Remarkable Amazon Customer Support

If you make something remarkable then people will tell their friends. However, it’s sometimes overlooked that this is true for both remarkably good things and remarkably bad things.

For example…

Some time ago I was experimenting with publishing this blog to other channels, and signed up for an Amazon Kindle Publishing For Blogs account. For some reason I still don’t understand I couldn’t just use my existing Amazon account, so I created a new account using the same email address. I never took it much further than that.

Shortly after that, however, I started receiving emails from Amazon Vendor Central. Initially they were few and far between, announcing such irrelevant things as new fulfilment centres in West Columbia, SC and a new feature that allows you to download a bill of lading (BOL) for submitted routing requests. Annoying, but, infrequent enough to be ignored.

Late last year, when these morphed into regular monthly product update newsletters, I decided to unsubscribe. But, curiously, there was no “unsubscribe” link in the email footer (this was actually how it came to my attention, as I had recently swapped out my previously complicated email rules with a simple one that highlighted all emails containing the word “unsubscribe”). Instead there was this (emphasis mine!):

If you have questions, please sign in to Vendor Central at https://vendorcentral.amazon.com or Advantage Central at https://advantage.amazon.com and click Contact Us at the bottom of any page.
Please do not reply directly to this e-mail.

So, I tried to sign in to Vendor Central, but instead of a simple email preferences settings page I got this error message:

There was an error with your account
It looks like the email and password combination you used is meant for a different site. You can use this email and password combination for Kindle Publishing for Blogs, or use a different email and password combination for Vendor Central.

So, following the link to the Kindle Publishing for Blogs sub-site, I tried again:

Screenshot 2014-03-23 17.01.35

Bugger! Despite wasting more time trying to get around that road block, it was ultimately pointless, as it turns out there is no email preferences options on the account. Thou shalt be opted-in, it seems.

Next step was to use the recommend “Contact Us” option. I sent what I thought was a pretty straight forward request:

I want to unsubscribe from the newsletter emails, but there is no link provided in the messages or any obvious option on this website.

I immediately got an automated response from their ticket management system.

The following are the five (!) responses I received in reply to this request over the following weeks, in full unedited glory.

+ 1 day:

Greetings,

Thank you for writing to us.

I have contacted the appropriate team regarding the same. I will be sure to update you on the progress of these investigations as soon as I have additional information.

We appreciate your patience and understanding regarding this issue

Best regards,

Gopi Krishna
Amazon.com Vendor Services

+ 3 days:

Greetings,

I am forwarding the following case details to our department concerned. Rest assured, they will look into it and get back to you at the earliest with an update.

We appreciate your patience with us.

Best regards,

Gopi Krishna
Amazon.com Vendor Services

Poor Gopi doesn’t seem to be getting much attention from the department concerned (presumably the unsubscribe department?)

But, I was in luck, because he took it upon himself to escalate to his colleague, Manoj.

+ 4 days:

Dear Vendor,

Please note, I am working with the concerned team regarding this and will send you additional correspondence as soon as we have an update. This may take 3 days approximately.

Best regards,

Manoj Kumar
Amazon.com Vendor Services

The three day estimate, it turned out, was a little optimistic.

+ 10 days:

Dear Vendor,

Please note, I am still waiting for an update from the concerned team. I will send you additional correspondence as soon as we have an update from them.

Thank you for the patience.

Best regards,

Manoj Kumar
Amazon.com Vendor Services

Sadly the next message from Manoj was not so hopeful.

+ 17 days:

Dear Vendor,

As per the update from the concerned team, there is no way to “unsubscribe” vendors from vendor newsletters. Newsletters go out to all vendor central users as defined when the newsletter is setup. Therefore, you may report news letters to ‘Spam’ folder.

Thank you for your understanding.

If you have additional questions about your case, [number], please click [link]

If you have questions about a different issue, please review our Vendor Help
https://vendorcentral.amazon.com/gp/vendor/members/contactusapp

Please click one of the following links to let us know how we’re doing. Your input helps us improve the vendor experience.

Did we successfully answer your question?

If yes, click here:
[link]
If not, click here:
[link]

Best regards,

Manoj Kumar
Amazon.com Vendor Services

I clicked no.

