Break Complicated Tasks Down

The second major breakthrough in productivity I learned is that if you’re stalling or not getting a task done, the reason is that its probably too complex.  If you take a couple of steps back, and break it into a a checklist of pieces, it suddenly becomes easy to make progress.  Again, the key outcome is to be always having some momentum, no matter how small.

This sometimes takes a little while to realise – you may be stuck on a task and its unclear why you’re not getting further along.  You have to wake up at that point, and brainstorm how to break it into a smaller checklist.  Once you do that, its amazing how the most complicated things to get done suddenly become trivially easy!

I had this explained to me many years ago by a friend on my AIESEC International team, Ante Glavas.  But it didn’t really sink in back then.  More recently, Alan Weiss, the expert consultant talks about this in some of his materials.  Alan Weiss is also partially where my previous posting came from, about doing more by doing less.  He turns out a lot of work, yet his goal is to finish each day by 2pm.

BF Skinner, the person who came up with the (controversial) topic of classical operant conditioning was also extremely productive.  He used to write for just 25 minutes or so at a time, and always take forced breaks where he’d reward himself.  He wrote an insane number of books.  I mention BF Skinner, because his methods of classical operant conditioning and providing rewards made him very productive and they can for you too.  Getting good rewards is critical to maintaining motivation.  Don’t shoot the dog is the classic book on this topic, and you can read my review of it here: http://www.adrianbye.com/favourite-books/#dontshootdoog

Do More by Doing Less

Yesterday I was talking with one of my developers, who has been a bit erratic in his work lately.  He’s been vanishing for days at a time, not getting things done.  After talking with him, it became clear the issue was one of motivation.. And how he sometimes completely loses motivation to work.

This has happened to me too, and I suspect it happens to everyone who works independently from home.  Here’s what I learned through experience (and what I suggested to my developer):

One of the biggest causes of demotivation is TOO MUCH work, and not getting things done.  You make a big checklist of things to do for the day, and by the time you’re 2/3 of the way through the day you’ve only done 2 items, with 12 more remaining.  You don’t feel like doing the other items because its too much work and you’re already behind anyways.

This pattern can set in place for days at a time, very easily.  For some people I suspect it can last even longer.

The trick is to do less work each day, especially if you’re really demotivated.  All you need to do is make a list of 2-3 things you can get done that day.  And do them.  And finish the day early.

Then, come back the next day and do 4 things.  Slowly increase the load.  But always make sure you’re scheduling far less things than you think you can actually do.  The important thing is to gain positive momentum, and get things moving forward day by day, and finishing the day on a very positive note, since you accomplished your goals for the day.

This is a form of positive reinforcement, which is talked about in “Don’t Shoot the Dog” (see my review here: http://www.adrianbye.com/favourite-books/#dontshootdoog)

How to Use Google without Ads

Here’s a URL to use google’s search without ads (or other stuff, such as news results):

 http://www.google.com/search?output=googleabout

I compared the search results to the normal google and they’re the same.   Pretty interesting, I haven’t seen google that way for a long time.  I bet this doesn’t last for long.

 I found out about it here: http://labnol.blogspot.com/2007/05/secret-google-search-url-that-removes.html

Why I Firmly Disagree with the System in Cuba

From visiting Cuba recently, I realized when I returned that I was so in disagreement with their system and policies that I would likely be a guerilla, fighting for a new political system, much the same as Fidel Castro did 50 years ago. Except I would be fighting for democratic freedom AGAINST Castro. It would either be that, or leaving on a small raft for Miami. I’ve written this to try to explain why I feel so strongly about the situation in Cuba.

My perspective on Cuba may be a little unique because:

  • When I visited, I was staying with normal Cuban families, spending 100% of my time with real Cubans and zero government intervention
  • I have lived in the Dominican Republic for 5 years and understand Caribbean culture
  • I am a huge fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism
  • I truly wanted to learn about the Cuban system and what makes it work.
  • I speak very fluent Spanish • I’ve traveled to over 50 countries and lived in 6.
  • I’m an Australian citizen with no family ties to latin america

Dominicans and Cubans have a similar background and people, but the two countries took sharply different political directions in the 1960’s. Today the DR is a totally free country, almost to the point of being a libertarian’s paradise. You can do anything you want here. And Cuba is a socialist police state run by Fidel Castro. Since Cuba is a police state, by publishing this piece means it will not be a good idea for me to return to Cuba until the socialist regime is gone.

Initial impressions

When I first arrived in Cuba I was pretty impressed. The streets are cleaner than the DR and people are very well educated. I also felt Cubans have a higher level of integrity than Dominicans.

Economically speaking compared to the DR, it felt like the top half and bottom quarter of income earners were removed, and all that were remaining was from 1/2 to 3/4, ie the lower third quadrant. This meant that everyone was lower middle class while not working very hard. I found this idea intriguing because in the DR there is true poverty, and if that could be eliminated completely, it seemed like it might be a reasonable tradeoff.

At this point I was rather unconvinced by Ayn Rand and really felt like I had some investigations to do.

The Cuban mindset

Cubans don’t like the US. A large part of that is due to the propaganda they are constantly shown (see further below). Their view of the USA is like an episode of the TV show COPS – very violent with lots of crime, drugs and gangs. Cubans have a much softer view of the world and value empathy over almost anything else. Even though they don’t like their current economic situation, most of them still like Fidel and would like to see him succeed. Quite a few Cubans told me they want “the best of both systems”, i.e. they want the economic power of the USA, combined with the humanist policies of Cuba. While the two systems seem fairly contrary to me, it was pointed out to me that Canada and Australia might be good examples.

The turning point

After my second day in Cuba, I had spoken to a lot of people and seen a lot of impressive things. I was starting to be really convinced that the Cuban system is better than the capitalist system in the DR which leaves so many people in poverty. Then came the turning point.

I was chatting with a taxi driver and he told me that NOBODY likes the Cuban system and anyone that says they do is lying. He said this is especially true for someone owning a casa particular, because they are working as an entrepreneur to earn tourist dollars. He said that if they were truly happy with the socialist system they would be quietly earning their $20/month working as a good socialist.

