marketing and sales executives from Silicon Valley

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Best Charity that No One Has Heard Of

I was reading the "Give Well" blog, when they posed an interesting question about how to tell the story of the "Best Charity" that they found. Few, if anyone, seemed to know about this charity, and even if they did, there was no gripping or compelling story that spread the word out about the charity. The core of the problem? said charity is "in the sector of health system logistics."

A challenge yes, but insurmountable, no. As I read the article, the author correctly points to the key success factors of fundraising - connecting contributions to tangible emotional impact. That should be it right? But yet they claim to need help with suggestions on telling the story. The real goal of the question, I suspect, is expand the "connection" strategy to implementable tactics within some budget, time frame, or other scarce resource.

My approach would be one of focusing on the tangible impact as a function of resource inputs. One reason why the charity was voted "Best" by Give Well, is its use of funds to create impact well beyond its budget.  Indeed, if the impact could be clearly presented in simple statistics such as a high Charity Navigator score where 95% of funds goes to disease reduction efforts, or every $1 spent insures delivery of 20 vaccines, then there would be an obvious starting point.

While there are many charities that will accept donations, there are only so many donors. The charities who often draw the most donors will either have longevity, track record, or infrastructure that helps them pull in donations. Without those key leverage points, charities need to find ways to draw and keep attention. That's where the emotion and reason come into play. Impact and results by a charity satisfy something I call the minimum logic requirement - that minimum about of proof where a donation is not a bad idea, and the charity has more or less equal footing for donation $. Then, the emotional aspect can kick in. If a donor has to choose from charity A or B after the logical stats have been evaluated, then the one with the biggest emotional response has the best chance.

The tactic I would suggest is creating print and video material showing both the success stats intermixed with compelling images/video of before an after scenarios. I could story-board it if I had the figures and some footage, but I'll try to explain here. Start with videos or stills with a voice-over from a local affected by the charity talking about before the impact, describing what it was like. Then follow that with a brief statement of what the charity does, then more video and stills with voice over from the same person, discussing what the impact has been. Repeat for each success/impact using several locals, being sure to include statistics that increase trust and credibility on the front end.

That's how I would tell the story - in as many media outlets as possible, sharing the content with all current and futures supporters, and encouraging sharing. I would also include instructions on how to share the content as well, asking supporters to identify and contact local and regional outlets to share their stories, using any connections to charity members.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Do you Survive like a Cockroach or Thrive with the Best?

"Survival of the fittest is not the same as survival of the best" was the quote that called to me from a recent article on MyVenturePad. It was such a nice and simple way to rethink the phrase "be a survivor". I've seen many co-workers give that recommendation to team members, telling colleagues to be a survivor and keep their heads low when times get tough. As the article continues "A cockroach is one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet. That's survival of the fittest. Do we want our organizations led by cockroaches?"

Seeing this statement made me think about Charlene Li's latest book, "Open Leadership", where she discusses leaders who, instead of sticking their heads in the sand when times get tough, take risks, innovate, and basically try something new to move their companies forward. While what she discusses makes sense and all employees should advocate for the company good, I'll contrast that attitude with other companies I've worked at.  I've seen senior managers instruct subordinates to "just do your job" and "don't take any risks", when in fact, it was the fear of getting fired and a blind adherence to tradition that insured that the company couldn't keep a leadership position even if it fell into one. One company I know was a leader in small router technology, but the founder had a policy of locking up all source code each night for IP protection. No one stole source code, but no development happened after hours or when the founder wasn't there, and, most importantly, no engineer dared to experiment with new ideas w/o the CEO's express approval. While that company is still in business today with decent technology, it's no longer considered a technology leader and rarely mentioned in discussions in SME router RFPs.

Maybe it's not the individuals at fault who want to survive, maybe it's the culture of the company that ushers employees into that mindset. If the company has a culture of fear stemming from firing anyone who takes risks or suggests products or services that might push the corporate comfort zone, then a culture of risk averse employees will be the ones who are hired and stay at the company - surviving until the a better competitor puts them out of business. On the other hand, if the company is willing to consider risks and learning from potential failings, then employees will feel comfortable pushing envelopes and boundaries where the next great product or service might be found. At one company I worked for, the 3D Avatar with stereo sound technology the company had was held at arms length, with most of the company not acknowledging it or its potential. I had a soft spot for it since it was used by the Klingon Language Institute. Fortunately, my CEO, Larry Samuels, and a customer both saw the value in the technology, which allowed me to manage a business development OEM deal that not only generated $1M+ in revenue, but also led to a $5M+ round of financing.  Some people told me that if we hadn't made that deal, the company would have shut down. I prefer to think of the opportunity, and how taking that risk gave us more opportunities and learning that would never have happened if we had killed the 3D avatar and audio technology.

