I’m not alone in disliking founders using the term “disruption”!

prime movers

From the homepage of Floodgate Fund.

The pervasive use of the term disruption by founders has really bothered me for quite some time. It seems like every startup has to be disrupting some industry. Uber and Airbnb with their disruption of the taxi business and the hotel industry respectively seem to be the models for every startup. But what does disruption have to do with solving a hair-on-fire problem for a customer? Disruption might be a byproduct of solving a problem for large set of customers who switch from using an established product to yours, but it’s a byproduct, not a goal.

I figured I’m just out of touch. as despite reading a ton of tech news every day thanks to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times business section and Flipboard, I’ve yet to come across anyone who shared my discomfort with the constant emphasis on disruption.

Yes, Google totally disrupted the newspaper industry by destroying its display ad business, along with Craigslist, who destroyed their classified ads. But neither company set out to destroy the newspaper industry. I’ve read enough about Google to be confident that Larry and Sergey did not set out to disrupt the newspaper industry! They set out to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

So I was glad to see the article A prominent Silicon Valley investor says entrepreneurs need to stop copying Mark Zuckerberg so much and quit talking about ‘breaking things,’ ‘disruption,’ and ‘robots eating the jobs’ by Zoe Bernard on Business Insider.

I knew the name Mike Maples from his time as an executive at Microsoft. His son, Mike Maples, Jr.,  is a successful serial entrepreneur who started the venture capital firm Floodgate Fund.

There are a lot of quotes from Mr. Maples in this article, but there are two that make clear his position on the use of language by entrepreneurs:

“When an entrepreneur says, ‘I’m going to disrupt ‘X,’ I think: Why are you trying to disrupt anyone?” says Maples. “If your advisor told you to say that, then you’re getting bad advice. Advisors who talk that way are doing a bad job. The whole ecosystem from entrepreneurs to advisors to venture capitalists writ large need to do a better job at understanding the raison d’être of startups in the first place.”

For Maples, this raison d’être of startups is straightforward: “The best founders I know aren’t disrupting something, they’re creating things,” says Maples. “It comes from love and passion and innovation. True innovation doesn’t come from eating someone else’s business.”

So here’s a motto for you founders;

Move fast and make things!

And thanks Mike for helping me not feel quite so alone.

 

 

How to increase your teams accountability

Apple_1998_Logo

Just about all managers know that meetings need agendas. Most know that those meetings need to end with next steps/to-do’s. But how many know what DRI stands for and more importantly how the concept of the DRI can significantly increase the accountability and productivity of your teams?

I’m not sure when I first came across the Apple acronym DRI, which stands for Directly Responsible Individual – probably in one of the many books and articles I’ve read about Steve Jobs. Jobs and Apple have fascinated me ever since buying my Apple II in 1980, which ended up months later propelling me into the personal software development world.

Apple’s culture is unique in many ways. For one there is only one bottom line – the company’s. Unlike most large companies which have profit centers, subsidiaries, divisions and a plentitude of CEOs, Apple has just one CEO. Everyone is rowing in the same boat, in the same direction. That’s the top down view. But what about the bottoms up view? What happens day-to-day to keep Apple at not only the top of the tech world but at the top of the business world?

I venture to say that the DRI is a key contributor. TripAdvisor adopted the DRI concept from Apple and it’s very clearly explained in Matthew Mamet’s article on Medium, Directly Responsible Individuals.

Every action item from every meeting has an assigned DRI. Note the three key words: Directly. There’s no weaseling out of this one! You can not delegate it. You must do it! Responsible. The DRI is in charge and accountable. Individual. That’s a person’s name, not a team, not a group.

But DRI is not just for group meetings, it’s embedded in the Apple culture. When you want to know who to contact about a project you ask, Who’s the DRI?

Instead of emailing an entire team, emails go to the DRI and others are on the cc line. If you are the DRI and get an email then you take ownership of the reply.

It’s a maxim that the best culture of a company is to get everyone to act like an owner. At Apple everyone is. Even the staff at Apple stores get stock options, highly unusual in the world of retail. Only Starbucks also has stock options for its barristas. And the single bottom line illustrates better than any employee handbook that it’s one company, not an agglomeration of small companies, fighting each other to the death over resources instead of fighting competitors, and more importantly, focusing on their customers.

