out of date.

The waitress came by to get my credit card.

She said, “Oh, would you like to pay cash to save 10%?”

I said, “What?”

She said, “See, you can pay cash and save 10%.”

She pointed to a line on the check that said something like, “Sign here to agree to pay cash and save 10%.”

I signed.  She handed the credit card back, took the check, and said she’d be right back.  She came back with a new check with a 10% lower total cost.

I looked at one appetizer and saw that it had also been billed at a price higher than the menu.  About 10% higher.  As a matter of interest, so had everything else. I was now paying what I had expected to pay, based on the menu list prices.

I put three twenties into the check fold.  The waitress picked it up and came back with change.  We didn’t have any singles, which would have been necessary to leave a normal amount of tip, so I flagged her down again. She broke my five into ones. We left the tip and left the restaurant.

A Questionable Pricing Practice

Shouldn’t the menu have had an asterisk somewhere saying, “List prices are for cash”? Maybe it did.

Either way, you can’t list the price of a Chili-Chili Duck as $20.95, then charge me for $22.95, and tell me I’m getting a discount by paying cash. I’m really being charged more for using a credit card.

Does a 10% surcharge make sense? Here are the costs for a $50 dinner for two:

Customer Pays with Credit CardCustomer Pays with Cash
Credit card
processing fee
$1.50 to $2.50n/a
Waitstaff time
(1 min ea. visit
to table; $10/hr
Processing cost$1.83 to $2.83$0.66
Customer Surcharge($5)($0)
Loss (Gain)
from Processing
($3.17 to $2.18)$0.66

Under the surcharge scheme, the restaurant makes additional money every time someone pays with credit card. But they have their waitstaff making as many as two extra trips to the table, plus they have back room expenses associated with counting, safeguarding, and depositing all that cash.

Nevermind all that, I felt deceived. As I said above, it was presented to me as a discount, but I was observant enough to see that it wasn’t. I probably won’t go back. The extra $2 to $3 they got from me may be the last of it.

It’ll depend on how much I want that Chili-Chili Duck.

How Twitter Became an Alternative to Small Claims Court

In July I did some freelance consulting work for a client who shall remain nameless.  If you’ve been following my posts, you will remember who this was.  You can imagine my dismay in October when, after many attempts to contact the client for payment, I filed a small claim in Worcester District Court.

The money was as good as gone.  The clerk at the backed-up small claims court said that it would be at least a year before the client would even be served.  Past that, there’s the hearing, then the judgment, then the execution.  It was a long, hopeless road.


Enter Trevor Chang, an old friend and, as it turns out, a wise one.  He read my previous post and casually suggested over Facebook that I tweet to the client.  Twitter is, at its core, a public forum.  Maybe a modern day scarlet letter would get the client’s attention.  It seemed a good alternative to small claims court and a years-long wait.


I proceeded timidly.  At first I tweeted directly @{insert client name here}, and only that I had sent an updated invoice.  I did this in October.  Then, on Thursday, November 14, I tweeted the following:

I wrote this blog article about @{insert client name here} a while ago.  Still no response. {link}

Friday afternoon, November 15, my inbox contained an email from the client.  This was his first communication with me since August 13, 2013.

The email was angry.  Vituperative can be your “word of the day.”  It was vituperative.  “How dare you break non-disclosure and defame my good name” etc. etc.  It ended with, “I’ll pay your invoice if you take down that blog article.”

I replied, in effect, “I’m sorry it took a blog article to get your attention. Deal.”

Within an hour money had changed hands — righteously, I might add — and the blog article, which never had done more than pose the question of malfeasance, had been taken down.

So, incidentally, have my tweets.

The blog article was search-engine optimized for effect.  I’m proud to say it was on the front page of Google search results for the client’s name and business name.  But that, combined with my dozen increasingly stern communications, had no effect whatsoever on the client.  Not even when I threatened small claims and then actually did file in small claims court was there so much as a peep from the client.  None of my growling had any effect.  What broke the logjam was the merest tweet.  “Hey, @{this guy} owes me money, take a look {link}.”


I find Twitter incredible.  I look at my Twitter feed and I feel washed over in garbage.  But sometimes certain tweets pack a relevancy and a punch that makes me feel like I’ve found a diamond in a coal mine.

And because it’s one of basically three(ish) digital channels (website and Facebook being the other two), companies attach enormous importance to what others will see on Twitter.  Take the JP Morgan Tweetup Disaster as case in point.  Call it a “microblog” if you will.  It’s also a 17th century scaffold.

