Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Peace of Mind Despite a ConEd Foul Up

I just came across this post, "ConEd Customer's Personal Info Highly Vulnerable To Online Theft" from The Consumerist warning that ConEd's online account system can be cracked by running a simple "brute-force" program that basically tries every single numeric permutation of the ConEd account numbers (which is all that is needed to access an individual's account). As the Consumerist explains, once you are in a person's account, you have access to a bevy of valuable personal information. Not too good.

As a ConEd customer who pays via their automated online billing system, that definitely raised an internal alarm. And then, I'll admit, a sigh of relief. And so what follows is a plug for a recent Bessemer portfolio company, Lifelock. (Connecting the dots for full disclosure: I am employed by Bessemer, and therefore have invested interest in Lifelock.)

Lifelock provides what they call "Identify Theft Prevention." Basically, they proactively monitor unauthorized uses of your credit information. So if someone tries to use your social security number to take out a car loan, you get a phone call asking to approve that request, therefore enabling you to proactively thwart any unauthorized requests. As an added bonus, Lifelock also removes your name from pre-approved credit card lists (goodbye, CapitalOne!) and other junk mail lists.

I'll admit that when I first heard of Lifelock, it seemed to me that only the most risk averse of people would pay the ~$100/yr fee for this kind of protection. That was until I got a bill from Bank of America for something like $135. I didn't realize it, but I had already been paying BoA to protect my identity for the past year! Indignant for being charged for something I thought I had canceled a long time ago (I had signed up for one of those 30-day trials), I canceled the BoA service. But this suddenly left me feeling oddly exposed. I don't think BoA caught anything amiss, but how stupid would I feel if I canceled the service and then found myself sans identity!? This was all the impetus I needed to run to Lifelock's website and sign myself up for the 1 year contract. I'm very glad I did.

I'm not sure whether someone (or some people!) found the hole in ConEd's system already and has created a nice little database which includes my personal information, but I definitely feel some peace of mind knowing that I have some protection here. If you are in ConEd's system, you might want to consider doing the same. Because it is time we all realize exactly what I realized when I canceled my BoA service: our identities are exposed. And we need to be proactive to protect ourselves.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

In Case You're Curious: Some Forbes Midas List Demographics

I made a very very quick run through the Forbes Midas List, curious about the demographics. Below is a quick tally -- mind you, my approximation of race and gender are judged purely from the pictures and names. If someone looked Asian to me, I marked them as such without wikipedia-ing them to make sure I was correct. It is lazy of me, but my goal here is to be only directionally correct (not exactly right). Here are the approximate demographics:

When I did this run-through, something caught my eye: In 2007, 4 out of the 5 female VCs who were featured in the list invest solely in Life Sciences. My curiosity piqued, I did another quick run-through to see how the demographics shook down when I separated the list by people who invest in Technology (including Healthcare) vs. people who invest purely in Life Sciences.

Again, I'm not writing a statistical thesis here and made a very very crass approximation: when people invest both in Life Sciences and Technology companies (e.g., Thomas Ng, Parag Saxena, Jeffrey Drazan, and Scott Bonham) I decided to count them only as half a point. If I wanted to be more accurate, I would have looked at each of their portfolios and used the ratio of Technology:Life Sciences investments that person made. But again, I am not going for exactly right. Given that caveat, here are the results:

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Long Coming TransitChek Rant

For my job, I have quite the commute. Our office is in Larchmont, NY, so I take the MetroNorth to work every day. I actually enjoy the commute – I wouldn’t get to read as much as I do if I could walk to work every day, but taking the MetroNorth to work is relatively expensive. I get a monthly pass which, if you buy it online, it is $180. If you buy it from a teller or a machine in Grand Central, it is $184.

Thankfully, my firm participates in the TransitChek program. This allows you to set aside up to $105 of pre-tax income for public transportation. Until recently, TransitCheks were literally checks. They had a face value, and you would turn them into a teller (as you might expect, you couldn’t use them online).

Because my monthly commute costs more than the maximum $105 pre-tax allocation, what I usually did was buy a monthly pass online to save up my TransitCheks, and then the next month use the Cheks I had accumulated to buy the full monthly pass. A little bit of a pain, but hey, it was relatively simple and worked.

When our office manager informed us that we would be switching to a prepaid Visa Card TransitChek, I was thrilled. In my mind, I automatically assumed that we would be given a single Visa TransitChek that would accumulate value every month. I could still do my every-other-month routine, but I would be able to buy my monthly pass online, and get the small discount. Plus, no more having to keep track of old-fashioned Cheks!

My mistake: I unconsciously assumed that the program would be intuitively designed with the commuter’s needs at the center. How wrong I was.

The new credit card version of the TransitChek is, in a word, frustrating. It feels like the program took one step forward and three steps back. You are now given a new credit card every month. The card has the “Initial Value” imprinted on the face, but once you use the card, you have to keep track of the card value yourself – there is no way to just scan the card (much like a MetroCard) to see its value.

But here is the most annoying thing I’ve encountered to date: you can’t combine one month’s worth of a card with another month because you are not allowed to use two credit cards in one transaction. So you can’t put $105 on one TransitChek card, and the remainder on another. PLUS, you can’t put $105 on your TransitChek card, and then pay the remainder with your credit card. You have to pay for the remainder in cash. So to buy my monthly pass, I now have to take out $80 from the bank every time.

