Improve Your Negotiation Skills with THE U-SHAPED STORY by Cristian Mitreanu

The legendary marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to say,

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!
— Theodore Levitt

And since this insight remains as relevant as ever, whether in the context of marketing or that of selling/pitching, I thought that you might find useful a new bargaining framework that brings to the table more structure and a research-based foundation. Called The U-Shaped Story, the concept is concisely presented in a high-resolution poster/infographic (see below), which includes an illustrative visual example from the apartment rental industry, along with the brief description:

You have recently moved to a new city and are in the market for an apartment. Would it be easier to convince you to move to another city? Or to choose a different apartment?... That is the essence of the U-Shaped Story – a bargaining framework based on a novel theory, which posits that one’s needs are generated through a process of aggregation/disaggregation, where the broader needs are more valuable and the more specific ones matter less to the individual (Cristian Mitreanu, Spointra and the Secret of Business Success). Accordingly, when a need is placed in a bigger context, the preference for a solution that would address it tends to become less firm. The need and the associated product become less important to the customer, thus leading to circumstances that are more conducive to a win-win exchange. Easily applicable to most products and services, from apartments to cars to your morning coffee, the U-Shaped Story is closely aligned with the widely-known collaborative techniques of integrative negotiation (as opposed to distributive negotiation) and consultative selling (as opposed to transactional selling).
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For more on the underlying theory of needs, I also included three screenshots from my children's book for grown-ups Spointra and the Secret of Business Success (The Aged Edition),...

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...as well as a further-clarifying excerpt from the draft manuscript (page 24) intended to become the Letter to the Reader in the book.

The theory goes on, then, to show that humans respond to these pressures with need-addressing behaviors that combine disaggregation and matching of needs to potential solutions that we are aware of and exist in our environment. However, the weight of each component varies, depending on the need that is being addressed. At one end, we exclusively employ disaggregation to address the overarching need “successful existence.” Then, gradually, the process shifts to defining needs by exclusively matching existent solutions or offerings in the marketplace. And this all happens simultaneously top-down, where an ideal future state is broken down into clearer components, and bottom-up, where needs that match existent solutions are being adopted and inserted into the overarching need. As a result, we generate a hierarchical structure of needs called the tree of needs. Continuously changing, as we interact with the  environment and process information, this structure includes all possible needs, regardless of the level of commitment we have to them. It is fluid and volatile, and some of its areas become clearer only when we focus on them.

Of course, this is the framework. The actual execution will depend on the medium of communication and your corresponding skills.

What has been your win-win approach to negotiations?

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1. This essay was first published on LinkedIn on April 26, 2016.

2. Credits for the Poster/Infographic: Cristian Mitreanu (Concept and Art Direction), Xavier Tsouo (Graphic Design), Lauren Russell (Photo Curation), and RentSFNow (Photos).

Spointra and the Secret of Business Success (The Aged Edition) - Published December 8, 2013 by Cristian Mitreanu

UPDATE 9/17/2014: The book is back on the iBookstore. The cover has been slightly redesigned, and the text has been lightly edited for style. (Also, the book is not available on Google Play anymore.)

UPDATE 7/17/2014: I am still working on republishing the book on the iBookstore... In the meantime, I would like to share with you the first un-edited draft of a "letter to the reader" that was meant to complement the current (2nd) edition of the book. It's a comprehensive piece that explains in detail what is being presented in the book (that's I call the "story"), while placing everything in the broader literature.

UPDATE 6/2/2014: Graphicly, the service I used to publish the book on the iBookstore (as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble), has announced last week that it will be closing its doors. Unfortunately, that means that the books that they have placed on various stores will be taken down soon. So, as I am figuring out how to transition this title (and the reviews for it!) under my name, the book remains available on Google Play. Thank you for your understanding!