Pretty remarkable.

Derivatives

Financial Derivatives

In finance, a derivative is a contract whose value is based on the performance of another underlying asset.

An option, for example, is an agreement to purchase a stock at some date in the future for a pre-agreed price. The option makes a profit or loss depending on whether the actual price on that future date is above or below the pre-agreed price. Once in place that option becomes something which can be valued and in some cases even traded independently of the underlying asset – although their prospects are inextricably linked, at least in one direction, because without the underlying company there is no option.

While some people have become famously rich as a result of derivatives, many are very critical of them – e.g. Warren Buffett called them “financial weapons of mass destruction” in 2002. A few years later a form of derivatives called Collateralised Debt Obligations (or CDOs) were one of the causes of the global financial crisis.

Mathematical Derivatives

In calculus, a derivative measures how much one value changes in response to changes in some other value.

For example, as an object moves we can measure its speed (the first derivative of its movement) and its acceleration (the second derivative of its movement).

Or, when measuring the revenues of a business we can consider the amount in dollars, the percentage revenue growth (the first derivative) or the acceleration in revenue growth (the second derivative). See: Size vs Growth vs Acceleration

Again, without the underlying objects, there are no derivatives.

Startup Derivatives

I’d like to propose some new types of derivatives for start-ups: all of the other people and organisations who depend on the founder/s and their ventures.

Active investors are first derivative founders. They are the tender not the engine, although many acting in this role think of themselves in opposite terms. Passive investors, or anybody investing indirectly via a group or fund, are second derivative founders, since they are two steps removed from the underlying venture.

Incubators and accelerators are first derivative ventures, since ultimately the success of an incubator or accelerator is a function of the ventures they work with.

Government grants are first derivative capital, in the hands of the founder. Allocated funding for government grants is second derivative capital, in the hands of the development agency. When the government funds a development agency to fund an incubator to fund ventures … well, I start to lose count of how derivative that is.

Mentors and consultants and advisors are first derivative team members (ref: this great tweet – most first derivative team members mistakenly believe that others ideas are more worthy than their own).

A shared working space is a first derivative office.

How does this help?

There are a lot of people who would like to see a bigger more vibrant and more successful ecosystem of startup ventures in New Zealand.

In order to achieve this more people need to realise that what we’re missing are more impressive underlying ventures. Until we have that we can layer on as many start-up derivatives as we like and it will make little difference.

Contrary to popular opinion, the derivatives are not pre-requisites, it’s the other way around.

Of course, not everybody can be a founder – indeed that would be an undesirable mess. But, if you are currently involved in a first, second or even third derivative capacity, my advice to you is to think about how you move up the chain, because that is how you will make a bigger impact.

Enough?

2013 Annual Report

chickenhavingfun

Never has a full year report been more accurately named. I tried to squeeze a lot in.

There were lots of exhausting but invigorating adventures…

I completed three of the Great Walks, without putting on tramping boots. We paddled the Whanganui River in the rain in January, I rode both the Queen Charlotte and Heaphy Tracks during winter, and then in September I ran the Abel Tasman Coastal Track (in 4h 44m).

I was a regular visitor to the Kaiteriteri MTB park and also completed a couple of rides over the Copper Mine track. I managed one night ride, and look forward to more next winter.

In spring I took our oldest on his first overnight tramp – from Caanan to Castle Rocks Hut on the Abel Tasman Inland Track via Moa Park.

We visited friends in Boulder Colorado and while there walked to the continental divide at the Rocky Mountain National Park.

There were also some less wet and muddy trips…

I spent two weeks in Singapore, on a return visit to the Joyful Frog Digital Incubator.

In Autumn, we spent a week in a camper van trip through central Otago, including my first trip over the Lindis Pass.

We soaked up some heat in Bali in July and I enjoyed some time in the snow (both cross-county and downhill varieties) in Queenstown in August.

We were delighted to attend a couple of family weddings – Josie & Lo in Stinson Beach California and Cam & Michelle in Auckland.

I saw some live sport, including both the All Blacks (v Australia) and the All Whites (v Mexico) in Wellington.

But without question the highlight was the Americas Cup in San Francisco in September (unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the whole thing, but left feeling pretty confident about the outcome, with the score at 4-1).

