7 schizophrenic traits every startup CEOs must adopt

CEO PSYCHOSIS The role of CEO is often described in gauzy, glowing terms espousing passion mingled with ambition that runs deep enough to change the world. All this noble ambition belies the uncomfortable reality that the inner world of a start-up CEO is often a constant state of conflicting realities that can distract from the mission at hand.

This list reflects my personal experience as the CEO of a social commerce startup. I can tell you – the dual reality can be disconcerting at first but after a while it gives you a certain edge that makes you tougher and smarter the longer you stay at it.

1) Your vision must be out there enough to generate investor interest but not so out there so as no one knows what you’re talking about. We’ve heard it from the pundits a lot – be different, don’t just iterate on another idea. Gotcha but then when you truly do go out on the limb – you may not get investor interest because you’ve too far out on that very limb they asked you climb out on.

2) Being 100% committed to do the best you can do but realizing that it might not be the best that can be done. As CEO, people want to believe you know more than you do – especially if you are chartering new territory. Unfortunately, you know that your best is probably not close to the best that can be done. You have to hope that it good enough to get by.

3) Truly believing in your vision yet living with the reality that the odds are definitely against you. I heard Brad Feld of Foundry Group remark recently that they get about 1,000 pitches a year but only invest in about a dozen ventures. So do the math. Your chances of getting funded are very small and even you do get funded – your chances of success are not in your favor. It’s a miracle anyone actually takes the plunge.

4) You are constantly recruiting even though can never afford most of the people you would love to hire. I learned never ever recruit when you urgently need to fill a job. That increases the chances for a bad hire because hiring in a moment of need won’t bring the best candidate forward – it will merely bring the most convenient one to the table. Instead, you should be recruiting ALL THE TIME. The trick is keeping the candidates you want on simmer until you are ready.

5) You must be a perennial optimist yet become exquisitely good at “productive worrying.” The grind of a startup requires a positive, upbeat attitude to get the team through the inevitable tough times. Yet, a Pollyanna attitude won’t get the job done to overcome the inevitable stumble that’s to come. For that eventuality, it best to be prepared with a Plan B and a Plan C too. In my case, I’m such a good worrier that my Plan B’s have Plan B’s (ya – I know – that’s extreme worrying).

6) You want to be fully transparent but realize there are some things you should NEVER EVER tell your VC. There is great serenity in knowing that you have been totally open and trustworthy in all your dealings with your people, your customers and your investors. Despite that – never confuse transparency with “true confessions” when dealing with investors. You need to convey confidence with a healthy dash of cautious optimism. Keep the deeper “what if’s” worries to yourself unless you have a specific ask of your VC.

7) People call you “Brilliant” and a “Visionary” but you feel like you are faking it. If you are a half articulate and just passionate enough – people will use the “B” or “V” word around you a lot. They hang on your every word waiting for the inevitable pearls of wisdom to trip off your tongue. Yet, often people confuse “Brilliance” with deep experience and a “Visionary” for someone who has a good grasp of history. Truth be told though, often you feel like you are just muddling through. That’s OK because if you admit you don’t know then others can step in to help. Otherwise the visionary, a.k.a. prophet must always have the answers. Not.

There you have it – the seven habits that are vital for any startup CEO.  I guess ya’ need just a touch of crazy to pull it off.

The Surprised Entrepreneur turns Rebel Entrepreneur

What makes a rebel.

What makes a rebel.

“Judy,” a sweet tech project manager said to me recently after I discussed some of the gaps in the social marketing ecosystem “You are on a crusade.”

I didn’t see that one coming so it stopped me dead in my tracks. What crusade was that I wondered? I probed but she dodged answering me. The word crusade is laden with meaning so it stuck with me – what had I said to give her that impression?

In hindsight it seems obvious but in the moment, I was oblivious to the shift in my thinking from simply being a Surprised Entrepreneur (as I posted here) to becoming a Rebel Entrepreneur.

My cause was simple – to put the human element back into the business of marketing that has been platform’d to a near digital death. I am driven to re-infuse marketing with the sense of wonder, joy and creativity that I had the good fortune to revel in during my earlier career days.

