A Tale of Two Products

Many products these days are just plain crappy. Stuff is made out of what I like to call “Chinesium.” A screw driver made out of Chinesium is dull after the first few uses and you end up buying a new one, spending the money twice.

Here are two products that made a significant difference in my life over many years:

On the left you see my Philips Sonicare electric toothbrush. On the right are my GoodFeet orthotics.

I bought my first Sonicare, a predecessor model of this one, almost 20 years ago, and it lasted about 10 years before it died. Then I got another one, and that lasted 10 years. This one here is the next generation. Ironically, this one died within a year and I have another one yet again – but that’s another story. My point is that using an electric toothbrush made a gigantic difference for my oral health and hygiene, and I wish I had had one as a child. My teeth, due to neglect of care and probably outright bad nutrition in the Germany of the 1960s, were full of fillings by the time I turned 20. Then I spent 20 years with  my trusted dentist fixing things up, and the final 20 years just maintaining the status – and much of it thanks to the Sonicare.

When I was in my mid thirties, my feet started hurting badly to the point where I could no longer hike and walking was painful. I was lucky to find a good podiatrist who custom made orthotics for me, and I have worn them in my shoes ever since. The orthotics were a miracle cure. I was better overnight. And I am an avid hiker and walker to this day. No pain – but I need my orthotics. The custom units the podiatrist made for me cost a lot of money at the time, and lasted maybe 10 years, before they broke. My doctor had retired by then, and I found the GoodFeet store and bought myself a set off the shelf. They cost about $200 at the time, and the ones you see in the photo above are still that first pair. I would say that pair is now 30 years old. They are indestructible. And they are still the same miracle cure. I will probably never need to buy another pair, and since they are always in my shoes, there is no chance I’ll ever lose them, either.

Here is the tale: Both of these product are miracle cures.

The toothbrushes are now made out of Chinesium. The last one literally only held up for a year before it no longer worked. Since they “only” cost about $100, I hadn’t kept warranty documents, so I just bought another one – keeping the receipt this time. However, you have to change the heads out every few months. It’s like the razor and the blade. It’s the brush heads that cost some $30 for a set of three and that’s how Philips makes its money. What a racket business model!

In contrast, the orthotics are just as miraculous and important, but there are no blades, no brush heads, and they last forever. GoodFeet is a great company with an amazing product, but I have no need to buy their product ever again – it’s that good.

I can’t help it that there is a difference between one product and another, one making an ongoing revenue stream, and the other being just one-time sales.

Pick your product well when you start a company!

Two Jeeps – 29 Years Apart

I am in this transition period where I own two off-road vehicles at the same time.

I thought I’d arrange them in the driveway for a one-time picture together, before the old one leaves.

2021 on the left, 1992 on the right.

Capital One Monitoring my Tips

Last weekend we went out to dinner at Vintana’s, one of the best restaurants in Escondido. It has a large outdoor patio, and in the fall sunset of Southern California, it does not get any better than that.

We also have a restaurant “passport” card, which gives us one entrée for free. With prices being in the $30 for $40 per dish, that is not an insignificant discount. After drinks, an appetizer, and two entrées, with the discount applied, the bill still came to about $80.

I want to support our restaurant community, I want to support our service staff who work hard under difficult conditions, so I boosted the normal tip of about 20% much higher, tipping like I would have done for the full-cost dinner, without the discount.

A day later I received the above email from my credit card company, asking whether I really meant to give a 37% tip at Vinana’s. My credit card company is looking out for me. If this had been a mistake, I would have been able to correct it. That was actually impressive to me. On the other hand, it made it clear that I am being watched, and that my activities, including my spending habits, are predictable and are being monitored.

I feel good, and I feel concerned, at the same time.

But the tip stands. Our server did an excellent job.

