Sustainable Companies

November 20th, 2006 by Hugh

Here’s a speech which I think is worth quoting at some length:

Many people seem to think that companies only exist to make money.

Well, companies do need to make money – to reward those who trust us with their capital and also to enable us to invest for the future. No business can exist for long unless it makes money.

But making money really isn’t the purpose of business.

Our purpose is to supply the goods and services which people want to buy at a cost they can afford. If a business can’t meet the needs of its customers it will cease to trade.

Those needs, of course, are not expressed through a single transaction. Business is about meeting customer needs again and again over a long period of time and building a relationship which enables the business to respond as the needs change.

That means that to be a sustainable business you have to look at the challenges which are facing your customers.

You have to examine the things which threaten the sustainability of the relationship. And in a spirit of mutual advantage you have to examine what you can do, as a business, to remove those threats. To make the relationship sustainable. To ensure one transaction leads to another, and another.

That’s about relationships with individual customers and with the communities of which we are part.

Business is part of society. Business is affected by what is happening in society and business can and should be an active agent of change and progress. Meeting challenges and offering new and better choices.

I’ve often heard Exbiblio’s Martin King say similar things, but this quotation is from a speech by the CEO of the world’s third largest oil corporation, BP. The speech by Lord John Browne was entitled, “Sustainability – A Pracitcal Agenda.”

It’s always nice to know that you are in good company

Time and Money

October 16th, 2006 by Hugh

As we all know, time is money. When a business has run out of one, it’s also run out of the other. So timing is crucial.

The thing that concerns me most about Exbiblio is time. It all seems so tight to me, that there doesn’t seem to be any margin for unpleasant surprises. And it’s already behind schedule. I would think that an ordinary business would be looking very actively for investors to buy it more time, and a strategic partners to help it get its product to the customers. Exbiblio doesn’t seem to be doing either of those things – at least, not in full gear. But then it isn’t an ordinary business.

I put my concerns to Martin, and he responds that he wants to hand a product to investors and partners, not just a “vision” with hypothetical sales projections. Exbiblio won’t have a product until early next year. So actively approaching partners is on hold.


Green Pasta

September 7th, 2006 by Hugh

Here’s a green design idea that I don’t think even Exbiblio has considered yet (though I don’t know that for certain) – circuit boards made out of pasta and cases made out of corn. Both are wonderfully biodegradable, and if you feel peckish, you can eat your handheld device instead of throwing it away.

You can read more and watch a video report on the BBC’s website.

The CueCat

September 7th, 2006 by Hugh

CueCatThis is a story about a scanner device that was mentioned in an anonymous comment on this blog. I thought it was worth reading up a little more about it. It’s a failure story – but there’s always something to be learned from others’ mistakes (and your own!).

As a note to new readers, Exbiblio’s first product will be a scanner pen with a difference. It will link a paper document to its digital equivalent by means by capturing five or six words of the text. It turns out that a few consecutive words in any text are almost always unique.

CueCat was a scanner device designed by DigitalConvergence in the late 1990s (there’s a nice article about its history on Wikipedia). It read barcodes, and when plugged into a computer, it could take readers to a related page on the internet. The company mailed out free CueCats, often unsolicited. Wired Magazine gave them away. In 2000, CueCat bar codes appeared in some leading publications, including Forbes and Time. RadioShack gave away the devices and included CueCat barcodes in its catalogs.

Hackers quickly saw the CueCat might have other applications as a general barcode reader. For instance, if modified, it might be used to build a catalog of your book or CD library, or to take you to an Amazon page. The firm expanded its licence agreement to forbid such modifications, claiming that it remained the owner of the device.

The product soon ran into more controversy. Each CueCat had a unique serial number, and it was asserted that DigitalConvergence could spy on how individuals used them. The company set its lawyers on hackers who published ways to modify its product.

It all ended the way many businesses do. In 2005, a liquidator was offering 2 million CueCats at 30 cents each.

