Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Welcome to Movember!

November 1, 2010

I’ve joined a team trying to change the face of men’s health. By changing my face. I’m growing a moustache for Movember, and I’d like you to join me.

Movember raises funds to fight cancers that affect men (and roughly one in two men will be diagnosed at some point during their lifetime). Funds go to the Prostate Cancer Foundation and Livestrong. So please join Team Austin and grow a moustache. Or, for the women, join Team Austin and not grow a moustache. We need your support either way.

Growing moustaches and participating in Movember events helps. So does donating. You don’t need to donate much. Can you donate a dollar? I’d like to see 100 people donate a dollar. Last year 50 people on Team Austin raised over $18,000. This year we’d like to do more. $1 per supporter could easily take us there. Click the button to visit my MoSpace, where you can join Team Austin, or donate, or both.

To learn more, check out this video. And thanks for your support!

Transparency is a Thimbleful of Water

October 30, 2010

When Jeffrey Eisenberg gave an inspiring and thought-provoking talk last Thursday at Innotech Austin, he talked about how transparency is no longer a choice for companies. Your information will be out there whether you like it or not due to the number of employees, customers and competitors using social media. Your choice, he said, is authenticity.

I agree with Jeffrey that the debate on transparency is over, but for different reasons and with a different conclusion. In my view transparency is not enough. It comes from a group of executives agreeing that transparency, in this modern world, is a good thing. They then decide what to be transparent about and set a timeline to disclose it. The marketing person (you or me) “crafts messaging.” Transparency is implemented as translucency – selective disclosure. It’s a wall of glass bricks where you can see that someone’s in the shower but can’t see what Monty Python calls “the naughty bits.”

Is transparency good? Sure. A man dying of thirst in the desert won’t turn down a thimbleful of water. But it’s nowhere near enough. Companies that talk about transparency are simply disclosing marginally more information than is required by law. Calling a thimbleful of water a sea change is asinine.

OK, what about Jeffrey’s concept of authenticity? Authenticity is about being who you are. That’s good, right?

Before we got busy with kiddos my wife and I indulged a passion for traveling in rural Mexico. I’m not talking about Cancun or Baja. Every single time we got as far off the beaten track as possible, visiting towns that were only accessible by train or on foot. We slept on rooftops and in homes in towns where there was no hotel because no one visited. I remember a conversation with a family about domestic animals. After we revealed that we had only a cat to our names, our hosts looked at us with pity, the way a social media addict looks at a person without a smartphone. They thought we were beyond dirt poor. So they welcomed us into the three-room house in which they, as people of means (with two pigs, many chickens, a goat and two cows) lived. I’m not mocking these generous people. On the contrary, they were fantastic hosts and taught us a lot. And the food was authentic.

At the grocery store I can buy Old El Paso salsa with the word “authentic” on the label. It does not taste the same. Sorry Jeffrey, but the word authenticity is too easily abused. Just like transparency. The more syllables a word has, the more easily it is twisted – that’s why MBAs and lawyers love their polysyllables. So where does that leave us?

It leaves us in search of a word so direct and real that to abuse it would be unthinkable. I suggest “honesty.” Be honest with your employees, customers, prospects and even competitors. Honesty doesn’t mean disclosing earnings and salaries when the SEC doesn’t require it (although some companies do).  Honesty means telling people the facts unless there’s a good reason you can’t tell them. And when you can’t, honesty demands that you don’t waffle. Instead, you say “I can’t tell you that and here’s why.” You can choose to keep information private in an honest way.

Admit to not being transparent and you admit to failing in the implementation of your communications strategy. Admit to being inauthentic and you admit to wearing a tie and sport coat when you’re more comfortable in jeans. Admit to not being honest and you acknowledge a major failing in your character. See the difference? You’ve moved up from the nickel slots of corporate communications to the high stakes poker game of integrity. Are you ready?

This is a huge challenge to marketers when our three favorite words are Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Are you ready to leave that behind? Can you?

After all, marketing has shifted from advertising to conversation. Want to end a conversation? Try not being honest. As soon as the other party figures it out, the conversation ends. Want to end a conversation with your spouse? Try “crafting messaging”, setting a timeline, and selectively disclosing information about something important, like what you’re spending money on. But be careful. You may end more than just a conversation that way.

Transparency is a timid step in the right direction. It’s pointing at the moon, not launching a rocket to go there. Authenticity is better but it’s too easily co-opted, messaged and massaged. Try honesty.

