Dec 282008

Challenge

Challenge

I do a decent amount of fundraising for my high school and college, and we frequently employ “challenges” as a means of hitting our goal.  For a fundraising campaign, that usually takes the form of finding a large donor to give matching gifts, or $X for everyone who gives more than $X, or $X for any new donor — something like that.

We did a fun challenge program at Return Path this December that worked out pretty well for everyone, company and employees alike.  We’ve been working the team pretty hard the last 4-5 months, and we wanted to give everyone some kind of fun noncash bonus as a thank you.  We also had two major milestones that we as a company really wanted to hit before the end of the year, one financial and one operating.  The challenge was that if we hit both, we’d officially close the company for all business days between Christmas and New Year’s to give people basically a free week off as a reward for a good year as well as the “icing on the cake” of the challenge.  To make it seasonal yet nondenominational, and to pay a little homage to Seinfeld, we called this the Festivus Challenge. 

The good thing about both milestones is that while not 100% of the company was involved in hitting them, huge percentages of the company were involved in at least one — and both were pretty high profile.  So it was a good rallying cry.

In the end, we missed one, but we not only made the other one, we actually blew threw it and went way above and beyond on the success metric, so we ended up giving three bonus days, the day before Christmas and the two “dead” Fridays.  Everyone is getting a four-day and five-day weekend back to back, and some people will just end up taking three vacation days to get a full 12 day holiday.

This was a fun one — we may have to do it again next year if there’s a good challenge lurking in our business.

Dec 192008

Hertz Giveth, Hertz Taketh Away

Hertz Giveth, Hertz Taketh Away

For years, I’ve hated all rental car companies for forcing me to scramble and find a gas station to fill up on the way to returning a car at the airport or get faced with an insane refueling charge.  I never understood why one smart company didn’t decide to just do away with that moronic policy, figure out another way to make a profit, market the heck out of it, and endear themselves to customers. 

Finally, Hertz jumped in a few months ago with just that.  Return a car without refueling?  No problem.  A modest $5 surcharge and market rate for the actual gas required solves the problem.  Brilliant!  They were even marketing it to their customers in-car and online. 

The last time I rented, I returned the car with 3/4 of a tank and was handed an extra $35 or so on my bill for refueling at $7.99/gallon.  I asked what was going on.  The check-in clerk told me “Oh we stopped doing that new refueling program.  It’s too bad – all our customers loved it.  You should say something about it to someone higher up.”

Bad enough to quietly discontinue a program like that without telling your customers (I did just get a quiet little email from Hertz today, a month after discontinuing the program, that it was over — no explanation).  But why would you ever launch a customer-friendly program and then just take it away?  It can’t be that it wasn’t popular. And while it may have been less profitable for Hertz, why take a step backwards and just remove the program rather than figure out another solution to replace the profits?  What about asking customers what they want and why?

Profits are important, but seems like this is not the right economic environment to irritate your customers.

Filed under: Business, Management

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Dec 162008

Projection

Projection

A few years ago, I wrote about how smiling and nodding or waving at strangers while running was a fun way to start the day and that once in a while, someone actually smiled back.  My not-so-revolutionary discovery was that people are generally in their own cocoons and not particularly receptive to a friendly gesture, but that when they are, they're completely receptive and quite friendly in return.

In the last couple of days, I've rediscovered that principle with a twist.  As I get myself used to a new routine of train commuting and working out in a big New York Sports Club gym, I'm seeing people in cocoons all over the place again.  And I've started being more friendly and smiley — on the walk to the village train station, on the train platform, on the train, on the treadmill.  Same reaction as before.  Most people ignore, an occasional one is incredibly friendly in return.

But what I'm now noticing is that I don't care what the reaction is.  It actually makes ME happier to be friendly.  I'm not sure what that says about me, probably nothing more than that I'm projecting on others, but you can bet I'm going to do more of that in the future.  It's much better to start and end a long day with a smile than a frown or a blank stare!