There was no shortage of work either…

It was my first full year on the Powershop board. I’m learning a lot.

I spent quite a bit of time in Wellington with the team at Southgate.

Early in the year we launched Triage. The critical response to that was overwhelming and flattering and unexpected. We briefly topped the productivity category and were featured in the US app store during the first week. However, we discovered in the process that financial success doesn’t necessarily follow from that any more. It was, in the first instance, a selfish project and it’s still the first app I use every morning.

We worked with Glen on Company Box, and later in the year we launched Rabble. We continue our search for the next big thing.

It was also a huge year for Vend.

We worked hard during the first part of the year to raise additional capital to continue to fuel our growth. In the course of just a few days in May it was exciting to announce the successful completion of that $8m round, welcoming some awesome new investors into the mix as part of that, and then to be recognised at the Hi-Tech Awards dinner in Auckland where we picked up awards for both Innovative Hi-Tech Service Product and the Hi-Tech Exporter of the Year (under $5M revenues)

Startups are squiggly, and unfortunately people mostly only tend to talk about the clean and easy bits. Vend is no different. Over the last year we’ve more than doubled the size of the team and the business has grown even faster. That creates some chewy challenges for those of us lucky enough to be working on it. It’s been excellent to be part of the story so far. Stand by for what we have planned for 2014!

In June I made a new investment, in Timely, and have enjoyed working with them too as they have started to build their team and hit their straps. I have high hopes.

It was an unbelievable year for Xero, which masks a bunch of other poorer decisions when you look further down the list of companies I’ve invested in over the last few years. It already seems nostalgic to look back on old tweets celebrating the day it passed a $1B valuation, way back in March.

I enjoyed Webstock in February, where I also MC’d at the Startup Alley and got to chat on stage with Derek Sivers.

As I look around there are no shortage of opportunities. It’s definitely an exciting time to be involved in early-stage technology companies in New Zealand.

I spent way too much time in my inbox. I received 13,653 messages and sent just over 6,000. That’s about the same volume as for the last few years, but having eliminated nearly all of the noise it subjectively felt like more of these required consideration than in the past. Even if I assume just one minute per message that still accounts for over five and a half full working weeks.

tweeted, probably more than I should have. And blogged, much less than I could have.

I spent 168 days away from home (taking 95 flights, visiting 20 cities in 6 countries and travelling over 82,000km, according to TripIt). That’s nearly half again more than the 113 days away I reported just two years ago, which I already thought was too many then. Not all of that was work, but I doubt that distinction matters to a 9 year old and 6 year old.

And, even when I was at home, there was always a lot going on there too…

We finally officially warmed our new house in March, complete with jenga, fireworks and feijoas. The lasting legacy of that weekend is a new haircut (inspired by Andre Agassi) and a street sign (inspired by a flippant comment on twitter).

I kept mostly fit and healthy. It’s now four years since I first dipped under 80kg and I haven’t been back since. But this is the third year in a row that I’ve ended slightly heavier than I started, so it would be nice to break that trend in the coming year.

There was some downtime, including a disconnected week in June. But, not nearly enough.

I started the year aspiring to focus, and failed miserably. All of the things listed above combined to mean I spent big chunks of the year red lining, feeling more anxious than vital.

I did a little experiment during the year – giving myself five points every day (roughly equivalent to one point for every three hours awake) as a way to track how I was actually spending my time. It made for some slightly uncomfortable pauses when I was asked what I was up to – I knew exactly, but didn’t always want to admit it. Various work commitments soaked up just over 800 of the 1820 points for the year (~44%), which is difficult to justify in retrospect. I did manage to carve out a decent chunk of time for myself (~16%) and family and friends (~28%), although both of those were significantly lower in the first part of the year (thanks, Observer Effect!)

Perhaps in 2014 I’ll be a bit more selfish?

Previous Annual Reports:

Much Ado About Nothing

For my own record, some tweets worth keeping from 2013:

Team Size != Success

DJ: How tremendous is Fatboy Slim?
Brad: The band of the 90′s, if you want to call it a band because it’s a one man name.

It’s easy to get seduced by the idea that in order to be successful you have to be big.

