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July 2012

Facebook, Prepare to be Disrupted

I took a sip of coffee yesterday as I sat on the train waiting for it to depart the Gilroy station. Since I had a few minutes and a good cellular signal, I thought I'd check Facebook using my Samsung Galaxy smartphone. After a few minutes of spinning wheels indicating that it was "working" I gave up. I could wait until later. I've had any number of experiences using the Facebook application for Android, and the result has always been disappointment. Sometimes only a few items will load. Often the text will load without any pictures. Most of the time, my phone goes back into sleep mode before anything has loaded.

OK, so maybe Facebook is a bit data-intensive for a smartphone with a cellular connection that varies in signal strength. I'll give it a whirl on my iPad, which (for me) uses Wi-Fi instead of cellular. And the results?

The good news is, Facebook content actually loads fairly quickly. The bad news? Those settings I had on Facebook-the-browser-version haven't carried over. Maybe they're available to be set, or maybe not. All I know is that the filters I had applied (no offense, but I'm not interested in what level of Bedazzled you've reached) aren't in place. So I get to scroll through pages of notifications about which friend has achieved what level with which game.

So why does any of this have to do with "disruption?" Simple. Facebook works best—and was originally designed for—stationary computers. It comes from a time (I hesitate to use the term "era" when it comes to anything involving the Internet) when most people sat down in front of a computer and interacted with a browser.

And what's happening today? Stop by any CalTrain station, coffee shop, checkout line, or movie intermission. What do you see? People on their phones. For many people the phone is their dominant source of social interaction. And you've heard or read about the reports that spending on mobile advertising is ready to jump through the roof. So if Facebook can't solve their (IMHO) cruddy mobile phone experience, they stand to lose that market to someone who does provide an elegant solution.

A burgeoning market, lots of (if I'm any indication) disaffected users, no clear dominant player in the space… sounds like an opportunity for disruption to me.

If These Boots Could Talk

I was inspired to write this post as I was packing up prior to our move last Fall from Roop Road, in the hills above Gilroy, to our new house in downtown Gilroy. We had committed that we would use this move to "purge" all of the stuff we had kept around since moving to Gilroy four years ago. I had gotten rid of most everything that wasn't needed anymore, or wasn't going to be needed in our new "townie" lifestyle. As I rummaged through the closet cleaning out my things, I came across these boots.

These Boots

My practical side was in favor of getting rid of the boots. I mean, look at them! There was a hole in one boot, from when Doc was still a puppy and needed something to chew on. The hole in the front of the other boot was from when Wiley was cutting his teeth.  I'd cut a hole in the back of that boot in order to get my foot in and out without pulling the insole out at the same time. But as I looked at the boots, I thought about the dirt, mud, and muck that had been ground into them since I put them on in those first days of living in Gilroy. And I realized that these boots could tell a story that I was feeling, the story of how my life had changed and how it was changing again, pointing me toward a future that wasn't at all clear.

My experience moving to Gilroy—and especially everything that happened thereafter—has had the feel of a dramatic movie. There were the early parts, mostly filled with the excitement of new beginnings, establishing new home and work routines, living with Sean and Danielle, learning (for me) about horses and how to be around them. That first summer was like the first month of living with new college roommates. The weather was warm, there was a pool to enjoy, and more than once we turned an afternoon swim party into an extended stay out by the artificial campfire, enjoying good wine and good company.

There were also the early signs of trouble. The title company failed to set up an impound account for taxes and insurance, meaning that every six months we were hit with a large tax bill, one we didn't fully factor into our many budget planning exercises. Each round of borrowing from the 401k seemed like it would be the last:  I kept thinking that things would settle down once we got past the moving-in expenses.  As it became clear that things weren't going to settle down, we took steps to reduce our credit card debt and attempted to modify our mortgage.  But, as this was before the economy fell apart, banks weren't too interested in helping proactively address their mortgage payments.

Then the crash hit. Eventually the company where I worked closed its doors, and I entered the ranks of the unemployed. The next nine months were filled with daily collection calls, endless loan modification conversations, and endless time spent looking for work. The mood wasn't grim, but it was nonetheless a time for cutting all unnecessary spending. Thoughts of buying a tractor to work the acreage changed to renting a tiller for a weekend, and eventually to taking a pick and shovel to the ground, determined as I was to start a garden. Along the way I discovered that I really liked working the soil:  it felt a lot more like farming than gardening. That led me to setting up a horse manure composting operation, which helped deal with the horse manure situation while also giving me the materials to amend the soil into stuff that could really grow things.  In short, I discovered my "inner farmer."

