Politics & Business

Groupon: The Billion Dollar Gamble

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There’s a whiff of the tech bubble surrounding Groupon, a company that — according to a recent article in the Times — seems staffed almost entirely by recent college graduates with non-lucrative majors. The 27-year old senior editor has a degree in poetry and feels “kind of old compared to everyone else.” Groupon’s 400-plus writers and editors are based in Chicago, and earn around $37,000 a year (for a new writer) to come up with zany ways to sell one of the most boring things out there — coupons. Oh, and they recently turned down a purported $6 billion buyout offer from Google. Is this the future of marketing?

(If you haven’t yet been inducted into the cult of Groupon, here’s how it works. Each day, each of the 177 North American cities that the company covers offers a discount on a local product or service, and you’ve got 24 hours to buy in. Recent Baltimore offerings include a $10 coupon good for $20 worth of food and drinks at Zen West, or $149 for two hours of labor from College Hunks Hauling Junk.) Baltimore-founded venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates was an early investor in Groupon. 

It’s actually a pretty simple business model; the Times argues that the reason Groupon dominated while other efforts failed is thanks to the very zaniness it cultivates in its copy. (“There comes a time in every cowboy’s life when he must become a cowman, leaving behind his spurs and hat for a cowbell, hooves, and a penchant for chewing grass.” That’s supposed to sell you the Zen West coupon, if you couldn’t tell.) You might find it endearingly irreverent or teeth-grittingly irritating, but it seems to work; the company’s already made more than a billion dollars from the businesses that seek out Groupon to give themselves a marketing bump.

But does it result in higher sales or repeat customers for the businesses themselves? That remains to be seen. For one, the very irreverance of the marketing copy can sometimes overshadow the product or service being sold. Then, there’s the fact that deal-loving Groupon buyers may not turn into those lucrative repeat customers after all.  Not so long ago I used a Groupon at a local coffee shop — one I’d never been to before — and asked the owner if the Groupon investment had worked out well for him. According to him, it just resulted in a bunch of thrifty one-time customers. I turned out to fall into that camp. The food was great, I loved the atmosphere — but, well, I just haven’t been back.

Rhetorical Style Setters

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Two weeks ago, Newt Gingrich’s press secretary Rick Tyler penned a press release on behalf of the Republican presidential hopeful and former Speaker of the House that was so florid, so melodramatic—it actually contained the words, “But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich…”—that it inspired ridicule from all corners of the media, peaking on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” where veteran actor John Lithgow gave the full statement a halting, bombastic dramatic reading. 

Now, the language of this press release is certainly overblown by any measure, even absurd. But what is it that we, as the voting public, require from our presidential candidates in terms of rhetorical flourish?

George W. Bush’s folksy language and accent-heavy delivery helped earn him two terms as president by identifying him as a political “outsider” who could relate easily to the average American, however imprecisely defined that term might be.

Barack Obama succeeded in 2008 with a poetic-but-not-too oratorical style that used straight-forward questions as jumping-off points for sweeping emotional statements digressing into “Let’s win one for the Gipper”-style national pep talks.

What style will win over voters in the 2012 election? Can most of us see past the rhetoric and understand what a candidate really stands for? How much oratorical flourish do we expect from a president, and when does it go too far? 

Food Truck Fever

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Miss Shirley’s, the popular lunch and breakfast spot in Roland Park, the Inner Harbor and Annapolis, is jumping on the food truck bandwagon June 1. This comes as surprising news, given the latest dust-ups between local food trucks and city officials. But the foodies at Miss Shirley’s remain undaunted. “We decided to venture into having a food truck because we believe we have a unique concept and there is a strong following now in Baltimore of food trucks,” says Jen McIllwain, marketing manager for Miss Shirley’s. More power to ‘em. Bring those sweet potato fries to the masses! (BTW, become a fan of Miss Shirley’s on Facebook and get a coupon for free sweet potato fries!)

The food truck craze started in Los Angeles right after the recession hit when two enterprising, young, experienced chefs, newly unemployed, put their heads together to whip up their gourmet treats, pack them on trucks and serve to office workers during the day and club kids and bar patrons late at night, all at budget prices. Truck location was revealed each day on Twitter and Facebook.