Maybe that was true in the past, but it’s not necessarily true now. And it makes it much harder to tell from the outside who is winning.

One of the exciting ventures I’m involved with at the moment is Vend. The team photos from the last few years shows that the team is growing quickly:

Christmas 2011

Christmas 2011

Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

When we re-created the photo from 2011 with the much larger team in 2012, in the same location and same t-shirts, the comments on Twitter were interesting. Many of those sending their congratulations seemed to assume that big team = big success. Actually, the formula for companies in this situation in the short-term is more like big team = big payroll. The success comes later. Sometimes.

Luckily at Vend our underlying business has grown at an even faster rate than our headcount. Or, maybe it’s not luck?

It’s great to see that as the group gets bigger so does the potential to do something really impressive. Here is the 2013 team photo, taken last week, complete with colleagues who have joined us from the new offices in Melbourne, Toronto and San Francisco.

Christmas 2013

Christmas 2013

I can’t wait to see the 2014 version!

Another example.

Earlier this year Hawkes Bay based Majic Jungle Software launched an awesome iPhone/iPad game called The Blockheads. We were honoured to be part of the group helping to beta test it prior to launch, and it was great to see it develop over that time into a delightful and engaging game. It was no huge surprise to see it go on to top the iTunes downloads charts and create the third big success from this developer (1).

Again, it was interesting to see some of the reaction on Twitter:

As it turns out the “team” in this case is just Dave Frampton (2).

He’s the band of the 90′s, despite the one man name.

Maybe rather than celebrating raw number of people employed by our companies we should use the revenue per employee measure that Paul Callaghan used to talk about in his “Beyond the Farm and Theme Park” presentation:

I was fortunate to see Paul give that presentation in person a couple of times, and one of the numbers that really sticks with me is that there are only about 1.3m FTE jobs in NZ. The challenge we collectively have is to make as much from each of them as we can. Everybody from big companies through to individuals working by themselves both have a role to play.

It’s easy to complicate business, but actually the rules are very simple: in the long run you win by making stuff which is so great that people will pay you more for it than it costs you.

There are lots of different ways that you can organise yourself to achieve that outcome.


(1) Here in NZ we get very excited when our singers are top of the Billboard charts, or our movie makers are successful at the box office, but often overlook the equivalent regular successes notched up by local mobile application developers
(2) Dave was, of course, assisted by his lovely wife Emma

But, what do you do?

We’re excited to see the number of companies and people listed on Rabble growing.

We’re now up to 360 companies and 558 people in the directory.

We’ve just added Clean Tech and Life Sciences categories, in addition to Hardware and Services categories which were added a few weeks ago, so please feel free to add your listing to those.

If your company isn’t listed you can add it right now using the Add a Company button in the top right.

If your company is listed, please check to make sure that all of the people associated are also listed. It’s excellent to see some companies with their extended management team, investors and advisors all listed – e.g. Vend, Parrot Analytics and Timely. We’d love to see more!

Anybody already associated with the company can add the names and details of others who should also be listed, or you can click the “+ Add me to this company” link.

One of the things we’re very keen to encourage is a short and succinct description of each company, so that anybody browsing the directory can get a quick idea of what you do and if that is something they are interested in.

As it says on the form:

“Please no marketing bullshit! This should be a plain-English, no nonsense description of your product or service from a customer’s perspective.”

When we were putting together the initial list of companies we added the descriptions ourselves – generally starting with the description from the companies websites. It was amazing how often we would read all of the words (sometimes hundreds of words!) on the home page and still be left with the questions “But, what do you actually do?” and “Who is this for?”.

The best descriptions, in my opinion, have this form:

[Description of your product/service] for [Description of your target customer]

So simple!

And, some have done a great job of this:

Rabble-RedSeed Rabble-GoVocab

Rabble-Mindscape Rabble-AcuteCrew
(especially Acutecrew – rules are made to be broken!)

And, last but not least, my current favourite:

Rabble-CropLogic

But, many seem to struggle. It’s amazing to see otherwise intelligent people suddenly develop verbal diarrhoea when they come to try and describe their business.

We reserve the right to edit descriptions, to keep the site looking clean and usable.