So you might see some optimism bias in my discussion, and yes I prefer to see the glass half-full. I also prefer to believe that businesses are not built on cockroaches who just survive, but on smart risk takers who find ways to thrive.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lying or smart marketing? A personal shoe story:

My feet hurt, and I knew that comfy shoes would fix it, so I searched online for comfortable shoes and found a few. Air support, memory foam, springs - all were listed as THE solution for sore feet and an aching back. The spring technology was the most intriguing. I had seen in a few magazines, but I did not have a chance to review the details around their claims for comfort until now.

There are different spring technologies, spanning 'wave springs', special materials, and unique encapsulation processes that differentiate the 3 vendors I found with spring-based shoes. The one that caught my eye, Gravity Defyer, had a nice website, but it was difficult to find information on the technology. The website was a little difficult to navigate if you were searching for information and not in the buying mood. What really interested me was their 'clinical study' and how they were justifying their claims.

Now, I've never tried these shoes, nor do I have any reason to believe that the shoes are bad, or good for that matter, but what caught my eye was the opening paragraph of the 'clinical study'. See the quote from the clinical study link below:

This 'clinical study', if it can even be called that, does not use an independent 3rd party to collect and analyze the data. In fact, the study is actually a statistical analysis of data provided by Gravity Defyer to the analyst firm. In simple terms, if the analysis firm was sent 100 perfect ratings in 17 rating scales, they would have to state that the data showed 100 perfect ratings. The analysis was a foregone conclusion since there never was a question about the outcome of the analysis since the data and results were already known before the analysis was performed by Packer Engineering. If that's the case, what's the 'clinical' part of the study? Where's the real value to consumers in this equation?

So what's going on here? Some would argue that "clinical study", as a term of trust, was abused and that consumers would be confused. It seems to be on the wrong end of ethical language. It may even be illegal as it could mislead consumer into believing that doctors, control subjects, and proper protocols were involved.

On the other hand, it could also be savvy marketing. If the term 'clinical study' is not protected with a legal expectation, this technique could be viewed as a quick shortcut to earn trust that actually works. If there are no legal ramifications to using 'clinical study' then why not use it any time you want to appear to have a scientific advantage? It's buyer beware, right?

This seems slightly less ethical, but probably more effective than those "similar to as seen on TV" stickers you see on products. The font is so small in parts that it looks like "as seen on TV", so it's easy to mistake the product at the store for the one on late-night infomercials. Yes, before you ask, I've seen people in stores pick up the "Snuggle blanket" instead of the "Snuggie" and specifically point to the "similar to as seen on TV" sticker or printing on the box and call it a Snuggie.

If there are no policies or standards around marketing language, it can easily be used borrow goodwill or even mislead consumers and even business readers. In order to know what you're getting and possibly save yourself of headache or legal wrangling later, read the detail. There may be more to what's being said than is written in the large print.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What kind of innovator are you?

In Silicon Valley, I hear the “innovation” term tossed around left and right, almost as if being innovative was the key to success or a cure for common pickup line. In my mind, innovation has a more definitive and structured meaning that has developed from brinigng new products to market, striking business deals, and crafting patents.

For structural purposes, crafting patents has probably been the most helpful in formulating what innovation means to me and how I explain it. When crafting patents, there are a number of ‘tests’ I try to apply when determining if something is patentable:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it unique?
  • Does it solve a problem?

The 4th test - can it be created by someone normally skilled in the art, is less important for this discussion. Also, to avoid the flame wars around the value of patents, this is not a discussion about patents, but my view on how patent development can provide a potential framework for looking at innovation.

Unfortunately, much of the innovation I hear about fills only #1 and #2 above. Too often, someone will claim a product or service is an innovation because it’s new or different. Yes, a product that auto-tunes any speech to a Rick Astley song might be innovative, but does it really matter? Similarly, a toaster that burns images of religious figures on bread could be called an innovation, but really, is it worth bragging about? These are indeed product innovations, but more for fun.

How would the above compare to a system that tracks eye focus and viewable angle of advertisements in online-games to create an awareness and exposure index for advertising value optimization? How about a contract term where non-payment for 30 days automatically triggers a system audit and daily compounding increased licensing fees until partial payment of >50% of past balances is made and cleared by the bank? These service and contract innovations have a distinct business undertone.

