2014: A Look Back at Some Intriguing Stories

We live in interesting times. Here are some entertaining stories from 2014. Not all of them involved big money. In fact, a lawsuit was threatened over $4, while a billionaire declared money to be a great pain.

It was the year that a Chinese man nicknamed Crazy Jack Ma became one of the richest people in the world, an amazing innovation in plane design was introduced, a car service becomes indispensable in many cities but is banned in several countries    and a few funny food fights made the news. We even found out about a secret Internet.

Although he couldn’t even get a job with KFC in his hometown of Hangzhou, China and instead made $15 a month teaching English at a local college, Jack Ma is now one of the world’s richest men.

The founder of Alibaba, a business-to-business online platform, he saw an opportunity with the rise of the Internet in China. When Alibaba went public in September, raising $21.8 billion, it was the largest global IPO in history. Ma’s net worth is estimated at $23.2 billion, although he’s not basking in his wealth, calling it a great pain.

This was the year Uber, the car service, became available in more than 50 countries and 250 world cities. The company recently raised $1.2 billion with investors valuing the company at $40 billion, one of the most valuable private companies on the planet. Five years ago it was just an app.

Its success has come with controversy, however. It’s been banned in Germany, France and some cities in India, while taxi drivers have protested its presence in London. Thailand, Spain and the Netherlands have ruled it illegal and protests have been filed in other cities. Some users have deleted the app after expressing concerns over privacy.

A windowless plane, which could be flying our skies in a decade. Photograph: Tomasz Wyszo/mirski/ww.dabarti/CPI

A windowless plane, which could be flying our skies in a decade. Photograph: Tomasz Wyszo/mirski/ww.dabarti/CPI

Speaking of transportation, we won’t need a window seat for a view when a new kind of aircraft is introduced — one without windows. The Centre for Process Innovation, a U.K.-based cutting edge technology association, has plans to create an aircraft where the windows will be replaced by full-length screens with full views of the exterior. The new design will significantly reduce the weight of airplanes, which will reduce operating costs. Maybe they’ll be able to afford to bring blankets back to coach.

And speaking of planes, this recent story of taking customer service standards too far really amused me. Cho Hyun-ah was incensed when a senior flight attendant for Korean Air Lines served her macadamia nuts in a bag rather than on a plate.

The daughter of the chairman of the airline and also head of in-flight services, Cho ordered the plane to return to the gate and threw the senior flight attendant off. She was forced to resign her position and I don’t think Daddy was any too pleased with her when the story went viral. He apologized for her foolish behavior and asked for the public’s forgiveness.

Then there was the story of the associate professor of the Harvard Business School. Seems Ben Edelman was enjoying take-out from a nearby Chinese restaurant when he discovered something horrifying. Something he had to threaten legal action over. Was it a rodent part in his food that caused such anguish?

No, it seems his despair was over his bill. He had been overcharged $4. That led to an increasingly aggressive and ridiculous series of emails where the owner of the small family restaurant explained that the prices had not been updated from their website. Citing a Massachusetts statute, Ben demanded “triple damages for certain intentional violations.”

He wanted $12 back. And threatened to hire an attorney.

The kicker? He teaches in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit at Harvard. Seems to me his negotiating skills are a bit lacking. But he did admit the food was delicious.

I was certainly in the dark myself about the “Darknet,” the dark markets on the Internet. Seems you can buy drugs, weapons and even hire a hit man, all from the comfort of your home. European law enforcement officials, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security announced a crackdown in November, shutting down more than 410 hidden services.

Here’s to a wonderful 2015 for you and your loved ones. And may we all look forward to many more entertaining stories in the coming year.

And some of these things actually keep me in business.

Innovation Distinguishes Between a Leader and a Follower

That’s a quote from the most famous innovator in recent history — Steve Jobs. To be successful, a company has to continually innovate. Here are just a few examples of companies that did and are thriving.

