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.

 

The Surprised Entrepreneur-Diary of new venture (Entry #4): A tale of two VC meetings.

For the last 3 months I have been very focused on sales of our Interaction Engine system and we are doing well on that score. As a result, though, I have not really shaped the business plan and the structure of our company for the inevitable VC round to come. Getting funding has not been an urgent requirement and it seemed far better to generate real revenue and then go for funding.

So as we are chugging along, our work has gotten the attention of two VCs who reached out for a meeting. This was my first introduction to the world of VCs and I confess, the meetings were startling and sobering; leaving me strangely ambivalent about the journey ahead on this front.

VC meeting number 1.

It was a rainy, NY winter day and we decided to meet at a coffee shop. I knew that this fund was more an incubator type which offered me the potential of being part of a startup community. It seemed like a good idea that I perhaps become part of the NY “Tech/ CEO club” since now, I am an outlier. I don’t hang out in Meetup sessions and I am not trekking across the country chasing the cool tech conferences (OK – I confess I am going to SXSW but only because they asked me to speak).

I enter the coffee shop with only the vaguest sense of what the VC looked like (his Twitter pix was decidedly not very useful). It took me a solid 8 minutes to spot him. As I approach I see this 30ish guy with a quirky winter cone hat that was just 2 degrees “off” – IMO wandering into “silly land.” It was hard not to laugh out loud at the effect – but I held my composure.

I sit down and we start chatting.  I was curious to understand his investing philosophy. His focus decidedly was on individual technologies – why Foursquare will be huge or how this new app model will revolutionize some trend or other. When I wondered with him about the lack of a clear business model which limits their practical use for marketers, he dismissed that concern with a wave of the hand. “Well, that’s won’t be a problem for long – once the old guard is gone.”

Wow. Clearly that meant me. I took his comment to mean that only the “newer” generation have the depth to understand new marketing technologies. I was dumbfounded and I was shaken. The gap between us was, technologically speaking, generational – perhaps never to be bridged. But mostly I was stunned at how immature his thinking was about how the business of marketing really works. I was shaken knowing his company was helping drive the evolution of marketing without a clue about what marketers really need.

The rest of the conversation was a haze TBH. I left traumatized and angry at how dismissive he was of the impracticality of his vision of marketing technology evolution.

VC meeting number 2

This CEO leads a well-respected large VC shop that does $2- 5MM deals. I had been introduced to this VC through a mutual colleague and we met at his office one snowy day.  He sat down in comfortable business casual attire that was in keeping with his experienced CEO role.

We started by talking about his company which was relocating to the East Coast from the West Coast. Interesting move and I asked him why. “Increasingly the smart money is coming to NY as this where many of the major new media and marketing operating business trends are evolving,” he said.

This was my dream VC – he understood the space and the problem my company was trying to solve – how to practically create the “many to many” marketing model. We compared notes on how the technology in this space was similar to CRM in the 1990s – full of possibility but lacking in coordinated systems to activate the technology. I suggested that we are a bit like what Siebel who, at the time, integrated all the telemarketing technologies into the system we now know as CRM. I feel that is what we are doing for the emerging “many to many” marketing model. We met for a solid 90 minutes at which point he asked me “What next?” Shockingly, I had no “ask.” I had been so traumatized by the first VC, that I had not really expected a question like that. I stumbled around and just admitted – “I don’t know.”

But then I turned it around and asked him: “How would you categorize my company? We are part system integrator, part content and media company. We are a “creative shop” in that we create customer interactions with technology. Are we a tech company, a services company?”

I could see he was sensitive to the dilemma of my question. Finally, he said, “I would put you in the digital media space.” I was shocked until he hastened to add: “You need to be defined somehow so people know to work with you and help you.” But in his gentle smile I could see his answer left him unsatisfied as well.

We parted agreeing to keeping up the dialogue. As I walked out of his office, I felt cautiously optimistic that the work we are doing is needed in the market.

One thing I learned from both meetings – the journey of starting a company will continue to be a journey of surprise. I never expected to have so dramatically divergent experiences as I tentatively start down the path of funding my company – even if I don’t know exactly what type of company I am creating.

All I know is that the “smart investment money is going towards the business operating companies” and that’s me. Cool – right?

Judy Shapiro

Musing from the TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2010 Conference – DAY 1

No doubt there will be a gaggle of reviews, reports, regurgitations and rehashing of what went on at Day 1. So, here are my personal musing, in no particular order, of what I felt at the conference, what I sensed and what I experienced. I figured all the smarter, nerdy heads will cover the conference at a cerebral level. This is a stream of consciousness – a gut data dump – as it were.

