Family Finance Transparency

March 8, 2009

Transparency is a hot topic among investors, whether talking about the financial well-being of public companies, investment funds, or executive compensation.  But have you thought about how transparency factors into your personal financial life?

Most of us have suffered significant financial setbacks, ranging from investment holdings to the equity in our homes.  There’s not much you can do about those losses at this point, but you can do something to reduce the stress that you and your spouse may be feeling.  I find that very few couples do a good job communicating about their personal finances, which results in one or both parties shouldering a greater burden or feeling more in the dark than they would like.  And this puts a lot of stress on a marriage.

About fifteen years ago, I made a big mistake.  On a business trip, I heard a story on CNN that suggested that Microsoft was on the brink of some big problems.  We had a small investment in Microsoft, and in an effort to protect that investment, I made the decision to sell it – without consulting my wife.  It turns out that the stock never suffered the way that news story had suggested it might, and in the late 1990s the stock made some big gains and my rash move was exposed.  After my wife asked me how much our Microsoft investment had appreciated, I had to admit that I had sold it, costing us thousands of dollars in the process.  I didn’t look so smart, and more important, she felt betrayed.

We made an agreement that we would not make significant financial decisions without consulting each other. We created a family “finance committee” and since that time, every time I want to buy or sell something, we sit down together and I make an argument in the context of our current financial condition.  She always asks tough questions (despite the fact that she was not very sophisticated on financial matters when we started) and she generally accepts my recommendations, but the critical things is that we are partners in our shared financial life.


Many of us (generally the husbands) operate under the false impression that shielding our wives from the details of our family finances will reduce stress.  That’s not the case.  My wife and I have been well-served by sharing knowledge and responsibility for our financial life and I urge you to do the same.  Here’s what you can do:

  • Sit down and review your financial situation:  Cash in the bank, investments, equity in your home, as well as liabilities like mortgages, credit card debt, and any other liabilities you may have.
  • Review your budget together.  It is much more effective than criticizing spending or issuing edicts on regular expenditures.
  • Obtain agreement on any significant financial move before you make it.

Being partners has a couple important benefits for our marriage.  First, we make better decisions when we collaborate.  Second, we share responsibility for the outcomes – good and bad – which means that she is never in the dark about where we stand.  And this eliminates a lot of the tension that inevitably results when one party knows a lot less than the other. It will not recover the value you have lost over the last 6-12 months, but it will make your marriage stronger.

Facebook Convert Apologizes

March 3, 2009

Last June, brimming with the confidence that invariably attends the launch of an upstart social media business, I posted on a discussion I had with SocialSphere’s John Della Volpe about the momentum building behind Facebook.  John, at the time an advisor to SchoolPulse, warned that Facebook’s reach posed a real threat to nascent SchoolPulse and every other social networking platform on the planet.  My response:

I don’t buy it. Facebook may work for GenY, a demographic that has grown up in a very different technology context and is comfortable in that medium. The rest of us — anybody over age 30, really — aren’t looking for social networking. We are looking for ways to improve, simplify, enrich, organize, extend… our real lives. A generic social networking platform built to serve tens of millions can’t do that.

Well, it turns out he was right.

Over the past three months, I find myself spending an increasing amount of time on Facebook, and that investment of attention is steadily increasing.  I post photos and updates from my iPhone, I visit the site 10 or 20 times a day, I have connected with long-lost high school and college friends, and I created a group to manage my 25th high school reunion (46 FB members so far!).  I love it.  Tonight, my wife – a mid-late technology adopter and FB newbie – spent about an hour connecting with old friends, dishing with others… She had a blast.

In my June post, I asserted that generic platforms couldn’t meet the requirements of the 30+ crowd, and that’s just not true.  The network effects of a platform like Facebook (meaning that the service becomes more valuable as more people join) are real, tangible, and render moot any objections about generic look and feel.

If the most vociferous opponents are the most difficult to convert, then Facebook must be pretty good.  In fact, I’m more than a convert.  I’m an evangelist.

Go ahead, give it a try.

Is My Marriage Solid?

January 3, 2009

I just came back from having a few drinks with a close friend.  We didn’t know each other five years ago – we met when our oldest children were in kindergarten together – and have managed to build a strong friendship since then.  It always amazes me how difficult it is to form close friendships after college.  There is something magical about the intense, shared experience of college coupled with the fact that that is the time when we are finally coming into our own as people (I hesitate to use the term “adults” since I didn’t display a whole lot of adult behavior between the ages of 18 and 22).

Anyway, we were talking about our families and our relationships with our wives and we stumbled upon this startling conclusion:  Every man we know is grappling, struggling with the same fundamental question in his personal life:  Is my marriage solid?  There are two facts of life conspiring to make the lives of American men aged 30-50 more challenging right now.  Forgive me the gross over-simplification, but I think it’s necessary to make my point.

First, as we age, most of us slow down; we have a decreasing amount of energy at our command.  There may well be exceptions, but I haven’t met them.

Second, as we move from newly-weds to empty-nesters, the demands on that diminishing energy pool change dramatically.

slide21Early in marriage, our robust energy is focused on the marriage and budding careers.  As we move into our late thirties and forties, careers get more time-consuming and kids hit the stage.  Not a lot of time to focus on our wives or even ourselves.  This is the stage when most of us fall out of shape and out of love.  Love in the romantic sense; our marital relationships are more important than ever, but for many of us our passion for our kids is more evident than our passion for our wives.  As the kids mature and gain independence – and here I’m conjecturing since I am not there yet – the kids consume less energy which means we can begin to focus on our wives again.

I saw my own parents go through this evolution.  There was a time when 110% of their time was consumed by kids and work, but now that they are semi-retired grandparents, their marriage seems to have regained a richness and levity that didn’t exist when I was living at home.

Why am I bothering to write this?  Because I think this is a universal issue associated with all young families.  It is easy to give up hope, to forget why you married your wife in the first place; to figure that your marriage will go downhill as time passes.  But that’s doesn’t have to be the case.  In fact, there are things you can do today to rekindle your optimism and commitment to your marriage.

  • Don’t give up the faith.  Recognize that the doldrums you may perceive have more to do with your stage of life than your connection with your wife.  At some point you and your wife will both have more time to devote to your relationship.  I can’t say when, but I know that kids become more independent over time which restores energy to your marital relationship.
  • Re-prioritize your relationship.  If you can see a light at the end of the tunnel – a rich, bright light – it is easier to commit more attention to it.  Dare to believe that you will turn a corner at some point, and you will find yourself putting more thought into maintaining a good marriage.
  • Look for the easy wins.  Most of us overlook chances to score huge points by doing the little things.  Take out the garbage without being asked, buy some flowers on the way home from work on a Friday, surprise her with a babysitter and a night out… These things don’t take a lot of time or energy, but they help our wives see that we are committed to our relationships.  And that, in turn, will inspire them to respond.

I’m no marriage counselor, but I’ve talked to enough friends to believe what I’m telling you.  I think women discuss the state of their marital relationships with their friends all the time; men never do.  And because we don’t, we have no support system to bolster us when we tire.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we men dared to talk about the universal challenges we face as fathers and husbands?  We’d all feel a lot better.

Emasculation Rewarded

December 20, 2008

img_0390Guess what.  If you can set aside your pride, emasculation ain’t so bad.  I posted yesterday about the embarrassment suffered when my wife went public as the family snow blower, and am happy to announce my full recovery today.

img_0395As predicted, the storm started yesterday afternoon and we woke to 12 inches of snow.  Worried that my wife might call my bluff by offering to let me clear the walks and driveway, the kids and I left before she got up and walked into town for breakfast.  It was one of those idyllic, snowy mornings with clean white snow and few cars on the road.  I towed the younger kids on a long sled, and the older kids (including a couple friends who had spent the night) had a running snowball fight.  Do you recall a time when you didn’t mind taking a snowball in the face or getting an arm full dumped down your back?  My kids are there.  We rolled into our local breakfast spot, ordered up hot chocolate, coffee, waffles, pancakes, sausage, the whole shebang.  It couldn’t have been nicer.

img_0407Meanwhile, it was still snowing and my wife was sure to be rising soon.  I texted her from the comfort of the restaurant – “driveway clear yet?” – but got no response.  Where could she possibly have been?  Were the shear pins behaving?  Not my worry.  We finished our breakfast and moseyed home.  As we turned the corner into the driveway, the steps were clean, the walks clear, and Johanna was about 90% finished with the driveway.  I made no pretenses about my masculinity.  I whipped out my camera long enough to take a shot of Johanna in action (somewhat annoyed at her carelessness in letting the snow blow on my camera) and cruised inside to start a fire and get a fresh cup of coffee.

She asked for the job, right?  Far be it from me to suggest that a woman shouldn’t operate heavy machinery.


December 19, 2008

darntoughanvilAs dads, we all understand the roles we are expected to play in our families. My wife and I have a twenty first century marriage, meaning we take a more balanced approach to parenting.  We both cook, bathe the kids, discipline… Ward Cleaver would be appalled; June Cleaver would feel disenfranchised.  I should have known I would get in trouble letting my wife play lead on snow blowing. For some inexplicable reason, she loves to do it, but today it went too far.  With a big snow storm heading our way tomorrow, I took my blows today.

Apparently, Johanna ran into Charles Rutstein at Ace Hardware this afternoon. Charles is a man’s man.  He takes golfing trips with his buddies, let’s his wife manage their social calendar, and has a professional grade wood shop in his basement.  I’m not talking about a simple table saw.  He has a table saw, a chop saw, a router table, a planer, and a lathe, all tied into the same saw dust collecting vacuum system.  It’s awesome.

Johanna was shopping for shear pins – yes, shear pins, those little clips in the augur that have a penchant for failing when the snow is heaviest. So in addition to exposing Charles to the fact that she works the heavy machinery in my house, the two of them evaluated rock salt options together. Which is better… the 100 pound bag or 40 pound buckets? She opted to take home two 40 pounders after concluding the 100 pound bag would be too hard to lug around. Did she think I couldn’t handle that? What am I, a girly man?

Suffice it to say that it hurt. I’ve been completely emasculated.  Next thing you know I’ll be pushed into darning the kids socks.

I hope all of you in New England enjoy the snow tomorrow. I’ll be inside baking cookies while the rest of you are shoveling.

Make the Most of the Holidays

December 4, 2008

img_0226Tonight was the annual Fifth Grade Holiday Concert at my kids’ elementary school.  71 fifth graders took the stage and did a bang up job singing an assortment of holiday songs from a variety of cultures and faiths including Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah.

There were no solos and nobody stood out as a future American Idol winner, but I left the concert feeling really good about our school community.  As a father, I walked away with a few thoughts that may help me to help my kids as they mature:

  • Instill the courage to try something new.  The stage was full of kids who probably don’t think of themselves as performers or musicians, and many of them looked awkward and nervous, but they were all immensely satisfied at having been part of the show.  I’m guessing that given the chance to sing in a chorus again, many of them would jump at it.
  • Accept them for who they are.  The auditorium was full of parents and younger siblings who were smiling the whole time.  Why?  Because they were all proud of the fifth graders who invested the time to learn the songs and took the risk of performing in front of a crowd.  There was a palpable feeling of unconditional appreciation for the kids on stage.
  • Motivate them to enrich their community.  Elementary schools organize small-scale events all the time that adults may think are a little corny.  Pajama day, crazy hair day, school spirit day… these are the types of events that hold diminishing interest for kids as they get older.  Our kids grow up too fast.  In general, most first graders are psyched to wear their pajamas school, but by the time they are 10 or 11 far fewer students are willing to play along.  They don’t want to risk looking silly.  An enthusiastic adult (in this case, the music teacher) has the ability to inspire those reticent students to take those kinds of risks, and in so doing they build a sense of tradition and shared experience within their school communities.

img_0243These are the kinds of values that are best taught experientially and they represent classic “teachable moments.”  As you roll through the holiday season, you will have many opportunities to influence how your kids spend their time.  Seize the opportunities to let your kids experience the impact that they can make on the world through their generosity, love, and participation in holiday traditions.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Carve out some time to make (not buy) presents for friends and family.
  • Go shopping as a family to buy presents for Toys for Tots or similar organizations.
  • Gather up old hats, mittens, and clothing to be donated to Goodwill.
  • Set aside one night for the whole family to decorate your house for the holidays.

