A blog about business and economics.

July 21 2014 1:48 PM

Google May Make New York City Pay Phones Actually Useful

Instead of bulldozing its pay phone booths, New York City wants to outfit them as free Wi-Fi hot spots. It's an idea that was first tossed around by the Bloomberg administration in 2012 as a way of turning the city's thousands of largely unused phone booths into something of general use. Two years later, Mayor Bill de Blasio has rekindled interest in the plan and outlined an ambitious vision for transforming the outdated technology into "one of the largest free Wi-Fi networks in the country."

Rather than divide the hot spots up piecemeal, the city is looking for a single firm or partnership to run the entire system. Now Bloomberg reports that Google might be looking to get in on the action. According to documents from the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Google attended an informational meeting in May about the project. Cisco, IBM, and Samsung were also present.

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Google's interest in the city's phone-booth Wi-Fi, as Bloomberg points out, fits with the Internet giant's larger efforts to bring fast and efficient connectivity to various regions of the world. Google Loon, perhaps its best-known venture in this arena, is an ambitious effort to create "Internet for everyone" (and perhaps to collect the kind of data only heard of in science fiction) using huge balloons that float in the stratosphere. Google Fiber, another such project, is bringing ultra-high-speed Internet to a handful of cities and metro areas across the U.S.

New York expects whomever wins the proposal to pay it a minimum annual compensation of $17.5 million or 50 percent of gross revenues, whichever is greater. The selected provider will not be allowed to charge for Wi-Fi but will be able to attach fees to traditional phone service (excepting 911 and 311 calls). Most of the money generated would come from advertisers, who love seeing their billboards plastered along streets and sidewalks at eye level for passersby.

At any rate, the important point is that this proposal has sat around for so long that people feared it might never happen. But with tech firms like Google showing interest, it just might get off the ground after all.

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July 21 2014 1:36 PM

Is Congress Guilty of Mansplaining to Janet Yellen?

While I was off on vacation last week, the Huffington Post put up a brief video titled, “Congress Fawned Over Bernanke, But It Mansplains to Janet Yellen, the First Woman Fed Chair.” The clip juxtaposes Bernanke’s fairly cozy final briefing before the House Financial Services Committee—Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, called him “one of the most able public servants I have ever met”—with some of the snide treatment Yellen received last Wednesday. Much of it consists of Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan, who in a past life ran a family gravel-making business, talking over her and implying that she hasn’t read enough about the pros and cons of rule-based monetary policy. Nothing quite like watching a congressional backbencher half-coherently lecture America’s most powerful woman, eh Bill?

I do think that Yellen’s term atop the Fed is going to be an interesting experiment in gender politics. While there are somewhat substantive reasons why Republicans may dislike her more than they did Bernanke—she’s arguably more vocal about the central bank’s role in combating unemployment, which grates on the conservatives who would prefer the central bank to focus monomaniacally on minimizing inflation—she’s largely continued his policy approach. If Congress consistently treats Yellen with less respect than her predecessor, it’s going to look like sexism at work

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(Worth noting: Huizenga’s attempts to score points off Bernanke seem to have been far less aggressive. Then again, the man is serving only his second term. He may just be learning that condescension is a good way to fake fluency in economics.)

That said, some of what’s going on in the video is just garden variety grandstanding, which contrary to what the clip implies, Bernanke was subjected to regularly. Here, for instance, is Rep. Keith Rothfus during Bernanke’s last testimony trying to get the Fed chair to admit that quantitative easing is just reckless money printing (shockingly, Bernanke thought differently).

Sometimes, a blow-hard politician is just a blow-hard politician.

July 18 2014 5:42 PM

With Kindle Unlimited, Amazon Makes Bid for Amazon Prime Customers

Starting today, you can sign up for Amazon's Kindle Unlimited, a new service that grants access to 600,000 e-books and several thousand audiobooks for $9.99 a month. Contrary to what you might think, the subscription isn't stuffed with self-published titles at the expense of acclaimed books. All the King's Men, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid's Tale, Life of Pi, and the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series are just a handful of the more popular and well-known titles that are currently available.

