Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/30/13

"Black Friday" chaos
Fighting frenzies nationwide
Shoppers going nuts

Could FedEx Really Be This Clueless On Coupons?

The only vendor I have ever used for business cards is FedEx.  They aren't the cheapest in town compared to some locally-owned print shops but they are fast, reliable, and convenient.  I've never had a problem with their products.  Their promotions, however, leave me wondering.

I picked up some new business cards today.  They look quite snazzy with the minimalist layout I designed myself, thank you very much.  The courteous FedEx employees behind the counter were so grateful for my business at the FedEx Office store on Sloat Blvd. in San Francisco that they handed me a coupon.  They are efficient and they have always been helpful to me.  I checked out the coupon when I got home because I'm one of those guys who always reads the fine print.  I'd like to share my discovery with all of you.

The first picture above is from the left side of this coupon.  Note the "order by" date of 12/31/2013 on the bottom.

The second picture above shows what puzzled me about two thirds of the way down the fine print.  The expiration dates says "11/31/2013" to my surprise.  I don't know about you folks, but I've never lived in a calendar year when November had a 31st day.  Even if they meant to print that final expiration date as "11/30/2013," that would make the expiration today.  Oh BTW, it conflicts with the "order by" date of 12/31/2013 in the first photo.

I don't get it, FedEx.  You want me to cough up another order on the nonexistent day of a month when the offer expires even though you tease me by saying I have until until the end of next month to place the order.

The four P's of the marketing mix have always been product, price, place (or placement), and promotion.  Like I said at the top, FedEx has all the product I ever need in the right place even if the price is a little extra.  This particular promotion just makes me LOL.  Thanks to FedEx for supporting my small business, Alfidi Capital, on this fine Saturday.  

Kootenay Silver Poking Around in Mexico

Kootenay Silver (KTN.V) has gone looking to dig up silver.  I want to know whether they've succeeded, or will succeed.  The CEO is a geologist and his bio states he succeeded with a previous resource company.  Hey, nothing succeeds like success.  The rest of the team has bench strength in mining.

Their Promontorio project in Mexico has a 43-101 estimate of M&I grades but no 2P estimate, which I must see before I can seriously consider an investment.  The size of the M&I deposit at over 92M oz AgEq is significant when you consider that some of the top producing silver mines in the world produce between 5-7M oz annually.

Check out their financial statement for the quarter that ended June 30, 2013.  They had $6.3M in cash on hand and a burn rate of about $270M per month, so they should not have to raise more capital for about two years.  That is a really big margin of safety.

I will wait for this company to publish a 2P resource estimate along with further plans to produce what could be a very long-lived project at Promontorio.  The potentially good news for companies like this is that major producers have to replace the reserves they mine to maintain their value, so they look for acquisitions even in an era of declining grades among most discoveries.

Full disclosure:  No position in Kootenay silver at this time.  

Scorpio Gold Still in Penny Stock Territory

I noticed Scorpio Gold Corp. (SGN.V / SRCRF) is currently priced below a buck even though it has property in production.  What's up with that?  The CEO and president are both geologists and the other directors all have mining backgrounds, so the company isn't suffering from lack of experience.  The company had losses in the first part of 2013 but earnings turned positive in Q3 2013, according to their quarterly report dated September 30.  If this company had truly turned a corner, the share price would have responded positively since the date of that report.  The stock is still near its 52-week low.

Mineral Ridge is in production but just look at the grades . . . 0.062oz/ton at the main pits with only a three year mine life.  The satellite deposits' grade average grade of 0.078 oz/ton isn't much better.  Goldwedge is not yet in production and awaits a 43-101 estimate.  Pinon also awaits further development.

I'm not a gambler.  Betting on management isn't a sufficient justification for me to put my money into a low-grade, short-life producing property with only the possibility of expansion at other properties.  Scorpio will have to significantly extend that mine life and discover higher grades if it wants to be in my portfolio.

Full disclosure:  No position in Scorpio Gold, ever.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/29/13

Startup pitch mixer
Short time to wow audience
Make those seconds count

Angel Launch Launches Startup Venture Summit

I was privileged to attend Angel Launch's inaugural Startup Venture Summit last week in Silicon Valley.  It was the perfect counterpoint in many ways to my Dreamforce 2013 experience.  The Salesforce honchos told their entire ecosystem which markets they wanted to penetrate and laid out the details of their platform updates.  Entrepreneurs at the Startup Venture Summit met investors and partners who could help them gain traction with a big ERP ecosystem.

That layout is typical of what you'll find at eBay's Town Hall venue.  I can be a very aggressive networker when I have a mind to do so but I now find that people at these events seek me out.  I'm sure my listing as moderator of two panels helped attract people, along with my pinch hitting moderation of a third panel at the last minute!

The first VC panel shared their perspectives on top trends.  Stars from Khosla Ventures, Draper Nexus, and Garage Technology Ventures were on hand to let us know that startups need to show investors their "map of the world" on how they will realize their vision.  Paradoxically, VCs are more comfortable funding a business that doesn't immediately need the money if said business spends more time chasing customers than investors.  They like product demos that are installed with customers.  I must agree, because there are way too many shelf-ready products launching at venues like DEMO that never make it anywhere but the showroom.  VCs like it when startups figure out the minimal amount of capital they need to solve their biggest risks.  I just did a Google search of "overfunded startup" to see the frustrations investors have when startups waste money just because they can.  We hear the term "traction" a lot at startup events but the VCs know the term is a proxy for sales and other metrics tracking external acceptance.

The next panel on attracting angels and family funds featured some investors I've known for a while, and a new media outlet named BayLive.  These guys have been around the block enough to know that pitching them something they don't care about is a waste of their time.  This was not the first time I'd heard the startup investing "T's" cited all in one place:  Team, Tech, Traction, Timing, and Total addressable market.  I don't think the set of T's is standardized because different gurus tend to reword them based on their investing preferences.  These guys were big on networking because strong networks share visibility and investor referrals.  Many investors prefer referrals from their networks of attorneys, bankers, and consultants over cold contact from unknowns.  One panelist modestly admonished startups to take money from well-known investors first if they have the luxury of choosing their investors.  I should add that name recognition isn't the only thing prominent venture investors bring to the table and that some third-generation investors just do it because it's the "family business."  I should also add that some banks go out of their way to offer startups a beginner's guide to the early venture ecosystem.  I'm thinking Umpqua Bank, New Resource Bank, and Silicon Valley Bank would be good places for startups to keep their cash if they can't afford a pedigreed introduction at Goldman Sachs.

The moderator for the panel on valuation, acquisition, and expansion strategies was a no-show so I jumped up to offer the conference organizer my services.  I was already there as moderator for two other panels so I might as well save the morning.  "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" was Seneca's ancient wisdom.  Well, I was prepared when this opportunity presented itself.  Salil Pradhan and Bill Reichert reprised their roles from the VC panel and got more specific on how startups prove their worth as they grow.  They commented that early stage valuations are too high right now, and I was tempted to refer to the infamous Bin 38 "Angel Gate" meeting from a few years back that tried to hold valuations down.  Ron Conway had the correct reaction to that ill-conceived plan.  Anyway, I asked our panelists what they thought of valuation models like the market comparable method.  They thought it was more useful in later stages as the exit event looms.  Early stage valuation is different because it accounts for how much money it will take to build the company, and entrepreneurs need reasonable data points to show early investors.  They also thought expansion strategies must be sales-driven, with a sales capability ready on day one to do CustDev.  The point is not to lead investors into discussing valuation, but to get investors to commit to a business model that can move up a sliding scale of growth.  Experienced VCs have seen that customer acquisition costs are unique to each company and are typically costly in early stages.  Startups that don't need money have the luxury of saying no to investors.  I suspect those startups are rare.  Rarer still are those that can negotiate from positions of strength at an exit.  Our panel felt that taking a decent exit early may be preferable to facing more VC-backed startups later.  I got two things out of my hasty entry into this panel.  First, the ABC of "always be closing" recalls Guy Kawasaki's lesson from "The Art of Rainmaking" that sales fixes everything.  Two, your network is your net worth, and the ecosystem of partners a startup creates looks even better when a potential acquirer wants to merge it with their own ecosystem.