OK -- I'll stop ranting (but trust me, I could go on...). In sum, the whole system just smacks of thoughtlessness. I can’t help but think that whoever designed the program did not put a single hour of primary market research in to understand commuters’ routines and needs. If they did, they would have quickly realized that the redesign would sorely inconvenience anyone whose monthly travel is greater than $105. Instead, the system design seems to be entirely driven by what is easiest (and cheapest) for the TransitChek program’s administrative staff.

More than 10 years ago, I remember my Dad using the same TransitCheks that we used until just a couple of months ago. Is it going to take another 10 years before the MTA updates their commuter-hostile system?

Does anyone else feel the same way? Any quick fixes?

1/22 UPDATE: Thanks to the brilliant comments of a few readers, all critical problems have been solved. It is possible to transfer money from one TransitChek card to another on the TransitChek website, and even add post-tax money from your credit card to a TransitChek card. I spread the news to my colleagues and received emails such as "Hallelujah!" and "This is the best thing that I have ever heard. Thank you, thank you!" I am forever in debt to Adam and Mark for my new found popularity. ;)

I still contend that it is silly to give us a new card every month (and apparently very cool startup WageWorks has a system that just gives you one card) -- just an admintrative short-cut take by TransitChek. But I am very thankful for the work around!

Monday, January 15, 2007

‘Wastepaper is like a forest. Paper recycles itself, generation after generation.’

I just noticed the remarkable story of Zhang Yin in the NYTimes. Zhang is among the richest women in the world with a personal wealth estimated at $1.5B. An incredible self-made woman, she created this wealth basically by recycling paper.

Her company, Nine Dragons Paper, takes discarded paper materials from the US, ships it to China, where it is then recycled into new corrugated cardboard. The corrugated cardboard is subsequently fashioned into boxes and sold. (And later likely shipped back to the States.)

According to the article, Nine Dragons Paper, has a current market value of $5B, making it China's largest papermaker. But just five years ago, Ms. Zhang and her husband were begging US garbage dumps for their scrap paper! That's a nice CAGR.

The choice quote: “I remember what a man in the business told me back then,” Ms. Zhang said. “He said, ‘Wastepaper is like a forest. Paper recycles itself, generation after generation.’ ”

Not too shabby, not too shabby at all.

Addendum: In my impetuousness to post Ms. Zhang's story, I didn't stop to think why I jumped on the story. Zhang's story is one of entrepreneurship, female entrepreneurship no less, and globalization. But it is also a double-bottom-line clean tech story. God knows how many tons of waste paper Zhang's Nine Dragons Paper removed from our nation's dumps. My mind can't but help drift to thoughts of plastic jugs, discarded carpets, old electronics, trashed cars. How long will it be for an analogous plastics recycler to make the same inroads?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Whoops! Youngin Blooper.

A self-admitted loyal Gawker reader, part of my daily routine is to check out both Gawker and one of Gawker's blog properties, Valleywag. As I was catching up on my backlog of posts, I couldn't help but notice a post that made me squirm in my seat -- VC's spambot targets random sites -- and, I'll admit, giggle.

It looks like someone over at OpenView Venture Partners made an overture to Valleywag, possibly not realizing that Valleywag is part of Gawker. Unfortunately, that overture ended up in the blogosphere. Valleywag posts the email and writes:

"Boston's OpenView Venture Partners must either enjoy abuse, or be so desperate to catch the web boom that they're reduced to spamming any site with any audience that registers in Alexa."

Ouch. and yet. I can't help but shake my head. The cat is outta the bag! It's true that once you land in the Alexa 5000 club, you can expect a lot more inbound interest from proactive VCs. I am going to guess that OpenView does have a software program that alerts them every time a company smashes that ceiling, or at least a diligent someone who combs the Alexa 5000 list every week.

VC Ratings has a little write-up of the event here. And as they rightly point out, I guess all press is good press!

Addendum: Just came across this post from Nick Wilson's personal blog, Communicontent.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

New Year's Resolution: Reduce My Footprint

Since 2nd grade science class we've all been aware, at least abstractly, of the footprint we each leave on Earth. Whether it is greenhouse gases or garbage in landfills. But with so many conflicting messages out there ("oh it is just el nino /the cyclical pattern" vs. An Inconvenient Truth), most of us have not felt compelled to do much (if anything) to reduce that footprint. After closing the books on an alarmingly balmy, record-breaking December (e.g., first snow-less December on record since 1877, record breaking 10.6 million sq mile hole in our Antarctic ozone) and a flurry of new articles documenting accelerating change, I am actually starting to get scared. Scared enough that I was impassioned this weekend to resolve to reduce my footprint.

For me, the straw that broke the camel's back was this article published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research on Dec 11th, which I came across thanks to Paul Kedrosky's blog, Infectious Greed. In it, he quotes an article from the New York Observer which I too will quote a part of here:

"On Dec. 11, the National Center for Atmospheric Research released findings showing that because of greenhouse emissions, the retreat of Arctic sea ice is increasing so rapidly that there won’t be any ice left in the Arctic Ocean in the summertime in 2040. "

This really boggles my mind. I've seen pictures of retreating glaciers (and actually saw several in South America), but no ice in the Arctic Ocean?? [Drowning polar bears???] Along these lines, the NYTimes reported just recently that a 41 sq mile giant ice mass broke free of Canada in the Arctic 16 months ago. It seems like every day there is a new article on how climate change is accelerating.

It is easy to take comfort in knowing other people are working on this problem, and I'll admit we can all take comfort knowing there are really smart entrepreneurs working on clean technologies encouraged by a high rate of change, but the climate change is accelerating right now. So as we wait for technologies to catch up, I'll be trying to do my part to take the extra steps to reduce my global footprint.