This statement really shocked me, and caused me to go back and talk to some more people. Thus you have the conversations that follow..

Conversations with Socialists

When I arrived, I was surprised to meet some people who told me they are socialists. I’ve never really sat down and talked with someone with those kinds of views before and I was expecting people to be telling me how bad the Cuban system is. But it turned out they still think their socialist system is the best.

With each one as I was talking with them, I got the feeling that they were being intellectually dishonest. They were tying themselves up in so many knots trying to defend a system that just doesn’t work. I was also impressed how each of them were incredibly nice people and truly wanted to share their views with me.

In the early days of the founding fathers in the US, Ben Franklin talked about how he wanted an educated US population so they would make good decisions for democracy. I found it surprising how such educated people as these would still support an obvious failure such as Cuban socialism.

1. The Marxist philosophy teacher One of the most interesting was a former philosophy professor. She had been teaching Marxism at the university for 37 years but was now running a casa particular (having tourists stay at her house, a common business in Cuba). When I mentioned I would like to record her talking with me, I was surprised to find out that she was uncomfortable with being recorded. I found later this was fairly typical with Cubans as they don’t want to get in trouble with the government.

She explained to me that socialism is currently not working well in Cuba because of the US global trade embargo. Not only is the US blocking all business with Cuba, but they are also blacklisting businesses in other countries that try to do business with Cuba. According to her, North Korea is actually doing really well and we are being fed misinformation by our government. And Venezuela is also another country that is doing well.

She told me that Cuba worked well until 1990. Once the USSR collapsed, things started to get quite difficult. She said that things have started to get better again recently, possibly due to the help of Venezuela.

She was firmly convinced that once the US lifts its global embargo against Cuba that socialism will work perfectly.

I asked her about the contradiction of her running a private accommodation business while having spent 37 years teaching Marxism philosophy. She told me that she is forced to do it in order to survive. She said that the government has legalized businesses such as these in order to generate more revenue for the country, that she doesn’t like to do it, and hopes to stop in 7 months time.

The Marxist philosophy professor

What struck me from this conversation was that what defines failure of the Cuban system? So if the US drops its embargo and socialism STILL doesn’t work properly, what does that mean? From my conversations with her, I felt like there would be yet another round of convoluted explanations of why Cuban socialism was still the best.

2. The two 80 year old socialists in their mansion

I was pretty amazed by the massive houses in the Vedado area of Havana. They are huge and have been totally neglected for the past 50 years. I was really interested to see how they looked inside. The taxi driver who was showing me around managed to talk his way into one of them. So we got to spend an hour with two 80 year old brother and sister that have been living together in the same house since the early 1950’s.

They and several other siblings rented the house in the 50’s for 79 pesos/month, before the Cuban revolution. The taxi driver was shocked at that amount of money; apparently it would be $2000 – $3000/month today.

From asking about Cuba before Castro’s revolution there were clearly many problems and change was needed. The elderly brother and sister told me they were both happily socialist and that things were much better now than they were before. I found this interesting since they had clearly been part of the upper class before, and were now living in a house which had not been improved since they moved in 50 years ago, including having the original refrigerator.

They told me that while they first rented the house, that once Castro took over he made a law that everyone could only own one house. So if you owned 6 houses and were renting them out, you had to pick one for yourself and the rest would be seized by the state. And, as residents of the house in 1959 paying 79 pesos/month, they became the owners. It’s unclear what happened to the original owner, but it’s assumed they moved to Miami.

3. The socialist taxi driver

Later on in the week I caught a taxi, and was surprised to learn that the driver was a proud socialist. Since I still had some questions I wanted to ask, I paid him (!) to sit down with me to talk things through. He was very proud of the system in Cuba and wanted to explain things clearly to me. By this point in the week I was getting a bit tired. I’d also had a mojito or two so I started asking some very direct and probing questions to him.

We went to an outdoor café. About 5 minutes after we arrived at had sat at our table; the police came and spent 15 minutes questioning him. It turns out they were concerned he was drinking alcohol during his taxi shift (he wasn’t). He was surprised when I told him that random police questioning wouldn’t happen in the US or Australia.

One of the things he told me was that socialism is great because there is no poverty. So I showed him this photo:

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He was shocked when he saw it, and explained that there was a deposit paid by the government on bottles and cans and most likely the guy was collecting them to make money. He was a bit embarrassed by this. I also mentioned that I had seen an aggressive car window washer (as is common in Latin America). Now, I have to admit that while in Cuba I only saw one person doing this, while in the DR you will see about 5 at every traffic light. Nonetheless, in the land of supposed eliminated poverty, these things do exist.

At the end of our conversation it was time to take me to my destination. I was surprised to find out that he wanted to keep talking! I was losing interest in spending time with socialists by this point, as I found them quite wishy washy. So I told him we could possibly schedule it another day. I got the feeling that I had made some points that may have started him to change his views of the world. I hope so.

Jorge my host, the [non] socialist

The last person that really influenced my views in Cuba was Jorge, the late 50’s psychiatrist, former director of a Havana hospital and the owner of the casa particular where I stayed. His parents were strong supporters of the revolution, and he told me that as he was growing up he was a big supporter of Fidel. He told me the story of how Fidel visited the US in the early days of the revolution and slept on the street in some political protest. Jorge as a 10 year old boy also slept outside on the street so he could be in solidarity with Fidel at the time.

Today things are a little different. Jorge told me he doesn’t like the socialist system at all, and that it has been a huge failure for Cubans. But he also told me how most Cubans still really like Fidel and want to see him succeed. I found this very surprising. He told me that he really isn’t interested in politics or anything else; he just wants to live a quiet life with his wife and children. And in order to get by he runs a Casa particular, hosting tourists. This is in addition to his job as a psychiatrist at the local hospital where he earns a top salary by Cuban standards of $30/month. This was the highest Cuban salary I heard of during my time in Havana, others made $15 – $20/month.

In my 5 days staying with Jorge and his family I paid them about $180. And they had other tourists staying with them during this time as well. Jorge told me he continues to be a psychiatrist because that is what he loves and was born to do – but that he runs the casa particular in order to pay the bills. He is effectively working his day job for free because the money he earns from it doesn’t bring any real economic benefit to the family compared to the income he makes from hosting tourism.