I moderated my next panel on Big Data, analytics, and business intelligence.  Our topic had a huge scope but the collection of VCs from Fung Capital USA, North Hill Ventures, and Sierra Ventures had it under control.  I'm pretty sure the entrepreneurs in the audience benefited from hearing that product-market fit, tenacity, and fast-scaling sales were some of the things VCs want to see when evaluating early startups.  Stuff like proof of concept and financial due diligence come into play in later rounds.  These VC think ERP pain points exist in Salesforce's mobile integration and in customer in-store behavior prior to the point of sale.  Take note of that, entrepreneurs.  If you can meet those data needs and bridge the gaps between technology platforms, you've got an audience.  They also think that focusing on unit economics early on is a key to scaling up later.  Your high customer churn rates will look bad to VCs so get sticky customers whose lifetime value is clearly measurable.  I asked the panel if any non-transaction ERP functions like HR and supply chain management allow for disruption.  They said that supply chain forecasting is often guesswork and could benefit from data that saves margins.  They key is assessing whether an organization's IT mindset is amenable to changing other non-transaction modules.  The VCs had very diverse opinions on the types of KPIs enterprises should use for Big Data; they mentioned revenue per employee (FTE) should be at least $400K, and that the customer lifetime value must compare favorably to the customer acquisition cost.  Payback period matters too, because VCs can't wait forever before they see a return on their investment.

Some more experienced angels from SF Angel and World Capital Market were up next to present strategies for funding pitches.  My biggest takeaway was the importance of an attention-grabbing story, because investors will want to know what's in it for them.  A lot of the lessons from Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule carry over as long as entrepreneurs remember that execution matters more than the idea.  I liked that they understood how a founder should be ready to surrender the CEO role or a majority stake if that is what will help the company make it.  Their list of speakers to study for good habits includes Steve Blank and Alexander Osterwalder.  I've heard Steve Blank talk and that guy knows his stuff.

My moderator duties continued with a third panel on enterprise platforms, cloud services, and infrastructure. This was another huge topic for serious investors from RWI Ventures, Second Century Ventures, Opus Capital, Scale Venture Partners, and IPV Capital.  Once again, product-market fit emerged as a key early investment criterion but the size of a startup's opportunity and its whether its revenue growth is sustainable also mattered.  One VC surprised me by mentioning LinkedIn as a due diligence tool.  See folks, your network and professional history don't escape notice.  I personally like to use the name query functions on superior court websites to see if someone I meet has a history of bankruptcies or lawsuits.  I've avoided several potential business partners who had sub-par legal histories.  Anyway, my panelists thought universal connectivity has validated Big Data and users want it accessible 24/7 anywhere.  The roadblock to full implementation is that enterprises don't yet fully trust the public cloud for sensitive data and still use hybrids.  The type of customer an enterprise faces determines whether security trumps performance in the inevitable tradeoff.  Cloud solutions offer value to SMBs that have few tools but startups need to make adoption easy if they want to disrupt big models.  The switching costs and key features of the big providers' walled gardens inhibit customer switches, so the pain points would have to be pretty high to induce a switch.  I asked our resident chip expert whether Moore's law still holds; he thought it was still valid because quantum computing and MEMS can extend chip life.  Ecosystems matter because a startup has to participate in a community of contributors to open source hardware (Arduino) and software (Hadoop) to make them all happy.  Companies can add valuable customized layers on top of open source tech.  The investors like freemium product distribution as a good way to qualify leads, and app marketplaces are a good way to evaluate the size of a platform's ecosystems.  I'll close this one by listing these investors' favorite accelerators:  Y Combinator, InnoSpring, and NAR REach.  There you go, folks.  I know my recollections of these panels can be jumbled in a stream of consciousness style, but buried in all that knowledge are hints you can use to move your startup forward.

I had time to listen to one more panel on investment opportunities in Europe after I had completed all of my moderating duties (three panels!) for the day.  Europort is the EU's vehicle for trade promotion in Silicon Valley.  The Bay Area Council Economic Institute is becoming ubiquitous at these types of events by noting that foreign R&D facilities are growing in the Bay Area.  This panel's observation that virtual trade missions are economical for SMBs mirrored what I heard the US Commercial Service say at a trade promotion event several months ago.  The Euro-folks cut the audience a break by noting that an entertainment budget for a trade mission to Europe wasn't nearly as important as one for a similar mission to Asia.  I guess those old legends about drinking Asian business executives under the table in some Tokyo karaoke bar are true.  I had to do some of that during my years in South Korea in the late 1990s for different reasons.  Perhaps I should have done a lot more.

I was impressed with this AngelLaunch event.  It attracted the right experts and hit the right themes.  Entrepreneurs need to hear this stuff as much as possible in many venues.  The endless pitchfest circuit is always a gauntlet but the addition of crowdfunding kicks fundraising into overdrive.  Tech startups need a 24/7 presence on multiple fundraising portals that leverages the feedback they get at these summits.  I am totally looking forward to similar events from iHollywood Forum.  I'm ready for my close-up.  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sovereign Lithium (SLCO) Makes Me Scratch My Head

I got a random freebie mailer from some "economic advice" newsletter promoting Sovereign Lithium (SLCO).  I generally don't read newsletter publishers who claim to give advice because that is the proper function of financial advisers who hold NASD securities licenses.  I searched FINRA BrokerCheck for the newsletter's publisher and did not find a listing for his name.  Anyway, this article should be about the stock and not the PR.

Sovereign Lithium's management team has broad experience in corporate transactions but only one person listed at present has obvious experience specific to lithium production.  They have an option to acquire ownership of the Big Smoky Valley lithium property.  That's it, folks.  There's very little in the information they have posted that makes me think they have a solid plan to mine the site if they can raise the capital to buy it.

Read the 10-Q from October 25, 2013.  This company used to be called Great American Energy, and before that it was Southern Bella.  I have no idea what the previous entities' involvement in catering and entertainment has to do with lithium mining in Nevada.  Note the option to explore a property in British Columbia for rare earth elements.  I have no idea what that has to do with lithium either.  Note the admission of going concern doubts.

Here's the part where I sigh and scratch my head.  The SEC suspended trading in SLCO on November 19, 2013.  Sovereign Lithium issued a statement on the matter, and said statement is included in that 8-K dated November 19.  I'm not interested enough in this company to stick around for the opening bell when trading resumes in SLCO.

Full disclosure:  No position in SLCO, ever.  I am not a financial adviser.  I do not give financial advice to investors.  

The Haiku of Finance for 11/28/13

Happy Thanksgiving
Thank me for my pure genius
World should be grateful

Thanksgiving Day 2013 Cheer From Alfidi Capital

I'll continue my time-honored tradition of running my obnoxious mouth on Thanksgiving Day.  I love it and I can't ever fail to remind the world of my genius.

I'm thankful for the Thanksgiving Day buffet at the Marines Memorial Club.  I haven't attended it in several years but today I went back.  It's still an excellent value.  I gorged on turkey, ham, stuffing, and several kinds of pate.  The holiday meal is available for veterans and their guests at a venue that is one big "thank you" to those who've served in the US armed forces.  I'm very thankful that "Mickey" and his brainwashed Stolen Valor supporters were nowhere in sight.  

I'm thankful for being so much more intelligent than my critics, who invariably can't follow my logic and don't get my humor.  Haters just don't understand that I can say whatever I like and that I don't have any products or services for sale.  I love the extra Web traffic they drive my way.  

I'm thankful for all of the trade shows and conferences I get to attend in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They provide me with intellectual material for my blogs.  A few of them even provide me with speaking opportunities where I show off my brilliance.  The audience really does notice and the venture investing community in this area is taking note of my expertise.  

I'm thankful for all of the attractive women who adore me.  These gals hang on my every word and love being photographed with me in public.  Nothing enhances one's reputation in San Francisco like being associated with Yours Truly.  Check out the websites for San Francisco society photographers if you need proof.  

Finally, I'm thankful to be a citizen of the United States of America.  This is the greatest country in the world because I say so.  We're so awesome in spite of the greed, debt, handouts, cronyism, obesity, plutocracy, and other problems I've chronicled on this blog.  Americans are something else and I can't ever imagine not being one of them.  

Thanksgiving Day 2013 turned out just fine here at Alfidi Capital.  

Ceiba Energy Services (CEB.V) Still in Penny Territory

A totally unexpected message from Ceiba Energy Services (CEB.V) dropped into my inbox today.  I am not surprised because the conferences I attend certainly share my contact info with resource companies all over the place.  I'd like to see what this one's all about.  Since they're Canadian, I should ask what they're all "ab-oot," eh?

The team members all have long backgrounds in waste processing and energy, so you'd think they would know what's going on.  The problem for me is that the share price hasn't traded over a buck since February 2012 and has been on a long, slow decline for much of that time.  Any investor who bought the stock since its debut in January 2012 is underwater now.

They have plenty of clients but they're losing money.  I searched SEDAR and reviewed the interim financial report they published yesterday.  They had $CAD884K in cash on hand as of September 30, a lot less than what they had last December.  Their current liabilities have almost doubled since then and the deficit in shareholders' equity has massively increased.  I guess that's what they're all ab-oot, eh.

