Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My wife told me a funny, yet not surprising, experience her colleague had with a local dry cleaner. Her colleague has used this dry cleaner for quite some time. Recently, she brought in a white dress to have some stains removed. After picking it up from the dry cleaner, she noticed that the stain still hadn't come out totally, so she asked the dry cleaner to clean it again. She mentioned that it is an expensive dress, so please be careful with it. Upon hearing this, the dry cleaner replied, "Oh, we charge an additional UAH 580 to clean expensive clothing." The woman was of course dumbstruck. To add insult to injury, the dry cleaner asked if the dress cost more than UAH 2,500. "What does the price of the dress have to do with anything?", the woman asked. The dry cleaner replied, "For clothing that cost more than UAH 2,500 we charge an additional 40% fee." Of course she said the dress cost less than this amount, but the woman "jokingly" asked if this was some kind of threat. The dry cleaner then said with a straight face the charge was basically an insurance fee (my paraphrase). If the woman didn't pay this fee the dry cleaner couldn't be responsible for damage to the dress.

Yep, this kind of practice is pretty common. In some cases, I'm sure it's just a way to squeeze more money out of people, but sometimes I honestly think people believe this is a legitimate pricing model. In the U.S., this

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Passing on gas: don't point fingers

Of course, I've been following the news of the Ukraine-Russia-Europe natural gas debacle. It's hard not to when you're living in the middle of it. Friends and family have asked if we're sitting in our homes freezing or if we've started to burn the furniture yet. Neither is the case. The radiators are warm and we can even keep turning on our Christmas tree lights. How long that will last, I don't know but we're living in the moment.

I've been working a post that gives my opinion on the whole mess. But there has been so much written already, that I don't want to regurgitate all of it, and I don't want to write a book. But this morning I read a commentary in The Moscow Times that prompted me to respond. The commentary, written by a French deputy, annoyed me on a number of levels, not all of which I addressed in my response. In general, anyone who tries to point the finger exclusively at one country makes their objectivity suspect in my book. And the fact that this person seemed to touch on practically every aspect of the Kremlin's version of things, makes it even more suspicious to me.

But instead of writing a full analysis, I decided to merely post the commentary and my email response to the editor. Feel free to send your response to them as well. I kept their contact info in the article. I'm told that my response will be printed in the next letters-to-the-editor section.


Kiev Must Pay the Price For Victimizing the EU

15 January 2009

By Thierry Mariani

The crisis between Russia and Ukraine that threatens gas supplies to Europe each year was caused by Ukraine's refusal to pay Russia what it owes and the attempts by Kiev to escape its responsibilities. Throughout this conflict Ukraine tried to put pressure on Europe, using it as a pawn in its economic dispute with Gazprom and to avoid paying the billion dollars Kiev still owes.
At the onset of the crisis, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko made multiple reassuring declarations affirming that Russian gas destined for Europe could continue to transit through Ukrainian territory -- regardless of what happened in the conflict with Moscow. We have seen what his promises are worth: The Ukrainians have not respected their commitment.

This manipulation of Europe by the Ukrainian government is even more questionable than it may appear. Each day it becomes more and more evident that Kiev's stance was driven by internal politics and rivalry among the top Ukrainian business clans. Yushchenko left the field free for Naftogaz to break negotiations and has continued to block attempts by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to mediate the conflict.

Europe should not have to pay for these mistakes. Europeans have been the victims of Ukrainian blackmail as well as Kiev's incapacity to insert itself into a global market economy and achieve political maturity. The envoy of European observers to Ukraine was an indispensable measure for the return to normality, but it is not sufficient in the long term. This situation cannot continue. We Europeans must think now about the future.

With regard to our supply levels, we must begin to work on finding diverse ways of transporting Russian gas to Europe -- for example, the Nord Stream project to transport gas through a pipeline under the Baltic Sea or the European Union- and U.S.-backed Nabucco pipeline, which envisions transporting gas from Azerbaijan and/or Kazakhstan through Turkey and the Balkans.
On a political level, this crisis confirms the urgent need to reinforce the partnership between Europe and Russia, which is essential for the equilibrium of the European continent. Ukraine can and should have its place in this partnership, but the country must understand that this depends on its own actions -- particularly, its ability to provide political and economic stability.Thierry Mariani, a deputy in the French National Assembly from the Union for a Popular Movement, is president of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation.

Thierry Mariani, a deputy in the French National Assembly from the Union for a Popular Movement, is president of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation.

To Our Readers
The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number. Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.


