A blog about business and economics.

Aug. 29 2014 6:26 PM

At Work, Every Friday Should Be a Summer Friday

This article originally appeared in Science of Us.

Summer doesn’t officially end until late next month, but who are we kidding: This is our last real week of summer, which makes August 29 our last summer Friday of 2014. If you’re lucky enough to work at a company with “summer Fridays,” that wonderful seasonal tradition of closing the office early on the Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you’re about to head back into the cold reality of the five-day, 40-hour workweek. 

But you shouldn’t have to. The concept behind summer Fridays should be a year-round perk, several researchers who study workplace productivity and employee well-being told Science of Us, because giving workers more freedom to decide when and how they work may ultimately result in them getting more done.

Many companies already have a summer hours policy in place, and this provides management with an already tested blueprint showing how permanent flex-time policies—or, even better, some have argued, a shorter workweek—will likely work for their businesses. “If it works well one day a week during the summer, why not make that year-round?” said Jennifer Glass, a University of Texas at Austin sociologist who studies workplace flexibility, in an email. Why not, indeed.

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Aug. 29 2014 5:11 PM

So You’re Rich for an American. Does that Make You Rich for New York?

New Yorkers have a notoriously skewed sense of wealth—at least when they work in industries like finance or media and live in Manhattan or Brooklyn. It’s hard not to, seeing how we’re surrounded by expensive restaurants, expensive apartments, and expensively dressed people who seem able to afford it all.

So, as an econ writer, it’s usually a somewhat strange experience when I get into conversations here about class. If I mention that a six-figure salary counts as rich in much of the country—that just $250,000 gets you into the top 2 percent—the response is usually, “Sure, but that’s not New York rich.”

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Except, it sort of is. While working on my column today about what counts as rich in America, I pulled a bit of Census data to compare income New York City and the entire United States. The greater New York metro area may be home to an enormous share of the country’s 1 percenters, and it's certainly a magnet for exorbitant, plutocratic wealth. But in the city itself, the basic income curve isn’t that exceptional. In the entire U.S., according to the Census, about 22 percent of households earn six figures. In NYC, it’s about 25 percent.

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What about cost of living? Don’t working professionals in New York—those of us who aren’t Wall Street plutocrats—have a right to feel a bit poorer because of the insane amount of money we pay to live in shoebox apartments? Real estate here is expensive, and we don’t get much square footage for our buck. But as I wrote yesterday, the high rents in this city are balanced out somewhat by the low, low cost of commuting on the subway. (Not paying for a car, or gas, or car insurance is pretty financially sweet.) Combined with the fact that salaries are somewhat higher than average here, and New York is reasonably affordable compared to other large cities. Of course, you can easily make it unaffordable by moving to that lovely tree-lined block in Brooklyn or Manhattan that’s just steps to the park, a great coffee shop, and a subway station. But those are consumption choices.

The upshot: If you’re rich by U.S. standards, you’re probably also rich by New York standards. Now, if you do want to see a city where incomes are crazily out of line with the national norm, check out San Francisco, where 39 percent of households make six figures—it really is becoming a city for the rich.

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Aug. 29 2014 2:15 PM

76 Ways to Make Money in Digital Media

In much the same way I used to quiz my grandmother about how she survived the Great Depression, a younger colleague recently asked me what online journalism was like in the 1990s (we started Slate in 1996). As I started to talk about it, I realized that the journalism itself hasn’t changed that much—blah blah social media, blah blah interactives, blah blah longform—but what has changed is the money. There didn’t used to be any. Now there’s a lot.

As an exercise, I made myself two lists: all the sources of revenue I can remember for 1998 digital journalism and all the sources of revenue I can remember for 2014 digital journalism. I’m not exactly sure what they explain, but I suspect it’s a lot.

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In 1998, the sources of revenue for online journalism were:

  1. Funding from some rich person

  2. Funding from some rich company that was making a long-shot bet

  3. Banner ads

  4. Really bad subscription schemes

  5. Some lead-generation business (as Jim Ledbetter reminded me)

In 2014, the sources of revenue for digital journalism are:

