The Brandon Copple Blog

Such as it is.

Switching Sides

Posted by bcopple on September 4, 2010

How many people have written cover stories at Forbes and worked at a company that made the cover of Forbes? Who knows. And really, who gives a shit. But since I asked, I’ll answer. At least one person has accomplished this utterly meaningless double-whammy: Me.

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason (my boss)

Last month Groupon, where I’ve been an employee and shareholder since June, got the cover treatment from Forbes, which employed me for close to five years.

In the story, Forbes dubs us “the fastest-growing company…ever”—a smart thing for a reputable publication to say because it’s impossible to refute. Chris Steiner does a pretty good job chronicling Groupon’s meteoric rise, which I had nothing to do with, and the challenges ahead, which I hope to help the company overcome.

The best part of the piece is a quick sidebar showcasing the work of my team—the writers and editors who produce brilliant, hilarious descriptions of more than 100 Groupon deals every day.

You can’t imagine how much fun it is to work with people that funny and smart. We’re gonna do great things.

The old Housing cover story, Aug. 2002

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The cradle of college hoops

Posted by bcopple on March 7, 2010

Basketball inventor and KU prof James Naismith

Credit: KansasHeritage.org

Really nice read in today’s Kansas City Star. Headlined “The soul of basketball can be found in the small towns of Kansas,” it’s a pretty well-written, cleverly reported story that explores my home state’s deep connections to many of the game’s greats, starting with roundball inventor James Naismith, who taught at Kansas University and is buried in Lawrence.

Excerpt:

The whispers of legends carry through the rustling Kansas prairie grass, along the pounding of freight trains that connect civilization with the nation’s outskirts, in dark gyms where boys and girls bounce basketballs because that’s what has been done for generations.

There’s a note of melancholy to Kent Babb‘s story, as he found those “whispers of legends” growing faint. Many of them are either dead — Phog Allen, Adolph Rupp, Ralph Miller — or retired – Dean Smith, Eddie Sutton, Gene Keady.

Babb does nod to Topeka native/KU alum Mark Turgeon, now coaching at Texas A&M. And Lon Kruger, the journeyman (not whore) coach who’s currently at UNLV. And of course he traveled to Claflin, home of the great Jackie Stiles, perhaps the best basketball player ever born in Kansas.

However, Babb fails to mention a promising young Division I coach who hails from “a place where grain elevators are skyscrapers and barbed wire gives an order to things.” Mark Fox is the head coach at the University of Georgia and a native of Garden City, Kansas–my hometown.

Not that there’s any reason to think Mark (back home we call him Mark) will ever be mentioned alongside those names above. But his star is on the rise, and that’s one sign that the “soul of basketball” is still alive out on the High Plains.

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Brews & Biz: Chicago entrepreneurs talk recession, City Hall and the road ahead

Posted by bcopple on December 31, 2009

To close out the 2009 season of Entrepreneurs in Action, the video series I produce at Crain’s Chicago Business, I wanted to get a group of entrepreneurs together to talk about running a business in Chicago. And so it happened that we amassed four Chicago business owners at Half Acre Beer Co, my cavernous neighborhood brewery .

We sat the group in tall chairs, poured them some suds and talked entrepreneurship. The result, I think: a smart, honest, spirited discussion among four guys battling to build their businesses in the face of recession, bureaucracy and the normal, impossible odds facing every entrepreneur. Please check it out. If you’re an entrepreneur, want to be or are just interested in small business, I’m pretty sure you’ll find it worth your 20 minutes.

Special thanks to Ed Scanlan of Total Attorneys, Eric Fosse of Homemade Pizza and Darren Guccione of Callpod for participating. And a big shout-out to Gabriel Magliaro of Half Acre, who not only played along but let us take over his brewhouse for an afternoon. Also, my crew was fantastic: Steve Serio, Jeff Hartvigsen, Erik Unger and Lisa Jacobson nailed the shoot. And as always, Dustin Park, our editor, the Yo-Yo Ma of Final Cut.

[Note: I've had a lot of good feedback on this. But I've also heard several complaints that go: Here's five white guys talking about doing business in a diverse city with an increasingly less-white-guy-centric business community. It's a completely fair criticism. One of my goals in 2010 is to bring more diversity to our EiA subjects. Count on it. This year I profiled two women: Zoe Damacela and Lindsay Gaskins of Marbles. Neither of them fit the bill for this roundtable--Zoe's too young and green and Lindsay doesn't own her business. But if we assemble another roundtable in 2010, look for a little less vanilla.]