Amazon does not publicize the number of e-books available through its online store, making it difficult to know exactly what fraction of the company's electronic shelves Kindle Unlimited will open up to subscribers. In 2010, Amazon said in a press release that its U.S. Kindle Store had more than 630,000 books for sale. The following year, the New York Times reported that Amazon's wares had grown to 950,000 Kindle books. So it seems reasonable to assume at least that the company's stock of e-books long ago surpassed 1 million.

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Perhaps most interesting about Amazon's Kindle Unlimited announcement is its timing. As everyone now knows, Jeff Bezos and his company are embroiled in a feud with publishing house Hachette over the terms of its contract for physical and electronic book sales. The unusually public dispute has included Amazon delaying shipments and removing preorders of Hachette titles. There has also been plenty of mudslinging from both sides, with Amazon most recently attempting to go around the publisher entirely by making a direct offer to authors and agents.

Kindle Unlimited will add a new layer of complexity to negotiations between Amazon and publishers. So far, it seems that most of the big-name publishers haven't agreed to let their titles onto the subscription platform. Books published by HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster aren't offered and those from Penguin Random House are notably absent. Amazon has not said how authors and publishers will be paid for participating in Kindle Unlimited, but it's unlikely that the models currently used for e-book sales through its store will do the trick.

From a customer's perspective, is Kindle Unlimited a great deal? Pricewise, it's more or less on par with similar services such as Oyster ($9.95 a month for access to more than 500,000 titles) and Scribd ($8.99 a month for access to more than 400,000 titles). In fact as Gizmodo astutely points out, the biggest competition for Kindle Unlimited right now might be Amazon itself. Current members of Amazon Prime can check out one book a month from the Kindle Owner's Lending Library (selection: more than 500,000). Prime, of course, also includes free two-day shipping, streaming movies and TV shows, and streaming music. At $9.99 a month, or about $120 a year, Kindle Unlimited is $20 more expensive than Amazon Prime. And while it might have a slightly bigger selection of books, it comes with a lot fewer other perks.

July 18 2014 11:14 AM

Microsoft Layoffs Would Be the Fourth-Biggest in Tech’s Modern History

On Thursday, Microsoft announced its biggest round of layoffs in its history. As many as 18,000 employees—or up to 14 percent of Microsoft's workforce—are on the line to lose their jobs. More than 12,000 of those cuts are expected to come from the Nokia mobile phone business, an unpopular investment made by former chief executive Steve Ballmer last year. It's the first major step by current CEO Satya Nadella toward turning the lagging tech corporation around.

Setting aside the cuts being made to Nokia staff, some 5,500 people are expected to lose their jobs from Microsoft. That's roughly on par with the 5,800 employees that Microsoft axed in the wake of the financial crisis. The Wall Street Journal reports that some were even hoping for a more drastic move from Nadella in reshaping the company's sprawling operations. That said, 18,000 is a lot—especially in the technology industry. According to data from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Microsoft's layoff announcement is the fourth-biggest* at a U.S.-based firm since it began tracking such things in 1989:

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  1. IBM: 60,000 employees (July 1993)
  2. Hewlett-Packard: 27,000 employees (May 2012)
  3. Hewlett-Packard: 24,600 employees (September 2008)
  4. Microsoft: 18,000 employees (July 2014)

Fifth on that list is Hewlett-Packard again, which announced that it would cut somewhere between 11,000 and 16,000 employees this May. When you add in all industries, Microsoft's cuts aren't all that bad—dwarfed by reductions implemented at banks, automakers, and in the U.S. Postal Service. But for a tech industry not accustomed to mass layoffs (except at Hewlett-Packard, it would seem) trimming 18,000 employees is a significant step.

*Correction, July 18, 2014: This post originally misstated that Microsoft's layoffs would be the fourth-biggest ever in tech. It would be the fourth-largest at a U.S.-based tech firm since 1989, the first year Challenger, Gray & Christmas began collecting data.