And if the three syllables in honesty give enough wiggle room to “craft messaging” rather than simply saying what is, then we’ll have to settle on one syllable. (I know you’re thinking by now that it’s “rant”, but it’s not.)

True.

Just be true.

Photo by michael.dreves

My Tweak is Your Monkey Wrench

January 24, 2010

This post isn’t just about Marketing. It’s about workplace etiquette in a world where work is complex and requires relying on people who know how to do things that we don’t. People like your mechanic, your Web developer, your accountant…even, sometimes, your marketer.

Because surfing the Web doesn’t make you an expert on Web design any more than watching NASCAR qualifies you to change a spark plug. You know what you want and that’s fine. Don’t assume, though, that because the change looks small to you it’s actually a small change request. Which means this: unless you know exactly how much work is involved, don’t call it a ‘tweak’.

We use the word ‘tweak’ to convey ‘I don’t think this is a big deal.’ Sometimes, though, it is. We don’t know the difference because we aren’t the ones who know how to do that work.

So I suggested requesting ‘changes’ rather than ‘tweaks’. No one will freak out. In fact, they’ll thank you for letting them assess the size of the requested changes, rather than characterizing what could be several hours of work as a ‘tweak.’

Photo by Dunechaser. And yes, that’s Kaylee Frye as a Playmobil person

Dance of the Sugar Plum Smartphone

December 6, 2009

When playing with data, few things are more fun than putting two possibly unrelated sets together and speculating about the relationship. First, let’s consider this Neilsen data showing increasing smartphone adoption. More and more people are capable of running a Google search on whatever burning question comes to mind, no matter where they are. Even, perhaps, at the ballet.

Now let’s look at search volume for the string ‘how long is the Nutcracker Ballet’ over the past few years. Notice the increasing heights of the December spikes. Is the increased adoption of mobile platforms driving an increase in furtive Googling sometime right after the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?

No, the time axes aren’t the same. But you have to admit it’s fun to look at data like this and speculate. Happy Holidays!

Do you know who @I am?

September 9, 2009

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Everybody loves a good “social media lets @everyperson take down a corporate Goliath” story. I enjoyed seeing Dave Carroll take an indifferent United Airlines to task for breaking his guitar and quickly soar to over 5MM views and major media coverage. There are plenty of stories validating that a complaint aired on Twitter gets quick attention, and it was funny to see Horizon Realty’s cluelessness in attempting to respond to a ‘libelous’ tweet.

But there’s a dark side to social media’s ability to break down barriers. I was delighted that Heather B. Armstrong finally got her Maytag washing machine fixed. I don’t begrudge her tweeting about it, or even asking the customer service rep “do you know what Twitter is.” Because it sounds like she had a terrible experience and an awful day, and I’d probably have tweeted it too. So where’s the dark side?

Well, Heather (a.k.a. @Dooce)  has over a million followers on Twitter. As great as it is that anyone can tweet their dissatisfaction, “some animals are more equal than others”, to quote Orwell. With about 1K followers, I might or might not get as quick or satisfactory a response as she did. And I know plenty of folks with less than a hundred Twitter followers because they’re in it for reasons other than amassing followers. I’m not sure that this new stratification – based on social media-enabled connections rather than family connections, political clout, or good old-fashioned wealth – is better than old styles of stratification.

Recently a customer had an issue signing up for service at the company where I work, and he contacted us about it. When I saw that his title was “social media strategist”, I picked up the phone just a little more quickly than I might have otherwise. I felt exactly as I felt about giving extra attentive service to the local millionaire or celebrity back in my bartending days.

Anyone at the top of the new stratification may disagree and claim that they’ve earned their clout through hard work – and you can do the same, if you’re willing to work for it. There’s some truth to that nouveau riche-sounding claim, but I’m pretty sure most of us won’t equal Ashton Kutcher or even Heather Armstrong with any amount of effort. And so, quicker than we might like, social capital is in the hands of the social capitalists, and we get back to that old question “Do you know who I am?”

Anyone who’s ever felt privilege – even the temporary privilege of drinking for free because your band is hot at the moment – believes that they’ve earned it through their hard work, natural talent or smarts. Should I accept that the invisible hand is allocating whuffie as fairly as Adam Smith believed it allocated wealth? Am I just having an uncharacteristically negative evening? Am I  searching for the cloud in the social media silver lining? Am I simply envious? I’m not sure I’ll like the answers to those questions. But I’m hitting ‘Publish’ regardless.