The Incredible Customer Service of Geico Insurance

A couple of weeks ago I drove westbound on Rancho California Road in Temecula, getting ready to turn left onto the I-15 southbound, when BAAAAMMM I was hit from the right. An SUV had tried to cross into my lane, apparently didn’t see me, and tore up the entire right side of my Prius, from the front bumper, through both right doors, the rear fender and the rear bumper.

I have never before been hit like that. I pulled over to the right side, and the car that hit me followed. It turns out the driver was a 15-year-old girl who was out on a practice ride with her mother two days before she was scheduled to take the test to get her driver’s license.

The poor girl was upset.

While we waited for the police to come, we exchanged information, taking pictures of each other’s driver’s licenses, registrations and insurance cards. When the police finally came, the officer didn’t actually do anything, since there were no injuries involved. He gave us each his card with the ticket number on it, and told us that we should both contact our insurance companies and they would work out the details.

I was depressed all the way home. I didn’t want to have to deal with getting the car fixed. It didn’t look like it would be cheap. The wheel was hit, and the entire right side of my car was scraped. The door didn’t open. The mirror was bent.

When I got home, I needed a break. I sat down at the TV and watched the depressing evening news. But I calmed down. At around 8:00pm I went to my desk and pulled up my insurance policy with 21st Century Insurance. It was time to call this incident in.

Just as I was getting started I received a call from Geico, the insurance company of the car that hit me. The agent first asked me whether I was ok, hurt in any way, and whether my car was drivable. I told him it was a bit wobbly at high speeds, since the wheel was hit, but I was able to take it home. He asked me to describe what had happened, and I did.

Then he told me that they would take full responsibility for getting my car repaired, and they would provide a rental car in the meantime. He was ok with me calling my own insurance company, but he didn’t think it was necessary, since they’d take care of the problem.

The gave me a phone number to call in the morning to take my car in.

The next morning, I called the number, and they told me to take the car to Henson’s Fix Auto, a shop in Escondido, not more than a mile from my office. I made an appointment at 10:30am.

When I walked into the lobby, there were three people there. The first person got up and introduced himself as the Geico representative. He’d take care of my problem. Then he introduced me to the lady at the other desk, who worked for Henson’s shop. She’d get the work done. And the other gentleman was a representative from Enterprise Rent-a-car, who was here with my car.

The man from Geico looked over my car with me and explained all that he saw and that they were going to do. Then he led me back into the office, and the lady from the shop gave me all the paperwork. The man from Enterprise handed me the key to the blue car he had brought for me and checked me into the car. I was out of there within less than 30 minutes.

It was the most pleasant, helpful and efficient customer service experience I can remember. Something as traumatic and upsetting as a trashed car was made easy and comfortable.

The next day Geico called me with the cost of $4,800 and assured me that Geico was taking responsibility. It would take two weeks to get the car fixed. He said he’d call Enterprise and tell them how long I’d need the rental car.

Every day in the last two weeks I received text messages updating me about the status of the repairs and that all was well.

Today I received the call that it was done and I could pick it up. I drove back, gave them the key to the rental car, checked out the repairs – looks beautiful – and drove away.

Geico has the most impressive customer service I have ever experienced. Henson’s Fix Auto shop does customer service like it should be done in the digital age. And Enterprise supplied me with a hassle-free car.

I hope the 15-year-old girl learned a valuable lesson about traffic from this and I hope she got her license. I remember the day many years ago when my own son totaled his first car, and how relieved I was that he was ok. He learned. We all want our kids to grow up alright, safe and responsible. And this family did the responsible thing and took care of this for me as effortlessly as it could be done.

And now I think I need to switch to Geico.

Jeep Ride in the San Diego Backcountry

Trisha and I went on a Jeep ride today with Chris (of Piper and Heath) and Roy (a wildlife photographer) in the backcountry of San Diego County. We went out in two Jeeps (for redundancy) and spent the day cruising places otherwise completely inaccessible.

Here is Chris driving down a steep section of rocky trail while Roy spots him. Trisha is the passenger.