Dear Editor:

Thank you for publishing Mr. Mariani's insightful yet disturbing and one-sided commentary. It speaks volumes about the current problems with Ukraine, Russia and Europe and the attitudes which perpetuate them. Anyone who is familiar with Russian and Ukrainian relations, particularly since 2004, should understand that there are always at least two sides to every story and every conflict in this relationship. Informed people know that this gas crisis is not merely a commercial dispute, and anyone who points the finger exclusively at one country or the other suggests to me that person is either ill-informed or biased in some way.

I do agree with Mr. Mariani that Europe needs to diversify its energy supplies. But it needs to diversify its energy sources as well as its routes, particularly central and eastern European countries. Merely shifting the pipes through which Gazprom's gas flows may be a short-term solution for Europe, it does not change the fact that Russia has shown itself willing to use energy as a foreign policy tool. I don't blame them for that, but it is a fact that must be considered as Europe plans its energy strategy. I hope the western European countries will listen and learn from the experience of their newer member countries.

I am not an apologist for Ukraine's political leaders. In fact, the opposite. All of them have let down their citizens. Guided by their own self-interests, they are the main obstacle, to use Mr. Mariani's words, to the country "inserting itself into the global economy and achieving political maturity". The past four years have been extremely disappointing for anyone who cares about Ukraine's political, economic and societal development. However, one cannot deny that Ukraine's geopolitical status makes it an extremely important political battleground for other countries' to achieve their own foreign policy goals, which only exascerbates its internal divisions.

It is disappointing to see this opinion coming from an EU citizen who is also leading a regional body whose mission it is to foster economic interaction and harmony among the Black Sea countries. Even if this is Mr. Mariani's position in his private dealings with BSEC's members, it seems to me that publishing these kinds of opinions only polarizes people and squelches open discusson.

I hope that The Moscow Times has remained an independent publication and will also publish opposing or more balanced opinions (whether it is mine or someone else's) to give your readers a balanced viewpoint on which to base their own opinions.

Thank you.

Tim McQuillin

Friday, January 2, 2009

Splitting blogs

After several months of my blogging experiment, I feel the need to split my posts between two blogs instead of trying to integrate them into one. My guess is that combining posts about my personal (Ukraine and related observations) and professional (mobile/tech/customer experience/innovation) interests probably appeal to different audiences. As a result, each post probably is not interesting for one of these audiences. And I hate to disappoint people. Additionally, I expect that splitting the blogs will give me more freedom to post more often.

Therefore, going forward this blog will focus exclusively on Ukraine-related observations. I've started another blog for my mobile/tech/customer experience/innovation posts. As of now, I haven't posted anything there yet.

None of us can completely separate our personal and professional interests. In fact, the key to a satisfying and successful career is to have as much overlap as possible. Therefore, readers of either blog will likely continue to find some intersection in my posts, but any references will be in the context of that blog's focus.

I hope you enjoy both of them!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Innovation for Ukraine?

I listened to podcast today, part of the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series organized by the Stanford Technology Ventures program. Tom Kelley from IDEO spoke to group of students at the opening of the Global Innovation Tournament about how to form habits that preserve their creativity, stay young at heart, and be an innovator for life. He had 5 pieces of advice:

  1. Keep an "international traveller's" mentality. In other words, a heightened state of alertness and awareness of your surroundings and human behavior.

  2. Treat life as an experiment. Be willing to fail, and learning from your failures.

  3. Have an attitude of wisdom. A healthy balance between a confidence in what you know, and distrusting what you know just enough to give you a thirst for knowledge.

  4. Use your whole brain. Applying the left brain, which is what most education trains us to us, and right brain at the same time. Find time to let your "tortoise mind" work. This is the part of your mind that kind of works in the background, and which grows ideas over time, and leads you to the "aha!" moments.

  5. Find your muse. Know what makes you most creative. It can be while listening to a certain kind of music, being stimulated by lots of noise or quiet, or certain times of day. Follow your passion.
Coincidentally, he mentioned a quote by Marcel Proust that I had until recently put on my Windows Messenger message: "The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes." So that grabbed my attention.

I have 2 questions that I'm hoping to get a lot of commentary about.

Is there innovation being done in Ukraine for Ukrainians?

Honestly, I haven't seen much of this although I'm sure it must be happening somewhere. In the course of daily life I tend to notice the lack of innovation, or even the effort by many companies to take advantage of past innovations. Stuff like packaging milk in a box or other sturdy container instead of a bag. Packaging plastic wrap in boxes with a serrated edge so you can tear it off without shredding it or cutting it with a knife.