  1. Funding from some rich person (e.g., eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media)

  2. Funding from some rich company that is making a long-shot bet (e.g., some of Bloomberg’s ventures)

  3. Ads from real (i.e., not network) advertisers

  4. Ad network ads

  5. AdSense ads from Google

  6. Outbrain-style links to other people’s content that pays when readers click it

  7. Native advertising

  8. Make the native ads yourself and get a production fee

  9. Build a microsite for the native content and get paid separately for that

  10. Subscription (no content unless you pay)

  11. Paywall (some content, then you have to pay, à la the New York Times)

  12. Micropayment (pay for each individual piece of content)

  13. Membership (content is free, but bonus stuff—discounts, Easter eggs—for members; e.g., Slate Plus!)

  14. Tablet-only subscriptions

  15. Paid app

  16. Tip jar (asking for support without perks)

  17. Kindle subscriptions

  18. Sell swag and merchandise directly to readers.

  19. Amazon Associates revenue (via links in stories)

  20. Amazon Associates revenue where you assign stories about products in order to get the sales cut

  21. Sell your own merchandise but through a company that fulfills it and pays you a cut (e.g., Café Press)

  22. Lead generation—send a reader who becomes a customer, get paid

  23. Syndicate stories to other digital publishers to run on their sites

  24. Syndicate stories to print publications

  25. Syndication for textbooks/academia (e.g., PARS)

  26. LexisNexis

  27. Syndicate content for advertiser’s microsite

  28. Public events—ticket revenue

  29. Public events—corporate sponsor revenue

  30. Conferences for professionals—ticket revenue

  31. Conferences—other forms of sponsorship (badge sponsorship, mobile service sponsorship)

  32. Paid parties: Readers pay to socialize with you

  33. Conferences—booths/expo revenue

  34. Events as sales spiel—bring people in for content of event, then sell them something

  35. Native events—events put on for advertiser

  36. Foundation funds journalism on a favorite subject

  37. University funds journalism on a favored subject

  38. Donations from foundations not tied to a particular project

  39. Mobile banner ads

  40. Mobile and tablet interstitials

  41. Video ads from real advertisers

  42. Network video ads

  43. Google/YouTube pays to have you create video

  44. YouTube video revenue share

  45. Podcast ads—not host-read

  46. Podcast ads, host-read, paid for click-through/sign ups

  47. Podcast ads, host read, not paid for performance

  48. Podcast festivals

  49. Podcasts created for sponsors 

  50. Cruises for readers

  51. Teach classes for readers or other journalists

  52. Webinars

  53. Sell photo archives both digitally and as prints

  54. Publish physical books of your digital content

  55. Kindle singles and other e-books

  56. Sell unusual books for non-Amazon publishers, as Slate did with this Ursula LeGuin book

  57. Sell movie and TV rights

  58. Product placement—get paid for using products and reviewing them

  59. Use your Google page rank power to put in links to other places and get paid for referrals (which undoubtedly infuriates Google)

  60. Sponsored tweets

  61. Get paid to make Facebook posts on a particular subject.

  62. Ads in emails

  63. Kickstarter fundraising (à la 99 Percent Invisible)

  64. Build apps for people

  65. Higher-end specialized product (e.g., Politico Pro)

  66. Targeted research for subscribers who pay a premium (e.g., BI Intelligence)

  67. Create viral content for advertisers and charge for virality in a BuzzFeed-y manner

  68. Get people to sign up for an email list for an advertiser, as Upworthy does

  69. Sell your subscriber data

  70. Sell your email lists

  71. Build a platform, put great journalism on it, and sell the platform (e.g., the Atavist)

  72. Wine Clubs

  73. Sell access to archives (hat tip: Joe Turner)

  74. Get government funding to create journalism, e.g., USAID (hat tip: Joe Turner again)

  75. More than a tip jar—straight-up donations, à la Brainpickings and NPR (hat tip: David Harvey)

  76. White papers

Aug. 28 2014 12:17 PM

Forget the Rent: Why New York and San Francisco Are Actually Amazing Bargains

New York and San Francisco are synonymous with out-of-control rents. But they're more of a bargain than most of us realize. The New York Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit devoted to state and city government issues, recently ranked 21 large U.S. cities and found that New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., (also thought of as an expensive place to live) were actually among the most affordable. How is that possible? First, families in these cities tend to earn more. Second, they spend less money commuting. The typical New York household, for instance, pays a ludicrous amount of rent, but most don't own a car, since they can use the subway or a bus to get to work instead.  

new_york_is_cheap

Like all rankings, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. The Budget Commission based its work on the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Location Affordability Index. Play around on the government's website for a while (it's fun, I swear) and you'll find that for some households, Atlanta or Dallas might indeed be more affordable than New York. In the end, I think the graph stands in for one big point. Americans tend to move in the direction of cheap housing. But my guess is that many families who go off to the Sun Belt in search of a moderately priced home with a yard end up underestimating the impact of commuting costs on their finances, since they're simply more difficult to predict. (Do you know where the price of gas will be in two years? Neither do I.) And while housing is the single biggest piece of most family budgets, transportation comes in second, eating up about 17 percent of all expenditures. As the New York's budget commission puts it: "The rent is too damn high! But the Metrocard is a pretty good deal."