1) Before I get to the conference, Brian Morrissey of Brandweek tweets how the men’s room at the conference is jammed but the women’s room is “clear sailing”. I think – “that’s a change – usually it is the other way around.” But it certainly set the tone in my head.

2) The conference itself was conventionally unconventional as it was on the second floor of an office building. Lots of space and lots of nooks and crannies where startup and confabs gathered.

3) The uniform of the day… Jeans or jeans like object – an occasional pair of shorts popped up. T-shirts of various sizes and shapes. No business casual here – at least not much. Did I come to the right place or did I land in a college campus???

4) Large presentation room reminds me assembly at an all boys prep school.

5) Where have all the women gone!!!! I saw 8 startup companies present today and of all the 20 or so people – not a woman among the lot. Hmm….

6) Where have all the women gone who did not graduate yesterday go? Most women here are staffers, volunteers or support staff. Are they old enough to drink????

7) So much inspired thinking – so little market access. Most of the startups have hopes of selling to “big brands” but with little notion of how difficult it is for a brand to implement a niche idea – no matter how brilliant.  After having worked on 40 ventures at Bell Labs New Ventures Group – I can spot winners a mile way and I can spot trouble even faster. The “motherly” side of me wants to warn these entrepreneurs. I want to say; “Don’t bet your whole business on selling to big brands – that is really really hard!” But I say nothing because this is their moment to shine and I don’t want to take away from their joy. The realities of life will crowd in on them soon enough.

8 )  All this technology is bottled up a without clear market access strategy. When I ask the startups how are you going to market – I get fuzzy; “oh we work with agencies” or “We want to sell to brands”. I even had one startup say to me that 95% of possible leads are not useful to him because they are too small. Uh – what happened to “walk before you can run”?

9) I can see how 4 or 5 of these technologies could be combined for some kick ass marketing programs – kinda like a huge tinker toy set for marketers. I think I will go build myself something from all these parts. Hmm – I feel like a system integrator all of a sudden. Is that right?

10) Is it me – or does this feel like high school again where the “popular, cool” people hang together and everyone else tries to connect with them? Well, this is no surprise since I think the medium age of the conference might be – uh – 23 (utterly non scientific SWAG).

So ended DAY 1 of TechCrunch Disrupt Conference. I will tell you one for sure. I am not breaking out my jeans – I like dressing like an adult.

Go figure.

Judy Shapiro

The best 9 lessons in social marketing mastery I learned from my Yiddishe Grandmother

There are others before me who gratefully acknowledge the marketing lessons their grandparents taught them, e.g.  Eric Fulwiler and I now happily contribute to this chorus of gratitude.

It was my Yiddishe Grandmother, long gone before social media ever hit, who when I think about it, was a “maven” (Subject Matter Expert) in the world of social media. I’ve seen her work the social “networking” dynamic at level that few people get to encounter and it’s probably why I am so bullish on social media’s potential to be the major platform that will drive marketing for the next decade.

To appreciate why she was such a powerful teacher requires a brief understanding of her life. My Grandmother, Margit Grosz was born at the beginning of the 20th century in Hungary – the daughter of a highly respected and mystical Hasidic rabbi. She married a young Rabbi and by the time World World II crashed in on her world, she had nine children. On December 3, 1944, she and eight of her youngest children marched into Bergen Belsen, (my father was the “oldest” at 15 and my youngest uncle a mere baby of about 8 months).

This story should have had a tragic end, but in fact she did the remarkable – she was able to save every single one of her children after having endured six months in the death camp. After the war, her influence broadened and she helped thousands as the “Rebbetzin”, literally meaning Rabbi’s wife but also conferring on her the honorary title of spiritual leader, of the shattered Hasidic survivors. As one her oldest grandchildren (out of 100ish), I often accompanied her on her expeditions (reluctantly I must admit) but  I had the chance to witness first hand how to create a thriving socially connected set of networks to the benefit of all. Her wisdom influences me today as I think about how to harness the power of social networking to achieve business results.

This list, inspired by her, I dedicate to her.