Photo by irLordy

Strategy Dollars versus Bake Sale Bucks

August 23, 2009

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My first post-business-school job was at a shrinking company in a shrinking market space. My role was to provide the data analysis and support on major deals. Often those deals amounted to trying to reduce the bleeding by retaining large customers at reduced rates – deals our VP would call “strategic wins.” The other analyst and I joked that the day would come when we’d get paid in strategy dollars. We had a mock strategy dollar (with a picture of the VP) that we’d pass back and forth to whoever was working on the biggest, losingest, most strategic win.

In other roles I’ve seen even Fortune 500 companies hold bake sales. Think of a retail store that is short of the mark and starts selling off the fixtures. Yes, they hit the monthly goal, but would you invest in that store? Those are bake sale dollars. You can hold a bake sale to make up a cash shortfall on any given day, but it’s not a sustainable business model (unless you’re a bakery). Bake sales can take the form of a holiday discount that’s a few points deeper every year or of selling the intellectual property that the core business model is based on. Can you repeat what you did this month and scale it up? If you can’t, you have a bake sale where you need a business model.

Would you invest in a company that promised to pay you returns in strategy dollars? How comfortable would you be with an investment that generated this month’s return from a bake sale that couldn’t be repeated next month? If we wouldn’t invest under those conditions, how can we as managers possibly claim those as wins?

Photo by tiny banquet committee

Five Brilliant Business Books for Kids

August 10, 2009

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Many of us are both parents and businesspeople. We’d like our children to grow up equipped for careers, entrepreneurship and success. So I thought I’d share my take on five brilliant business books for kids.

1) Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton

Mike and his steam shovel Mary Anne face an industry in change. New entrants with disruptive technologies like gas, diesel and electricity have rendered their product noncompetitive. So they seek out greenfield markets and leave the big cities to find work in Popperville. Like any entrepreneur Mike takes a calculated risk – can Mary Anne really dig as much in a day as a hundred men can in a week? He makes a risky bet based on incomplete data, gut feel, and belief in his team. In addition to risk tolerance he and Mary Anne display pride in their work, finishing each corner “neat and square” where lesser competitors would sacrifice quality. And they close by morphing their business model and value proposition completely. Mike and Mary Anne establish a sustainable business with clear barriers to entry and leave the disruptive entrants grubbing in the dirt.

2) The Very Busy Spider, Eric Carle

If Mike and Mary Anne display dizzying creativity and flexibility, Eric Carle’s spider heroine is a disciple of David Allen. She focuses on Getting Things Done, showing GTD mastery by retaining control of her workflow despite continuous interruptions from the barnyard animals. She knows her agenda and, whatever tempting distraction is offered, doesn’t answer as she is “very busy spinning her web” to catch the pesky fly. She came, she spun, she conquered.

3) Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss

“Seuss on Business” could be a series of posts on its own. The Lorax warns about externalization of costs as the Onceler beggars his community while “biggering” his business.  Oh, The Places You’ll Go offers far more insight about that tricky period between ideation and big success than The Dip does (I’m a big fan of Seth but he’s no Dr. Seuss). And Horton (from Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches An Egg) is an example of character that my daughter and I often refer to in discussing how to handle adversity.

But Green Eggs and Ham is simply the best sales textbook ever written. Sam handles objection after objection by remaining relentlessly positive and recontextualizing his offering (In a box? With a fox?) until his prospect agrees to a trial. Having achieved that, he lets his prospect make up his own mind – and makes the sale. Throw out whatever sales curriculum you’re using and give each rep a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. They’ll think you’re crazy and sales will increase. I call that a win-win.

4) Madeline and the Bad Hat, Ludwig Bemelmans

The most difficult managerial task is dealing with a problem employee, and the hardest part is seeing the problem clearly. Even Miss Clavel is taken in by Pepito, making excuses (“he needs an outlet for his energy”) rather than confronting the issue. Madeline sees and articulates the problem (“It is evident that this little boy is a Bad Hat!”) when others do not. But she also recognizes that any real change in behavior comes from within. So she tells him what she sees in clear and uncertain terms, lets him make his own choices, and holds him accountable for the results. And she offers forgiveness when he does change but warns that she will be judge him on his actions, not his words.

5) The Day-Glo Brothers, Chris Barton

Like the others on the list this book is a timeless classic, even if it was published earlier this year. (Disclosure: Chris Barton is a friend and former co-worker. Further disclosure: this book belongs on the list anyway).