These types of activities too often fall by the wayside during the busy holiday season, but any one of them can make a lasting impression on our kids and equip them to make the world a better place.

Extend TARP to Education

November 26, 2008

The government has allocated $700 billion to shore up the economy, and most of those dollars are destined for the financial service companies that created the problem.  There is no doubt in my mind that education funding will suffer over the next couple years.

  • “With California’s budget now facing an $11-billion shortfall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed billions of dollars in spending cuts, most of them aimed at the state’s already beleaguered schools, colleges and universities.”  Source
  • “… Shortfalls in state budgets coupled with pessimistic predictions about local revenues are forcing them to look for ways to trim next year’s budgets, which they are working on now.  About half of the states are facing projected budget shortfalls, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group.”  Source
  • “Budget woes continued to affect education funding around the nation, as states struggled to ward off major shortfalls under a teetering economy.”  Source

Public education is funded with tax receipts, and as municipal budgets fall – the obvious result of lower property values and sales tax receipts – parents are likely to step in and bridge the gaps.  There is no doubt that parents will be asked to fund gaps with user fees and additional fundraising.  Beyond that, the volunteers who already give over 36 million hours per day on volunteer-related activities will be asked to do more.

We created SchoolPulse to help those volunteers – room parents, scout leaders, and club advisors – manage their daily communications with parents more efficiently.  Volunteer burnout is a well-known phenomenon and we want to do everything we can to keep current volunteers in the game and bring new volunteers to the table.  But who has the time to increase their involvement in an economy like this?

I have been trying to figure out how we can support the nation’s schools through this crisis.  Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the $700 billion in TARP funds were earmarked for education?  Today, our legislators are listening most closely to the financial  service companies that created the problem, and those companies are successfully capturing the bulk of the dollars.  Going forward, I would like to see parents have louder voice.

With that in mind, I thought of an idea that may or may not work (I’ve never been a political activist).  I created the Protect Spending on American Education petition that I hope you will sign.  Is it a long shot?  Sure, but if we can get enough support behind the idea of directing even a small portion of the TARP funds toward education, we just might be able to make it a reality.  Please click here to review the petition and signal your support.

Please spread the word by telling others about the petition.  The easiest way is to copy/paste the address of this web page into an email and forward it to other concerned parents.

Kids and the Economy

November 25, 2008

index1Discouraging economic news is everywhere; nobody knows where the US economy is headed. These are incredibly complicated issues that few adults fully understand. How can we help our kids through these times? Whatever we can do to avoid transferring our own stress onto them is worth consideration.

Here’s my first suggestion:  Shield your kids from what’s happening.

Mitchell Rosen is a family therapist who recently posted on the importance of parents protecting kids from their own economic worries.  Here’s an excerpt:

Kids aren’t stupid; they can sense the anxiety in their parents’ voices.

What I tell the mothers and fathers is this: “If you are OK, you’re kids are going to be OK. If you panic, your kids will panic. What they need to hear is not how everything is rosy but rather they will always be provided for. They may not get an iPod for Christmas, the family home may be in foreclosure but mom and dad will make certain they have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.” The family will be fine.

The children, however, don’t need to hear parents arguing when a bill comes or deciding which obligation to pay and which to put off. What they need to hear is that mom and dad are still in charge and they can continue being kids. Source

This makes good sense and is consistent with some advice a friend gave me last week.  Because we cannot control the stock market, we should limit the time we spend consuming bad news, following the daily ups and downs of the stock market, and tracking our own portfolios.  And he’s right.  Consumers who try to time stock market fluctuations usually sell low and buy high.

As parents, we have no control over these unfolding events, and our kids have even less.  I’m going to do whatever I can to shield my kids from the ups and downs.

Want to talk about this?  Visit Helping Kids in a Tough Economy on SchoolPulse.

How Cool is Spelling?

November 24, 2008

img_0094Doug Atchison introduced the spelling bee to pop culture when he released Akeelah and the Bee in 2006, a heart warming film about a girl from a predominantly black middle school in Los Angeles who defies the odds to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee (which I watch every year).  If you’ve never seen the movie, reserve a night to rent it with your kids.  You’ll be surprised at the drama that can be built around something as old school as the spelling bee.

img_0103Our town had its annual bee this Saturday.  Kids in grades 2-5 were invited to participate in teams of four, and a couple hundred signed up.  I was impressed by the enthusiasm on stage.  Most of the kids wore home made t-shirts and costumes, and they all came up with team names — Beeware, Killer Bees, Gentlemen Bees, Dictionary Divas, Lu-beez…  The most audacious name in the 4th grade competition was The Team Who Will Win.  And guess what – they won!

What impressed me even more was the the diversity of kids who participated.  One might assume that the field was limited to spelling savants who don’t get out much, but not at all!  There were spellers of every stripe at the bee.  Who knew spelling was so cool?

As the bee progressed and the words got more and more difficult, there was a buzz in the audience of, “How do they know these?” and “I’ve never even heard of that word.”  Perhaps the parents have grown dependent on spell check!  I know this one has.

Here’s a short clip to give you a flavor.  The word is ligature.

Applause for Corruption

November 21, 2008

Imagine my surprise when I read that Senator Ted Stevens received a standing ovation – yes, a standing ovation – following his farewell speech in the Senate today.  Shocking, especially when one thinks about the message it sends to our children.  Watch it yourself:

Here is a man who was convicted on seven counts of making false statements on Senate financial dislosure forms.

Prosecutors claimed that Stevens accepted $250,000 worth of gifts, primarily from now-defunct oil services company Veco Corp. and its former CEO, Bill Allen. Among the alleged gifts was the value of a home renovation project that transformed the senator’s Girdwood, Alaska, home from a quaint cabin to a sizeable house, a $2,700 massage chair and a Viking gas grill.  Source

Now I’m sure this man did a lot of great things for his state over the many years he served in the Senate.  And I’m sure he has a lot of close relationships after decades of service.  But what kind of message does the rest of the Senate send when it applauds a man convicted for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes?  And that’s just what they uncovered.  I’d be surprised if this was the only infraction of its kind.

I can’t stand government corruption – regardless of which party is involved – and I’m glad my kids aren’t quite old enough to pay attention to this kind of thing.  If they were, I would have to disabuse them of the idea that our leaders are honest and trustworthy.

Major Milestone

November 20, 2008

Today, for the first time in its young history, SchoolPulse generated revenue!

The dollars are certainly small, but why not?  We had designed in slots for banners, Google Adsense was incredibly easy to configure, and the ads relate well to the content they sit beside.  That’s the brilliant thing about contextual advertising – it is unintrusive and, when done well, adds value to the user experience.

We’ll have to print this out, frame it, and hang it on the wall the way bars and pizzerias display their first dollar of sales revenue!

Dads Rising

November 14, 2008

support-group-1We made a little history last night with the inaugural meeting of the Alcott Dads PTG Support Group.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in the history of America that men have assembled with the explicit intention of being more active in their school’s parent-teacher organization!

In September, I posted about my observation that fathers, by definition, don’t get involved in parent groups.  [Disclaimer:  I generally don’t stereotype, but when it comes to parent groups the gender differences are so pronounced that it can’t be avoided.  Okay, back to the post.]  This is a real shame since 1) we know our wives would appreciate some help, and 2) there is an emerging body of evidence that active participation by fathers is good for kids (and boys in particular).  Check out expert John Badalament who shared his research in our town last week.

My theory is that most dads would like to be more active in their kids’ schools, but they’re not sure where to start.  That’s why I am promoting our Support Group.  People inevitably chuckle when they hear about it, and that’s okay.  We are putting a fun, social wrapper around a serious purpose.  Here’s what we’re doing:

This idea was conceived in August while having dinner with our PTG co-president (a mom, needless to say), and she has been supportive since day one.

I floated the idea at soccer fields, birthday parties and social events with all the Alcott dads I know. Without exception, every dad was enthusiastic about participating.

I invited all those dads to come to a local bar for our “inaugural meeting” and the PTG publicized it, too.  Last night 14 people showed up and had a great time
We spent about 20 minutes doing some formal business:  Approving a mission statement, a group symbol (the beer hammer – gotta make it fun, right?), and appointing a committee to carry out our first assignment from the PTG (construction of new sandwich boards).

I created a group on SchoolPulse to provide a hub for our activities.

    All in all, people had a good time and we’re going to meet every month on the first Thursday night.  I’m guessing we’ll have 20+ at our next meeting and some world class sandwich boards to show off!

    Interested in getting a support group going in your school?  I’m happy to help however I can.

    LinkedIn for Moms

    November 13, 2008

    LinkedIn stands apart from all the other big social networking names.  While it is built around networking in the purest sense, its value is the tangible benefit it provides its users in their day-to-day business lives.  Social networks that go beyond “social” offer compelling value.

    SchoolPulse is doing the same thing, but for a different audience.  We offer parents – especially mothers – the ability to streamline hectic schedules and simplify communication in their day-to-day family lives.  Moms in America shoulder the responsibility for shepherding their children through a maze of educational activities (academic, social, athletic, musical…) and more often than not, they get lost in that maze.  Think about all the information flows that mothers manage:  flyers coming home in back packs, emails and phone calls from troop leaders, coaches, faith-based organizations, conversations at school drop-off and pick-up… The list goes on and on.  Technologists call this “unstructured data” and it’s a bear to manage.  We think SchoolPulse is the best way to manage it.

    We just fielded a survey of some of our members, and here’s what we learned:

    • 39% spend 30 minutes or more every day organizing their kids’ activities
    • 73% have never used a social networking site
    • 47% rely on email to manage group calendars and events
    • 86% would recommend SchoolPulse to others

    These numbers add up to a huge opportunity to simplify life for parents, with the indirect but immensely important benefit of reducing stress on American kids.

    It took LinkedIn five years to become a household name in the business community.  Over the next five years, I want SchoolPulse to become a household name among American families.

    “How Much Do I Cost?”

    November 10, 2008

    Two unrelated stories with similar origins:

    #1:  My family and I were walking through a furniture store today and I overheard a boy (probably 9 years old) asking his father, “How much do I cost each week?”  The dad chuckled, but I couldn’t hear his reply.

    #2:  I was in a board meeting last week at which the company’s management presented a budget for 2009.  As we talked it through, we realized that none of us had the foggiest notion how much growth to expect next year.  And this from a company that doubled revenues in 2008 vs. 2007.

    What’s the common thread?  It’s the economy, and our kids know something big is amiss.  We have a bunch of friends in financial services; a couple have already been let go and the rest are understandably anxious.  At a dinner party on Saturday night a woman revealed that her husband’s dream of retiring five years from now would have to be pushed back at least 5-7 years.  I know two families looking at selling their houses to move into apartments.  Think their kids know what’s going on?  I bet they do.

    The angle that’s not getting much play is the impact on kids.  I posted recently on the stress that American kids are under – and that post had nothing to do with the economy!  Kids are perceptive and even the young ones are sure to understand that something big and bad has happened in the outside world.  It will be difficult for we parents to shield our conversations and concerns from our children.  I haven’t been through this kind of a crisis before, but I have three suggestions that may help protect our children from bearing the brunt of all this uncertainty:

    1. Listen closely.  If your child is stressed about the economy, she needs your help sorting through those concerns.  Don’t let your own anxiety eclipse your children’s fears or questions.
    2. Speak carefully.  The vocabulary of this crisis – liquidity, interest rates, mortgage backed securities – is foreign to our children.  If they ask, answer their questions in words they understand that won’t inflame their fears.
    3. Be patient.  We are never as patient when we are stressed.  Make an effort to maintain an even keel around the house.  Remember:  It’s not their fault, so don’t take it out on them.

    Our kids are depending on us more than ever.  Don’t add to their stress!

    The American Dream is Back!

    November 5, 2008

    img_00082The networks just declared Barack Obama as winner of the presidential election.  This is a watershed moment for America, with power shifting from the previous generation to the next generation.  The most encouraging aspect for me is the turnout of young voters, including all the elementary, middle, and high school students who were involved in mock debates and elections.