Building a Video Game in Under 24 Hours and Winning a Hackaton by Cristian Mitreanu

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A week ago, I had an awesome experience. As part of a great team of seven, I won the hackaton/game jam "Life is a Game," which was hosted by Class Dojo, Artillery Games, Red Hot Labs, Phoenix Guild, Red Robot Labs, Signia Venture Partners, and General Catalyst Partners. My role revolved around level design and business model. Although I had previously participated in similar events, this experience was unique in that we managed to put together, more or less serendipituously, a perfectly-balanced team and build a playable first version of a game -- from scratch, in less than 24 hours.

It all started on Saturday morning (October 13th), after the participants had breakfast, watched a few talks given by some of the judges and organizers, joined a short icebreakerexercise, and voted on game ideas pitched by some of the fellow participants. It was then that our team began to emerge, drawn together by the idea of a "bee" game. After a fairly short (self-)selection process, the lineup looked like this:

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Audio - Scott Looney

Art Design - Adam Rickert

Engineering - Jim Fleming, Logan Smyth, Danielle Swank

Level Design & Business Model - Cristian Mitreanu, Elisabeth Uible

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During the brainstorming session that followed, we explored a few core mechanics ideas that ranged from maintenance (Adam's original idea, which brought the group together) to racing. Nonetheless, we quickly settled on something that was more "midde of the road," something that blended slingshot mechanics (as in Angry Birds) with bounce mechanics (as in Pinball or Billards). So, we ended up working on a game in which the player must help a chubby-but-happy bumblebee get back home by slingshoting (tossing?) it from flower to flower. And the rest is boring stuff -- work, several hours of work, where everybody did their part very well.

We even spent some time thinking about a name. Plan B and Bumble Bounce were the two most favorite options. (I personally liked and suggested Tossy the Bee and Bounzee Bee.) Ironically, in spite of our efforts, we went with Bumble Bounce without realizing that a game with the same name already exists in Apple's App Store. But since the domain name bumblebounce.com was available, we assumed that we were good to go. After all, time was a big constraint and, for the first version of the game, the name was not really a priority. And it still doesn't matter, at this point. :)

What matters is what happened on Sunday. During the presentation, the reaction to our twist on the already-proven mechanics was very positive. In fact, although we focused our pitch on a business model where the revenue would be generated through in-game advertising and revenue sharing with existent rewards programs, many people insisted that we should also think about a paid, advertising-free version. And we did think about it, but we wanted to show the judges that we had a go-to-market approach that cuts through the market noise and keeps the user acquisition costs low -- partnering with advertisers and rewards programs would be essential in getting the game in front of large audiences, quickly and affordably. Nonetheless, the fact that people got instantly passionate, insisting that they would pay for the game, was great.

And that was, without question, the best indication of our success. Having your potential customers and investors telling you not only that they would use your new product, but that they would also pay for it, is an early validation that real businesses strive for and rarely get. ... As I said at the beginning of this post, this game jam was a great experience!

The game's logo from the home page on GitHub...

The game's logo from the home page on GitHub...

Screenshot from the game...

Screenshot from the game...

Another screenshot from the game...

Another screenshot from the game...

The team members section, also from the game's home page on GitHub...

The team members section, also from the game's home page on GitHub...

One of the sketches detailing the design of the level 2, as well as the point system...

One of the sketches detailing the design of the level 2, as well as the point system...

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For the time being, you can play the web-based game at http://hivemindgames.github.com/bees/game/index.html. Just pull the flower and toss the bumblebee. :)

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UPDATE 10/24/2012: Here's also a brief recording of a play session. Fun and addictive!

Create a Compelling and Comprehensive Story by Cristian Mitreanu

This is a re-post of my guest column at Edtech Handbook.

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Success is an important part of the human condition. It is important because it shows us where the limits are and what can be achieved. Witnessing success helps us craft our goals and dreams. Success permeates all aspects of our lives. And when it comes to business, the idea of success is even more critical. There, simply staying in business means being successful. Business as usual in an ever-evolving environment means running to stand still. So, there is no wonder that we are always looking for what might cause success in business. And it’s one thing that most often comes up -- the visionary leader. The vision

But vision is just a story.