The first two wacky ideas above (one of which I know exists) are indeed innovative, but may not provide lasting or long term value. The next two examples are much more narrow and esoteric, but have implications for long-term advertising and/or licensing structures. This subtlety leads to my main point here - innovation as a term is widely used and abused and lacks distinct meaning.

So while I do think that auto-tuning to Rick Astley is a type of fun and cool innovation, I prefer the longer-term economic value of innovation of the advertising awareness and exposure index. Neither is right or wrong, both are innovations, but be mindful of the mindset of the listener when you discuss innovation. If you and your reader have different definitions of innovation, you could be speaking entirely different languages.

Disclaimer: The “advertising awareness and exposure index” comes from a patent I drafted that was abandoned in 2002 when resource was not available to put the invention into practice. Yes, I know, I kick myself with 20/20 hindsight that it might have been valuable.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Set your Brand Free, Protect your Trademark

I was fortunate to have the time to attend the Clearvale 2nd Floor series at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and see the speaker from Lego discuss his social media successes. While the talk was interesting, I especially appreciated how he provoked my thoughts about brands and trademarks.

He said that a trademark has legal protections for color, proportions, usage, and language, but a brand can change based on the actions of the consumers, users, public, and, oh yeah, the company.

I've written legal clauses and trademark guidelines and even sent 'reminders' to firms to use our trademarks with respect. Over the course of several years working with internal legal and marketing teams as well as external partners, it's become clear that a trademark is really that - a symbol or representation with some well defined parameters for use and display.

On the other hand, I've also participated in many discussions about brand. A wise man once told me a brand is not what you say it is, it's what your customers say it is. If you think of it that way, it's easy to separate brand from trademark. You can legally prevent people from using your trademark in incorrect and/or confusing ways, but the way you deal with customers, consumers, and partners determines the brand that people hold in their minds when they think of you.

Is your brand one where you're known for attacking your own customers for trying to promote you? Is your brand one where you encourage your fans to spread the good word but make sure that your fans use your trademarks correctly? Think about that for a moment if you will. How many times have you seen executives or marketing types state "we need to control the brand" only to have the cover up attempt define the people or company as one who covers up errors or mistakes?

So have all the trademarks you need, but work on brand and keep working on it. Your customers are, even if you're not.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Did you just break the value contract?

I thought I'd take a few moments to discuss something I call the 'value contract'. It's the implicit agreement that a business has with it's customers and it's usually an unspoken agreement tied into the customer relationship.

An example is Costco - the value contract in my mind for Costco is that I will get good quality and a fair price and can return anything in a reasonable time frame. In return for those things, I have adjusted my behavior to go to Costco in spite of the long lines. I've traded quality, prices, and customer service for a little time. That's the Costco brand in my mind, and I would guess that it's somewhat similar for millions of it's customers.

I regularly go to an electronics store, and to me, the brand means "low prices, pretty good selection, random service levels, with value oriented food". The food was cheap and decent enough that I went out of my way to go there just in case there was a good electronics deal to be found. Value-priced food was my rationalization for going since I wouldn't otherwise have driven there. I suspected others felt the same, as there was a decent lunch crowd. In marketing and business terms, it seemed like a loss leader - something with negative or lower than normal margins to draw in buyers.

Last summer, for some unknown reason, this store increased the price of their combo meal by 17% and started using obviously cheaper sandwich ingredients. I was bothered by it, and vowed to give up my habit of eating there. I failed. It took three more meals of bad food and higher prices to finally break that habit, but during that time, I noticed that the deli crowd dropped dramatically as did overall traffic to that store during lunch. Other people appeared to be bothered by the change in price and quality. Finally, I took my lunch buying and lunch-time electronic shopping to a competitor.

Three months later on a random weekend visit to my original lunch spot/electronics store, I noticed that the price dropped back down to the original level. I promptly adjusted my schedule and used the same excuse to go back. To my surprise, both the price and food quality had be adjusted to the original levels. As I continued to return week after week, I noticed that the lunch crowd was building back as well.

So someone figured out that the deli was indeed a loss leader, bringing in shoppers who otherwise might spend their time and money elsewhere, right? Maybe, or their memory only lasts 9 months. At a recent visit, they upped the price by 17% again and changed their side dish/chips vendor to one with portions nearly 1/2 of what they gave a year ago. I looks like they are breaking that value contract again.