July 18 2014 6:30 AM

What I Learned From My Quarter-Life Crisis

This article originally appeared in Inc.

Not long ago Meredith Bronk, 43, the president of Open Systems Technologies, was having a beer on the rooftop of OST headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With her were two app developers, young employees in their 20s. “I asked them a ton of questions,” she recalls.

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After “Want a beer?” most of the questions focused on their professional development. Bronk estimates that OST, a seven-time Inc 500 company with $108 million in 2013 sales, has hired about 30 under-30 app developers in the past six months. So the question of their professional development is vital for obvious reasons (employee engagement, employee retention).

But it’s important to Bronk for one more reason, which has to do with what her own life was like between ages 25 and 30. She remembers making career decisions and feeling as if she had to justify them to certain people in her life. “I felt judged mostly for decisions that were right for me,” she says. 

Back in the '90s

When she finished high school in West Bloomfield, Michigan, Bronk initially hoped to go to Notre Dame. It mattered to her for all of the usual reasons, and two more: Notre Dame was her father’s alma mater, and Bronk was born in South Bend.

She didn’t get in. So she happily attended Alma College, staying in Michigan. After college, she left the region, taking her first job in Arizona as an accounting clerk for American Stores. “She worked there for four years and was promoted almost every year,” writes Mike Nichols, who recently profiled Bronk in the Grand Rapids Business Journal. “But by the summer of 1995, an ended relationship and a sense of dissatisfaction led her to return to Michigan to be with her family, who had moved to Grand Haven.”

Bronk told Nichols she suffered through a “quarter-life crisis,” living with her parents in a new city. In returning to Michigan, she made what she calls “a sharp left turn.” Many people in her life wondered what on earth she was doing. They couldn’t see why someone getting regular promotions in the sunny southwest would just up and leave. “I didn’t handle myself in the best possible manner,” she says. “I still feel sadness for people that I hurt.” But what she remembers, too, is that people questioned her decision. They questioned it because she appeared, on the outside, to be successful. They questioned it without deigning to ask her what was really going on on the inside. 

Gratitude for Getting a Chance

In her first years back in Michigan, she continued to work as an accountant. She felt hemmed in and underused, as if her abilities in leadership and management ranged above the sometimes limited purview of non-executive accounting functions. She came to OST in 1998 as the seventh employee. (Today, the company has 155 employees).

At the time, she was 28. Co-founders Dan Behm and Jim VanderMey were eager to find a project manager. Someone, Bronk recalls, who could be “a single point of contact for all our customers.” The company’s key techies were so busy at client sites, they were hard for clients to track down. The company needed a communicator-coordinator for its full plate of projects.

Talking to Bronk, one gets the feeling she’ll never forget the way Behm and Jim VanderMey allowed her to flourish as a manager and a leader, in those early years. They took a chance on her in the role, even though she’d never done something quite like it. They walked the walk of empowering employees.

And they really walked the walk when, in 2002, they allowed the employees—there were still only seven—to buy out the company. Today, 37 employees own a piece of OST. The shareholders “all treat this like this is our company,” Bronk told me late last year. “There’s a huge pride in ownership.”

Learning to Ask, Not Assume

So there she is, drinking beers on the roof with two young app developers. She asks them how they’d feel if their day-to-day managing consultant, who works with them most frequently, were also tasked with overseeing their career development. After all, who’d know their talents and workloads better?

“They totally disagreed,” Bronk says. The developers told her it would be better to let Rob—their manager at OST who is more big-picture focused—handle their development, and let the managing consultant focus on project success.

The point here is not that the employees preferred their career development to be in the hands of a leader with a big-picture focus. That’s not unusual. But what’s all too unusual, even in 2014, is company presidents like Bronk actually asking employees what their preference would be (rather than unilaterally assigning someone, or altogether sidestepping the touchy-feely topic of talent development). 