The first thing we do is remove the company name, which just about everybody starts with. The cards already display the company name in a big bold font, there is no need to use up precious space in your description by repeating that. Likewise, we don’t need full legal names so you can leave off the “Limited”/”Ltd”.

Next we try and remove the nonsense words. It’s staggering how many people describe their service as “an online blah” or “cloud-based blah website” (really, as opposed to the non-cloud based websites also providing blah?) We also see lots of “world class this” or “unrivalled that” or the ever popular “beautiful and simple to use whatever” (interestingly, nobody ever describes their product as ugly or complicated).

Finally we edit anything which is written from the companies perspective rather than from the customers. We want these descriptions to appeal to people who might buy your stuff, or to those who might want to work with you or invest in you.

We all just want to know what you do, so please help us out and make it easy!

Enjoy! :-)

PS we still have a small number of orphan companies from the initial list please let us know if you can identify the correct people to be associated with any of those and we will link them up.

World Class

I love watching elite sports people competing under pressure.

This photo is taken from the London Olympics 10,000m final. The expressions on the three medalists’ faces tell the story…

MoFarrah

First: WTF, did that really happen?
Second: OMG, I’m a white dude winning a medal in a long-distance race at the Olympics!
Third: FML

The bronze medalist on this occasion was Kenenisa Bekele from Ethopia. The reason he’s looking a bit glum is that he was, and still is, the world record holder for this event, so no doubt was expecting more of himself on that evening.

(Interestingly, according to research, bronze medalists are usually happier than silver medalists – one possible explanation for this is that silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medal winner and wonder what could have been, where as bronze medalists compare themselves to the lower place getters and are happy to have a medal at all – success is all relative!)

Pace

It’s nearly impossible for the average person, watching on TV, to appreciate the speed that world class long distance runners run.

Bekele’s 10,000m world record is 27 min 17 sec, which is the equivalent of 100 consecutive 15.8 second 100m races. I doubt many people reading this could run a single 100m at that pace, if sprinting.

He ran the final kilometre of that race in 2 min 32 sec. Again, probably twice as fast as the average runner could go at full speed starting fresh, and he had already run 9km at world record pace before then!

There are only a handful of people on the planet who can sustain that sort of pace. If you watch any of the elite marathons you’ll see the leading group contains some designated pacemakers for the first 20 or 30km. They are themselves very, very good athletes, running at an eye watering pace, but they peel away eventually unable to stick with that speed over the critical final third of the race.

It’s difficult to find words to describe the gap between these guys and you and me.

The most obvious difference is genetic. Mo Farrah, the gold medalist above, is 1.75m (my height) but 58kg (somewhat less than my weight!) The world record holder, Bekele, is 54kg. That physiological difference is telling. Fewer than 40 people have ever run sub-27 mins for the 10,000m, and Chris Solinsky, at 74kg, is the only one heavier than 65kg.

But, of course, it’s much more than that. There are plenty of people born with the same genetics as those guys who never go on to athletic greatness. It takes half a lifetime of hard work to get to the start line capable of running at that pace. The media loves stories about people who come from nowhere to win, but these days those sort of performances are more than likely to attract suspicion rather than admiration. Most champions are well signposted, with a long history of improving performances from a very young age.

For example, Usain Bolt ran the 200m in 21.81sec in 2001, when he was 15, seven years before setting the world record of 19.30sec at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with small but consistent improvement every year in between.

Or, consider Tiger Woods as a 2 year old:

Then a 14 year old (already a junior world champion, and scratch handicapper):

Then a 30 year old:

According to the video title this is the best shot ever played, which is a big claim, but possibly true – it was the 16th hole, in the final round of a major tournament and in an amazing setting. Imagine being Tom DiMarco who had to putt immediately after this! As it happened, he missed his gettable birdie putt and when on to lose to Tiger in a playoff.

Confidence

Standing on the breakwater, in front of the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, on the morning of 7th September earlier this year waiting for race one of the Americas Cup to start, my heart rate was noticeably higher than it normally is. It’s hard to comprehend how the team themselves must have felt, given what they had personally invested in the whole event. Up close the fragility and bespoke-ness of the boat is much more obvious. They are designed and constructed to sail right on the limits.