This company used to be called Cancen Oil Canada.  I don't care what they used to be called or what they call themselves now.  I don't want to hear from this company anymore.  I clicked "unsubscribe" to be sure.

Full disclosure:  No position in CEB.V, ever.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/26/13

Confidence did fall
Broke spenders need one last turn
Shop until you drop

Consumer Confidence Down Before Holiday Shopping

The holiday shopping season is almost upon us, although here in San Francisco it started maybe a week or two ago as Market Street retailers started hanging their fake Christmas wreaths.  It is fitting to note that consumers are starting off on the wrong foot.  The Conference Board reported today that consumer confidence declined again this month.  People must be really bummed about about something despite record numbers of SNAP recipients.

Here's a thought.  Local news shows can share helpful holiday tips on making a Thanksgiving feast from the last few bucks left on an EBT card.  That will go over well with Wal-Mart.  Maybe families could get creative and wrap up some old household items as Christmas gifts and put them under the tree just for show.  On second thought, they may not be able to locate a tree.  Blame the Fed for printing so much money that live trees are priced out of reach.  If the Fed doesn't stop its quantitative easing, we'll all be priced out of everything and no amount of SNAP will feed any of us.  The short-term hit to GDP would be a Scrooge-like price to pay but it beats living through hyperinflation in an unhappy new year.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Salesforce Shows Off Impressive Dreamforce 2013

I have been away from large enterprises for long enough to be in the dark about the latest developments in ERP systems.  I had heard of Salesforce (CRM) from other professionals but I had little idea of what they did.  That's why I had to check out their Dreamforce 2013 extravaganza.  I got the free expo pass but maybe next year I can convince these folks to let me into the exclusive lounge for the investor community.  Security around the entire campus was pretty tight and I was not going to be able to score very much free food unless I could locate some afterparties.

Check out that ginormous inflatable honeycomb.  The Dreamforce people said it was the largest inflatable structure in North America.  It took up the entire street outside Moscone Center and looked like the residence of some science fiction monster.  I was waiting for the Rancor from Star Wars to come out of there and start throwing furniture hither and yon.  It was probably supposed to look like a cloud but my imagination doesn't really match the corporate design mentality.

CNBC financial guru Jim Cramer was broadcasting from Dreamforce Plaza on the first day. Academic studies have shown that a portfolio of his daily stock picks would have underperformed broad market indexes.

My first glance at demos of the Salesforce CRM modules showed me just how far behind the technology curve the US government and its military still lag. A user with a high school education can drag and drop reporting tools into a Salesforce business intelligence dashboard in minutes. A similar analyst for logistics or intelligence systems in the US Army would need weeks of training on incompatible systems.

I started off with the AppExchange partner keynote.  I was unclear on their use of the "seats" metric as a measure of closing new accounts.  Some web searching tells me that seat counts are the number of users in an enterprise who subscribe to that company's license for Salesforce modules.  Okay, got it.  The Salesforce leaders speaking at this keynote expect an eventual $1T wealth transfer to the cloud and claimed that 70% of venture investment deals are now for enterprise solutions.  That confirms what I've heard at other conferences now that VCs have lost interest in consumer deals.  Salesforce calls their partners "ISVs" which I take to mean independent software vendors.  I can't see why they portray having 63% of their users with one app and 23% of their users with five apps as some kind of smashing success.  That divergence looks to me like Salesforce customers mostly prefer single servings rather than a smorgasbord of integrated products.  They introduced their market segment focus for the next year and I noticed that their six chosen sectors were all bubble-driven.  Automotive, media, consumer retail, financial services, health care, and the public sector are all at the peak of their employment curves because they are all driven to some extent by the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing.  I hope Salesforce can quickly pivot to serving the hard asset sectors once hyperinflation kicks in.

All of the AppExchange speakers concurred that business domain knowledge is way more important than tech knowledge when operating ERP systems.  That pretty much confirms what I heard at Decision CAMP about BRMS.  Domain experts understand verticals' performance metrics and can hire any tech mercenaries they need to build apps.  I totally admire Salesforce's ability to stroke their customers.  Time after time they showcased their biggest clients at these keynotes.  They invited even their smaller customers to get on stage and share their love for Salesforce solutions.  These small players get free publicity and independent validation for their business models just for standing on a platform at Dreamforce.  The VC money going to Salesforce's ISVs ($2B by their claim) must be driving the addition of accelerator-specific functionality to their AppExchange.  Let's see if accelerators start directing their startups to launch apps on AppExchange Accelerate.  I noticed that all of the men who spoke at this keynote wore conservative suits and ties.  The women wore conservative suits with no visible cleavage (darn it) and either pantsuits or dark hosiery (darn it again, I'm a leg man).  I've never seen such conservative dress at a tech conference.  I was in the back of this keynote going "Woo, Salesforce, yeah!" just to see who noticed my exuberance.  I exchanged smirks with a couple of nearby onlookers who were probably not Salesforce employees.

The Cloud Alliance keynote had senior Salesforce honchos Tyler Prince and Keith Block joking about who would have the best afterparty.  If these people want me at their afterparties, they need to tout free food and booze, plus attractive women.  The system integration consultants in attendance seemed to define themselves by the size of their practice they commit to working on the leading ERP brands, with SAP and Oracle as Salesforce's main competitors.  Consultants have the vertical-specific domain expertise that can figure out where Salesforce's solutions are supposed to fit.  Now I'm starting to wonder how different my career might have been if I had gone to work for one of these leading consulting firms instead of financial service providers.  I learned a new word from the parade of consultants on stage:  "enablement."  I attend these conferences to provide some enablement for my career, in every sense of that word.  The keynoters avoided mentioning the Affordable Care Act in their pursuit of the health care vertical, which is smart if they don't want to look bad when it is eventually repealed or just collapses.  Check out Gartner's Magic Quadrant rating for Salesforce because these square-jawed top execs sure like it.  A lot of these Salesforce guys on stage sure looked like former athletes or frat boys who grew up and parlayed their amiability into sales careers.

The conference even had a talk just for those of us who were new to Dreamforce.  They claim the title of the world's largest software conference but the metric they threw around of 135K attendees seems too high for the physical space of Moscone Center.  There's an obvious rivalry here with Oracle and some of my colleagues who attended told me later that Dreamforce is a lot like Oracle OpenWorld, which I unfortunately missed this year.  One meme that pervaded this talk and the entire conference was the Salesforce 1/1/1 philosophy of giving 1% of their time, product, and earnings to charity.  I think that's pretty cool.  These Salesforce acolytes said the line for Marc's keynote typically formed up early.  I had to admire the party-line worship of this guy because everybody was staying on message.

Marc Benioff had a conversation on disruptive innovation with Drew Houston of Dropbox.  Marc was sporting some extremely shiny customized Christian Louboutin shoes with cloud motifs.  Billionaire CEOs can wear whatever they please including custom high-tops.  They shared some baloney about Pearl Jam being authentic and not selling out.  Uh, fellas, Pearl Jam was the best-selling rock band in the world for years and now they have enough money to do whatever they want, including playing obscure songs in backwater venues.  I don't think major cloud providers want to go down that road.  This was the first keynote where I noticed Marc had what looked like a wearable device on his left wrist, which he later confirmed in his own keynote to be a Fitbit wristband.  I was expecting some major revelations about how to build a successful company but Drew's lessons were the same things I'd heard elsewhere about how the founder's role becomes less technical and more managerial as a company grows.  I was dismayed to hear that Dropbox pursued acquisitions as a hiring strategy.  That's something very large companies do to secure key talent in a few product development roles called acqui-hires.  A startup buying another startup just to hire a few people seems to me like a waste of money.  Hey entrepreneurs, you can can scale up your sales and technical staff through temp-to-hire firms and still be flexible.  Marc said he knows he's winning when boilerplate media stories appear about dominant players destroying him.  That's totally gratifying.  I want my own ego stroked by lots of negative press if it drives traffic to my site and blogs.

My first glimpse of Marc in action on stage with Drew was instructive in how rock star CEOs build successful personality cults.  Now I see why there was a line out the door for Marc's talk.  The earlier keynotes would burst into spontaneous applause when Salesforce executives announced the firm's successes.  There must be lots of employees planted in the high-profile keynotes to make that reaction look spontaneous.  Marc's emphasis on formalizing the 1/1/1 paradigm in Salesforce's ethos gives the firm an emotional hook when it engages customers.  I've also blogged before about how one of the key drivers of a corporation's culture is its CEO's personality.  Marc's public persona endorses generosity, innovation, pay-it-forward, and giving back.  People inside Salesforce who want to move up will follow suit or at least go through the motions in public.  People outside Salesforce who want to see what all the magic is about will line up for Marc's morning keynote because they want to be like him.  BTW, I noticed that neither Marc nor Drew were wearing neckties.  Real techies don't wear neckties.  Former fraternity/sorority types who gravitate to sales careers wear neckties because they have to impress the tech types who employ them.