At TripAdvisor, and I imagine at Apple, whenever they are working on a new or challenging problem the first task is to establish the DRI. DRIs are a means to an end: accountability. And accountability itself is a means to another end: productivity. As Matthew Mamet points out that at TripAdvisor:

By seeking to create a culture of accountability with the group, we avoid dependencies on managers to tell the team what to do, and increase reliance on the team to self-organize and know how to proceed. 

I’m not sure how many companies like TripAdvisor have taken up the DRI model, but if you are a founder it’s something I strongly advise you to consider. One problem I often see with a group of founders is the “who’s on first?” problem – “I thought Joe was doing, that.” “Oh, I though Jean was.” “Whoops! I was supposed to!” Founders often start up joined at the hip, but the sooner they separate and start focusing on separate areas of the company the better. Even founders need to be DRIs!

The toughest problem early stage startups face

looking for a domain

Is it building a team? Finding the elusive product/market fit? Raising capital? Shipping the MVP? Nope, it’s finding a unique name for the venture!

One of my favorite parts of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service monthly meetings is when VMS President Sherwin Greenblatt reads the names of VMS ventures that have changed their names. Half the time from the reaction of the audience it seems that the change was for the worse! Having been through this venture naming process way too many times and posted about it previously, I still couldn’t resist reading the Forbes article Domain Name Do’s And Don’ts by Denis Pinsky. And it’s pretty obvious why you need a name for your venture asap: new ventures need a web  site and web domain names must be unique.

Their are multiple benefits to getting your domain right from the get-go:

  • Establish authority/credibility
  • Reinforce brand identity
  • Promote business

Make It Foolproof

Typos happen. In fact you may have noticed that the big successful companies like Amazon also buy domains that are common typos. But try to avoid problematic names in the first place. Here are four types of names to avoid:

  • Mixing numbers with words: (gØØd-dØmain.com)
  • Hyphens: (good-domain.com)
  • Homonyms: (suite-domain.com)
  • Abbreviations (2cool-domain.com)

Since searching the web is usually the number one way potential customers find you, versus you finding them, make it as easy as possible for Google to find you.

Be Memorable

A great way to create a unique domain name is to create a long, complex name like HowToCreateUniqueDomainNamesinJustTwentyMinutes.com The problem is that the risk of typos or misspellings rises in direct proportion to the length of your domain name. So you need to keep your domain name short by using only one or two words.

Bad Domains

Avoid names that are too long, too bland, and too hard to type.

Be Too Trendy

Buzzwords are great but many have no staying power, thus your domain name is going to looked dated very soon, and trust me, changing your domain name is a real pain.

Forget to read it aloud

One of the best ways to test your newly created domain name is to say it out loud – many times. And an even tougher test is to use it over a cellphone connection. If you get a lot of “what’s that you said?” you’ll know that your chosen name is just unworkable, good as it looked on paper.

Sound Like Someone Else

I had this problem myself. I came up with what I thought was a great name: Mainspring. We even had a very nice logo. The definition was evocative, not descriptive: something that plays a principal part in motivating or maintaining a movement, process, or activity: innovation is the mainspring of the new economy. But much to my dismay another startup, an ISP, had the name Mindspring.  They became pretty successful very quickly and we ended up having to correct many people who kept calling us Mindspring, not Mainspring. Don’t let this happen to you!

The first thing you need to do when you come up with a domain name that passes all the above tests is to go to ICANN Whois to check that some other venture hasn’t snagged your name first. I’ve come up with innumerable clever names only to find that someone more clever than I has already registered the name. But as Dennis Pinsky points out, all is not lost:

…if you notice that the name you’ve chosen is taken, but looks inactive, find out who actually owns the domain. There are several online sites that can help pinpoint who owns it and when it will expire. If the date is close, you may want to bide your time and see if becomes available. If the expiration date isn’t close, you can reach out to the owner of the name to see if they are willing to sell it.

And increasingly I’m see new ventures give up on getting the most desirable .com TLD (Top Level Domain) and use .net, .org or for an artificial intelligence venture, .ai. If you search a domain registrar like GoDaddy they will provide you with all available options. For example, for no particular reason I came up with the name Addvocate. I thought it was clever, but GoDaddy gave me the dreaded “Sorry, addvocate.com is taken. But they then listed all the TLDs I could use instead, like addvocate.me or addvocate.mobi.