And this is what bothered me a lot. This guy is almost the same age as my father, also a highly trained medical professional, yet he’s running around fixing problems with my TV, emptying my trash and arranging my mealtimes. I asked him to borrow a marker pen, and he was looking through his work bag for a pen – I was disgusted to see that he had just a couple of old ballpoint pens, hardly any paper and everything was old and in bad condition. This is how Cuba treats its highly trained professionals? A 12 year old kid in the US would have 100X better writing resources for going to school.

After all his years working for the Cuban system, Jorge has almost nothing, no savings or possessions. He doesn’t need a lot since nobody pays for rent or healthcare in Cuba, but it became clear to me that once socialism is gone and capitalism comes in, that people like Jorge are going to have trouble adjusting – if you have zero savings or possessions, and you’re getting older and now have to pay for your healthcare, how will you do it?

Catching a ride on the bike-taxi

One afternoon I decided to get a ride on a bicycle taxi. These are generally used by Cubans for getting around. I thought it might be a fun way to see some different parts of Havana. But then something happened..

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The bike-taxi I caught

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After about 10 minutes he saw the police a block away

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So, I had to get off and walk until we get around the corner, otherwise he could be put in jail. Actually this kind of fear of the police happened 8-10 times during my week in Havana.

The Havana Capitol building

As part of my sightseeing, I decided to visit the Havana Capitol building. I didn’t really have any idea what it would be like and assumed it wouldn’t be anything special. I was shocked when I saw it:

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This short video gives a better feel for how impressive it looks:

Inside it is absolutely magnificent:

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This building was built in the early 20th century when Cuba was a democratic country. They built it in just 3 years. It’s a similar design to the US Capitol building and is actually a bit taller! But the terrible, terrible thing about it is that the building has been totally unmaintaned. Here’s an example of water seepage into the walls:

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I walked away really sad to see such a strong symbol of our democracy being totally wasted. And I am certain that it will be used for democracy again before too long.

The Museum of the [Cuban] Revolution:

The museum of the revolution would be better renamed as the museum of Castro propaganda. I found that I really reacted strongly to it, more than anything else I saw during my time in Havana. All the things being showcased as successes for the revolution was just total failures and they had achieved virtually nothing – yet people were still visiting the museum and being impressed by what they saw.

One that really bothered me was this sign, talking about how the Spanish colonials “tricked” the local indigenous people, implying that today’s Cuba held no responsibility for what happened in the past.

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This one was also of the same theme:

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I was really startled to see that Castro didn’t take any responsibility for settlement actions that happened before his time and just labeled it all as “before”, and therefore not his problem. I haven’t heard about any Cuban land grants to indigenous people, so this felt rather disingenuous to me.

Another quote that really struck me was this one:

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“No cause will be lost while there is one revolutionary and there is one gun” – Fidel Castro.

This would be true – except that as a guerrilla himself, Castro has made it virtually impossible for revolutionaries to stand up against him in Cuba. It’s well known that anyone that stands up to the current regime gets in a lot of trouble and eventually vanishes. He was treated far better by the government while HE was a revolutionary.

This display was just a typical piece of Cuban propaganda that you see everywhere, and is typically stupid:

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“To Ronald Reagan: Thank you cretin for helping us to STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION”

Examples of how Cuba doesn’t respect its people:

  • A popular activity in Cuba is deep sea fishing. Cubans cannot go, in case they try to leave.
  • I have to blank out faces of people or they may get into trouble by the government
  • Monthly official Gov income in Cuba is $15-$35, monthly cost of living is $200 – $400.
  • Public water turns on once per day and filling tanks in houses, providing water for the rest of the day. I found it ironic that a centralized socialist system can’t even maintain a entralized water service and requires houses to maintain their own tanks for proper service.
  • Since every business in Cuba is government run, Cuba is a bit like an 11,000,000 company run by CEO Fidel Castro. This means that to succeed in business in Cuba, you have to succeed in politics. • The only people with nice houses are those in politics.
  • The Cuban airline has a first class section in front of economy class in supposedly egalitarian Cuba
  • Cuban citizens are second class citizens in their own country. Because they depend so heavily on tourism, they take extra special measures to protect tourists. If I walk up, hit a Cuban guy and then call the police, the CUBAN guy will go to jail with no questions asked.
  • Dominicans travel freely across their island. Cubans need a permit to spend time in Havana

Things that really stood out to me while I was in Cuba:

  • There was lots of foreign technology (TV, computers, etc), but none of it was made in Cuba. If there was no innovation outside of Cuba none of this would have reached the country, effectively meaning Cubans are parasites off the world economy.
  • Why are there still so many 1950’s cars and unrepaired houses in the country if the socialist system did so well from 1959-1990?

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Cubans cannot easily access the internet. Here’s a screenshot of the tourist internet

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This is the “ministry of finance and pricing” building. The concept of a central pricing center just seems insane.

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This bathroom has no running water so the bathroom attendant in the photo pours his bottle full of water on to your hands so you can wash them clean. Yes, I’m serious.

Cuban propaganda

Walking around Havana you see lots of propaganda. It falls into two groups – supporting the revolution and against the USA. Here’s some examples:

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”Bush’s Plan: He’ll take away the morning kiss, he’ll hurry up leaving for school and he’ll put an angry look on your face. Thanks, now we live in Free Cuba”

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“We can make the most just society in the world” (taken in a shopping mall)

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“Working for the social revolution in America isn’t a utopia for crazies or fanatics. It’s working for the next stage of advancing history”

Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged was the book that inspired me to visit Cuba and to see the results of socialism in action. I found that about 90% of what she wrote about was correct. Here’s some examples:

This philosophy foundation is typical for the terminology used in Atlas Shrugged:

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“Fernando Ortiz Foundation. Science, conscience, patience”.

Surely if a philosophy is so good it doesn’t require tons of patience?

Rand writes about men with convictions and values. This is exactly what I saw in Havana, that the socialists are very wishy washy always making excuses for the failure of their system.

I found that Cubans get emotional about negotiating and money. I was impressed that Ayn Rand made the dollar sign her personal symbol and my feeling is that she wanted to focus on disconnecting money from emotion and creating true value for value deals.