Filed under: Current Affairs

Dec 142008

Half the Benefit is in the Preparation

Half the Benefit is in the Preparation

This past week, we had what has become an annual tradition for us – a two-day Board meeting that’s Board and senior management (usually offsite, not this year to keep costs down) and geared to recapping the prior year and planning out 2009 together.  Since we are now two companies, we did two of them back-to-back, one for Authentic Response and the other for Return Path.

It’s a little exhausting to do these meetings, and it’s exhausting to attend them, but they’re well worth it.  The intensity of the sessions, discussion, and even social time in between meetings is great for everyone to get on the same page and remember what’s working, what’s not, and what the world around us looks like as we dive off the high dive for another year.

The most exhausting part is probably the preparation for the meetings.  We probably send out over 400 pages of material in advance – binders, tabs, the works.  It’s the only eco-unfriendly Board packet of the year.  It feels like the old days in management consulting.  It takes days of intense preparation — meetings, spreadsheets, powerpoints, occasionally even some soul searching — to get the books right.  And then, once those are out (the week before the meeting), we spend almost as much time getting the presentations down for the actual meeting, since presenting 400 pages of material that people have already read is completely useless.

By the end of the meetings, we’re in good shape for the next year.  But before the meetings have even started, we’ve gotten a huge percentage of the benefit out of the process.  Pulling materials together is one thing, but figuring out how to craft the overall story (then each piece of it in 10-15 minutes or less) for a semi-external audience is something entirely different.  That’s where the rubber meets the road and where good executives are able to step back; remember what the core drivers and critical success factors are; separate the laundry list of tactics from the kernel that includes strategy, development of competitive advantage, and value creation; and then articulate it quickly, crisply, and convincingly. 

I’m incredibly proud of how both management teams drove the process this year – and I’m charged up for a great 2009 (economy be damned!).

Dec 062008

Next One is the Big One, a.k.a. Nine is Fine

Next One is the Big One, a.k.a. Nine is Fine

Today, Return Path turns nine years old. 

What an exciting year we’ve had, too.  As I mentioned a couple months back, we completely reorganized the company this year, marking a major transition and a new stage in the life of the business.  We acquired our largest competitor, Habeas, consolidating our space and further establishing ourselves as the leader in email deliverability and whitelisting.  We marched right past our 1,000th client milestone and now are well on our way to our 1,500th.

Thanks again to our fantastic team and our great group of investors and Board members for another fun and exciting year.  Nine is fine…and now the march to The Big 1-0 begins.

Dec 052008

Book Short: A Brand Extension That Works

Book Short:  A Brand Extension That Works

Usually, brand or line extensions don’t work out well in the end.  They dilute and confuse the brand.  Companies with them tend to see their total market share shrink, while focused competitors flourish.  As the authors of the seminal work from years ago, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Jack Trout and Al Reis would be the first people to tell you this.

That said, The New Positioning, which I guess you could call a line extension by Jack Trout (without Reis), was a fantastic read.  Not quite as good as the original, but well worth it.  It’s actually not a new new book – I think it’s 12 years old as opposed to the original, which is now something like 25 years old, but I just read it and think it’s incredibly relevant to today’s world.

Building on the original work, Trout focuses more this time on Repositioning and Brand Extensions — two things critical to most businesses today.  How to do the impossible, to change people’s minds about your brand or product mid-stream, whether in response to new competitive activity or general changes in the world around you.  And how to think about brand extensions (hint:  don’t do them, create a new brand like Levi’s did with Dockers).

The book also has a very valuable section on the importance of sound and words to branding and positioning, relative to imagery.  Trout has a short but very colorful metaphor about women named Gertrude here that’s reminiscent of the research Malcolm Gladwell cited in Blink.

If you haven’t read the original Positioning, that should be on your wish list for the holidays.  If you have, then maybe Santa can deliver The New Positioning!

Filed under: Books, Marketing

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