Will Housh was a member of the third generation of a family-owned HVAC business. While it was successful, he saw that e-commerce was coming to the HVAC industry while others in the business were unwilling to embrace the new technology. “Even though our family business was generating sales of more than $12 million in a good year, just how sustainable are mom-and-pop businesses in the age of the Internet?” he wrote in the article “How to Make an Unpopular Decision.”

He saw the industry changing. Customers were starting to use the Internet to connect with contractors and get lower prices. So he started an online and retail business, eventually selling his grandfather’s company to focus on his new business, Housh Inc.

“Whereas our old school HVAC business never made more than $12 million in annual revenue, Housh, Inc. has doubled revenue annually in the past three years and expects $20 million in revenue for 2014. In 2011, our business had three employees–it now has more than 20,” he wrote.

In 1909, James McGraw, a former schoolteacher and founder of The McGraw Publishing Company, and John Hill, founder of The Hill Publishing Company, merged their companies to form McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. Despite being primarily known as a textbook company, it was always at the forefront of changes in technology in education.

In 1989, it introduced the first computerized publishing system to instructors who could use it to customize their textbooks. In 2006 it became the first to offer online assessments and in 2009, it created a Center for Digital Innovation, launching McGraw-Hill Connect, an all-digital teaching and learning exchange for higher education. In 2013, McGraw-Hill completed a sale of its education division to Apollo Global Management for $2.5 billion. It’s doubtful a textbook company could have generated that kind of sale.

3M started as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company to mine a mineral deposit for grinding-wheel adhesives. It struggled in its early years but then invested in technical innovations, such as the world’s first waterproof sander. In 1925, a lab technician invented masking tape, followed years later by cellophane tape, both with the brand name Scotch. (Fun fact: the story goes that the lab technician asked a painter to test an early version of the masking tape and it fell off. He told the lab technician “Take this back to your stingy Scotch bosses and tell them to put more adhesive on it.”)

Ensuing years brought new electro-mechanical products, with the pharmaceutical, radiology and energy control markets added in the 1970s and 1980s. Last quarter, 3M set a record with $8.1 billion in reported sales.

Continued innovation is vital to the success and growth of a company. As the physicist William Pollard said, “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

In the next column, I’ll discuss ways to encourage innovation at your company.

Professions of Our Founding Fathers

As we approach 4th of July, which marks the 238th anniversary of the birth of our independence, I found myself pondering the professions of our Founding Fathers, in particular those who signed the Declaration of Independence, and what they would think of the world today.

There is little doubt in my mind that as representatives from the 13 colonies sat sweating in those heavy, uncomfortable clothes in the sweltering Philadelphia heat, struggling to craft what would become the Declaration of Independence, they could never imagine the business world of the 21st century.

It’s interesting to speculate what would have shocked them the most. Would it be the acension of women to positions of power? The huge number of large global companies? The size of the United States and its population growth from 2.5 million in 1776 to more than 320 million today would certainly present a surprise.

Of course, the advances in technology alone in the past 238 years would be enough to astound every one of the delegates. I like to imagine Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, amateur inventors themselves, adapting quickly and rushing out to buy the newest Apple products and carefully selecting their Twitter handles.

All white males, those 56 delegates who gathered in 1776 to craft a document to tell Great Britain to take a hike and form a new country ranged in age from 26 (Edward Rutledge from South Carolina) to 70 (Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania.)

There were several lawyers, which was the most popular career at the time. Others were farmers, merchants, businessmen, writers and physicians. Some attended seminary, with a few ministers among them, while many were serving in public office.

Most were well-educated, although Benjamin Franklin had no formal education past the age of 10 and like several others, was self-taught. While many were from wealthy families, several of them lost their fortune during the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania was a professor and physician who published the first American textbook on chemistry.

A few didn’t fare so well as businessmen. Samuel Adams from Massachusetts was an unsuccessful brewer, who would be mighty surprised at the success of a beer named after him. Two signers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, later became president.

There’s no way of knowing what the Founding Fathers would be most blown away about the state of American business today. But one thing I believe would make them all smile. They each had a hand in creating the United States, which has the world’s largest national economy with a GDP of approximately $16.1 trillion. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Happy 4th of July!