One thing that really impressed me was how most of the “builders” left Cuba in 1959 after Castro gained power, with the remaining leaving in the following 2 years. This was the exact theme of Atlas Shrugged and was very powerful to see that it actually happened. The difference was that John Galt wasn’t required – people just left on their own.

The only major difference I saw from Atlas Shrugged to the reality in Cuba was the lack of confidence that was demonstrated at the end of the book. Everywhere in Cuba you are shown strong political presentations and a lot of confidence that the system works even though it clearly does not.

Anyone visiting Cuba should read Atlas Shrugged before they go.

Returning home to the DR

One of the things I noticed about passing through Cuban immigration was that as you present your passport and visa to the immigration officer, there is a closed door that you cannot pass through. Only once they have reviewed all your papers do they open the door with a buzzer allowing you to pass. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, certainly Australia and the US have open booths which psychologically feels very different.

I had a scary moment as the computers were blocked and the immigration officer had to get her supervisor.. But finally things were working, the buzzer sounded and I was allowed to pass.

I’ve always found it a bit cheesy that some people clap as the plane lands. This was the first time I really felt like I wanted to do that.. I was VERY happy to be back in the Dominican Republic, a capitalist country with true freedom.

Why the US Embargo is a good idea

Before I went to Cuba, I felt that maybe the US should lift the embargo. After I visited Cuba I became quite convinced it’s a good thing and that it should continue. Maybe I’ve become a hardened Miami Cuban without even knowing Miami Cubans personally? 🙂

The more pressure the embargo puts on Cuba, the higher the local cost of living becomes. And this forces more people towards entrepreneurship. As more people are forced into finding alternative ways to earn an income, the entire country will be gradually moved into a capitalist economy. In turn, this will cause the socialist system to become irrelevant. As the US Embargo helps this process along, I think its a good thing.

Why do people say Cuba is a great place for a holiday?

I found this article by an orthopedic surgeon that visited Cuba and actually met Castro:

http://www.sportsmedicinedr.com/volunteer/cuba.htm

This seems typical of the experience some people have with Cuba. They take a superficial vacation and come back saying “its a nice place, just rather poor”.

I am now strongly against this kind of assistance for Cuba. If their socialist system is so good they shouldn’t need any outside help. I am aware this is rather non-humanitarian, but I just found so much of the Cuban system repelling that I feel it needs to be blocked completely until it breaks down.

People taking a casual vacation to Cuba are helping the repressive socialist system to survive. IMHO you should only visit Cuba if you are seriously interested in socialism and want to understand how it works. Otherwise there are plenty of other Caribbean countries you can visit instead that would love your tourist dollars and aren’t police states that repress its citizens.

Summary

In the end I am quite convinced that socialism would be a great solution if it actually worked. I think Castro has good intentions, but this doesn’t matter since what he has done is a total failure and has ruined the lives of 2 generations of Cuban people. His famous quote of “history will absolve me” is garbage. The Cuban system totally destroys technological advances, an area I spend my life in.

While what I have written may come across as rather emotional, I really feel strongly that this isn’t an over-reaction. What is happening in Cuba is real and is ruining people’s lives right now. This is something serious.

I also gained a huge amount of respect and gratitude for those who held off Communism during the cold war, and also our veterans from WWII. People with “angst” just don’t realize how good things are today. We have generations of soldiers to thank for the liberties we enjoy today.

From spending time with people that still believe a failed system is working, please make sure you ALWAYS think for yourself about what you are being told by your government. A capitalist democracy isn’t perfect and needs a smart population that thinks for itself to run effectively.

And this is why, if I had grown up in Cuba I would either become a guerilla fighting Castro or trying to escape to Miami on a small raft.

So, as Forrest Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that.

 


 

If you want to see the photos that influenced this article, look here:

http://photos.adrianbye.com/Americas/Cuba-Touristic/4322172_C6GWG

Other articles about Cuba:

http://www.adrianbye.com/2007/05/13/how-twitter-can-help-overthrow-dictatorships

http://www.adrianbye.com/2007/05/14/things-worth-visiting-in-cuba/

http://www.adrianbye.com/2007/05/04/twittering-from-cuba/

Things Worth Visiting in Cuba

Cuba is an interesting place.  For the last 50 years it has been a socialist country.  Due to its proximity and relationship to the US, it is a very controversial place. Here are some things I found to be interesting about cuba.

Educational system

The education system in Cuba is good relative to other Latin countries.  I was very surprised when I visited at the level of education of the average Cuban.  I live in the Dominican Republic and have quite a few friends that were forced to stop studying due to financial pressures at home.  Additionally, the caliber of the Dominican university education is often not very high. 

Cuba is different – because the system is completely free, anyone who wants to can study, without financial strings attached.  And the quality of the education is good.  After 5 years of living in the Dominican Republic, I have a simple test to quickly gauge the educational level of Dominicans I meet.  When they ask me where I come from, I tell them I’m from Australia (as I am).  A less educated Dominican will immediately confuse Australia with Austria and ask me if I speak German or whether I like living in Europe.  Dominicans get this wrong about 70% of the time.  This didn’t happen once in Cuba – without fail, people knew that Australia is an English speaking country in the Asia pacific region.  They also often started asking me about Kangaroos, something I only see from the most educated Dominicans. 

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The University of Havana

As a result of a good educational system, the health system is also quite good.  On speaking with my father, an orthopedic surgeon in Australia, he suggests that Cuban doctors are quite competent, better than most third world countries.  And from spending time in the country I can see that people are very comfortable with always being able to get quality health care.

What Cubans value most

If you’re going to visit Cuba, there’s a characteristic of Cubans you should understand, and it goes to the heart of the differences of Cuba and the USA.  Cubans value empathy above almost anything else.  They view it as very important to be able to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling.  An oversimplified version of the USA vs. Cuban differences is that the USA values success, while Cuban values empathy – i.e. its Bill Gates vs. Mother Theresa.  This means that Cubans are very nice people and will really want to understand your point of view.