Finally if you need more help there are many posts on the Web about how to create a unique domain name, including Dennis Pinsky’s own 8 Smart Tips For Choosing A Winning Domain Name

 

 

Humans are prediction machines!

self taught robots

Browsing at my local library the March issue of Scientific American caught my eye. I’ve had an interest in robots since I was a kid and read about about them in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction books.

Watching today’s robots from Boston Dynamics  on YouTube is truly amazing – science fiction come to life. But reading the article Soft-Taught Robots by Diana Kwon what really intrigued me was the section Prediction Machine. I’ve long thought that the major difference between the two ways to understand the world — science and religion – was that  science could actually predict the future, religion can not. And the essence of science is its reliability – predicted results could be replicated by other scientists. a process known as peer review.

The article’s elucidation of humans as prediction machines was what really illuminating for me: OUR BRAINS are constantly trying to predict the future—and updating their expectations to match reality. And the concept that the brain and nervous system are bilateral.

Our minds are prediction machines, using prior experience and knowledge to make sense of the deluge of information coming from our surroundings. Many neuroscientists and psychologists believe that nearly everything we do—perception, action and learning—relies on making and updating expectations.

Crucially, the downward signals from the higher levels of the brain continually interact with the “upward” signals from the senses, generating a prediction error: the difference between what we expect and what we experience.

A signal conveying this discrepancy returns to the higher levels, helping to refine internal models and generating fresh guesses, in an unending loop. “The prediction error signal drives the system toward estimates of what’s really out there,” says Rajesh P. N. Rao, a computational neuroscientist at the University of Washington.

This concept that nearly everything we do is governed by our extremely powerful drive to reduce or correct prediction error: the difference between our expectation – our internal mental model, and reality – what’s outside our mind and perceived by our senses.  This prediction signal loop is the also the core of  Norbert Weiner‘s cybernetics: the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Surprisingly Weiner and cybernetics don’t merit a mention in the article.

But cyberneticity of the human nervous system is well illustrated in the Scientific American article:

brain image

So what does the concept of humans as prediction machines fighting information overload have to do with entrepreneurs? As I’ve written in the post The Attention Economy When it comes to pitching investors, customers, job candidates, advisors, job candidates or communicating with other stakeholders and influencers entrepreneurs need to keep in mind that attention has become one of the most limited, and therefore most valuable, commodities there is.

A deeper understanding of attention, that it is a consequence of humans as prediction machines leads to a realization that many problems come from the failure of consumers to close the gap between their expectation and reality, creating either pain or a   mental equivalent of the itch that must be scratched. Thus entrepreneurs must view their products not as simply pain pills or vitamins, but helping consumers close or eliminate the prediction gap. Perhaps the best example I know of the is invention of the electronic spreadsheet, which enables users to create and easily modify models that are predictive. If  my raw materials cost goes up by 7% how much do I need to increase my product’s price to maintain my profit of 15% and how will my market share, the percentage of the market I control, be effected? All businesses run on keeping track of projected versus actual, on the operating side that includes cost of raw materials and on the revenue side that includes total unit sales, returns, and pricing.

Once you have a product that either relieves pain or creates a habit, your job is only half done, you need to influence consumers to buy and use your product. By understanding consumers as prediction machines with fixed amount of attention you can you craft a marketing message that gets through the incessant blizzard of stimuli bombarding your prospects.  Otherwise known as cutting through the noise – where noise is defined as signals that do not help close the gap between expectation and reality and may actually interfere with it, like the sound of a jackhammer while you are trying to write a blog post. At its basest level virtually all advertising and marketing communications is saying, Hey, you have this problem – whether you realize it not – and by using our product you can eliminate it! Aspirational marketing actually creates the expectation – that just like the smiling, happy people in all of Apple’s ads – you too can attain that state of bliss, where that painful gap between expectation and reality is closed. Of course, you must continue to use the product or service to keep it closed!

One downside of networking and how to escape it

 

escape

Everyone and their brother (and their sister) is being spurred to attend networking events and, of course, to network their way to success.

But while there certainly can be benefits to networking, including making new connections and strengthening weak ones, seldom is one warned of the downsides of networking. The Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger entitled
Fix That Dead-End Conversation tells many stories of how people get trapped into conversations at various events that aren’t even designed for networking, like a dinner at a fund-raising event. And these stories can help you understand ways you can get trapped and ways to extricate yourself from unwanted conversations. Please read the article for this context.

