I’m Switzerland!

Switzerland is famous for beautiful Alpine resorts, luxurious watches, delicious fondue, even-more-delicious chocolate, and the tale of Flag of SwitzerlandHeidi. And of course Geneva, Switzerland is the home of the second-largest office of the United Nations.  That is no coincidence; the Swiss have a long-standing policy of neutrality. The Swiss have not fought a war since 1815, despite being surrounded all sides by combatants in both World War I and World War II.

As Switzerland is studiously neutral, it is a natural meeting place for hostile parties. If Country A and Country B are at war a meeting in either country is likely unthinkable, but both will to send representatives to Geneva to negotiate. There are things that Switzerland can do that much larger, more powerful countries cannot do because they are not neutral. Switzerland’s “brand promise” of neutrality is so strong that when your friends try to drag you into an argument, you can throw up your hands and declare “I’m Switzerland!” to indicate that you will not take sides.

The same considerations sometimes apply in business. It’s in many ways wonderful to be Apple, Google, or Microsoft; these companies have tremendous brands, dominant positions in their markets, and vast amounts of cash to spend on research and development, acquisitions, and marketing.  There are certainly things that Google can do better than anyone else because Google is a leading search engine, mail provider, mapping service, and advertising venue. But, there are other things that Google cannot do at all precisely because it is so dominant.

There are advantages to neutrality in business too.

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I’m Working on It!

What do Bitcoin, angel investors, and high-school algebra have in common?  Before I answer that question, I need to tell a story.



In 1995, I lived in Washington, D.C. At the time, Citibank was in the process of replacing its monochrome ASCII-only ATMs with spiffy new color bit-map machines. We users had to adjust to the new interface, including the conversational tone of the new software.  For example, instead of offering buttons labeled “Checking” and “Savings”, the machine would politely ask “From what account do you wish do withdraw money?”  And, while checking to see whether you had enough money in your account, the ATM would let you know it hadn’t forgotten you by saying “I’m working on it.”

Hilarity ensued one day while I was in line for the ATM.  The man in front of me was clearly in a hurry.  He requested his cash and shouted “Hurry up!” at the ATM.  The machine responded “I’m working on it.”  He interpreted the message not as a sincere expression of its desire to perform the requested task, but rather as a defensive response to his “Hurry up!”, and proceeded to harangue the machine as to how it should address valued customers.

The user interface mistake made by Citibank was that there was no progress bar.  In other words, there was no proof the machine really was working.

Which brings us to Bitcoin.

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