I'll be breaking that lunch habit faster this time. Did someone break a value contract with you in a bonehead way? Please comment or click the ThankThis button if you like this article.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Smarter Executive Hiring for Startups

Fellow executive Michael Stewart once told me that his ideal position was to be head of sales for 5 startups, pulling in 25%+ salary from each with a percentage of sales plus equity. I don’t know if he still feels that way, but his statement resonated with me on several levels as it made alot of sense.

While Michael and other executives I know definitely earn their salaries, those same salaries are hard to justify for small or growing startups. Startups are then faced with a dilemma - hire an expensive senior exec who brings the strategy, planning, and wisdom you likely need, or hire a cheaper, more junior exec with some of what you likely need, but fits in your budget. Of course, the real answer lies in what you need, but there’s the rub. Do startups really know what they need? Early stage startups are almost always defined by a market vision that a group of customers want a product or service. They have an idea or early prototype, and they’re trying to make sure the product fits their intended customer or they are working to really define the customer that will buy and use that product. Sure, field research of 5 to 20 people may have helped, but does that really scale into the enterprise, retail, or massively deployed Internet presence?

Change that around a bit. If you think you really needed a seasoned executive, but your marketing or sales staff budget was $12k/month, would you hire one senior executive at $12k/month? A seasoned mid-level exec at $10k/month with change left over, or one senior executive, at 25% for $4k, plus another mid-level marketer for $7k/month. You would probably need to provide an equity incentive as well, but that’s par for the startup game.

While a number of executives in Silicon Valley have the strategy and implementation skills and experience to plan and execute, it’s not uncommon to find senior executives who dismiss implementation as ‘work that marketing staff does.’ Hiring the seasoned mid-level exec might get the job done, but there’s almost certainly going to be gaps where he/she will lack the experience or skills. Going with a part-time senior exec and full-time mid-level marketer would provide both the experience and implementation skills with the best odds for success. 

Now the part-time senior executive model might only be a short-lived solution, as success could require more management time, more executive team integration, and additional implementers, but this is also the beauty of that approach. Success has pushed off the full salary load of the full-time exec until there has been some success allowing for a cost-effective and cost-justified conversion to full-time.

The problems of this model are not insignificant and will come from both the executive and the hiring company. The executive will naturally want to be paid contractor rates to guarantee the perceived value for his/her services and will likely require equity even in a part-time role.  The hiring company will likely require board approval for all VP level candidates, possibly dragging out a 3k or 4k/month hire into the same hiring process for a $15k/month salary load. If the benefits outweigh the risks or complications, both parties will come to a mutually agreeable solution.

From a progress-minded view of things, I have no problem seeing that it could work, where I, as one of these executives, could find a way to make it work. On the other hand, I would like feedback from others on ‘Should it be done?’ I look forward to your opinion.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Do You Suffer from Induced Success-a-phobia

Silicon valley is a great place to meet entrepreneurs who, at first glance, have good or even great ideas with serious potential. In many cases, however, I've seen entrepreneurs afflicted with something I call induced success-a-phobia (my term) - or induced fear of success.

It’s easy to get stuck and distracted by the wrong things. After all, there’s no shortage of service providers trying to sell startups their services, sometimes waving the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) card or sometimes dangling promises of funding or customers. Some of these consultants are really good, sensing an insecurity or chink in the entrepreneur’s armor, and finding a way to extract money from the entrepreneur for non-core issues. It might be legal docs, business plans services, detailed financial projections, patents, revenue models and forecasts, slick marketing plans, etc. While those administrative tasks should not be ignored, entrepreneurs need to really ask themselves if what the service provider is selling will help the business succeed. Without answering that question, it’s easy to get so buried in the administrative distractions that they never execute on their vision.

A friend pointed me at a young, 23 year old CEO, whose first two companies were not ground breaking or even high-tech, but this CEO had a vision and repeatedly executed, simply following through on what needed to get done. He created a business where there was none, recognizing the needs he could fill, then taking the steps to fill them. He did not appear to lose much time on raising money, either, mostly focusing on customers and sales. Both of the first two businesses did not sound like they were VC backable, but as an entrepreneur with a vision, he plowed ahead and executed anyway, seemingly oblivious that he was pursing tough businesses with few technical advantages on his side.

This CEO epitomizes the gumption that I often see missing here in the valley, regardless of age and experience. He saw a need and filled it, without an if, and, or but. He just went for it. He had an idea, figured out what needed to be done, then put the plan in motion. In his case, even flying to China to setup manufacturing, building a sales team, then aggressively building channel at Mac World. He did all that at 19. Of course, that’s a rare case, but compare that to what I often see entrepreneurs doing here in the valley. If they don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis by simply going to endless meetups and startup seminars, they come down with induced success-a-phobia.