But the author has done bloggers like me the favor of distilling all her advice down to seven tips, slightly edited to make them more appropriate for startup networking events:

  1. Redirect a chronic complainer by asking that person to suggest solutions. Of course, you just might find they do have some solutions, and you will find yourself stuck like a fly in amber.
  2. If your conversational partner starts getting defensive back off and start asking thoughtful questions that metaphorically puts the ball back in their court.
  3. If your acquaintance starts gossiping about a mutual acquaintance say, “She has that nicest things to say about you.”
  4. In the highly likely event that the other person gets caught up in boasting, compliment him or her and then change the subject. (It might help to arm yourself with a set of topics you can fall back on at networking events, like “what do you think will happen to BitCoin? Will it’s value continue to oscillate or will it end up stabilizing? Or, do you agree with Elon Musk that AI is a threat to human autonomy?)
  5. If the person you are stuck talking with starts ranting about local problems ask how issues in their locality compare with other hot spots for startups.
  6. If a divisive conversation gets out of control hold up you hand in the universal sign for stop to halt the conversation.
  7. If you find yourself subject to a diatribe about some government policy, like net neutrality, ask what would happen if government policies were never changed?

Ms. Shellenbarger talks with J. Kelly Hoey,acclaimed business columnist and networking expert, author of the book Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships in a Hyper-Connected World. I have yet to read it and probably won’t ,as I’m not big on networking myself, but Amazon readers give it four and a half stars. Ms. Hoey recounts a how humor can help defuse a potential inflammatory discussion with someone you end up talking with at a networking event. Humor is such a popular technique that there are entire articles about how to use humor to your advantage, such as Use Humor To Befriend, Defuse Tension And Have More Fun by Kare Anderson.

 

WHY IT ISN’T A GOOD IDEA TO USE ALL CAPS IN MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS

stop sign

I’m surprised how often I see all caps in a presentation or other marcom material. There are very good reasons not to use them, except in very limited cases.

But first a little personal computing history. When I attempted to learn programming languages, including BASIC and Cobol, in the late 70’s EVERYTHING WAS ALL CAPS on timeshared mini-computers! Thus when I bought my first personal computer, an Apple II, I wasn’t surprised at all that the keyboard had only caps, not lower case. Steve Wozniak saw no need for lower case, as he assumed users would be either programming or playing games, neither of which needed lower case. Eventually the market demand for lower case delivered an add-on, I can’t remember it’s name or how it worked, but Apple Computer, Inc didn’t deliver a computer capable of lower case until the Apple III. Unfortunately for those of us who like to use both upper and lower case, the Apple III with it’s spacious 80 column screen (the Apple II only offered 40 columns of text) was a turkey and I heard that many of them ended up in landfills somewhere! Oh wait, maybe that was the Apple Lisa!

At any rate in 1981 with the IBM PC the market finally had a machine with a full keyboard, 80 column screen, and upper and lower case. The rest is history.

So what’s wrong with using ALL CAPS! I’m only an amateur when it comes to fonts and human perception. But here’s my two cents:

  • All caps are very intrusive. They are good at getting your ATTENTION. Thus they are commonly used on STOP signs or warning signs like on the MBTA trains: WATCH YOUR STEP. Thus using all caps on an extensive string of text will really be felt as very intrusive by your reader.
  • Upper and lower case enables us to differentiate proper nouns like names, and titles: President Donald Trump, from other text surrounding the proper nouns. By using all caps this important differentiator is lost.
  • All caps look like monospace text like this the Currier font, which imitates a typewriter. Monospaced type is much harder to read as it lacks kerning,  the process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a proportional font, usually to achieve a visually pleasing result

So if you want to get your reader’s attention, do use all caps, but very sparingly, just as you should use bold, underline, or italic sparingly.

 

Banning Powerpoints has made Jeff Bezos the world’s wealthiest man

gallo

As a long time foe of the bullet point I was thrilled to read this Inc. article by
Carmine Gallo entitled Jeff Bezos Banned PowerPoint in Meetings. His Replacement Is Brilliant.  I’ve been a longtime fan of Carmine Gallo. His book The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience is brilliant. In it Gallo analyzes the keynote presentations of Jobs and extracts lessons to be learned by anyone who gives presentations. I highly recommend this book to all my mentees.

