Should You Breakup with Startups?

In a way startups are like the bad boys[or girls] in your dating repertoire.  They are exciting, risky and non-committal.  They take you places you’ve never been before–offering you the illusion of riding off into the sunset in your very own Tesla.

When the reality is you are more likely to be shutting off the lights and riding out the door in your office chair.  Startups have been breaking my heart for over 15 years.  The first was BlindGift.  Gifts for the blind, not quite, it was a way to send gifts to people you met online without knowing their physical address.   Interesting idea, just ahead of its time.  It rolled along, but  I left before the acquisition happened and my stock grant went into the pile of worthless souvenirs.

About the same time, I finished my MBA at Santa Clara with some folks who were trying to change the way personal investors could access stocks.  If you think it is hard now for women to get funding,  back then it was almost unheard of.

Then I tried a startup within a larger company.  Less risk, more resources and still the same amount of innovation.  What’s not to like about that?  Well, large companies often have less tolerance for margin draining ventures and suddenly you are handcuffed with big company process and no big company dollars.  Digital writing– it was a nice idea.  At least I got a Demo God award out of it, and a lovely dinner with our CEO for coming home with it.

It was at that point I decided to opt for big company stability for awhile, but with it, more bureaucracy than I ever could have imagined, even in a young and growing division.  Note I didn’t learn the lesson from the previous years–a comfortable boyfriend may not be the one that ignites your passion.

Former startups

Fast forward through three more startups, each more successful than the last [Lexy, Optality, Fluential…if you are keeping track].  The last one was the classic on and off relationship–one day you have money and the next day your burn rate is more than you expected and you find yourself with some extra weeks of vacation.  The promise of the future keeps you hanging on, being able to  help others live a better life, but at the end of the day, technology is always valued more than marketing by the engineers and scientists.

Throughout most of these adventures I’ve been fortunate to have a partner who had a stable job with benefits, making it easier to ride out the lean times.  So, what next?  Do I stay in Startupland or go back to the Big Leagues?  These are the three questions I am asking myself.

  1. How much do I like the ambiguity of roles?   Sure, you may have a job description when you were hired, but there are several roles in your organization which no one has thought about yet.   How much do you enjoy being IT, marketing and legal in any given day?   When there’s less than 20 people in the office, don’t be surprised if you are figuring out how to connect your laptop to wireless printer or negotiating a vendor agreement as part of your normal work day.  You have to feel comfortable with fluidity and filling in roles until the organization is ready to have them.
  2. Am I okay with just getting good experience?  I’ve never done a startup with any intention of becoming rich.  Despite the many Silicon Valley success stories, there are probably close to a million failures–and now, vacant domains.    If you want annual bonuses and some guarantees that you can put some money in a retirement plan, then early stage startups are probably not the place for you.
  3. Is work a passion for you?   Even in the most “balanced” of startups [they do exist, especially in the health and wellness arena], you want to check your email on weekends.  You are excited by the launch and are willing to put the hours into making it happen.  This last one is the key area for me.   I love bringing new ideas to market.    I’ve worked on some amazing technologies and maybe they weren’t the right idea at the right time, but every time I believed that someone’s life would be better if we brought it to market.

So, what next?  Like the men who have been in my life, I believe that each company and job bring you the knowledge you need at the right time.   What’s most important to me is who I’m working with, doesn’t matter if it is small or big.  I want to have success with a team I enjoy spending every single work day with.

What about you?  Are you the startup type?

Marketing to Volunteers: How Do You Get People to Give Their Time?

 A couple weekends ago I was in a room with twenty-seven volunteers, working with our city councilman to help make our district and our city a better place.   He’s new to his position and reaching out to his constituency to find out what matters and to create a leadership council.  

There’s just one problem—over 70% of the folks there were over 50, if not closer to 70.  Even though our district has their share of retirees, I can tell you for a fact that 70% of our district population is not over the age of 70.    When the attendees were asked what the #1 concern of their neighborhood was besides crime/safety issues –the answers varied but included potholes, gophers, code enforcement, fiscal responsibility, parks, graffiti, and the next generation of leadership.

They, too, were wondering where the younger faces were.  Why was it so hard to get people to volunteer for leadership positions?  In talking with a gentleman afterwards who has a son my age, he said he blames himself.  He understands that we are a time-crunched generation, but he feels like he failed to instill the value of giving back– and not simply by writing a check.