The fad was a hit and soon took hold in New York, Portland, Washington, D.C. and others. Baltimore’s Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon is in its second year. Gypsy Queens started late last year and Souper Freak in March, to name a few. 

It would be great if this national trend took hold in Baltimore, but we are entering into the fray in the aftermath of other cities and the progression goes something like this: Act I – Great chefs with little money take their show on the road and gain a following. Act II – Restaurants call foul with the lack of regulation and oversight of these upstarts and urge to have them stopped. Act III – Local legislators get involved and push-back on the truck scene, making it tough for the little guy to hang in there.  

We are already seeing the beginning of Act II with city officials barring trucks from parking within 300 feet of restaurants and more regulation. For its part, Miss Shirley’s is playing it smart by using private lots when traveling with goodies in the city and will also park its truck in the food truck-friendly county.

The city’s Street Vendors Board will try to resolve these issues when it meets on June 1. That’s the day Miss Shirley’s starts its truck engine. Maybe it should try to win the board over with some of those sweet potato fries.

 

Before You Grab Your Diploma and Run

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Before you say goodbye to the freshly minted college graduate down the street, you may want to say something else first: stay. Kiplinger.com just released its list of Ten Great Cities for College Grads and Baltimore made the grade, ranking higher than Austin, Denver and Atlanta in per capita income for downtown residents. Citing a relatively low cost of living and rent (compared with other major cities), strong income growth, thriving waterfront and downtown districts, extensive bus and subway systems, and an easy train commute to Washington, D.C., the report gives plenty of reasons not to pack it in just yet. Why not just take off your cap and gown and stay a while?

Q & A With US Congressman John Sarbanes

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Elected in 2006 as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District (comprising parts of Baltimore City, plus portions of Baltimore, Howard, and Anne Arundel counties), John P. Sarbanes has established moderate-to-liberal political bona fides over his two-plus terms, focusing on health-care, education, and environmental issues. He voted for the landmark health-care overhaul, to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy regarding gays in the military, and against a bill that would have denied federal funds to Planned Parenthood.

Currently, Sarbanes sits on the Natural Resources and the Space, Science, and Technology committees, as well as on four subcommittees, notably the one overseeing national parks, forests and public lands.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Sarbanes graduated from Gilman in 1980, from Princeton University in 1984, and then earned a law degree from Harvard in 1988. He spent the next 18 years working as an attorney at Venable. (Oh, his first job: whipping up milkshakes at the Prevas Brothers stall in Fell’s Point’s Broadway Market.) 

His father, Paul, served as a U.S. Senator from Maryland from 1977 to 2007, exiting Congress just as John entered it. 

Married with three children, Sarbanes, who turned 49 on May 22, lives in Towson. 

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

Treat people with respect and don’t get ahead of yourself. 

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

My most important personal goal is to provide for my family. I defined that when I got married and started a family. Beyond that, to be a good citizen who is contributing to my community in some way.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

If something seems too good to be true, it is. 

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered? 

I try not to be surprised by the truth.

What is the best moment of the day?

When I walk into my house at the end of the day.

What is on your bedside table?

The Collected Stories of James Thurber and The Collected Stories of J.D. Salinger.

What is your favorite local charity?

The Public Justice Center.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Do the job you have well and the rest will take care of itself. 

Why are you successful?

If I’ve had success, I attribute it to being a good listener.

If Congress lifted its ban on earmarks for a day and permitted you to submit one piece of locally related legislation, what bill would you push for passage?

Sufficient funds to clean up Baltimore Harbor. 

What is your favorite film about American politics — and why?

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, because it shows you can be idealistic and also make a practical difference.

What music are you into right now that might surprise us?

I’m always into bluegrass.

Beyond Red and Blue: Do You Still Party?

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Have the tough economy and controversial military operations overseas made you more or less sure who you are politically? Without question, the political climate has encouraged red-and-blue polarization, to an extent, but according to new findings from the Pew Research Center’s 2011 Typology study, “A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse.” So, where precisely do you fit?

If you’re ready to know, Pew has published their Political Typology quiz to help you pinpoint your Party Animal DNA more intricately.

You’ll answer quick questions, like, “Does the growing number of newcomers from other countries threaten American customs and values or strengthen American society? Should the country do whatever it takes to help the environment, or have we gone too far? Hard work and determination basically guarantee you’ll get ahead, yes or no? Homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society?”