Dreamforce uses its time efficiently. The top-tier stages were full of intermission speakers in between keynotes, hosted by longtime tech guru Peter Coffee.  Salesforce brought out their chiefs of strategy and trust (aka security) because that stuff matters in the cloud.  I guess major corporate events need warm-up acts.  I actually ran into Mr. Coffee (no jokes please) later in the week outside the conference.  He was a nice guy and his public persona is genuine.

Vivek Kundra gave his keynote on becoming a customer company, which of course supports the Salesforce theme of the year pushing the "Internet of Customers."  I tried to figure out what he meant by the market / sell / service / build hierarchy but I don't see how that's an improvement over time-tested customer acquisition cycles.  Sometimes corporations make up stuff as they go along because they can't remember the four marketing P's of product, price, placement, and promotion we all learned in business school.  Salesforce has to contend with Microsoft Dynamics in this space.  It's cool that Salesforce's tools have drag-and-drop interfaces so domain users can build their own dashboards.  They even have geolocation tools in there.  Man, I've really been away from enterprises.  The typical dashboard's team chatter and heavy graphics are reminiscent of Facebook's wall.  Their platform means no employee can hide from fact-based HR checkups, which is precisely why Salesforce will never be able to sell this to government agencies.

The next morning's keynote with Marc Benioff really did have massive lines for the main showroom, so I had to occupy an overflow room at the Marriott Marquis.  Salesforce continued to stroke their biggest clients and partners during the intermission displays.  I would like to know how companies define the ROI of splashy events.  Does all this hoopla with concerts and speakers add to net income?  The benefit of closing a big new account is lost somewhere in the aggregation of the show's total cost.  Salesforce's Safe Harbor statements prior to each keynote mean that we shouldn't make our investment decisions on anything these executives say, especially when they say how great Salesforce is at making things happen.  Read the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 to see just how hard it will be to sue any public company that says anything about itself.

Marc Benioff gave his long-awaited keynote.  I'm used to keynotes at trade shows that showcase industry knowledge and innovation.  Single-sponsor keynotes are mutual lovefests between clients, executives, and employees.  Huey Lewis and the News opened the keynote with "Back In Time" and they suck just as badly now as they did back then.  I know corporate events need acceptable, cleaned-up rock bands and these guys are locals.  Still, they sucked.  I liked "Back to the Future" when I was a pre-teen because I had only tasted mass-produced lowbrow entertainment in my youth.  My tastes are now far more refined.

Marc came out thanking everyone.  Rock star CEOs do that.  The whole point of opening with a rock band is to drive home the message that the CEO belongs on the same stage to receive unquestioning adoration.  He showed off his wearable medical device, his 1/1/1 philosophy, and the sick kids who eagerly await the completion of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.  I gotta hand it to this guy.  Nothing tugs heartstrings like images of sick kids smiling and getting well.  The advertisements around San Francisco for this in-progress hospital have been visible for weeks but only now did I draw the connection between that PR campaign and Dreamforce.  The health care sector is one of Salesforce's announced target markets and a big tax writeoff for Marc matches a UCSF business relationship perfectly.  I don't know whether UCSF is also a Salesforce client but the utility of such a showpiece partner for the health care sector is an undeniably compelling affiliation.  The overflow audience applauded the UCSF video and I looked behind me to see if the Salesforce hall monitors for the room had instigated that reaction.  I was curious about that because I've never seen such behavior in an audience that was physically remote from a speaker.  I could not identify the corporate plants and was left to wonder whether a corporate do-gooder model is really so compelling to people.  Sentiment has implications for B-Corporation certification if it can live without paid prompters.

Prime Minister of Haiti Laurent Lamothe, supermodel Petra Nemcova, and superjerk Sean Penn showed up to thank Salesforce for supporting their charity work in Haiti.  I've seen photos of Petra without her clothing so it was disappointing to see her fully dressed.  She's very articulate but that's not what held my attention while the camera had her in frame.  Sean Penn looked like he didn't even want to be there.  Actors who think they can rehab their immature images through high-visibility charity work have not all figured out how to be better human beings.  I'm pretty sure I saw superinvestor Ron Conway in the audience but Marc didn't ask him to speak.  Marc segued over to Huey Lewis for "The Power of Love" and they still sucked.

Marc has a very expansive speaking style and uses words like "amazing, phenomenal" pretty heavily.  He went into overdrive when his co-founder Parker Harris drove a Tesla onto the stage dressed like Doc from, you know it, "Back to the Future."  They had obviously rehearsed their skit about how the Salesforce1 platform was the future of cloud computing but they kept breaking character with winks and nods.  Come on, we know this great software thing isn't really from the future and neither is the gag "CEO Mood Detector" app with Marc's image.  It was a cute skit.

Some other top Salesforce honchos pushed their product lines' cloud capabilities.  We're going to see service techs wearing Google Glass and sales reps pulling Big Data feeds from their smartwatches during prospecting meetings.  Sales managers love drip campaigns but they never worked for me.  They will work now because every drip will be fully and automatically customized.  Marketing managers can even design campaigns around query results because everything comes with linked data.  Parker Harris went "Back to the Future" to show us the tech that's already here.  Don't even try to fight the future.  There's no going back.
I had to see this live and not just for the cameos of people like Meg Whitman.  Some combination of ringers in the audience and the emotional hook of philanthropy set the tone for Marc's sales pitch of Salesforce.  Emotional connections matter and even the smartest people in the audience think this way.  Marc described his people as "doing God's work" several times.  Good for him if he means it.

I made my rounds through the expo floors in between these keynote sales pitches.  The one most important technical point I learned is that services exist to transform MS Excel files into apps.  That is a technique I'll have to explore.  Some of the financial models I've built might work as freemium apps if I can configure them for app stores.

There was some breaking news from Dreamforce 2013:  Alfidi Capital takes over NBC Universal.  Nah, actually I just occupied a chair in the fake studio NBC set up for its exhibit.  Let's go in for a close-up.

The week's biggest news story should have been this heartwarming tale from San Francisco about Yours Truly, a veteran-turned-financier who takes Dreamforce 2013 by storm.  There was no teleprompter but the TV camera was impressive.  Teleprompter mastery has been a prerequisite for the Presidency since 1960.  It has not yet overtaken the bloodline requirement.

I had one very serendipitous moment as I headed into Moscone South for another keynote.  I ran into Parker Harris, co-founder of Salesforce, at Dreamforce 2013.  Mr. Harris is on my right (your left).  The other gentleman in the photo is the chief developer of their new flagship product, Salesforce1.  Mr. Harris is probably a genius given his academic background and he was super-nice for agreeing to a picture.  He is rich enough and smart enough to do whatever he likes in life.  That's my inspiration for attending.

I didn't get much from the keynote pitch for other than an appreciation for Salesforce's ability to obtain some very cool Internet domain names.  If clean data is really valuable then I need to get my Excel models out as apps, so the world can see how I value data as a financial asset.  I skipped a lot of the other product keynotes because I just don't use the products, and I missed out on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's event due to a conflicting event I had to attend in San Jose.  I know she's hot and all that but I heard she was boring.  I'm busy, folks.  It's not easy being a CEO because I'm in demand.

I also did not attend the evening concert with Blondie and Green Day.  Blondie isn't my type of music but those who are curious can check out their lead singer Debbie Harry for the many unclad figure studies she gave the world in her youth.  She looked magnificent and she is not a natural Blondie, if you know what I mean.  I have never seen Green Day live but they've always been rumored to be a corporate simulation of a punk rock band.  No corporate event would ever employ a real punk band so that must be the case.

One very important Salesforce partner appeared as the warm-up to the Facebook lady's keynote.  Veterans2Work had an expo booth and was invited on stage to showcase the veterans who completed Salesforce Administrator training.  They need more corporate sponsors to pay the vets' tuition.  The organization uses Salesforce products to manage their contacts and recruiting pipeline, and they credit the 1/1/1 model for providing them with support.  I hate to think that vets would be unemployable without training on specific product brands but that's the reality of today's workplace.  I like to think that companies doing business with the federal government would hire veterans for their security clearances and knowledge of the procurement system.