    All three of my elementary-aged kids had the chance to vote for president yesterday.  The result in our school was directionally accurate – 376 votes for Obama vs. 89 votes for McCain – and reflects the enthusiasm our kids feel for this dynamic new president.  Whether you supported McCain or Obama, you can’t understate the impact this election will have on our kids and their perception of what this country stands for.

    img_915240% of the “millennial generation” – kids born between 1977 and 1995 – are minorities.  For years we have heard about a growing wealth gap, low performing inner city schools, and a variety of glass ceilings that have stubbornly refused to be broken.  This election will restore the idea of the American Dream.

    This morning I brought my two older kids to our polling place to give them the chance to participate in the making of history.  They couldn’t vote, but they had the chance to see our democracy in action.  I hope it is a day they will remember for the rest of their lives.

    Don’t Overdo It

    November 2, 2008

    Halloween ranks #2 in my house (a surprisingly close second to Christmas) and we have a blast every year.  Last night, I realized that Halloween is a microcosm for one of the parenting issues that challenges me most:  How to give our kids rich experiences without overdoing it.

    I rolled in just after 4:30 to a kitchen full of excited kids.  My four were dressing up as a bumble bee, Darth Vader, a scary clown, and Sarah Palin.  My wife was a witch (no reflection on her personality!) and I was a “class nerd.”  I can’t imagine why my kids picked out that politically incorrect one for me, but the photo will convince you that I am dedicated to Halloween!

    After painting faces, finding the candy buckets, and about a million photographs, we walked down the street to our neighbors (Daisy’s good friend’s) for dinner with four other families.  Oh – we didn’t all walk down the street, just the three younger kids and me since Johanna had to bring our 11-year old to her friend’s house for dinner and trick-or-treating (they live in the neighborhood that is Halloween central in our town).  There were 14 kids at the Vaughn’s (one told me that their ages total 80, so you can imagine the age range) and they were all excited.  We had less than an hour (Johanna only had 42 minutes) to feed, eat, guzzle a glass of wine, and try to squeeze in a bit of adult conversation.  I managed to fit in about 10 minutes of quality conversation with a mom whom I don’t see enough of, and we were just getting into it when we realized we had to leave if we were going to meet the other families with whom we were going to trick-or-treat (Tucker’s posse) in another neighborhood.  “Come on, Toby is waiting… Daisy, we’ll see Fallon again soon… You can do the scavenger hunt here next year… Hurry up!”  We hustled up the street, decided to take two cars since the little guys might need to get home earlier than the olders, and convoyed over to Independence Road.  As we cruised the neighborhood, assuring Tucker that no, we weren’t late and no, he wouldn’t miss any of the fun with his friends, we found the group.  “Hey Tucker – we’ve already been to like 25 houses!  Look how much candy we have.”  Ouch.  “Mom! You promised!”  He piled out to join his buddies, we left our SUVs on the side of the road, and quickly realized we should have made a better plan.  Tucker ran off ahead, Johanna and Daisy joined the back of that pack, and 4-year old Chester struggled to figure out what the hell was going on.  He and I hung together, within view but perpetually behind everybody else, and were having a good time when word filtered back that the third graders had exhausted the supply of houses on Independence and were going to relocate to another neighborhood.  Four families piled into six cars and drove two miles to Halloween central – Hubbard Street – which  was a ZOO.  I drove past Scout (Sarah Palin) on the way to the hastily agreed point of departure, so I couldn’t stop, but I arrived too late to embark with Tucker (who had traveled in another vehicle) or Daisy (who traveled in yet another).  Chester and I meandered from house to house, occasionally catching view of my other kids, clinging to my wife’s iPhone (she had taken my Blackberry and gone to find Scout) for text updates on who was where, spending no more than a minute at any particular house… It was a frenzy.  I didn’t do any trick-or-treating with my older three (they were always ahead of me or somewhere else) but they had a great time.

    Halloween a family event?  I hardly saw my kids or my wife.  Did they have fun?  Absolutely, but in my opinion we crammed too much into too little time.  Am I just getting old?  Perhaps.  Maybe this is simply the way kids start to develop independence from their parents… I guess the first neighborhood was aptly named.

    If my kids had fun, what’s the problem?  The problem is that kids rarely (ever?) say “no thanks” to an opportunity to do something fun, and yet (I believe) constant activity without downtime contributes to stress in a big way.

    I don’t know if this is making sense – it’s a complex set of issues that I’m just beginning to come to grips with myself – but let me offer an observation that is top of mind for me the day after Halloweeen:

    Don’t try to do too much.  Less truly is more, and our kids shouldn’t be overly conscious (let alone slaves) of the clock.  If we are asking our kids to measure their days in minutes, we are not doing our jobs.

    Last night, we tried to do too much.

    American Kids are Stressed

    October 30, 2008

    Yes, it’s true.  Those of you who are familiar with SchoolPulse know that we are trying to simplify life for busy families.  Our focus is on parents – including the parents who volunteer their time generously to lead extracurricular activities for their children – and we are focused on bringing some sanity to their busy schedules.

    Over the past few days, I have developed a new sense of awareness of the unintended (and underappreciated) consequences on children.  Consider these experts:

    • “According to the most recent data, the lifetime prevalence for anxiety disorders as a whole in adults is about 25%; the frequency in children is unknown, but felt to be significantly underreported and under-diagnosed… What does seem to be developing in the medical literature is the consensus that many “adult” psychiatric disorders have their first (although perhaps subtle or ignored) manifestations in childhood.”  Source
    • “The combined prevalence of… anxiety disorders is higher than that of virtually all other mental disorders of childhood and adolescence (Costello et al., 1996). The 1-year prevalence in children ages 9 to 17 is 13 percent.”  Source
    • “If your child has too little free time, help him or her change his or her schedule to make time for relaxation and play… Parents may want to examine their own schedules. Often a parent’s hectic schedule will cause a child to be stressed or nervous about the things he or she is doing.”  Source

    The evidence among families I know is decidedly less scientific, but no less alarming.  Over the past few days, my wife brought up the topic of childhood anxiety with four friends, and three of them (that’s 75%) revealed that one or more of their children had seen counselors for help with anxiety issues.  It’s no surprise, really.

    • Most public schools give kids 20 minutes or less to eat lunch.
    • Many kids participate in co- and extracurricular activities before and after school.
    • We are all too familiar with the challenge of assembling the whole family at meal times.
    • Weekends are a blur of sports, birthday parties, and play dates.
    • The quantity of homework heaped on students of all ages seems to increase every year

    In short, our kids are constantly on the go and have very little downtime.  What they need is the opportunity to unwind, to relax, to hang around the house, to experience less structure in their lives.  Family time is highly valued because it is so scarce.  It’s a sad commentary on the age in which we live.

    Until recently, I hadn’t really focused on the opportunity for SchoolPulse to improve the quality of our children’s lives, but you can be sure I will in the future.

    ** UPDATE ** The 10/31 Boston Globe carried an AP story saying that as many as 20% of American children and teens may be affected by anxiety disorders.

    Stories by Candlelight

    October 21, 2008

    My posts typically deal with the fairly weighty challenges facing American families – communication, scheduling, education, balance – with a social media spin.  Tonight, I’m taking a lighter approach with a practical idea to help you bring your chaotic family day to a close.

    Do your kids ever want to go to bed?  Mine do not.  Tonight, rather than fight the usual fight, I headed upstairs with a lighted candle to find my two pajama-clad youngsters.  Candle in hand, I silently entered the room where they were playing, turned off the light, and announced quietly, “time for stories by candlelight.”  They immediately set aside their game, we set the candle on a stool in the middle of the room, and we each took a turn telling a story (and I captured some of it on my Flip Video).  It was a very smooth transition to bedtime.

    Fallout for Families

    October 16, 2008

    Like you, I’ve been following the volatile developments in the financial markets closely for the last couple weeks.  I have to admit that I’ve been more focused on how all these changes will impact me and my family than on how they might impact family life across America.  I read a story by the Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger (author of the blog “The Juggle“) today that gave me a wake-up call.

    Sue’s story, titled “Another Casualty Emerges From the Crisis: Family Time,” is worth a quick read (found it online here).  Beyond explaining how the economic crisis will force many parents to give up on their dreams of work-family balance, she suggests that fewer parents will have the opportunity to volunteer time as they are forced to spend more time on paid employment.

    A friend suggested the other day that our children may grow up with the same outlook at the children of the Depression.  While I don’t think it’s going to be that severe, most school-aged kids are going to pick up on the fact that something big is going on and will want to understand what and why.  The thing I’ve found frustrating is attempting to explain what went wrong.  I’ve been a student of business my entire life, and yet I cannot give an explanation that is sufficiently succinct to satisfy my two older kids’ curiosity without exceeding their attention spans.  I talk, they listen, they cock their heads, I try again, and finally they give me the “okay Dad, we don’t need to know” look and walk away.

    Last week’s events will leave a lasting mark on our economy and, in most cases, our families and children.  How are you handling this conversation with your kids, and what resources have you found to give them an age-appropriate explanation?

    TBS Fails the Judgment Test

    October 7, 2008

    It’s 11:50 pm and the Red Sox just beat the Angels to win the American League Division Series.  With Tampa Bay on deck later this week, I should feel great, but I don’t.  The culprit?  The advertising executives at TBS.

    This series is being broadcast on TBS which seems to have no sensitivity to the fact that kids like to watch baseball, and their loving parents sometimes let them stay up to watch playoff games.  Not the whole game – it’s a school night after all – but we let our 11 and 9 year old kids watch the first hour.  An hour which included a number of ads with content that is totally inappropriate for young kids.  Three examples:

    • Viagra.  Have you seen the one where the husband finds his wedding tuxedo in the attic, puts it on and surprises his wife before sweeping her into his arms and carrying her upstairs?  Gee, I wonder what they have in store.  And what kid won’t pick up on the disclaimer, delivered in Dolby digital surround sound, to “ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex.”  Great.
    • Sex Drive. This is a teen comedy about a horny teenager who decides to drive across the country with his two best friends to, you guessed it, hook up with a girl he met online.  “What’s that movie about, Dad?”  “Gee, I’m not sure, but from the title I’d guess it’s about a race car driver.”

    And here’s the capper:

    • Zak and Miri Make a Porno.  This wholesome slice of Americana 2008 tells the riveting story of two friends who are short on cash and need to make some money.  Get a job?  Start a business?  Nah, too traditional.  How about we make a pornographic film together!  I’m no prude, but the suggestive trailer for this one should be rated R or worse.

    These ads were all shown between 8:00 and 9:00 tonight – that’s prime time – and left my wife and me scrambling to respond to our kids’ puzzled, curious expressions.

    What are these media executives thinking?  Do they take no responsibility for the content they broadcast into millions of homes?  Is the ad market so distressed that they have no choice but to show these ads during prime time?  You’ll probably say I’m naive or nostalgic, but what I crave more than anything is room to explain to my kids all the important, complex issues related to sex when my wife and I feel they are ready.  TBS is stealing that privilege and forcing my kids to confront topics they are not yet prepared to understand.  And Major League Baseball is complicit.  I love the Red Sox too much to boycott TBS right now, but you can be sure I will take steps to prevent my kids from watching those ads.  Thank goodness for my Comcast DVR.

    Chaotic Family Syndrome

    September 19, 2008

    There is a national epidemic afflicting American parents:  Chaotic Family Syndrome (CFS).  It starts around the time that their first child enters elementary school and intensifies steadily as their children get older.  In time, it takes complete control of their lives.  The symptoms?  Fatigue, tension, crankiness, and total loss of perspective.  My wife and I are suffering in spades.

    The disease starts innocently enough.  When we were first married — long before we caught the bug — we imagined a family of three or four kids who would hang around the house reading, organize pick up games with the neighborhood kids, and engage in thoughtful discussions around the dinner table each night.  Our fist two children were born in 1997 and 1999 and for a long time it looked like we would be able to pull it off.  But when our oldest entered elementary school, we were exposed to a variety of opportunities.  Should we enroll her in Brownies?  Soccer?  Gymnastics?  Maybe an art class?  We have always respected “well-rounded” people and wanted her to be one of them.  And all the new friends — how stimulating!  There were birthday parties, field trips, play dates… What wasn’t to like?

