Tag Archives: Strategy

How Do You Make Your Customers Feel?

50 Facts About Customer Experience is an article by James Digby. As the title suggests, it lists fifty findings Digby collected from reports by many different sources such as consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain), research firms (Gartner, Forrester) and even the White House Office of Consumer Affairs.  We find that even though the article was written nearly three years ago, the facts that it lays out lead to insights that are arguably universal and still valid today.

After reading all fifty facts, it is almost impossible to miss the common trends that emerge.  None of these trends should come as a surprise to anyone, but nonetheless it is powerful to see facts from different sources point to the same outcome.Customer

The most powerful message of the facts is the importance of customer retention.  Companies are always chasing after new customers, but often times neglect existing customers while doing so.  It is critical to establish the correct balance between “hunting” new customers and “farming” existing ones. Here are some facts that underline the importance of “farming”:

  • It costs 6 – 7 times more to acquire a new customer than retain an existing one. (Bain & Company)
  • The probability of selling to an existing customer is 60 – 70%. The probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20%. (Marketing Metrics)
  • A 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as decreasing costs by 10%. (Leading on the Edge of Chaos, Emmett Murphy & Mark Murphy)
  • Research shows that a 10% increase in customer retention levels result in a 30% increase in the value of the company. (Bain & Company)
  • Customer profitability tends to increase over the life of a retained customer. (Leading on the Edge of Chaos, Emmett Murphy & Mark Murphy)

It is clear that customer retention is important for profitability, both from a cost and a revenue perspective.  If we can see that by simply looking at a few facts, then surely the managers of companies who deal with customers every day also realize its importance:

  • 85% of business leaders agree that traditional differentiators alone are no longer a sustainable business strategy. (Shaw & Ivens)
  • 73% of marketing managers of various large companies credit “repeat purchase behavior” as integral to the definition of successful customer engagement. (Forbes Magazine)
  • 71% of business leaders believe that customer experience is the next corporate battleground. (Shaw & Ivens)

It seems that most managers hold customer experience and retention in very high regard.  They are talking the talk, but are they walking the walk?

  • A survey asking which is the most important marketing objectives, shows that 29.9% think that it should be customer acquisition, and 26.6% think that it is customer retention. However 62.2% admit that they concentrate on customer acquisition, with only 20.6% focusing on customer acquisition. (eMarketer)
  • 55% of current marketing spend is on new customer acquisition, 33% on brand awareness and only 12% on customer retention. (McKinsey)
  • 92% of all customer interactions happen via the phone. (Gartner)
  • 85% of consumers are dissatisfied with their phone experience. (Gartner)
  • 68% of customers leave because they were upset with the treatment they received whilst speaking to customer services. (US Chamber of Commerce)

It appears that customer retention is not getting the attention it deserves, because not only does marketing consider existing customers to be less important than new ones, but the customers are also getting bad customer service, especially from call centers!

We will not go into the details of why that is the case here.  It is no secret that in most organizations the sales function is considered to be the “superstar”, while customer service function is more like the “ugly child to be kept in the back room.”  Why that is the case and at what point companies decided that selling is more important than serving is not important.  What is important here is that most customers are simply not happy, and most companies do not find out about it until it is too late:

  • 72% of all customers believe it takes too long to reach a live agent. (Harris)
  • 50% of the people survey said that agents failed to answer their questions. (Harris)
  • 44% said the information they received was not accurate. (Harris)
  • For every customer complaint, there are 26 other unhappy customers who have remained silent. (Lee Resource)
  • 96% of unhappy customers don’t complain, however 91% of those will simply leave and never come back. (1st Financial Training Services)

Customer Strategy

To summarize, Digby’s facts give us the following:

  1. Customer retention is extremely important for profitability.
  2. Executives are aware of this fact, but most are not doing what is necessary.
  3. To increase retention, both marketing spend towards existing customers and service quality need to be improved.
  4. A customer retention strategy targeting the right cost/benefit ratio for the company must be adopted by all parts of the organization.

Let us conclude with a quote from poet Maya Angelou, and remember: Customers are people, too!

People will forget what you said.

People will forget what you did.

But people will never forget how you made them feel.

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Gift Business: Innovation In Gift Giving (Part 2)

Earlier, in Gift Business: How Do People Buy Gifts? (Part 1), we covered the individual steps of the gift giving process.  Here, in Part 2, we will take a look at innovations that improve, replace or eliminate these steps.