But this post is about Jeff Bezos, one of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent history, up there with Jobs and why he uses story telling and anecdotes, not bullet points, to communicate with his staff at Amazon.

in a recent discussion at the Forum on Leadership at the Bush Center, Bezos revealed that “narrative structure” is more effective than PowerPoint. According to Bezos, new executives are in for a culture shock in their first Amazon meetings. Instead of reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a “six-page memo that’s narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns.”

This technique is so powerful that Bezos reiterated his rule that PowerPoint is banned from executive meetings in his 2018 annual letter!

Gallo presents four arguments of why narrative storytelling in business is so much better than PowerPoint and its ilk.

  1. Our brains are hardwired for narrative

    Stories have been key to human development since the invention of language. Every story follows the same formula, with a very clearly defined beginning, middle and end. But beyond that every powerful story contains a moral – a lesson on what is prudent, right or wise. The moral is the key element in business stories and packaging the lesson you are trying to convey in a story makes it the most successful delivery platform. PowerPoint with its endless slides of bulleted lists chops up stories into tiny bits where the moral, if there even is one, is obscured. If you look up moral in a thesaurus its power and usage become very clear: the moral of the story: lesson, message, meaning, significance, signification, import, point, teaching. According to Gallo, the neuroscientists he has talked with experiments confirm that the human brain is wired for story telling. Keep that in mind the next time you need to convey a message to an audience!

  2. Stories are persuasive.

    To quote Gallo at length: Aristotle is the father of persuasion. More than 2,000 years ago he revealed the three elements that all persuasive arguments must have to be effective. He called these elements “appeals.” They are: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos is character and credibility. Logos is logic–an argument must appeal to reason. But ethos and logos are irrelevant in the absence of pathos–emotion. But jumping ahead a couple of thousand years to Jeff Bezos and his style of leadership, he stated “I’m actually a big fan of anecdotes in business,” and explained that the reason he reads customer emails and forwards them to the appropriate executive is because he believes customer anecdotes are more insightful than data. Like most large Internet companies, Amazon collects and analyzes huge volumes of data. But to Bezos while using metrics to measure success is elemental to Amazon, anecdotes and intuition are equally important. He says that “I’ve noticed when the anecdotes and the metrics disagree, the anecdotes are usually right,” he noted. “That’s why it’s so important to check that data with your intuition and instincts, and you need to teach that to executives and junior executives.

  3. Bullet points are the least effective way of sharing ideas.

    Jeff Bezos is not alone in disdaining the use of bullet points. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are just a few of the world’s most inspiring speakers who don’t use bullet points either. Why is that? What I teach my mentees is that their role as leaders of their ventures is to inspire their teams, investors, and partners – all stakeholders in their ventures. And bullet points simply do not inspire. As Gallo writes, “Simply put, the brain is not built to retain information that’s structured as bullet points on a slide. It’s well-known among neuroscientists that we recall things much better when when we see pictures of the object or topic than when we read text on a slide.Visuals are much, much more powerful than text alone. That’s why, if you choose to use slides, use more pictures than words–and don’t use bullet points. Ever.

    Stories inform, illuminate, and inspire–all the things entrepreneurs strive to do.  Carmine Gallo is a prolific author. He has four books on Amazon in addition to The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. But like all founders, you are pressed for time. But I urge you to read The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs – it is guaranteed to improve your effectiveness as a communicator.

 

 

A PR primer for DIYers

 

images

No, PR does not sound for Puerto Rico! It stands for public relations – an obsolete term in these days of social media and 24X7 cable TV news. A better term would be media relations. Other call it free media, or earned media, in contrast to paid advertising, such as buying ads on Facebook or Google.

It doesn’t surprise me that very few if any of the founders I mentor lack a deep understanding of the sales process. Why should students who major in engineering or science know anything about sales and marketing? But it is a mild surprise that founders leave media relations out of their business decks. Their idea of marketing is social media – either posting or buying ads on Facebook or both. This is necessary but far from sufficient.

But media relations is still a powerful marketing tool for startups. Yes readership of newspapers and magazines is dwindling but apps like Flipboard quote from them constantly. Keep in mind that the media machine focuses on news. Meaning what’s new? Journalists, bloggers, Twitter hounds, podcasters all the others in the mediasphere are on a constant hunt for what’s new. So make sure all your efforts fit. If it ain’t new, it ain’t news.

