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.

 

The Surprised Entrepreneur – Diary of new venture – Entry #3:

“Mama never told me there’d be weeks like this…”

It has been a while since my last entry and I am relieved to say it is mostly for good reasons. Over the last few months, this little venture has begun to take hold – to wit:

  • I have been on the speaking tour about The Interaction Engine capping it off with a spiel at ad:tech this month.
  • We have closed two new clients – one in the consumer electronics space and one in the mobile app space.
  • I am getting better at presenting our system in meetings – now I can kinda explain it in about 30 minutes. It still falls far short of the 2 minute elevator pitch – but hey – we are getting better.
  • A number of marketing and technology companies have contacted us to “partner” – not sure what that means though
  • We have done a few presentations to media buying agencies as they are challenged to “buy” social media. They are interested in working with us (again – no idea what that means)
  • Most important – revenue is beginning to accrue

Yet, despite the clear progress and momentum – I recognize the utter fragility of this venture. Of the dozen or so folks that are part of this company – most (but not all) are getting paid some compensation. No one is getting what they deserve – yet.

But my biggest challenge is that as we get more noticed, there are far more opportunities that need to be assessed and prioritized. Fundamentally, these opportunities run along three basic lines:

  • Technology Partnerships – there are 4 companies that we are talking to now in the marketing technology space. These companies are anxious to partner with someone like us because often these tech companies have no easy distribution channel. A cool recommendation engine is nice – but it’s hard selling a “stand-alone” technology to a big brand or agency. As a quasi “system integrator” of social media technologies – they see our Interaction Engine as solving this major channel issue for them.  thsi is not a pr 
  • Funding Options – my initial plan was to sell the Engine we have now (does not require any development) to generate about $500K in revenue. While that plan is still in play – I realize that getting to that sales threshold might take longer than I can wait to begin the second phase of this company – to develop/ sell “self-serve” integrated social media programs to SMB via web hosts. I am encouraged by experienced colleagues who tell me I can go get funding now with what we have. TBH, I am still unclear whether any VC would consider this investable. My colleagues are so confident that this can get funded that they are willing to spend their own time over the next few months to work on this. On the one hand, that’s a funding gift that I would be crazy to reject. But on the other hand, it will still require my time for an exercise that I’m not convinced will have a successful outcome. Getting VC funding is a huge time hog – not matter who helps you. I keep wanting to put it off or get a traditional loan to ease the short term cash crunch. this is since this is not any way understand how to make this spaceing this work. it is frustating to say the least but this need
  • Media Alliances – Unlike most other marketing technology companies, I focused on the technology platform but I built it within a holistic system that includes an organized set of content assets from a diversity of publishers. To me, content is not king – but rather the juicy bait to start the engagement process which is why I had to collect relevant content assets. So while I spend a considerable amount of time building these alliances – there are many more people looking to partner with us because so many content producers and writers have been caught in the tumult of “freep” (free and/ or cheap) digital content distribution. In our system, these folks have a voice and a stake, so we solve a problem for them too. The problem is deciding who we can take on.

Most interestingly (and yes – it is a surprise), it seems that our Interaction Engine System (a coordinated, tech mashup of a monetizable “community of interest”) is an approach that can integrate disparate marketing activities into an operational program. In essence, instead of pitching an individual program to a client where I have to plug into their operations – we are being seen as our own ecosystem and other marketing programs and/ or technologies have to plug into us. I won’t say I planned it that way – but I am loving how this is playing out.

Now on to my biggest “what’s keeping me up list?” for this entry:

  • Knowing which contacts are worth pursuing on the tech front, on the funding front and on the editorial front. The response to my presentations has been great – but overwhelming actually.
  • Keeping the pressure up on the sales front –  our issue now is too many great leads and not enough time to follow them all up.
  • Keeping the team motivated and monetized – always a struggle whether you are a new company or an old one

The next four weeks tend to be intense because marketing budgets are being finalized so we need to keep the pressure up – yet people’s mind are on the holidays. This requires an elegant and thoughtful approach to sales (I hope we are up to it).

Day after day, it seems the ride I am on gets more thrilling, more scary and more substantial. As the stakes keep going up, Mama never told me there would be weeks like this where too much is happening too fast. But I guess that beats the other option: too little happening too slow; by a mile.

“So dear Mama – I am grateful you taught me to appreciate a good ride when I see one which is exactly what I am doing  – even though it feels like I caught a tiger by the tail.”

I don’t intend to let go now.

Judy Shapiro

Crystal ball was not needed to predict Google Wave would fail

Forgive a momentary “I told you so” outburst because back in October 2009 as the tech world was dazzled by the Google Wave launch, I somewhat singularly wondered publically about whether it would succeed in a piece in Ad Age entitled:  “Google Wave should beware of the Communications and Collaboration Pitch”

It was an unpopular position to take at the time; after all, Google “Anything” was considered magic.  And after less than a year, being right like this is no fun actually because behind the failure are real people who invested a lot of heart and soul. It is a bitter pill to swallow.

History is a great teacher and in the Ad Age piece, I provide a history lesson on how “communication and collaboration” failed commercially utterly in the 1990s:

“Looking back at it now, I realize what we failed to do last time around is to symbiotically couple this whiz-bang technology with fulfilling a fundamental dimension of our humanity. Technology by itself is sterile and a communication and collaboration play was pretty sterile sounding.”

I also generously give them the secret of how to get it right given what we learned in our previous failed attempts to market unified collaboration platforms:

“This time round, though, Google Wave really has a chance to get it right if it forges a tight symbiotic link between this technology and a core element of our humanity.”