We have already talked about the gift receipt innovation in our previous post.  The logical follow up is the gift card.  Aiming to make the entire process even more efficient, the gift card eliminates the SPECIFIC GIFT substep entirely for the gift giver, and makes the DELIVERY step easier, by reducing the size of the gift significantly, sometimes entirely, in the case of electronic gift cards.  

Because of its convenience, a number of new business models emerged around the gift card idea.  We are not merely talking about existing online and offline retailers, like Amazon or Starbucks selling their gift cards, but rather about new businesses that make concepts previously deemed impossible or impractical come to life.

CashstarOutsourced gift card services is one such concept.  For retailers that do not want to implement a gift card service by themselves, either because they are not tech-savvy enough or simply do not want to make the necessary investment, companies like CashStar provide a practical solution. CashStar’s digital gifting platform lets B2C and B2B retailers integrate a complete e-gift card service to their offering.  Customers can create personalized e-gift cards with their own text, photos and videos, then send them to recipients via the retailer’s website, mobile site or even Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook, the company is the main enabler of another concept made possible by the gift card innovation: social gifting.   In Facebook: Show Me The Money, we talked about Facebook’s role as an Integrated Social Utility:

“Facebook is … a social utility.  Just like other utilities, it is meant to work with other businesses, not compete with them.  That means it can be the provider of all kinds of social data to whoever is willing to pay for it.  Facebook has the ability to be the irreplaceable partner of every internet based business out there, integrated into their systems, providing them with data about their customers they otherwise would not be able to get.”

Wrapp MobileEven though Facebook has acquired social gifting start up Karma last year, and turned it into Facebook Gifts, the company allows its users to send paid-for, discounted or free gift cards to their friends via applications from dedicated gifting companies such as WrappDropGifts, or Boomerang.  CNET editor Paul Sloan explains in his article The Social Gifting Boom:

“It works like this: You sign up for Wrapp, either on the Web site or via the mobile app, by connecting directly to your Facebook account information. Wrapp notifies you of each friend who’s having a birthday, say, or who’s gotten engaged. Then, because of the targeting options it gives its retail partners, Wrapp will match its offers with information about the person you want to send a gift card. The choices you’ll see for a woman 18 to 25 are different than those for a man in his 40s.

While many of the cards are free, there is also an option to add more money. So you can chose to give a free $6 H&M gift card to a friend for Christmas, or you can make it for more, as any real friend would. Once you pick the offer, you write a message, press the Give button and you’re done. Your friend gets a notice on her Timeline, and it shows up in the news feeds of mutual friends (although there are options to send it directly through e-mail or SMS). If you receive a gift, Wrapp requires you to download the app to redeem it.”

Sloan believes that the beauty of the model is not how it works for the user, but the way companies like Wrapp have convinced their retail partners to give away free gift cards. Companies treat these cards almost like coupons, and gladly give away cards of a certain value because they know full well that recipients will either add more money to the card or that when they come to the store to redeem the card, they will end up spending more than just what is on the card.

treaterThere are others, as always, who look for the niche within the niche.  Treater is a gifting platform for sending casual, spur-of-the-moment, consumable, low price gifts.  It does work under the same principles as its larger rivals, but unlike them, it focuses on everyday treats, low cost items and local businesses instead of  formal occasions, big ticket items and national brands.  The idea is that next time a Facebook friends posts a status update on what a bad day they are having, you can send them a cup of mocha to make them feel better or when a friend announces a promotion at work, you can give your congratulations by treating them to a burger for lunch.

Even though gift cards provide recipients with the flexibility of making their own decision at the SPECIFIC GIFT step, there is always the possibility that the recipient may not exactly be happy with the LOCATION, or even the GENERAL IDEA.  In such a situation, the recipient could be stuck with an unwanted gift card.

This is where gift card exchange services come in. Exchange services such as Cardpool or Plastic Jungle allow gift card owners to either sell their gift cards, or trade them for another gift card of their choosing, at a discount.  The process is fairly simple. Once the gift card owner enters the gift card information (merchant, amount, card number) on the exchange’s website, the exchange will make the gift card owner an offer, if they want to sell the card, or display trade options, if they want to trade the card. Most gift cards can be sold or traded online, without the need to visit a store.

The ultimate solution to the unwanted gift issue, however, comes from Amazon.  Even though it has not been implemented yet, Amazon received a patent for a System and Method For Converting Gifts on November 2010.  The background of the patent application explains the motivation behind the innovation:

“…it sometimes occurs that gifts purchased on-line do not meet the needs or tastes of the gift recipient. For example, the recipient may already have the item and may not need another one of that same item. Alternatively, the item may not be the right size, the right type, the right style, and so on. In such situations, the recipient may wish to convert the gift to something else, for example, by exchanging the gift for another item or by obtaining a redemption coupon, gift card, or other gift certificate to be redeemed later.
… However, the process of converting the gift to something else once it has already been opened may be perceived by the recipient as being inconvenient. This may particularly be the case in the context of a gift purchased on-line, where the gift would likely need to be repackaged for shipping back to the merchant. Accordingly, the recipient may not ultimately convert the gift to something else, even though the gift does not meet the needs or tastes of the recipient.”