Once I did start working again, we were able to get the bank to agree to "piggyback" our months of missed loan payments onto the back end of our loan. But they wouldn't agree to restructuring the terms of the loan, reducing the interest rate to current levels or reducing the principal to something approximating the lower value of the house. So we went had to decide whether we wanted to try to stay in our house and wait for conditions to improve so we could refinance our losses, or cut our losses and move on. Our heads said "move!" our hearts said "stay!" In the end, logic prevailed over emotion and we told the bank they could have the house.

With that, we started looking into house rentals. There was a period of uncertainty about whether moving meant continuing to live with Sean and Danielle or not: were we looking for one house or two? How would we care for Sassy, Dandy and Tux? What about the dogs? Chickens? It was a stressful time for everyone. Eventually we decided to continue living together until we figured out what was next. After close to a year of sharing a house, Sean took a job working on a ranch in McCloud. That meant Sean would be moving soon, and Danielle soon afterward. The whole process happened quickly, and before I knew it I was helping Sean load Sassy and Dandy into a borrowed horse trailer for their move to McCloud. Seeing Sean say goodbye to Tux (he could only bring two horses with him) broke my heart.

Fortunately, we found a great home for Tux in a very short time. It was hard to say goodbye but we were really happy that he was going to a family that would love him and look after him.

And then, a few weeks later, Sean came back to pick up Doc and Wiley.

Samsung Galaxy 179

The one constant through all my life changes had been walking one dog or another. At first, it was Henry and Doc, and later Doc and Wiley after Henry passed away. I walked the dogs with Danielle every morning, and sometimes walked them again or let them out to run in the fields behind our house when I needed a break from job hunting or wanted to clear my head.

And then, a short time after moving his horses, Sean returned to take Wiley and Doc to McCloud.  I was happy that they were going to be with Sean full time again, but I knew that I was going to miss them. A lot.

Our household had, in the space of a month, gone from four people with three horses and two dogs to one that held two people (and Danielle on an occasional basis) with no dogs and no horses.  At least we still had our chickens.

With Sean now in McCloud (and Danielle soon to follow) and with my looking at a job that might involve lots of travel to Europe and Asia, Crystal faced the possibility of spending significant time alone in our house in the hills. This wasn't an attractive option, and she had a desire to try living "in town" vs. out in the dust and dirt of the countryside. We found a nice Victorian to rent pretty quickly, but it meant giving up the idea of getting a dog while we were renting, as well as finding a new home for our chickens (Gilroy doesn't allow them within its city limits). My life had gone from caring for horses, dogs and chickens, and working several rows of vegetables, to… none of that.

I almost got rid of the boots.

Why would I need them? I didn't see myself owning a place or living somewhere where I'd be establishing a garden anytime soon. Horses weren't in my future; neither were dogs, at least while we were renting a house. The chickens would be close by at the Hubners, but visiting them wasn't going to be the same as seeing them every morning and evening. (Update: the chickens enjoyed their time at Hubner Hallow, but were eventually discovered and dispatched by a local fox.) This whole moving to the country experience had seemed like a grand experiment that had gone up in smoke.

I knew where I had been. And even though things hadn't worked out the way I had expected, I liked my lifestyle. But, like it or not, my life was changing. What was it going to be like? And how would I like it? As I stared at those boots, all I knew was that I couldn't go back; I could only go forward.

The wheel is turning and you can't slow down,

You can't let go and you can't hold on,

You can't go back and you can't stand still,

If the thunder don't' get you then the lightning will.

--The Grateful Dead, The Wheel

After some time in my new environment I was able to realize that things had worked out. Maybe not the way I had imagined, but in a positive way nonetheless.  Sean had realized his dream of working as a horse trainer on a real, working ranch.  Danielle had developed sufficient skills in health education and non-profit management that I knew she was going be just fine. (And she has adapted well to life in McCloud, lining up multiple jobs and connections with the local education/non-profit community.)  Brian had done an amazing job learning how to network his way into a job that paid reasonably well and provided a lot of satisfaction. And he was successfully living on his own in another part of the country, one (as we saw on our recent visit to Washington, DC) that suits him perfectly, at least for now.  Crystal left the CPA firm she had been at, and moved into medical practice management for an oncology practice in Monterey.  On the day I was literally reviewing a job posting for Dutch Harbor, Alaska an old friend called to see if I wanted to do some consulting for him.  That turned into a full-time position doing some very interesting stuff.  And Crystal and I had worked diligently to reduce our expenses to a minimum, so that once I was working again we'd be able to meet our expenses and see the light at the end of our debt-reduction tunnel.

We've learned to enjoy living "in town" and being able to walk to dinner and the farmer's market. I'm able to ride my bike or walk to the train station. And I've channeled by gardening energy into helping set up and run the "Hubner Hallow" garden.

I'm glad that I decided to keep those boots. They still come in handy when things get mucky at the Hubner garden. And they remind me of where I've been, and what we've all accomplished. All in all, they've been a great investment. They hold a lot of stories, and they're not done telling their tale just yet.