Radio Shack Nurtured a Culture of Everyday Technology

UnknownWe knew it was only a matter of time. We just didn’t know how much time. It appears as if that long dreaded day has arrived. By “it” I mean Radio Shack filing for bankruptcy. Radio Shack has been a staple on 4,000 American streets for decades. It was founded in 1921 by the Deutschmann brothers and was the destination of millions of dads, and moms, who walked into their local Shack in search of everything from batteries to diagnostic equipment to an additional cell phone charger. It was not a retailer that emerged because of a fashion trend or a personal hobby. No, no, no. This franchise was in search of a much more noble purpose. It provided a place where Americans could go to see, touch and purchase electronics and home technology. It was the first of its kind and the last of its kind.

The Shack was a savvy retailer—correction, merchandiser—that figured out long ago our country was headed for a serious case of addiction to the magic of technology. The tech then was radio and television waves broadcast across the landscape, captured by antennas and transformed into audio and video that arguably, had more to do with shaping this countries’ culture than almost anything else.

My father was an electrical engineer. He was constantly tinkering with the insides of radios and televisions. Capacitors, transistors, resistors, rectifiers, vacuum tubes; his workshop was full of them. I knew what a printed circuit board was when I was 8 years old. He used a slide rule to compute equations, not a calculator, and wired a Color Bar and Dot Generator to an early color television to troubleshoot problems.

My Father’s Slide Rule

There’s a generation today that cannot wrap their heads around the concept of a Radio Shack, let alone consider entering one. I’ve heard some bid a happy farewell, while others never even noticed. The demise of Radio Shack is not like what happened to Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster relied on late fees to prop up revenue which is never a viable long term strategy. BV was unable to weather the digital tsunami and were completely lost when it came to the internet.

Radio Shack is not the Apple Store, not by a long shot. But it paved the way for Jobs and Cook to enjoy stunning success. How? By making electronics familiar, approachable and affordable. The Deutschmann brothers likely had no clue that their desire to bring radio equipment to the public would be laying the tracks for the digital world.

The Original Radio Shack Store

In contrast Radio Shack did embrace the Web and shifted lots of their sales to eCommerce. But it’s very difficult to keep a single brand relevant for decades when you’re being drowned out by new and more interesting messages. Best Buy and Circuit City came along with more ad muscle and bigger stores, further squeezing Radio Shack into smaller spaces in strip malls. Then Amazon came along and soon the American public was trained to shop by Web search and picking up their packages off the porch instead of driving to a shopping destination.

Over the years, Radio Shack saved me many times. The need for a USB extension cord, a liPo Battery voltage meter, but most often it was their small electrical parts that I needed to keep my tinkering habit fueled.

They are not going away forever. Many stores will remain while others will be taken over by the cell phone provider Sprint who will maintain some items from Radio Shack.

Another page is turned.

Savvy or Dependent?

alcohol-addiction-brain-scanI heard a young man (Generation Y) ask me to finish this sentence about himself, “I am technology _________.” The obvious answer was “savvy,” but the answer he was looking for, to describe his generation and many who will follow, was “dependent.” We’re through the looking glass here and into all new technology territory. Savvy has given way to dependent. It has taken place without a warning or even a tell-tale sigh. And dependent has major implications for brands, educators, employers and relationships.

There is no more nice to have internet connection. It’s the new blood flow the necessary neuro-transmitter. Millions of people found that out the hard way when Hurricane Sandy destroyed the electrical grid earlier this year. Children and parents saw their devices slowly deplete battery charges and in a split second, connection evaporated. They could’t check the weather, transfer money, shop, take care of the to do list, accept new friend requests and the most troubling of all, couldn’t check into their local gin mill to retain the mayorship. Desperate times for sure.

A new era of preparedness has dawned and we need to take steps to ensure we don’t allow our savviness to be crippled by dependence. Certainly we have been dependent prior to the device age. But it was a different kind of dependence. The power going out meant we worried about the meat in the freezer and we couldn’t watch our favorite television show. We didn’t worry about much else except for keeping warm, or cool. After all the phone almost always worked when the power went out. Why was that anyway?

My brother-in-law lives in Eastern New Jersey and was one of the many who lost power for nearly a week. He is a tech wizard who works for a large pharma company so he has smarts and is highly resourceful. He created a set-up that kept his family connected and protected throughout the hardship. It was a bit crude and assembled on the fly, but it worked. He transferred the power from one area of the home to another as dictated by current needs. TV for football, lights to read and converse and once in a while he’d plug in the refrigerator so there would be fresh food.

Tech Survival

Dependency can sometimes be a gateway drug to addiction. Using your device as a utility is perfectly fine. Compulsively checking it is a possible red flag that might reveal deeper issues. WebMD has a technology addiction entry on their site. Firms in Silicon Valley are very concerned that the constant yearning for the latest ping or update makes workers less productive. Brands fight to break into the content stream that’s flooded with more important messages. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, widely viewed as the authority on mental illnesses, plans next year to include “Internet use disorder.” Hello world.

Brands should take a conscious and measured approach to what they put online and how it will be consumed. Digital responsibility should be added to the governance and content guidelines for brands. By adopting oversight that ensures content and functionality is utility in nature will foster healthy digital relationships between brands and their customers. I realize this is an early on concept and most brands won’t believe it should be on the radar, but the pace at which technology advances is often underestimated by large firms.

Casting aside consumer health for profit is not a long term strategy.

The Art of Selecting a Technology Vendor

Lots of us find ourselves in a situation where we need to either acquire a new technology or replace a current supplier with someone else. It’s a complicated discussion to be taken seriously. I’ve probably led no less than 25 of these initiatives over my career. Some years ago we were looking to replace our e-mail service provider and kicked off a full RFP. The winner of that round was Bigfoot Interactive (no longer in business under that name). A gentleman named Jason Simon was the lead sales person for Bigfoot and represented them in the selection process. He was a big part of why Bigfoot prevailed over the other formidable firms.

