I obviously hit a nerve (probably several) with my column on Parrot Secrets. Some of this was expected. The idea of making so much money from an inexpensive web site would appeal to a lot of people, I knew. And I felt good about sharing the story after sitting on it for five years for just that reason. But I wasn’t at all expecting the outrage that some readers felt over the owner of Parrot Secrets not being the nice blonde lady in the picture but a young Indian man who doesn’t even own a parrot. People were pissed and yes, it probably says something about me that I still can’t really understand why they were pissed.
But, as always, I have a theory.
When I was a teacher 26 years ago I worked with a colleague who graded on the basis of improvement and perceived effort while I graded strictly on the final product – the paper or the test – not on how I felt about the student.
We discussed this a lot and my colleague, who still teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area, though no longer at Stanford University where we both worked at the time, felt that she was rewarding hard work, which she saw as far more important than talent. I thought that was crazy. While it may have made some sense to give a student the benefit of the doubt if they showed special initiative and improvement over time if that consideration meant, say, half a grade, I just couldn’t allow the other side, which would have been to grade down the student who just finds that work easy.
Yes, he missed class last week and yes, he may have arrived in class with a hangover, but did you read that paper? The kid’s a genius!
I feel genius should be rewarded.
In retrospect I have to admit that my colleague WAS, herself, a very hard worker and not in any sense a natural while I may have had a hint of a hangover about me, too.
So each of us may have been favoring our own kind.
I think this relates very much to the story of Parrot Secrets. You see what matters to me is not whether Nathalie or Kumar owns the company or even owns a parrot, but that the information provided by Parrot Secrets is useful and customers generally find it to be worth their money. And it seemed to me that was very much the case.
But to some readers that was absolutely NOT the case. They weren’t going to accept Parrot Secrets from Kumar no matter how clever he was, ESPECIALLY if the guy didn’t even own a parrot. They were offended, outraged, betrayed.
Yet I wonder how many web sites, even if they have a Nathalie working there, actually use her picture. While I HAVE seen pictures and video of Orville Redenbacher of popcorn fame and Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken was definitely the real thing, I don’t think Wendy of Wendy’s Restaurants ever appeared in an ad, and Colonel Sanders in his later years absolutely hated what PepsiCo was doing with what had been his restaurant chain.
So is it better to use a real founder in your ads if the founder is lying?
Most web sites don’t use pictures of people they actually know because real people don’t look that good and stock photos are cheaper. Yes, the GoDaddy girl works for GoDaddy, but she doesn’t work AT GoDaddy.
At heart here is truth in advertising, which is s sticky subject for a global network without end-to-end standards of almost any sort. But where truth in advertising CAN be enforced, it always comes down to performance: in this case, is the information from Parrot Secrets useful for raising and training parrots? Based on the company’s commercial success, lack of consumer complaints (until I wrote about it) and the number of competitors who have essentially ripped-off Parrot Secrets material, I’d say it gets a passing grade on truth in advertising.
But that’s just me and I am apparently an unprincipled idiot, or so I am told.
Let’s take it from another angle. When I was in high school the line from the College Board was that SAT preparation wasn’t necessary. Their tests would give you the same grade whether you took a prep class or not. Looking back 40 years later it is fairly clear that was wrong – that prep courses like those pioneered by Stanley Kaplan CAN help and almost always do. I’ve confirmed this, by the way, with friends who later worked at the College Board.
Who is the bad guy here? The College Board explained later that they were trying to maintain a level playing field, which works up to a point, but when enough students are taking prep classes this policy starts to hurt people who are rejected from the right colleges for the wrong reasons.
Does Parrot Secrets hurt people? How? That’s MY measure.
Which brings me, of course, to bowling.
One winter back at the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, I took a bowling course that changed my life. P.E. courses were mandatory, and the only alternative that quarter, as I remember it, was a class in wrestling.
A dozen of us met in the bowling alley three times a week for ten weeks. The class was about evenly divided between men and women, and all we had to do was show up and bowl, handing in our score sheets at the end of each session to prove we’d been there. I remember bowling a 74 in that first game, but my scores quickly improved with practice. By the fourth week, I’d stabilized in the 140-150 range and didn’t improve much after that.
Four of us always bowled together: my roommate, two women of mystery (all women were women of mystery to me then), and me. My roommate, Bob Scranton, was a better bowler than I was, and his average settled in the 160-170 range at midterm. But the two women, who started out bowling scores in the 60s, improved steadily over the whole term, adding a few points each week to their averages, peaking in the tenth week at around 120.
When our grades appeared, the other Bob and I got Bs, and the women of mystery received As.
“Don’t you understand?” one of the women tried to explain. “They grade on improvement, so all we did was make sure that our scores got a little better each week, that’s all.”
No wonder they turned the Stanford University bowling alley into a computer room.
I learned an important lesson that day; success in a large organization, whether it’s a university or IBM, is generally based on appearance, not reality. It is understanding the system and then working within it that really counts, not bowling scores or body bags.
In the world of high-tech start-ups, there is no system, there are no hard and fast rules, and all that counts is the end product.
The high-tech start-up bowling league would allow genetically-engineered bowlers, superconducting bowling balls, tactical nuclear weapons—anything to help your score or hurt the other guy’s.
Anything goes, and that’s what makes the start-up so much fun.
But evidently only I see it that way. You probably know better.