    Fast forward five years.  We now have four kids, three of whom are in elementary school, and we are suffering mightily from CFS.  My weekend was probably a lot like yours:  three soccer games, two birthday parties, Sunday school, lunch with their grandparents, a couple hours of swimming with friends (each of our kids invited one) at the local pool.  By the time Sunday night arrived, we were completely exhausted.  By Monday morning, I could hardly remember what we had done over the weekend.  It was a blur.

    Family life in America has become chaotic, exhausting, and extraordinarily difficult for parents to manage.  Have you ever felt like selling your house, moving to a farm, and growing your own food?  Have you ever met a parent who didn’t feel completely under water most of the time?  Who has enough time to take care of themselves or pursue their own interests?  I probably have — but not more than once or twice.

    CFS wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t eventually affect our kids, but it does.  I conceived SchoolPulse as a solution to this problem, the hope being to buy back a few hours of time each week by streamlining the process of managing all those children’s activities.  Consolidating all those schedules, permission slips, and discussions in one place will certainly help, but none of us will ever be cured of CFS unless we are willing to admit that our lives are out of control and rationalize the number of activities in which our kids are involved.  A little more downtime, a little less stress, a little more family time would be healthier for all of us… and for our kids.

    Daring Dads to Get Involved

    September 16, 2008

    The PTA is the domain of the mothers.  Based on my own experience and observations, fathers have a much easier time getting involved with their kids’ extracurricular activites — coaching is the most common, and other activities like scouting coming in a distant second.  This summer, I did some informal research, asking our friends how they get involved.  Nearly all — at least 90% — of the moms I asked (most of whom do not work full time outside the home) are active members of their schools’ PTAs or volunteer regularly in the classroom as room parents, event organizers, and field trip chaperones.  I could not find a single dad who claimed membership in his local PTA.

    Last week, I gave a presentation on SchoolPulse to an auditorium full of room parents.  Of the 50 parents present, only 1 was male.  I know the fathers care about their kids just as much as the mothers, and I know the fathers care deeply about the schools their kids attends, and yet they aren’t involved in school-based activities.  Why not?

    • Perception.  There is a broad perception that moms and PTAs go together.  Can you name a single PTA where fathers make up more than 5% of the active parents?  I’d like to hear about it.
    • Company.  The dads like to be involved in activities with other dads.  I think that’s one reason that coaching is such an easy choice for dads.  Even in girls sports, dads are heavily represented as coaches.
    • Time.  I think that a lot of PTA-related work happens during the work day, giving a lot of us dads an easy out.  “We have to earn a buck — how can we possibly get involved?”

    I’d like to find a way to get more dads involved.  Can you imagine how cool it would be if more of us played a part in our local PTAs?  I think the moms would welcome the help, both because it would relieve some of the burden (we know that recruiting volunteers is always a challenge) and it would create more opportunities to do things together, as a couple and as families  I also think the kids would welcome it, and it would provide a good opportunity to show our children that dads can be involved, too.

    Let’s break down the barriers that inhibit the involvement of dads.  It’s going to take a few daring dads in each school community to get the ball rolling — some real trailblazers — and I really think it can be done.  Here are a few ideas to help you get the ball rolling; ideas that I am going to pursue in my kids’ elementary school.

    • Recruit 3-5 other dads who would like to be involved but don’t know where to start.  I’m going to call mine a “support group” that will meet monthly, providing dads the chance to get to know other dads over a few beers.  We might even play poker or go to baseball games together.  Women have book groups — why shouldn’t men have support groups?
    • Schedule a kickoff meeting at a local watering hole.  Make it social, invite a bunch of fathers, and spend a few minutes (and only a few minutes!) at the beginning explaining the concept without being too heavy handed about it.
    • Work with the PTA moms to find ways to put this new “support group” to work.  I hope the dads will respond to the opportunity to provide the “man”ual labor before and after PTA-sponsored social events, carnivals, science nights, and holiday celebrations

    My hope is that by offering an opportunity to socialize with other dads under the banner of providing a resource for their kids, other dads like me will respond.  Who knows… we may be able to start a revolution!

    Enduring Traditions Made Easy

    September 9, 2008

    The start of the school year means the return of structure to many families.  I know it does for us, and this September I’ve been thinking about the role that traditions play in kids’ lives and just how little it takes to create the kind of memories that will stick with your kids for a lifetime!

    Yes, I said “just how little it takes to create” traditions.  It is easy to perceive tradition as something that is established over years or decades, but it doesn’t have to take that long and it doesn’t require a lot of time on your part (good thing — you don’t have enough).  I’ll give you some recent examples from my family.

    First Day of School Picture.  Every year we line the kids up on the front step and take their picture before the bus comes.  They’re usually shouldering the new backpacks my wife got them (choosing those from the LL Bean catalog is a ritual unto itself, what with the ability to select style, color, animal embroidery, names or initials…), carrying their new lunch boxes, and wearing a new outfit if we managed to get our back-to-school shopping done before the first day (didn’t happen this year).  The kids love to see those pictures and they never fail to remind us.  That’s a tradition that takes mere minutes a year – but as Kodak would say, provides a lifetime of memories.

    Birthday Overnight.  We have four kids and we tend to move in a pack, which means we don’t spend much time alone with any one child.  Best case in a typical day, we might spend 10-15 minutes at bedtime talking or reading together.  So two years ago, I invented a new tradition:  when a child turns nine (yes, my oldest turned nine in 2006 which is the reason we chose that odd year) I take him or her into Boston for the night.   We don’t schedule anything, but there is plenty to do, and mostly it’s about hanging out together, having those focused discussions that are so rare in the daily chaos, and creating some memories that will persist through the years.  This past weekend, Tucker and I went into Boston where we explored baseball card shops, got room service and a movie, and visited the Aquarium before heading home Sunday in time for his friend’s birthday party.  With two such trips under my belt, it is a lock for tradition.

    Red Sox Scoreboard on the Roof.  Well, this may not be super easy or work in every locale, but my kids are Red Sox fanatics and last year we started a “tradition” of posting a mini version of the famous Green Monster scoreboard over our front porch.  The first time around, I did most of the design work and didn’t have a lot of help erecting the 8×3 foot structure.  Once it was up, though, there everybody took turns updating the score after (and sometimes during) every game so that morning commuters get the right information.  We had our 15 minutes of fame when the story was picked up by two Boston television stations.  Commuters routinely honk, wave, and thank us through their car windows, and this year all four kids got hands on with the project as we touched up the paint, mod-podged number and team plates, and hoisted the sign to its traditional place.  We won’t be too popular if we let this tradition die (unless the Sox have a losing season, in which case fans may find it painful to see the daily standings).

      It is easy for me to recall any number of traditions from my own childhood, yet when I analyze them closely, I often find that they were things that only happened a couple of times.  And that’s not a jab at my parents, but a nod at their knackfor creating experiences that have stuck with me for decades.  Most of the traditions I recall involve my parents and siblings, and I find myself sharing those stories with my own kids.  I appreciate those memories — they’re a big part of who I am today — and nothing would make me happier than for my own kids to have a lot of happy memories of their fleeting years with us.

      PTA to the Vice Presidency

      August 31, 2008

      Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you certainly heard about John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.  Can you guess which part of this self- proclaimed hockey mom’s resume caught my eye?  Her PTA connection, of course!  The LA Times headline proclaimed, “Palin has risen quickly from PTA to VP pick,” while Maureen Dowd satirized today in a NY Times op-ed piece that “The P.T.A. is great preparation for dealing with the K.G.B.”

      Whether you like her as a candidate or not, it’s pretty cool that her background as a PTA leader is geting so much press.  This is going to be a great conversation starter in PTA back to school planning meetings everywhere!  I can her it now:  “Did you take the PTA president job as a stepping stone to political greatness?”  “Do you plan to finish your term?”  “What’s your position on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?”

      Have fun with it – and give your PTA president the respect she deserves.  You never know… she may ride that wave to the White House!

      PTG as Minivan

      August 24, 2008

      I got into a conversation last night with my wife and some friends about the image of the PTG (the name of the parent teacher organization in our school).   It struck me that the image of the PTG has a lot of similarities with the image of the minivan.  How so?  Let’s start with the minivan.

      The minivan is perhaps the best designed vehicle ever (for its particular market — young families).  These families need a car that’s big enough to hold a bunch of kid gear (stroller, diaper bag, tricycles…), accommodate multiple car seats, safe and easy boarding (sliding doors are easier on the fingers than hinged doors), and provide easy access to the kids from the front seat.  The center aisle suits magnificently.

      Have you ever owned a minivan?  If so, I am willing to bet that you felt slightly embarrassed to tell your friends when you first got it.  You felt like you were compromising.  Almost like you were selling out (“Oh God, I’ve entered the minivan phase”).  You simply couldn’t say no without appearing shallow and frivolous.  You’re much too practical to let fashion drive such an important purchase decision, but the usefulness overwhelmed your sense of cool.  That feeling is the impact of marketing gone bad.  Who aspires to be a “soccer mom?”  To be a “me too” suburban mother?  The car makers have a great product but have missed the mark in their marketing.

      It’s the same situation with the PTG.  The PTG is core to our school community, planning, running, and paying for all sorts of great events and activities.  It coordinates the room parent program which does a lot of great stuff in the classrooms throughout the year.  An elementary school without a PTG would be a hollow place indeed.  So why is it so hard to get volunteers?  I’ve never noticed a surplus of candidates for any PTG office.  PTG leaders start the successor search immediately after assuming office — reflecting just how long that process takes.  And fathers… why are so few involved?  We had a guy serve as PTG Treasurer a few years ago and it was not at all uncommon to hear other parents snickering.  “What’s wrong with him?”  What competent man would volunteer to get involved in the PTG?  Totally uncalled for.

      Have I made it clear why I think the PTG is like a minivan?  I am not quite ready to buy a minivan, but it is probably time that I got formally involved with my PTG.  How?  The first step (agreed with the other dad at dinner last night) is to pull together a pool of dads to help out with PTG events.  We want to give it a catchy name, something unexpected like “PTG Dads.”  Think others will respond to the call?  Stay tuned for updates.

      We Launched!

      August 18, 2008

      Today we fired up a brand-spanking new website after months of long days and late nights.  I have been involved in several startups and am always amazed by how quickly business strategies evolve as the team deepens its understanding of what it’s going to take to solve an unmet need.  SchoolPulse is light years ahead of where we were in April (a mere five months ago!) when we launched our beta site.  If you are a parent with young kids, you should definitely check out the new site.

      So what did this pre-funding, boot strapping internet company do to celebrate the launch?  We ambled into the closest bar and had a few drinks before heading back to the office to man the support lines!

      P.S.  Can you figure out who is missing?

      Our Summer Games

      August 15, 2008

      We came home early from our vacation in Maine because we were all waterlogged and had exhausted our inventory of rainy day games.  If your vacation is still ahead of you, and if the Summer Games in Beijing aren’t enough, here are a few ideas for how to entertain your kids when the weather isn’t cooperating.

      Cool Whip Treasure Hunt.  Buy a few drums of Cool Whip — one for every participant — and mix in some healthy bounty like strawberries or apple slices (5-10 slices is a good number).  The kids race to see who can find all the pieces first — without using their hands!  It’s messy and sugary but the kids had an absolute blast.

      Marshmallow Stuffing.  No, this isn’t about ‘smores, it’s a fresh take on the Blue Man scene where one actor tosses about 30 marshmallows to another actor who catches every single one in his mouth.  We let the kids stuff as many marshmallows as they could into their own mouths.  Our champion fit 6.

      Fitness + Fun.  Many seasoned parents would say that vacation is more exhausting than the school year, and we try to bring along someone to look after the kids now and again.  You gotta be able to go out to dinner with your wife, right?  We had a wonderful babysitter with us who liked to work out every day, which made this game possible.  Throw a kid on her back and see how many push-ups she can do!