So here is a very basic PR primer:

Hire an agency. This is a $5k+/month option – one to think about if you have pulled in a massive Series A where this will be a rounding error in your income statement. Basically what you are paying for is access. I hired one firm at Software Arts only to have them stolen away by Mitch Kapor at Lotus. They were on a first name basis with the editors of all the major newspapers and magazines. As a result I ended up in a couple of articles in The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, at SmartWorlds where we had less financing than any startup you will find – roughly $00.00 – we managed to not only get an article in WJS, but a hand drawn illustration to go with it! My only regret was not buying the original from the artist. So the rest of this primer is strictly DIY. Your major costs will be your time and effort.

Know your audience and better yet, know the media they consume and where they hang out. There are three types of media: business media, technology media, and general news media. As a raw startup your best bet is technology media, as writers there are constantly looking for what’s new so they have something intriguing to write about. Take advantage of this fact.

Build your media list. Think of your media list as like your CRM system. Use whatever database you normally use – even Excel will work as a flat file db. Best case is when you are your customer, so you know what tech sites and blogs your customers frequent. If not use all your connections to start building a list of contacts in the media. You need to know the title, in my case Mentorphile; the writers associated with the publication, including freelancers who play an increasing role as print publications lay off workers but still have work to be done. Frequency of publication, for Mentorphile it varies, but for newspapers it’s usually daily, magazines are usually monthly. All contacts: web site, Twitter handle(s), Facebook, and LinkedIn contacts. And increasingly Instagram is becoming more important. Media lists are organic creatures, they should always be growing. Building your list is not a one and done effort. When conducting customer interviews be sure to ask them how they get their news. Don’t neglect your university’s alumni directory. Several of my MIT founders have made very good use of this source.

Create your presskit. In the old days when I started doing PR for the public library that employed me and when I moved into the startup world you need three items: a company backgrounder, a fact sheet (now an FAQ on your web site) and a bio list for all the company principles (now the About us page on your web site). So you get the idea: your web site is your presskit and a lot more.  While we are on the subject your first order of business in your media or PR effort is your web site. The contents and layout are so well known I won’t bother to repeat them here.

Industry analysts. Every investment bank has a team of analysts following the tech markets. While their focus has to be on public companies they are always writing about technology and where the trends are.  I don’t know of a directory of industry analysts, but Google is your friend here. Some digging should yield contacts worth pursing. There are also tech analyst firms, Forrester Research probably being the largest and most important, but there are many more, some specific to your slice of the market, be it bioengineering or medical devices.

Customer testimonials. Whatever you do please don’t get those testimonials from John B. in Peoria or Joan K.  in New Jersey. These look cheesy, like late night ads on the cable channels. If you can’t attach a full name, role and company forget about. But if you can make sure you have their permission in writing and don’t over do it.

Don’t forget podcasts. If you are a DIY media relation person you can easily get bogged down in just keeping up with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn et al. Not to speak of your company’s web site and blog. But podcasts are hot right now and podcasters are always on the look out for new people to interview. Start following the ones that focus on startups like How I built this by Guy Raz, one of my favorites, as well as others that focus on more general business and technology topics. NPR, Apple and many others have hundred of podcasts indexed for the search function.

Monthly newsletter. Exhausted yet? One way to keep in touch with your customers as well as attract new ones is to publish a monthly newsletter. It doesn’t need to only have news about your company; interesting observations about the state of your market are also good fodder.

It’s a very visual world. Like it or not but the world news is dominated by photos and videos. Visual communications can be very engaging, but also expensive – it will chew up your most valuable resource: time. So don’t be afraid to link to other’s work. Just give them credit and don’t do wholesale copying. All creators welcome inbound links so long as copyright is protected. For those with a visual bent Instagram and Yahoo are the best channels. In fact if you are prolific enough you can have your own channel on Yahoo. Too bad these channels weren’t around in the days of Software Arts. Dan Bricklin was a talented an prolific photographer and videographer. He still is I’m sure. But in the last century there weren’t any channels for visual communications – today we are overrun with them.

Webinars Webinars have become effective sales and marketing tools. I’d suggest you sign up for webinars both from your competitors and also from companies totally outside your field. Both activities will give you a good sense of what customers expect and what you will do to meet or exceed their expectations. Like virtually every other item in this blog post there are books that could be, and are, written. Remember, this is primer. You can’t do all these things are a DIYer, pick the the activities that yield the most engagement.