Integrity

Cubans are Latinos, so they obviously have the Latin “manana” style, however compared to Dominicans I found that the Cubans exhibited quite a high level of integrity.  One time when I was buying food from a street vendor, I was confused by the local currency and overpaid by about 300%.  I had no idea that I was even owed anything.  The vendor called me back TWICE to give me fistfuls of banknotes as change (guess who felt like an idiot!).    This kind of thing happened a few times.

Cuban music

The music is mind-blowing – and I love the music of the Dominican Republic, since the DR is the birthplace of Merengue and Bachata.  In Cuba, I visited Casa de la Musica (there are two, one in Havana, and one just outside Havana in Miramar) several times and found them to be absolutely fantastic.  The caliber of the live salsa you can find there is absolutely world class.  Also when I visited Bodeguita del Medio, I found the live salsa there to be fantastic as well.  So be prepared, the Cuban music is amazing and it turns up in places you might not expect.

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From Casa de la musica, Mirarmar (near Havana) When you’re out salsa dancing, you may see some Cubans dressed somewhat surprisingly. I didn’t expect to see this Cuban guy in a Havana nightclub:

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(he asked me not to show his face)

Rum

The rum is also extremely good.  Since I’ve lived in Caribbean I’ve been a huge fan of Dominican rum.  So I brought back the BEST Cuban rum, Havana Anejo, aged for 7 years, and did a taste test with my favorite Dominican rum (Brugal extra viejo).  The Cuban rum won hands down.  It made the Dominican rum taste like gasoline by comparison.  Clearly I need to adjust my taste!

Safety

Cuba is very safe for tourists.  Tourism is one of their main sources of income and so they view it as a major priority to ensure all tourists are protected.  There are police patrolling all parts of the city, virtually every block or two.  These police are not corrupt and are nice to talk to, so any time you need directions they are the best ones to ask. This photo gives an example of how the police are – this policeman is friends with the little old lady and as they were greeting each other while I was nearby.  I asked to take a photo of them together.  It was completely spontaneous and you can see they genuinely care about each other.

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One of the phrases which surprised me when I first arrived in Cuba was that I was told “you’re safe now, you’re not in the DR anymore, you’re in Cuba”.  And while that surprised me a bit, it’s actually quite correct.  Cuba *is* a much safer country than the DR. 

Airlines

If you fly to Cuba on the Cuban airline, you will notice some unusual air/steam coming out of the vents on the plane.  I have no idea what it is, but you can see how it looks in this short video: From memory, I think I’ve seen this on flights in eastern Europe as well; perhaps a reader can enlighten us?

Million dollar mansions

Another part of Cuba which I found to be fascinating is the suburb of Vedado.  This is the formerly rich suburb outside Havana, and it is filled with multimillion dollar mansions.  However these mansions haven’t been maintained for 50 years, and now they have normal people living in them – but in many cases the people are living like squatters, and hang their laundry out the front window.  It’s an extremely surprising thing to see, here’s a photo:

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1950’s cars

You should also definitely make sure to take a ride in one of the 50’s cars.  I rented this car pictured below, plus driver for US$10/hr.

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(this guy's face also has to be blanked out unfortuantely)

The Malecon

The Malecon is the wall separating the water from the city, and its well worth walking along.  What I love about the Havana malecon is that the waves actually come across the wall and spray the cars driving by… You can see this happening (somewhat) in this video:

I also went to another spot so you can see how the waves actually go across the wall (waves start after about 1min in the video):

Ernest Hemmingway

If you’re a fan of Ernest Hemmingway, there are two bars you should visit, both close together.  One is La Floridita, where you can drink a Daiquiri (and this is where they were invented).

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This is a Daiquiri from their birthplace in Cuba

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They keep a statue of Hemmingway in the bar The second bar to visit for Hemmingway fans is called El Bodeguito Del Medio. 

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The awesome live band I caught playing in Bodeguita del Medio. This is where Hemmingway used to drink his Mojito.

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(translation: my daiquiri in La Floridita, my mojito en el Bodeguito del Medio)

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Hemmingway and Castro

Accommodation

The accommodation in Cuba is a little different to other countries.  You can stay in overpriced anonymous international hotel rooms which are the same as anywhere, or you can stay in Casa Particulares.  Casa Particulares are the personal houses of normal Cuban families and are much better.  Staying in these enable you to get much closer to the real Cuba since you can spend a lot of time talking with a regular family.  Most rooms cost around $25/night and include air conditioning and TV.  

The houses are reasonably nice inside with high ceilings and doors, although they may not have been well maintained.  It can be a good idea to give the owners some gifts (bring useful things from home) and they will be very happy you are staying with them.  The families do have to take some responsibility for you when you are there, I got the impression they may have some kind of legal obligation to ensure your stay is a positive one.

Some other things to know – don’t bring US dollars to Cuba, as they charge a 20% tax on all dollars changed in the country.  It’s much better to bring Euros.  And great tourguide book is this Frommers Ebook:  http://www.diesel-ebooks.com/cgi-bin/item/0470119489/Frommer's-Cuba-eBook.html

I found the DRM of the e-book to be complicated, so I would recommend buying a physical copy if you can get one that is very current. My last, and possibly most important suggestion would be that you don’t go to Cuba lightly.  This is a police state which treats its citizens poorly in order to generate hard currency – they really want your dollars and Euros. 

Your traveling to the country is one of the main ways for the Cuban socialist system to continue to function.  If you have a strong desire to learn about how a socialist country works, then by all means go.  But if you’re just looking for a Caribbean vacation then please go to any one of the other great Caribbean countries instead, e.g. the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica or Belize. 

If you'd like to see all my tourist photos from Cuba, you can see them here: http://adrianbye.smugmug.com/gallery/4322172_C6GWG

How Twitter Can Help Overthrow Dictatorships

After risking imprisonment in Cuba last week for writing about their political system directly from Havana via Twitter, I have a few thoughts on how Twitter can be used to bring democracy to non free countries such as Cuba.