1. Keep it simple, direct and honest.

Perhaps the most powerful way to explain this point is explain how my Grandmother saved her children in Bergen Belsen. I will let my father’s account describe what happened next (written when he was in his in fifties):

The morning after our arrival, we were ordered to line up for “appel”, which was roll call. It commenced at 8:00 a.m.  One day, the snow was ankle deep and it was bitter cold. My youngest brother, Chaim, at only eight months was nursing. My mother tried her best to keep him warm and quiet in her arms. The other children were crying bitterly. The one-eyed officer suddenly approached my Mother and began to yell in her face; “What are they crying about? I have my job to do.”

My Mother answered simply; “Listen – can’t you hear the cries of my children?”

Then that one-eyed sergeant announced; “From now on, your children can remain in their bunks. I will come inside and count them in their beds every day.”

What is remarkable is that her simple, direct one line appeal, which seemed wholly inadequate, would have achieved such life savings results. This story cemented in my mind the power of direct engagement. Over the years, I saw again and again how her direct and simple approach achieved results beyond what would have been expected. I saw her get CEOs of major corporations to make major donations of money, goods and services and I saw politicians agree to her requests. Simplicity, directness and honesty is a powerful engine for influencing.

2. Keep engaging.

I never knew until my twenties that sometimes family fights resulted in a complete break down in communications. I had never witnessed it. In my world, if a family dispute escalated to the point of a complete rupture, she forced open the lines of communications. In her mind, keep engaging to keep people connected – no matter what.

That is true in social media too. One must keep the community engaged with people, management and technology. One must manage the interactions so that everyone can feel safe to participate.

3. Make sure everyone in the community benefits.

She had a remarkable ability to use the power of her diverse networks to the benefit of all. I saw how she fluidly moved from one network to another creating loose, cross network associations to achieve a task at hand. She got the CEO of Dupont to donate a huge shipment of contact paper twice a year to redecorate the heavily worn surfaces of the synagogues in the neighborhood (they could not afford new furniture). She then used the leftover it to redecorate and brighten desolate rooms in state run mental institutions for children. (Sidebar – It turned out years later, I learned that my husband’s uncle was a patient in one of the institutions she rehabilitated and who clearly remembered “The Rebbetzin”. What are the chances of that!!)

Translating this lesson to social network marketing means to learn to mix it up and create ways for different networks to cross pollinate so the there is exponential benefits to everyone.  For instance, create programs that pair x-genr’s looking to break into a new career with career veterans. Or create a program that pairs PC savvy kids from distant continents who share a similar passion. Well orchestrated, this is a potent power that can propel social networking programs.

4. Be generous with your time, talent and experience.

This lesson can be a challenge in today hyper connected, on call 24/7 business life. In the case of my Grandmother, if she was short of funds to buy gifts for kids over the holidays, she herself would crochet little dolls for them (and yes – she drafted us grandchildren to help her crochet her dolls). She devoted her time happily until the job was done.

In the context of social media marketing, this means showing social networking courtesy. If asked to donate your network to a good cause – do so. You can also create ways for members to be able to easily connect with each other by providing technology to enable video chat. Show communities how paying it forward always pays back in spades.

5. Assume the best in everyone.

I remember when I was little, my Grandmother was talking to a woman who had lost everyone in the war had become very bitter.  “How is it that you have no hate in your heart” in reference to a German neighbor. My Grandmother answered simply: “Eich hub niescht kan breraira”, “I have no choice”. In her mind, judgment or hate had no place in her world because she understood that it was a poison pill more harmful to her than anyone else. Instead, she assumed people to be of good character and intention and she operated accordingly.

This lesson holds true as we manage our social networks. We should assume that most people in communities are well meaning and well intentioned. Once we are guided by this principle, it puts a clear context for moderation business rules and community participation.

6. Be brave.

The most powerful way to bond community members is to be brave and share honestly with others. Being vulnerable demonstrates a strength that encourages others to gain courage. I learned this lesson when I observed her bravery time and again to venture outside her comfort zone to get what she needed for her community. Imagine the scene when my Grandmother, the Chasidic Rebbetzin who barely spoke English, went marching into the office of Dupont to ask for help. I admired her courage.

Bravery in the social media world requires guts and a willingness to put our company selves out there. A case in point is the recent Pepsi promotion where they used “crowdsourcing” to create their newest flavor. That kind of bravery encourages greatness in your community and in your marketing.

