Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Odd jobs: Working on the conveyor line at the Newtonville Star Market

This is an unusual post. It was prompted by a website I spotted on Hacker News, devoted to conveyer belts.

As a teenager I briefly worked at the end of a delivery conveyor belt for a supermarket. A conveyer belt was unusual for a supermarket, and the supermarket itself was unusual: It's located over a major highway. It's the Star Market (since purchased by Shaw's) over the Mass Pike/I90 outside of Boston:

Why does a supermarket straddle six lanes of an interstate? The story dates back to the 1950s and early 1960s when the state and city of Boston were undertaking a series of massive infrastructure and redevelopment efforts, including the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Whole blocks of homes and businesses in Boston and Newton were razed to make way for the toll road. The Star Market in Newtonville was one of the businesses that was demolished. However, the Turnpike Authority was simultaneously developing the idea of "air rights" over the new highway, and the first two development projects that benefited were Star Market in Newtonville as well as the Prudential Center in Boston. Both opened in 1963. Additional air rights were granted for other Pike parcels, including the hotel in Newton Corner (opened in the late 60s) as well as more buildings in downtown Boston.

Getting back to the conveyer belt: The supermarket had an unusual layout. Customers had to take an escalator to the second floor to do their shopping. After checking out, their groceries were loaded into carts. There were 2-3 paper grocery bags per cart, each of which was numbered from 001 to about 500. The customers were given plastic cards with the corresponding numbers for their carts.

The baggers swung the carts onto the top level of a double-decker conveyer belt. It went down to the first floor (street level) and into a long, basement like room with a conveyer belt and a road paralleling it. Customers would drive their cars into this long room, pop the trunk, and hand me their cards. I would match up the bags, and place them in the trunk. The empty carts were placed on the bottom level of the conveyer belt, to be brought back to the Muzak-filled main level of the supermarket.

The room was filled with fumes and noise from the waiting cars and the Mass Pike tunnel that was next to it. The incessant rattling and squeaking of thousands of metal rollers on the conveyer belts were irritating -- upstairs where the customers were it was an actual belt, which was quiet, but down where we were it was those damn rollers, which were like 1950s-era metal roller skate wheels. We were paid $3.85/hour (minimum wage at the time). But the things that worried us from day to day was the cry of "mix" (human error, wrong bags placed in wrong car) or a spill.

Here's what happened with the spills. As the carts came from the 2f to 1f, they went through a series of turns, including at least one 90 degree turn and a full 180 at the bottom of a decline. This spot was where most of the spills took place. It was apparently unavoidable, owing to the layout of the store, the needs of the customers to get their cars loaded quickly, and the location of the slopes on the belt, the road and loading area. The nature of groceries (heavy/light loads, multiple packaging sizes, etc.) and the technology used at the time made it hard to find an easy fix to the problem. Watermelons rolling around the bottom of the carts were the worst.

I don't have any profound observations about this, other than spillage is a consideration for people who design and manage conveyer belts, and that the cost can be made manageable for both small and large systems. And these belts can be engineered to last years or decades. The belt that we used in that market was in use for more than 20 years by the time I started working there in the 1980s, and it (or a similar system, using the same route) is still in use today, some 50 years after it was installed.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

February 2014 Update

I haven’t posted to this blog for five months. This post is an update for old readers, and an introduction to new readers of what’s going on in my professional life.

For those of you coming to this blog for the first time, I am the founder of i30 Media, which publishes In 30 Minutes® guides. We publish information that helps people understand the complexities of the world around them.

Starting with a Dropbox user guide in the summer of 2012, we now have 10 guides available for the Kindle, iPad, Nook, and Android tablets. Besides the technology guides, there are also titles that help people understand health (C. Diff In 30 Minutes) and even a title about cooking (Easy Chinese Recipes In 30 Minutes).

Some people may think it’s crazy to start a new publishing or media company, but there is incredible opportunity in an industry that’s being disrupted.

My 20+ Year Perspective On Media

I’ve worked in media for most of my life. It includes stints in the music industry, broadcasting, newspapers, IT trade publications, and for more than 10 years, online and mobile media. I was also an MIT Sloan Fellow from 2010–2011, which really gave me a chance to learn about new media innovation, entrepreneurship, and business among some incredible faculty and peers.

In the past 20-odd years, I’ve learned that in the media business, no matter what you are producing, you have to stay on top of the platforms. If you stay focused on the past, or place your bets on a losing platform, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt.

