Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Cameron Johnson: You Call the Shots (Review)

Author: Cameron Johnson, with John David Mann, Foreword by David Bach.
Title: You Call the Shots: Succeed Your Way --and Live the Life You Want --with 19 Essential Secrets of Entrepreneurialship.
Publication: New York: The Free Press, 2007. ISBN 10-4165-3606-X. 260 pages, indexed.

Well, this book provides a lot more cheer to review than did the one on the previous post. It’s really upbeat. Now 23, Roanoke, Virginia raised Cameron Johnson has (beginning at age 9) started and run an unbelievable number and mix of businesses, some in the “real world,” many on the Internet.

If Donald Trump reinstantiates “The Apprentice” – watch out. He does come across as The Apprentice. His advice reinforces all the business values demonstrated on that show (especially in the boardoom scenes), and Cameron actually got to meet The Donald at age 9 – by asking to. (Remember Trump’s “How to Get Rich”? Cameron’s book really isn’t about that at all.) That becomes his first tip, “Put Yourself Out There.” Cameron’s absolutely first business was door-to-door selling of fresh produce tomatoes, just as Donald Trump’s first assignment on the first “Apprentice” was selling lemonade in New York City streets.

The book progresses through the nineteen tips, with each tip a chapter that relates some more of his autobiography, including a story of another business or other episode, like his time in a private boarding school when he had to struggle to get Internet access. Even then, he managed to keep in the running. Genuine businesses continued to prosper after the "dot-com" bubble burst.

Like Mr. Trump, he maintains that the principles of good business are the same everywhere. One of his most important principles is branding: YOU become the brand. Of course, that brings up a couple of subjects: reputation (since I’ve discussed online “reputation defense” on this and other blogs), and domain names. It would seem to me that if “you” are the brand, your name should be a good domain name. (Try his.) In fact, one of young Cameron’s businesses was in “flipping” domain names, and he got a visit from a process server in 2000 (at age 16) for registering a domain name that Ford Motor Company claimed was one of its trademarks. In fact, Ford had not bothered to register the mark as a domain or even register it as a trademark for several months, and their claim sounds totally frivolous.

Well, I’m getting off track. His principle idea is that YOU and the Customers are the business, no matter what. People make money when they deliver goods or services that people want and will pay for. People get in trouble when they get obsessed with securitizing (yes, flipping) everything, and that is what leads to these bubbles and busts, none of which relates to sound business models. Fair enough.

One of his most interesting ventures had to do with selling ads with a CPM click revenue model in 2000, a model that is common today. By this time, as a teen, he had learned to hire programmers and manage them. He had to anticipate the problems inherent in the business model, develop a conceptual solution, and invest in and manage the work to solve the problems. With Internet advertising, a major potential problem is the temptation for fraud, and the need to develop algorithms to detect it and thwart it automatically. There was also the business problem of increased supply and a dwindling demand after the bubble burst in 2001.

His ventures tended to be practical in nature, and tended to leverage small capital investments with high transaction volumes, but always in an ethically acceptable way. (He talks about business ethics toward the end of the book.)

Toward the end, after piddling with business courses in college, he goes back to the “bricks and mortar world” of auto sales, and it seems like his motive is sort of like, well, paying his dues. His father always wanted him to have a “real job,” not all this Internet stuff – except that his Internet ventures always involved in solving real customer-related problems. In fact, they were always based on simple things – like swapping gift certificates. He mentions, in conjunction with the "real world" issue, that Japan presents a paradox: while it has led the world in consumer electronics, it has a cohesive family structure that discourages unmarried adults from leaving home and doing things on their own until almost thirty (and other have noted Japan's low birth rate, as in the posting below).

Cameron has a penchant for starting a business, proving that it can make money, and then selling it and moving on. Sometimes he would just close it, rather than take the legal risk involved in selling a marketing list of customers.