Later in the day, Chris, the wilderness guide per excellence, served up a perfect picnic complete with wine and gourmet salads:

If you are ever looking to travel to Africa with expert guides, call Piper and Heath, and I promise, they will take care of you with first class service.

Thanks to Chris and Roy for great outdoors adventure today.

A Walk without Exercise

From Left to Right: Linda, Dick, Trisha and Norbert

We just got home from a 3-hour, 13-mile “walk” all over Balboa Park, Little Italy, the San Diego Harbor, Seaport Village and the Gas Lamp Quarter, without getting any exercise at all.

When I got home and walked to the mailbox it felt odd that I couldn’t just lean forward and accelerate to 12 miles per hour.

Now I want a Segway!

Welcome to the Priushood – Take Four

[click to enlarge]
A line of Prius taxis, as far as the eye can see, at San Diego airport. Every taxi is a Prius. It lends itself as the perfect car for taxis as well as Uber for the following reasons:

  1. The gas mileage is about 1/2 or 1/3 that of conventional cars. For somebody driving all day long, that will make a huge difference.
  2. The engine is off when the car is standing, at a red light, or in traffic, or in a taxi line. It burns no gas and does not pollute when it stands.
  3. The back seat is roomy and comfortable.
  4. Toyotas just don’t break down. The reliability is phenomenal.

I guess I am part of the Priushood.

The Incredible Customer Service of American Art Collector Magazine


American Art Collector

After I recently moved, my subscription to American Art Collector Magazine stopped coming. When something no longer happens, you often don’t notice it right away. One day I looked at my last issue and noticed that it was months out of date.

American Art Collector is my favorite magazine. When I get it in the mail, I immediately open the plastic cover and start thumbing through it. It always makes my day, and it always inspires me to paint. Always.

So when I noticed the magazines were no longer coming, I tried to contact them through  the website. To get access, I needed to have my subscription number or ID, and since those are on the plastic mailing cover, I never retain those.

So I emailed them and told them what had happened. A week later the five most recent issues of the magazine came in the mail. It was like Christmas.

I commend American Art Collector Magazine for their awesome customer service.

The Shiny Face of Uber, and its Ugly Underbelly

I love using Uber.

When you get into a taxi in Germany, it’s almost always a new Mercedes, BMW or Audi, generally the large model, and spotless. The driver is well-dressed. The ride is superb. And then you pay a LOT OF MONEY.

When you get into a taxi in the United States, say New York City, the car is usually beat up, no more shocks left, the seat is often torn and the cushions disintegrated. The cab is filthy. The barrier separating the driver from me is too close and my legs bump against it. There is less leg room than in a Spirit Airlines flight. The driver speaks no English. He can’t take a credit card, because “the machine no works” and I am still expected to tip. Since I deal with cash, the tip is too much in the end. The receipt is usually a dirty business card where I have to fill in my own data. All that, if I can FIND and HAIL a cab in New York City in the first place.

Enter Uber.

I go to my app, and within a few seconds a driver accepts my hail. I see the map and the car coming. I know the name of the driver, the type of car, and the license number ahead of time, so I can look out for him. Within minutes he pulls up. I get in, and the driver greets me by name, and he already knows where I am going. The car is clean, he hands me a bottle of water, we chat pleasantly, if I want to, and he drops me off. I see the fare pop up on my phone, and it’s very reasonable. I love that I don’t have to hassle with a tip. The driver is his own contractor/boss/service business. I rate the driver 5 stars. Within minutes, I have an easy-to-read receipt in my email that I can use for my expense report if I am on a business trip. It does not get any slicker than that.

From the consumer’s point of view, the business model makes perfect sense. Here is a service industry that is putting the taxi business out of business.

The way I see it, Uber should not exist. The taxi companies should have created the app years ago and streamlined their business to be consumer oriented. There should be a checkered-cab-app. But there isn’t.