      Minature Shipyard.  Our little guy has a real penchant for Legos, Hot Wheels, and Thomas the Tank Engine, which I am convinced is driven by birth order.  The fourth child simply cannot compete for attention with the older ones, and that results in a lot more independence and self-sufficiency.  Not bad traits to have.  We bought him a $10 ship building kit and he spent hours, yes hours, creating his own pirate ship.  Not a pretend pirate ship, but a real one.  If you’re on the east cost in August steer clear of the 10-gun frigate with the multi-colored hull.  It might be Red Beard.

      Camp Skits.  If you’ve been to camp you know there are lots of great skits that are good for some good laughs.  Remember the heffalump?  Kiddackle, kiddackle?  We revived the one where one person hides under a sheet with her arms wrapped around the the other person, whose arms are tucked behind her and inside the sheet.  This creates the appearance of one person who, inexplicably, is totally uncoordinated.  They entertained us with a “morning routine” of tooth brushing, hair brushing, shaving, eating cereal, even applying make-up.  Belly laughs and great photos guaranteed.

      Mudding.  Have lemons, make lemonade.  Have rain, go mudding!  This is not for the faint of heart.  Grab a few friends and go to the local baseball field which is sure to be full of puddles and soft mud.  If your kids are game, they can strip down to their skivvies, though that’s not essential.  What is essential is that they roll in the mud, throw mud at each other, and dance in the rain.  It’s amazing what kids will do to entertain themselves.

      So there you have it: My family’s best ideas for rainy day entertainment.  If we ever see the sun again, I may be able to share some ideas for fun in the sun.

      Enjoy the rest of your summer – and check out the new SchoolPulse when you get back!

      No Time to Volunteer?

      August 7, 2008

      I ran into the incoming parent teacher group president at my kids’ elementary school the other day and she related a conversation that sums up what is wrong with volunteering:

      “My friend asked me if I am quitting my job to become PTG president.”

      Clearly, her friend knows something about volunteering:  It’s labor intensive.  And the suggestion that one would have difficulty juggling paid work with such an important volunteer position is quite reasonable.

      And that’s precisely the problem.  As the scope of what PTA/PTO/PTG organizations do has grown (I’ll use the term PTX to include them all), the volunteer pool has become more constrained, which translates into more work for fewer people.  And that leads to burnout.

      It is easy to understand why the scope of effort has grown.  School budgets are constantly under pressure, and PTXs consistently step in to pick up the slack.  Some of the needs are financial, and many PTXs make grants to teachers, provide classroom supplies, and fund field trips, assemblies, and other special programs.  The average PTX in America raises about $15,000 each year.  The other consistent need is for volunteer help that was probably provided by school staff in the past.  Here I’m thinking of roles like library volunteers, noon aides, and playground supervisors.

      Moms have always been the backbone of the PTX, and as more moms have gone into the workforce, the pool of available volunteers has shrunk, leaving a larger burden to be shouldered by a smaller number of people.  The net result is that the same people volunteer over and over, often getting burned out in the process.

      This is a problem crying out for a solution.  While we probably can’t bridge municipal budget shortfalls, there are things we can do to relieve some of the inefficiency:

      • Communications.  I think email was supposed to be an improvement over the telephone and newsletters sent home in the backpack.  Uh uh.  “Reply all” ruined that.

      Step 1:  Streamline communications

      • Scheduling.  Most active families have incredibly busy schedules.  They aren’t looking for more things to do, and the things they are already committed to are on different calendars in different places.  Scheduling is a real bear.

      Step 2:  Simplify scheduling

      • Volunteer management.  Volunteers are parents, parents have a lot on their plates, and they don’t always remember what they committed to donate to the classroom, bring to the class party, or even that they committed to help out.

      Step 3:  Improve volunteer management

      My belief is that if we could do these three things, we would take a lot of the pain out of volunteering.  And if we could do that, we would be doing a huge service to current volunteers and making it easier to draw new volunteers into the system.  Especially those working moms who want to volunteer but don’t think they have the time!

      Healthy Competition

      August 5, 2008

      My wife and I had dinner with some friends last night and we were talking about (what else?) our kids and their summer activities.  Our 10-year kids both went away to overnight camps for the first time this summer, my daughter to Camp Mont Shenandoah in Virginia and their son to Camp Deerwood in New Hampshire.  Both camps are traditional,  single sex camps that emphasize the outdoors and have a long tradition of competition.  At Scout’s camp, the camp is divided into the Greens and the Buffs; at John’s, it was the Blues and the Grays.  Strong individual and team performances in all the activities over the camp session translate into team points, and one team is declared the winner at the end of the summer.  As we talked, we realized that the day camps that our other kids attended also encouraged competition between campers (including awards like Junior Camp Female Athlete of the Year and a Golden Arrow for the top archer).

      So here’s the question:  Why has healthy competition been banned from most public schools?

      Competition is fundamental.  It is unavoidable.  It is a great teacher.  And yet as far as I can tell, our public schools do everything they can to minimize open competition.  Here are a few examples I have noticed over the past few years:

      • Our elementary school has a track and field day where no ribbons are awarded to the fastest runners, the longest jumpers, or the farthest throwers.
      • Our high school eliminated superlatives from its yearbook because it didn’t want anybody’s feelings to be hurt
      • Our local paper stopped publishing the Honor Roll after receiving complaints from parents of kids who didn’t make it

      Now I have not done a comprehensive survey on this issue (and would welcome your comments below!) but I think you will agree that this “shelter our kids from competition” trend has permeated parenting culture in much of the country.  I think it’s a shame and I think it’s the wrong answer.  What’s healthy about competition?

      • It teaches sportsmanship and teamwork.  All the stuff about what you learn on a team is cliche’ and absolutely true.
      • It helps build self-esteem.  Competition is the best way for a child to affirm that they are good at something; much better, in fact, than a parent’s praise.
      • It helps children learn where they’re strong and where they can improve.  As they mature, it is important for kids to have an honest understanding of their own capabilities; delusion helps nobody.
      • It prepares them for life.  The world is a competitive place, and I believe that kids should be raised to understand that.

      Now obviously, competition has to be properly governed.  Kids need effective coaches to ensure fair play, teach sportsmanship, and draw the right lessons from the experience.  I am the first to acknowledge that it’s never easy to see your children lose, but properly handled, those disappointments are great “teaching moments” and we owe it to our kids to give them an honest view of their capabilities.

      Harry Pottery

      August 1, 2008

      Vacation is supposed to be full of sunny days and outdoor activities.  I mean, that’s the stuff we all remember most, right?  My family and I are on vacation on Mt. Desert Island in Maine (home of Acadia National Park) and the weather has not been cooperating with my vacation vision.  Lots of rain, cloudy skies, and fog.  What I’ve discovered, though, is that kids have an amazing ability to thrive in any kind of weather — particularly when the parents stop projecting their own expectations of a good vacation!  Today was a perfect example of that.

      I have four kids — ages 10, 8, 6, and 4 — and the poor weather precluded us from doing any of our preferred activities (boating, hiking, whiffle ball, bike riding and just about everything else outdoors). We had heard about a place in Bar Harbor where you can paint pottery.  As soon as my youngest heard about it (he’s the guy who is best at entertaining himself with Legos, trains, cars… a coping skill that many youngest children seem to develop) he insisted that we take him to “Harry Pottery.”  In response to his enthusiasm and creative name association, everybody agreed that it probably wouldn’t be that bad.

      Well, not only was it not that bad, but everybody had so much fun that I had a hard time pulling them away after two hours!  I never would have guessed that they would like it so much, and I actually had a really good time myself (I decorated a keepsake box for a young couple whose wedding we are in next weekend).  I guess you could say this was one of those “teachable moments” for me.   What did I learn (again)?

      • Kids are inherently creative and get a big thrill out of making stuff.  My kids are no Michelangelos, and their color choices and brush precision could use some work, but they felt really good about what they created.
      • Kids are often more open-minded than we are.  Too often we direct our kids toward mainstream activities — think soccer, scouting, gymnastics, and more soccer.  Remember that they are sponges, soaking up new experiences, and we need to be careful not to pigeon hole them too early.  If they’ve never done it before, they’ll probably enjoy it (at least the first time).
      • Kids love to do just about anything with their parents.  They usually won’t admit it, but most kids enjoy spending time with their parents.  This probably changes with adolescence, but thank goodness we’re not there yet.  Family life is busy and hectic and we should find ways to spend quality time with our kids.  Sound cliche’, but it’s true.

      The last point is the one that means the most to me.  How many times have we all been reminded, “Kids grow up so fast.  Enjoy them now.”  Our typical school year routine is hectic and rarely presents opportunities to do what we did today.  I am busy with work (I get a few hours a day max to see my kids) and they are busy with their activities.  Sometimes the simple, rainy day experiences are the one the kids (and the parents!) appreciate most.  You will be surprised how happy your kids can be doing Harry Pottery with you!

      Fire as Teacher

      July 30, 2008

      My family had one of those experiences last night that will surely stay with us for a very long time.  Our summer vacations to Northeast Harbor, Maine are always jam-packed with family and friends who converge on the same town every summer for a lot of good times.  Last night’s experience was new and different.

      On Monday night we were nestled all snug in our beds in our house at the end of Main Street, the town’s modest commercial center consisting of a market, three restaurants, the newspaper store, a wooden toy store, a couple antique shops, and a mix of galleries amd boutiques.  At around 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday I was awoken by a bunch of yelling outside.  My initial thought was that it was some of the boisterous college students who come into town each summer to work in those stores and restaurants, but a glance across the street proved me wrong.  I saw fire pouring out of the roof of Colonel’s Bakery, the place my four kids and I have breakfast most days.  I called to my wife who came running to look out the window with me.  My 8-year old son heard us and came out of his room, too.  We walked out the front door to the edge of Main Street where we had a front row seat to a riveting show.  The first fire truck had just arrived and people were running down the street, knocking on doors and calling up to windows of the apartments that sit atop most of the retail stores.  Within 15 minutes, there were no longer flames visible and it appeared that the fire was under control.  I ran inside to get my 10-year old daughter whom I thought would want to be part of an historic experience.  She came out and everything appeared very much under control.  I was afraid I had waited too long and that she had missed all the excitement.

      Turns out I was wrong.  Not much later, a propane tank somewhere behind the restaurant (apparently the fire was more intense in the back, where we couldn’t see) exploded with an enormous boom, launching burning embers 200 feet into the night sky and into our front yard.  Recognizing that the fire had more room to run and that there was a real risk to our family, we decided to wake the our two younger kids and bring them to my in-laws a mile away.  We scrambled to gather clothes and kids and irreplaceable things like stuffed animals, digital cameras, baseball card collections, computers, and photos hanging on walls and sitting on surfaces.

      Rather than retell what happened over the next 15 hours, I suggest you check out my photo stream on Flickr.  Suffice it to say that the fire would not quit.  It just kept burning despite hours and hours of water fired from at least five different 6-inch hoses.  It expanded into the adjacent buildings — Wingspread Gallery and the Joy Building — and by the end of today, it had claimed them, too.  All three buildings were demolished late this afternoon, about 15 hours after the fire had started.  Our house did not sustain any damage (credit goes to the wind who was graciously absent today) and we moved everyone back in this afternoon when we felt the danger had passed.

      This was eye opening to me as a father.  I didn’t anticipate how traumatic this could be for children who have not been desensitized to violence and tragedy the way many adults have.  Why were my kids so strongly affected?

      • They had never seen a real fire.  Certainly not in real life and probably not even on television.  This color of the flames, the sound of breaking glass, and the stench of the fire were all overpowering.  Don’t assume they won’t be scared and give them the opportunity to talk about it.
      • They were attuned to our concern.  In deciding to evacuate the house, they heard “you are in danger” and this was definitely unsettling for them.  We have always promised to keep them safe and secure and they wanted to know what might have happened.  I tried to emphasize that we were never really in danger, but that we love them so much that we wanted to take every precaution to prevent anything bad from happening to them.
      • The Colonel’s was their private dining room.  They ate there all the time, they knew the waitresses and the menu, they frequently ran over ahead of me to reserve a table.  They are feeling the loss in a very personal way.  We are encouraging them to think about how cool the “new” Colonel’s will be when we come back next year.