White papers. I don’t know how white papers got their name, after all most paper is white. Be that as it may in B2B markets white papers can help educate your market of line managers and their CIOs. White papers must be very well written and carefully tread the line between public information and your trade secrets. Regurgitating news of the day will turn people off, but your lawyers may squark if you start giving away your trade secrets. As recommended elsewhere, read some white papers in your market and others to get a feel for how much detail to include. Keep in mind these are aimed at your customers, not for the general public, so emphasizing your technology is fine, in fact it’s a must to attract readers.

A blog. Blogs take up a lot of effort. If you aren’t publishing regularly, aren’t presenting new and engaging content, don’t include interesting photos and video forget about it. But don’t forget about blogs. Sign up for blogs in your market and comment intelligently if not provocatively on those blogs. One trick I use is to set up Google Alerts for the topics I write about. That way I’m fed a daily stream of news I can comment upon. The biggest problem is if your search terms aren’t tightly defined you’ll be inundated with useless links.

Events. Speaking of presenting high absolute costs events also present high opportunity costs. Beyond local events there will be costs in time and money in attending events. There are conferences in your targeted market! You need to find them and add them to your media list. You will have to determine the ROTI of any event (Return on Time Invested). It’s best to start off with local events. Whether it’s events or sales I always advise my founders to try their pitch off-Broadway. They’ll learn a lot and failure won’t cost much. Once you have your pitch honed you can approach the big events. But start off trying to get on a panel on a local event, move up to a speaking slot, then score a keynote. Then it’s time to head for Broadway where you again start at the bottom and work you way up. However, there is one very effective trip I learned from my days in business development. If you are working with a name company they will often give you a little bit of space in their booth to show off your product that works on their platform. That way you’ll only have to cover travel costs. Actually exhibiting should be left to when you land a significant Series A round. One rule of thumb I used: would I be conspicuous by my absence at trade show X or conference Y. If not exhibiting here probably isn’t worth it. But events can be a great sales channel –  one place where you can talk with a lot of potential customers and channel partners.

Become a thought leader. I’ve never managed this myself, but as an avid consumer of print and online media I see the same names come up again and again for interviews and quotes. If you are working in AI, big data, robotics, crytocurrencies or any other major trend it may be difficult to compete with entrenched thought leaders from consulting firms, the press, hot shot companies, academic stars and analysts from investment banks. So I hope you aren’t in the latest hot market – that will give you the opportunity to emerge as a thought leader before it does get hot.

I’m sure I’ve left out something important. In fact I know I’ve left out TV and radio. You are going to have to be a grand slam hitter to make even cable TV. Local radio is doable, but it doesn’t have much reach and it’s unlikely you will draw much of an audience. I will update this post if there is something PR DIYers need to know that I’ve left out.  And keep in mind, there’s lot of important writing being done on virtually all of these media relations topics.

Finally I will strongly recommend Inbound Marketing: Attract, Engage, and Delight Customers Online by the founders of HubSpot, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. After reading their book and talking with your peers you may want to become a customer of their’s.

You too can communicate like a Nobel prize winner!

feynman diagram

My friend Art Bardige, a masterful verbal communicator, whose presentations are compelling combinations of words and images that I wish all my mentees would emulate, sent me the article Learning From the Feynman Technique by Taylor Pipes, published on Medium. If you aren’t familiar with Medium, I recommend it highly as a wonderful source of well-written articles on a wide variety of subjects, but with a very strong concentration on technology.

Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.  He was famous for his ability to communicate complex scientific materials clearly, concisely, and in a totally engaging way. His lectures were legendary. He was called the Great Explainer. Founders need to do a lot of explaining: to their staff, to investors, to partners, to the media.

Albert Einstein attended Feynman’s first talk as a graduate student, and Bill Gates was so inspired by his pedagogy that he called Feynman, “the greatest teacher I never had.”

Using the Feynman Technique will improve your communications to all audiences.