Following the rooftop chats, Bronk met with several other young app developers, pursuing a similar line of inquiry. They, too, preferred the Rob approach. It was a fascinating moment for Bronk. She explained it recently to OST’s marketing intern, who is one of her mentees. “I told him, 10 people in app development told me I was wrong,” she says, laughing. 

Coming Around Again

It’s not hard to trace Bronk’s flexibility and humility with young employees—and her investment in their development—to her own time as an under-30 employee in the workforce. “Professionally, as I lead young people in their 20s, I want to show them that we aren’t making any assumptions,” she says. “I’m very conscious of my own experiences.”

You can argue, of course, that an employee’s development never ends. There’s always more to be learned, especially in the realms of coding, technology and software. Bronk herself recently role-modeled the concept of continuing education by attaining her long-sought degree from Notre Dame, completing the school’s executive education program.

For her, the degree was just another step in developing her own talents to the fullest extent, and not allowing one’s previous job roles—or on-paper credentials—to serve as a limitation.

July 17 2014 8:21 AM

Marco Rubio Has Introduced an Awesome (and Bipartisan!) Student Loan Bill

Here’s the good news: A bipartisan bill has been introduced into the Senate that might just solve the single most pressing problem with student debt.

Now the bad news: One of the sponsors is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. And as Jonathan Chait once so succinctly put it, “Everything Rubio touches has turned to shit.”

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But let’s focus on the positive. I’ve made the case before that student loans would be a dramatically less hellish burden if Washington just tweaked the way borrowers repay their debts. Instead of the standard 10-year plan, everyone should automatically be enrolled in a program where they just pay a percentage of their income every month. Options like this already exist to help troubled borrowers, but they’re poorly publicized and signing up is a stupidly complicated process. And as a result, millions of Americans needlessly default on their education debt, even though help is technically just a bit of paperwork away. (To be precise: About 15 percent of borrowers default within three years of starting payments.) Making income-based repayment the baseline option would cure all that financial pain.

Today, Rubio and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner debuted a bill to do just that, called the Dynamic Repayment Act. (The name is terrible. What does "dynamic" mean here?) It looks pretty solid overall. All federal loan borrowers would be enrolled in an income-based program where they paid 10 percent of their earnings each month, with a $10,000 annual exemption. Meanwhile, the government would collect the money directly from workers’ paychecks, just like tax withholding. One potentially controversial part: It would forgive up to $57,500 worth of loans after 20 years, but anything above that amount wouldn’t be forgiven for 30 years. (The current Pay as You Earn repayment program forgives all debts after two decades.) But borrowers who don’t like the income-based option could opt out and set their own payment timetable.

Again, the virtue of this bill is that it would ensure pretty much every student would face a reasonable monthly payment while eliminating the vast majority of defaults. It’s not a plan to reduce student debt. But it would make loans far safer, which needs to be the immediate priority while we solve the much harder problem of making borrowing less necessary to begin with.  

Back to Rubio: As you may recall from the sad demise of immigration reform, Rubio doesn’t have a sterling track record of selling his own party on bipartisan policy proposals. And while I can’t think of a principled reason why the House GOP would undercut this idea (one of their own, Tom Petri, has been proposing a similar concept for decades, but he’s notoriously moderate), I wouldn’t put it past them. I can only hope that as Rubio gets closer to a presidential run, his Republican labelmates might feel less apt to sabotage his pet projects.

Or who knows—maybe Democrats won't get on board with the idea. There are a million ways for legislation to die in the Senate.

July 16 2014 5:54 PM

Today in Insanely Rich and Enormous Companies Paying to Make Things Go Away

Two big pieces of settlement news today: Bank of America offered $13 billion to settle a mortgage-securities probe from the Justice Department and Apple agreed to pay $450 million over colluding with publishers to fix e-book prices.

The $13 billion settlement proposed by Bank of America would be almost twice the $7 billion settlement Citigroup announced two days ago over a similar investigation into its handling of rotten loans. But nothing is set yet for BoA. Its meeting with the DOJ on Tuesday ended with "no progress made toward a final deal." Shares of BoA slipped 1.9 percent on Wednesday after the bank reported a 43 percent drop in its second-quarter profit on legal charges of $4 billion.