Amazon Patent Gift ConverterThe patent’s basic idea is a system by which a recipient’s gifts will be converted into things they actually want, through personalized lists and filters. Similar to email filters for products, potential recipients set up a personalized series of rules, and if any gifts sent through the online merchant trigger these rules, the recipients are sent either an item from their Amazon Wish List, or a gift certificate instead of the unwanted gift.

While innovative, the system drew sharp criticism from not only traditional minded gift givers, but also from etiquette experts.  The system was accused of being “dishonest” and while returning gifts that will not be used is deemed acceptable, returning gifts before even receiving them is considered to take the focus away from the appreciation of being given a gift.

wantful catalogThe balance between pragmatism and the spirit of gift giving we like is that of Wantful.  The company enables gift givers to choose gifts and create a small catalog of gifts. The recipient is sent a beautifully designed and personalized hard copy catalog that allows them to choose a gift, which is later sent to them in the mail. It is almost like a nice compromise on all fronts: the gift giver gets the convenience of not having to go to the store and the post office, while the recipient not only gets a nice, “hands on” catalog, but also has a degree of freedom in choosing a gift they want, without the hassle of  having to return an unwanted one.

Yet another innovative concept is group gifting.  Uniting the resources of many gift givers into a gift card enables the recipient to receive a more expensive gift they actually want,  instead of many small valued and mostly unwanted ones.  Group gifts not only make it possible for the gift givers to co-buy a gift of larger value, but also let the recipients choose or sometimes even predetermine their SPECIFIC GIFT.

A number of models have emerged around the group gifting concept.  eBay’s Group Gifts is one of them.  Once the gift fund is set up via an eBay and a PayPal account, gift givers can be notified via email or Facebook, and contribute to the fund with their credit cards.  No one gets charged until everyone chips in, and once it is fully funded, the gift fund will be sent to the designated PayPal account, and the recipient can checkout the same way as they would normally purchase any item on eBay.  It is a simple system that combines existing infrastructures of eBay and PayPal into an innovative service.

DreamBank‘s model is slightly different than the average gift fund.  Rather than focusing on items as gifts, the platform lets a recipient set up a fund for their dreams and enable gift givers to fund the recipient’s dream, which can be anything from a Caribbean cruise to an anniversary party, from a certificate program at the local university to ballroom dancing classes. The service is built as a community, so the recipient and the gift givers can interact over time with each other by sharing progress, resources or even encouragements. Gift givers can also set up a DreamBank account for unsuspecting recipients and surprise them after the dream has been funded.

SocialGift provides outsourced group gifting services for existing online retailers. Similar to what CashStar is doing for gift cards, SocialGift provides retailers with a plug-in for their product pages.  Customers can create a group gift directly from the retailer’s online store via an event page.  Through the event page, gift givers can determine how many people will contribute, track the progress of funds raised, invite more people to contribute or socialize with other gift givers.  The gift is shipped immediately, once the funds have been raised. If the gift is underfunded by a predetermined date, a gift card for the amount raised by the group is sent to the recipient.

While all the innovative concepts mentioned in this post so far have touched upon, utilized or modified most of the steps of the gift giving process, one step alone is outside the scope of most businesses: WRAPPING. This is where Delightfully comes in for digital gifts.

DelightfullyRecognizing the need to capture and enhance the emotional aspect of gift giving, Delightfully presents itself as “wrapping paper re-imagined”. Through Delightfully, gift givers can select an unwrapping experience for their gift, from 3-D mazes to a puzzle, from photo albums to a virtual tour. Gift givers can add their own personal messages and photos to the preexisting tools of the “wrapping paper.” Facebook users even have all of their photos on Facebook available for the platform. Co-founder Jason Shin explains:

Gift-giving is intended to be about a relationship between two people — not a vendor and a recipient.  When we talk about digital gift-wrapping, what we mean is showing some effort, the same way you do when you do a great job wrapping a physical gift.”

We have only talked about but a small subset of innovations and new businesses in the gift space.  Undoubtedly, some of them will prevail, while others will not. John D. Rockefeller once said that “the power to make money is a gift from God.”  Which of the businesses and innovations we have covered have received that gift, and which of them will convert that gift into their own gift cards? Time will tell.