Visionary leaders use stories to mobilize and energize people, bringing internal stakeholders and customers alike behind their companies and products. These are stories of a better world, in which the listener sees himself or herself better off. Their potential for mass appeal is directly determined by their easiness of being integrated into the listener’s overarching personal story. Some stories are simple, focusing on one easy-to-describe need and a new, better way of addressing it. Others are more complex, providing an explanation that includes the past, the present, and the future. And these are the most powerful ones, as they provide a far-reaching rationale for the company.

Now, the efforts of tying together the past, the present, and the future by explaining how things evolve over time more often than not leads to the development of an explanatory model. And there is a reason for that -- models provide deeper insights. As Henry Mintzberg, a renowned management thinker, explains in his article “Developing Theory about the Development of Theory:”

I am interested in explanation, and don’t much care what it’s called, theory or otherwise. When I think about it, however, I see explanation along a continuum, from lists (categories), to typologies (comprehensive lists), to impressions of relationships among factors (not necessarily ‘variables’: that sounds too reified for many of the factors I work with), to causations between and patterns among these relationships, to fully explanatory models (which interweave all the factors in question).
— Henry Mintzberg

It is typically through models, then, that we create powerful stories that exhibit two essential characteristics. They are compelling, having a tendency to pull people in without much of a push effort. And they are comprehensive, offering clear and long-term guidance. While the first characteristic refers to the perceived value of which the story talks about (in this respect, venture capitalists have a favorite saying: “painkiller, not vitamin”), the second one is more important and it refers to the level of clarity with regard to how the idea will be turned into reality and, subsequently, make the customer and the business successful. In fact, there is a causal relationship between the two attributes that becomes more apparent as the complexity of the offering increases -- you cannot make something compelling, if you cannot articulate what it is and where it sits.

Some industries or business spaces tend to have more comprehensive models than others, and in most cases the difference stems from the way we set the boundaries for the space itself. Ed-tech or educational technology provides an interesting case here. Its very name reveals the fact that the space is generally seen as separate from, but at the same time supporting of, the education space. And that has long kept ed-tech captive to models and principles that have been generally underlying the education space since the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the space has been teeming with point solutions that address one or a small number of needs -- solutions that won’t bring about any major revolutions. Moreover, this state of affairs has also been encouraged by the short-term interests of those who typically back technological innovation. But things have begun to change.

In the recent years, the very foundation of the conventional education system and its value to the society has been increasingly coming into question. So, if you are building a business in this space, start to think broadly -- think learning, not education. Then, while keeping in mind that technology is inseparably intertwined within the process of learning/teaching, begin crafting a compelling and comprehensive story. Build a new or use an existent explanatory model that brings clarity at each of the three basic levels of the story -- worldview (How does the world work, without your product?), product (What is and where does your product sit?), and strategy (How is your business going to capture value?).

For inspiration, you could read the great story of Vittra, the Swedish school that has eliminated the classrooms altogether, creating an environment that stimulates the children's curiosity and creativity, as Principal Jannie Jeppesen explains on the school’s website. And, as I wrote in the summary of the presentation “Unlocking Innovation in Education through Meaningful Technology (A General Model for Ed-Tech)” (a framework that you might find useful), always remember:

Innovation in education is hard. It is hard because the what must stay relevant in an ever-changing world. It is hard because the how and the when directly affect the value of the what. And it is hard because education instances range widely from informal day-to-day interactions with the environment to complex activities, conventionally associated with what we call ‘formal education’.
— Cristian Mitreanu

What Have You Learned from a Mistake? by Cristian Mitreanu

This essay was part of my application to the Harvard Business School MBA program, submitted on March 6, 2009. Answering the question "What have you learned from a mistake?" in 400 words or less was one of the required essays.

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In general, identifying a mistake is not as easy as it may appear. One reason is the fact that the difficulty of such a task tends to increase with the impact of the action taken – the more life-changing the action’s impact, the longer the timeframe necessary to clearly categorize that action. What may initially seem to be a mistake can turn out to be an action with an overall positive impact. And these are the kind of actions that provide the most valuable lessons.