In those ancient days (one generation after Mad Men but before the Internet revolution had really hit) we could put hearts into our work because there were few tools or platforms or technologies to guide the work. It was pure creativity and smarts. It was hard to measure the effectiveness of the much of the work but you knew your work made a difference when the company did better – jobs were created and bonuses were happily doled out.

Over the years, technology improved how we deployed marketing but we continued to be driven by our nobler motivations to create great marketing that improved people’s lives. We knew we could make a difference.

But there’s been a shift in the industry over the past 3 years. Marketing, especially social marketing has become a tech-heavy exercise of manipulating retargeting platforms, or reward systems or algorithmically based big data platforms. Social marketing is reduced to a conversation about content syndication or sentiment analysis.

So it’s no surprise that over that period of time, inextricably, I have seen tech and platforms taking the joy and the nobility out of the system. I have become overwhelmed by the supremacy of marketing platforms over serving people and algorithms over inspiration.

My sense of alarm was quite publicly aired in the digital pages of Ad Age and Huffington Post. I ranted at Facebook when I felt defeated at using Facebook productively. I admitted frustration at the black-box techno-jargon wave that swept over us marketers drowning us in confusion. I’ve even had the chutzpah to question the funding strategies of VCs who are basing their investments on marketing principles that simply don’t apply anymore. But mostly I challenged the 20 something CEOs who created marketing platforms that are long on cool but short on practical application for real marketers.

In the process, I have been:

  • Flamed by Macboys and called a hack (look up “Judy Shapiro” and “mac security”)
  • Accused of being techno-phobic and capable of only kitchen related work, ideally pregnant at the same time thus preventing me from ever writing offending articles ever again
  • Tarred and feathered as an “old line” marketer unable to keep up with the iteration savvy tech guys
  • Harangued for questioning if the “Content as king” model was sustainable
  • And very nearly digitally lynched when I first suggested in 2010 that perhaps Facebook had jumped the shark.

And so against all odds – here I am, founder and CEO of a social tech company, readying the BETA launch of our new network called Eden for Q1.

Against all odds, this little venture that started a year ago will be introducing a different type of social marketing framework that is a based on an “opt-in” paradigm. We are going up against the big “push based” social marketing platforms and networks. It is an uphill but noble fight. In our vision, Eden is a place where users control the action – how they see content or which brands they interact with. It is a reversal of the; “It is our platform so you have to play by our ever-changing rules” social network that dominates social marketing today.

Against all odds, we managed to secure funding including from an early stage VC for which we are eternally grateful. We’ve created relationships with agencies ready to sell Eden to their clients and we’ve sealed meaningful partnerships that help us gain access to the highest levels within publishing and brands.

Against all odds, as one woman in her 50’s, I am privileged to be joined by a community of seasoned marketers to help in this crusade. Our collective goal is to right the marketing ship listing dangerously to one side from the weight of platforms and big data. I can’t express my gratitude to this brave league of fellow crusaders other than to give them full credit for their invaluable role in our noble adventure. I give them a place of honor in our company’s history:

  • Peter Hubbell, CEO of BoomAgers and former Saatchi Board member. www.boomagers.com
  • Griffin Stenger, a founding partner of Concept Farm, a leading social marketing agency [Crain’s]. www.conceptfarm.com
  • Robyn Streisand, Founder and CEO of The Mixx Group – a branding agency and an early investor in engageSimply. www.themixxnyc.com.
  • David Hoffman whose career spans four decades as a film producer and corporate strategic communicator. Wikipedia’s simply calls David: “One of America’s veteran documentary filmmakers.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hoffman;
  • John Bowman, was Exec VP Strategy at Saatchi working on their premier brands and is now authoring a book about his great Grandfather, Archibald Stark Van Orden http://theassassinsassassin.com/about/
  • George Collins, a long time database expert and CEO of Research & Response – a database management consultancy. http://www.rresp.com/
  • Mark Bonchek, Founder of Orbit + Co whose strategic consultancy is “creating a new direction in business by shifting the relationship of individuals and institutions from PUSH to PULL.” http://www.thinkorbit.com/

Against the odds, I have been able to attract a seasoned management team of  marketing practitioners who had to “build it” after the consultants talked about loving it but conveniently left when the real work began. They were the ones who built those first generation eCommerce sites and created the principles that good UE designers use today. Our journalists understand SEO and our artists are offering their images for free all in an effort to be a part in the creation of an alternate social marketing reality – a fresh start called Eden.