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(Via Vox)

Aug. 28 2014 10:46 AM

Why You Should Look for Strategic Investors in Unlikely Places

This article originally appeared in Inc.

Since my time in the United Kingdom watching Dragon's Den, and now in the U.S. watching Shark Tank, I have loved seeing entrepreneurs battle with a complex question: Whose money should I take now that I have multiple suitors? And why? Is it better to own a large stake in a smaller company, or a smaller stake in a much larger one?

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With so much money flowing into venture capital and private equity funds, it seems like a greater proportion of investors these days are purely financial. They offer no real operating or distribution know-how; they simply ask budding entrepreneurs to supersize their business more quickly. VC and PE clearly have a critical role in supporting the growth of many small companies, but where do you turn once that utility is maxed out?

Two companies I follow closely have recently pursued strategic investors to help them accelerate. Both have ended up with unlikely, yet what appear to be excellent, strategic investors.

Camp Bow Wow

Before there was DogVacay or Rover.com, there was Camp Bow Wow, a franchised business offering pet-sitting, walking, and ancillary services. More than 10 years into the current business model, the company now boasts more than 120 locations, more than $70 million in sales, and an average client spend of around $1,500 per year.

Owner and founder Heidi Ganahl is aware of the need to grow more rapidly to keep up with the upstarts in the space and has a goal of operating from 1,000 locations as soon as possible.

With this backdrop, she recently sold the business. Not to a VC-backed new entrant. Not to a PE shop. Not to a competitor. No, Ganahl has done something quite different by selling out to VCA, a $3 billion Los Angeles–based company that operates more than 600 animal hospitals. Ganahl will still be involved, but VCA's deeper pockets should allow an acceleration of Camp Bow Wow's proven business model. Who knows how much additional impact the cross-marketing will bring to both companies, but I am sure all the existing franchisers are licking their lips, and another 800 entrepreneurs seem to be needed too.

Design LED Products

Scotland-based Design LED Products is another company that's about 10 years old and at its own tipping point. The company designs LEDs for use in innovative and energy-efficient commercial and consumer lighting products. Their bulbless lamps are a particular favorite of mine, with their promise of no more time balanced precariously on a stepladder replacing worn-out bulbs.

Founded by scientist James Gourlay and led by Stuart Bain, the company has historically tapped angel and VC sources for funding. Now with a clear product suite to monetize, the company just announced a major funding round. It would sound like just another VC round if it were not for the source of the capital infusion: Ikea's GreenTech fund is the new name on the share register, investing alongside existing funders who are clearly excited by this development, given Ikea's goal of only selling LED-based lighting products by September 2015.

The lesson here seems pretty clear. Smart management teams should be considering investment money from a broad range of strategic investors and thinking about where there just might be operating or marketing synergies that are not immediately apparent. I look forward to seeing how these companies grow from here.

Aug. 27 2014 5:02 PM

The Biggest Peer-to-Peer Lending Site Just Filed for an IPO

Online financing site Lending Club filed for an IPO on Wednesday, and according to DealBook, the debut could be one of the 10 biggest for an Internet company.

Lending Club is the biggest marketplace in the peer-to-peer lending space, which helps investors connect with borrowers seeking funds online. To qualify for a loan on Lending Club, borrowers need FICO scores of 640 or higher and clean credit histories. Interest rates average 14 percent. To date, Lending Club says it has financed more than $5 billion worth of loans (of which $1 billion were started last quarter) and paid nearly $500 million in interest to investors on the site.

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Lending Club is one of several companies that are trying to overhaul how we get a line of credit. One of the main selling points these firms have with their clients is that they avoid traditional banks and all the headaches and red tape that can come with them. Cutting banks out of the process is also supposed to help borrowers pay lower interest rates than they would otherwise, while investors see higher returns than if they put their funds into a savings account or something relatively low-risk.

Of course, a model like this has plenty of risks. In its prospectus, Lending Club details pages upon pages of risk factors for its business, such as flaws in its own algorithm for assessing the credit-worthiness of borrowers, errors in data on borrowers from third-party providers, and, of course, any sort of fraudulent activity or security vulnerabilities. One fear among investors is that in an effort to bring in more borrowers and increase transaction volume, Lending Club might consider lowering its standards for who qualifies.