      Our kids seem to confront all their fears just before we turn off their lights at night and tonight was particularly difficult.  Each child wanted to talk about the fire (funny — each commented independently that they wanted to share the story with their teacher and/or write about it when they get back to school in September), wanted to rehash the story, wanted to tell us that how sad they were that we wouldn’t be able to have breakfast at Colonel’s. My parents had a house fire 10 years ago and lost almost all of their personal possessions.  It was a horrible tragedy and that was the first time I learned that a fire could be like a death where survivors go through various phases of mourning.

      Today I learned an important parenting lesson:  Children do not have the sophistication to recover from this type of trauma as quickly as an adult might.  Our contexts are dramatically different.  Adults know that “all good things must end” — an idea not easily comprehended by a child who sees the world through ingenuous, optimistic eyes.  A more difficult question is whether to force that reality on your children or shield them from it for as long as you can.  I tend to favor the second option.  Our kids will have plenty of time to learn life’s hard lessons.

      Waiting for iPhone Nano

      July 25, 2008

      My enthusiasm for Apple products is no secret.  Apple’s worldwide share of the personal computer market is still under 4%, but a shocking 28% of visitors to SchoolPulse are using Macs.  With the iPhone phenomenon accelerating, we’ve been testing the iPhone here at SchoolPulse.  Gotta be ahead of the wave if you’re gonna ride it, right?

      There’s no question that the iPhone is a thing of beauty.  The hardware design and user interface are amazing and the device is really more computer than mobile phone.  I won’t bore you with our analysis since plenty of other bloggers are already writing about it, but I have decided to stick with my Blackberry Pearl.  Why?  Although it’s not nearly as sexy, it’s still smaller, lighter, and fits in my pocket more comfortably.

      I’m waiting for the iPhone Nano which is rumored to be coming in October and is sure to accelerate the iPhone craze.

      Embrace the Chaos!

      July 21, 2008

      Today I received one of those sickeningly nostalgic emails from a distant friend.  It was all about the halcyon childhood of the baby boom generation:  Simpler times without the pervasive influence of modern media, Abercrombie & Fitch, and hyper-competitive parents.  I actually appreciated it — it rang true!

      For years I have been one of those parents that aspires to preserve the innocence of childhood.  My four kids don’t watch a lot of TV, don’t spend much time on the computer, and are generally pretty sheltered from all the bad stuff that appears in the media (I have described them as “media retarded”).  Johanna and I really do believe that kids should be able to entertain themselves, and we have made a conscious effort not to commit them to too many activities at any given time.  We used to say one activity per season (usually a sport, sometimes an instrument), but as they have gotten older, we find ourselves breaking our own rule more and more regularly.

      This spring, we had three kids in elementary school and one in pre-school.  The volume of commitments was overwhelming — three baseball teams, an orchestra, after school sports, a musical, an art class, Sunday school, a million birthday parties, and play dates on the rare day that something else wasn’t scheduled after school.  Weekends were almost comical:  “You go here with Scout, I’ll go there with Tucker and Daisy, then you’ll drop Scout with me and take Chester there, and I’ll drop off Daisy at her party… And then we’ll meet at home for lunch before the afternoon starts.”  It was all great — the kids have an absolute blast with their friends — but it was just plain exhausting for us all.  Johanna likes to quip, “We’ve been tired for about 10 years”.  We looked forward to the last day of school, the first day of summer, when things would surely slow down.  “But noooooooo…”

      Summer has been almost as crazy.  First camps for the older 3, then family vacation with sailing and tennis lessons, scheduling lunches and dinners with the cousins, and can you believe that somebody had the audacity to invite the little guy to an ice cream party at 5:00 tonight?  Crazy!

      I am not sharing this to provoke your sympathy.  We have chosen this busy life and we love every minute of it.  My point is that resistance is futile.  We are not living in the 1950s (have you seen June Cleaver in your neighborhood recently?) and face it, the world has become a very fast moving, competitive place.  Unless you have the courage to become Amish or move to Alaska, if your kids are growing up in America your life is going to be very, very busy.  So rather than complaining or wishing things were different, embrace this busy life and find ways to participate in all the good stuff your kids enjoy so much.

      LinkedIn — I Called It!

      June 17, 2008

      Well, I didn’t call it exactly, but I did post on my love for LinkedIn and I suspect others might have caught the bug as a result (-;

      Happy ManNobody is going to be surprised that top shelf investors seized the opportunity to put some money to work inside LinkedIn, nor will they be surprised that LinkedIn, though profitable, is taking capital to further propel its growth.

      What will certainly surprise the skeptics is the $1 billion valuation — at a time when the bloom seemed to be off the valuation rose for social networking sites. I saw someone quoted recently (on Techcrunch? Can’t remember) that Facebook is not worth the$240 million investment Microsoft made in Facebook. The 1.6% stake Microsoft bought valued Facebook at a cool $15 billion.

      I have no trouble with the LinkedIn valuation because they are doing what comparatively few other sites are doing: Delivering real value to their audience. The value per member — approximately $44 assuming 23 million members — is not out of line with other deals we have seen in the social networking space. Forrester’s Charlene Li blogged on this in March, quoting the NewsCorp/MySpace deal in 2005 at $27.62/user and the AOL/Bebo sale earlier this year at $21.25/member. In my opinion, LinkedIn has two significant advantages that justify the premium valuation: A more attractive demographic and a value proposition that its members will pay for. Bain Capital must see that.

      The audience is the source of value, and companies that can attract and engage the right audiences will find numerous ways to capitalize. It’s early days for social media monetization.

      I said in my April post here that if LinkedIn “came to me tomorrow and said I have to pay to maintain the relationship, I’d do it in an instant.” The valuation set by Bain Capital and its supporting cast suggests there are a lot of others that share my enthusiasm!

      Is Facebook a Black Hole?

      June 14, 2008

      I had a really interesting conversation today with a couple folks who know a lot about social media and technology. John Della Volpe is founder of SocialSphere, a consulting firm that helps big corporations figure out how to capitalize on what John calls the “collaboration economy,” and Paul Gaffney is COO of Desktone, a desktop virtualization company that is doing some very cool things.

      We were talking about what SchoolPulse needs to be to get traction with the 45 million parents of school-aged kids in America. Ours is very much a GenX crowd — we are targeting parents aged 35-50 — and very few of those people are using Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, or the other big social networking platforms that attract the GenY crowd. While LinkedIn has pretty good penetration (20 million users averaging 41 years old and $110,000 income according to the Industry Standard), that is about professional lives, not family lives. These GenX parents are a tricky crowd to attract and retain. They are incredibly busy, they didn’t grow up using technology to network, and they aren’t going to engage with something that doesn’t deliver tangible value. If you’re a parent you know what I’m talking about.

      John’s view is that Facebook has the mass and momentum to evolve into the only social networking platform. All others beware: Without a tight connection to Facebook, you won’t survive. Paul used the analogy of a black hole, drawing all matter into its center. Can this really be true? Does social networking really have the same dynamics as the search business?

      I don’t buy it. Facebook may work for GenY, a demographic that has grown up in a very different technology context and is comfortable in that medium. The rest of us — anybody over age 30, really — aren’t looking for social networking. We are looking for ways to improve, simplify, enrich, organize, extend… our real lives. A generic social networking platform built to serve tens of millions can’t do that.

      Which brings us back to SchoolPulse. We’re not a social networking company, and we are not a web site. We are creating a resource to help parents organize and streamline their busy lives. To help them keep up with their kids, really. The design, the language, the tone, the user experience all have to be consonant with that mission. We threw up our alpha site in January, a beta site in April (we are big believers in rapid iteration informed by market feedback) and have learned a lot, but we have a very long way to go. But every day, we understand more clearly what we need to be to engage a million happy members. It amazes me how quickly we are learning.

      I’ll share more details of our version 2.0 platform in a future post.

      No Apple of Online Media?

      June 10, 2008

      With Apple’s WWDC in full swing this week, it’s hard not to have Apple on the brain. I posted previously about my love affair with LinkedIn. LinkedIn may provide great utility, but the Apple brand has a grip on me like no other.

      I made my first visit to the Apple store in Boston yesterday, intending to upgrade to iLife ’08. I walked out with a rather expensive solution: I bought the latest iMac (pre-loaded with the latest version of iLife) and an Apple TV box to project photos onto my big screen TV. I suppose the streaming movie library might have had something to do with it, too.

      The salesman booked my order on one of the demo machines in the store, indicating our precise location on the floor so my goodies could be delivered to us from inventory, and processed my credit card from a wireless device. I never went near a cash register. I never waited in line. In fact, my order was delivered so quickly that I barely had time to tell the story of my religious conversion from PC to Mac three Christmases earlier. And then the guy offered to help carry my parcels to my car!

      When it comes to Apple, I am like a kid in a candy store. My heart races. My senses are in overdrive. I can smell the technology – and I love it. I want to talk about it – with a sales person, with fellow shoppers, with just about anybody who will listen. My kids share my enthusiasm as we experience the most incredible out-of-the-box experience going. Feel the rush of the expanding universe as we boot the machine for the first time. It’s not even a machine – it’s magic. I would love to share my passion with Steve Jobs. Am I out of my mind?

      I don’t think I’m the only person with a passion for Apple and everything it stands for. So here’s the question: Why aren’t there any web sites that deliver a similar thrill? Are there any online media brands that inspire the same passion?

      John Battelle talked about media brands recently. Two of my favorite quotes:

      “Think of some of the best loved media brands – American Idol, Wired, Oprah, The New York Times. All places with a distinctly engaged audience. Consumer brands are drawn to these winners because they want to be associated with quality, sure, but also because they know that if they can just get their executions right, something magical can happen, and they can influence that space between our ears, and in the right context.”

      “I believe we are at the beginning of an explosion in online media brands, akin to the explosion of consumer magazine brands in the 1940s and 50s, or the explosion of cable TV brands in the 1980s and 90s.”

      Battelle cites a number of examples, including Boing Boing, ProTrade, Graffiti Wall, Dooce, Left Lane News, and TechCrunch. Why are they powerful? Because their users are deeply engaged – like I am with Apple.

      That’s my vision for SchoolPulse: Deeply engaged members who can’t stop talking about us.

      Is GenX Social?

      May 28, 2008

      Question of the night: Which social sites are most successfully catering to the needs and interests of GenX?

      I just finished creating a slide showing the top 10 social sites and the demographic audiences they serve. There are no sites in the top 10, and few others of scale, that appear to serve an audience that is primarily in the 30-50 year old range.

      A couple come to mind: Jeff Taylor’s Eons and Tom Gerace’s Gather. Both are Boston-based and having a hard time pushing through the half million user threshold. Maybe if more people followed my articles on Gather the site would have more traffic!

      What’s up with GenX? I’d love to hear your opinion.

      Are We Crazy?

      May 27, 2008

      Today I was talking to a venture capitalist named Elliot Katzman whose last gig as an entrepreneur in the 1990s involved launching, a community site focused on little league baseball.   They sold the company to the Active Network, a company that has rolled up several other sports-oriented sites, in 2001for an undisclosed price.  It looks to have been a decent financial exit, though Elliott would say that they didn’t achieve their initial goal.  His opinion:  It is extraordinarily difficult to succeed in businesses that target education communities.  “It’s a hit business” like movies or music — meaning you can have a great product but cannot control whether the public will love it.

      I had a similar conversation with Jon Carson, currently CEO of cMarket and previously the founder of the Family Education Network.  He has a similar story to tell — successful exit in a sale to Pearson Education, but failure to achieve the strategic vision on which the company was founded.

      I’m beginning to get the sense that a number of experienced people are looking at what we are doing at SchoolPulse with a certain amount of skepticism.  “Sure, it’s a noble idea, but do you really want to commit years of your life to making it happen?  Is it a smart career investment?”