You also have to focus on your customers, whether it’s readers, gamers, audiences, or whatever. That may seem obvious, but I still see many media products that are devised in a conference room, built over a period of a year or more, and then launched without any real idea if there are audiences out there who want to consume them. The crop of slick iPad apps pumped out by magazine publishers in the early part of this decade are examples. They were expensive gambles, and most failed.

Lean Media And In 30 Minutes Guides

My philosophy toward product development in the media world is something I call “lean media”, which draws upon the lean startup methodology as well as the MIT spirit of product development, which zeroes in on prototyping, metrics, and iteration. The lean media idea is to get products, marketing, and business models out in the marketplace as soon as possible. Make a true connection with your audience/customers. Measure the impact, iterate, and improve.

The term “lean media” may be new, but over the past half-century decades many successful musicians, game studios, blog sites, magazines, and app developers have used these ideas to get established. As a guy who grew up with classic rock, one example I like to point to is Led Zeppelin. Most people think of them as the bloated supergroup from the 1970s, but the way they established themselves starting in 1968 was totally lean — touring in small and medium sized venues, and recording on a shoestring. Their first album was recorded in 3 weeks, and their second, Led Zeppelin II, consisted of songs they wrote in hotel rooms and recorded in studios along their tour route. They had an instant feedback loop with their audiences, and man, is that stuff good! I see the same lean media spirit in some of the blog/news/new media companies that emerged in the mid–2000s, including Mashable, Gawker, and TMZ.

More recently, book publishing has seen the same sort of lean media innovation, enabled by powerful new platforms and business models. The Internet is only part of it. Amazon has been the provider of not only a platform for sales of ebooks and the devices to read them on, but also provides a platform for self-publishing — the KDP program.

For In 30 Minutes guides, I’ve leveraged these platforms and applied lean media concepts to new products, design, pricing, marketing, and more. Lean media methods help clarify what’s working, what’s not, and ultimately, what readers are willing to pay for.

While I will continue to post entries here, they will be infrequent ... I am simply too busy. The best way to keep up with what I am doing is to check out the In 30 Minutes blog and follow me on Twitter at @ilamont.

Onward and upward!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Camping on Lovell's Island, Boston Harbor

It's strange to think there is this almost-abandoned place not ten miles from one of the great cities of the world. It's rural, and surrounded by ocean. One beach has the best skipping stones we've ever held. Weird things wash up here, including water-worn clay pipes and bricks. There are old ruins of houses and chimneys and rusted metal. Gigantic military fortifications from 100 years ago dominate parts of the landscape, with watchtowers guarding the eastern approaches and walled-off tunnels leading to secret bunkers. There are views of the city skyline, Boston Light, and incoming 787s. On summer weekends, it's surrounded by boats. Weekdays, only the ferries and freighters and screaming jets. There were few animals, just snails and crickets and at low tide, barnacles. Blackberries run riot.

Camping on Lovell's Island, Boston Harbor:

Saturday, May 04, 2013

What it means to be an entrepreneur

An examination of what it means to be an entrepreneur, by Ryan Allis, the creator of iContact. I don't agree with everything he says (particularly, the charts/timelines for what to do in year 1, year 2, etc.) and I don't have experience running a startup with full-time employees, but some of his early stage experiences really resonated. Some excerpts:

"... Most people are talkers. Investors know that investing in someone who has figured out how to create something from nothing (creating a solution to a need that people will pay to have solved) provides a much higher chance of generating a return than investing in someone who just has an idea and “needs” your money to even get started."

"... The act of “creating something from nothing” cannot be modeled in a Goldman Sachs spreadsheet. It is the magic that entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial engineers have. This is, definitionally, what entrepreneurs do–bring together the resources of land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurial ability to create something of value that is greater than the cost of the sum of inputs and sell it to the marketplace."

"... An entrepreneur is someone who takes initiative and who has a bias toward action. An entrepreneur has the ability to take feedback, has a high tolerance for stress and is very determined. An entrepreneur also has decisiveness, courage, and the ability to deal with failure. An entrepreneur is often someone who is quite creative, has the ability to learn quickly, and perseveres through nearly anything. An entrepreneur can delay gratification. An entrepreneur has a drive to achieve and the abilities to plan, build a team, inspire and lead, and prioritize."

Via Hacker News.