Sheryl Sandberg's keynote scored me a free copy of her book Lean In.  I am now curious about how many bestselling hardcover titles are driven by bulk corporate purchases as event giveaways.  Marc and Sheryl came out and the first thing he mentioned was her early mentor Larry Summers.  I noted from Marc's background that he was also recognized very early in his career and fast-tracked to stardom.  It's clear to me from these anecdotes that corporate leaders must show early promise to become top leaders.  There are no such things as late bloomers in large enterprises.  Any college graduate who isn't selected for a management track by their mid-20s will stay at the entry level forever.  If you don't get your Springsteen / Cox "Dancing In The Dark" moment where someone plucks you out of a crowd for stardom by age 25, you may as well become an entrepreneur because otherwise you'll spend the next four decades warming a chair in customer service.

I don't think I need to repeat Sheryl's great points on empowering women other than to note that her comment on laundry chores got a sustained audience reaction that even Marc wouldn't touch.  I can totally relate to the discouraging messages Sheryl says women get about their career ambitions.  I got those same messages because of my military background.  Marc gave Sheryl a light hug at the end of their talk, but would he have hugged a male executive in the same way?  He sure didn't hug Parker Harris during their earlier "Back to the Future" keynote skit and they've had a much more involved history of working together.  If we're going to take Sheryl's advice on addressing gender differences then let's start by addressing hugs.  Either everyone gets one or nobody gets one if we're serious about treating people equally.

Marc also said during his talk with Sheryl that he likes military metaphors, "surge" and all.  I'd like to know whether Salesforce hires military veterans, either from Veterans2Work or other sources.  I'd like to know whether they participate in Hero2Hired or Hiring Our Heroes.  Gender equality begets equality for other underrepresented demographics.

The only other keynote I had time to attend on the final day of Dreamforce was Dr. David Agus.  Everybody who's anybody has a Steve Jobs story and Dr. Agus said Steve asked him to change the title of his book to something more positive and declarative.  Steve understood marketing.  I liked what the doctor said about how controlling complex emergent systems doesn't mean we always have to understand them.  My analogy to finance is that capital markets are complex emergent systems and that a hedge fund manager's estimation of how stock prices change is less important that knowing how simple macro inputs will move markets.  I'll betcha human health works that way too.  I'll also betcha that the quantified self plus gamification motivate people to make healthier choices.  The doctor said move more and you'll live longer, and your body likes regularity in sleep and meals.  That's awesome advice.  I'm no expert on proteomics or microbiomics so don't ask me how those fields operate.  I do think that the Human Microbiome Project is a high-level counterpart to DIY biohacking, and that the ACA's Federal Data Services Hub will eventually be able to push the results from this project and other research efforts into the HealthData stream.  Health sector disruption must be data-driven.

I did score a free copy of Dr. Deepak Chopra's latest book on my way out of the keynote room but I didn't have time to hear him talk.  The guy is controversial and I've never studied him closely enough to hold an opinion of his work.  Give me some time to read his work and his critics' views.

Dreamforce was totally worth my time.  It inspired me to host my own high-level business event.  I am seriously thinking about launching "AlfidiFest" in 2014 to capture the spirit of self-promoting, ego-driven corporate showcases.  I can't promise anything that will give Dreamforce or Oracle OpenWorld a run for their money right away but it should carry some familiar themes.  My AlfidiFest will feature attractive women providing me with grown-up beverages and entertainment.  The main event will be me showcasing my genius.  The most suitable venue might be a bar in SoMa but if it succeeds then I'll have to consider Moscone Center in future years.  Until then, there's always next year's Dreamforce.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/21/13

Cell phone ban review
Telecom sector rejoice
More noise in the sky

ACA Problems Call For Corporate Crisis Management

The ACA debacle keeps getting worse.  Backtracking on promises makes the optics even worse.  California operates its own exchange but still denies plans that don't meet federal standards.  Some hospitals are opting out of other state exchange plans.  Sticker shock is spreading to older demographics that were supposed to benefit from better coverage.  Doctors are increasingly alarmed at the financial disincentives they'll face in providing care to more patients.  The federal ACA exchange and its supporting mandates for state plans are the equivalent of a private corporation's major product rollout.  This product is not delivering affordable value and its entire supply chain among care providers is gradually shutting down.

A corporate CEO facing multiple problems from a single product roll-out would have a crisis management plan in motion.  The best crisis management case in corporate history was Johnson & Johnson's response to the Tylenol poisonings of 1982.  The company issued a nationwide recall of its entire product line for that brand and went public with messaging not to consume its product.  That decisive action saved the brand in the minds of consumers.

Business theory doesn't match government reality.  I don't get the sense that the federal government is treating the ACA's national exchange rollout as a product crisis to be solved.  Contractors are working hard on fixes to the website but the messaging has reverted to clarifying past promises.  The messaging on how the product fix is progressing is overwhelmed by noise on who promised what way back when.  No amount of messaging can overcome a poorly performing product.  A malfunctioning exchange website that does not deliver service, process payment, or protect against fraud will harm the consumers it was meant to help.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/20/13

Big shot clientele
Expect premium service
Paying through the nose

JPMorgan Will Be Just Fine After Fine

The media needs to quit making a big deal out of JPMorgan's record $13B fine.  The fact that it's the biggest  fine in history means little to a firm that reported $21B in net income in 2012 and $471B in cash on hand.  Only $2B will be a cash payout; the rest is the equivalent of a tax reduction gift.  The worst legal troubles are probably over for the firm.  The chance of government regulators bringing criminal charges against an entire SIFI are IMHO slim to none even if some junior mortgage brokers have to walk the plank.

JPMorgan's senior executives were ready to backstop Social Security and EBT payments while their risk managers scratched their heads figuring out whether such a move would materially hurt the company.  It's obvious to me that very little outside of a comet impacting this planet could materially affect JPMorgan's viability as a going concern.  It really pays to have a great relationship with government regulators and to have senior government officials as clients of a private wealth management division.

BTW, any ongoing criminal investigations should provide an excellent opportunity for ambitious managers to conduct internal housecleaning by fingering their rivals for elimination.  Moving up the ladder inside a big bank is all about throwing someone else under the bus.  I have no special insights into JPMorgan's internal politics or culture that would lead me to guess who will be the sacrificial lambs.  I just know human nature pretty well.

Full disclosure:  No position in JPM at this time.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/18/13

Trustworthy finance
Have moral and legal strength
Do right in business

Departing Two Untrustworthy Sides In A Local Conflict

Ethical dilemmas are nothing new in business.  I've faced a few in my career and resolved them in ways that did not leave me financially, legally, or morally liable for other peoples' lapses.  Self-employment makes this much easier.  I have the luxury of walking away from people who are nothing but trouble.  I am doing so once again.

Two opposing sides have spent months trying to convince me of their righteousness.  Their protestations of innocence now fall upon deaf ears.  I have listened to both sides and researched their allegations through independent means.  I have concluded that neither party is trustworthy because their mutual claims are wildly out of touch with reality.

I do not need to reveal details of this conflict.  I am no longer a part of this conflict.  I have no financial or legal ties to either party.  The parties to this conflict will hear nothing more from me should they choose to continue to attempt contact, other than basic salutations.  I'm done.  

Alpha-D Update for 11/18/13

This month's portfolio update is pretty much like last month's update.  My covered calls on FXF expired unexercised.  I renewed them because I believe the Swiss franc has stabilized in value and I'm willing to extract some cash flow.  My cash-covered puts under GDX also expired unexercised.  I renewed them because I wouldn't mind picking up more cheap shares in the beaten-down gold mining sector.  Gold mining stocks are not a perfect hedge against high inflation.  I expect to eliminate them completely at some future date when inflation makes them desirable for the masses to buy.

I remain long FXA and FXC with no changes, because I am confident that the Canadian and Australian governments will not devalue their currencies in competition with a US dollar devaluation.  I maintain my long put position against FXE in the expectation that the euro experiment will unravel.  I still have plenty of cash, ready for . . . an event.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Alfidi Capital At K-TECH Conference For Latest In Software Innovation

I attended the K-TECH Silicon Valley 2013 conference this month.  The organizers had a full agenda of exhibitions and speakers for me to check out.  They also had free food, which I never turn down.  I had to see what South Korea's KOTRA and NIPA wanted us all to learn.  I managed to capture myself in the hallway mirror as I snapped my traditional self-aggrandizing conference photo of my name badge with the conference banner.  I must be getting twice as good at everything I do.

The introductory speakers announced the results of the US-ROK ICT Policy Forum.  I'll bet this will make it even easier for Samsung to sell Android smartphones here.  Samsung is also building an R&D center in San Jose, which means we can look forward to even more H-1B Indian tech workers taking jobs that American engineers are qualified to fill.  I like Korean FDI in the US if it means more hot Korean women come here to manage the assets.