So against all odds, I find I have become a Rebel Entrepreneur – so strange especially given my training, temperament and age. The potential high rewards of being a rebel all too often comes at a high price and we’ve seen our share of deals gone bad, betrayal by trusted colleagues and funding plans gone awry (Sandy was devastating to the startup community).

And yet, despite the odds, we are close to the launch of our network.

So I invite you all over to Bit Rebel to experience this journey with us as we sprint to Eden’s launch in Q1. Celebrate our highs and feel the unnatural lows that are endemic to startups. Share our anxiety as our burn rate increases but our funding outlook seems further out (we are doing a second round of seed funding now). Take a peek behind the startup curtain, see what’s really going on and help shape what happens. The success of Eden will be a triumph of us marketing practitioners like web designers, SEO geeks and developers over algorithmic feats of IP muscle.

Our mission is noble and our cause true.  Come join us.

I guess like any good crusade, we need a flag and a manifesto. Stay tuned – I am just learning how to be a rebel. Kinda of exhilarating actually. But

Judy Shapiro

P.S. My rebellion gets its own website: http://judyshapiro.wix.com/rebel-entreprenuer. Viva Le Rebellion.    

A time of gratitude.

The life in a startup world is intense.

Every event takes on qualities of epic proportions. Good meetings become the makings of great deals. Great meetings are like pixie dust creating a confection of billion dollars exist fantasies.

Conversely, every stumble hurts far more than the reality of the injury. Confidence gets shaken and once that is done – game over.

So in the pressure cooker of the startup world, losing perspective is a near universal experience. In the race to launch your venture before funds or faith run out, the focus is on the next milestone or the next deal you MUST close to keep the doors open.

While the grind can overcome our sensibilities, almost nothing will distract the startup CEO from their near myopic focus.

Almost nothing that is until Mother Nature forces herself onto your consciousness.

Sandy disrupted our inner sense of safety as it tore its way through the Tri-State area. The Northeast is not accustomed to a full natural disaster that was Sandy. We are used to being a terrorist target but now we also have to accept that we are as susceptible as any other area to natural disasters too. It is almost too hard to fathom.

But in the destruction and the internal turmoil comes a renewed sense of perspective. In the seismic shift of how bad things can get – a balanced appreciation for all we have asserts itself powerfully as though to ensure it can withstand the inevitable reverting back to the “not normal normal” that characterizes startups.

In the chaotic tumult caused by tress falling houses and tsunami level waters, some very true principles emerge as powerful counter forces to the forces of Nature.

1) Live widely by giving of yourself largely.

2) Remind yourself to be grateful for the chance to be grateful. Where there is life and health – everything is possible.

3) Be gracious to those in need.

4) Pay special attention to needs of the larger community. How we support our community is a true mark of our character.

5) Act as though your every action is being recorded and watched.

This tragedy will change many of us forever.  My hope is that the change of gratitude is a permanent one.

Judy Shapiro

The “turning point” moment that harkens a new beginning.

The life of an entrepreneur is an emotionally volatile one. The ups and downs are extreme because often so much is at risk.

As a newbie entrepreneur, I was especially battered recently by the wild swings of bad news and good news so as to make me ill with startup sea sickness.  Yet, as I began to get my sea legs; slowly the nausea was replaced with a serene inevitability that this little venture might, against all odds, make it.

It’s not arrogance that colors my thinking. Nor is it an irrational faith in my brilliant thinking.

But it is the realization that if I make it will be because of the community around me. The vision for Eden was to create a way for consumer’s to create a trusted web space starting with Eden Network – a social network of topic based communities that serve high search but badly served topics (e.g. karaoke).

The sheer audacity of my attempting a tech startup, in retrospective, was stunning. As a marketer, the notion of being a tech CEO was about as likely as me going bungee jumping any time soon. Sure – perhaps the opportunity may come up but it’s unlikely I would ACTUALLY do it.

