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The Roundup July 17

Byran Dorgan

If the Senate can have clowns, why can’t Treasury have a cartoonist?

If you don’t have a sense of humor about these things, they’re not funny.

The Treasury Department is scrapping plans to hire a cartoonist to lighten the mood of its employees who manage the nation’s $1.2 trillion debt, after a senator questioned its merits. . . .

In a federal solicitation issued earlier this month, the bureau said it was looking for a contractor to conduct two, three—hour presentations for its employees on the benefits of humor in the workplace and the connection between humor and stress relief.

The contractor would have to be able to “create cartoons on the spot” about jobs at the bureau, the solicitation stated. . . .

“Of all the agencies, the Bureau of Public Debt should know that there is very little that is funny about today’s economic conditions,” Dorgan said in a statement released Friday.

(“Treasury Cancels Plans to Hire Cartoonist,” Associated Press, July 17) To be honest with you, I don’t think this is such a bad idea. Okay, okay, it’s taxpayer money, but I’d rather pay for a cartoonist to raise the spirits and productivity of our brave soldiers in the Department of Public Debt than pay for, oh, a free gym for U.S. Senators. Or, for that matter, their salary. Health care benefits. Pension. Haircuts. At least the folks in the Department of Public Debt are doing real work managing the debt rather than — how to say it politely — irresponsibly creating the debt in the first place (cue spotlight on Senator Dorgin). And if there’s little that’s funny in the current situation, why does Senator Dorgin insist on being a punchline?

Okay, this is not funny.

[Michigan’s] unemployment rate rose to 15.2% in June. It was the highest of any state since March 1984, when West Virginia’s unemployment rate exceeded 15%. . . .

Rhode Island had the second highest unemployment rate at 12.4%, followed by Oregon at 12.2%. A total of 15 states and the District of Columbia had unemployment rates of at least 10%. . . .

The national unemployment rate rose for the ninth straight month in June, climbing to 9.5% from 9.4%, and hitting another 26-year high. Nearly 3.4 million jobs have been lost during the first half of 2009, more than the 3.1 million lost in all of 2008.

(“Michigan unemployment tops 15%,” CNN Money, July 17) That’s 7.5 million jobs lost since the recession started. 7.5 million families suffering, cutting back, losing their homes. Meanwhile, at Goldman Sachs, everyone’s smacking their lips over their coming half million dollar bonuses.

Google grows up.

Google Inc. said Thursday its online advertising business appears to have stabilized, striking a hopeful chord after a string of difficult quarters.

Eric Schmidt, the Mountain View Internet company’s chief executive, made the comments while reporting second-quarter earnings that showed the continuing effects of the gloomy economy. But he cast the modest results – a 3 percent revenue gain that marked the slowest growth in Google’s history – as a demonstration of “resilience in a difficult environment.”

Google said second-quarter profit was up 19 percent to $1.48 billion ($4.66 per share) compared with $1.25 billion ($3.92) a year ago. Many analysts attributed much of the increase to Google paying a lower tax rate, not to an improvement in its core business.

(“Google profit and revenue increase,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 17) I beg to disagree. Lower tax rate, sure. But the recession has finally taught Google to rein in unnecessary expenses, reduce its staff, cut out some perks (like bottled water), do serious financials on new projects (rather than greenlight any flighty project that sounds good), and, finally, take profitability seriously. For instance, all reporting of Schmidt’s talk neglected his news that YouTube should be profitable very shortly. Purchased for $1.65 billion a mere two years ago, YouTube has been more or less a worldwide Google charity for all of us who like posting or watching videos. No-one knows exactly how much money YouTube has been flushing down the toilet (the server costs alone must be over a billion dollars), but you know the adults crashed the party when YouTube started pre-roll advertising this year, which they’d been resisting as if it were the devil’s fare itself. However, it took a bit too long for the adults to take over — they’ve lost the premium content providers to Sometimes it helps to grow up before the grown-ups become your competitors.

And, speaking of Google, they’re doing an end run around Microsoft by targeting colleges.

For more than two years, Google has approached colleges and universities with a near-unbeatable offer: provide unlimited hosted e-mail and other applications, all branded by the institution and delivered free of charge.

Now those efforts are starting to bear fruit. The search giant is providing those services to 4 million students at colleges and universities and is signing up new campuses at a rate of 70 to 75 a quarter, effectively taking over a huge chunk of their IT costs. The pitch is particularly attractive as universities labor under tougher economic conditions and to accommodate students that increasingly come in expecting access to advanced (and free) communications technologies. . . .

Microsoft is taking the threat very seriously. Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner told Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference Wednesday it is increasing partner spending from $2.9 billion to $3.3 billion this year to beat back the threat of Google Apps to its enterprise software business.

(“Google Looks to Campuses for ‘Cloud’ Converts,” Advertising Age, July 17) Never underestimate a.) the power of free and b.) building lifetime customers by giving your service away when it really counts for them. Of course, all Microsoft has to do is launch its planned free cloud version of Office and that will undo two years of Google’s work. But this is an object lesson for start-ups and small business everywhere.

I have said it over and over again . . . customer service is about the customers you don’t have. Just ask United now that millions of people know about Dave Carroll’s guitar.

The musician was traveling to Nebraska for a one-week tour in spring 2008 when United baggage handlers tossed around his $3,500 guitar and broke it.

After wrangling with customer service for nine months, and getting no help, Carroll promised a United representative that he and his band, the Sons of Maxwell, would make three song videos about the frustrating incident. . . .

The first video was released last Monday on YouTube, and the video has received more than 3 million views, it’s been replicated dozens of times — with each of those receiving tens of thousands of views — and it’s been covered in USA Today, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and Boing Boing, according to Nielsen.

Carroll released a video statement indicating that United responded and offered compensation. He said he doesn’t want the money, and that two more songs are still coming. The second will be funny, he said.

United announced via Twitter that it had made a $3,000 donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Nielsen says.

The video resonates with people. For anyone who has had an infuriating experience with customer service, this is sweet revenge and Carroll is a stand in for ourselves.

(“‘United Breaks Guitars’ has become an Internet meme,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 17) You need to clip this little news item and keep it constantly posted in view. If you think this doesn’t apply to your startup or small business, I want to have a few words with you. “Twitter.” “Facebook.” “YouTube.” “MySpace.” “LinkedIn.” “Hi5.” Remember: customer service isn’t only about your customers, it’s about the customers you don’t have, as well.

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