Don't confuse this with creativity. I see acts of creativity and even ingenuity regularly. As usual Wikipedia offers a good explanation of what I mean:

Innovation typically involves creativity, but is not identical to it: innovation involves acting on the creative ideas to make some specific and tangible difference in the domain in which the innovation occurs. For example, Amabile et al (1996) propose:

"All innovation begins with creative ideas . . . We define innovation as the successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization. In this view, creativity by individuals and teams is a starting point for innovation; the first is necessary but not sufficient condition for the second".

For innovation to occur, something more than the generation of a creative idea or insight is required: the insight must be put into action to make a genuine difference, resulting for example in new or altered business processes within the organization, or changes in the products and services provided.

If you know there is innovation happening, what are some examples and which companies and/or individuals are leading this innovation?

The only industries I can think where innovation is taking place in Ukraine is in the IT, science and pharmaceutical industries. But, unfortunately, I think most of this innovation is being done by or for foreign companies and most Ukrainians don't feel it. I'm looking for products, services and methods that are being offered and applied in Ukraine.

I'd love to be surprised with a lot of examples. Looking forward to your comments.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where is George Bailey when you need him?

While my list of mobile industry topics I'd like to cover grows, the impact of the economic crisis and bank-related issues continue to take center stage in my mind for now. And for some reason, my banking experience during the past few days brought to mind that classic American Christmas tear-jerker, It's a Wonderful Life. For those of you who haven't seen this movie, here is the Wikipedia entry about it. It is a must-see in America during the holidays, with at least one cable channel using running a 24-hour marathon. Despite being released over 60 years ago, the situation in the clip below will be eerily familiar to today's Ukrainians:

These days I can relate to the depositers in this clip who stormed the Bailey Brothers' Building & Loan looking to withdrawal their savings. That's exactly what I went to do, as well as change it from hryvnia into dollars. This not so much anymore because I fear my bank will close its doors, but mainly due to the risk that the currency with further devalue.

Although in the end I completed my transaction, it took me 7 visits to 3 different bank branches over 3 days to do it. Actually, by Ukrainian banking standards that's not too bad, especially considering most bank employees were friendly, efficient and, of course, actually allowed me to do what I needed to do. Below are the main highlights of my experience:

Day 1:

  • Branch #1: I'm told that there is a limit on the amount of dollars I can buy each day from a given branch. At the same time, I'm informed that I could repeat the transaction at an unlimited number of branches per day. Don't ask me what sense that makes. After completing my withdrawal and dollar purchase at Branch #1, I casually ask if I could also buy euros, even if I'd max'ed out my dollar limit. The answer is "yes". Again, don't ask me why. Result: 13% complete.
  • Branch #2: After a 20-minute walk to the next branch on a bitterly cold day , I'm told there that my limit for buying dollars per day is not X, but 3X. Good news, but they couldn't explain to me why Branch #1 told me X. Result: another 13% complete
  • Result for the day: about 25% completed

Day 2

  • Branch #3: I remembered that a new branch opened up near my apartment, so I thought I'd save some time and make a withdrawal there. The quite snitty and self-confident bank teller there informs me that it is illegal for the bank to sell foreigners like myself currency. When I explain that two other branches sold me currency yesterday, she simply shrugs, indignantly said her memo informed her that is impossible, and shows no interest in looking into the matter. After many run-ins with these types of people over the years, I've learned not to waste my time on them. So I quickly tell her she is wrong and set off for the better informed branches. Result: 0% completed, 30 minutes of my time wasted, and my patience lost
  • Branch #2, Visit #2: The same teller I spoke with on Day 1 tells me that she got yelled at for selling me currency over the X limit. She doesn't have any dollars to sell, but tells me to come back near the end of the day and she'll probably have some. Result: 0% completed, 1 hour of my time wasted
  • Branch #1, Visit #2: I play dumb and tell the teller I'd like to withdrawal hryvnia and buy dollars. "How much," she asks? "As much as I can," I reply. I learn for the first time that there is a daily limit on hryvnia withdrawals. If converted to dollars, this limit is almost 7X the original dollar limit I was told. After checking with her colleague, the teller tells me I can buy 4X dollars and 2X in euros. Again, good news but why didn't any of the other tellers do this? For some reason, this transaction involved additional paperwork to be completed, but after about 45 minutes standing at the window, I had my money. Result: another 50% completed
  • Result for the day: another 50% completed, but half my morning wasted to get it done

Day 3

  • Branch #1, Visit #3: No messing around this time, back to Branch #1. This time all goes smoothly. My remaining balance is withdrawn, dollars purchased (3X the original limt I was told on Day 1), streamlined paperwork process (for some reason).
  • Result for the day: mission accomplished
What would George Bailey think about this experience? He'd probably say that I should be grateful to get my money at all.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of Ukrainians believe that their banks are run by a bunch of Potters, even in the best of times. Given their experiences to date, whether the result of bank policy, government regulation, or incompetence, you can't blame them. My first inclination is to be suspicious of banks, which makes me ultra-sensitive to the inconvenience and inconsistency of information that I had to go through, especially because I think this type of thing would happen even without a crisis.