      So here’s the question:  Are we crazy?  Elliot Katzman asked me why SchoolPulse will succeed when so many others have failed.  I have three answers:

      1. We know the need personally.  As an engaged father of four young kids, I experience the need for a product like SchoolPulse every day.  Like everybody else’s kids, ours play sports and instruments, have play dates and birthday parties, juggle homework with screen time, and leave their parents with almost no time for themselves.  It’s a wonderful, amazing, and chaotic circus but it’s a hell of a challenge to hold together.
      2. Our audience is primed.  Concepts like web 2.0, social networking, and blogging did not exist when Elliott and Jon were starting their previous companies.  According to Forrester, 53% of U.S. adults aged 27-50 are active users of social media.  That’s over 53 million people!   92% of GenXers are using email and nearly 20% post to or maintain blogs.  That wasn’t the case 10 years ago!
      3. The technology is easier and cheaper.  I can’t quantify the decline in technology costs, but I can say that the cost of designing and building a really good social media site is a fraction of what it would have been 10 years ago now that almost every killer social media app is embedded in open source content management systems.

      If you construct a map of the top 10 social sites, you will notice that they all draw their core audience from the GenY cohort.  GenX is an opportunity ripe for the picking.

      I’ll ask again:  Are we crazy?

      Groundswell Breakfast

      May 22, 2008

      The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MTLC) sponsored an event this morning at which Forrester‘s Josh Bernoff talked about Groundswell, the book he and Charlene Li just published. I’ve been a big Josh fan since he and I worked together to launch the quantitative research business at Forrester in 1999 — built on the Technographics consumer segmentation model that he invented the year before.

      As I rolled out my driveway, I started typing the address of the event into my GPS. To my great surprise, the system didn’t contain my destination address!  Funny how quickly we become dependent on truly useful technologies.  I was stymied for a moment, but I got there the old-fashioned way and Josh gave a terrific presentation (no surprise). Some of the points Josh emphasized for successful social sites:

      • Have clear business objectives — the technology is secondary.
      • Quote of the day (graciously attributed to somebody else, can’t remember who): “Trying to get stuff off the internet is like trying to get pee out of a pool.”
      • His pnemonic for developing a social strategy is POST — people (who is your audience?), objectives, strategy, and technology.
      • Consumers behave differently in different situations. Their “Social Technographics Ladder” includes creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, inactives.
      • Take your users’ advice re: new features. 50% of the features on come from their customers.
      • Best of all — an upcoming report finds that advertising on social sites is counter-cyclical and should thrive in a recession.

      Thanks, Josh!

      Lessons Learned at Yandex

      May 21, 2008

      I was part of the team that launched Yandex in Russia in 2000. A number of the lessons we learned in Russia are guiding the development of SchoolPulse. Can we pull of another success on that scale?

      In April we launched SchoolPulse v1.0 to build some buzz in local school communities and test some of our ideas for bringing parents online. Our boilerplate describes us as a social media company — which makes sense for a business audience — but it implies that we’re more about technology than people. What we really want to be is an indispensable resource for parents that they can access from a variety of platforms — email, the web, even mobile. The value needs to be immediate and the technology should be invisible.

      On Monday we kicked off our strategy process to synthesize what we have heard from the 2,000+ people who have visited the site (we’re preparing to launch our v2.0 site as part of our national launch this fall). Beyond working technology – that’s the ante – what else will it take for us to succeed in this endeavor? I want to share the recipe we cooked up over the last 8 years at Yandex.

      • Rising tide — A fast-growing market affords the opportunity to make some mistakes, which is inevitable.
      • Smart team — The more smart people, the better, including the extended advisory board.
      • Recognition that it’s not easy — It is never easy to create something amazing; as my mother always told me, “If it were easy to do, everybody would be doing it.”
      • Indispensable product/service — You cannot be successful until your users become addicted to your service. At Forrester we called this “habituating usage.”
      • Attractive and achievable business model — Ideas are great, but cash pays the bills. A strong monetization scheme is critical.
      • Strong execution — If you can’t execute on the vision, go home.
      • Runway to figure it out — Innovation doesn’t happen overnight, so be sure you have the cash to get to your vision.

      I hope these nuggets will prove helpful to other entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out how to make their ideas real. Wouldn’t it be great if we can build another value creation engine like Yandex!

      On the Road Again

      May 11, 2008

      Crazy mothers’ day weekend.  My wife left Friday afternoon for a spa weekend with 5 college girlfriends.  The 5 of us who stayed behind — my four young kids and I — had one of those crazy busy weekends.  A t-ball game, a baseball game, another baseball game, a mothers’ day breakfast with my mom, church, a baptism for my neice, a baseball practice, and another t-ball game… Totally frantic but fortunately, alot of fun.  Late today, after Johanna got back, I was able to take my first real bike ride of the season.  The weather was perfect — sunny, not too hot — and it felt so sweet to be out on the road again…

      Any cyclists out there?  I ride with a group called the Monsters.  Come along if you live in the Boston area.

      Nantucket Conference Recap

      May 7, 2008

      I just got back from the Nantucket Conference, a veritable who’s who of the Boston technology world. This was my first time and I met a ton of interesting people. The theme was “Who’s Changing the Game” and I learned a lot about what we can do to make SchoolPulse successful.

      • Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, talked about the way real innovations can change fundamental behavior. This resonated for me because SchoolPulse is trying to do just that – to get parents and teachers to make the web a regular stop in their busy lives.
      • Eran Egozy, CTO of Harmonix, and Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, both shared stories about the long, rocky road to success in the technology business. Many of us have expectations built on internet time, but the fact is that many of the great companies out there took many years to find the the right model before they became big names.
      • Woody Benson, Partner of Prism Ventures, sat on a panel with Hilmi Ozguc, CEO of Maven Networks. Woody’s view is that venture capital investing is fundamentally about intuition — having a sense that what a young company is working on will be important at some time.
      • The importance of rapid prototyping and release cycles came up again and again. Do not hold your product or service back until you think it is perfect. It will never be perfect, and if you wait you will have lost the opportunity to get the most valuable design input of all: market feedback.
      • Christine Petersen, VP of Marketing at TripAdvisor, had some great stories about the success they have had building their brand and visibility with viral tools like their “cities I’ve visited” travel map on Facebook.

      It was great to get outside the office for a few days and talk, at a high level, about what we’re trying to do with SchoolPulse. I got lots of good feedback and made a bunch of connections. I’m already looking forward to next year!

      Gotta Brag a Bit…

      May 2, 2008

      I started my first company, Comptek International, in Russia in 1990.  Long story, but we eventually became the first and biggest distributor of Cisco gear in the former Soviet Union. Along the way, we developed some search technology as a skunk works project that debuted in 1997, right after Alta Vista made a big splash with its supposedly best-in-the-world search engine. We wanted to show that our search engine, called Yandex, was superior. We spun Yandex out of Comptek in 2000, convinced that we had world class technology but less certain how search monetization would work.  We figured it out, and yesterday Yandex was ranked #6 on Silicon Alley’s list of “the world’s most valuable digital startups,” comfortably sandwiched between Mozilla and Webkinz.  Not bad!

      Check it out at

      Awkward Moment for a Startup CEO

      May 1, 2008

      So, in an effort to make sure our new members understand that there are real people behind the impending groundswell we call SchoolPulse, I took the rather awkward step of shooting a video of myself talking about our new community site (included here for your enjoyment). We’re extending our private beta to another 37 school districts in the next 7 days — I hope they appreciate the pain this modest company founder went through to show the sincerity of our effort!

      If you’re interested, my Single A baseball team won tonight by a score of 28 to 24. These are second graders and there are very few put outs in a 4-inning game!

      My Love Affair with LinkedIn

      April 29, 2008

      While the world frets about social media monetization (certainly a long-term challenge for the industry), I am getting great, real world value out of a number of social sites. Here’s the history of my growing love affair with LinkedIn.

      I set up my account on LinkedIn sometime in 2006 and paid very little attention for a long time. I wouldn’t even call it dating, just a casual connection. I have been very careful to only connect with people I know well. Around the time that my network eased through the 100 person threshold, our relationship really took off.

      • I found our VP of Community after spending $125 for a job posting. I received more than 70 qualified resumes in the space of two weeks. Who needs Monster?
      • I used the Q&A service to locate a free compensation study that has been incredibly helpful in structuring compensation policy at SchoolPulse.
      • My connections have provided helpful feedback as we have played with designs and features for our site. I was surprised to learn that Google is far and away the most popular online calendar with my network.
      • Just tonight I asked my network for introductions to reputable mailing list brokers and yet again, LinkedIn came through.

      I’ve fallen in love with LinkedIn because she is making a my real life richer.  I now have 228 solid connections (and I look somewhat skeptically at those super users with 500+ contacts — can they really know them all?).  If I had to quantify the value I’ve gotten (for free, no less) it would easily be in the thousands of dollars. If LinkedIn came to me tomorrow and said I have to pay to maintain the relationship, I’d do it in an instant. Sad to think that I’d pay for love, but in this case, I would.

      Can Web 2.0 Change Behavior?

      April 15, 2008

      The mark of a truly great technology is that it changes the way mainstream consumers live their lives. I am a big believer in social media, but I wonder how long it will be before its utility reaches beyond the young and early adopters.

      I can think of a lot of consumer devices that have done that. PCs, cell phones, Blackberries, iPods, and digital cameras are all devices that have crept into our lives over the last 15-20 years and now they are ubiquitous. Today, just about every teenager I see has a cell phone in hand and if they are walking alone, chances are they are texting a friend.

      Certain web-based applications have had that kind of an impact, too. Email and eCommerce are the two that jump to mind. I have a college friend who is resolutely resisting email, and I can honestly say that he is the only adult I know that is not accessible via email. And eCommerce. When was the last time you called an airline to make a reservation?

      Web 2.0 is still young and there are more people on the outside looking in than there are people who are living their lives differently as a result. Yes, many are blogging, though according to Forrester fewer than 5% of adults blog. And many of us are using RSS readers to personalize our information feeds, yet despite the power and simplicity that Google, Yahoo! and others have provided, it’s still a fringe phenomenon. LinkedIn is certainly making a mark, and more and more adults are experimenting with platforms like Facebook and Digg, but when will they change the way mainstream consumers live their lives?

      I have a point of view, but would love to hear what you think.

      We’re Off and Running

      April 3, 2008

      Today we launched our v1.0 site, integrating a ton of feedback from friends and users of our alpha site. We hope to simplify the lives of busy parents by providing a one-stop-shop for everything they need to know and want to discuss with the parents and teachers involved with their children’s schools.

      Having spent a lot of time on other community sites, I think our approach is genuinely different. Our hypothesis is that we can bring the 45 million parents of school-aged kids together with an application that delivers real utility.

      • We are interested in helping people in their real (offline) lives
      • We will consolidate information and conversations in one place
      • We organize around existing communities (vs. virtual communities)
      • The site does not require technical skills to navigate

      This is all about moving offline communities online. The communities we are looking at — roughly 100,000 schools in the US — are vibrant and committed to the schools that are educating their kids. If we do it right, we can help our users stay up to date on what’s happening in those schools while increasing the level of parental involvement. Research shows that schools with higher levels of involvement tend to perform better, and wouldn’t it be great if we could actually contribute to the education of our children.

      If you are a parent, I’m curious to know which resources you rely on to organize your busy life. Are there websites you use? Have you seen others that are doing this well?

      I would appreciate your feedback and ideas, and I will provide regular updates on our progress.  Visit the site here.

      Collaboration is a Two-Way Street

      April 1, 2008

      Conventional wisdom says that schools with high levels of parental involvement perform better. I believe this to be true, but I have also found (as the parent of three elementary school students) that teachers don’t necessarily relish the idea of heavy parental involvement. And I think I know why.

      Today I read an article in Education Week that describes this tension. It suggests that a lot of parents only come forward when they have concerns or criticism, which creates a difficult dynamic, and it provides some examples of steps successful schools have taken to ensure a healthy level of parental involvement.

      “In affluent areas, parents know they should be involved, but absent good guidance and a plan [from the school], they try to do too much,” said Joyce L. Epstein, who heads the Center on School, Fmaily, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “It’s important for people to know they can take charge of this topic with research-based approaches … that work.”

      Click here to read the full article.