Bob Switzer’s work ethic and analytical mind perfectly complement brother Joe’s creative streak, reminding us that a winning management team is diverse in thought and approach. They find opportunity after Bob’s accident confines him to the house, and their big breakthrough is driven directly by their curiosity about flourescence. Ever tried to explain a skunkworks project or early-stage startup to your parents? Bob and Joe have the same problems (made worse by ruining their mother’s cookware from time to time with their experiments). There’s not a better book for making the point that true entrepreneurship is driven by curiosity and fun, not greed.

Those are my picks for the best business books for kids ever. What are yours?

Photo by Librarian by Day, appropriately enough!

Evaluating LinkedIn Recommendations

July 17, 2009

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An interchange on Twitter with @jowyang and @carissao got me thinking about LinkedIn recommendations. The question was this: do LinkedIn recommendations mean anything anymore? Seems to me that some do while others don’t. It depends on three people: the recommender, the recommendee, and the reviewer of the recommendation.

  • Recommender: fairly or not, a recommendation from a higher-ranking person may mean more as their time is often scarcer. More importantly, does the recommendation show unique detail about the person in question? Is there a bit of thought behind it, or does it look like a stock template? If in doubt look at other recommendations written by the same person.
  • Recommendee: A few high-quality recommendations beat a plethora of boilerplate ones. Some folks blast out a cattle call for recommendations to all their connections. Do that repeatedly and it’ll be evident that you value quantity over quality.
  • Reviewer: I’ve had two hiring managers tell me in the past year that “LinkedIn recommendations are worthless.” In Geoffrey Moore terms, one was a laggard (no LI profile) and one was an early adopter (heavy user of social media). Both thought of it as a system that could be easily gamed. Most people in Moore’s model are early or late majority. In my experience both as a hiring manager and as a job seeker, those early & late majority folks may still value LinkedIn recommendations. They read them judiciously just as they’d consider the source in evaluating any other kind of reference.

What are your experiences? Do you take LinkedIn recommendations seriously, and how do you evaluate them? Would they be improved if, as @jowyang and I discussed, there were an element of scarcity – if you had to choose wisely, knowing that you could only recommend a limited number of people? Where else do you look for recommendations and insight on candidates and potential business partners?

Update: @jowyang blogged on the same topic after our interaction – you can read his thoughts here. In the spirit of this discussion let me say that I heartily recommend it!

Update #2: It’s a rare occasion when this blog intersects with my other, much snarkier, blog. So it’s a special day when this happens.

Photo by otherthings

Why Codgers Don’t Use MySpace

July 13, 2009

Interesting post on TechCrunch regarding the report Morgan Stanley published on ‘Why Teens Aren’t Using Twitter: It Doesn’t Feel Safe.’ Let me toss out two reactions:

  • It’s good insight but it relies heavily on anecdotal insight from one 15-year-old. Even for qualitative focus-group research, that’s a small sample.
  • If the conclusion that teens prefer Facebook because it’s a closed network is true, I worry about their Internet savvy. Leaving aside any considerations of Facebook’s terms of service, the idea that your updates are only between you and your friends is recklessly naive at best. You can’t control cross-posting and resharing any more than you can control gossip, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the entire world’s Facebook wall. When my children become teenagers they’ll understand that. (I think the five-year-old already does, but she’s smarter than Dad).

Oh, and as far as the post title – I don’t know why codgers don’t use MySpace. Morgan Stanley might hire a 75-year-old intern so that they can answer that important question next. Me, I don’t use it because it annoys me and no one I want to interact with is on there. But I’m not a codger quite yet…am I?

New Coat of Paint

June 15, 2009

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It struck me this morning how faded some retail businesses look right now. On a drive through South Austin I passed a Hollywood Video. The bright blue had faded beyond pastel. Like all the other businesses in the strip mall. Like the other strip malls I passed. They all blended together. Is this how we feel as a business community? Faded, battered and weathered?

In a down economy, improvements can wait. It makes financial sense.

But whoever bucks that trend will stand out. If I had a store in that strip mall right now I’d give it a fresh coat of paint. Bright and cheery. Everyone who drove past would notice my store and know that I don’t plan on closing my doors anytime soon. At the cost of a new coat of paint. There’s your ROI.

You make impressions on customers, prospects and bystanders every day. What message are you sending? Are you telling them that you’re white-knuckling it through the recession, hoping to be lifted by a rising tide before you hit the rocks? Or are you telling them that you’re optimistic and in it for the long haul?

You probably don’t run a Hollywood Video in a strip mall. But you’re in some kind of business. Tell me – what’s your version of a new coat of paint?

Photo by Mess of Pottage