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Gift Business: How Do People Buy Gifts? (Part 1)

Gift giving is a universal phenomenon.  From the Holiday Season to Mother’s Day, from Valentine’s Day to Graduation Day, from birthdays to weddings (not to forget anniversaries) literally hundreds of millions of gifts exchange hands every year, making both givers and receivers happy.  While many people give gifts the “traditional” way, others utilize new technologies and services.

We are going to cover the Gift Business topic in two parts.  In this post, Part 1 of the series, the individual steps that occur during a gift giving experience will be discussed.  In Part 2, we will take a look at how new technologies and services can improve, replace or eliminate these steps.

Many GiftsWe are all familiar with the “traditional” gift giving process, even if we do not always consciously think of it as a process or recognize the individual steps.  There exist many academic studies with conceptual frameworks attempting to describe the gift giving process, such as this example from the clothing industry:

“The framework consists of four stages: prepurchase, purchase, presentation, and postpresentation. Components of the prepurchase stage are object; interactions among occasion, recipient, and gift object; giver and recipient; cost of gifts; and information search. The purchase stage includes choice of retail outlets for gifts, distance traveled to locate gifts, and methods of payment. The presentation stage focuses on perceptions of the giver and the recipient when the gift is revealed. The postpresentation stage includes ways in which gifts affect interpersonal relationships; consumption of gifts is another component of this final stage.”

In this post and the next one, however, we are going to follow our own framework.  The gift giving process starts with a NOTIFICATION.  The NOTIFICATION can be external, such as receiving a wedding invitation or a birthday reminder email, although it can be internal as well, where you remember your child’s birthday, or just feel like rewarding your team at work.  This is the stage where “whether to get a gift or not” decision is made.

If a NOTIFICATION results in a go-ahead, it is generally followed by the SELECTION step, with its three substeps: GENERAL IDEALOCATION and SPECIFIC GIFT, although not necessarily in that order.

The GENERAL IDEA is just what it sounds like: you do not know exactly, but you have a “general idea about the nature of the gift” for the recipient.  This idea can be dictated by tradition (flowers on Valentine’s Day) or can be a result of your own free will (“I will get my friend a book, because I know she likes to read.”)  The GENERAL IDEA helps narrow down the options for LOCATION or “where to get the gift.”

Sometimes, however, it works the other way around.  The gift giver may decide on the LOCATION first, and then move on to the GENERAL IDEA (if the LOCATION offers many different options, such as a department store) or skip the GENERAL IDEA step altogether and let LOCATION dictate the nature of the gift.  Reasons for deciding on LOCATION first can range from convenience (“I can buy the gift on my lunch break at the department store across the street.”) to timing (“I thought her birthday was tomorrow!”) to financial considerations (“I already have a coupon/store credit for this store.”)

Usually, people tend to decide on GENERAL IDEA before LOCATION, if they have a strong motivation to get a “good” gift for the recipient to enjoy, and vice versa if they care less about how much the recipient will enjoy the gift, than the fact that they are giving a gift, as is the case with obligatory gifts (such as Secret Santa at the office.)

Next comes the SPECIFIC GIFT step, where the gift giver decides on the purchase.  Depending on the nature of the gift giver’s relationship with the recipient, and how well they know each other, it is possible to skip the two previous steps and get the SPECIFIC GIFT directly.  (“I know that my fiancee really wants these earrings.”)  The availability of gift options also dictate whether the gift giver is ready to move on to the next step, or go back and change the LOCATION (“They do not have that sweater in her size here, I will look elsewhere.”) or even the GENERAL IDEA. (“I originally wanted to get my nephew a katana, but they are so expensive, so I decided to get a book on Japanese swords instead.”)

The steps we covered so far involve many research, analysis and decision activities on the gift giver’s part, which we will not discuss in detail.  There are tools, many of them online, that help gift givers research various dimensions of gift options, analyze their viability and price/value ratios, as well as make relative and absolute comparisons to decide which gift will ultimately yield the optimal outcome for both the giver and the recipient.  While it would be interesting to take the process map one level deeper, and look at these processes and tools in the flow, for the purposes of this discussion, we are going to stick to the high level steps.

The next step is PAYMENT.  After the gift giver decides on the method (cash, debit card, credit card, installations, coupon, existing store credit) they must also make a very cruical decision which affects the rest of the process: whether to get a gift receipt or not.  While the more traditional minded gift givers frown upon the idea of their gift getting returned and exchanged for something else, the more pragmatic minded gift givers always give the recipient the option to exchange the gift, which has become a standard service at retailers.