Running a neighborhood group as part of a larger parents’ organization I see the same cycle repeated.  In a recent blog by the Hands On Network,  they cited that in the recent year [2011-2012] only 26% of the US population volunteered.   I’m actually surprised it is that high as you talk to most leaders of a volunteer organization and they’ll tell you that 10% does the work for the other 90%.    When this happens, leadership gets burned out and the future of the organization is in jeopardy.

I’ve solved many complex marketing problems in my time, but I find that convincing participants to become volunteers is my hardest marketing challenge yet.    Some tactics that I am looking at using in the coming months include:

  • Recognizing Talents and Strengths—sometimes all it takes is reaching out to someone and telling them that they did a great job.   Then, asking if they’d like to apply those same talents for more people.   For instance if you know someone who has an extensive set of Pinterest boards, why not ask them to start a Pinterest presence for your organization.
  • Strategic Intent and a Higher Inspiration—members of your organization usually believe in your cause, but are they clear about what the organization hopes to accomplish in the next three- five years?  I had the great privilege of studying under the late C.K. Prahalad, author of many books and articles on topics like core competencies. His co-authored article on Strategic Intent I’ve never forgotten. Organizations and companies often struggle when there isn’t a shared understanding of the greater vision.   No one is clear what to do next because they aren’t sure where they are going besides the next event.  Reiterate vision, mission and purpose in your communications.
  • Creating Smaller Pieces—most people are afraid of long-term commitment and endless meetings that they don’t have time for.   Whether it is an annual event, reviewing by-laws or managing a social media presence, create opportunities for people to contribute that are time-bounded.   Most people can give an hour or two, and they are more likely to if that is the real commitment.

That’s just my starting point.  I’d love to hear from the non-profit community about how you get your members, especially your 25-45 year old members,  to volunteer.





Back in the Mix

It happens every time I am working with a client–all my focus is on their project and not on my own business.  Yet, I am breaking a cardinal rule that I tell anyone looking to promote a product or service–being relevant when you don’t want something.  Active engagement without always trying to make a sale can be welcome interaction.

All of us are experts or knowledgeable about something.  Finding time to share what you recently read can  be helpful to others with the same interests.  In today’s information overloaded society we need all the help we can get to lift useful information to the top of our scope.    For me, Twitter is still one of the best tools for learning about breaking news or industry highlights.  I follow the right experts and the news comes to me.

I was surprised that this recent HBR blog didn’t come to my attention from someone I follow.  Bill Lee pronounced that “Traditional marketing — including advertising, public relations, branding and corporate communications — is dead.”  Though I suspect that real marketers don’t agree with him and didn’t want to promote his fallacy.  I don’t disagree that marketing is changing and there are many new tools to reach customers, but what still is important is the marketing mix.

If you are trying to sell a new product to a 75 year old man, I’m willing to bet advertising during the 6pm news show will be more effective than a streaming ad on Pandora.   Fundamentals are still important–understanding your audience, how they like to interact with brands and then picking the marketing mix that will achieve the goals.  Most importantly, are those goals measurable?   That is really how marketing is changing.   What CEOs aren’t getting is a dashboard that shows how hard the organization’s marketing dollars are working.

Part of the reason I selected Marketing Mixology as my company name was my belief about how critical that part of the planning process is to success.   I’m excited as I get to talk about Marketing Mix Optimization with one of my favorite agencies to work with, Creative Feed, at a Marketing Analytics conference in San Francisco.  I can’t post the presentation, due to some client confidentiality, but if you want to learn more, just ping me.

Making a Customer Say “Wow!”

I read Tom Peters’ The Pursuit of Wow! back in 1994.  He wasn’t the first to write about exceptional customer experiences and he certainly isn’t the last.  Yet, as I talked briefly in my last blog, marketing trends come and go, but the customer really remains the center of it all.

Today a customer’s ability to transmit a good or bad experience is far greater than it was in 1994.   Back then personal PC use was just starting to cross the chasm.  Only the experienced were diving deep into bulletin boards and chat rooms.   You still sent a letter to Aunt Marge instead of an email.  AOL was just starting to have its time in the sun.   Your ‘bad’ customer experiences were usually cocktail party stories.

But now I can be in the middle of an experience [good or bad] and start tweeting away about it.   In a matter of seconds I have the ability to affect a brand’s public reputation.    As a marketing person I have no control over it.     What I do have control over is how the brand is empowered in the hands of employees.    Last week I had the great pleasure of hearing Dennis Reno, VP of Customer Experience at Oracle, talk about building customer satisfaction.  One of his key points is empower your employees to act with the customer in mind.