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Comcastic journalism

Posted by bcopple on November 15, 2009

comcastmustdieThe Chicago Tribune takes on Comcast today in its ‘What’s Your Problem’ column. My problem is this pathetic attempt at journalism. The column’s author (who normally does a decent job) gets rolled by the cable company, spitting out a story about how hard it is to be a Comcast customer service agent, how much training these people get and how they’re really very decent, hard-working folks — they are “your mother, your sister, your family.”

No shit. We all know the operators we deal with at Comcast and other big companies aren’t the problem. It’s not their fault their employers provide lousy service, charge too much, screw up our bills, deploy incompetent technicians and generally leave us feeling frustrated, outraged and impotent.

And  yet the Trib’s Jon Yates sits in on a training session at a local Comcast call center and learns that customer reps are taught to be, above all, empathetic. He is overwhelmed by Comcast’s show of humanity — its employees learn to put themselves in their customers’ shoes, and to coo “I understand,” “That does sound frustrating,” and “I do apologize for that.” (The Trib’s video is even more maddening; we see a customer rep being taught to say “I see” instead of “Ok.” This is apparently the difference between good and bad service at Comcast.)

What Yates should’ve realized is that the emphasis on empathy is part of the problem. Comcast would rather apologize for its mistakes than invest in preventing them.

At least, that’s my guess. If a reporter wanted to really dig in to Comcast’s customer service problems, he wouldn’t just take the PR flack’s invite to visit the customer service center, then write about what he saw. He’d investigate the link between customer service and profit. Good customer service is expensive. Investing in network improvements, training techs and operators, responding quickly and effectively — these things cost a lot of money. It’s much cheaper to just teach people to say sorry or to open a Twitter account.

In other words, Comcast probably chooses to have shitty customer service. I bet there is a calculated corporate analysis that tells company brass what level of service they can get away with, taking in to account the high cost of better service, the limited competition and the relative shittiness of its competitors’ service.

Last year, amidst a raging recession, Comcast pulled down $2.5 billion in profit. Think about that the next time you’re on hold for 15 minutes waiting to get the cable back on so you can watch the ballgame you’ve been waiting for all week. Comcast could cut that hold time by hiring more operators. Or by better-training the ones it has, or by improving its network so your cable didn’t go out in the first place.

But that would eat in to the $2.5 bil. I suspect the higher-ups at Comcast know that. A good reporter could prove it.

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Update: Zoe’s killing it

Posted by bcopple on October 29, 2009

Zoe with President ObamaTwo months and two posts ago, I introduced 17-year-old entrepreneur and fashion phenom Zoe Damacela. Since then Zoe has won $5,000 in a national business plan competition, met the President and scored a mentorship with Chicago’s top fashion designer, Maria Pinto. I wrote a full breakdown over at Enterprise City.

Sounds like the visit to the Oval Office was the highlight of all this, and why not. Zoe goes to the same high school that Michelle Obama attended, which the President apparently seized on during Zoe’s 10-minute visit, chatting the Whitney Young senior up about the football team and her plans for college. (She hopes to go either to Harvard or Northwestern; I’ve advised her that either of those would probably be fine.)

Back in Chicago, the folks at NFTE are angling to get Zoe on the Oprah show.

As a journalist, I probably shouldn’t say this, but the hell with it: I’m really happy for Zoe. There aren’t a lot of good things happening to people right now. I hope she sets the damn world on fire. We all know who holds the torch.

 

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High Plans Duster

Posted by bcopple on August 16, 2009

more about “High Plans Duster“, posted with vodpod
Wonderful WSJ piece about the partially sane pilots who fly cropdusters, set in my homeland of southwest Kansas. Cropdusters are a pretty common sight out there in the wide-open plains where there’s little to interfere with their aerial acrobatics. My dad, who had been a pilot himself, used to pull over to the shoulder so we could watch them work — diving and banking, pulling up steep to miss the power lines and then coming back so low you felt like you could jump up and grab a wing as they zipped by. One of the local dusters had flown fighter jets in Vietnam. I remember that, like the guy in this video, he had complete disdain for amateur pilots. He used to call those little twin engine Cessnas “doctor killers.”
On top of all the memories it’s revived, the piece has some great visuals. The shot at 1:30 of a sunset gets me all misty-eyed. There’s nothing much to see in that country, but sometimes nothing much can be really beautiful. I miss it.
If you like the video, the story is even better. Give it a read.