Somehow those on board continue to operate and hold it all together despite those nerves. The very best actually seem to thrive on the pressure.

And, it wasn’t just physical. There was an amazing moment in the press conference after day four of racing. Team NZ were dominating the event at that stage, winning both races that day, and leading 6 to 1 overall in the first to 9 series (actually 6 to -1, as Oracle didn’t get to count their first two wins due to a penalty). Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill is asked how he was dealing with the pressure, and replies:

“I think the question is: imagine if these guys lost from here. What an upset that would be. They’ve almost got it in the bag. So, that’s my motivation. That would be one hell of a story, one hell of a comeback. And that’s the kind of thing that I’d like to be a part of. I’ve been involved in some big fight backs, with some big challenges, facing a lot of adversity. That would be the kind of thing I’d love to be involved in.”

You can see it starting around 21mins into this video:

Huge words, and with the benefit of hindsight quite prophetic. That’s a remarkable level of self-confidence bordering on cockiness. And it was a deliberate strategy. I’d love to know how much he actually believed himself deep down, that day.

Watch the video and imagine yourself in Dean Barker’s position, and wonder how you would respond to that sort of comment – not just immediately, but lying in bed trying to get to sleep that night and then looking across the water on the start-line the next day with him smiling back at you.

Bonus: Dean Barker, interviewed on Radio NZ recently about his experience in San Francisco.

Executing the Basics

If you get a chance to go to an All Blacks game be sure to get there early and watch the team warming up. Take some binoculars and just follow one player. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it mesmerising to watch them run though a very methodical set of exercises as they prepare for the game.

There are hundreds of thousands of kids who grow up dreaming of being an All Black. There are thousands who play at 1st XV level, and every year there are a couple of hundred who play professionally and are eligible for selection. The breadth of that pyramid and the competition for places and desire to be part of the team that results probably goes a long way to explaining why the level of performance is so high at the very top.

It’s tempting to imagine that those who are picked have something magical that sets them apart from mere mortals. But, actually it’s not magic.

It was fascinating last year to work with some of the All Blacks and see them describe some of their roles in their own words, and understand the thinking and preparation that goes into the performances we all get to watch and enjoy (and heavily criticise when things, occasionally, don’t fall their way):

They are talking about the same skills that any weekend warrior has – passing, tackling, kicking – but these guys are able to perform those skills consistently under extreme pressure of time and space.

Or, as eloquently put by the NZ Herald after the Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington earlier this year:

“They are the rugby equivalent of the great Dutch football team of the 1970s, seemingly full of genius ploys when really, their whole game is about supreme execution of the basics.”
http://mobile.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.php?c_id=4&objectid=11113971

It’s very easy to talk about executing the basics. But, actually, just doing that consistently and despite all that is happening around you is enough to set you apart from nearly everybody else in the world.

Are you really?

The expression “world class” gets casually thrown around, like a frisbee at the beach on a sunny afternoon. But most people who use it actually have no concept.

In sport there is an obvious and massive gap between the elite few and everybody else. It’s tempting to bridge that gap in your mind and imagine that you could be a contender, but that doesn’t often stand up to much scrutiny.

And likewise in business. And especially in start-up businesses.

It seems so possible to start a company and dream big. Anybody could do it, right? I have a great idea for an app, if only I could find a developer to build it for me. Or, I’ve built this amazing dingus and just need to find some way to sell it (or even more delusionaly, I just need to get it out there and it will sell itself).

It is worth taking the time to ask yourself at the outset if you can be world class.

Do you have the desire to put in the years of hard slog and dedicated focus, to be able to push yourself to match the performance of the very best out there (keeping in mind that every founder thinks they can do in two years what always takes at least five, often seven, sometime even longer)?

Can you look your competitors in the eye and confidently know that you are mentally stronger and able to execute better when it counts? And, even if you don’t believe that, are you able to talk it up anyway, so at least they believe you do?

Are the basics so ingrained, due to consistent and repeated execution over time, that you’re able to repeat them almost mindlessly, even when time and other constraints are working against you?

Are you world class? Really?

Of course you can be world class. Don’t let me convince you otherwise.

But, you don’t achieve that by calling yourself world class.

You achieve that by competing with, and beating, the best in the world.