That was several years ago. Jason recently reconnected with me, thanks to Social Media, and asked me to participate in a discussion about how I approach finding or replacing technology vendors on his blog Simon Sez: The Common Sense Blog. It was a great exercise for me, because it forced me to synthesize a couple of decades worth of experience and boil it down into a simple Q and A format. It was challenging, and because of how Jason framed the discussion, it ended up being fun.

Here’s an excerpt from Part 2.

Jason:  Steve, so far the feedback on our conversation has been strong.  There is so much to explore as we try to understand the challenges both buyers and sellers face when they are working on big RFP level deals.  One of the interesting things I’ve seen in the past is poorly written RFPs that have the same question asked multiple times; a clear indication that various stakeholders have submitted their departmental needs but that they haven’t been aligned with the entirety of the organization’s scope requirements. With that in mind, how do you lead the needs assessment that takes place?  How do you identify the internal owners, and how is that process managed before you even consider engaging vendors?

Steve: Your needs assessment should be informed by your strategy and roadmap.  Well crafted plans should include identifying the capabilities a company will need to build or buy.  The roadmap will tell you when you will need to acquire that capability or skill.  If you have been forward thinking enough to conduct annual performance evaluations of your agency or vendor (“A/V”) then you already have a baseline from internal stakeholders.  If not, you should solicit input from the people in your organization who work directly with the A/V, as well as the people who are directly impacted by the products and services that they provide.

Have a look at Part 1 and Part 2. I’m sure you will agree that Jason has a knack for simplifying the complex. Probably why he is so successful. Would value other perspectives, thoughts and experiences on how you go about choosing a new technology vendor. We are both happy to answer questions. Post them here or on Jason’s blog here.

Five Things Technology Salesmen Should Never Say to a Buyer

I’ve been a major stakeholder when it comes to purchasing technology for many years. Hardly a month goes by where I don’t meet with or speak to a technology salesman who is interested in moving up in my consideration set. These conversations have increased sharply over the last few years, as technology has become an integral part of improving Interactive Marketing. Other contributing factors to looking at technology solutions are; increased traffic, the migration of consumers to digital channels and the sea of content that web sites have amassed over the years. Simply adding FTE to the org chart (even if you could) just doesn’t cut it any more. Companies are required to automate to gain additional benefit. I’m amazed at the consistency of the sales pitches that come across my desk. Even as the technology has matured, many of the sales techniques have not kept pace.

A word of advice to you sales people out there. Avoid (at all cost) making these statements. It only infuriates your potential client.
  1. It’s only one line of javascript
  2. We’ll have you up and running in a week, probably less
  3. We do all the heavy lifting
  4. We’ve got a robust reporting suite
  5. We’re best in class

So what exactly should one say? Well, that would be giving too much away in this forum. But instead of overselling, try asking questions that will provide clues as to what your firm will need to do to earn the business. Move from selling to problem solving by asking…

  1. What are your typical pain points related to on-boarding technology solutions?
  2. What’s the best way to work with your law department?
  3. Who do we need to work with on your IT team?
  4. How can I assist in developing a meaningful business case?
  5. What’s the typical time line for this kind of project?

Everyone wants to make their quarterly numbers, but pressuring buyers and firms is only mildly effective. After all you came in trying to get the business. So close it, don’t try to slam it in. Oh, I could write a book on this topic.

Internet Appliance for the Nuclear Family

As computing evolves, networks expand and technology converges, we are seeing an explosion of new appliances hit the marketplace designed to help consumers remain connected to their new webbed world. There are lots of them that do many things, but the designers who think about culture and society alongside technology will sell the most units. The way people/families live and work today will shape the framework for choosing features and functionality for developers going forward. I’ve spent some time thinking about this and have come up with four imperatives for success.

  • WiFi access, to allow users access to the web, e-mail, blogs, anything that is on the Internet
  • Support for the online community/social networking world by allowing photos and video to be viewed, selected, edited and uploaded. This real time journaling feature is one of the main reasons to have one of these appliances
  • Provide a rich and fun experience for kids, easy switching to the kids account that is sanitized through parental controls
  • Lightweight, rugged, long battery life, and a simple, easy to use interface for all members of the family


I recently had the opportunity to briefly play with one of these new appliances the Eee PC. It is manufactured by ASUSTeK Computer Inc. and sells for under $400. It is white, small and rugged. The software window is displayed on a 7″ screen that is bright and easy to see. The interface has tabs allowing the user to select, Internet, work, learn or play spaces on the screen. This makes it simple to know where to begin. It constantly seeks a WiFi signal and will easily join so you are up and running with a Firefox web browser. You can check e-mail, update your blog, or keep tabs on your friends on Facebook.


It runs on Linux, but they indicate it’s Microsoft XP compatible. I found it relatively easy to use, but a little difficult to control the cursor with the thumb pad. The keyboard has a full set of keys, but because it is hardened, there isn’t much feel when you are typing. You can load on your digital photos and and video clips and upload them. There are also a nice selection of games. You can store music as well. The flash drive size is limited to either 2G, 4G or 8G.

I can easily see myself tossing it into the car for a road trip to keep kids entertained as well as using it myself to update a blog or photos site. Could also serve as a first computer for younger kids, since it is small, lightweight and can keep up with them. I wouldn’t call it a productivity tool, but that’s alright (we have enough of those already) as this milepost is very promising.

The web site that promotes the Eee PC can be found here. It is full of slow loading flash and it is not easy to navigate around from section to section. They are missing an opportunity here. I would also say the product name is not memorable, and the company name even less so.