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Now, to Apple. One month ago, a letter filed with the Southern District of New York showed that Apple had reached a settlement with consumers and U.S. states in a civil class action lawsuit over fixing the prices of e-books. Newly unsealed terms show that of the $450 million Apple has agreed to pay, $400 million would go to consumers. That said, the settlement is conditional on an appeals court ruling that could significantly reduce or eliminate altogether the amount Apple owes.

July 16 2014 5:32 PM

Graphic Designers on New Airbnb Logo: “A Paperclip, Boobs, or a Flame”

Today, hotel alternative Airbnb unveiled a new logo that's so much more than a logo—it is, as Airbnb founder Brian Chesky wrote on the company's blog, "a universal symbol of belonging," called the Bélo. "Belonging has always been a fundamental driver of humankind," Chesky explained. "So to represent that feeling, we’ve created a symbol for us as a community. It’s an iconic mark for our windows, our doors, and our shared values." In other words, it's exactly what the Hobo Code would have been if Don Draper had grown up in the Mission circa 2014.

Many, many observers saw a different kind of universal symbol in the Bélo. "Airbnb's new logo is a vagina," Valleywag's Nitasha Tiku declared. "In a rare display of design virtuosity," Tiku added, "it also kind of looks like a butt." Chicago typeface design studio Okay Type tweeted, "It looks like testicles." Lots and lots of people on Twitter and in comment sections and in the offices of Slate invoked the term "boobs."

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So the Bélo is definitely some kind of shape-shifting body part. But what is it as a feat of graphic design? We decided to ask some actual graphic designers, none of whom had seen or heard about the logo beforehand. For a maximally pure response, we sent them only the Bélo without the accompanying "Airbnb" identification.

image1_1

Their responses ranged from the innocent to the carnal, sometimes at the same time.

"It looks like a cute paperclip to me. I would guess it's for an office supply company, probably focusing on startups, probably with an 'A' in its name." —Bryan Young, interactive designer

"Those are boobs. Is it for breast cancer awareness?" —Dayna Gonzalez, Web designer and animator

"It looks like a paperclip, boobs, or a flame. I'm thinking it would be for a gas company." —Tripper Allen, founder of creative company Oxford + Bond

image2

Georgia Natural Gas

"It has something to do with the female body. Is it an inverted heart? Or a pair of breasts? I'm guessing it's for a breast cancer awareness campaign, but really badly done. It also reminds me of the British Heart Foundation logo." —Adrian Kinloch, Web and print designer

image3

British Heart Foundation

"Is it a paper clip? But it's also vaguely sexual, with two lobes at the bottom—boobs? Testicles? Labia? Rotate it 180 degrees and it's a heart." If it were a logo for a brand or company, what would it be? "Hm, could be a nun's habit with hands up in prayer—some kind of charity? Or a technology startup since it's a little Möbius strip–like." —a New York City graphic designer who prefers not to be named

"I see a paper clip and a vagina. It also reminds me of a logo that Graphic Thought Facility did for Habitat." —Prem Krishnamurthy, founder of Project Projects

image4

Graphic Thought Facility

"It's a heart-shaped paper clip. Looks like a writing blog icon—a soft-shaped pen nib. So, it's for a women's blog." —Elizabeth Matthews, greeting card designer

So there you have it: According to our crack team of graphic design minds, Airbnb would most ideally relaunch itself as an office supply company by women, for women. But why pigeonhole the Bélo? In containing multitudes, in its sheer Rorschach-like Freudian capacity, the Bélo is a perfect "universal symbol," applicable to all anatomies seeking rest, respite, and a convenient way to organize their paperwork in a welcoming Airbnb shelter. Bravo and brava!