While my advice may sound flippant, there’s a key concept where many would-be entrepreneurs should start - “Nothing great was ever built by worrying about why it can’t be done”. I sometimes use a sports analogy to lay it out in simple terms, and my apologies to the original idea owner: “You can never take a swing if you don’t step up to bat, and you can never hit a home run if you never swing the bat.” Know the key elements that matter in your business, and take the steps necessary to get where you want to go.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are you an expert? or Where do I put in my 10,000 hours?

I few months back I spoke with a young marketing intern, and I asked him how he was preparing to enter the job market and land a marketing job. He responded “I’m reading alot”, and then proceeded to name some online magazines he was reading on a weekly basis. He then expanded on how he attended two webinars the previous week on viral marketing. Fast forward to this past week, when I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers”, which has a section on expertise and gurus.

Gladwell speaks about the the sheer number of hours of practice the experts put in, citing the 10,000 mark as some commonly accepted level. Somehow, by sheer force of will and desire, the examples in the book put in 10,000+ hours to become recognized experts - the truly exceptional. Gladwell places Bill Gate, Bill Joy, and even Wozniak and Jobs in that group. Now 10,000 hours is alot, that’s about 5 years of practice 8 hours a day or 10 years at 4 hours a day. It’s possible, and somewhat realistic, then, that software developers and coders that I’ve worked with could have reached their 10,000 hours around 7 years of full time work, if they only wasted 1-2 hours a day in meetings, code reviews, QA, etc. Fortunately, most web developers work in only one to three languages, and the coding principles are highly leverage-able between languages.

So I asked this fellow who would he would hire - someone who read alot, or someone who was actively trying to test the things that he learned in his reading. He said that the person who practiced what he learned would be a more valuable hire. His words “you take the guy who probably screwed up elsewhere, so he won’t screw up on your dime.”

So how has my simple questioning impacted my young friend? The next time we met, he had joined a group that was creating and implementing a marketing launch plan for a non-profit. They were meeting every week and slowly moving the project forward. When I pressed for details, he added “this is nothing like the webinars - the team has so many conflicting priorities and resource constraints that nothing can be done in a step-by-step fashion”. I asked if he learned anything. He said he did, and that next time he could avoid the mistakes his team was making now.

While it’s only a start, my young marketing friend has started his journey toward the 10,000 hours of practice he needs to become the expert he wants to be. More importantly, he’s started to learn that experience is more than reading and watching webinars, and that getting his hands dirty gave him a new and marketable perspective.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Your bag of tricks is worthless

I had a thoughtful conversation with Dave Aune about business expectations when people hire marketers. Dave made an interesting comment that stuck in my mind, "what's in your marketing bag of tricks?". MY bag of tricks? I knew he was joking and goading me onto my soapbox, so I told him he was funny.

Long ago, while running my first marketing department, the company president wanted to understand what my marketing department did. The knowledge sought was simple - What did we do that was growing the company? How did my staff fit into the big picture, and what would happen if staff were cut? Little did I know at the time, but we were about to be acquired, and cutting head count would make us look more attractive.

What I presented was a marketing operations spreadsheets. A 240 row spreadsheet showing all the tasks that my team was doing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. The list of operational tasks was impressive, and the company president was initially overwhelmed. Later that week, in a discussion with the engineering team, the company president mentioned that I was "working on my bag of tricks". It was the first time someone referred to my marketing as a 'bag of tricks', and it would not be the last.

The notion of a marketing 'bag of tricks' is now one of fastest filters that tells me that someone doesn't understand marketing or suffers from marketing naivete. When someone really believes in a marketing bag of tricks, they almost always hold the unhealthy belief that a marketer has a tactic will always work. That 'it worked once, it will work again' mentality is the bane of sales executives, presidents, and board members over and over again, as a persuasive marketer can use 20/20 hindsight to explain how some marketing tactic worked last year or in their last job, and it will work again. It CAN work, but rarely does as a straight drop in. A bag of tricks suggests that the customers are either being tricked or that the marketer has magic, neither of which seems like a dependable, let alone repeatable business strategy. Instead of hoping for magic, wouldn't it be better if your marketing was based around strategies, systems, and processes that, when applied properly, lead to awareness, action, and conversion? Good marketing applies those strategies, systems, and processes to identify one hit wonders as well as longer term repeatable phenomenons and allows for the application of the right money at the right time.

