I Predicted Remote Working

Ed note: This was written in 2007 at timberry.bplans.com … looking back from 2024, it seems prophetic.

I admit it. I’m a hypocrite. I worry about global warming, and people, and how much humanity we waste every day in large cities all over the world with people stuck in traffic, moving their physical bodies from their homes to their offices, and back. I believe in the abstract in telecommuting as a good idea for not really saving the world, but delaying slightly its descent into chaos and destruction. So why am I a hypocrite? Because my own company discourages telecommuting.

I don’t think I’m atypical. There are a lot of times when running a business means compromising with some extremes.

In my defense, we’re in Eugene, Oregon, a college town of 150,000 where the commutes are way easier than in any freeway-clogged major urban area. Some of our people live outside the town 20 or 30 minutes away, but most of have fairly short drives, five or 10 minutes.

I paid my dues with commuting through heavy traffic (nine years in Mexico City, and 12 in Silicon Valley) so I’ve been sympathetic to the idea of telecommuting for years. For whatever reason my memory has stamped forever a time I was sitting in a taxi in Tokyo traffic, in the early 1990s, thinking about how much humanity was wasted every work day, in larger cities all over the world, sitting in traffic.

What brings this to mind today, with thanks to Steve King of Small Biz Labs for the tip, is  ABC News covering the virtual office and (implictly) telecommuting with a piece they called Any Time, Any Place Management. What’s interesting to me isn’t the story itself — hey, most of us have known about telecommuting for a long time now — but rather the recognition in the mainstream. ABC is noting that larger companies (they use IBM as an example) are opening up to this, bringing it into the mainstream.

Back then, stuck in traffic, maybe 15 years ago now, it seemed to me that this was an unrecognized major problem facing the urban portion of humanity, a problem that needs solving. At the time I was consulting extensively with Apple Japan, doing a lot of work from my office in Eugene OR, using email and telephone. I did have to go to Tokyo about one week a month, though, and I didn’t like it. I particularly didn’t like getting from one place to another in Tokyo when it involved any means of transportation other than walking or subway. And, for that matter, subway in non-rush hours.

I solved my commuting problem by moving to Eugene OR (subject of a recent post on this blog) but that didn’t make me forget how bad it was to lose a couple of hours a day to traffic. However, here comes the compromise. In this company we like to have our people on our team together during the day, in our one location, mostly a bunch of cubes. We like the instant communication involved, the immediate contact, the sense of team. Programmers talk to other programmers, and marketers talk to other marketers.

Years ago we tried working with programmers in Pakistan, and although the people were competent, the outsourcing didn’t work well for us because they were on the other side of the world, asleep while we were awake.

It does make a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. Think about trendy for a second, the problem of global warming for example, and then if some of the smaller things we do makes a difference, how about taking a significant percentage of people off of the road — less fuel, fewer emission, aside from the wear and tear to the human spirit. Sure, telecommuting doesn’t work for a lot of jobs like retail sales clerk or construction workers or traffic cops, but what percentage of the work force doesn’t really have to go from one place to another to work? I used to think about that when caught in traffic. There should be a campaign, a global building of awareness, I thought.

One roadblock was the idea of acceptance by employers. Does somebody working from home contribute as much to a company as the poor commuter who moves the physical body from home to office and back again every day? Now, today, this ABC news story is a reminder that mainstream employers are increasingly more likely to accept the idea, and, back in the real world of small business, I’m not. Not, at least, except for some special cases and special circumstances.

Like I said, I admit.

Revising Mexico Decades Later

I just finished a week off with some of my family on the beach in Mexico, specifically at Villas del Sol in Zihuatenejo.

Mexico is my country in law. My wife of 37 years is Mexican, born and raised in Mexico City. We lived in Mexico City from 1971 to 1979. Three of our five kids were born there. and again for several months in 1981.

I was once a “Mexico expert.” I was with UPI in Mexico City for three years, and with McGraw-Hill World News in Mexico City for six years. I accurately predicted the 1976 currency devaluation, in Business Week, months before it happened. That was the first peso devaluation in 28 years. I covered the Mexico oil discoveries of the middle 1970s. I was a consultant with McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City in 1981. During the 1980s I consulted with Apple on it’s ill-fated Apple de Mexico venture. I still speak fluent Spanish. I can still give a two-day business plan seminar in Spanish, which I’ve done twice in the last three years.