Yet this venture was born of pure passion – actually passionate frustration at how there so much brilliant marketing tech innovation going on and a total lack of operational practicality in being able to use much of it.

But while frustration goes a long way towards driving me forward – it doesn’t make me a seasoned entrepreneur. I’ve made many rookie mistakes but I am encouraged to continue mainly because of the support of the community around me.

And because of the encouragement of my community, despite all the pitfalls and pratfalls, within the last week, I sense a fundamental shift.

I turned a corner.

Different key pieces are coming together in a way I could have never expected; brands are excited to participate in Eden Network; agencies are anxious to offer new social marketing options that’s easy for them to buy and monetize. Key management holes are being filled with ease and partners are approaching me with increasing volume making me dizzy with potential.

My community of friends and colleagues are the foundation upon which this venture rests. It is an honor to have such loyal and supportive friends. It is also humbling and inspiring to be sure I don’t let them down. Just a few weeks ago, I felt like I was in a free fall dive and now I am buoyed by a sense of “knowing” that we have a shot at making it.

The Jewish New Year is about to commence and for thoughtful souls, it is a time of acknowledgement and gratitude to all that we have been given.

In that spirit, it’s up to me to be sure that the community knows the depth of my gratitude.   May we be privileged to share a year of peace and awareness at how precious each one of us is within the community of humanity.

Judy Shapiro

Why the “cha ching” of the $1B Instagram sale might actually bankrupt Boomer parents.

By now, most of you have heard of Facebook’s $1Billion sale of Instagram, an app developed by a bunch of young 20 somethings that lets users post photos. Today, Instagram has about 50 million users which works out to about $20/ person. “Cha ching” for anyone involved …

Punditry aside about whether it is a shrewd deal for Facebook – instead of “cha ching” – all I hear is hissing as the air escapes from Boomers’ retirement funds.

It is alarming and here’s what I mean.

You see, I have worked with tech ventures for over a dozen years, starting at Bell Labs New Ventures and continuing to this very day. In that time, I have worked with many startups, often gratis, because it’s so rewarding when my expertise can really make a difference in the early days of a venture. CEOs have the product vision but they rarely have marketing know-how to get the product to market.  That’s where I step in. I help startups assess their market potential so they can monetize.

And in the dozen years or so I have been doing this, I see an alarming new twist to the never ending parade of venture dreams that haunts me. I liken it to the disturbing “Gold Rush” era where many more prospecting failures bankrupted folks versus the rare, outlier successes.

In today’s day and age – here is how it goes down.

Johnny or Jane are in college and – wham – they hatch an idea for a company often inspired by the innovation incubators on every campus. The idea grabs their passionate attention because at least they can try and make it happen versus trying to get a job which is tough and depressing.

Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents are happy their kids have found something that inspires them, so they cover more of their kids’ living expenses so the kids can commit themselves to their “passion.”

After about three or four months, their idea has some substance and the kids realize they need some money to create a “demo”. Of course, there is no cogent business plan (if a business plan even exists) but Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents kick in the $10,000 or $20,000 to create said demo –  on top of the extra expenses they are already incurring to keep their kids in school. (This is when you can start to hear the air escaping from Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents 401K accounts!)

A couple of months later said demo is “almost done” but not quite because the kids did not really do a business plan and as they worked, the idea kept changing (translation = more cost). “But I only need another $20,000 to finish it off. Then it will take off because it is so cool. Please …” Again, as we would expect, Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents step in and shell out what their kids need.

Slowly but surely, over time, as their kids refine their idea; there is steady attrition of the parents’ savings plans because startups need constant funds. This tableau is playing out again and again and I know it because I have met too many Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents in the last few months who have depleted their savings by $150,000 or more to help their kids live their passion.

It is frightening to see since most new ventures are “high risk” in the best of circumstances, making them wholly unsuitable investments for most any Boomer given their proximity to retirement.  And if that’s not bad enough, it’s even worse once you understand that kids’ ventures, proportionately, have a higher mortality rate because they are borne of 90% enthusiasm and 10% practicality despite their parents’ 100% support 100% of the time.