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Zoe

Posted by bcopple on July 25, 2009

We all know that starting a business can make you rich. Or famous. And you probably are aware that entrepreneurs are the fuel that makes our economy run. Startups account for 3% employment growth each year, almost double the average overall rate of 1.8% — meaning that new businesses are creating jobs while big companies eliminate them. Entrepreneurs drive most of the innovation in our lives too: from the airplane to Google, just about any invention you can think of came from an individual or small team working alone, not from some corporate lab where the only ideas come from focus groups.

But beyond it’s economic and social power, entrepreneurship can also be a force for personal growth. Building a business requires creativity and ambition, balanced with discipline and persistence. It takes courage and it takes hard work. (Of course, there’s a dark side.)

I was reminded of all this a few months ago when I helped judge the finals of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship‘s citywide business plan competition. When I agreed to do it, on the request of a good friend, Clint Coghill, I had no idea what I’d signed up for. The other judges were Chicago business heavyweights like Larry Levy and Joe Mansueto. And the kids — wow.

We saw six business plans, all written by Chicago high school students from the 35 public schools that offer an entrepreneurship class using the NFTE curriculum. Every plan described a product, a market and the economics of their business. The kids presented their idea, projected their return on investment and detailed their strategy for marketing, distribution and sales.

NFTE's 2009 Business Plan Finals: contestants and judges
NFTE’s 2009 Business Plan Finals: contestants and judges

All the judges were blown away by each kid’s poise, eloquence and ambition. The winner, Zoe Damacela, stood out in large part because she’d already started her business. She took the $2,000 prize and inspired me to tell her story in an Entrepreneurs in Action video. It’s a story about how entrepreneurship can give a creative, hard-working kid something to latch on to.

Zoe’s an inspiration. Ten years ago she and her mother, Farah, were living in relatives’ basements and Section 8 housing in California. Now Farah has a college degree and a good job at a nonprofit; she just bought a condo in the West Loop. And Zoe is running a fashion business that could gross $30,000 this year. She’s planning on college (at the School of the Art Institute, she hopes). As Larry Levy told me after he saw the video, she’s “a girl we should all keep our eyes on.”

Here’s the video:

Zoe Damacela: Young entrepreneur

Zoe Damacela: Young entrepreneur

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Wilco loves you baby

Posted by bcopple on July 7, 2009

I’m not ready to pass judgment on the new Wilco record – have owned it just three days and have listened only twice front to back. I think I like it but you have to let it soak in.

However, I am ready to declare the song ‘You never know’ to be one helluva a great fucking rock song. It’s had my toes tapping all day today.

Interesting note: ‘Wilco (the album)’ comes with song lyrics in the liner notes. A first for them, I think. I always like that. Here’s the (mostly accurate) words to ‘YNK.’

And here’s the band laying it down in L.A. (tried to find vid from Conan, where they played ‘YNK’ in Nudie suits and sounded fantastic, but alas I think it’s gone).

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We called it.

Posted by bcopple on May 9, 2009

Back in 2001, my good friend Stephane Fitch and I spent two months working on a story about a looming housing crash. We talked to every housing and consumer-finance expert we could find, plus dozens of realtors and hundreds of homeowners, probing for signs of weakness in home sales or prices, trying to understand whether the market would or could go bust and asking what would happen to the US economy if it did.

IMG_0252The resulting story ran as Forbes‘ Sept. 3, 2001 cover, under the ominous headline ‘What if home prices crashed?’ On the cover: a couple from Northern California I’d found during the three weeks I spent prowling Silicon Valley, talking to home sellers who’d cut their prices (To get a list of people who cut price, I convince a realtor to run a filter on the MLS. He gave me about 2oo names, and I called them. All of them.).

Yesterday, I learned that our story had been named to Columbia Journalism Review’s ‘List’ of 727 significant business stories published in the run-up to the economic crisis. This may not sound like a very exclusive list, but as the author, Dean Starkman, notes, “the business press produced more than a half a million news items during this period.” Only about 700 of those items saw the catastrophe coming.