Exbiblio has a very different approach. It’s committed in its values to protecting users’ data and to generally being good (“leaving beauty in our wake”). Still, there are some interesting parallels here and lessons to be learned.

Green Design

August 21st, 2006 by Team Member

Hardware LabAt Exbiblio we take responsibility for the things we make and do, and strive to leave beauty in our wake. This means our products should be beneficial to our users, not harmful to them, and likewise our products should not be harmful to the environment or the people manufacturing them.

The main aspects of an electronic device like Exbiblio’s oPen scanner that would cause environmental impact are the circuit board, the components on the circuit board (chips, resistors, capacitors, etc.), the battery, the case, and the packaging. Transportation is also a factor, but should be smaller than the others, and energy usage during customer usage should be very small compared to these manufacturing impacts, so we’re concentrating on them. So far, the green design considerations for are mostly going smoothly. This is a brief summary, more detail on each aspect will appear in the future.


Ads in your textbooks?

August 15th, 2006 by Adam

The Seattle-PI has an article today about “Ads coming to textbooks”. Seems that Freeload Press, a startup textbook publisher, is providing free downloadable text books supported by advertisements.

I was just speaking with Claes-Fredrik this morning about ad-supported revenue models vs. more traditional product pricing. Exbiblio technologies potentially affect every printed or digital document that you access, including those which are not currently the target of advertising (for example, a business plan or a novel).

It seems that the world has trended toward advertising supported services. Google is the poster child for this, but there are many others. Those hosting the ads say that ads are as valuable as the content itself if they are well targeted (and the more user behavior that is tracked, the more accurate the targeting).

Personally, I try to create a lifestyle with fewer ads as they usually encourage discontentment and greed, which are not qualities that I wish to promote in myself. For example, I pay for my e-mail service instead of using an ad supported one, I’ve upgraded my Flickr account to one which doesn’t show ads, and I don’t own a television (though I sometimes buy shows I like on DVD). I definitely don’t want ads delivered based on all the digital and printed documents in my life even if it means paying more for an Exbiblio style product.

Some would say that ads can be optional. Users who don’t want to see them can pay a higher fee (Flickr for example). My question for this approach is which users are going to opt out? Probably the ones who can afford it, right? Well, who are the advertisers targeting? The ones who can afford it… This seems like a lose, lose. Their are a bunch of people getting ads that they can’t afford to act upon and advertisers are missing the folks who are willing to spend money.

There is some interested discussion in the comments of this blog about whether Freeload sponsors will want to pay for textbooks distributed to third world countries where they are unlikely to build a customer base in the near-term…

I’m not sure what the answer to these questions are. They are tough issues. But, I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comment section.


August 9th, 2006 by Hugh

Almost half of all employees say they would accept less pay, if they could work for a socially responsible company, according to a survey by Care2. Even more workers – 73 per cent – say that it’s “very important” to work for a company that’s “socially responsible.”

Companies mentioned by survey-takers as socially responsible included:

I know that Exbiblio would dearly love to be mentioned on that list one day.

Tantalum and Uranium

August 6th, 2006 by Hugh

There’s a new twist to the story about tantalum, a surprisingly controversial mineral used in capacitors (for background see my previous post, Cruelty-Free Tantalum).

The Sunday Times reports that coltan (columbite-tantalite ore) is being used as a cover to smuggle Uranium from the Congo to Iran via Tanzania. The newspaper quotes a senior Tanzanian source:

There were several containers due to be shipped and they were all routinely scanned with a Geiger counter,” the official said.

“This one was very radioactive. When we opened the container it was full of drums of coltan. Each drum contains about 50kg of ore. When the first and second rows were removed, the ones after that were found to be drums of uranium.”

As you are probably aware, there is widespread concern about Iran’s use of nuclear technology. This latest story will do more to taint the use of Congolese tantalum as being unethical, despite the official end to the civil war in Congo and the recent widely-praised elections. As it happens, I’m told that Exbiblio is avoiding the use of tantalum altogether, which neatly sidesteps the problem.

Cruelty-Free Tantalum.