WRAPPING, what makes a gift really look and feel like a gift, comes next.  While gift wrapping is a standard service at many retailers, some traditional minded gift givers insist on wrapping their gifts themselves, with decorative wrapping paper and accessories appropriate for the occasion, which indeed does add a personal touch to the gift giving process.  Many people argue that an important part of the joy of giving and receiving gifts is the surprise element, achieved by the WRAPPING, and the excitement that comes from unwrapping.  Although getting a gift wrapped at the store is more convenient, it can take away some of the surprise if the wrapping paper has the retailer’s logo all over it and hints at the GENERAL IDEA. (“I wonder what that rectangular gift wrapped in paper with Barnes & Noble logo all over is?”)

Traditionally, DELIVERY is the last step of the gift giving process.  A gift giver generally prefers to give the gift to the recipient in person when possible, usually in order to witness the happiness of the recipient firsthand.  When a personal DELIVERY is not practical, usually due to factors such as distance, availability or size, a commercial delivery by either the store or a commercial delivery service is arranged.

Gifting ProcessAlthough it does not affect the steps of the process by itself, the gift receipt innovation, mentioned at the PAYMENT step, has altered the flow of the process.  Rather than ending the process at DELIVERY, a gift receipt has the potential to set the process back to the SPECIFIC GIFT step, by giving the gift recipient the choice between keeping the original gift and exchanging it for something else.

As mentioned earlier, traditional minded gift givers dislike the gift receipt, because it not only makes the entire original SELECTION step irrelevant, thus overriding the original intent of the gift giver, but also reveals the actual monetary value of the gift, which is considered to be impolite.  In contrast, progressive minded gift givers defend the gift receipt, claiming that it gives the recipient an opportunity to exchange an unwanted gift for a better one, increasing the recipient’s utility, and after all, is not the gift giver’s ultimate goal just that?

So far, we have examined the individual steps of the gift giving process.  In Part 2, we will take a look at various innovations that redefine the process, its flow, as well as one or more of the steps.

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How Important Is Social Connectivity?

Sixteen years ago, around this time of the year, I was one semester away from finishing up my Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.  As with most students getting ready to finish school, it was job hunting season.  Perfecting resumes, writing customized cover letters, researching potential employers, attending information sessions and all other job hunt related tasks added up to an almost full time job by themselves.

Part of that job was getting ready for interviews.  My friends and I spent many hours conducting mock interviews with each other, preparing ourselves for those stressful meetings with recruiters.  Each type of job had its own interview format, and as a candidate for management consulting positions, I spent a lot of time practicing for Fermi Problems.

CalculationNamed after physicist Enrico Fermi, Fermi problems are typically about estimating quantities that seem impossible to compute given limited available information. These are questions like “How many airplanes are in the air around the world right now?” or “How many color printers are there in Istanbul?” The most famous Fermi problem, asked by Fermi to his students, is “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?”

In a consulting interview setting, the interviewers are less interested in the actual number answer to the question than the methodology used by the candidate to get to the answer.  In the absence of relevant data, the candidate is expected to make use of  commonly available knowledge, break the problem into smaller problems while making assumptions and approximate calculations. Fermi problems help interviewers evaluate the candidate for reasoning, structured thinking, practical knowledge, mathematical skills, ability to deal with uncertainty and making estimations – all very useful skills in management consulting.

While practicing for Fermi type consulting interview questions, I sometimes fantasized about the following scenario: A candidate walks into a consulting interview. The interviewers ask the candidate to estimate something like how many personal computers there are in Mexico. The candidate asks them to wait a moment, makes a call on his cell phone, and repeats the question. He waits for a few seconds, says thank you, hangs up and says “As of this past Monday, there are 18,453,901 personal computers in Mexico. Would you like to know anything else?” The interviewers are very impressed and hire the candidate on the spot.

Whenever I talked about this fantasy with my friends, they would all object to the ending and say that would be considered cheating and would defeat the purpose of the interview and as far as they were concerned, the candidate should be kicked out. I did see their point, but disagreed because I thought surely, someone that well connected and can reach seemingly impossible data with a simple phone call would be worth a lot to any organization.

That was sixteen years ago and we live in a very different world now.  Last month, I read Andrew Razeghi’s Fast Company article, Do You Hire For IQ Or Klout Score, which reminded me of my fantasy.  Razeghi considers both intelligence and social connectivity as important traits in business, especially from an innovation perspective.

“The line is quickly blurring between the value of what we know and who we know. This then begs the question: which is more important? Is it more valuable to have the answer? Or is it more valuable to know who has the answer?