If it doesn't already have answers to assuage those concerns, Lending Club will be coming up with them as it pursues its IPO. Because in this particular endeavor, Lending Club—and not the borrowers on its platform—is the one looking to raise some funds.

Aug. 27 2014 4:38 PM

The U.S. Sells Green Cards, and It Should Charge More for Them

When demand for a product swamps supply, there are two rational responses: either you make more of it or you hike the price. So perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to charge rich foreigners more for green cards.

Since 1990, the federal government has set aside 10,000 visas for overseas investors willing to plunk a minimum of $500,000 into a U.S. development project—could be a dairy farm, or a hotel, or a water plant—that, theoretically, creates at least 10 jobs. For a long time, the so-called EB-5 program was a barely noticed footnote in the vast tome of U.S. immigration law. But thanks to wealthy Chinese families desperate to gain permanent residency, its popularity has surged. For the first time ever, the Wall Street Journal reports, applicants have maxed out this year’s allotment of visas.

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“These investors aren’t coming for the investment,” New York lawyer Yi Song told the WSJ. “They are coming here for their children to obtain a better education and to get residence as an insurance policy.” Already, there is a backlog of more than 10,000 investor petitions.

This is a good problem to have. People want to live in the U.S. and are willing to pay a half-million dollars or more to do it. One might be tempted to open the floodgates.

But the EB-5 program has problems, and simply expanding it would probably exacerbate those problems. Last December, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report that suggested the government immigration bureaucracy didn’t have the necessary legal power or wherewithal to properly police the program for fraud or track its impact. For example, it’s extremely difficult to tell how often the investments actually result in work for Americans. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services at one point claimed that EB-5 had attracted $6.8 billion worth of foreign cash, creating at least 49,000 jobs. Asked to verify those numbers, however, it said they were basically a guess that “assumed the minimum requirements of the program had been met.” That assumption seems shaky, considering the OIG found instances where investments were made in developments that had already been completed; the money was essentially used to pay back loans.

As the OIG put it, “USCIS was only able to speculate about how foreign investments are affecting the U.S. economy and whether the program is creating U.S. jobs as intended.” Not good.

There are reasons to doubt the economic logic of a visas-for-cash program like EB-5. If foreigners are funneling their money into the U.S. mostly for the sake of a green card, rather than to make a return, there’s a good chance they won’t be particularly careful with their investments. And as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2011, there are at least a few tales of investments gone horribly wrong. Eager foreigners sometimes get sucked into frauds, as in a massive case involving a Chicago hotel and convention center in which the SEC had to intervene.

That said, many cities have used the money attracted by the EB-5 program to good effect—building airports, for instance. The funding has been especially important to recession-racked regions where banks have been hesitant to lend. And on the whole, a program that attracts more foreign investment to the U.S. seems like a net plus.

So here’s a potential solution: Since so many foreigners—too many, in fact—are willing to pay good money for the right to live here, Washington should up the charge and use some of the extra profit to fund better oversight. Right now, applicants have to invest $500,000 in a high-unemployment area, or $1 million elsewhere, to qualify for the program. By the standards of today’s global rich, that’s nothing. Why not double it, or even triple it? Let supply-and-demand work its magic.

Aug. 27 2014 12:36 PM

IMF Chief Investigated in France

In a statement on Wednesday, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, revealed through her lawyer that France’s High Court of Justice of the Republic—responsible for investigating French high government officials—is investigating her for “simple negligence.” In France, formal investigation is a prosecutorial suggestion that there is enough evidence to bring someone to trial.

The charges are not for her work as head of the IMF, but as finance minister for then-President Nicolas Sarkozy. Prosecutors are investigating Lagarde’s role in a 2007 arbitration between the former president and Bernard Tapie, “a onetime cabinet minister and the former owner of the Adidas sportswear empire.” Tapie was awarded more than 400 million euros in a dispute with state-owned Crédit Lyonnais; then, despite his socialist loyalties, backed Sarkozy’s center-right political party, leading some to question the authenticity of the arbitration.

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Lagarde stated that the fact that she is being investigated for “simple negligence” means that the committee does not believe that she had been “guilty of any infraction,” but rather suspects she was “insufficiently vigilant during the arbitration.” Lagarde, whose current contract with requires her to “strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” took over at the IMF in 2011 from Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stepped down amid accusations of sexual assault. At the time, she was lauded for her “hard-working professionalism”—and, indeed, having made her statement, she will return to work in Washington this Wednesday afternoon.