According to Pew, you could be a Staunch Conservative, a Main Street Republican, a Libertarian, a Disaffected, a Postmodern, a New Coalition Democrat, a Hard Pressed Democrat, a Solid Liberal or a Bystander.

Intriguingly, study shows: To the right, the classic divide between pro-biz conservatives and social conservatives has now gone fuzzy. To the left, the study identified a “New Coalition” of working-class voters who are white, Latino and African American, in near equal numbers.

Listed beside each Core Group Type in the online glossary, you can read a capsule of detailed, newsy information, under the headings, “What They Believe,” and “Who They Are.” (Did you know, for example, that 39% of Libertarians earn $75,000 or more? Or that 71% of Disaffecteds have experienced unemployment in their households in the last year? We did not.)

Seeing red and blue at once? Don’t have a poli-identity crisis. The quiz takes about a minute to complete–soon you’ll know yourself a little better, and how hard you still want to party.

Rating the Inner Harbor Attractions

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No one asked us our opinion, but we thought we’d weigh in anyway on the nine proposals before the Baltimore Development Corporation for attractions to increase interest in the Inner Harbor, that tarnished old Baltimore jewel.  Descriptions below compiled from The Baltimore Sun

Beach volleyball courts on Rash Field.

* * * * * Love the simplicity. Inexpensive and green too!  Volleyball tourneys are sure to attract a crowd.

Eighteen-hole miniature golf course on Rash Field.

* * Miniature golf is good clean fun for the family, but it can be riff-raff-y for teenagers and young adults. And is miniature golf something that will really motivate adults on date night to head to the Inner Harbor?

A 200-foot “observation wheel” at the end of Pier 5. 

* * * * This is a Ferris wheel, plain and simple. Although we love the classic silhouette of a Ferris wheel along the sky, we’ve all been on Ferris wheels and a bigger one won’t get the crowds to the Inner Harbor. Isn’t the pro trapeze school nearby enough carnival juice for one tourist-y urban setting? We’d favor this more if there weren’t better proposals to consider.

A 27-seat “trackless” train from the Inner Harbor’s north shore to the carousel near the Maryland Science Center and Rash Field.

* * * A nice alternative, especially on a hot, humid Baltimore summer day, but ultimately not enough pizzazz.

A trampoline, a 200-foot “observation wheel,” a carousel and miniature golf course, as well as facilities for wall climbing, rappelling and slides, among other things, for Rash Field, West Shore Park and other areas. 

* * Sounds like PlayLand. 

Sky trail rope course, location unspecified.

* * * A little dull. Lukewarm.

The aerophare between Harborplace’s Light Street Pavilion and the Baltimore Visitor Center. 

* * * * * This unusual “flying lighthouse” offering panoramic views of the city is getting the most buzz and for good reason.  We have no idea what it is!  We’re already curious! Deemed Baltimore’s smaller version of the Eiffel Tower by the project’s developer. 

An aerial tram ride and zip line from Federal Hill to the Baltimore Visitor Center.  

* * * * This gondola lift-like air tram poses the biggest threat to the aerophare. Sounds like fun and unusual enough for visitors and to try on your own.

A variety of activities, including a 60-foot tower for rock climbing, zip lines, a three-person giant swing, kayak tours or land-based scavenger tours and a “team building” center. Terrapin proposes to use Rash Field, West Shore Park and the waterside plaza in front of the Maryland Science Center

* * Okay, you lost us at “team building center.”  Sounds like a work seminar. 

Which is your favorite?

Radcliffe Jewelers is Our Launch Sponsor

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Thanks to Radcliffe Jewelers for being the launch sponsor of Baltimore Fishbowl.  We couldn’t make the site work without advertisers. (I can practically hear all the old media types groaning.) We are grateful to Radcliffe for being willing to be part of the adventure. We’ll be trying out some new ideas with Radcliffe, like videos and sponsored posts, so stay tuned.  

