Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Happy 250th, Hartford Courant

The Hartford Courant celebrates 250 years of continuous publication today. As other print newspapers close, this one survives, in part by staying true to its Connecticut roots. It started as a weekly and is older than the US itself.

Fittingly, the Connecticut Historical Society is running an exhibit through November 1 that showcases The Courant’s rich history. I harbor a fondness for Hartford since my first corporate history was a 150-year chronicle of The Phoenix Companies, a copy of which book is enclosed in a time capsule buried on Hartford's Constitution Plaza. The newspaper's website has a great selection of photos. Wish they'd done more with oral histories there.
In the words of the Society, The Courant is "the newspaper in which George Washington placed an ad to lease part of his Mount Vernon land. Thomas Jefferson sued this newspaper for libel—and lost. And Mark Twain tried to buy stock in this paper but his offer was turned down." May it enjoy another 250 years of publication. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Factory Man" a riveting read

Delighted to learn that Beth Macy's "Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local--and Helped Save an American Town" has been optioned as an HBO miniseries by Tom Hanks. The book, published in July 2014, is a formidable piece of corporate history, and it'll make for a superb workplace drama. It captures the "creeping small-town carnage created by acronyms like NAFTA and WTO and an impotent TAA, all of it forged by faraway people who had never bothered to see the full result of what globalization had wrought."

A reporter for the Roanoke Times, Macy chronicles John Bassett III in his battle to save his family's furniture manufacturing company, Vaughan-Bassett, from being swallowed up by cheap Chinese imports and the havoc they have wrought on American retailing. The man is a natural communicator--plainspoken, sharp, hardly a saint, spot-on whether you agree with him or not. Macy wisely gets him talking and then gets out of his way.

I confess that "Factory Man" didn't gain momentum for me until Chapter 10. The first 130 pages are packed with Bassett family history, almost so lurid as to be mistaken for a Faulkner novel. The internecine wars of various cousins aren't half as fascinating as the flat-out energy that JBIII expends--and the counter-energy of some in the industry who willingly give into globalization. I wish Macy had drawn more parallels to U.S. industries that lost out to cheap imports earlier, such as clothing and shoe making, but that might have doubled the book's length.

Macy is firmly on the side of the workers who are being displaced left and right. She sticks it to The New York Times's Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, noting that an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent is fine for Bethesda, MD, "where he lives in an 11,400-square-foot mansion with his heiress wife [.... But the 5.2 figure] comes nowhere close to capturing the truth of Martinsville and Henry County's double-digit unemployment and the problems that result, from the increasing need for food stamps and free school lunches and Medicaid to the rising rates of teen pregnancy and domestic violence." This is superb social history as well as business history (the two are intertwined far more often that we admit).

Here's one of my favorite passages, along with some representative quotes:
"...Rob [Bassett] reported back on the lack of safety measures in the Dongguan finishing rooms--no fans, no masks, nothing. Rob actually had a fondness for the smell of finishing material, but these fumes were so strong he had trouble catching his breath. 'How do they stand it?" he had asked the plant manager, choking as he spoke.
   "Spray two years and die," the manager said.
   At which point there would be twenty more lined up to take the fallen worker's place.

"More than a few Chinese friends have quoted to me the proverb 'fu bu guo san dai' (wealth doesn't make it past three generations) as they wonder how we became so ill-disciplined, distracted and dissolute." -- James McGregor, former Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China

"One of our biggest problems is turning the attitude around in this country, making people believe in us again. Does that mean we will never close a plant? If we're inefficient, we will close a plant. But I want to be able to say to everybody in my organization . . . to look them straight in the eye and tell them that I did everything in my power to save their job. I want a free and fair playing field, and I'm willing to fight for it. I am not gonna turn tail and run." -- John Bassett III

Monday, October 20, 2014

Quest Diagnostics: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

Quest Diagnostics is the world’s leading provider of diagnostic testing services. The company works with about half the physicians and hospitals in the U.S., and has operations in the U.K., Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and India. Headquartered in Madison, N.J., Quest has some 43,000 employees and over $7.5  billion in annual revenue.  It is on the Fortune 500 and the S&P 500, and since 2008 has been on Fortune’s “World’s Most Admired Companies” list. The main About Us page is Our Company.


Products/Services: A
The main About Us page has an attractive photo and four subheads, each with an illustration and a link to further information: Our Products and Services, Facts and Figures, Innovation Center, and Locations around the World. Each of these sub-pages is also well designed; together they convey a strong business history. The Our Products and Services page, for example, has a simple list of the major areas in which Quest offers products, with summaries and links to even more specific information.  Kudos to Quest: it’s surprisingly, regrettably rare to see this sort of logical, hierarchical organization carried out well.

The other pages on the left-hand navigation menu follow through on this promise. Our Brands is a summary of Quest subsidiaries, with the logo of each company and a paragraph about its specialty. The Fact Sheet is also well done, with subheads for Company Overview (a summary of the company, which incidentally should be copied to the main About Us page as well), At a Glance (statistics on Quest’s size and global reach), Recognition (rankings and awards), Products and Services (links to drug screening, clinical trials, etc.), and Global Presence.