What’s the most memorable tweet you’ve ever written?  Did it accomplish something good? Let me know in the comments below.

Elevator Pitch at Boston ENET


Last Tuesday I had the chance to give an elevator pitch for ArtistBomb at Boston ENET.  (The pitch was recorded, so I can post a link if it gets uploaded somewhere.)  I’d like to share the formula I used so that you can adapt it for your own work.

What’s the Goal of an Elevator Pitch?

You want to convince someone in a very short amount of time to do something helpful to your business.  At last week’s ENET meeting, I had 90 seconds.  If I were actually in an elevator with someone, I’d have between 5 and 30 seconds.

I know the pitch I gave was effective because the three investors in the room, who got to make one comment or question after I spoke, didn’t use their moment to ask for clarification or to suggest a refinement.  Rather, they each asked a logical follow-on question, indicating that they had understood all that I had said.  If the format of the meeting had allowed for me to answer them, I would have engaged them all in meaningful conversation.  What more can you ask for at a first meeting?

Generic Outline of an Elevator Pitch for Investors

ArtistBomb exists in the live music universe and does this great thing for these specific people.  Unlike all of our competitors, ArtistBomb is different in this one significant way.  This matters because those other companies are missing something.  

For $30/mo, our customers can use our service, which solves their problem.  We solve their problem by doing X, Y, and Z.  This helps them make more money with less risk.

ArtistBomb just recently hit a significant milestone.  We want to raise $X in the next couple of months so that we can hit the next milestones B and C.  

If the investor to whom you’re speaking is interested, that’s all you need to say.  If they have money and like the idea, they’ll express an interest.  If not, they may ask a question.  Or if they really don’t like you or the idea, they’ll say, “Well, good luck!” and that’s your answer.

What’s so Special about that Formula?

Imagine I started my pitch with paragraph three.  The investors would have been distracted by their own internal interrogation, “What’s ArtistBomb?  Should I already know what this is?  Why don’t I know what he’s talking about?”  That’s why you lead off instead with a broad statement about your company’s space.

What if you didn’t include a differentiator early on?  Now your investors are distracted by a different internal monolog, “Oh great, another XYZ company.  Just like that other one I don’t like.”  You want to let your audience know why you’re different and better.

What if you didn’t include a firm price?  Now you leave your audience wondering whether you have any monetization strategy.  Most investors prefer to invest in businesses that make money.  Otherwise, finding any net profit is going to be pretty tough.

The rest of the pitch adds to your credibility by providing details and indicating recent progress.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments below.

An Entrepreneur Neither Loved nor Savvy

After leaving my corporate job last fall, I joined up with elance.com, a site designed to help freelancers find work.  I submitted 29 bids and got selected once, the one time I offered to work for less than minimum wage.  The economics are tough: elance is a global marketplace, so I was bidding with my high hourly rate against folks in parts of the world with much lower hourly rates.  Many of those folks have similar skillsets to what I’m able to offer via elance’s framework.

So I stopped bidding as an attempt to make money and I left my profile up as an invitation.  I want to meet and work with aspiring new businesses and stay engaged with companies of various shapes and descriptions.  Anyone on elance can invite me to bid their job along with all the many others around the world scanning the site regularly.

Here is an actual request (client’s name replaced with the word “Client”).


Now right away, having done one or two sets of startup financials, I can see that it isn’t going to happen for $50.  I’ve found that when folks give a very narrow range like this, they know very well what they want to spend.  I have two choices:

  1. Decline the bid with one of elance’s woefully inadequate, unchangeable stock messages, like, “The budget is too low”; or
  2. Bid something that will fit within budget.

I pick option two, because for me, on elance, it’s all about meeting great new businesses, not making money, not yet anyway.  So here is what I bid:


That’s my bid.  Pretty tidy and friendly, if you ask me.  (Note: I use the word “we” because part of my advertising is, “If I can’t do the job myself, I can find the expert to do it for you.”  Also, I’m doing this somewhat like a realtor does it, with a mix of personal trust and business officialdom: my personal image is featured prominently but I’m working under a separate company set up for this purpose.  If they want to know more, they can view my profile on the site or reply to that message.)

Here is the first part of a short, increasingly unpleasant conversation that ensued before the client blocked me (yes, they blocked me):


For the record, when I submitted my bid, 19 other bids had been proposed at an average price of $90, a high price of $548, and a low price of $22.  It would have been enough for this client to decline or ignore my bid and take one of the several that likely fell within her budget.  Instead, she accused me of wasting her time.  You’ll recall that she invited me to bid.