The less obvious reason for the general difficulty of categorizing an action stems from the fact that everything is governed by a principle of cause and effect. In short, the past determines the present, which further determines the future. So, even if an action’s outcome may have seemingly played out, the analysis should not be bounded by the action’s immediate context. Whether a past action was a mistake, or not, should be determined in relationship to one’s desired future, which is a rather fuzzy system of reference.

One example of an important and hard-to-categorize action relates to my approach to learning English in the years preceding my permanent relocation to the United States. Specifically, it is the decision to assign this task a relatively low priority. Although the decision has the makings of a mistake, its outcome is still playing out, so I would rather refer to it as something that I would have done differently. Nonetheless, the lessons are valuable and plentiful.

Moving to America was one of my major goals since early on. For me, this was the place where the future happens, and where I could attempt to “change the world.” Yet, in spite of the “advance notice,” the opportunity caught me unprepared. Not only that I had no realistic idea of what it takes to become fluent in English, but I had never been to the United States before, let alone lived there. Consequently, the assumption underlying my relocation – experience and education matter most, language will catch up – was flawed.

What followed was a nine-year journey peppered with valuable lessons, ranging from general (i.e., “take nothing for granted”) to specific (i.e., local culture). Nonetheless, the most important gain is a deeper knowledge of self, which might have never been possible without that “mistake.” Furthermore, it is an insight that confirms and strengthens my long-held values and career objectives.

Build a Foundation for Your (Education) Revolution by Cristian Mitreanu

This is a re-post of my guest column at EdTech Digest.

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Paradigm shift. ... Fifty years ago, last month, a short book with less than 200 pages was published to eventually become one of the most influential of the twentieth century. Aside from introducing the concept of paradigm shift, which is now widely used and probably abused, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has significantly changed the way we look at how science is being developed. And then some.

Kuhn introduced the idea that scientific discoveries are not cumulative and they do not get us closer to an absolute, universal truth. What is rather happening, according to him, is that scientists, as a collective, go through periods of time, defined by distinct underlying perspectives — paradigms. A paradigm constitutes the foundation for all scientific activity during such period of time, and it typically competes with the previous and the subsequent ones. In an insightful article in the Guardian, John Naughton explains:

By the standards of present-day physics, Aristotle looks like an idiot. And yet we know he wasn’t. Kuhn’s blinding insight came from the sudden realization that if one is to understand Aristotelian science, one must know about the intellectual tradition within which Aristotle worked. One must understand, for example, that for him the term ‘motion’ meant change in general — not just the change in position of a physical body, which is how we think of it. Or, to put it in more general terms, to understand scientific development one must understand the intellectual frameworks within which scientists work. That insight is the engine that drives Kuhn’s great book.
— John Naughton

And that is the insight that is essential here. While the way paradigm shifts occur remains a subject of debate among the philosophers of science, what is really important to all of us in the education and ed-tech space is the notion of paradigm and the implicit idea that our actions are always guided by an underlying worldview — whether shared by others or not.

The revolutionary movement in education has been getting significant traction over the past few years. While the value and return of investment of the formal education comes increasingly into question, the number of startups and initiatives has skyrocketed. The news are certainly flooding the Internet. And the “ed-” discussion, in general, is on. However, what we are really short on are the discussions about worldviews and underlying philosophies. Mesmerized by the success stories, we have relegated this topic to the “Hm, that’s interesting” category.

At the society level, that might be okay. It is difficult to say to what extent worldviews and the visions built on them really matter. The naturally-increasing affordability of technology, in general, has led to a “see what sticks” culture. Esteemed companies like Google have taken advantage and, as a result, promoted a tidal wave of “rapid-prototyping.” Many venture capitalists have grown comfortable funding engineers with little to no business idea, the rationale being that high-quality people can successfully change the direction of the company on a dime (action known as “pivot”). And that is fine. At the society level, numbers rule. The larger the pool of ideas and attempts to implement them, the higher the quality of the successful ones. We call that technological progress.