7. Create scalable intimacy.

There has been much research to suggest that our human brain can handle a community of, at most, about 150 people. A community larger than that and the cohesion begins to deteriorate. Similarly, it has been observed that, for instance, Twitter groups of a few hundred are intimate and interactive. Once you pass that threshold and cross into a group of thousands, interaction stops. My Grandmother understood this principle intuitively because she organized her social networks according to maternal line – not married couples. This was her uncharacteristic “data file system” which allowed her to manage multiple family groups of optimal size efficiently despite the vast expanses of family connections.

This lesson is probably one of the hardest for marketers to address because they need scale in order to achieve meaningful results, yet they must maintain the intimacy that social media allows. The trick, therefore, is to create tightly knit communities with synergistic interests that can bind but can scale too. An example, a book lover’s community where different genres can break off into micro communities. This might mean having hundreds of communities concurrently, but companies like Google, Dell and HP have developed programs to manage these diverse communities using lots of new technologies. At a smaller scale, there are self serve platform like SocialGo that help a company to manage groups efficiently.

8. Treat everyone with respect.

Seems obvious yet is surprisingly hard to execute in the social network world of today. The trick, as my Grandmother taught me is to refuse to categorize anyone according to stereotype segments. In her world she was blind to ethnicity, skin color, religious affiliation and or wealth. To her everyone was truly created equal and the simplicity of this approach created powerful allies for her. This principle applied to digital social networks would yield comparable results.

9. Think of others – not just yourself.

I leave this lesson for last because it was her hallmark and it was what made her beloved among the entire Hasidic community around the world. Translated to social media, it means that your goal for the network should be to create place for true connectivity and community – and not just for commerce purposes. It means introducing tools (e.g. video chat) and opportunities that enable connections and bonds that are can enrich all members.

If the orientation of the community is focused on the community — then there is a foundation for success. Focus outward before you focus inward.

There you have it – these 9 power lessons shape how I think about social networking today. I hope it inspires you too.

Judy Shapiro

Why did social media become so urgently important right now?

Nowadays, I sometimes feel like the doctor who is often asked his advice “off duty”. Once I say I am in marketing, the inevitable questions begin. “How can I launch a product with just social media?” (You can’t). Is social media really free? (No). Can I be successful at social media without an agency (yes…but). This is not just mere curiosity; there is urgency to the questions I have not encountered before.

Now aside from the inconvenient truth that I am practitioner of marketing and perhaps not an “expert”; the other inconvenient truth is that there aren’t many experts to found anywhere because social media has barely been on the corporate radar for 24 months and it is very fast evolving category of marketing that is growing in importance. This expertise gap understandably makes companies scrambling for advice with a frantic energy approaching panic.

So with that perspective, let’s return to our initial question; why has social media become so urgently important right now?

There are two primary factors driving this laser focus on social media worth exploring. First, I think it’s safe to say that from a purely demographic perspective, social media has just now reached the tipping point, a critical mass of adoption led by key demographic segments like women, baby boomers. (read: More women than men on social networks for more). But the second, equally important reason is that social marketing is emerging as a company’s worst marketing nightmare – it is where a company’s most important branding battles are waged and it is also largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It gets worse. It became very apparent that the old corporate branding rule book needs to get tossed out! Gone are the days when a core branding platform was centrally created and communicated to the various stakeholders groups in a coordinated way. In the new social media branding paradigm, the community now creates the brand positioning for companies – like it or not.

And the days when visual branding standards were created for distribution are dismantling in favor of a model where affiliate communities re-invent the identity of companies to suit the needs of their members.

In the end, the systems that companies used to pump out the corporate messages are caving under the more credible corporate branding connections happening in social networks outside corporate control.

So what’s a corporate marketer to do? This can be a tough one to answer, because this is still evolving. But a few principles will help ease the transition to this new model.

1) Develop a learning path for your people to understand the nuts ‘n bolts of social media.

Often, the mystery of social media reduces seasoned marketers to passive observers to these new branding dynamics. Change the dynamic by encouraging active exploration of this media.

2) Launch a secondary branding experiment using an “ignition point” topic.

Nothing instills confidence than real world experience. A way to accomplish this without risking the corporate brand is to find a topic that your users or prospects have passion for. Launch a mini social media campaign and start explore the tools, play with the networks, participate in the community and experience it just for the sake of learning. Agencies and consultants can only take you so far since nothing beats hands-on experience. Learn for yourself how the machinery of social marketing works and that’ll be invaluable in how to create the new corporate social branding paradigm for your brand.

3) Deploy a reputation measurement platform that tracks your social media visibility.