At Panera Bread today I had one of those experiences that will make me a Panera enthusiast for a long while.  As an independent consultant I have always appreciated their good food and free wifi on those days I need to get out of the office.     After ordering my coffee and chocolate croissant this morning,  I handed the gentleman at the cash register My Panera card [their loyalty program] and jokingly said to him that ‘someday it would be a magic card and things would just be paid for’.  In fact, my pastry was already free due to their loyalty perks and I was getting out the cash for my coffee, when the man said “no need, it is magic today.”

Now I don’t know if I looked like I was having a bad day [it’s possible as I hadn’t slept well the night before and had already driven back to my house once to get the wallet that I left behind], but he somehow know that I needed a little bit of magic in my day.  Just one cup of free coffee made my day–gave me that Wow! experience.   It inspired me to write this post.

I am working with a new service company right now to help them develop a customer experience that will set a higher standard of service for an industry that traditionally has only wanted to provide exceptional service to those who could pay for it.   It’s an interesting challenge as only Disney can manufacture experience–the rest of us need to create it, replicate it and hope that our employees with embrace it.

It’s my turn to go put a little Wow! in someone’s day…maybe you should do the same.

Innovation Through Insight

Tomorrow I am giving a talk on  “Innovation Enablement through Customer Insights”.   The description is “use customer intelligence to enhance product development, sales, marketing and retention efforts”.  This panel is part of a two-day conference on Relationship Optimization, sponsored by the Altamont Group.

Just like anything else, there are trends in marketing.  For while it was customer relationship management [CRM] software.  Then, NetPromoter scores were all the rage.  Guerrilla marketing.  Banner ads.  And, of course, the last couple of years have been all about social media.   Part of the reason I love marketing is that there are so many ways to slice and dice.  Yet, what always needs to remain at the core of any strategy or tactics is your customer.

I often feel that the customer is forgotten in many marketing pursuits.   A trend lately on Facebook pages is that you have to “like” the brand before you can see the content underneath it.    I hate this tactic as sometimes it’s a new brand that I want to explore and don’t want to commit to “liking” it, but I know that some e-marketing person has been forced to justify their existence by increasing the brand’s likability.

After looking at the agenda, I agreed to give the talk because I believe in providing the grounding voice in an organization.  I like intricate processes and systems as much as the next guy, but I also believe in simplicity.  Sometimes we, as marketeers, get too busy and don’t make time for the fundamentals.

For those who click on this link after hearing my talk, I hope you got three things out of the presentation.

Rule #1   Stop!  Eliminate the focus group of one. 

I am very thankful that I live in area that is filled with visionary and innovative people who keep creating gadgets that I didn’t even know I needed.  However, I wish that once in awhile they’d realize that Silicon Valley isn’t like everywhere else.  Two years ago I went to a family reunion on the Eastern seaboard and brought a portable iPod dock with me.   No one had seen one like it before.  They were familiar with the stationary docks, but this was cool.  Yet, the conversations we kept having back at headquarters were around the fact that the category was old–and everyone had a dock.   Yet, one look at shipment numbers of docks to the number of iPods/iPhones sold would tell you that there was still a long way to go to even get to a thirty percent attachment rate.   What we needed to do a better job at was segmenting our market and understanding who we needed to create new products for, and who we needed to just make aware that the products existed.

Rule #2 Listen!   Talk to each other.

I love this quote from Dave Frankland of Forrester Research, “We live in an age of big data, in which firms are data-rich but insight poor.”   Information overload is a reality for most busy professionals.  The amount of emails every day almost guarantees ADD-like thoughts around even the most important topics.  Yet, organizations need to ensure that they carve out time to have discussions around customer activities.  Events, whether they are user conferences, trade shows or in-store demonstrations, are rich with customer interaction.  The anecdotes and inferences from the events need to be expressed, and ideally, in a group of people to debate and decide what is relevant to future developments

Rule #3 Look!  Put a different frame around it.

Innovation shouldn’t stop at just the product or service.   Innovation can also occur within the marketing mix.  Understand the customer’s journey to discover new ways of communicating, distributing or promoting the product.   If you need inspiration, check out Adrian Ott’s The 24-Hour Customer.   She has an interesting thesis on time versus money that may help you think about how you can innovate your product or service for today’s economy.