At the individual level, however, a coherent worldview and a clear vision based on it can significantly increase one’s odds of building something great, revolutionary. The success of Apple in an environment dominated by increasingly shorter turnarounds and product life cycles is to be attributed in large part to Steve Jobs’s worldview and vision. Thirty years ago, when most people were struggling to understand what a computer is, he saw a future of interconnected portable devices with human-centered interfaces — all pretty consistent with where things are today. But his vision didn’t stop there.

In a recently-released 1983 talk at the International Design Conference, he describes a future dominated by artificial intelligence — a vision that, incidentally, reinforces the idea and importance of a worldview, while predicting a return to the student-centric, Socratic education:

The problem was— You can’t ask Aristotle questions. And I think as we look toward the next 50 to 100 years, if we really can come up with these machines that can capture an underlying spirit, or an underlying set of principles, or an underlying way of looking at the world so that then when the next Aristotle comes around… Maybe if he carries around one these machines with him his or her whole life and types in all this stuff, then maybe someday after the person’s dead and gone we can ask this machine, ‘Hey, what would Aristotle have said- What about this?’ And maybe we won’t get the right answer. But maybe we will. And that’s really exciting to me.
— Steve Jobs

Sure, you can build a simple product, a “one-trick pony,” without a coherent worldview or a clear vision. Just focus on one customer need and build a product that addresses it. The investor hype and the financial markets might even help you build a lasting company. But even in those cases, you have to be able to tell a compelling story, internally as well as externally.

So, what is the worldview that will support your (education) revolution? Is it a wish list, a manifesto? Or, is it a model? As we get this discussion going, the presentation below might provide some ideas.

Changing the Way We Learn Business ...with a Casual Video Game by Cristian Mitreanu

On September 17th at the Game Design Conference in San Francisco, I am giving a talk on the game mechanics and the importance of OFMOS in the development of a big-picture-centric way of learning business. I will update this post with the slides and, hopefully, a recording of the talk after the conference.

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UPDATE 9/25/2012: The slides and speaker notes from my talk are embedded below. You can also download the PDF version of the document here. (It looks great on your tablet or smartphone!)

A Manifesto: Hey Teacher, You Are a School! by Cristian Mitreanu

The following essay has been originally published as "Why Teachers -- Not Schools -- Are the Real Institutions" at TeachThought. This is the original manuscript.

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HEY TEACHER, YOU ARE A SCHOOL!

"I am a teacher, therefore I teach," is a phrase that seems to describe your job pretty well. Teaching is, nevertheless, what you are getting paid for. But times are changing and such narrow perspective could become dangerous. At the very least, you are probably leaving parts of your professional career in the hands of others, failing to fully materialize the value that you could generate. In the worst case scenario, though, you could simply be rendered irrelevant.

If we look beyond all the labels and terms conventionally associated with the teacher profession, if we ignore all the semantics and the constraining "baggage" that comes with them, it is easy to see that you are an institution. Not necessarily a legal institution, but rather a value-generating institution. Simply put, you are directly responsible for a student’s partial accumulation of knowledge and skills. 

Although realizing that you are an institution is a first step in the right direction, that is not enough. In the 1960 Harvard Business Review article "Marketing Myopia," Theodore Levitt explains how companies fall victim to their own narrow perspective on what they actually do:

"The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product-oriented instead of customer-oriented."

In your case, the customer is the student. And you are in the education business, rather than the teaching business, which tends to be heavily shaped by the general technological level and the way the society and, thus, the education system is presently organized. It is a distinction that suggests that, as an educational institution, the jobs that you do (yes, already do!) go beyond teaching.

In my recent presentation "Unlocking Innovation in Education through Meaningful Technology (A General Model for Ed-Tech)," which was also mentioned in this very blog [TeachThought], I identified the basic jobs that an educational institution (or simply, school) must perform. It all begins with the identification of the steps that the student is taking during the education process, whether that refers to a single course or a four-year program: 1) CONSIDER skills, programs, schools; 2) ACQUIRE knowledge, skills, certifications; and 3) ACTUALIZE new (intellectual, professional) identity. 