The Feynman Technique of Communications:

Identify the subject 

Create a note. There are lots of great note taking apps that Feynman never got a chance to use. I use Evernote myself, mainly because it syncs amongst my iMac, iPhone and iPad and it’s easy to add material from the Web or from FlipBoard, which I use to keep up with tech news. I highly recommend FlipBoard. It aggregates information from hundreds of magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc. You can personalize it by choosing just the sources and topics that interest you. And like Evernote it runs on all my devices. Flipboard has an elegant, magazine style layout, and it’s very easy to use. Once you “create a note” each time you find a new source of information add it to the note. Of course Feynman lived before the information age, where we have to learn to be very selective to avoid information overload.

Teach it to a child

Children don’t understand jargon or a lexicon of dense technical or business vocabulary. You need to write clearly and simply. If you can teach it to a child you can teach it to anyone, successfully. Children don’t understand jargon. When we speak without jargon, it frees us from hiding behind knowledge we don’t have. Big words and fluffy “business speak” cripples us from getting to the point and passing knowledge to others.

Be brief. People’s attention span seems to be shrinking with each generation. And children can’t understand long, involved presentations.

Identify your knowledge gaps

This I find far more difficult than the author. How do you know what you don’t know? But I guess Feynman could do it! And when he found something he didn’t know he would go back to source material (lecture notes, ideas, etc) to fill in those gaps, adding it to his note.

Organize + simplify + Tell a story

Feynman told stories and you should too. Go back to the idea of teaching an idea to a child. You need to simplify, simplify and simplify yet again. Use analogies to help tell your story. Here’s an example of how Feynman communicated a core idea of science:

All things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

Use diagrams

Feynman relied heavily on his cartoonish diagrams, obviously hand drawn. And even in this age of computer-enhanced communications you too can use hand drawn diagrams to communicate. Explaining the essentials of particle physics is extremely difficult. Before Feynman’s diagrams that earned him a Nobel Prize, there wasn’t a clear way to explain their meaning.

Using the Feynman technique will help you to dramatically improve your communications, be they presentations, blog posts, white papers or what we used to call memos.

 

 

 

Diagraming the ecosystem of your market

ecosystem

One of the exercises I recommend to my mentees is to diagram the ecosystem of their market. The above is a diagram of the Digital Health System from Fortune magazine, graphic by Nicolas Rapp. The are multiple types of nodes in a market ecosystem, but standard ones include:

  • Your product or service
  • Accessory products
  • Complementary products or services
  • The end user
  • The economic decision maker
  • Influencers
  • Distributers
  • Retail (offline) channels
  • Online channels
  • ManufacturersSuppliers
  • Competitors
  • Strategic partners
  • Investors
  • Local, state, and federal agencies
  • Media (writers and analysts who cover your market)
  • Field sales reps
  • Telemarketers
  • Sales engineers

The goal of the exercise is to understand the complementary and competitive forces that the company faces, to avoid being blindsided, for example, by a state or federal regulation that governs the manufacture of your product.

The exercise also helps to spot nodes in the network that can slow down or even halt the flow of product to customer.

Instead of merely keeping a contact database, the diagram of the ecosystem shows relationships amongst the nodes. Keeping this ecosystem up to date is an issue however. First how will you know, for example, that a new VC focused on your market has just been formed? That one of your suppliers is in danger of going out of business? That a new low cost competitor is on the horizon?

All these questions and more fall under the domain of business intelligence. Most startups are rightfully focused on building and selling their products, not tracking business intelligence.

The best person to keep up such a map of the ecosystem is the product manager, who works closely with engineering, marketing, sales, and support. Each functional group should own responsibility for feeding information into the product manager.

My first exposure to business intelligence was the PIF system at Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. Unfortunately I didn’t keep a copy. But as I recall the Product Information Form was used by sales reps to report on publishing opportunities in the field. For example, a professor who was interested in publishing a book with A-W. These PIFs were sent to the appropriate editor to be followed up on. This was a paper and pencil system. Today there are CRM systems from Salesforce and other to capture, aggregate, and analyze customer information.

The market ecosystem diagram  is a good complement to the Business Model Canvas.

There a multiple uses for the ecosystem diagram: presentation to the Board of Directors, use in pitching to investors, orienting new employees, and periodic review of the companies strategy.

Whether you create this diagram as a one-time exercise to demonstrate the knowledge of your market to your mentors, decide to maintain it, or move to a business intelligence software platform, it should at minimum prove a useful exercise for the management team, to help make sure everyone is in sync on what the nodes are in the network and how they affect the company and its products.