Finally, I gave them what I believed to be the secret to success with Google Wave. Clearly they ignored my sage advice (even if I do say so myself):

“It all comes down to understanding that Google Wave should be about the creation and management of our trusted communities. And if it can take those bonds and marry them with real-time, unified communications, the product has the makings of a technology milestone. But without the human dimension of community, “communications and collaboration” are just technologies. And technologies alone will not “connect” with Judy Consumer. At least it never has before.”

Never to put too subtle a point on it, I expanded my arguments and provided even more detail in a post here entitled; “What might Twitter and Facebook teach Google Wave about market success.” I fully explain why Google Wave has the potential to be a paradigm shift:

“Now I think Google Wave has the potential to be a technological milestone because it merges unified collaboration and communications (not new) within the fertile soil of a trusted community (this is new). “Pull” models coming online now enable this combination of dynamics to “gel” into a platform that can be vibrant and paradigm shifting. …”

I ended this piece in October 2009 hopeful; “I suspect that if anyone will know how to use this treasure it will be Google. I am rooting for them.”

So much for a happy ending 😦 .

Judy Shapiro

“Look up in the sky – it’s a bird, it’s a plane. No it’s an iPad.”

I was listening to my 14 year old son discuss the relative merits of an iPad versus his iTouch with a buddy of his. Now my kid is Apple’d out – MAC, iPod, iTouch. No wonder he was intrigued by the iPad as all things Apple is inherently good in his world view.

“It makes no sense”, I hear my son saying”, “why would Apple want people to think of iPad as a computer – it would kill their other business”. He then declared; “To me, this is a bigger and better iTouch that I would use at home.”

His friend thought for a minute and replied simply; “Yeah, but Steve Jobs thinks this is the new way people will use computers. Maybe, Apple wants to be the Microsoft, Dell, AT&T and Google all wrapped up in one.”

At first I was surprised at the thoughtful way these kids were getting right to the business heart of the matter. What is an iPad anyway? More interestingly though, as a marketer, I was eager to ponder what implications the iPad’s “position” might have on its astonishing 1MM sell through.

Clearly, the physical sleekness of the device drove a big part of the sell through. Surprisingly though, the huge gap in how “Junior Consumer”  was interpreting iPad’s main function, a.k.a. hyper cool entertainment device versus Jobs’ declaration that this is “the most important thing he has ever worked on” usually spells D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R, but that seemed not to matter in this case.

This disconnect is amplified when one realizes that the iPad may well be the computing version of a wolf in sheep’s clothing because it becomes the gate/ portal and police of what services or apps or content comes out of that portal. I kinda hope my son’s friend was wrong and Apple is not interested in displacing other devices and services providers from Judy Consumer’s world. Uh – no – that’s not likely. So it seems to me that the shiny iPad Apple carries a time delayed poison within that will, ultimately, bind Judy Consumer to the Apple franchise with little hope of escape.

OK – I admit – I am playing drama queen here. But it seems in maybe 5 years, our digital world will be defined by a few major players – maybe a handful – who will deliver all information, content, communications and commerce to us.

The “so what” of all this mega aggregation of services is that Judy Consumer will have fewer choices and higher prices. In the future world of information services wars, over time, Judy Consumer will lose out just like she ultimately did in the telecom wars of the past (I am battle hardened veteran of those wars). The final result being that, in fact, when choices go down, pricing goes up.

If iPad is meant to be the point of entry for a new way of computing that inextricably ties hardware to services – I worry (yes – I am a Jewish Mother and we worry.) I worry that it will be harder for competition to evolve and over time we know without competition, Judy Consumer pays more for less.

So I wonder – do you think the iPad is a merely step up from an iTouch as a hyper cool content consumption device or is the iPad Steve Jobs’ attempt at creating a new computing paradigm (hence explaining his sentiment that this is the most important thing he has ever done)?

I fear my son’s opinion on this matter is borne of youthful naïveté. I think I’ll go read Snow White again … at least that has a happy ending.

Judy Shapiro

“Judy Consumer” gets a new digital life partner

I was reading about Google TV which comes on the heels of all the iPad buzz which comes on the heels of the new Verizon Incredible launch and so on ….

All these efforts seem to transcend the desire to sell a device. It seems that these devices are designed to fight for the  digital fidelity of “Judy Consumer”. In essence, these companies want her to commit to a monogamous, long term relationship with them as the sole provider of all of her communications, commerce and content consumption.

These are pretty high stakes for “Judy Consumer” since it is not just about buying a product – it is about making a long term commitment.

My advice to “Judy Consumer” – proposals for a long term relationship may sound seductive but choose wisely – breaking up is not so easy to do.

Judy Shapiro

Creating trust in the new corporate branding model comes down to one person.

Time was before the advent of social media, corporate communications programs were well organized. You had your corporate brand strategy and position which was then communicated via well understood channels such as investor relations, PR, advertising and so forth. In this well oiled marketing machine, individual corporate thought leaders were used to support the corporate message and in this model the goal was clear: create a clear brand value proposition at a corporate level that customers would trust to do business with. The ultimate top down model.

That was then. This is now and the model is turned upside down.

In today’s social networked world, trust is not generated by the corporate communications machine. It is generated by a dynamic I call the Law of One — the brand proposition is carried by an individual who can create trust on behalf of the brand.

In the new socially connected world – individuals are far more effective at conveying trust in social networks than corporate spokespeople or an army of communication specialists. In this new world, non employees or line employees can be the most vocal and valuable trust creators.

Tapping into this dynamic requires a new approach commensurate with the opportunity.  For example, creating a programmatic approach to systematically create personal brands for company “experts” or thought leaders or front line employees integrating existing company social networks, affinity networks with a coordinated approach to content distribution. For non employee trust champions, driving these engaged individuals to a corporate sponsored community driven by a shared interest is a key way to harness and leverage the Law of One within the social network experience.

The new corporate branding machine – creating trust one person at a time.

Judy Shapiro

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