How to recruit an MBA intern

During last week’s Chicago Booth “West Quest” (trip to visit potential MBA internship employers in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles), I found I had definite ideas about what the company presentations were forgetting to mention. After hearing from 14 companies, I wrote up the following questions I thought companies should be answering:

  1. What functions are you recruiting for on campus? Off campus? Do you sponsor international students?
  2. What problems do you solve? What progress have you made? How is the company organized (functions, product groups, US and international offices – top level org chart and world map)?
  3. What areas of your business are growing? What are the big issues you expect to have in the next five years?
  4. What’s the career path or what are a few examples of how mid-level executives have moved around? What do employees do in the first and second years after getting their MBAs? What’s the team composition?
  5. What do interns do (how are projects assigned, project examples)? What else is included in the internship program (networking, mentoring)? What’s the recruiting calendar?

Our group eventually asked most of these questions whenever they weren’t in the presentations. Any more basics I missed?

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How Amazon’s ebook prices are poisoning their ratings

Amazon has a dilemma. They tried and failed to keep Kindle ebook prices fixed at $9.99, while publishers insisted on having flexibility to charge more. Now complaints about ebook pricing threaten to break their user ratings, one of the features that made them an Internet superstore.

This book isn’t very good, right? Even distribution of ratings from one to five stars:

Except no, the two one-star reviews are both protest rankings because of the Kindle price:

Publishers might see bad ratings for their books and change the ebook prices. So Amazon does have an incentive to leave those ratings up and include them in its overall averages.

But the ratings now aren’t very helpful to consumers. If you’re buying the hardback, your questions are about the book’s content (and maybe format), not about the pricing of the ebook edition. Unlike seeing comments on the hardback when buying the paperback, the only purpose of the Kindle-specific protest reviews is to skew the star rating downward. I’ve seen a few reviews in the past complaining about the speed of third-party sellers’ shipping, which also cause ratings problems, but nothing as pervasive as the Kindle pricing issue.

So what could Amazon do?

  • Only allow people to review a book if they purchased it from Amazon, instead of allowing them to “review” a book they refused to purchase because of price: probably a bad idea, since many helpful reviews presumably are written by people who bought at bookstores, etc.
  • Try to filter reviews based on review content, and don’t count protest reviews in star ratings: too hard an artificial intelligence problem.
  • Filter based on “helpful”/”unhelpful” votes, and only count reviews with a certain proportion of “helpful” votes (plus new reviews that don’t have many votes yet): would be fairly easy to set up and to justify to users, though it would require some kind of explanation by the star summary.
  • Segregate Kindle reviews from paper reviews: it would be a bad idea to make them completely separate, since Kindle edition reviewers also comment on content, but probably a good idea to give separate ratings summaries. This would allow someone to say “great content, but the formatting is awful” and have their downgraded star rating only affect the Kindle summary.
  • Other options?

As Kindle and other ebook sales grow, consumers are still going to look for reviews. It’s time Amazon figured out how to keep them reliable.

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Kicking off your crowdsourced fundraising with dynamite

Ever caused sales of $14,000 $18,000 in a day [ETA as of 10/6 1am: $50,000 in two days] for a product you off-handedly mentioned you were buying?

If you’re a fan of good design and of Apple products in particular, you might well have heard of Daring Fireball. Even if you haven’t, you’ll want to find someone like DF’s proprietor, John Gruber, and get them in your corner.

Today’s example of Gruber’s outsize influence on his tribe of readers is a Kickstarter project creating an iPhone tripod mount and stand: it took about an hour (according to Eric Hastings on the project comments page) to go from $6000 needed to fully funded once Gruber posted

Count me in for this Kickstarter project: Dan “The Russians Used a Pencil” Provost and Thomas Gerhardt have designed a combination stand/tripod mount for the iPhone 4.

That was it: no “go buy it”, no “get them funded”, just bringing an interesting project to his readers’ attention. The project is now $8000 $12,000 overfunded, and I fully expect the meter to keep running upward the rest of the day and beyond.

