Jul 272007

A Viral Marketing Program That Needs to See a Doctor

A Viral Marketing Program That Needs to See a Doctor

I hate sites that make you register in order to read things sent by friends.  What a crappy consumer experience.  If you’re going to make people register to use the site, fine.  But at least allow a small crack in the walled garden for friends to read articles and try your site out.

Today, my friend Len Ellis sent me what looked like a really interesting article in Ad Age via the “send to a friend function.”  When I clicked through the link in the email, it first made me complete a lengthy registration process, including various special offer checkboxes and subscription offers for the magazine and its newsletters.

I went ahead and did this because I was interested in the article.  Then I had to wait for a confirmation email, click on it, and then finally got to see the article.  Except it turns out that what I got to see was the headline and first sentence.  Then Ad Age tole me that in order to read the whole article, I either have to subscribe to the print edition and fill out more forms or pay.  Forget it.  I’ll ask Len to copy the text of the article and send it to me directly.

Why even bother having a “send to a friend” function?

Filed under: Email

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Jul 252007

Collaboration is Hard, Part I

Collaboration is Hard, Part I

Every year when we do 360 reviews, a whole bunch of people at all levels in the organization have “collaboration” identified as a development item.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately and will do a two-part post on this.  So, first things first…what is collaboration and why is it so important?

Let’s start with the definition of collaboration from our friends at Wikipedia:

Collaboration is a process defined by the recursive interaction of knowledge and mutual learning between two or more people who are working together, in an intellectual endeavor, toward a common goal which is typically creative in nature. Collaboration does not necessarily require leadership and can even bring better results through decentralization and egalitarianism.

What does that mean in a business setting?  It means partnering with a colleague (either inside or outside of the company) on a project, and through the partnering, sharing knowledge that produces a better outcome than either party could produce on his or her own.  Interestingly, the last sentence of the definition implies that collaboration can happen across levels in an organization but is generally more effective when the parties who are collaborating are on somewhat equal footing.

Why is collaboration important?  There are probably a zillion reasons.  Let me take a stab at what I think are three important ones:

  1. It’s not about hard assets any more. In a knowledge economy/company, sharing information and learnings is critical.  And that’s what’s at the heart of the collaborative process.  Each person in the organization does a different job; even those who are in the same role have different experiences with their role and different interactions both internally and externally as a result.  A collaborative process that by definition involves learning drives the organization forward and to a better place.  An example…if you have a deep working knowledge of your product, and your counterpart in marketing has a deep working knowledge of public relations, collaborating on a PR strategy to launch the product’s latest feature means that you will learn more about public relations and your colleague will learn more about your product.  In the end, you both get smarter, and the collective intellect of your organization grows — so your company gains incremental advantage over the competition as a result.
  2. No man is an island. Most functions and business units are in some way interdependent.  Think back to the example of product and PR above.  Both parties learn through collaboration and make things better for the future.  Here’s the rub, though — the collaboration in that example is the only way to produce the right outcome.  So the prior point illustrates offense, but this one illustrates defense.  Failure to collaborate in this simple case would lead to a misguided PR launch strategy for the new product feature.  Either product would dictate the release strategy and text — missing some important subtleties about what reporters will/won’t pick up or without thinking through how different constituencies will react to the messaging — or PR would dictate the release strategy and timing — missing important but subtle points of competitive differentiation in the product features or botching a market-specific window for the announcement.
  3. Leverage is king. If the first point illustrates offense (collaboration moves the organization forward) and the second one illustrates defense (failure to collaborate suboptimizes the quality of results), this one illustrates productivity (perhaps a subset of offense).  Collaboration gives leverage, which in turn gives productivity.   Let’s not pick on our poor product and PR people this time, though.  Let’s think about one of the most difficult things to do, which is to hire good people.  As I wrote a few years ago in The Hiring Challenge, the three things to do when hiring (which are all hard) are defining the job properly, finding the time to do it right, and remembering that the process doesn’t stop on the person’s first day on the job.  So where does collaboration come in?  Once your company is big enough to have a good HR person or team, the collaborative approach to having them help you with recruiting is the best option.  Sure, you can “throw it over the wall” to HR — give them a job title and location and comp range and see what happens.  And you will get some candidates, some of which might be ok.  Or you can forget about HR and try to do it yourself and not have time to get it right.  Or you can collaborate, bring HR into the discussion about the need for the position, the skills required, and the fit with your organization, even write a job description with HR and discuss which companies or types of companies you want to see on candidates’ resumes — and voila!  HR can go off and do 10x the work at 10x the quality.  For a little more up-front effort than the “throw it over the wall” approach, you leveraged yourself tremendously through what can be a very time consuming process.