Starkman’s “List” awards our story “first-place in (the) bubble-calling contest.”

So, good on us. We busted our humps reporting the story and the writing of it nearly destroyed our friendship (it may have if not for the velvet interventions of our editor, Tom Post). And as Starkman notes, we called it. We were about six years early, but when we wrote about “an ominous mix of overdevelopment, inflated home prices and rising consumer debt,” we had identified most of the ingredients in the Molotov cocktail that has since been heaved at the American economy.

We didn’t write about the massive overextension of the mortgage-backed securities market. But we did report the stress cracks that would eventually destroy that market, and the global finance system: a huge increase of mortgate debt vs. household income, and a steady decline of equity as a percentage of home value. I remember talking to a couple of rogue banking analysts who were convinced that the mortgage/credit market was a house of cards. One of them, Charles Peabody, is quoted in the story. Knowing what we know now, his statement is flat-out chilling: “Leverage against an asset that can deflate in value is a recipe for disaster.” Indeed.

IMG_0256One final memory of that story. On the spread inside the magazine was a wonderful illustration of a house that had crashed down to earth, crushing a girl in ruby slippers. Seeing that, I wrote the headline ‘Goodbye Yellow-Brick Road.’ Forbes‘ editor, Bill Baldwin, overrode that in favor of the more literal ‘What if Housing Crashed?’ Mine was better.

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A summer night’s dream

Posted by bcopple on April 4, 2009

neko_dennis_kleiman

Photo credit: Dennis Kleiman

There’s nothing better than a summer night. Nothing. The best time of day, the best time of year. On a summer night, life moves at just the right pace – the pace of baseball on the radio, where time is measured not by a clock but by the progress of events themselves. Difficult conversations become philosophical in the dark of a summer night. If you’ve been given the gift of reverie, a summer night is the perfect time to sit alone, outside, let your thoughts waft up like the heat off your grill, lingering or drifting off as you please.

A summer night is universal. Where I live, it’s especially precious – survive a Chicago winter and you’ll treasure every one of those nights when work is done and the kids are in bed and there’s still a few hours to sit outside with a drink. And even where summer is year-round – in Florida and Arizona and other sweltering places where retirees go to decompose – the night brings relief, provides a few tolerable moments, lets you breathe.

Out on the high plains where I grew up, the wind was our nemesis, roaring from the frigid north all winter then turning around to torment us from the blast-furnace south through summer. But when night fell, even the wind could relax. It would settle down to a breeze, letting the dust fall to earth and letting us sit outside in peace. In the city, evenings are less peaceful – El trains clatter by, sirens wail, air-conditioners hum. On a summer night there’s a general quiet that makes those noises seem isolated, intermittent, and more tolerable.

So when I say that Neko Case’s ‘Middle Cyclone’ is like a summer night, you’ll know I’m paying her my highest compliment. The record sounds like a summer night, with its echos and reverb and the hint of wind chimes and nocturnal creatures chirping in the background. And it feels like a summer night (note: the very fact that it has a feel makes it an achievement), thanks to Neko’s songwriting, which eschews the verse-chorus-verse approach to instead let the lyrics go where they will, the better to unwind her noirish parables and shrouded confessionals. Listening to ‘Middle Cyclone’ is like having a free-flowing conversation with someone really interesting — someone who can tell a riveting story, even if you’re not sure what it’s about.

And lest you think I cooked up this whole summer-night theme just so I could wax on about it, Neko makes it explicit. Let this be a warning says the magpie to the morning: ‘Don’t let this fading summer pass you by,’ she sings in the gorgeous ‘Magpie to the Morning.’ And at the end of the record she tacked on thirty-plus minutes of nature sounds from outside the Vermont barn where ‘Middle Cyclone’ was recorded. Frogs, crickets, cicadas – whatever, all making their rhythmic music. It’s beautiful: the sound of a summer night.

‘Middle Cyclone’ is not a perfect record, but I’d say at least nine of the 14 songs (not counting the half-hour chirping) are really great. I wouldn’t be surprised if several of the other five grew on me – great albums always reveal themselves over time. And I plan to give ‘Middle Cyclone’ time. There’s a whole summer ahead.

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