Firstly, if you’d like to see why I was in Cuba, visit here:  http://www.adrianbye.com/2007/05/04/twittering-from-cuba

You can also see my Cuban twitterings here:  http://twitter.com/adrianbye

I’ll have just a couple more posts about Cuba, then things will be back to normal, I promise.  🙂

What it was like to use Twitter from Cuba

My visit to Cuba was a holiday, but also to learn about the country and how it works.  I decided to try to get Twitter working, a service for publishing phone text messages via the web and rebroadcasting both via instant messenger and also to other cellphones.  I was a bit nervous about it, since the Cuban government is very controlling about speech made from within the country.   From the Fodors guidebook about Cuba:

“Open criticism of the government or Fidel Castro is a major taboo.  Don’t do it, especially in open public places.  Thought police, community revolutionary brigades and reprisals for vocal dissent are an ongoing legacy of Cuba’s political reality.”

And, given Cuba’s worldwide political isolation, if the decided to hold you, they would not have to be in a hurry to let you go.  If that was not enough, this trip carried some risk for my returning to the USA, since the US is not entirely favourable about people visiting Cuba.  But I felt strongly enough about this trip that I decided I had to do it.

I was fortunate to get Twitter working via cellphone text messaging.  Unfortunately inbound communication to Cuba via text messaging didn’t work, so I wasn’t able to participate in the 2-way communication that normally goes on via Twitter.  Given that internet access was also difficult, I had no feedback to see if my twittering worked properly or if anyone was reading it.

I basically used Twitter as a mechanism to capture my notes.  Prior to using Twitter I was keeping notes in my Treo.  Once I started using Twitter I found it was easier enough to store what was happening there.

Since I came back I found that I had at least 30 people following along.  Its not a huge number, but given that this just happened on the fly and I had never used Twitter before, I thought it was a pretty good start.   Afterwards, one of my friends, Wes Trochlil wrote to me:

“Just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed your twitter from Cuba. It was actually kinda fun to get information in bite-size morsels.”

It turned out that while I had relatively few twitter friends, others were reading my posts via RSS and the twitter website directly.

The messages themselves cost $1 each to send.  I sent about 5 messages/day, totaling about 40 messages.  The cellphone cost $3/day to have the prepaid GSM chip activated.  So I spent about $60 to broadcast from Havana via Twitter for a week.

While you read this online from a free country, twittering simple thoughts from Cuba to a small group may not seem like much.  But when you’re living in a police state day by day, posting on the public internet, where there is no free speech, and people routinely vanish, its another story.

One of the hardest moments was when I visited the Museum of the Cuban Revolution.  Much of the exhibitions in the museum were incredibly dishonest.  Many of the problems that the Cuban revolution was trying to solve are still as bad as before, and many are worse.  While Fidel Castro has had good intentions, the actual results on people have been devastating. 

Anyways, after I left the museum, I wanted to post some strong commentary about what I thought on Twitter.  But I had to hold back.  This was quite a shock to someone raised in Australia and having spent many years in the USA.

So how can Twitter help free a country like Cuba?

The exciting thing about twittering was that I could do it from anywhere and it was relatively anonymous.  I didn’t tell people in Cuba about what I was doing, all they saw was me using my cellphone.  None of them knew I was posting on the internet in the USA with a worldwide audience.

I was free to move around, and post in real time.  So this is clearly a great way for people to communicate that are spread around the country.  While international text messages didn’t work, I’m sure that with some more testing, that could be solved. This would enable groups of Cubans to work together, to broadcast together in groups via twitter, and also receive input from outside the country.

Clearly government monitoring will be an issue – it is difficult to get any cellphone, let alone an anonymous cellphone in Cuba at the moment.  However this should change over time, and it should not be a difficult to program an encryption system for text messaging.

Why not just blog?

Blogging is a great approach for communication, especially for communicating thoughts in more detail – Twitter only allows 140 characters per message.  However blogging isn’t as mobile, and it isn’t as flexible.  With Twitter you can be completely anonymous and posting what you want online, and share that information with small groups. 

Twittering at $1/message is not very cost effective in a country like Cuba where the typical monthly income is $20/month.  However as with all technology adoption, this will drop over time.  The other major advantage to Twitter is that much of the third world is jumping directly to cellphones, skipping landlines.  Therefore the adoption of a service like Twitter will be much faster for cellphone users, and more likely to be adopted quickly.

Based on this, I believe that Twitter could one day be the killer application which helps free the remaining non-free countries left in the world.  Lets hope it happens soon.

Twittering from Cuba

Hi everyone,

I’m currently on vacation in Cuba.  A lot of people have expressed interest in hearing about this trip – but I wasn’t expecting to have any access to the outside world while I am here. Well things have changed and now I even have my treo cellphone activated with text messaging!

Internet access is difficult, so I’m going to send updates from Cuba to Twitter via my cellphone.  For those that haven’t used Twitter before, it basically works like a chat room, but for cellphone text messaging and IM.   I’ll be in Cuba until Thursday 10th of May.
 
This is fascinating to me to use one of the most accessible communication tools in the world (Twitter) from one of the least accessible countries in the world (Cuba).

The updates will just be things I am thinking and feeling as I backpack around.  You may find my perspective unique because:

– I am a huge fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism
– I am a strong supporter of the free software foundation, and follow all forms of community software, including the open source movement.
– I have lived in the Dominican Republic for 5 years and understand Caribbean culture
– I speak very fluent Spanish
– I am staying with normal Cuban families, spending 100% of my time with real Cubans and zero government intervention
– I truly want to learn about the Cuban system and what makes it work.
 
Already I have found this trip to be very profound.

You can get my Cuba twitter updates in several ways:

1.  Sign up for an account at twitter and add me as a friend.  Twitter: adrianbye.  You will get updates to your cellphone or via IM.  This is the best way.
2.  Get updates via RSS: http://twitter.com/statuses/user_timeline/1235671.rss
3.  Read them on the twitter website here: http://twitter.com/adrianbye

The twitter postings will just be short (due to cellphone text message limitations), but when I get back I’ll post more in depth (with photos) on my blog:  http://adrianbye.com

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem I can receive text messages to my phone from the outside, so I probably will not receive updates sent to me via twitter.  Also, internet access is a hassle, so I will probably not check email until I return home.  But, if you want to reach me while I’m in Cuba, feel free to call my cuban cell: 011-53-5-295-9122.  Timezone is EST, same as New York.
 