Markets, and the people that make them, are dynamic, and what's more important than any trick or tactic are the fundamentals behind why that tactic may have worked earlier. The dancing baby worked once, the dancing hamster worked once, tattoos on the forehead worked once, even cavemen worked for a little while. Some campaigns or marketing memes work once, a few times, or can last, but there's no way to guarantee that you can bring a caveman variant to the next marketing campaign at the next company.

It may seem like magic when good marketers are successful repeatedly, but it's not. In fact, good marketers apply processes and a toolkit by which they temper with experience, past lessons, and an understanding of human motivations and behaviors toward a given business goal. Those tools may be applied with expectations for success, but focus on applying tools that generate results which can lead to greater and greater successes. The end result may seem like magic from a bag of tricks, but there is no magic, just insight derived from the proper selection and application of marketing tools, and the willingness to test, cull poor performers, and expand in winning directions.

Dave has heard this rant dozens of times, but I thank him for suggesting it as a blog topic that needed to be covered.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Customer Support is more than internal tracking tools

I've got a customer support horror story, and I'm not afraid to tell it, because it has both a good AND bad side, but it also provides a learning opportunity for Acer and possibly others.

My Acer laptop went on the fritz in January, slowly getting worse to the point of being unusable in March. I updated the drivers, checked bios settings, verified all the connections, and nothing helped. I even documented the original problem here. I contacted Acer support, knowing that warranty would end in less than three weeks, figuring that they could determine the problem, I could ship it, and they could fix it even before warranty ended.

The diagnosis process was less than satisfactory - where the Acer people insisted that I do everything that I had already done - again. They even insisted that I just LOOK at the BIOS - w/o providing any suggestions once I got there. Of course I peaked around the BIOS once I was there, and there was nothing to change except to possibly disable the external monitor, which, btw, did not solve the problem (documented here). After two weeks of back-and-forth communication over their support ticket tool, they decided that I needed to RMA it.

That's when things got interesting. I packed and shipped the product after their determination that there was a hardware problem, making sure to ship it w/receipt while still in warranty. The support team that was on my ticket never acknowledge receiving it, even though UPS had tracked it. My first two attempts where met with "your product is out of warranty" we'll check with the depot. The depot finally acknowledged receipt, but the support team did not have an active record of it. Meanwhile, I asked the support team about why they kept telling me that my laptop was out of warranty and if they would still fix it since it was diagnosed and acknowledged to be defective. No answer. Even after I told them that my video pages (above) had received > 3000 hits, they didn't respond.

I contacted them every week with those questions as the video page views increased. They completely ignoring my questions about the warranty and repair. Finally, someone from the repair depot called to tell me that they couldn't get the parts and they would ship me a replacement the next day. The next day came and went, and there was no notification of the shipment, so I contacted support to find out what went wrong. Acer support told me that the replacement was not longer available, and that they were working on it. That's it. Nearly a week later, no update, so I dug through my call logs to find the inbound number from the Acer repair depot. The person at the depot was again clear and courteous, told me what happened, when another replacement option was available, and asked for a pre-authorization to ship it to me. I granted it of course, but the ship day came and went, and again, no notification. So another contact to support, and they acknowledged that a replacement was being sent. Whew!

What does this all mean? Well here's what I took away from this experience:
  • Acer's support system is designed to track issues only, and does not have the focus on customers that Dell and Apple have shown when I've had repair issues with them.
  • Acer doesn't track blogs or social media venues. All told, my rants on the topic garnered north of 10,000 page views.
  • Persistence is still the order of the day. It seems that support is not a right, but must be earned, at least from Acer. Otherwise, I might still be out of the hardware to this day, over month and a half after reporting the problem.
  • Acer's repair depot and support system have vastly different levels of person skill levels, where the depot people treated me like a human, and the support people treated me like my support issues were not worth their time.
My replacement laptop seems fine, but I still have a bad taste in my mouth from the support experience. In this day and age, I'm surprised that this level of service could come from a top PC company. and I'm even more surprised that Acer cares so little about it's reputation that it would allow such problems to go so long without resolution.

At least at the time of this writing, my video can be found on the 1st page of Google search results for "acer video flickering" and in the comments for the #1 search result for "acer video problems". Let's hope companies like Acer pay closer attention to their customers because other customers may be listening, and search results may not always show what you want your customers to see.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Startups and 'It's not my job'

After my article on 'hiring Moron X', I was lucky enough to get feedback from colleagues with experience at both small startups and larger companies. One comment led me to this article: "startup types may be ineffective in big companies due to turf wars."