Once in a while the navigation gets confusing: on the Innovations page, for example, there’s no left-hand menu to return us to other About Us pages. But overall Quest’s pages are a good example of our Commandment 5 of About Us pages: “Honor thy readers and their attention spans.” The text is short, to the point, easy to read, and well organized in terms of visuals and text.

One cavil: Nowhere in this material can we easily find the founding year. Other web sources cite it as 1967, under the name Metropolitan Pathology Laboratory, Inc. A bit of information on the name change and evolution to Quest Diagnostics might make for good corporate storytelling.

Personality: B
The green-on-white color scheme suggests cleanliness, which is desirable  for a company involved in sticking people with needles. However, we can’t find any information on who runs the company, so as regards personality, we’re left with a rather ... sterile impression.

Accessibility: A
The Contact Us page lists 8 different reasons you might want to contact Quest (find a lab, get test results, leave feedback, etc.), and each has a distinct set of well-though-out options. Well done.

Pay attention to organizing your material hierarchically: visitors to your site are more likely to hang around and to leave happy if they can find the information they want.
Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Does your market know what you do?

What does your company do? Easy question, right? But we see so many About Us website pages that don't answer it. Turns out we're not alone. John Ason, a New Jersey-based venture capitalist, finds the same problem from start-ups seeking investment capital. From a September 17 interview with U.S. 1, a weekly newspaper: 

Is this a program that enables
great composers to write music?
Probably not, since it lacks an eraser.
“One of the most important things is to explicitly state what you do," Ason says. "About 40 percent of the summaries I receive do not have that. They have a list of features or benefits or what it enables customers to do.” For example, he says, he recently received a proposal from a company that was making “a program that enables great composers to write music.” For Ason, that was much too vague of a description. “It could be a consultancy, a music notation program, a music generating program, or it could be a pencil.”

You might argue that start-ups don't yet know exactly what they do. Don't argue it to Ason, however, who funds five or six proposals a year from a field of 3,000. And don't spend too much time crafting a business plan. He calls them "long and full of irrelevant information," rejecting them in favor of a one-page executive summary. Just think! If you write a good exec summary, it can double as your website's About Us page. Ason's own website looks as if it hasn't been updated since 2011--at least the blog is that old--but I imagine fund-seekers are beating a path to his door nonetheless.

Bottom line: You've got to be able to do some effective corporate storytelling even before Chapter 1, so to speak, or you won't have a corporate history later on. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Warby Parker: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

Warby Parker, a digital start-up headquartered in New York City, was formed in 2010 by four students at the Wharton School who wanted to sell affordable eyeglasses (under $100) and be socially conscious at the same time. The eyewear was initially offered online, with the option of trying five frames at home for five days free of charge. Recently the company opened stand-alone stores in New York and a handful of other cities. Some of the profits are invested in a project called “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair,” which has so far helped make a million pairs of eyeglasses available to poor people in 35 countries. The main About Us page is History.

The Warby Parker site is elegantly simple: easy to navigate and easy to skim, yet meaty enough to keep visitors reading.

Products/Services: A
The History page begins with a story: a problem and how the company’s founders solved it. Bravo! There’s no better way than great corporate storytelling to engage visitors. Then the focus shifts worldwide, to how many visually impaired people lack eyewear and what the economic consequences are. At the foot of the page – by which time visitors are hooked – they’re given the option for pages on the Buy a Pair, Give a Pair project, corporate Culture, or the design and manufacture of Warby Parker frames.

Buy a Pair, Give a Pair explains in simple but persuasive terms the company’s novel way of distributing glasses worldwide: they train locals to give eye exams and sell glasses to their communities. Warby Parker addresses head-on the fact that they don’t just give glasses away to anyone in need. “It’s a sticky fact of life that kind-hearted gestures can have unintended consequences. Donating is often a temporary solution …. It is rarely sustainable.”

How Your Frames Are Made is another well-designed page: succinct text, lots of photos, good organization.

Personality: A
The Warby Parker site has a sense of humor and a lightheartedness that make it a thoroughly enjoyable read. (Monocles: yes! Bagpipes: no!) The Culture page explains the origins of the company name and gives capsule bios of the founders, restricted to information that is directly related to the founding of Warby Parker... except maybe for the inclusion of each one’s favorite karaoke and happy place, which keeps the whimsical feel going. All in all, the Warby Parker site is a great example of our Commandment 3 of About Us pages: “Reveal thy personality.”

Accessibility: B
The Locations page shows retail stores in the United States, which can be narrowed to a list for each city (with street address and map), and then a page for each store (with hours), and a 360-degree view of the store’s interior. However, the company leadership  seems to be unreachable. Aside from contact information for brick-and-mortar stores, there’s only a Help link that gives email, phone, and LiveChat options, without mentioning any specific people.

Warby Parker’s site reminds us that even a mundane object like eyewear can be presented in a quirky, engaging, yet principled manner. Stick to the subject, but let your personality and your passion shine through. And remember that you don’t have to be old to have a stellar business history.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.