What gave Gruber such influence?

  • His audience knows they’ll like the things he likes. He’s been blogging for a long time. He points people to multiple interesting things a day. He has a track record. He’s a perfectionist about design, so anything with his seal of approval is likely to be good.
  • People enjoy supporting the little guy. Kickstarter is all about getting funding to do the project you always wanted to do. People like funding the projects whose authors are passionate about them. Something customized for a small audience will gain raving fans within that audience. And the Internet has made it easy to run small-scale, highly targeted projects.

Where do you find a Gruber to point people to your own project?

That’s both the easy and the hard part. Easy, because if they already exist, you find them, and your project is exciting to them, they’ll happily point people your way. Hard, because the commitment needed to build a following like Gruber’s is very high – it takes a lot of time and energy – and not many people have invested so much in their audience. And hard because your project has to be pretty exciting to deserve their attention.

So think carefully as you design your project about who’s going to care about it. Who’s going to care enough to talk about you to all the people they know? If you don’t know, then your project needs to be more awesome. Aim higher.

Should you follow the (small and passionate) crowd?

I supported the Kickstarter project. It looks like a great product – and if it’s not, I spent $20 encouraging people trying to build innovative new toys. If that’s something you want to see more of, go ante up and join me.

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Goodbye to Amplify Public Affairs, and why I believe in documentation

My goodbye-to-Amplify post is up now – I’m excited to be headed back to school but sad to be leaving great colleagues and projects.

In the post I included the video from a more public goodbye, my talk at Debbie Weil’s Sweets and Tweets about linchpins, documentation, and growing into new roles:

One of the best things about my time in DC (aside from my work and seeing my family regularly) has been all the lunchtime and after-work event series from the politics/technology/social media community. Sweets and Tweets is the one with delicious cupcakes as well as interesting content.

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In Defense of Paul the Octopus, Prognosticator

In cephalopod solidarity, I protest the idea that the German octopus which predicted the results of all their World Cup matches, including their loss to Spain, should be cooked and eaten. I’m not sure why its keepers decided to ask the octopus who would win, and I understand that seers tend to come to bad ends, but it’s really unnecessary to turn it into dinner.

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The New News – Real-time and Overwhelming

What happens now when there’s breaking news? This happens:

World Cup - USA (and England) Gooooooal!

World Cup - USA (and England) Gooooooal!

I’ve gotten my news mostly in real time since 1997, thanks to MIT’s zephyr instant message system, and one of the wonderful things about Twitter is expanding that to more people and more kinds of news. Now I get overwhelming celebration (as above) as well as overwhelming mourning, and if there’s news I would care about and I’m watching the stream, I’ll almost certainly see it.

I’ve started reading newspapers and blogs even more for analysis, not just what happened but what it means, since what happened is pretty easy to fit into 140 characters but why is not. And now I think many newspaper articles are too short. I suspect this is one reason Newsweek’s makeover failed and the magazine is being sold off.

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CSS 201 presentation

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“People who make websites” survey time again

Once again, talk about your web work.

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Newsprint smudges and the nonprofit model

I was stopped on my walk home today by a gentleman who thought I looked like a person who reads newspapers. We had a friendly conversation:
Him: Do you get the Washington Post at home?
Me: No, I read it online.
Him: We have a new program where you can get a free home subscription to the Express [free tabloid sibling of the Post]….
Me: Sorry, not interested.
Him: If people don’t subscribe, there won’t be an online paper anymore.
Me: But there isn’t an online subscription.

I don’t want the physical version of the paper because I hate newsprint smudges and I like reading articles online (normal procedure: open lots of tabs, read through them in turn). And asking people to pay for online content doesn’t have a great track record (Slate subscriptions, TimesSelect, etc.), although some organizations have managed it (the Wall Street Journal, Salon Premium, the Financial Times, etc.). But there ought to be something else the Post could ask me besides “help us kill more trees to get our circulation numbers up.”