At this point, I do start to wonder about the point of it. “Business is business,” and he runs through a variety of them, like the varied, numbers-driven gauntlets that Donald Trump makes his contestants run through. He admires the concept of Dell Computers, eliminating the middleman. He does compare business creativity (the expression of ideas in the business world) to artistic creativity (on p 218). But I think more can be said about merging the two. Some of his business ideas do seem to come from socialability: enough interest in an social contact with people to garner of sense of simple things that they "need" or "want"; so some of his techniques might not work as well for introverted people. He thinks it is OK to work in several businesses at the same time and does not pay a lot of attention to potential conflicts of interest that have concerned me over the years.

A couple months ago, I met young composer Dominik Maican at a concert where one of his works was premiered. We had a discussion about a couple of “business” ideas. One was film music. I pointed out that must movies have poorly composed music for end credits. (Movie scores have taken a tumble since the best of John Williams.) He could take up that idea as a challenge: compose a 7 minute work for a motion picture end-credit that fits the emotional tone of the movie but that is performable on its own in concert. There would be a demand for this. I think some motion picture directors and studios would like an idea like this. But the “idea” would require “business” salesmanship. A related idea would be “modern” (dissonant, extremely rhythmic) dance music that can work on both the disco floor (eliminating the awkward transitions and cuts) and concert hall (even if somehow related to rap or hip).

That brings to me. I wrote a big “political” book in 1997 in order to explore some social and political problems, well explored elsewhere on these blogs (and familiar to many of my visitors). I felt motivated to do so not by money but by something traumatic that had happened during my “coming of age” that I believed, with a lot of conviction, relates in an unusual way to some critical issues today. I didn’t make (much) money, but I didn’t lose it either, because I kept costs low (eventually with “print on demand”) and took full advantage of the Internet, with inexpensive disk space, bandwidth, domain names, and the like. I needed very little capital, and I did not need to borrow money or go into debt. The goal was to attract publicity, which can be both good and dangerous.

I’ve talked about how to “make money” and this is not the sort of thing that lends itself to “transactions.” It needs more concept, something like knowledge management, as I’ve outlined before, something that expands on what others already do (like with Wikipedia). Since so much of the content is “free” much of the income for an idea like this might have to come from advertisers, so Cameron’s experience with his CPM certainly relates. (There are all kinds of data on what kinds of ads and placement strategies bring the biggest revenue streams.)

I’ve also been looking at, for a few years, in what it would take to bring the substance of the book to film. There are all kinds of “business” issues and instrumentalities – investors, legal filings, actors and writers guilds. I’ve networked with IFP and various screenwriting groups. There are mechanisms to get screenplays into “table readings” and public readings in rented theaters. But I can think of related ideas. That would be to assist in making a film by someone else on the same or related subject matter. Or here is an interesting idea: to look for unusual, overlooked films that need distribution, and set up domestic distribution and even theatrical release. It seems it is possible for a small operation to do this now. Still another idea could be to become an agent for selling screenplays and scripts (because of the “third party rule”). So there are ways to take what starts with artistic content and turn it into business ideas. I’m not big on anything that sounds like a “pyramid” – like taking a motivational book and trying to sell “self-help” tapes and DVDs even though I know this has been tried many times.

Cameron writes at one point that we have “glut of information.” But we need to organize the information to see how all these issues are linked. In my view, what I am trying to do is still problem solving.

Cameron part of Oprah's "Big Give"

Cameron Johnson is one of the contestants in Oprah's Big Give. He has made it to the final three contestants. Here is Oprah's link for him, and it includes a brief video.

Related discussion of his Ford trademark case on my trademark blog (compared to another important case).

See also "Start-Up Kids Grow Up to Be Millionaires So Fast" by "The Technologist" Steven Levy, April 9, 2008, p D01, The Washington Post, link here. He discusses Kulveer Taggar and a start-up called "Auctomatic."

Update: April 20

Steve Rucker has a story about Cameron Johnson on p C1 of The Washington Post, "Young Entrepreneur Spreads Cheer, with Oprah's Blessing," here.

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