In an academic environment we call the latter cheating. But in the corporate world, does it really matter if you know the answer to the problem, or is it more important that you can find out who does?”

In Understanding, Defining And Achieving Innovation, we talked about the seven brain attributes (thinking and behavioral tendencies) of people.  What Razeghi’s questions really lead to is when strong analytical and structured thinking skills are more essential than social thinking, expressiveness and assertiveness, and vice versa.

My answer to Razeghi’s question is “it depends.” While intelligence and ability are important across the board, certain business functions especially benefit from the size of an individual’s social network, and how influential the individual is within that network.  It is essential, for example, for product management and marketing, where a manager has to interact with many external service providers (agencies) of varying functions, managing them to get work done on time with a reasonable budget. For recruiting, knowing how to reach people with various sets of skills and the ability to convince them to take a particular job is priceless.  (Receive any connection requests on LinkedIn from headhunters recently?) For sales, this is even more so, for each contact within the salesperson’s network becomes either a potential customer or a lead to a potential customer.

Even within an organization, who you know and how influential you are with them matters.  Once you “learn the ropes” of an organization, things run more smoothly. Being on friendly terms with Bob the CEO’s Assistant may get you a brief meeting with his boss during an otherwise impossibly busy day. Your friendship with Mary from IT can determine whether your laptop gets repaired by lunch or by the end of next week.

kloutSocial connectivity has always been important in business, but never more so than in today’s world.  Businesses are increasingly looking at measures of social connectivity such as Klout Scores when screening candidates. Klout is an online service that measures people’s online influence and scores it on a scale from 1 to 100. In order to do so, Klout analyzes people’s social media data from all kinds of sources such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Foursquare. The Klout Score is calculated by applying Klout’s proprietary scoring model to more than four hundred signals such as number of friends, followers, comments, likes, retweets, all gathered from seven different networks on a daily basis. The claim is that the better someone’s Klout Score, the better connected and influential that person is.  Klout spokeswoman Lynn Fox is quoted in a recent Forbes article:

“We look at this as similar to an SAT.  It is one of many factors that is considered when a person applies to a university. Likewise, the Klout Score can be used as one of many indicators of someone’s skill set.”

Although somewhat controversial, Klout is beginning to get recognized as a legitimate measure of influence by businesses. In his Wired article titled What Your Klout Score Really Means, Seth Stevenson tells the story of an experienced marketing consultant who gets asked what his Klout Score is during an interview with a marketing agency.  The candidate gets turned down for the position due to his low Klout Score.  He then spends the next six months working hard to increase his Klout Score, and realizes that as his score rises, so do the number of interviews and job offers he gets. The consultant’s take: “Fifteen years of accomplishments weren’t as important as that score.”

The Tipping PointThe point is that social connectivity, however it gets measured, is important, sometimes even essential. One person who wrote about this way back in 2000, before there were social networks, user generated content and Klout Scores in our lives, is Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell saw the importance of social connectivity and talked about it in his bestselling book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  In his book, Gladwell examines what he calls social epidemics, which are “ideas and products and messages and behaviors [that] spread like viruses do.” According to Gladwell, there are three laws in the tipping points of social epidemics:

  1. The Stickiness Factor, which is about the actual informational content and packaging of a message. Messages must have a certain quality which not only causes them to “stick” to the recipients’ minds, but also is considered to be worth passing on.
  2. The Law of Context, which is about the rule of the environment in which the message is being passed.  Gladwell states that “epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”
  3. The Law of the Few, which states that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Gladwell calls these people Mavens, Salespeople and Connectors.

Mavens are the information specialists of the social network. They accumulate knowledge, evaluate it and if they deem it worthy, pass their evaluations and the original message to others in a skilled fashion.  Mavens control what messages flow through the social network.

Salespeople are charismatic people with strong persuasion and negotiation skills.  They can propagate messages through the social network, even to people they do not personally know.  Salespeople control how strongly the messages flow through the social network.

Connectors are people who have made large number of friends and acquaintances, and are in the habit of facilitating the formation of new social connections between them. They invest time and effort into maintaining their social connections, which are many more times the number than the average person. Gladwell calls them “[people who] link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” He also attributes the social success of Connectors to the fact that “their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.” Connectors control how wide and how quickly the messages flow through the social network.

viralTying all of this back to the seven brain attributes, it would be safe to say that we would expect the three types of people stated in The Law of the Few to be strong in different brain attributes.  I would expect a Maven to be strong in analytical and conceptual thinking, whereas a Salesperson would most likely excel in expressiveness and assertiveness.  A Connector would undoubtedly possess great social thinking skills and good flexibility.