(As an aside, let me say that elance could do about ten times better than it does at screening and coaching clients.)

I wish I knew what business she was starting so we could track it, but here’s my prediction: it will fail.  In business, you want to be both loved and savvy.  If you can’t have both, you need at least one.  People who are loved will attract others who will make up for their deficiencies.  People who are very savvy make it work even if they’re loathed.  So you need one or the other.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that maybe this isn’t the first time she’s flown off the handle.  So who can she attract to work with her?  And it’s not the savviest thing for her to give her financial worksheets – the most important part of her startup planning – over to the low bidder.

How to Tackle Someone in an Elevator


I’ve been going to meetings for the Boston Entrepreneur’s Network for a while now.  I like the group a lot and have found the meetings to be very well moderated and timed.  (This is a big deal for me; it means I know the guest speakers have had a chance to say what they wanted to say.  Hearing them is the primary reason I attend.)

Last night they had three real VIP’s: two partners at venture capital funds and one director of an angel fund.

I laughed at Art Fox’s presentation.   He gave a formal introduction about the kinds of things he looks for at a startup (passion and enthusiasm, intelligence and expertise, honesty and integrity, people skills and likeability).  He summarized this introduction by saying startups were about three things:

  1. Management
  2. Management
  3. Management

Later on he plugged Toastmasters.  He said they had helped him get over a stutter.  His slide said, “Practice, practice, practice.”  To which he added, “I still like saying things three times.”

After the meeting, the speakers were swarmed, as always happens.  There was no chance I was going to fight my way in, and I think it’s rude, anyway, especially when they just gave two hours of their evening to the audience.  So I talked with a few folks I had known from previous meetings, then headed for the elevator.

One of the speakers had escaped the throng and was hurrying — smiling, professional that he is, talking to everyone who assailed him — in a harried way towards the elevator.  He got in, dragging the crowd with him.  I got in after the speaker and plugged the entrance, which closed on the crowd, the speaker, and me in the elevator.  I handed him my card, on which I had scrawled “business plan/exec summary,” and offered that if he wanted to give me feedback on the one-pager, I’d greatly appreciate it.  He asked what I did and I gave him — wait for it! — the 10 second elevator pitch.  

Smiling and waving, he sprinted out the doors and into the night.

Usually this “write on the card, let them escape” tactic works decently, because you haven’t been too pushy.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Too Few (likable) Women at the Top

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.  If you haven’t heard about her new book, Lean In, you’re missing out.  Her fifteen minute TED talk gives a recap.  At 7 minutes 30 seconds in she cites a Harvard Business School case study, which you can listen to her describe, or read my summary below the video.

The summary: The professor running the case distributed nearly identical text to two groups of students.  One group was led to believe the protagonist of the case was a man; the other, a woman.  Both groups agreed the protagonist was competent, but men and women of the first student group wanted to hang out with the male protagonist, whereas men and women of the second student group weren’t sure they’d want to work for the female protagonist.  To sum it all up, in Sandberg’s words, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.”

See the full talk and comments here.  (If you’re interested, you should watch the full talk.)

Or buy her book.

What if you change your mind halfway through a negotiation?

10444556_s nyc upper west side

Inconsistent decision making sometimes leads to a crummy result.  Here’s a thought-provoking, quantifiable example from real life.

Two of us were preparing to drive from Boston to New York City.  We both wanted to go there, and if we didn’t drive together we would have gone separately.  We could take his car, a mid-size sedan that gets so-so mileage, or mine, a compact sedan that gets good mileage.

There’s this system we use to determine who takes on the burden of driving without switching up, without putting a driver in an unfamiliar car.   (I have to explain it quickly here with a single paragraph and a table, and then I can give you today’s story.)  One person drives the whole way, and the other pays a set rate per mile.  Any gas, tolls, or tickets paid have to be covered by that set rate.  The payer pays on only half the miles, because if we weren’t doing this complicated auction we’d be splitting costs.  This also prevents the suboptimal result that we don’t carpool. The table below shows a 100 mile trip, where Person A will drive.  His car will incur costs of $50.


Person B pays A half the costs at $0.60/mi, or $30.  Person A’s “hassle premium” is therefore $5 ($5 saved over a 50-50 split of costs, where each pays $25).