The Samsung keynote on innovation in a connected world reminded everyone of something I already knew, namely that battery capacity isn't keeping up with smartphone performance and that batteries can't scale up because of their obsolete chemistry.  My regular readers know that I have already identified mobile device power management as a pain point begging for disruption.  Samsung pays attention to the potentially disruptive research from academia.  I do too, which is why I attend technology transfer conferences and subscribe to TVC's Innovation magazine.

Microsoft's keynote on the future of software development was understandably silent on the disappointing sales of its own mobile devices.  They must know Android owns this market but I heard no hint of a new mobile strategy.  Their new search strategy is to have Bing display results from algorithms, machine learning, and friends' opinions in different panes but I can't see how well that translates into a mobile display.  I just don't believe Microsoft is capable of truly embracing the disruption that further progress in mobile and cloud integration will bring.  Their product managers are notorious for killing ideas that threaten to cannibalize their sales and Microsoft's acquisition strategy partially reflects these internal politics.

VentureBeat moderated a panel of Asian hands on the future of Big Data and cloud.  I like this quote the best:  "Data is the new oil because you can generate wealth when you drill for it."  Some ambitious analytics pro should use that quote in their CIO's next all-hands IT meeting when someone asks for a Cloudonomics calculation.  I'm now sufficiently intrigued by Stanford's US-Asia Technology Management Center to consider attending their seminars.  Their representative on the panel made Korea's dilemma quite clear; Korea has a national desire to avoid domination by foreign software firms but its own big companies have difficulty with open innovation.  I must admit that Korea gives us an interesting national case in why Big Data adoption has been so slow.  Big business' internal culture resists it and startups aren't culturally favored enough to push innovation.  IMHO it will fall to non-Korean firms that have a Korea presence, or Korean firms with a Silicon Valley presence, to truly drive full Big Data / cloud integration in the Land of Morning Calm.  The panel got really contentious towards its end when it considered whether Korea could truly leapfrog a generation in consumer tech or would lag in enterprise tech.

The next panel on hot software trends was the VCs' turn to tell entrepreneurs what they want to see from startups.  They observed that brand new markets from brave innovations create many more multiples of value than better / faster / cheaper incremental innovations.  I agree, but those innovations are so much rarer than incremental improvements and the opportunity set of pain points from incrementalism is quite large.  In other words, I say the serial entrepreneur who pursues the low-hanging fruit of small changes will experience more chances for exit events.  I see nothing wrong with getting paid a few million bucks every two or three years for running great acquisition candidates.  I was intrigued that the panel thinks Twitter is an A/B testing vehicle in CustDev, where startups ask their many followers to pick their preferred product style.

These panels start to run together after a while and I wasn't quite sure what to make of the one on software convergence and industry advancement.  Feel free to visualize software comparisons at Information is Beautiful while I figure out what else they wanted to show us.  I don't agree with the idea that scaling complex hardware from "zero to billion" valuation is getting faster.  Hardware is harder than software, not easier, and it takes longer to fix.  They pointed to ISSIP's goal of connecting entrepreneurial teams at many universities but IMHO that isn't going to make hardware development any faster until they all get some hands-on skills in rapid prototyping.  I do like one very brilliant thing the panel said about a startup's ecosystem.  They advocated thinking of who else in an ecosystem makes money when a startup sells its product.  Consultants, system integrators, and vendors all stand to gain and acquirers want to massively increase their own value by introducing an entirely new ecosystem to their own ecosystem.  That's the kind of analysis that reveals the value of a startup in an acquisition.

A former Army officer turned VC moderated the next panel on new business opportunities from mobile evolution.  I had to leave early and didn't get much from this one other than identifying eMarketer as a source for mobile market segment data.  I will never understand the "freemium" monetization model in gaming or why so many programmers think they can mint money by marketing another arcade-style game for mobile.  Tons of those things already exist and hardly any of them will make it.

The second day of the conference brought out some more keynote speakers and panelists in addition to the startup pitchfest.  I think a lot of these Korean startups are going to have a hard time in Silicon Valley for the cultural reasons I mentioned further up this article.  They will have to seek sponsorship from corporate venture arms.  I also wonder why more Korean startups don't try to first penetrate the large Korean-American population in Los Angeles.  That's an excellent test market to assemble use case data before pitching for funding in Silicon Valley.  I also noticed a generational difference in the way native Koreans now address public audiences.  The older Koreans who worked for their government's agencies would bow to the audience in the traditional style before beginning their scheduled talk.  The younger Korean entrepreneurs did not bow at all to the audience.  Korean culture is changing right in front of my eyes.

One of the pitchfest panel judges revealed something anecdotal about the finance sector.  He bemoaned that many people who work at a particular corporate venture arm only got hired there because they knew someone on the inside, not because they had VC experience.  He also said that he knew someone who was hired to be a senior investment banker at a well-known investment bank just because he had dinner with another senior i-banker and came across as likable.  I have no idea who these people were or whether the stories are true, but it just makes me shake my head because it matches what I experienced in wealth management.  People in high-powered finance make hiring decisions based on likability and familiarity, not competence.

The final panel gave me an opportunity to ask my only question.  I wanted to know whether the fashion community's accelerators were working with the tech community on wearable tech.  I may not have been clear enough in getting my question across because one panelist thought I was making a statement rather than asking a serious question, but the answer seems to be an affirmative that the fashion sector will build a business around a good tech idea.  The other panelist remarked that an Indian conglomerate is putting sensors into jewelry.  I'll also note their mention of Guidewire Labs' G/SCORE assessment method for startups.  That reminds me of the US government's technology readiness level (TRL) system.  I'll bet using the G/SCORE and TRL together in a pitch would make a big impression on savvy investors if they prove a startup takes itself seriously.

The K-TECH show was also my chance to get some refresher education on transfer pricing, which will be a subject for another article.  I also got my first interaction with a human-sized touchtable that allowed users to try on virtual fashions.  That's coming soon to a clothier near you.  Once the system is perfected, you'll never order clothes off the rack again because mass customization will stitch a perfectly fitted garment just for you on the spot.  I'm too cheap to pay a premium for instant clothing so I'll wait as long as it takes for the prices of 3D printed garments to come down to my level.  Kamsa hamnida, Korean tech folks.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/16/13

Broker transaction
Registered firm must sponsor
No way to freelance

Silicon Vikings Bring Out Big Data's Competitive Advantages

I attended one of the Silicon Vikings business seminars this week for the first time.  I get tons of business invitations and I can't resist the ones with discount codes for free admission.  The vikings lined up a panel from VentureBeat, Splunk, Facebook, and Think Big Analytics to discuss the competitive advantages of Big Data.

The Splunk guy gave us the rundown on how CIOs should mine machine data for business intelligence.  Hadoop has definitely grown from its origins in clickstream capture.  The original definition of Big Data focused on its volume, velocity, and variety.  Splunk adds "variability" to that mix while other data practitioners prefer to add "veracity."  Landlords are using data streams from HVAC systems and building traffic to predict occupancy.

The panel's insights into Big Data prove to me that privacy is gone forever.  The Facebook guy described how corporate HR profiles now capture manager effectiveness, attrition predictions, and school sources of the best hires.  Everything that can be collected, will be collected.  It all becomes part of our permanent records to follow us wherever we go in life.  A lot of marginal performers are going to be permanently underemployed once even the slowest government bureaucracies harvest Big Data from their HR systems.  The businesses that can't afford good ERP solutions or don't use their SaaS solutions like Salesforce to the fullest extent will be permanently stuck with low-quality data, inefficient supply chains, and poor employees.

Panelists did recognize the importance of Big Data in crossing functional silos and discovering duplication of effort.  My readers know that I now take decision management very seriously.  I say CKOs need to own the DM center of excellence in an enterprise to ensure that teams can draw data from anywhere.  That is one way to fix the oft-heard criticism that CRM data is hard to link to the rest of the ERP system.  I did not consider external traffic data to be significant until the panel remarked that it includes user downloads of software and documentation.  I had previously considered the Small Data from product managers to be the most immediately useful stream because it included sales, returns, and unit costs.  Their comments about external traffic made me think back to the time a few months ago when I downloaded a white paper from IBM and I had to log on to their site to complete the download.  My contact info is still floating around in IBM's piles of casual contact records.

Here's my final observation, linking this Big Data stuff to my other recent discoveries.  The cross-functional nature of the kind of Big Data opitimization this panel discussed is the reason a CIO cannot also be CKO, at least in very large organizations.  The KM effort requires a cross-functional effort that touches domain users and the CIO's analytics teams need a KM intermediary when their work crosses paths with the domain users in product groups.  The good news from the panel is that Salesforce modules now have built-in business intelligence dashboards.  Domain experts in business groups no longer need to call IT every time they need to build BI tools.