If one sees the world of business through Gladwell’s eyes, it is clear that the goal of any business organization is to start social epidemics, for every business exists to create “ideas and products and messages and behaviors” and make sure that they “spread like viruses do.” Assuming that the other two of the three laws are fulfilled, meaning the product/service/message possesses high quality content and packaging in a favorable environment, The Law of the Few can very well determine the success of a business.

So I repeat my answer to Razeghi’s question. It depends.  It depends on the line of business, it depends on market conditions, it depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. But social connectivity does make a big difference. Deciding on how to use it, where to apply it and whom to hire to get it – well, that is the art of management.

Let us take a moment here, and recite a paraphrased version of the Serenity Prayer for executives:

God, grant my business the analytical resources to develop a high caliber product/service/message and a well functioning organization,

The social connectivity to start social epidemics that can make my product/service/message reach and stick with my customers,

And the business wisdom to help me decide how, when and where in my organization to utilize the two.

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Understanding, Defining And Achieving Innovation

You may have heard the story of famous Wall Street banker J.P. Morgan and the shoeshine kid.  According to the story, Morgan was getting his shoes shined, and the shoeshine kid asked Morgan about the latest stock tip he heard. This made Morgan realize that something was very wrong, that if even the shoeshine kid was in the stock market, then everybody else was too and the market was seriously overbought.  He promptly sold all his holdings and was able to avoid the stock market crash a few weeks later.

I always liked this story and often share it with my consulting clients to make a point about either a market being overcrowded or a concept being overused.  In this instant, what made me think of it was a job posting for a junior position looking for people who are “experienced in innovation” and would “add new innovations to the organization.”  (I especially loved the new innovations idea.  Who wants old innovations anyway?)

It is really getting annoying to see the word “innovation” misused in places where it does not belong. Unfortunately,  innovationmania is all around us.  There are innovation workshops that almost guarantee that all participants will be great innovators at the end of the program.  Self styled “innovation consultants” are everywhere, and can apparently make entire companies innovative overnight.  The first ever Innovation Turkey Expo was held in Istanbul earlier this month, which was really an expo of inventions, but innovation sounds much cooler than mere invention.  Corporate executives talk to business TVs and magazines to announce that their firm is in the innovation business.  Even politicians are making an extra effort to attend events that have innovation in the title somewhere, such as the National Innovation Initiative, because, it is hip, it is cool and it makes one look like they are keeping up with the times.

But seriously, what is innovation?  In “Innovation Is… Hmm…“, we briefly talked about how most companies and their employees are clueless as to what it is and what it really means for their organization and that it is the leadership’s responsibility to define what innovation should mean to the organization in general and each employee in particular.

A useful first step to understand innovation is to look at its etymology:

innovation (n.) mid-15c., “restoration, renewal,” from L. innovationem (nom. innovatio), noun of action from pp. stem of innovare

innovate (v.) 1540s, “introduce as new,” from L. innovatus, pp. of innovare “to renew, restore; to change,” from in- “into” + novus “new” . Meaning “make changes in something established” is from 1590s.

So, etymologically speaking, innovation is taking something that already exists and turning it into something new by making changes. This definition is further elaborated in the 2005 edition of the Oslo Manual, a joint publication by OECD and Eurostat.  The Oslo Manual, taking a broad approach, defines innovation as follows:

“An innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations.”

The manual distinguishes innovations in four different areas: product, process, marketing and organization.  Definitions of innovation in these areas are fairly MECE (mutually exclusive, completely exhaustive.)

“A product innovation is the introduction of a good or service that is new or significantly improved with respect to its characteristics or intended uses. This includes significant improvements in technical specifications, components and materials, incorporated software, user friendliness or other functional characteristics.

A process innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved production or delivery method. This includes significant changes in techniques, equipment and/or software.

A marketing innovation is the implementation of a new marketing method involving significant changes in product design or packaging, product placement, product promotion or pricing.

An organizational innovation is the implementation of a new organizational method in the firm’s business practices, workplace organization or external relations.”