This is a dangerous combination – especially in frothy times like ours where opportunities for kids are limited yet perversely, the potential for untold wealth is tantalizingly possible.

And this brings me back my point. The Instagram sale was an aberration – a fluke – an outlier event – possible because of a unique set of circumstances. Yet it infused a new level of Gold Rush fervor into the passionate hearts of ambitious young entrepreneurs despite the reality that the chances of striking it rich today are about equal to striking it rich in the Gold Rush of 1848.  And just as sadly, their loving parents are funding these ventures despite the improbable odds.

So while many people hear the “cha ching” of $1B, all I hear is the air escaping from parent’s retirement funds. It is not a happy sound. Not at all.

Judy Shapiro

P.S. – I am posting this as my personal Mother’s Day present to Mrs. SupportiveParent. Be careful – please!

The surprised entrepreneur – The last moment I can allocate GRATITUDE Grants

I am surprised how fast shares go in a startup company that people are excited about. Our plan is mostly done and the investors have begun to make overtures. My total ownership has been happily whittled away to include the wonderful talent this company will need.

I gratefully allocated shares to our president who is deeply experienced as both an entrepreneur and a VC. I was deeply honored when our CTO, who gets hundreds of business ideas in a year but only considers “one or two,” signed up.

Ever so carefully, I identified the key talent we would need and one by one each person on this amazing team is coming onboard with their allocation. Yet until we officially close our first round (scheduled for February), I’ve still got ability to allocate shares pretty much as I want.

But not for long.  

Now, much to my surprise, I realized how very quickly my ability to make unequivocal awards of shares will be gone. Now is the last moment I have to express my gratitude to people who have believed in my ability to create a new way forward in marketing.

So with the urgency imposed on me by our first formal funding round, I have barely a few weeks to share these gratitude grants.

I get to tell my dear gentle creative storyteller, a giant in the business of video, how valuable his lesson was in the meaning of video to create a powerful experience.

I finally get to ‘give-back’ to my “hard core” (hehe) entrepreneur, investor and civil liberties activist friend. She taught me perhaps one of the most important lessons in this space – the focus needs to be about creating shared experiences using content rather than solely focusing on the content. It is a powerful mind-bending insight that has deeply shaped how engageSimply develops its concept.

I can go back and reconnect with some of my ex-colleagues and CEOs who, over the years, inspired me, instructed me when I just didn’t get it and generally invested in me by teaching me ever so patiently. I can’t imagine how I would be doing this without their support and faith.

In the end, each gratitude grant is my way to repay the gift of confidence that each person so unselfishly gave me. It helped me turn a blind eye to the limitations imposed by stereotypes about what a tech CEO looks like (age or gender) or should do.

Over the next few weeks, I will have the distinct privilege and (one time only) opportunity to award these gratitude grants – without justification or encumbrance. To those of you on the list – stay tuned.

Lots of people track “firsts” (e.g. first investor, first alpha) – I want to note the “lasts.” I want to acknowledge these last few precious moments when I have full control of my company and I can still allocate equity as I want. This privilege is fleeting likely not to be ever repeated.

I best be sure I don’t leave anyone out. What a happy chore.

Judy Shapiro

My New Year’s wish to you all.

May 2012 be filled with dreams that let your grasp be further than your reach.

The Surprised Entrepreneur – Why Me?

These posts about my journey with this new venture are often characterized as a surprise. In fact, it’s a surprise on so many levels that the unlikeliness of this enterprise is, in itself, a pretty big surprise.

So in this sea of surprises – the biggest surprise rests in the unlikeliness of me as the one to coalesce this vision; only useful to ponder so that we know what makes us different from many other marketing tech companies out there today.

Clearly I am an outlier given my age, gender, training and temperament causing even the casual observer to wonder: “Why me?”

On the surface, one could point to my diversity of experience spanning B2B and B2C marketing. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in a diversity of industries spanning advertising (NWAyer), technology (Bell Labs, CloudLinux), software (CA, Comodo) and telecommunications (AT&T, Lucent, and Paltalk). The combination means I have a quirky understanding of how to look at a marketing situation from the brand point of view as well as the end-user perspective at the same time.