  • Just like Google should not exist, because the dominant search engine at the time was Yahoo!
  • Just like Amazon should not exist, since Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Waldenbooks owned the market and should have gone online.
  • Just like Instagram should not exist because Kodak could have created it 10 years earlier.
  • Just like FedEx should not exist, because the U.S. Postal Service owned the mail and shipping market.
  • Just like Apple should not exist, because IBM was the behemoth of computing, and DEC was the upstart minicomputer giant.

But, alas, Uber exists because the taxi business sucks so badly and they created a much better mousetrap for a huge demand.

If you have ever wondered about the inner workings of Uber, how much money (or how little) the drivers make, and how it all works, read this superb article by Emily Guendelsberger in the Philadelphia Citypaper. It’s very long, but it’s exhaustive and serves as a great exposé.

After reading this article, it is clear to me that Uber is meeting a phenomenal demand left by the crappy taxi industry, that, with its bad business model, trashy service, inconvenient hailing system, and poor financial management, not to mention the outdated protectionist medallion system, is not able to cope very well with competition that is focused — what a novel concept — on the consumer.

Uber has to deal with the issue of commercial licensing and insurance. Uber has to deal with unionization efforts of their drivers. Uber has to take better care of its drivers, or some other company like it that does will gobble up those drivers eventually. But Uber definitely is focused on the customer, the consumer.

In summary, Uber (and its competitors) are an American service industry addition that was not there some years ago and has become a huge business because there was a gaping need. Its drivers are not making a living wage for the most part, but its customers are happy and well-served. Regulatory agencies and insurance companies need to catch up with “the problem” this industry created, but they eventually will.

The Incredible Customer Service of Souplantation


I have been a loyal customer of Souplantation since 1985, when I first moved to San Diego. When I raised my kids, we were a family of four, and we would eat at Souplantation every other week or so. Sunday afternoons at Souplantation were some my favorite outings for dinner. Frequently I would do lunch, and I would always seek out Souplantations while on the road in California. You might say I have always been an ardent follower of their brand.

Over the last year or so I found myself not enjoying the experience as much as I used to. I could not put my finger on the reason, I just felt that it was not what it used to be.

I am a CEO, and I know that customer service is critical in any business. If I had a 30-year customer that was drifting away because of the quality of my product, I’d want to know. So I decided to write to the CEO.

A few days later I received an email from his assistant, inviting me to lunch with him at — you guessed it – the Souplantation. Last week was our lunch meeting at the Rancho Bernardo location.

He gave me a tour of the restaurant. For 45 minutes he and the store manager walked me through the entire salad bar and we discussed many of the items. Then on to the soups, the breads, the pastas and the desserts. I learned so much about their business, their mission and their vision, I can’t list it all here.

Souplantation is a “farm to table” restaurant. He talked about the various local farmers that supplied the restaurants. For instance, his supplier of broccoli has to ship several acres of broccoli every week. This requires timed planting and growing of the plant in a staggered fashion, also taking into consideration the seasons. In the summer, it takes 43 days (if I remember the number correctly) to grow a plant. In the winter it’s 90 days. I can’t even imagine running a farm that can harvest a number of acres of broccoli every week, just to supply one restaurant chain.

He knows his suppliers. He pointed out the lettuce and told me it was no more than two days old, picked in Yuma, Arizona “the day before yesterday.” Every items is much fresher than it would ever be in a grocery store. We talked about raisins, sunflower seeds, cauliflower, and blueberries used in the muffins. All the dressings are homemade per their own recipes and only remain in the bar for a few days.

Getting to know the food, the supplier processes and the preparation methods first-hand from the CEO of the company opened my eyes — and taste buds. I can assure you that I have never had a better-tasting Souplantation meal in my life than I did after this tour. The bread was fresh and chewy, the produce hearty and flavorful, and the soup delicious.

I also learned that they have 124 restaurants in 15 states. See the map on their website. There are over 6,000 employees. Only in Southern California the stores are called Souplantation. In all other places  they are called Sweet Tomatoes. The reason is that in the South, the word “plantation” has an undesirable connotation. That had never crossed my mind, but then again, I am a Southern Californian.