July 16 2014 4:52 PM

General Motors Recalls Keep Getting Worse, but Its Sales Keep Getting Better

Things are looking bright at General Motors. The automaker announced this afternoon that it sold 2.5 million vehicles worldwide in the second quarter of 2014, its best second quarter since 2005. Sales rose 7 percent in the U.S. and 8 percent in China. Total sales hit 4.9 million for the first half of the year. "GM did well in the world's two largest and most profitable vehicle markets and that helped us grow despite very challenging market conditions in parts of South America, Asia, and Eastern Europe," chief executive Mary Barra said in a statement.

With numbers like that, you could almost forget that the company is embroiled in one of the worst safety crises in recent memory. At last count, GM has recalled approximately 30 million cars and paid out a $35 million fine to the government as it grapples with an ignition switch defect that has been linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 crashes. Additional payouts to the victims of crashes caused by defective vehicles are expected to end up costing the company several billion dollars.

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In the latest update in the saga, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that GM was at first less than honest in explaining crashes to regulators. When the government began probing specific accidents—including ones that GM had already internally linked to ignition switch defects—the automaker found ways not to respond to questions, and there wasn't "sufficient reliable information" to assess the cause of at least one incident. Not the best track record. But the way monthly sales are looking, you'd never know.

July 16 2014 3:47 PM

A Former Comcast Employee Explains That Horrifying Customer Service Call

Comcast says it’s "embarrassed" by the recording of a customer service rep desperately refusing to cancel a subscriber’s account that had the entire Internet gawking in horror yesterday. However, the company would like to assure us all that this was simply a case of a single, misguided employee leaping over the edge.

"We are investigating this situation and will take quick action," the company told the Hollywood Reporter. "While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect."

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The line might be more believable if so many cable customers didn’t have their own frustrating stories about trying to close their accounts. According to former Comcast employee and Reddit user txmadison, there’s good reason why the company’s reps push back so hard against would-be cord-cutters and service-switchers: Their pay really does depend on it. Here’s the meat of his post:

When you call in to disconnect, you get routed to the Retention department; their job is to try to keep you. The guy on the phone is a Retention Specialist (which is just a Customer Account Executive who takes primarily calls from people disconnecting their service).
If I was reviewing this guy's calls I'd agree that this is an example of going a little too hard at it, but here's the deal (and this is not saying they're doing the right thing, this is just how it works). First of all these guys have a low hourly rate. In the states I've worked in they start at about 10.50-12$/hr. The actual money that they make comes from their metrics for the month, which depends on the department they're in. In sales this is obvious: the more sales you make the better you do.
In retention, the more products you save per customer the better you do, and the more products you disconnect the worst you do (if a customer with a triple play disconnects, you get hit as losing every one of those lines of business, not just losing one customer). These guys fight tooth and nail to keep every customer because if they don't meet their numbers they don't get paid.
Comcast uses "gates" for their incentive pay, which means that if you fall below a certain threshold (which tend to be stretch goals in the first place) then instead of getting a reduced amount, you get 0$. Let's say that if you retain 85% of your customers or more (this means 85% of the lines of businesses that customers have when they talk to you, they still have after they talk to you), you get 100% of your payout—which might be 5-10$ per line of business. At 80% you might only get 75% of your payout, and at 75% you get nothing.
The CAEs (customer service reps) watch these numbers daily, and will fight tooth and nail to stay above the "I get nothing" number. This guy went too far; you're not supposed to flat out argue with them. But Comcast literally provides an incentive for this kind of behavior. It's the same reason people's bills are always fucked up: people stuffing them with things they don't need or in some cases don't even agree to.

So in short, yesterday we were all listening to a deeply fearful employee trying to hold onto his paycheck. I've contacted txmadison, who kindly provided images of some Comcast pay stubs to confirm his employment there. I’ve also reached out to Comcast for comment, but haven’t received a response so far.

In the meantime, if you’re considering canceling your Comcast service, here’s a simple tip: Tell them you’re moving out of the country. As txmadison wrote in his post, “it's called an unavoidable disconnect and it's the least impactful to the rep's numbers and there's nothing he can do about it. If you talk about price, competitors, lack of choices, service problems, etc, a good retention rep will do everything they can to try to save you.”

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