I can't say that George Bailey would have convinced me to leave my money in his bank if it had a Ukraine address. But then again, George Bailey probably would either have lost his bank to some oligarch or government official, or become one himself by now.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Stop, thief!

Walking on Maidan Nezhaleznosti the other day, I saw this banner and understood enough to know it was connected with the economic crisis. I thought I should probably snap a photo of it just in case. I was told later it translates roughly as:


Don't take back people's salaries!
Don't lay people off!

I'm not sure who exactly who is sponsoring this banner, but I believe it is some kind of workers' union. While I can't blame them for defending the interests of their members, I can't buy into equating business owners and managers who lay people off and cut salaries as stealing from the people. Granted, there are employers whose owners may actually did steal from the people 17 years ago to get where they are. But does lumping in all companies together like this really help? To me, it creates another division within a country that already has too many.

Don't get me wrong, I'm quite pissed off at the American financial system for the whole sub-prime mortgage fiasco, and think someone needs to go to jail and give back lots of money, not to mention keep an eye on these guys in the future to prevent this from happening again. But accepting the underlying premises of the belief expressed in this banner would get one a lifetime Communist Party membership. And at the risk of sounding insensitive, I also think it perpetuates the legacy of an entitlement mentality, that has been a drag on Ukraine's economic progress and social reform.

I'd be interested what alternative these guys are giving to entrepreneurs and businesses who are facing the prospect of bankruptcy by continuing with business as usual. In that case, who is trying to steal from whom?
Anyone have another opinion?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Excuse me, I just fring-ed

I'm not sure if ahead of the curve or behind it on this one, but I just added a new application on my mobile phone: fring. It not only fills a "want" in my mobile life, but also provided a great user experience during set up and with the user interface. Therefore, I wanted to reward them with a little free PR. I'd heard of it a while ago, but didn't pay much attention until saw that it allows you to add Skype as an add-on. Having family in the US, we have long used Skype and, more recently, Oovoo a lot for free video calls. I have a US SkypeIn phone number and keep a balance for SkypeOut balance for international calls. I forward calls from Skype to my Ukraine mobile phone for "when I'm mobile", in case my family tries to call. The only piece of the puzzle missing for me was the ability to make outgoing international calls and send messages from my mobile without paying high mobile calling rates. And it would come in handy because I occasionally find myself running late for our weekly family call, and want to let others know. Now I usually just send a quick email from my phone, but there is no guarantee that they will see it in time. So, all in all, outgoing mobile Skype capability is a "nice to have", not a "need to have". But it's also cool to have the regular phone numbers in my Skype contacts list on my mobile in case I want/need to make international calls while "on the go". And it also has all Skype features, so I can send files (e.g. photos) stored on my phone in addition to voice and IM. I can email them probably just as easily and to multiple people, but it's nice to have options. Of course, the next challenge is to find a way to use Skype while avoiding hefty roaming charges while traveling outside of Ukraine.

As for the user experience, the website was extremely clean and easy to navigate. All I did was enter my country and mobile phone number, and within 1 minute I had the SMS with the link to download the app. The online instructions for adding VoIP services weren't too helpful, but the installation process on the phone was so easy I didn't even need it. I literally had the thing up and running under 2 minutes. The user interface on the phone is also quite clean and easy to use. The ease of using the service and the set up process is almost too good to be true. Having become somewhat cynical about the quality of many mobile apps, I am preparing myself for disappointment down the road. It can't be this easy. And how can fring do it while Skype is only offering a beta version for mobile that only has full calling capabilities with select countries, of which Ukraine and the US are not included. I'll have to look into that further. But kudos to fring so far.

By the way, fring has its own IM service, which makes me respect them even more. Instead of trying to force you to use their service, their app lets you also choose to use Skype, Facebook, MSN Messenger, ICQ (which is the most popular IM service in Ukraine), and others. I don't know if they have a Russian-language version. The menu is so simple, they may not need it, but it might help adoption.

The mobile operators may fight them, though, because they would cut into their international calling revenue. But I think there is probably a business case for a, ahem, forward-thinking operator, to embrace an application like this as a way to generate more messaging traffic. Another avenue may be to work with a mobile device maker to get the app pre-installed. Hmm, that might just be crazy enough to work.