Whatever profit may be left over for the driver is compensation for their labor.  If the rate doesn’t cover half of the baseline expenses ($gas/mile plus depreciation) then the driver is paying more than half and doing all the work besides.  So there’s a floor below which a potential driver shouldn’t bid.

Here’s how it worked last time:

He said, “I’ll drive for half the costs at 80 cents per mile.”

That meant, if I agreed, then he’d do all the driving and I’d pay him 80 cents per mile, times all the miles there and back, divided by two (like the table above).

I generally don’t choose to drive in New York if someone else will do it, but I didn’t want to pay 80 cents per mile to get there.  So I said, “78 cents.”  (There’s a rule that you can only bid in increments of two cents.)  I add, “Remember that your car has GPS in case we get lost.”  What I’m doing here is bidding his price down while encouraging him to bid again.  He could accept my bid, in which case I’d be stuck with driving.  But if he wants GPS, he’ll bid lower.

It works.  He wants GPS for the drive, so he says, “76 cents.”  I’ve saved myself four cents per mile.

I think the price is still too high, though, so I say, “74.  Remember your car also has an audio input, so we can listen to podcasts.”

He says, “72.”

We continue like this for a bit.  I’m successful at driving down the price of his driving to 64 cents per mile.  Then suddenly I think to myself that maybe driving isn’t so bad, and I could use the lunch money.  So I change my mind and the kinds of things I’m saying.

I say, “You know, it’s a bit of a hassle to drive around in the city.  Sometimes drivers really cut you off.  I’ll drive for 62.”  Now I’m sincere.

He sees the change that has come over me and knows that I’m bidding now because I actually want to drive, not because I want to lower the price of his driving.  And he knows that my floor is lower than his.  In this situation, he can bid us all the way down to his floor and, if I really want to drive, the auction will stop when I bid just below his floor and he accepts.

This is just what happened.  It was facilitated by more unhelpful commentary from me, in which I reminded him how awful it would be for him to drive.  We settled at my driving for half the costs at 48 cents per mile.

The last time we held an auction to New York, the driver didn’t say anything manipulative to let on his true intentions and got $0.58/mile, over 20% more than what I had just won.

So The Moral Is

Before you enter a negotiation, know what you’re aiming for.  And don’t try to game it, because in some circumstances, it just drives your price to the floor.


Today I was at a management meeting to solve some specific problems, and at the end of the meeting, as often happens, we allowed for some off-topic suggestions and comments.  (People should have a chance to say what’s on their mind.)  One of the managers recommended that we devote some time during our “all hands” meeting to let attendees get up to a microphone and share something that they’ve learned recently, maybe just for a minute, just quickly, and then they’d sit back down.  Call it a “Member Minute.”  I thought that was a great idea.  I’m often coming across random tidbits that I’d like to share with folks, and I think I could contribute something in less than a minute to the general audience.

Another manager also liked the idea, and they supported it by saying so and then launching into their latest gripe.  They said that there was a “major problem” negatively affecting them, and “get this” there was no solution yet, and they wanted everyone else in the business to know about it.  Fortunately the manager who suggested the “Member Minute” thanked the griper for their support and then emphasized their vision for the sharing of positive messages.


As problem fixers, we often want to focus on the problem, and among a friendly audience, sometimes we want to vent a little.  There can be a place for venting to a group, and there absolutely is a need to talk about problems.  But negativity is ultimately an organization killer: no one wants to hang around a sourpuss, and not only that, even if people don’t shut down or leave, your group’s ability to perform towards a positive outcome will be greatly diminished.

Ever been in the grocery store looking for something?  Ever notice how much faster you can find it if you think about what you’re looking for, if you envision its color or its shape or a word on the box?  And if they change the branding, notice how you can’t find it?  The same can be said about your work.  Envision a positive outcome and all your abilities converge towards it.  Envision a quagmire and that’s where you end up wallowing.


As managers, we can coach or remove team members that are a drag to work with.  For everyone else, especially in volunteer organizations, we need to check ourselves and others:

  1. Recognize that habitual negativity is career-threatening and organization killing.
  2. End a gripe with a suggested solution and always always (even if there is no suggested solution) offer to take suggestions or advice from others.
  3. Try to “break frames” and get people thinking differently with jokes or humor.  (More on this later; never use sarcasm.)
  4. Watch your tone and use words that are even-handed or fair-minded.  If the situation is more gray than black-and-white, this leaves people open to possibilities and makes it easier for them to help you.

It’s true, your attitude determines your altitude.  Aim high.