It is crucial to monitor the conversations going on about your brand and there are great platforms our there to help you do that. There are companies that measure Twitter influence, social networking topic trends and specific corporate conversation in social networks. Some platforms are free while others do not cost a lot.

4) Get serious about community creation and management.

Too often companies start a community but quickly realize that maintaining it is far more difficult. Commit the necessary resources to do community management well. If that is not an option – it’s best not to start at all until you can commit the necessary resources. But a well done community will deliver benefits ranging from engagement marketing to an early warning system should the brand falter.

So if social media seems to be taking over your marketing conversations – it’s useful to remember that it is going through a growth spurt. It has not yet matured into a systematic, predictable set of technologies and processes. Until it does, it helps to be brave and jump right in even if you seem to be splashing around. You’re not alone.

Judy Shapiro

So much to talk about but so pressed for time.

Spring is a time of intensity. Things seem to take on frenetic pace as though we want to cram in as much energy as possible when it is so available.  

Lots of tech marketing activity – as always. Lots of new “social media” activity – as always. Lots of things to distract and entertain – as always. 

I have been quiet here for a few weeks mostly because I have been absorbing it all. I have pondering the complexities of copyright in the digital age. I have turned over in my mind the practical concepts of The Trust Web. I consider how to help fix the systemic security issues in the delivery of online advertising.    

In short, so many things are blossoming at once that I find myself basking the thrill of it all. The work I am doing now in social media is delivering metric based results for brands. Since I treat social media like direct marketing, I can deliver campaigns that a brand understands how to work with. It is refreshing for them.  

There are some exciting projects in the near horizon, like the initiative to create security standards for the online ad world. Or the possibility of a social/ DM platform for campaign creation.  And the growth of our network called MingleMediaTV so that even though it just a few weeks old it has began to rank well in Alexa.  

So many possibilities. So much to learn. So little time it seems.  

But it’s what makes Spring so wonderful and I am enjoying the ride.  

Judy Shapiro

Is Chris Brogan worth $22,000 a day? You bet… BUT.

This was too tempting a subject to pass because of the reaction to the revelation that Chris Brogan (celebrity blogger and author of book; Trust Agents”) gets a consulting fee of $22,000 a day.

My initial reaction to the news was a simple “A bi gazhunt” to Chris which is Yiddish for “be well”, but really means “My hats off to you”. Why shouldn’t a company pay him $22,000 if it will save them 10x that if they try and learn about this stuff blind.

But this revelation from Chris launched a vibrant conversation with a diverse range of opinions from indignation to envy to those who shared my personal reaction; “well done”.

The topic was quickly losing interest for me except Chris himself came out to declare this was the; “smartest post yet about my pricing post:http://bit.ly/aP4l9w (anchoring. Neat term!)”. I was curious so I went to check it out and in this post, the author believes that Chris now set the “anchor point” – a water mark for what “this stuff goes for”.

Whoa Nellie – this is when this conversation went silly for me.

I don’t buy for a second that Chris’ rate establishes anything, and certainly not an anchor point unless of course you want to be totally self serving. Chris is able to garner these fees TODAY because expertise in this area is still at a premium and there are few credible sources. In about a year, when there will be more “supply”, the rates will adjust accordingly.

And oh BTW – here’s another reality. Chris has to charge so much for a day of consulting because there’s not a lot of repeat business consulting on social marketing. This stuff is not hard and after you’ve told them the basics they are usually good to go. He has to extract as much as he can from them because it’s probably a 1x only appearance.

If you doubt this truth of this conclusion – think about it for a moment.  Would Chris have to create the “The Third Tribe” service or his New Marketing Labs or all his other self promotion stuff if he could regularly snag “two or three” gigs like that a month? I don’t know about you, but if I could reliably do $500K/ year by working 24 days – I wouldn’t be doing all the other stuff or maybe I wouldn’t be charging anything at all to most, (and I cheerfully congratulate Chris on how much of his smarts is freely available).

Chris was clever to have cultivated credibility in a space that became very important very quickly. This is a quintessential case of right place at the right time and he is milking it for every thing it is worth. I congratulate him on his skill and luck. But let’s not see his fee success as anything more than a temporarily aberrant blimp in time and it is certainly no anchor point. Hey, if tomorrow someone figures out that they can substantially grow their business learning the secrets of Hasidic philosophical spirituality – then I’ll be worth $42,000 a day! But only for a while. I know I’ll milk it as long as I can.

Judy Shapiro

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