Let me explain, with some background first. In well run startups, there's one phrase you rarely hear "That's not my job". On the rare occasion it pops up, it's usually followed by "well whose job is it and why aren't they in this conversation." In most startups, the team is well focused and aligned, everyone is/should be working toward the same goal. If an important job isn't getting it done, the team rallies, offloading, reassigning, or sharing responsibilities to ensure that the important things get done. When something needs to happen and resources aren't available, someone should, and usually does, step up to execute, even if it means night and weekend hours. It is important, after all. There's usually plenty of work to do, so people routinely step up, taking on tasks above and beyond their normal skill-set or training, even crossing functional boundaries.

In larger companies, operations are often broken down into more discrete tasks, where employees are hired as specialists in one functional area. This can lead to departmental and functional optimization where employees do a few tasks and are expected to do them well. If a task comes up that a specialist is not trained to do - they often have little interest and/or knowledge about how to execute on that task. Literally, it's not his/her job, and the task can be accomplished by someone more experienced with the proper skill-set.

Herein lies the potential conflict for startup types in larger organizations. When a startup type joins a large company and finds an important task not being addressed, they find a way to make it happen. They might do it themselves or try to acquire resource to quickly move forward. Unfortunately, trying to get it done and making it happen have different processes in a larger company. "Trying to get it done" may mean identifying the related projects, the required resource, the managers, and the chain of command that would normally get the task done. The startup person's task is one tiny priority among dozens of others, and when pushing his/her agenda, they often get the "I won't have resource until Y days/weeks in the future" response. In frustration, the startup person may do it himself, imperfectly, w/o the resources and w/o the blessing of the other managers, but doing it in a day or two instead of waiting two weeks before resource became available. This is how egos get crossed, walls get built, and turf wars begin against the startup person.

It doesn't have to be this way, and no one is really at fault, but this same cycle happens over and over again when the mindset and culture of the startup person is implicitly applied in the larger company environment. Often the manager who hired the startup person feels like he/she hired a rogue who doesn't fit, but in reality, a gap in communication and alignment has been exposed. It's really a learning moment and opportunity for the startup person and the larger company to operate more efficiently and effectively.

The solution is communication and goal alignment. When urgency, priority, resource, corporate advancement and opportunity can be weighed, managers and resources can be highlighted to allow a project to be executed in a more scrappy and nimble fashion, or the project urgency can corrected to more realistically reflect the priorities and goals of the company, focusing the startup person on higher priorities. I have seen communication and clarification work well, pushing a larger organization to new levels, but I've also seen the reverse, where the larger company manager is intimidated and insecure or the startup person can't adapt to the new structure.

Have you been involved either way? Successfully or not? Feel free to comment or contact me with your feedback.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Don't Waste Your Time on "Users"

Everyone knows a user or two - someone you only know because of all the favors they've asked for. They're generally friendly enough, but their actions are just a little off. If you spent a few moments thinking about it, you wouldn't really call them friends, you might call them a 'user'.

A 'user' is someone who thinks you're important only when they need something. They often suffer from an overinflated sense of self-worth, even beyond the bounds of self-confidence. There are many 'users' out there for several reasons:
1. Enough people crave even the short attention a 'user' will give them
2. Some people are too afraid of conflict or too polite to point out the usery
3. Other can't tell or refuse to believe that a 'user' is using them

Why does it bother us?
Users differ from you and I since they often act as if the world revolves around them. They tend to be oblivious of the personal and professional difficulties that befall those around them, and they often assume that you have nothing better to do than to spend your time helping them out.

There's nothing wrong with asking people for help, and in fact, a good networker knows that relationships are built by accepting and willingly doing simple favors. Every relationship has some give and take, and that give and take is an unwritten social expectation. The reason we get upset when we encounter a user is that a user does not honor the two-way relationship. He/she simply takes. Some users will do 'thank you' favors after the fact or pre-favors to guilt you, but those favors only become a source of anger when the user disappears from the relationship until he/she needs something again.

In reality, the user's actions are more like those of a company with it's customers, where a company provides a service, and the customer pays. In the company-customer relationship, there is also trust that the company will be paid a fair sum or reasonable compensation. The user does not pay for the favors he/she extracts from you. He/she violates the personal relationship rules and even violates the company-customer rules. The net result is that people hold users in disdain, with many going out of their way to avoid them, and business professionals tend to distrust them.

How to deal with them
If you consider the user a friend, and there is more to your relationship than doing favors for him/her, you should discuss the problem. If you have no choice but to deal with them, consider it an opportunity to test and develop your assertiveness.