      My read is that a lot of the interactions between parents and teachers happen when the parents are already upset about something, which makes the conversations less productive than they might otherwise be. This rings true to me. I recently heard about the parent of one of my kid’s classmates who felt that the school should be providing more “gifted and talented” resources for her daughter. She raised the issue at a PTO meeting which immediately created a contentious dynamic with the school.

      The successful schools cited in the article provide guidelines to ensure that parents and teachers are working together, collaboratively, rather than in a confrontational manner. It makes perfect sense.

      I am interested in using the internet to improve communications between parent and teachers and I’d love to hear examples of ways that this is happening today. Have you heard of any?

      Is SchoolPulse a Non-Profit?

      March 8, 2008

      A bunch of people have asked whether SchoolPulse is a not-for-profit company, and the answer is no. Designing, building, and enhancing a community website, promoting our service to new users, and providing high quality customer support all cost real money. We expect to spend well over a million dollars in 2008 and we need to generate income to cover those costs. I suspect this question is driven by two perceptions:

      1. Organizations in the K-12 education world tend to be not-for-profit.

      This is certainly true for educational institutions, PTOs, education funds, and other charities. The absence of a profit motive may make it easier to trust and support them (it also paves the way for tax deductible donations), but the drawback of non-profits is that they have a hard time obtaining funding. Their operating costs are funded by tax dollars (in the case of schools), contributions, and grants (in the case of 501(c)(3) charities), whereas companies like ours are risky propositions (far more fail than succeed) and require significant up front investment to get off the ground. Investors expect a return on their investments, and that’s why SchoolPulse is a for-profit company.

      2. Many think advertising detracts from the quality of their user experience.

      Traditional media advertising is intrusive and often unrelated to whatever we are watching, reading, or listening to, but the internet is changing that. Think about the different web sites that you find valuable — the vast majority of them are free to users because they are supported by advertisers. The wonderful thing about the internet is that it gives users control over the advertising they consume and it allows advertisers to connect with people who are genuinely interested in what they are pitching. Take Google as an example that everyone reading this blog knows well. When we are searching for a product or service, the ads that appear above and beside the search results are highly relevant to what we are searching for.

      I hope people can understand that our intentions are good. We are social entrepreneurs trying to create something to simplify lives and build community, and we need investment capital (now) and advertising revenue (later) to fund our growth. The alternative would be to charge our users to use the site, and history suggests that’s a recipe for failure.

      I can promise you that when we introduce advertising later this year, it will be highly relevant to your community, it will not be targeted at children, and it will be done as tastefully as possible. If you have a better idea, please let us know!

      A Good Idea is Not Enough

      March 3, 2008

      We have been studying a lot of social media sites — sites where parenting, education, and community intersect — and my partner made a really simple and powerful observation today: “A good idea is not enough. It all comes down to execution.” I know it’s not original, but I was reminded today how true it is. Web development is a tricky thing. Web technology has so many capabilities, and is so easy to implement, that one can easily lose site of the original objective amidst all the possible bells and whistles.

      We launched an alpha version of our SchoolPulse site two weeks ago after months of planning, design, and development. Our objective is to create a site where parents and teachers can congregate to share ideas, debate issues, and celebrate all the good stuff going on in their school communities, and we were pretty confident that our Rev 0.5 site would hit the mark. We did a “soft” launch in Concord, MA, informing very few people that the site was up so that we could fix the bugs and solicit feedback from local influencers. What did we hear? “Great idea,” “the site looks great,” “definitely something we need…” All very positive.

      But as we listened more closely, we realized that our alpha site hadn’t hit the sweet spot. Our future users were somewhat daunted by the weighty conversations on the site (debates around big issues like the superintendent search and whether kindergarten should be half- or full-day). For people who aren’t already sold on the idea of sharing ideas online, those are intimidating topics to weigh in on. We also heard that those topics alone are not compelling enough to bring them to SchoolPulse every day. This month, we are conducting focus group research, talking to teachers, and reaching out to parent-teacher organizations to ensure that our Rev 1.0 site, scheduled for a regional rollout next quarter, has the right mix of features to win the minds and hearts of parents and teachers.

      Our original idea is sound — people like the notion of being able to interact with their school communities online. The hard part is building a web site that delivers on that need — and that’s where execution comes in. We need strong marketing (that’s the listening piece), development (incorporating what we hear into our platform), user engagement (helping new users experience the SchoolPulse value proposition), and support (helping people through the inevitable technical hiccups). In our case, execution is about focusing on our users and delivering the best possible experience every time they visit SchoolPulse. We’re not there yet, but we’re well on our way.

      Social Media and Schools

      February 8, 2008

      You’ve probably heard the term “social media” bandied about and you’ve probably wondered whether it is relevant to you and your busy life. After all, you’re not a blogger, you’re not using FaceBook, and you don’t have a lot of time for web surfing. Let me try to explain why I think social media is relevant to you.

      First, what is social media? The term essentially means that instead of big companies and paid journalists creating media content, regular people like you and me are doing it. In this context, the term “social” is more about “society” than it is about “socializing” or “networking.” So, in social media, people like you and me are the ones writing articles and sharing ideas.

      Next, how does social media happen? A variety of technologies have been developed to take advantage of the internet — things like blogging, discussions boards, podcasts, photo and video posting, even music sharing — that make it possible for regular people to publish their ideas online to be enjoyed by millions of people around the world. That was unimagineable until a few short years ago.

      Now, why does this matter to you and your family? Because we can use social media technologies to improve the way our school communities share ideas and make decisions. We are all creators and consumers of ideas. We want our opinions to factor into decisions, and we want to know what our friends and neighbors are thinking and saying about important issues. If we can build a simple, easy to use web site where people can share news and ideas about our schools (and the conversation needs to be focused on our schools, not other people’s schools), we can ensure that everybody in the community has a voice and everybody hears what is being said.

      Social media is indeed a powerful tool that can change the way our school communities set priorities and make decisions.

      Going Green in Concord

      December 16, 2007

      I was recycling the newspapers tonight (how about that for a politically correct lead) and spotted an article from the 12/6 Concord Journal called “Going Green at Thoreau School” that describes a week-long program designed to increase awareness of recycling, reuse, and waste reduction. It was sponsored by the Thoreauly Green Committee (I love that name!).

      The Willard PTG organized a “Litter-Free Lunch” last spring that reduced the amount of trash generated during a Willard lunch by 80+% and led to the donation of china, stainless flatware, and an industrial dish washer. Can you believe that our schools don’t have dish washers? Styrofoam trays and plastic utensils are standard fare and not exactly eco-friendly.

      The Concord Education Fund (CEF) is working with the science department at CCHS to design a program to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists who will solve the complex, global issues related to energy, ecology, and the environment.

      There must be other cool, creative initiatives to be shared. Can we leverage these to have a bigger impact on our children and our schools?

      Passive Participants

      November 30, 2007

      I had a great conversation about SchoolPulse with a Thoreau School father this week. We were talking about that all-too-familiar parent-child exchange. You ask, “How was your day?” and your child answers, “Good.” You probe cautiously, “What did you do at school?” and your child answers, “Stuff.” Not too satisfying for the parent, but that’s how it goes.

      Dan’s insight struck me. “At best,” he said, “We are just passive participants in the most formative years of our children’s lives.” While I had been pitching Dan on this grand, almost utopian vision of improving schools through broader community involvement, he keyed in on a very different, and perhaps more important need: Giving parents a richer flavor of what their children do at school

      This could happen in a number of ways. Parents who volunteer in the classroom or on field trips often have cameras — I have some great pics from a recent trip with my daughter’s fourth grade class to Great Blue Hill. Let’s get those pictures posted for other parents to see. Teachers could share their newsletters, pictures of their classes at work, maybe even videos taken at the Turkey Trot or pep band competition. We could provide links to the great websites that many teachers already have.

      The photos, videos, and commentary that we would all love to see are out there. The challenge is making them accessible to the rest of the school community.

      Better Decisions Sooner

      November 28, 2007

      Every three years, the Concord School Committee (CSC) and Concord Teachers’ Association (CTA) negotiate a new employment contract. This generally happens quietly, behind closed doors, and culminates with a short announcement of the agreement in the Concord Journal. The most recent round was different and was the inspiration for this web site. Here’s my personal take.

      In the spring of 2007, Concord teachers began wearing buttons and t-shirts that read, “186 days without a contract.” Each day, they would erase and rewrite the number to show that another day had passed without a new contract. I heard reports of children coming home after school and asking questions like, “Why aren’t we paying our teachers?” and “Don’t we like our teachers?” I wrote an email to Sharon Young, principal of Alcott School, expressing my view that it was not appropriate to expose elementary school students to such a complex issue. You might be able to convince me that high school students should be exposed (what a great way to learn about unions and collective bargaining), but not elementary students. The issues involved are too sophisticated and would be more likely to create stress than educational insight.

      As you might imagine (and probably remember) parents began asking about the contract negotiations. Despite the absence of any formal communication from the CSC or CTA, it became broadly understood that the sticking point was half-day Tuesdays. Concord is one of a small number of towns that still set aside half a day a week for professional development and classroom planning. The CTA wanted to continue that tradition whereas the CSC wanted to implement a “5 equal days” schedule.

      The CTA issued a press release confirming that half-day Tuesdays were indeed the sticking point, and sharing its belief that Concord parents value Tuesday afternoons as a chance to do all sorts of creative and wonderful things with their kids. The CSC responded with its own missive, asserting that what parents really want is five equal days and that they had the data to prove it. No data was ever released.

      Things got uncomfortable for me personally when one of my children’s teachers asked us to host a coffee so the CTA negotiator could present her position to parents. “Of course,” we said, “provided we can have a CSC representive present to explain the other side of the issue.” Apparently, they found somebody else to play host.

      At this point, buttons brandished, coffee consumed, facts notably absent, rumors swirling, and still no contract, I did what any responsible citizen would do: I wrote a letter to the editor of the Concord Journal! “Negotiations not succeeding… parents being asked to choose sides… very uncomfortable… please give us the facts so we can have an informed opinion.” All week I hoped, I prayed, that somebody would respond to my letter. Just one response, something to move the debate forward. I received several phone calls, a few emails, but no public response.

      Having spoken to a bunch of parents about the issue, I knew that many others were just as uncomfortable as I, and yet none of us had an outlet to debate the issue. I talked in a previous post about the critical role of discourse in solving “wicked problems” (and this qualified as one of those). Wouldn’t it be great if there were a place people could go to debate issues openly? To conduct simple surveys to build a fact base for their arguments? Sure, some people attended a coffee and others had the chance to discuss it during school drop-off or pick-up, but many (if not most) parents were left uninformed and without a voice.

      If SchoolPulse were around last spring, our school community could have had a rich, constructive debate about half-day Tuesdays and I’m guessing we might have reached a better outcome a little sooner with less acrimony.

      CCHS: A Wicked Problem

      November 27, 2007

      Last year, I worked with Lieutenant General Paul K. van Riper to create a development program for the top executives at a $10 billion technology company. “Rip” van Riper spent 35 years in the Marine Corps, during which time he developed an interesting framework for problem solving. He thinks of problems as running on a spectrum from “tame” to “wicked,” and wicked problems cannot be solved without extensive discourse.

      Tame problems are the ones that we have seen before; for which solutions are known to exist. In a school context, tame problems would include hiring decisions (“We need to find a really good music teacher”), curriculum design (“We want our students to excel at American History”), even new building construction (“Let’s design and build a state of the art facility for 350 students”). These are problems that every school system has faced before and there is a decent probability that they will be solved effectively and on time.

      Wicked problems are the ones that are novel and unique and which seldom have a right or wrong answer. Wicked problems often have multiple variables whose interactions are impossible to predict. These issues tend to be more open-ended: “Should we rebuild this school before that school?” or “How do we best teach SPED students alongside mainstream students?” The best way to tackle complex problems is by bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and opinions to debate the issue.

      I believe that “when and how to rebuild CCHS” is a wicked problem. Now that the Willard vote is behind us, our community needs to start a constructive process of discourse to figure out the right way to approach this complicated and expensive project.

      For more of General van Riper’s insights, read Chapter 4 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.