Enough words for today.  I’ll post my presentation and any comments and insights from the discussion later this week.


A Sponsorship that Worked

Last Friday I was in New York City for the first [and hopefully annual] BlogHer Writer’s Conference–presented by Penguin Group.  Besides the actual content of the conference being phenomenal, I was struck by how well the partnership worked.

Part of the reason I trekked all the way across the country for a one-day event was the fact that Penguin was not only going to be a sponsor, but they were going to be active participants.  What every budding writer wants is the opportunity to be discovered.    The likelihood of that happening while being a room filled with people in the publishing industry is far greater than simply being online 3,000 miles away.

BlogHer Writer's Conference

Captive Audience at BlogHer Writer’s Conference

The group seems bigger than it was in the photo above [only 200 attendees].  Now I have no idea what Penguin’s investment was in this venture, so it is possible that a straight ROI would look low.  However, if they find their next big writer and are able to capitalize on a long-term revenue-generating relationship, it could more than payoff.  Though, there is some return from simply exposing themselves to a group of avid readers.  I have never really paid much attention to who publishes what book, but I took the time to see what literary franchises are a part of the Penguin family and will pay attention in the near future.

But, what was truly impressive was that they didn’t simply put money behind the event–they put people in the event.  Every session had at least two people on a moderated panel.  Plus, there were small group mentoring sessions [no more than 10 people] where you interacted with the experts and got hands-on advice about what to do next in the publishing process.

When I am working on the corporate side, I don’t think that there is a day that goes by when I am not asked about some type of sponsorship–whether it be sports, music festivals, user conferences, etc.    Taking budget out of the equation, what usually makes me say yes or no is whether or not it simply makes sense to be there.  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my target audience in attendance?  Are these the decision makers that can influence my sales?  Even if you put on the most spectacular concert, it is unlikely that an attendee is going to go back to the office and talk about your brand versus how cool the band was.
  2. What is the quality of interaction with attendees?  Too often venues/conferences simply want you to put your name on a bag or a reception hour without giving you the opportunity to have some time to talk to attendees.  Make sure that you are set up for success at the show.  Or in the case of sports sponsorships, are you getting the increased brand awareness that you are looking for?
  3. What do you want to get out of the sponsorship?  Again, I don’t believe that there always has to be an immediate ROI, but you need to be clear to management about what the expectations are after the sponsorship.  Is there a measurement everyone can agree on? [Leads, Follows, Downloads]

Anybody else have thoughts on what makes a sponsorship work?

Creating a Larger than Life Presence

A good brand experience often comes when you least expect it.  This weekend I was walking around an arts fair when I saw this booth for Mrs. Meyer’s soap.   Now I have heard of Meyer’s soap, but I have never used it.

Booth at Los Altos Fair

Another Look Including Sinks

Their portable presence was truly eye catching and straight on for the brand.  It presents an aspirational look for a premium brand.    Having the sinks outside the Porta Potties was an added bonus for those who dare use them.  Meyer’s also closed the loop by providing free samples of their dishwashing soap.

To create this look for a small show, however, is probably cost prohibitive for most companies.

Having done many tabletops, however, there are a few inexpensive ways to make you look bigger than you are:

  • Pull up banner.   These are so portable to travel with and can be changed out as your products or message evolves.
  • Branded tabletop drape.  If you can’t afford the banner, at least invest in one dark colored tabletop drape that can move with you from show to show.   A little investment goes along way in providing polish.
  • Uniform.   Even if it simply is a matching polo shirt from Target, try to make it clear to attendees who is working your booth and can help them.   With more formal environments that require suit and tie, try to at least have staff color coordinate–using the main company color as an accessory.
  • URL card.   Realizing that most show attendees don’t want to lug collateral back with them [and are often unwilling to give up their email], I have often provided a special show URL for them to go to and download press kits, collateral, etc.   This way you save printing and shipping costs but still provide an easy way to access information.  This card is also a great place to put your Twitter and Facebook info.

Missing from the list above is freebies.   I go back and forth on this one.  If you are working for a company with reasonably priced products, a drawing at the end of the day from business cards is always a good way to go.   Your ultimate goal is to get people to try out your product/brand/service and tell others about it.  There is so much swag that gets wasted–how many stress balls do you really need?  Think about what you are trying  to accomplish with your audience and whether or not that freebie will help.