The best techniques I've seen are simply designed to put the request in perspective and offer a learning moment. Here's a few request and responses for you to consider:

1. Request: Can you help me with [some task]
Response: Is it a paying gig? I was thinking that I might starting doing [some task] and turn it into a side business with you as my first customer. What would it cost if you hired someone? I'll give you a discount.
2. Request: Can you introduce me to [some person]
Response: I know a consultant who you can pay for that introduction. [some person] is not the kind of person I make business introductions to.
3. Request: You're not busy, you can help me do [some task] right?
Response: I wish I wasn't busy, I need to do [other tasks] or hire someone to do them for me. I tell you what - if you cover the costs of doing [other tasks], I think I can help.

The goal isn't to get paid, but to assert that your time is worthwhlie without being confrontational. Respond as above enough times, and the user will 'use' you less and less.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Did you hire moron X ?

I was recently asked by a colleague on how I believed startups should hire. When I prodded more, the question was narrowed to allow for a more meaningful discussion about the characteristics of people who work at different sized companies as suitable startup candidates. I explained the obvious, at least to me, that there was a different risk and needs profile for people who worked at early stage, established, and public companies and that the risk profile was amplified at higher and higher management levels.

At the risk of being offensive, I thought I would discuss my views on the topic further. While these may seem like generalizations, the experience of working in and around numerous companies in silicon valley has shown me that these classifications generally hold true, with a few exceptions. I offer this discussion since I've also heard the topic debated over and over again from entrepreneurs, angels, and VCs, usually with poor outcomes.

"They hired moron X from big company Y"

If you've never heard that statement, you've never worked in an early stage startup in silicon valley. The reason "moron X" was hired was because someone in management or a VC thought adult supervision was necessary. This is generally a good idea since many young entrepreneurs may not have the experience to deal with some of the rocky conditions that the startup may face, but the timing and personal character matters. When outside adult supervision is brought in, with it comes certain expectations internally and externally.Most of this discussion will focus on the early stage startup.

Internally, the existing team expects the person to be as sharp, nimble, and aggressive as they are, with a similar work ethic, and the ability to execute with the same level of resources that the team has had in the past. Externally, the new hire, management, and investors typically expect that the new hire will come in with the resources, buy-in, and capablities that he/she was used to their last position. Is the potential for disaster obvious enough?

Often times, the hiring of an outsider like "moron X" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the outsider does not meet the internal expectations, there will be a culture and alignment clash. The most common way I've seen this play out is that "moron X" joins and needs to hire 2 or 3 more people to be effective. This often takes the form of support staff, assistants, marketing consultants, business development consultants, and/or operations consultants. While those people may indeed be necessary to do the job right, the likely internal sentiment will be that the person doesn't have the skills or experience to do the job. The new hire has suddenly increased expenses not just by his or her head count, but by the 2 to 3 additional people he/she had to bring on board before even fully understanding the business. Basically, what looked like a 1 person hire for adult supervision, knowledge, and experience, suddenly became a 4 person increase in costs, and significant impact on an early stage company's runway.

So to avoid new hires being labled with the "moron X" title, I propose that the background and recent experience of outside hires matter. I've put together a chart belowto show how company size and company stage correlate to the products, customers, market, and channel experience for those types of companies. What this means is that people who work at the company stage listed are accustomed to the situations described in the boxes.

Company stage vs. Market

Big companyStartup late stageStartup early stage
several, with established customer profiles, wants, needs, and use cases
product works for at least one market segment, some product differentiation may be in placeproduct may be defined, but not proven
many existing segments served, often with products addressing each segment
company has customers, prospects, & suspects, with an active pipeline and lead gen to conversion processcustomers are suspects, and possibly prospects, but not a dependable/well-defined segment
Marketmarket need has been established for most company products
a market need is established and segmentation is being applieda market is suspected, and generally makes sense to the founders
channels for marketing, sales, and influence are already established.
some channels are established, but channel optimization is a current or near term goalchannels have not been established and must be vetted
** assumption is that startup is not simply copying an existing product but introducing something with a new or better value proposition

Based on my personal experience, and feel free to argue if you disagree, people in the far right column can move to the left much easier than people on the left moving right. Why? People on the right are tasked with essentially creating a business with less resources than they need, so moving left simply means more resources to execute on plans. People on the far left are used to established products and companies, but moving right means less budget to build both a product and a company. Very difficult transition, just ask around.

Next time I'll discuss product, so stay tuned.