Why am I in Cuba?

1.  I am a big fan of Ayn Rand, and I decided to come to Cuba to understand the Cuban perspective.  I noticed from reading Atlas Shrugged that the world portrayed really resembles Cuba today.  I also find it fascinating that Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 but Cuba was turned to socialism in 1959.  I have a list of questions I’m going to ask people here.  Yesterday I met a lady who is a professor of marxist philosophy, so I plan on spending some time with her.

2.  Since I have lived in the Dominican Republic for 5 years, I want to compare and contrast the two countries.  Both countries come from a similar background, but went in dramatically different directions in the 50’s and 60’s.

3.  I have a theory that free software is similar to socialism in some ways, and works on the internet because there is no physical property involved.  This is a controversial statement to make, obviously.  🙂

4.  I really like a song called “Ella y el” by Ricardo Arjona. Its about Cuba (in spanish).  I want to see what the cubans think of it.. 🙂 

So, is what I’m doing legal?
As an Australian citizen residing in the Dominican Republic, I am not subject to the US restrictions for Cuba.  Will the Cuban government be happy I’m using twitter?  I don’t know, but hopefully it will be ok.   Life’s about taking some risks, right?  🙂

Communication here is incredibly restricted.  Cubans cannot even get a cellphone let alone internet access.  I doubt many people have used twitter from Cuba before, so this is all rather new.

Its been funny hanging out with the Cubans – because I so obviously look foreign, they assume I’m another clueless foreigner.  But when I start talking with them, they think I am latino!

And, yes, I am taking lots of photos, but I can’t post them from here.  I’ll put them on my blog when I get home.

So far I have been impressed with many things about Cuba.  The streets are cleaner than the Dominican Republic, and the people are VERY well educated.  I have been shocked at the level of education of people I’ve come into contact with so far – from what I have seen so far, Cubans far surpass the educational level of Dominicans.

Obviously the country is in total disrepair.  A lady I met this morning who works in a store (government owned, of course) earns $23/month.  She has 2 years of college.  She didn’t quite know what to make of my treo cellphone.

Anyways, check out my postings on Twitter through May 10: http://twitter.com/adrianbye

Cheers,

Adrian

Are You Measuring Your Business Accurately?

John D Rockefeller knew a lot about how his business operated

Back in the late 1800’s John D Rockefeller knew a lot about how Standard Oil operated.  Rockefeller was trained as a bookkeeper, so monitoring numbers came easily to him.  One of the more famous stories from Rockefeller is about how he once asked the guys who put solder to seal barrels of oil, to try to use a couple less drops, and see if the barrels still stayed closed.   They got the quantity of drops required down from 40 to 39, making a nice cost savings while still maintaining quality.  (They found that 38 drops caused the barrels to leak, but 39 worked perfectly).  Rockefeller was able to do this because he monitored his numbers very closely.

The CPA crowd are measureres – but are you truly measuring everything you need to in your business?  The standard CPA network signs up for a license to direct track and automatically everything is tracked.  This has worked very well for many networks as they got started.  But moving forward, as the space gets even more competitive, may require even more numbers to be tracked.

So what else should you measure, and how should you measure it?

The right term is KRA”s, or “Key Result Areas”.  You should take a look at your business from a distance and think about what your key result areas are.  What are the areas of your business which truly matter?  If you run a [commodity] business like a CPA network, maybe most of your numbers are managed within your affiliate network system.  But this probably also means you don’t have any competitive advantage.  So as your business grows, you should think about what the areas are which truly reflect the running of your business.

Then once you have all these numbers collected, look for ratios.  The accounting guys are great at this, they always express critical numbers as a ratio.  An example ratio might be dollars earned/clicks.   Then, if you look at this number every day, you have a clear handle on a key number for your business.  If this ratio changes dramatically, you can easily investigate further.

Let me be clear – you don’t want to over measure.  This is not about spending 5 hours per day looking at numbers.  You should be spending 5 minutes in the morning taking a look at the previous day’s numbers.  But it must be done each and every day. If the numbers need to come from a lot of different sources you can assign the collection of the data to one of your staff.  Perhaps a lot of it can be automated by one of your techs.  But those stats need to be on your desk every morning so you can see how your business is doing.

One of my clients is a call center.  They had found their business was starting to drift, and were unclear as to why.  When I started encouraging them to cmonitor their stats daily, rather than monthly, they quickly found a couple of holes, which were easily fixed.  This has since opened up all kinds of avenues into new numbers that should be tracked, giving far more insight into the operation of their business.

As they’ve continued digging into their numbers on a daily basis, they’ve identified a couple of other key holes. Yesterday I was talking with my client and they’ve just had their best week, ever.  They are now able to bring on 15 additional people with no additional cost.  This kind of monitoring may sound simple and obvious – but are you monitoring all the key numbers for your business on a daily basis?

Another client does a pretty good job at monitoring stats.  As they were testing a viral signup process for their site, they found that they could get some dramatic improvements by monitoring their stats.  In the beginning the signup process was wildly inefficient, and a mess.  After 2 months of monitoring stats each day and improving the process based on the results, dramatic improvements have been made and it became the most efficient signup process I had ever seen – making the site capable of generating more viral traffic than most others.

So monitor your stats.. don’t go overboard, find the key measurements for your business, and monitor them every day.  Over time, the dividends will be huge.

Credits:  Inspiration for this article came from Bob Parson, the CEO of Godaddy’s blog, and Dick Costolo, the CEO of Feedburner blog.

If you’d like to know more about measurement, sign up for my list at http://tastips.com

How to Make More Money with Your List Using Behavioral Targeting

We’ve all heard for years about behavioral targeting for the web and how its going to work.. but never quite does..  Well, some of the techniques being used in this kind of targeting for web inventory can also be used for email – and they work quite a bit better.

How it works

Basically we need to look to track actions by users and manage those users differently.

In the case of email, the most common action to track is clicks.  So if we mail to a large list and receive a certain segment of the list clicking on the creative, those users have indicated a certain level of interest in that particular topic.  Some people do this with opens, but via clicks is a far more accurate indicator.