I plan to attend more of these social functions from the various chambers of commerce and business groups representing international interests.  There were in fact some model-quality Scandinavian women in attendance at this vikings event.  Everything you're heard about the beauty of tall, blonde, Nordic women is true.  That's reason enough for me to return.  I can't wait until the Swedish Bikini Team gives a talk at Silicon Vikings.  

Batkid Has Just Begun to Fight Crime in San Francisco

Batkid is winning accolades for his crime-fighting escapades yesterday in Gotham City, aka San Francisco.  I'll suspend my cynicism for once to congratulate the kid and his supporting team for showing America that San Francisco is a fun-loving city where everyone can get on the same side for a worthy cause.  Complainers who disliked the traffic holdups could have easily planned alternatives for their daily routes, as this event's highlights were telegraphed to the public for weeks.

The big show brought some attention to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  Chronic diseases are expensive to treat.  The fun events from Make-A-Wish probably cost little but provide good value in palliative care.  The debate over effective health care policy in this country should consider the ROI of money spent by private research charities and whether the Affordable Care Act helps them perform their missions.

San Francisco is still beset by major problems that only a determined crime-fighting superhero can solve.  I have some suggestions for Batkid's next targets should he choose to continue his winning streak.  Check out these evildoers.

TARP recipients.  The big banks all around us still benefit from government largess.  They earn risk-free profits by borrowing from the Fed at zero to buy long-dated Treasuries.  Artificially low interest rates allow them to book gains from home foreclosures on their books.  Home prices in San Francisco are sky-high once again thanks to flippers, speculators, and private equity funds whose all-cash offers drive homes out of the middle class's reach.  I've been railing against this injustice for years but I can't fight Wall Street alone.  This situation cries out for Batkid's special brand of remedy.

Striking BART workers.  These union dirtbags have held the entire Bay Area hostage on two separate occasions in 2013.  Their demands for more compensation and fatter benefits for less work constitute highway robbery.  Government employee unions are seriously ripping off riders and taxpayers.  Help us, Batkid!

Military "Stolen Valor" cases.  These phonies deceive veterans' groups and their supporters for years.  They wear falsified military decorations on their uniforms; just Google "stolen valor" enough to see the official proof.  They are active in San Francisco and elsewhere.  They don't have the Riddler's fashion sense or the Penguin's umbrella tricks, so they should be easy pickings for a caped crusader.

I don't have a Bat Signal to send out like Commissioner Gordon so I'll just have to wait for faithful man-servant Alfred to read this in Wayne Manor.  Twenty years from now Batkid, aka Miles Scott, is welcome to return as a grown-up Batman and receive the thanks of a grateful city if he can solve these serious problems.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Haiku of Finance for 11/13/13

Manage decision
Match logic to business rule
Optimize routine

Decision CAMP 2013 Gathered Decision Management Rules, Tools, Drools, and Schools (of Thought Leaders)

I had to check out Decision CAMP 2013 down at eBay / PayPal headquarters to see what has changed in the decision science discipline since I studied decision modeling in my MBA program way back in 2001.  I'm all about making good decisions and I usually make better decisions than most people.  Decision science practitioners and theoreticians came to share knowledge on how large enterprises optimize decisions.

Carole-Ann Matignon, the CEO of Sparkling Logic, informed us in her welcome address that what used to be known as "decision rules" and "expert systems" back in the 1990s are now part of the "decision management" (DM) discipline.  I began building a theory throughout this conference that knowledge management (KM) and DM should be linked in an enterprise.  Her talk on the links between Big Data and "big knowledge" clarified that DM should automate decisions that will improve profitability and decrease the costs and time dedicated to routine operations.  I get that DM practitioners should document the soft knowledge in domain experts' heads so it can be codified into business rules.  I still think the KM people who manage taxonomies for storing and retrieving said knowledge need to be involved in transforming that knowledge so users can make sense of the finished rules.  KM people don't always have the technical skills the DM people use to mine Big Data.  They have to work together.

Neil Raden from Hired Brains showed us how to compete on analytics in his keynote.  I was relieved to see that Neil broke down analysis into four types, only two of which require advanced degrees in math.  Types III and IV are the kinds of data assembly and filtering that the rest of us ordinary business types can execute.  The uber-quants in Types I and II will refine business rules based on input from the rest of us provided those rules are focused on the business' key leverage points.  Read all about this typology in Neil's blog article on "Understanding Analytics Types and Needs."  Neil is excellent at breaking down the hard work of analytics into something that business domain experts can use and his presentation on "Big Data Analytics:  The Art of the Data Scientist" is a must-read.  I agree with Neil that there's a huge opportunity for analytics in social benefit analysis and DataKind has project examples the social capital community can use for inspiration.  Neil's request that managers think probabilistically won't go over well with most humans who are wired to act first and rationalize afterwards, but that's what we have to do to remove the layers of abstraction that separate data from reality and create faulty analysis.  Neil showed us the example of Anscombe's quartet to demonstrate that applying the same decision rule to four different business cases just because they have the same regression error will cause real world problems.  Neil also advised us to use A/B testing within an adaptive model (i.e., one that applies continuous improvement) to update models because they degrade over time.  His bottom line is that "type shifting" data work from quant scientists down the chain to relevant domain experts makes it more useful because business domain knowledge matters.  This requires mentoring within the organization so that the analytics typology does not become a lifetime caste assignment.  I'm pretty sure the KM people will be doing much of that mentoring.  Neil recommended studying Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow along with the Abilene paradox to grok the human factors in DM.  I'll make a mental note to read his book with James Taylor, Smart Enough Systems.

Speaking of James Taylor, he was up next on the agenda to discuss the DM journey.  I opted for this talk as opposed to the other track because I'm a domain dude, not a scientist.  I'm not ready for the double black diamond Olympic downhill ski run so I'm staying on the bunny slope.  James breaks down the DM process into discovery, services, and analytics.  Discovery means decomposing the KPIs that require decisions into identifiable points that can be mapped into matrices using scoring sheets.  I suspect that there are not many good decision templates in many verticals and that a market will emerge for flexible decision models much as the market for data models.  The services stage of the DM journey introduces the business rule management system (BRMS) that works like an IT event processing architecture.  The BRMS "rules engine" archives a log of how rules execute, allowing transparency.  A lot of BRMS design starts with data mining that produces decision trees as output and each tree branch becomes a rule.  The journey into analytics IMHO looks like the hardest part because it requires tolerance of probabilities.  That echoes Neil Raden's thoughts above.  I asked my first question of the conference about who owns the DM process, because I had a suspicion that the KM team would end up with ownership if it wasn't clearly defined.  James answered that KM owns the rules portion and IT's analytics team owns the processes.  He added that in the financial services sector, the risk management business group is often tasked to handle the processes.  I get the part about the analytics team assembling data mining tools but I say the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) will have to construct and monitor the analytics workbench.  I also think the CKO will have to monitor whoever owns the enterprise's top-level SWOT analysis so that the BRMS isn't just blindly dumping a "big bucket of rules" and producing GIGO.  I agree with James that DM's value comes from being able to change its processes without changing its inputs, but I'll add that the BRMS processes must support the firm's strategic direction revealed by that SWOT process.  My question scored me a free copy of James' book Decision Management Systems.  Thanks James!

Tuesday's keynote on writing concise rules was mostly over my head.  I learned about Red Hat's Drools BRMS but I noticed that Red Hat is now encouraging migration from Drools to its more robust platform.  I guess Drools is the developer community's DIY solution.  I'll leave the parsing of refraction for rule firing to those even geekier than me.  Drools code makes it easy to write set-oriented rules that are more concise and easier to execute.  The biggest point I got out of this talk is that writing concise rules reduces the time interval between firings.  This implies that more efficient rules can screen more data.  I think that matters for DM programs that screen many Small Data feeds.