Now, as with any service-providing institution or organization, the school must match the student’s behavior in order for a mutual engagement to take place. Consequently, the basic jobs that a school must perform are: PROMOTE, DELIVER, FACILITATE, and OPERATE. And, since we have already established that you are an educational institution, these are your basic jobs too.

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The PROMOTE Job

This is the job corresponding to the student's CONSIDER. Depending on the characteristics of your student population, your organizational affiliation, and your level of involvement, the job could take various forms. The most passive form is your reputation, whether you are actively managing it or not. At the other end of the spectrum, you could be already involved in a dialogue with the prospective students. You might have already developed a following or, even better, a community.

The DELIVER Job

This is the job corresponding to the student's ACQUIRE and is what we conventionally think of as teaching. And this job too takes various forms. At the minimum, it is your classroom teaching activity. In other circumstances, though, this job could go well beyond teaching in that it establishes a platform for the student's learning process. In other words, this is the job where you enable the student to learn in an integrated, unifying manner -- whether the knowledge and skill comes from the interaction with you, from the interaction with other students, from individual study, from family and friends, or from some or all of these sources.

The FACILITATE Job

Corresponding to the student’s ACTUALIZE, this is the job where you are supposed to help the student close the loop of development (whether that is intellectual, career, or professional development). Having just acquired new knowledge, skills, and potentially a certification, the student is in the process of re-inserting himself or herself into the environment, in a position that is perceived as an advancement. In some circumstances, such as public K-12 education, this job is embedded in the system to some extent. Nonetheless, in other instances, you might have already developed strong relationships with the entities with which your students will engage next, facilitating a smoother actualization process.

The OPERATE Job

As an institution, you have to create a lasting environment, in which your activities can be performed repeatedly over an extended period of time. In short, and from the institutional point of view, you have to ensure that you are a lasting entity. This job too might be embedded in the system, where the public school you teach at provides a physical classroom, offers you a computer to use, and performs all the other supporting tasks. In some cases, though, you might be already handling these jobs yourself. Using the latest technologies available, you could be performing underlying tasks such as student information management, accounting, and information technology management. 

This holistic view of what you fundamentally do provides valuable guidance in an education space that quickly evolves toward a student-centric environment. Whether you remain affiliated to an existing organization or try to start your own, this framework of your basic jobs could help you maximize the value that you bring to the table. In conclusion, I would say, make this your manifesto and always remember: "Hey teacher, you are a school. So, start thinking and acting like one."

Unlocking Innovation in Education through Meaningful Technology (A General Model for Ed-Tech) by Cristian Mitreanu

Are you currently working or running a business in the ed-tech space? Then you might find my 33-slide presentation "Unlocking Innovation in Education through Meaningful Technology (A General Model for Ed-Tech)" interesting. Here is the summary:

Innovation in education is hard. It is hard because the what must stay relevant in an ever-changing world. It is hard because the how and the when directly affect the value of the what. And it is hard because education instances range widely from informal day-to-day interactions with the environment to complex activities, conventionally associated with what we call ‘formal education.’

Based on the understanding that the underlying technology is a key, inseparable component of the education process, the following presentation introduces a new worldview (an explanatory model) that helps those involved in education and educational technology get a clearer, more comprehensive view of how things work and what is ultimately meaningful and valuable.

The presentation is structured in four sections. It begins with the identification of the major challenges and trends in the education space. The second section is dedicated to illustrating the rationale behind the model. The third section reveals some of the major insights that emerge from the new worldview. And, finally, the presentation ends with a few thoughts for the ed-tech provider.

And here is the presentation:

A PDF version will also be available for download soon.

UPDATE 8/22/2012: The PDF is now available here.

[Tip: If you have an iPhone or an iPad, email the PDF file to yourself, as an attachment. Then open it with iBooks, where it will be saved so you can read it anytime --  a much nicer reading experience.]