Once you have smaller targeted lists that have responded via clicks, you can focus on sending targeted offers to those segments only, or broker that data separately.

Most ESP’s don’t support tracking clicks by category unfortunately.   And if you don’t track this, you’re losing a whole level of valuable data.  Lets say you’re mailing to an email list, but you also have full postal data on your users.  If you are tracking category clicks as you mail to your list, suddenly that postal data has a whole new level of information about it, which can be rebrokered offline at far higher CPM’s.  I’ve talked to a couple of direct mail brokers and they love this kind of data, since users have clearly indicated their preferences.

Who is doing it?

Larry Organ is a real pioneer in this space, with his company ConsumerBase.  I first read about Larry in Forbes magazine (http://members.forbes.com/forbes/2006/0327/052.html).  They had a rather scary article about how he was invading everyone’s privacy.  And while this kind of data definitely has some serious privacy implications, its not going to be as bad as Forbes made out.

Basically, Larry likes to add value to data.  Therefore he takes existing data, and adds a behavioral level in on top of it, by tracking clicks.  He’s systematized this so well that he’s even filed for a patent on this – which if he gets it, I think will be very valuable one day.

He’s been doing this for quite a long time, segmenting his data by different interest categories. Try his data out and see if it works for you – and let me know if it works well.  They have 20 million names all broken down by interest categories with full email and full postal.

Another company that is starting to apply behavioral analysis to email is Q Interactive.  They recently released an email service which does behavioral email follow-up.  Over time they build profiles on what users like depending on a number of different variables.  According to their press release, they use “more than 1600 unique segments, including self-reported demographic, geographic, behavioral and transactional data and category interests”.  So over time, Q Interactive is learning what users like, build profiles for them, and therefore do a better job marketing to them.

Behavioral email marketing can open up a whole host of ethical issues, as raised by Larry Organ’s Forbes article.  But over time these will be worked out.   And so, at some point we can expect Google to get into behavioral marketing – however it’s not going to be so easy for them.  They are extremely concerned about the affect privacy issues will have on their brand.  Therefore the door is currently open for many companies to enter the behavioral space.  Long term, we can expect Google to become involved since behavioral targeting is likely to become the way Google can complete with traditional TV – the ads for video will only really become effective when behavioral data is added, improving the targeting.

TV Behavioural targeting

How would TV behavioural targeting work in practice?  Well, you might be mailing to your list, tracking clicks by category, building up profiles of your users.  You then become part of a behavioral targeting network, feeding this data into the network.  As TV shows are being broadcast online, users will be shown ads during the shows.  The targeting for the ads will be done based on your email click data.  You’ll get paid extra for your data, and the TV shows will able to earn higher ECPM’s because the audiences being targeted will be far more relevant.  Today’s version of this will be for feeding data into the banner networks.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to do this kind of targeting to your list, a great book about it is called “Drilling Down”, I’ve written a review about it here:

http://www.adrianbye.com/favourite-books/

You’re also welcome to join my list at http://tasmaniaconsulting.com, where I talk more about this topic.

So remember, track your clicks!  They’re worth a lot!

Lessons from One of the Most Competitive Markets on the Internet

One of the most competitive markets on the Internet for a low cost, general interest product is the government grants information market. It’s filled with people looking for free money from the government, and the level of marketing is limited only by the FTC. This is an offer that performs incredibly well and generates very high ECPM’s across a large amount of Internet traffic. “Free money from the government” is a strong pitch, and since most people are aware that the government does give a lot of money away in grants, basing the sale in an element of realism, its even more compelling.

I don’t like this market, since selling into it generally does much more harm than good – but it can be instructive for how other markets develop. Since the grant market has such a high ECPM the most competitive marketing methods are used to make the offers work. If your market is not using some of these techniques currently, they will be in the future, so this is your chance to implement them first and profit!

Stage 1: $19.99 ebook, 50% rev share for affiliates.

In the beginning there was little competition and the Internet had not seen an offer like this, so it performed extremely well. Publishers were happy making $10/sale, and everyone made good money.

Stage 2: $19.99 ebook, $19 monthly continuity program.

As the market became more competitive, the payouts were forced to increase to continue to drive traffic. A monthly continuity program was implemented, which was “forced” continuity, meaning the customers were signed up when they purchased the ebook. This allowed payouts of $25 – $30/sale. Obviously the level of risk in this model is much higher, since the model has now gone negative at the point of sale. The typical retention for this program was 3-4 months.

Stage 3: $2.95 trial offer?

Notice how we don’t have a low price trial to low price continuity program (eg $19/month). This is because the ECPM payout to publishers will not support it, and will force the advertiser to lose money too early.

Stage 3: $2.95 trial, $199 one time billing.

This was an extremely aggressive offer put where users were charged a cheap trial, then sent a package they were billed $199 for. This offer didn’t last long since the market was not able to afford a $199 package for grants information, causing a high level of charge backs and refunds. However while it worked, it was extremely competitive.

Stage 4: $2.95 trial (free + shipping for a CD), plus multiple continuity programs.

This is where the market is today. The user pays for a free+shipping program and then is enrolled in several ongoing continuity programs. The consumer is excited because they are receiving a CD perceived to have a very high value. Then one continuity program will start initially, and another one, or more, start several weeks later, without the consumer realizing they are being billed, sometimes using different credit card descriptors.

Lead generation

In the grants market, people generally have not been successfully reselling the leads to phonerooms. This may be partially due to legal regulations, but also because the market simply cannot afford to pay for high priced coaching programs. Most leads from a grant offer don’t command a very high resale value.

What are the lessons from this?

1. If your market is undeveloped you can gain a huge advantage over others by adopting these techniques.

2. If your market is relatively poor, a high price won’t work no matter how you do it.

3. In direct response marketing, we are always going to see extremely aggressive offers implemented. So someone in your market may try to implement aggressive multiple continuity programs. This type of advertising is unfortunate because it makes it extremely difficult for everyone else to compete since the competitor can purchase more advertising. But it may well happen, enabling your competitor to buy more media than you.

Many successful offers today receiving a lot of volume don’t follow all the points above. Making some fairly simple changes will see your ECPM’s increase dramatically. Watch and learn from the most sophisticated markets!