New Executive Director at ACY

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In recent years, there have been several jobs whose responsibilities and burdens seem to require superhuman ability and patience.  With the faltering economy and shrinking foundation dollars, the non-profit executive director certainly falls into that category. Advocates for Children and Youth, the only multi-issue, statewide, child advocacy non-profit in the state, just hired its fifth executive director: Rebecca (“Becky”) Wagner on April 4th. Wagner boasts years of experience working in the trenches for low-income families. She founded Rainbow Place Shelter for homeless women in Montgomery County, where she served as director. Previously the exec of Interfaith Works in Rockville, she enabled 35,000 people to break away from poverty by helping them obtain housing, clothing, and education. Washingtonian Magazine named her Washingtonian of the Year in 2008; in 2010, she ranked among The Rockville Gazette’s State of Maryland Top Fifty Power Players.  ACY’s Honorary Chair, Susan Leviton, said they are excited to have Wagner as new addition because she is such a seasoned advocate. “Becky understands real people, real problems, and has worked on policies to make a difference,” says Leviton. When asked why now is the right time for a new director, Leviton replied, “Becky has tremendous experience working at the policy level and really knows what the needs of children and families are. She knows how we can work together to make things happen for them.” Leviton says they are hoping that, with Becky and new policies in place, ACY will be able eventually to expand help and awareness outside of Baltimore, throughout the entire state.

Grim job market sends 20-somethings farming in Hampden. Yes, Hampden!

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Coast down hilly Ash Street in Hampden and you’ll spy a couple of queen-size iron headboards sprouting from a hill that’s been neatly divided into planted rows. The headboards function perfectly as trellises, but they look like funky sculpture.

Welcome to the Baltimore Free Farm, one of more than a dozen garden programs cropping up locally.

In January of 2010, Don Barton, 28, and a dozen or so friends, all in their twenties, all of whom found job prospects in Baltimore extremely dim, decided to found a farm in Hampden, and attempt to live off the food they raised.

Through Baltimore City’s Adopt-a-Lot program, Barton’s acquaintances Bill Hudson and Allison Guitard had secured an abandoned plot suitable for community gardening, and invited their more creative, industrious friends to roll up their flannel sleeves and plant.

The young farmers lease two buildings on site, a row house, where five of the participants reside, and a multi-use warehouse, ideal for rooftop gardening. Money’s tight, but expenses low. They stage fundraisers to help make ends meet, and received $10,000 early on from Kickstarter.com. Helps, too, that the landlord gave them a big break in rent, after the crafty crew promised to rehab the warehouse week by week.

Currently, a few hundred people participate in the Free Farm. City dwellers rent four-by-eight foot plots and raise food seasonally, for a donation of their choosing.

“We really want to lift the [intimidating] veil of mystique off food production,” Barton explains. “To show people how to do it and learn to do it ourselves.”

Seedlings have just been started in the group’s greenhouse: onion, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant coming soon.

Most days you can find at least several Free Farm members working outdoors, on the steep hillside land they call their own. Barton says they were very pleased, and frankly relieved, that soil analysis revealed healthy Hampden dirt (for the most part).

“We’re growing in the ground on our hill; it’s safe soil,” Barton says. “When we can’t vouch for the soil, we use a raised bed technique. You build a box and put landscaping plastic or a barrier, and fill it with soil, and you can grow in it.”

Core group members possess an impressive range of practical skills. Barton grew up in Carroll County, raising chickens, planting, and canning. His girlfriend, A.J. Sherman, does fiber work and screen-printing professionally. She helps decorate the space and stage colorful community events. Other workers are adept with carpentry, cooking, and coaxing a nice array of delicious veggies to life.

It sounds like a free-style hippie commune on one level, yes, but these kids seem much more driven than your typical song-singing hippies. They’re committed for the long haul, to educating people about growing food locally, and sharing and selling a portion of what they can produce. (Thus far, they’ve sold tomatoes to Woodberry Kitchen and Frazier’s.)

“I’d like to think Baltimore will follow through—we can clean this place up and make a difference,” Barton says.

Upcoming plans include alternative energy projects, and raising hens for their eggs.

“We plan to experiment with growing prawns and tilapia in tanks,” Barton explains. “And we’ll incorporate an alternative energy system to power the system—a [specialized] roof for rain collection can feed the tanks. Rooftop gardening is in the works. Up there, plants can be directly fertilized.”

Volunteers are welcome to help with farm chores every Saturday. The address: 3519 Ash Street. To learn more about the Baltimore Free Farm or to make a tax-deductible donation, go to: www.baltimorefreefarm.org

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