August 2nd, 2006 by Hugh

A slightly baffling but intriguing phrase caught my eye in an Exbiblio email recently: “Cruelty-free tantalum.” I wondered what this was about and had a look around the internet to find out more. I discovered that it is an evolving story, not unconnected with an event in the news.

CongoLast Sunday, the people of war-torn Congo queued up at the election booths in a remarkable exercise in democracy. Despite its official name, this was the first election in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1960. Congo is one of those countries that is, in a way, cursed by wealth. The violence that has raged since 1994 through this central African country is largely a battle to control Congo’s mineral resources which include diamonds, copper, and ores such as tantalite which is known locally as coltan.

Tantalum has has a high melting point and is capable of storing and slowly releasing an electric charge. Understandably, it is used widely in electronics. The rising popularity of mobile phones and gadgetry caused the value of this mineral to climb steeply during the 1990s, and then slump in 2000 along with the tech crash. 80% of the world’s tantalum is in Congo.

Many of Congo’s poorest farmers, including children, were drawn to tantalite ore, either as independent prospectors, or seeking work in the mines. Tantalite became a focus for fighting and banditry. Some of the deposits fell into the hands of rebels who used forced labour.

A tantalum rush ensued, and a legion of small farmers took their picks and shovels into Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park in search of the mineral. The park is one of the last habitats of the extremely shy and retiring mountain gorilla. The incursion of miners has posed a threat to the existence of last 250 gorillas living in the park.

The unfortunate set of circumstances surrounding Congolese tantalum has given rise to campaigning against buying this mineral from Congo. But things aren’t always so simple on the ground. Many local people found tantalum to be an important source of income, and were dismayed when prices fell in 2000. I quote from a BBC report:

“It’s our only way of making a living,” said Blanchard, an intermediary who travels upcountry to buy coltan from the small-scale miners and brings it back to Goma to sell. “There’s nothing else to do here.”

These distant events have a direct bearing on Exbiblio’s policy of ethical sourcing, but I’m not sure that this is a straight-forward moral issue. Tantalum has been a motivation for banditry and the exploitation of miners, and some of it is tainted by “blood” just as much as conflict diamonds. In some cases, its extraction has disturbed families of gorillas, but refugees from the war have also been a big problem for the animal life of the National Park. On the other side of the argument, tantalum has also provided income to extremely poor Congolese. Congo is still a violent place, but its nascent democracy needs all the help it can get. It needs to move on from the civil war in which almost 4 million people have died (mostly through hunger and disease)– a staggering death toll that has gone largely unnoticed by the world. You can buy tantalum from Australia, and be sure that your hands are clean, but can you be certain that you aren’t turning your back on one of the most needy parts of the world? Bear in mind the verdict of The Economist newspaper on the Congolese election:

The best chance for a generation, unless the world walks away.

Jerry Greenfield on BBC Blog

July 31st, 2006 by Hugh

Declan Curry of the BBC has been chatting on his blog with Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company.

Ben and Jerry’s, as you probably are aware, has always made a point of being more than just a business, and has aimed to change the world for the better – just as Exbiblio aims to do. It was founded in Montana in the 1970s, and six years ago was sold (some people say “sold out”) to the food giant Unilever. Ben and Jerry continue to run a foundation which bears their name, and to be involved in the social aspects of the company.

As Jerry says, originally their company was considered to follow a “hippy” way of doing business. These days it is mainstream. Certainly here in Europe, “fair trade” coffee and chocolate can be found on the shelves of every supermarket with large markups (and a few extra pennies going to the farmers). Even the great oil giant BP bears a green logo.

BBC viewers sent in some good questions to the blog. One writes that “ethical” companies that sell up to multinationals are just giving their new owners a respectable “green wash”. Jerry responds that when Unilever bought the company, it committed to buying the milk and cream from family farmers, and it continues to fund the Foundation at the same level as before. He admits, however, that although Ben and Jerry’s tries to influence its owners, it’s like a small tail trying to wag a big dog.