Aug. 27 2014 12:16 PM

Impulse Buying Is Easier Than Ever on Instagram

Target and Nordstrom have rolled out a new service that makes impulse purchases terrifyingly simple. It's called Like2Buy and it's basically Instagram made to Instashop. On Like2Buy, retailers display their merchandise in square Instagram-style photos; click on one and you're taken directly to the item's page on the retailer's own website. See. Like. Click. Buy.

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Screenshot from Like2Buy

Curalate, the marketing and analytics firm behind Like2Buy, pitches it as the "missing link" that will turn user engagement on Instagram into traffic and revenue for companies. Instagram claims to have 200 million regular users who have shared more than 20 billion photos to date. That audience is thought to be four times as large as that of Pinterest, another visually oriented social media site. In April, a study from technology and research firm Forrester declared Instagram the "king of social engagement" and said brands using it had 58 times more success in getting followers to interact with their posts than they did on Facebook.

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Both Target and Nordstrom have posted links to their Like2Buy pages on their Instagrams. Bryan Galipeau, director of social media at Nordstrom, told Businessweek that having Like2Buy will address questions frequently posted in the company's Instagram comments such as "How much does this cost?" and "Where can I buy this?"

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Screenshot from Like2Buy

Turning active users on social media into active spenders for a brand is something that no one has quite cracked the code on yet. Pinterest has been testing "Promoted Pins" that advertisers can buy to raise their visibility. Twitter has sponsored tweets, and Facebook is constantly experimenting with ads. But the company that turns a social network into a virtual aisle of impulse items has a good shot at being crowned "king of social engagement."

Aug. 27 2014 12:02 PM

How Many Americans Live on Less Than $2 Per Day?

This month, Stanford University’s Pathways magazine gave new meaning to the phrase “third-world America” when it published an article reporting that, in any given month of 2011, 1.65 million U.S. households with children were living on less than $2 per person, per day—the sort of extreme poverty threshold usually associated with developing nations. According to H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins, the number of families living under that low, low line has grown 159 percent since 1996. This, they argued, may have partly been the result of Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, which made it harder for many families to receive cash assistance.

“The prevalence of extreme poverty in the United States may shock many,” the pair wrote. But is it really as prevalent as they suggest? A new report from the Brookings Institution argues: maybe not.

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Part of the reason Shaefer and Edin’s headline number was so startlingly high—they calculated that the extreme poverty rate among households with children was a chilling 4.3 percent—could be attributed to a very narrow definition of income that ignored all noncash safety net benefits. Today, most of the government’s poverty-fighting efforts don’t involve straightforward cash. Food stamps? Housing vouchers? Tax credits? None were included. Once they accounted for those programs, only 613,000 families were living below the $2-a-day mark in 2011—still up by about half since the Clinton years.

At a bare minimum, then, hundreds of thousands of American households are living in true destitution. (For a family of three, the federal poverty line works out to about $17 per day, per person.)

According to the new Brookings report, however, even Shaefer and Edin’s most conservative estimates of extreme poverty might have been too high. If you look at data on income, the pair’s estimates essentially hold up. But Brookings fellow Laurence Chandy and MIT Ph.D. student Cory Smith found that if you examine U.S. consumption statistics, then the number of families surviving on less than $2 each per day falls close to zero.1

The Brookings chart below shows how estimates of extreme poverty can change, depending on your definitions and data source. Estimates based exclusively on cash income are on the far left; estimates including cash income and noncash government benefits are in the middle; and consumption-based estimates are on the far right.

Different Estimates of the $2 a Day Poverty Rate

America’s consumption data, which generally comes from the Department of Labor’s Survey of Consumer Expenditures, is notoriously shoddy. But critics generally complain about its failure to capture spending by wealthier households, which tend to underreport their personal budgets. Generally speaking, it’s thought to be a decent gauge of how middle-class and poorer families use their money.

So why does using consumption statistics lead to such drastically lower estimates of extreme poverty? It might be a data problem. It’s possible that the consumer surveys simply miss America’s poorest households, or that low-income families fail to report some of their income when asked. But even if the true extent of extreme poverty is ambiguous, the possibility that it exists at all should trouble us. “While the estimates we obtain vary,” Chandry and Smith write, “the fact that even some have millions of Americans living under $2 a day is alarming.”

1 Footnote: Interestingly, they also find that if you use the exact same methods researchers use to estimate developing world poverty, then the number of Americans living on $2 per day also falls to zero. 

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