The CTO panel's discussion of technical issues made it clear to me that the KM and business domain people who define rules must know some basic coding, at least until providers create BRMS products that are comprehensible to non-statisticians and non-coders.  KM pros will have to learn rules languages like Drools just to make sure domain experts can communicate with IT/s analytics teams.  Building rules gives granular insights into how data is collected and stored in data warehouses.  Analytics tasks and traffic are orders of magnitude larger than rules execution, making rules the tail that wags the dog in DM.  Decisions proliferate at the routine operational level and their effects add up in the aggregate.  Optimizing DM won't get them all correct the first time so continuous process improvement is necessary.  I had never seen rule families displayed before but that's how rules engines group rules for execution, so the panel argued for structured tables where less-technical users could build rules in business language rather than code.  You know something, that's almost like pressing the "easy button."  It's too bad that running decision tables to encourage such user empowerment is so hard.  I wonder whether big ERP providers like SAP and IBM have built such simple solutions.  I'll bet easy-to-use DM products will be disruptive in Big Data and their makers in the startup world will be good buyout targets.  Graphic DM products will fill ERP back-end gaps and manage Small Data streams from IoT deployment.  The panel mentioned that automated rules generation from data is a future possibility but it can be dangerous without deep business knowledge.  Poor data quality makes poor rules with GIGO.  I do not share the panel's pessimism that the lack of generic rules templates stems from a lack of generic object databases, or that reluctance to share proprietary data gives away advantages.  Facebook and Google have published tons of white papers on how they solve technical problems.  I think there's more disruptive opportunity available in building abstract logic templates for industry verticals.  This will probably work best initially for open source systems like Drools or Hadoop to prove the approach is viable.

KPI's talk on using The Decision Model (TDM) in BRMS was more bunny-slope speed effort for non-coders like Yours Truly.  Here's my translation.  Domain people build business process models separately from the business logic that IT analysts build.  These process models produce complex flowcharts and DM consolidates many choice points into simpler flows that manage sequences.  We design DM to identify those choice points that channel a business process into a completely automated channel.  The rule family is a two-dimensional table where several conditions lead to a conclusion.  Business logic sets the conditions within that table.  These rule families link to inferential relationships that that lead to logic-driven decision that are worth managing.  Each business unit tasks its domain subject matter experts to whiteboard skeletal decision models until the unit's business rules are built.  The models are finished when all data needed to fill them is available.  The IT analytics people will then populate the model with Small Data streams.  TDM is a descriptive way of governing this whole process by assigning responsibility, determining workflows, and seeking managerial approval with change documents.

OpenRules presented on building smarter decision models.  The philosophy behind rules-based optimization reminds me of the PERT/CPM coursework I completed many years ago as US Army second lieutenant.  I didn't quite get the stuff about constraint satisfaction problems or the JSR 331 standard.but people more skilled than me use them to solve cost functions in resource allocation problems.  If only I knew some Java I could use these tools to calculate simple data points from automatic feeds that I could display live on my Alfidi Capital site.  OpenRules' Rule Solver has an Excel component that may be more suitable for my needs.

Sparkling Logic's adaptive decision management talk revealed that decision goals are sometimes contradictory.  The tradeoff between constraints and speed requires DM to either predict and optimize or learn and adapt.  The version of A/B testing known as "champion/challenger" testing determines whether an existing model should adapt to revised conditions.  Well-designed challengers move the champion towards its optimal value.  IMHO Big Data will generate huge amalgamated streams.  Adding an adaptive DM layer to all algorithms underlying decision trees and other products will enable the algorithms to adapt in real time to changes in the underlying data.  This moves the DM paradigm closer to the automated rules generation that one of the earlier panels felt was unfeasible.  I also think that identifying errors from adaptive learning shows how analysis can get out of tolerance and produce sub-optimal solutions.  Correcting mistakes keeps business processes on track to an optimal state.

I missed the final Tuesday panels due to a prior commitment but I returned Wednesday for the financial services presentation track.  The brave new world in finance for DM started when GSEs issued multiple changes to their automated systems and regulations in recent years.  Using DM methodologies can help alleviate bottlenecks in mortgage underwriting and enforce quality control standards GSEs will accept.  When I heard someone advocate a rules center of excellence in an organization to break silos, I immediately thought of the CKO's role.  KM reps will have to play a role by reviewing rule documentation standards so that rules are speedily adopted into engines.

PayPal had something to say about detecting and stopping fraud.  Different risk sources (credit cards, account hijacking) imply different rule families are needed for each logic engine that screens each Small Data stream.  PayPal promoted its rule writers from domains and gave them technical training, which proves my earlier point that domain experts must have some technical skills like coding to serve on cross-functional teams.  IMHO no matter where you work, you must apply ROI to DM rules.  Comparing money spent on DM to the revenue loss avoidance likely from a DM effort determines whether it's worth making the effort to catch fraud in an uncontrolled domain.

The talk about insurance claim fraud once again proved that companies traditionally deploy a BRMS solution separately from an analytics solution.  The new trend is that DM increasingly consolidates rules and analytics into linked suites of solutions.  I infer that this is a prerequisite for integrated DM suites to plug into the next generation of ERP systems.  IMHO there must be disruptive gaps where DM solutions link to ERP solutions.  If Salesforce and other SaaS providers don't offer DM solutions, entrepreneurs can create tech that closes these gaps and solve pain points.

The scheduled FannieMae presentation on rule management was cancelled, which is fitting because FannieMae and all other GSEs deserve to be cancelled out of existence as punishment for their roles in blowing up the housing sector.  I wandered into the health care track's presentation on complex event processing (CEP).  I discovered that Drools Guvnor is considered to be a KM system.  Local groups' rule writers can upload their own knowledge definitions.  This kind of knowledge engineering transfer of human understanding into AI systems is the gold standard for the KM-DM interface.  IT pros need tools like Apache Maven and Git to track project workflows as the AIs are built.  I asked whether Drools Guvnor could interface with SharePoint, the only KM tool family I've used.  The answer I got was that there's no direct connection but users can build web-based interfaces.  I sure would like to see them used in tandem with a linkage.

I returned to the finance track to hear NASDAQ OMX talk about how they use BRMS to obtain a competitive edge among stock exchanges.  Their customer segments have different trading needs and the exchange used multiple steps to determine fee changes before implementing BRMS.  It's good that they compared the ROIs of the old and new ways of doing things but I think a more appropriate apples-to-apples comparison would find the old ROI of the old data and old rules together.  Historical data does matter but the new rules generate their new ROI from new data, not old data.  New data/rules versus old data/rules is how I would have framed the comparison but I don't run an exchange.  The NASDAQ guys think rules can identify their most profitable clients and potential growth segments because new pricing strategies drive frequent rules changes.  This talk made me reflect on my fixation with SharePoint and why I still think it's relevant.  Domain rule builders can post their updated rules tables to SharePoint.  That's how DevOps people can easily pull them and re-map data flows into the rules.  See folks, it really does work when you plug KM tools into the DM development process.

The finance track ended with a panel of all of the track's speakers.  Compliance really maters because the exchanges must maintain archives of their rules and metadata of the rules' authorship histories.  Moving data storage to the cloud saves money by allowing the IT department to decommission old data warehouses.  They shared good stories but I came away thinking about how a financial services firm would use DM to innovate.  I gather that DM enables reactions to competitors' moves by driving rules changes.  My concern is how external scanning translates to a strategy pivot and business unit directives.  Who in the enterprise is charged with using SWOT as a scanning matrix?  Who updates the balanced scorecard?  These are integral to ensure that DM reacts appropriately to environmental changes.  Where should the DM center of excellence (COE) reside?  Under the COO or CKO?  It's mainly an optimizer for internal operations but it needs KM input and governance.  In financial services, DM-COE is probably in the Risk/Compliance business group.  Is the CKO important enough to be on equal footing in the C-suite with the COO and CIO, or should the CKO be subordinate to the COO?  What are the professional associations for DM practitioners?  Decision CAMP may be the first purely DM body.  DM combines operations research, KM, quality assurance, and IT functions so it may warrant its own professional home somewhere.  Check out the BPM Institute, the Decision Analysis Society of INFORMS, the Decision Sciences Institute, the Business Rules Group, and FICO's Decision Management Community for the foundation knowledge of this discipline.

The final speaker discussed technical work in Grailog visualization that was way beyond my understanding.  The bottom line is that Grailog combines semantic expressions and social expressions.  In Web 2.0 usage it connects people to data and creates contexts for both of those sets.  I couldn't begin to explain graph inscribed logic if I tried so I let my mind wander back to business topics during the presentation.  Someone should write the DM version of Cloudonomics so the KM and IT communities can see basic ROI calculations for setting up rule families and templates.  I let my mind wander some more and started thinking about all the hot chicks who will be attracted to DM careers once they find out that Yours Truly, the epitome of manliness, can speak articulately about the topic.  After all, gorgeous women just can't help themselves around me.

This was a pretty mind-bending conference.  I got exposure to subjects that have really evolved since I first calculated posterior probabilities for a decision tree and worked out utility functions over a decade ago.  I may not need to learn to code after all if these DM tools keep evolving to the point where tables and charts allow domain inputs in plain language.  Decision CAMP kept me well-informed for three whole days and well-fed most of that time with free food.  I'm definitely adding the DM sector to the bodies of knowledge I actively track.