O.K. – That begins to answer the question but doesn’t wholly get at it since many of my colleagues are tech savvy too. While they express curiosity about the new marketing technology, they aren’t going off and creating new businesses.  Instead, most of my friends leading marketing agencies or marketing departments (like I was) are banging their heads against the marketing brick wall trying to figure out how to incorporate the “new” technologies into the “old” system profitably. In the chaos of “creative destruction” (a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter), my peers can’t see the marketing forest for the financial trees.

So again I ask; Why me?

In digging deeper, I then realize that my experience with communications networks gave me a unique understanding about social networks. Both types of networks serve a similar purpose – the efficient transport of a call or a marketing message from the network edge (the initiation point) through the switching stations along its way to its ultimate destination.

Side by Side Comparison: Telecom vs Social Media Network

It also became clear to me that as social networks evolved into a powerful marketing network – it urgently needed system architects. But I saw no hint of any serious understanding of the issue or how to address it – not at the agencies or the social network companies or even the armies of consultants who offer insights but few tactical road maps.

When at first I noted this architecture gap back in 2010, I wondered out loud in Ad Age about the impracticality of integrating new technologies into existing marketing systems in posts like “Five Trends That Marked TechCrunch Disrupt Conference 2010.”  Then, my wonderment continued unabated at the lack of system attention when I wrote: “Has Facebook jumped the Shark”. Actually, I was writing mostly in the hopes of uncovering the technology companies that were focused on solving this system gap. I knew someone had to it…

But all I heard was deafening silence. I seemed rather alone in recognizing the utter futility of trying to retro-fit the older marketing system with the newer technologies. The sheer tonnage of all these new marketing “platforms;” so defined because they incorporated some combination of the mighty  local, social, mobile triad; were built by technologists (usually under 30) and not marketers. This meant they were long on cool but pathetically short on practicality. Yet as slim as many of these businesses seemed, they were getting valuations disproportionate to their real world usefulness (think Groupon), further highlighting the underlying weakening of the business of marketing.  It was an ominous echo from a decade ago.

This explains “Why me.” It takes depth of experience to see beyond the buzz to the potent marketing model evolving. I wanted a role in that evolution largely because it seemed few of us with any real world marketing experience were doing the heavy lifting of operationalizing the brilliance of all this new technology.

The journey to understand “Why me” is useful in that it defines the business we are in – creating the system upon which the rich marketing innovation engine can flourish.  It’s a surprise that it is me – but perhaps, this is the sweetest surprise of all.

Judy Shapiro

The surprised entrepreneur (entry #5):

The great talent hunt yields an unexpected gift that keeps giving. 

Hiring is tough on all companies.

Hiring is brutal for new companies.

One bad hire could spell irrevocable disaster.  You have to pick people who can get the job done today, have a passion for the work we are doing, be a mensche, be creative and be just quirky enough to add to the color of our community. But I also know enough though to know, practically speaking, there’s a thin line between a “quirky” and a high maintenance team member.

No wonder it scares me to death.  No wonder I put if off. I’d rather have oral surgery. Honest.

But in the past few weeks, I could avoid the truth no longer. I needed to balance out our team and I needed to find the perfect tech architect. In my view, every tech venture needs three architects – the vision architect,  the business architect and the tech/ product architect. Sometimes this is all one person, but not in our case.

So with a deep breath  - I began what I thought would be a painful process.  I was wrong.  In fact, I’ve learned much to my surprise, that the hiring process was the best gift I could give my business because I got to learn about the very essence of my venture itself.

I began the process hesitantly knowing that the type of talent I wanted can be highly selective about where they go. Quickly, I was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with the head product guy at a large, very cool social media company. He was thinking of leaving and he graciously agreed to hear my story. Then a few days later through another contact, I was put in touch with an “ex-Microsoft guy who was looking for his next project.”   I talked my heart out to convince him to see the vision.

Both of them gave generously of their time and advice. Both reminded me how much I love to talk to developers. I love how their individual creativity is reflected in their choice of languages. I love the quirky, binary-colored way they see the world.

But in talking to them during this process, I also realized I could not really express my vision with the technological crispness to satisfy these folks. I was horrified and I knew from experience, any hint of uncertainty would send the best talented developers running from the virtual room.