Expertise, however, doesn’t last. The Mexico I knew no longer exists.

Loyalty, on the other hand, does last. Mexico was very good to me as a young man just starting a career and a family. I was writing for UPI at the age of 23, and for Business Week when I was 26.  Strangers were generally easy to deal with, accepting of a young American. And for that I feel like I owe Mexico the respect of reminding you, gentle reader, what it used to be.

When I first lived in Mexico City in 1971 it was a city full of trees and music. I drove my car from the Hotel de Mexico area to the downtown newspaper district every day in about 15 minutes, and, miracle of miracles, parked it on the street in front of the office. Today the drive would take 45 minutes and parking on the street would be impossible. We used to go to the Satelite area for a movie on a Friday night, a 10-minute drive on the Periferico; the same drive today would take an hour or two each day.

An interesting fact: a few years ago my wife’s nephew, who lives in Mexico City, swore he dropped his girlfriend because she lived in one of the northern city neighborhoods and he lived in the south of the city. Just as well, I suppose, because now he’s happily married to somebody else, and they have a daughter.

And perhaps the most disappointing change is the safety. My in-laws worry about me when I visit: “Tim, it’s not like it used to be, it’s not safe anymore. Be very careful.” I’m not supposed to get into the wrong taxis.  I’m not supposed to walk around the streets. When we lived there, Mexico was a very safe city, much more so than any US city. It was almost like Tokyo. We could walk in the evening anywhere, and feel safe. No longer.

Ah, but then there is also the bright side of it, the fact that natural beauty like the bays of Zihuatenejo doesn’t fade nearly as fast as expertise. It was a village back then, it’s a city now, and I hate cities; but it’s still beautiful because it sits on the warm Pacific ocean surrounded by hills. Villages grow into towns,  but some manage to keep some of their charm. Aside from the beaches you have some beautiful colonial towns and cities in the interior, like San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato, both of which I’ve visited in this millennium and are still beautiful.

Mexico City is one of the three largest cities in the world. It’s Anthropological Museum is amazing. It’s full of great restaurants. People there like foreigners. But like all large cities, the traffic is miserable, and the smog depressing. Living there is very hard, but it’s worth a visit. Stay in the main places and you’ll really enjoy it.

And Mexico still loves its tourists, treats them well, and respects them, more so than most of the countries I’ve visited lately.

My ending thought, another amazing fact: when I first lived in Mexico City there was no one-word Spanish equivalent for the word “smog.”

Reflections on Family in Business

Does the world disrespect family business? Is there an unpleasant assumption of nepotism?

When I started Palo Alto Software, back in the middle 1980s, it was about me and business planning and a few good clients and a stubborn insistence on eventually selling boxes instead of hours. When it started as Infoplan in 1983 my oldest child was 11 years old.

They didn’t teach family business at Stanford while I was getting my MBA degree. It was all consulting and analysis and high-end buzzwords. But they didn’t teach entrepreneurship either, just a single course in “small business management,” taught by Steve Brandt.

So years pass, those children grow up, and I discover family business in the best possible way.  I’m proud. They are now educated, successful grownups, with degrees from Notre Dame, Princeton, NYU, Whitman, and one still not finished, a sophomore at Stanford.

Two weeks ago I named my daughter Sabrina Parsons CEO and her husband Noah Parsons COO.

Nepotism? Let’s see … they are both Princeton grads, they built a London company distributing our software as an independent venture, they’ve managed our marketing as share grew from 50 to 70% and sales by 30%. They were employees #1 and #2 at epinions.com, which eventually cashed in for tens of millions. Noah was employee 101 at Yahoo! and Sabrina managed online marketing for Commtouch.

So now I have what seems like an ideal situation and an excellent example of the upside of family business. I can step down from president-CEO and refocus my job as president on writing, teaching, and living business planning content, the parts of the business I’ve always loved. And at the same time I have a strong management team, experienced, dedicated, and completely trusted.

I can’t imagine a better scenario.