I have a lot of brand loyalty to the Post. I’ve been reading it pretty much daily since seventh grade, first my parents’ paper subscription and then online when I went to college. I’m used to the way its writers think – I know who writes the most entertaining Style stories (Monica Hesse), who consistently likes the opposite movies from me (Ann Hornaday), whose analysis I trust on the health care debate (Ezra Klein).

So why don’t I have a convenient way to support the Post that doesn’t involve acres of newsprint? I think they’re still stuck in a commercial model, and wish they’d adopt a bit of thinking from the nonprofit world – even if becoming a nonprofit isn’t the way they choose to go. I already see the benefits of their work, I’m a supporter, so let me participate in the mission. I can imagine seeing a message one day at the top of the homepage saying “Following our international stories? Support our foreign bureaus.” A couple of months after that, I’d see “Whether you love the Kennedy Center or the 9:30 Club, support our local arts coverage.” I’d give them $20 or $30 every so often, happily. That has to be better for them than the costs of delivering a free Express every weekday. It’s probably even better than my paying $1.50 a week for six months for weekdays plus Sunday home delivery of the Post.

The idea isn’t perfect. First, with advertising costs dependent on subscription numbers and online ads not nearly as lucrative as paper ones, my eyeballs aren’t as valuable as my blackened fingers. Second, it takes a good bit of effort to run an effective nonprofit fundraising program, and a for-profit fundraising program would require the same message crafting and analysis. Third, especially in a town where so many people are transient, my brand loyalty may be quite the exception.

But some of the blogs I read have Donate buttons in the sidebar, and if the blogger says “hey, I need help with my car repair / my hospital bill / getting to a conference” I’ll probably throw something into the kitty. At the moment the Post can’t figure out how to ask.

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Why you can’t test-drive a refrigerator anymore

We have car dealerships, because you want to try driving a car before you buy it. We have mattress superstores, so you can lie on the bed before sleeping on it for the next five years. But apparently we’re killing off refrigerator displays in favor of online appliance shopping.

This is odd, because it seems computers are going the other way. Dell had taken over the world with online shopping and customization, but now retail is newly popular. Apple created its own boutiques (all white and shiny), which took off. Now even Microsoft is planning stores.

And it’s not just the branded stores that are doing well; Costco puts its displays of televisions, computers, and cameras at the very front of my local store. They’re interested enough in the electronics market to have recently announced a program for recycling your old electronics – presumably in hopes that you’ll use your Costco Cash Card trade-in money on a new toy to replace the old.

So if we like buying consumer electronics in stores (whether at Apple or at Costco), why are the refrigerators going away?

Apple’s and Costco’s big advantage is their selective product lines. Apple sells only a few configurations of computers. Costco picks a few products that it thinks will be popular and on which it can get volume discounts. The Sears website tells me “1033 products found for ‘refrigerator’.” How much space is that on the floor? How much space is that in warehouses? Isn’t it easier to tell people how wide the fridge will be and make them measure their own space to make sure it’ll fit?

It’s a do-it-yourself age. Shop online, base your decision on other consumers’ reviews, and check if your vendor has free return shipping. The best tip I learned when shopping for a TV was to cut out a piece of cardboard so you could see if the screen was actually the right size in your room. Now I’m starting to wonder if there’s a market for sets of plastic images of refrigerator insides. “Look, with this one you’d be the right height to see into all the shelves.”

Maybe virtual worlds or augmented reality can step into this gap. Maybe we’ll rely on architects and interior designers, who have memberships to professional showrooms that aren’t so decimated. Maybe someone will notice that people want to know whether the corner of the freezer door is going to hit them in the head, and a new boutique refrigerator store will be born. But it’s a good thing I’m not planning to design a kitchen soon: I’d want to pull open the appliance doors myself. Unlike my next computer, no one’s interested in helping me try a refrigerator out.

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