It was a surprisingly painful lesson I needed to learn. I thought I had created the elevator pitch suitable to satisfy any audience. I was wrong. I thought long about how they reacted and it was then I had a breakthrough. All of a sudden I could see where I had gone wrong in how I described the platform, and thus the venture. Through my openly sharing with talented people during this process, I vastly improved our architectural vision.

I confess. I would never achieved this revelation on my own or even with the team I have now.  My aversion to hiring could have deprived the company of this precious gift of clarity of technological vision.

I’ll end with a note of gratitude. To any candidate we are talking to now – my deepest thanks. To all future candidates – I can’t wait to meet :).

Judy Shapiro

P.S. – Wanna help architect the next big gig – (hey – optimism is part of job req’s :). We are working on creating The Trust Web. Interested? Drop me a line.

 

Trust, authenticity and transparency in the online world.

Why definitions matter.

A few minutes a day, I indulge in a Tweet treat where I scan my relatively small network (I only follow about 75 people) to see what’s going on. In barely five minutes I can get a clear snapshot of the topics both broad and specific to my work.

Yesterday (March 7), during my mid-day Twitter snack, I catch this tweet from Klout’s PhilipHotchkiss -“@Scobleizer unleashes on Steve Cheney in strong defense that FB Comments promotes authenticity http://scoble.it/fkicaJ

Kinda of provocative since I’ve never heard Robert Scoble (well respected tech blogger) “unleashing” on anyone. He will disagree with folks – but “unleash!”  Well that’s another kettle of fish so I checked it out. The more I read, the more I wanted to respond thoughtfully – not just scream and shout.

The “unleashing” it seems was prompted by a blog posting from Steve Cheney  entitled; How Facebook is Killing Your Authenticity. It provocatively opens: “Facebook’s sheer scale is pushing it in a new direction, one that encroaches on your authenticity.” He explains that since more and more sites are using Facebook’s commenting platform it is likely to blunt people’s authenticity because they will naturally censor themselves given the broad audience. “The problem with tying internet-wide identity to a broadcast network like Facebook is that people don’t want one normalized identity, either in real life, or virtually.”

So far – I was agreeing with Mr Cheney.

But then he states: “A uniform identity defies us.” And this is where I must jump off the bandwagon because that’s just not the case. In the real world, we have one identity with all the attributes in there which we naturally adjust to the situation. Some attributes we apply to our legal ID, other attributes for social situations and so on. One identity – just different expressions of it.

The trouble is, in fact, we have few technologies to achieve this layered equivalent in the binary, digital world where we can only have one identity. It’s not that Facebook is bad for looking to be the singular identity but it is a mismatch between how we want to live and what technology can let us do – especially given Facebook’s reach.

IMHO Cheney confuses “authenticity” (as in a “real and unbiased POV”) with a verified identity which is an entirely a different point.

Scoble then disagreed utterly with Cheney with his opening salvo: “Steve Cheney has never written something that so pissed me off than the blog he wrote today stating that Techcrunch’s switch to Facebook comments has killed authenticity.” Tough words indeed (hence Hotchkiss’ “unleashing” reference).

He goes on to explain that today “authenticity” means being identifiable and having the courage to go public with your opinions – no matter the cost. I found myself agreeing with Scoble here especially when he highlighted the idea that the medium and the message are merging in the social/ digital space. He explains quite correctly that the exact same message can be uttered by two different people which makes all the difference as to its “authenticity.” This is very true and a point many marketers continue to miss.

But despite the fact that, generally speaking, I agree with Scoble’s mandate to have the courage to be “authentic,” IMHO he seems to argue the wrong point. “Being truly anonymous and untrackable on the Web is very difficult.” is one reason why he argues everyone should be authentic.  Also true but that argument speaks to the notion of transparency not authenticity which was Cheney’s point.  Scoble’s heartfelt lengthy explanation about how people should be “authentic” by using their real name is really important but frankly not really about authenticity.  You can be “authentic” and still not be transparent.

Then, as read ALL the comments and the cross comments, I could see this general confusion around terms like trust, authenticity, transparency. Everyone seemed to toss these terms around as though they were synonyms – they are not. And with so much unleashing going on largely because everyone was cross talking – there little possibility of understanding.