Although my examples are by nature from my own industry for the past 12+ years, it’s hard to think of too many organizations or industries where collaboration isn’t critical to success.  Even in companies like investment banks or strategy consulting firms, which traditionally are very hierarchical, command-and-control organizations filled with brilliant individual contributors, the most successful companies (think Goldman Sachs, McKinsey) are the ones that seem to foster more collaboration than others in the development of their people and the development of shared intellectual capital that helps drive the organization forward and ahead of its competition.

In Part II, I’ll answer the title question here…why is collaboration hard?  Stay tuned!

Jul 192007

Everything That is New is Old

Everything That is New is Old

With a full nod to my colleague Jack Sinclair for the title and concept here…we were having a little debate over email this morning about the value of web applications vs. Microsoft (perhaps inspired by Fred, Brad, and Andy’s comments lately around Microsoft vs. Apple).

Jack and his inner-CFO is looking for a less expensive way of running the business than having to buy full packages of Office for every employee to have many of them use 3% of the functionality.  He is also even more of a geek than I am.

I am concerned about being able to work effectively offline, which is something I do a lot.  So I worry about web applications as the basis for everything we do here.  We just launched a new internal web app last week for our 360 review process, and while it’s great, I couldn’t work on it on a plane recently as I’d wanted to.

Anyway, the net of the debate is that Jack pointed me to Google Gears, in beta for only a month now, as a way of enabling offline work on web applications.  It clearly has a way to go, and it’s unclear to me from a quick scan of what’s up on the web site whether or not the web app has to enable Gears or it’s purely user-driven, but in any case, it’s a great and very needed piece of functionality as we move towards a web-centric world.

But it reminded of me of an application that I used probably 10-12 years ago called WebWhacker (which still exists, now part of Blue Squirrel) that enables offline reading of static web pages and even knows how to go to different layers of depth in terms of following links.  I used to use it to download content sites before going on a plane.  And while I’m sure Google Gears will get it 1000x better and make it free and integrated, there’s our theme — Everything That is New is Old.

The iPhone?  Look at Fred’s picture of his decade old Newton (and marvel at how big it is).

Facebook?  Anyone remember TheSquare.com?

MySpace?  Geocities/Tripod.

LinkedIn?  GoodContacts.

Salesforce.com?  Siebel meets Goldmine/Act.

Google Spreadsheets?  Where to begin…Excel…Lotus 123…Quattro Pro…Visicalc/Supercalc.

RSS feeds?  Pointcast was the push precursor.

Or as Brad frequently says, derive your online business model (or at least explain it to investors) as the analog analog.  How does what you are trying to online compare to a similar process or problem/solution pair in the offline world?

There are, of course, lots of bold, new business ideas out there.  But many successful products in life aren’t version 1 or even version 3 — they’re a new and better adaptation of something that some other visionary has tried and failed at for whatever reason years before (technology not ready, market not ready, etc.).

Jul 172007

Why Do Companies Sell?

Why Do Companies Sell?