So what was it that caused me to be dissatisfied in the first place? They were minor issues, and mostly related to challenges the restaurant has with specific items. For instance, I complained about the quality of their chicken noodle soup. It turns out that the chicken noodle soup is the single most difficult item to keep fresh in the restaurant. Once they put out a pot, it can be “bad” within ten minutes. He said that in some areas, where there is a significant Asian population, they tend to scoop off the broth to drink it, and leave the ingredients in the pot, causing a thick layer on the bottom and making the “soup” too dry for others. In other restaurants, people tend to stir the soup and fish out the chicken, leaving thin content of noodles floating in broth. Since the noodles are home-made, they tend to break up quickly when stirred a lot by the fishers and – alas – bad soup in the pot.

Another item I had complained about was the sourdough bread, one of my favorites. It turns out that bread is one of the few items that they don’t bake themselves, but buy already made. Sometimes it lies under the warming light too long and gets stale.

I don’t want to belabor my complaint points, but I found out that the items I had issues with were the more challenging ones to maintain, and the restaurant management knows it. The solution is for the customer to speak up. If the soup is no longer good, let the attendant know, and they will always refresh it, and bring a bowl to your table. If the bread is stale, ask for fresh. The restaurant walks a thin line of balancing between wasting good food by throwing it out too early, and upsetting customers by leaving marginal items on the counter too long. Their muffins are only good for about 20 to 25 minutes, so if they don’t get eaten, they need to decide whether to leave them and risk complaints, or waste them by throwing out 25-minute-old muffins.

The answer: Communicate with the staff. They want us to be happy.

I am sure not every complaining customer gets a two-hour tour and lunch from the CEO of the company, but I did, and I can tell you, it made a huge difference to me, I learned so much, I appreciate the quality of the food, and I am incredibly impressed by the commitment to customer service of the Souplantation.

I am ready to go back!

Tesla Autopilot

The Tesla Model S is an app with a car attached. Today was the first day that Model S owners could upgrade their car to drive itself. That’s the way to build a car. This is American ingenuity. American jobs.

Dreaming of the Ford GT40

Ford GT40

Ford build the GT between 1964 and 1969. Only 107 cars were built. GT stands for Grand Touring. 40 represents that the car is 40 inches tall. When I was a 12 years old, in 1968, the GT40 was my dream car.

Continuations, replicas and modernizations came on the market over the years. There are now 2005 models available.

I saw this one in Rancho Santa Fe this weekend. I don’t know enough about the car to know if this is an original, or if it is a continuation model. Checking for prices, you can get a nice used model (they are all used) anywhere between $266,000 and $480,000.

I am dreaming on.

Why I Respect Southwest Airlines

I have always respected Southwest Airlines. That company does a lot of things right.

I flew back from San Jose to San Diego on Tuesday night on flight 255. I sat in the back of the plane, so I was one of the last few people to get off after we landed. As customary with Southwest, the flight attendants clean the airplane between flights. As the passengers deplane from the front, the flight attendants work their way back through the rows on both sides, rubber gloves on, with trash bags in hand. They pick up litter from the seats, floors and seat back pockets, and they fold the seatbelts so they look clean for the next group of passengers.

By doing this, I am sure, Southwest not only keeps the cost down by not needing separate cleaning crews, but they also have unparalleled turn-around time at airports. I have seen them land, deplane, board and leave in 30 minutes.

On flight 255 the other night, I noticed something new: The captain was cleaning the plane. He was working his way through the plane with rubber gloves on, chatting it up with the crew and greeting the passengers, as he cleaned the seats.

That’s why I respect Southwest Airlines.

Rendezvous with Virgin Galactic White Knight

The pilot of a Virgin America flight facilitates a wing to wing encounter with the Virgin Galactic White Knight and creates a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle for the passengers. I always thought that Branson’s Virgin companies were cool. This tops it off.

It’s not every day that you get to fly next to a spaceship!