So, let’s try and nail down some basic, common definitions of key terms (these definitions are grounded in my years spent in security software at AT&T, Bell Labs, Lucent, Computer Associates and Comodo. You may quibble with my terms – so feel free to suggest alternatives):

Transparency – Typically, this is used to describe a lack of “cloaking” where we hide behind a fake persona. When we let people see our identity, we say our identity is “transparent.” The rub here though is that there is no “standard” identity that we can use to simultaneously enable transparency, allow us to adapt our identity to the situation and do it safely while balancing desire/ need for privacy. Just ask Facebook. This is easy to say –but hard to achieve technologically.

One approach is around creating a “transparency layer” where a single signon (SSO) platform could apply. Lots of people are in this space actually (FB notwithstanding) but I would argue that Twitter has emerged as the most effective version of SSO today. I can control (sorta) what Twitter has about me and thus manage what percolates out there about me. Not ideal by a long shot but the other contenders are still quite early in their development (e.g. Diaspora).

Authenticity – Ah this is a tar pit of interpretation, a mucky business altogether. It usually means that a person can be vetted or an opinion is real and unbiased. Well, that is certainly riddled with subjective interpretation further complicated by time and context. Within this bucket, we encounter challenges of author disclosures, planted “customer” feedback and the trolls who are hired by competitors to disrupt user forums.

The technologies to address this are diverse and fragmented and include encryption, digital authentication, e.g. digital signatures, SSL security and  two factor authentication typically used in banking security. Common to this “authenticity layer” is that it would be activated when interactions “on the edge” have a high transactional or information risk factor. Given its relative high infrastructure cost, these technologies are reserved for relatively high requirements authentication requirements as would be needed in ecommerce.

Trust - This is the hardest to achieve in the online world because many of the cues we instinctively use in the real world are gone. If we see a store in a mall versus a stand on the side of the road – it utterly shapes how much we are willing to risk in the transaction. That’s what makes trust so hard to duplicate in the online world since the online world is very “flat” – just a bunch of pixels on a screen – little context or other reference points we normally use.

Here is where we can create a “Trust layer” to fill the context void – a middleware layer (Cloud based or not) that delivers trust indicators – digital identity management, content verification, real time feedback and social connectivity vetting at the precise moment of need. This is a sophisticated level of interaction that has a way to go before we can create this type of online trust.

At this point, you may be tempted to dismiss this whole post as a semantic exercise. But that would be a mistake because with proper framing of the problem – we can begin to see solutions.  We also can see how our gaps are impacting how all this connectivity technology is evolving today.

So what’s the real prize here beyond the English lesson?

For me the end goal is something I call The Trust Web.  Trust is the foundation of any productive civilization and this concept must apply meaningfully in our digital world too. Today we do not approach this topic systematically nor do we consider carefully how can we confer trust – in all its rich meanings and nuances – to the digital world, in some measure, because we do not frame the questions clearly (this whole unleashing makes my point).

If there is any “unleashing” to be done – let’s unleash the technologists to crack the code on transparency, trust and authenticity.  How do we coordinate all the fragmented pieces of the trust puzzle being worked on by many companies … from content verification technologies to rich, semantic based technology to deliver more trusted content. From intelligent agents who will scour the internet for verified, trusted ecommerce sites to new approaches to digital identities.

I wish it were as simple as throwing a single powerhouse company to push a single solution through. I almost wish I could wave a magic wand and Facebook could drive this question forward. But that is daydreaming especially since TBH Facebook has not yet demonstrated the business maturity to go down this road. In fact, most moves lately have been antithetical toward helping shape a Trust Web.

I’ll end by hoping I’ve made one clear point – language matters, definitions matter because without clarify we can’t imagine another vision.

And then we have to hear a lot of unleashing without a lot of traction.

Judy Shapiro

Author’s disclosure: I have been tracking Facebook’s evolution from communications platform to an uber social hub in Ad Age for just over a year now. My latest article in Ad Age “Has Facebook Jumped the Shark?” is the basis for an upcoming panel discussion at SXSWi.


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