Fred has a good post today about Facebook and why they shouldn’t sell the company now, in which he makes the assertion that companies sell “because of fear, boredom, and personal financial issues.”  He might not have meant this in such a black and white way, and while those might all be valid reasons why companies decide to sell, let me add a few others:

  • Market timing:  As they say, buy low – sell high.  Sometimes, it’s just the right time to sell a business from the market’s perspective.  Valuations have peaks and troughs, and sometimes the troughs can last for years.  Whether you do an NPV/DCF model that says it’s the right time to sell, or you just rely on gut (“we aren’t going to see this price again for a long time…”), market timing is a critical factor
  • Dilution:  Sometimes, market conditions dictate that it isn’t the best time to sell, BUT company conditions dictate that continuing to be competitive, grow the top line, and generate long-term profits requires a significant amount of incremental capital or dilution that materially changes the expected value of the ultimate exit for existing shareholders (both investors and management)
  • Fund life:  Fortunately, we haven’t been up against this at Return Path, but sometimes the clock runs out on venture investors’ funds, and they are forced into a position of either needing to get liquidity for their LPs or distribute their portfolio company holdings.  While neither is great for the portfolio, a sale may be preferable to a messy distribution

Fred’s reasons are all very founder-driven.  And sometimes founders get to make the call on an exit.  But factoring in a 360 view of the company’s stakeholders and external environments can often produce a different result in the conversation around when to exit.

Filed under: Business, Email

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Jul 162007

Starbucks, Starbucks, Everywhere, Part II

Starbucks, Starbucks, Everywhere, Part II

In 2004, I blogged about Starbucks’ implausible Forbidden City location (post includes picture) in the heart of one of China’s most prominent national monuments.

Today, under pressure from the Chinese government, Starbucks announced that they’re closing the location, reflecting “Chinese sensitivity about cultural symbols and unease over an influx of foreign pop culture,” according to a very short blurb about this in today’s Wall Street Journal.

It must be indescribably different to live in a society that’s so tightly controlled.

Jul 112007

Book Short: A Good Dose of Introspection

Book Short:  A Good Dose of Introspection

I rarely blog about non-business books since this is a business blog — and I read a lot of them!  But occasionally, one manages to slip in, and this time, it’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom.  From the author of Tuesdays With Morrie, which I also liked quite a bit, this one is excellent.  And a very, very quick read.

The book, in short (i.e., a book short <g>), is about a guy who dies, and who, in heaven, meets five people who have shaped his life and died before him.  Some he knows well, some he knows barely, some he’s never met.  Each one tells him a story that explains some part of his life to him and in doing so, helps him understand more about himself and why/how he lived on earth.

The book, as I said, is a short read.  But more than that, it’s a wonderful story and provides an opportunity for a structured moment of introspection, one that I found very valuable.  Quite frankly, this book should be a “once every year or two” read.

Jul 042007

The Acquisition (a parody of a parody)

The Acquisition (a parody of a parody)

I just spent a great 4th of July with my brother Michael, one of the finer and funnier people I know.  Among other things, we treated ourselves to about the 18th viewing of Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I on DVD.

One of our favorite moments in the movie is the Broadway musical version of “The Inquisition” (lyrics, download MP3).  Since both of us work in the online marketing industry (Michael is a marketing manager at search agency Did-It), Michael came up with the brilliant idea of a parody of a parody…so here goes, all in good fun.

The acquisition, what a show
The acquisition, here we go
We’re on a mission, have you heard the news?

The acquisition, serve those ads
The acquisition, we’re so glad
We’ll make an offer, that they can’t refuse

Google, don’t be boring
WPP, don’t feel set
Yahoo seems to be ignoring:
It’s better to lose your market cap than your market!

Hey, Steven Ballmer, what do you say?
“I just got back from Avenue A”
“Avenue A?  What’s Avenue A?”
“It’s what I ought not have bought, but I bought anyway!”

The acquisition, what a show
The acquisition, here we go
We know you’re wishin’ that we’d go away.
But the acquisition’s here and it’s here to stay!

Happy 4th, everyone!

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