The Oslo Manual also lists a number of changes that are NOT innovations.  I cannot help but be amused when I think about the many corporations and executives who call themselves innovative and brag about it all over the media, simply because they did one of these things below:

  • It is not an innovation to stop doing something, even if it improves a firm’s performance. Innovation is something new, not abandoning the old.  Example: an electronics manufacturer discontinuing a line of product.
  • The purchase of identical models of installed equipment, or minor extensions and updates to existing equipment, are not process innovations. This is not something new, it is simply more of the same.  Example: a steel mill expanding capacity by adding another furnace.
  • A change in the price of a product or in the productivity of a process as a simple result of changes in the price of factors of production is not an innovation. Example: a computer manufacturer can now produce the same model of laptop cheaper, because RAM prices have dropped.
  • Creation of a unique product in order to satisfy a specific demand by a specific customer is not a product innovation. It is another story of course, if the customized item displays attributes significantly different than previous products made by the firm.  Example: an automobile company builds a custom car for a wealthy customer.
  • Seasonal and other cyclical changes in design that are routine for the industry in general are neither product nor marketing innovations. Example: an apparel manufacturer switches from the summer line of products to the new fall line.
  • Trading of new or improved products is not a product innovation for a wholesaler, retailer or logistics firm, unless it is a new line of goods, not previously sold. Example: an electronics retailer starts selling the next generation LED TVs.

Another confusion I come across frequently is mistaking invention with innovation, such as the Innovation Expo mentioned earlier. The two are related, as  innovation refers to the successful implementation of something new, whereas invention refers directly to the creation of it. Not all inventions turn into innovations; if an invention is not economically feasible or practical, it will not be implemented, however novel or beneficial it may be.

Based on all of the above, here is my definition of innovation:

Innovation refers to an idea, method, system or product that;

  1. is new,
  2. has been successfully implemented,
  3. results in a net benefit.

Now that we have a better understanding and definition of innovation, next comes the question: how can a business achieve innovation and become an innovative company?

In Strategy Is… Hmm…(Part 2), we saw that businesses have three strategic resources: people, processes/information, and finances.  In the innovation context, the most important of the three is people.  With the right people, it is possible to upgrade the other two resources, and similar to strategic planning, the company can start thinking of innovation as part of the business – ongoing, habit and consistent – not as a “project” that has a start and a stop.

So, finding the right people is key.  Job postings looking for people “experienced in innovation” and would “add new innovations to the organization” is probably not the best way to go about it.  How a firm can find the “right” people is something that many have different opinions on.

Tony Golsby-Smith, founder and CEO of Second Road, a business design and transformation firm based in Sydney, Australia, thinks that the best way is to hire people with humanities backgrounds.  He criticizes the education system because it focuses on teaching science and business students to “control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data”, instead of teaching students how to deal with ambiguity and the unknown.

According to Golsby-Smith, people with humanities backgrounds who studied topics like Shakespeare’s poetry, Da Vinci’s paintings, history of the Roman Empire or political philosophy, have learned to grasp and manage big concepts, as well as how to apply new ways of thinking to difficult and unconventional problems.

Complexity and ambiguity. Too many companies lack the scope of understanding to stop problems before they start, because their people are too focused on immediate tasks, or buried under so much data that they can’t see warning signs. Any great work of art — whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual — challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.

Innovation. If you want out-of-the-box thinking, you need to free up people’s inherent creativity. Humanists are trained to be creative and are uniquely adapted to leading creative teams.

Communication and presentation. Liberal arts graduates are well-trained in writing and presenting, making them natural fits for marketing, training, and research. A focus on writing helps people develop persuasive arguments, and a background in performance gives people great presentation skills. And an understanding of history is indispensable if you want to understand the broader competitive arena and global markets.

Customer and employee satisfaction. To “get under the skin” of customers and employees to discover their real needs and concerns demands… you need keen powers of observation and psychology — the stuff of poets and novelists.”

Geil Browning,  founder of Emergenetics International, and the co-creator of  Emergenetics Profile, a psychometric thinking and behavioral workplace assessment tool, approaches the issue from a different angle.  In her article titled “You’re Wired To Be A Leader“, Browning talks about research that tells us that there are seven brain attributes—thinking and behavioral tendencies—people take advantage of to a greater or lesser extent, when faced with issues:

1. Analytical thinking is essential to making more objective, less biased decisions. This is the function that helps you look at existing research and data, examine options, and question what will or will not work.

2. Structural thinking ensures that you come up with a plan that is doable. It is the methodical, sequential process that helps maximize results, and minimize pitfalls.

3. Social thinking allows us to listen, build successful teams, relate to people, and develop and inspire others.

4. Conceptual thinking is right-brain, visionary thinking that jumpstarts innovation. Ideas that connect the dots and come out of left field can invigorate your organization.

5. Expressiveness is a behavior style you use to communicate your ideas. It affects how you relate to people and sets the course for the way you speak with others.

6. Assertiveness is a behavior style you use to put your ideas to work. An effective leader is assertive enough to make things happen, but not so assertive that others are stymied.

7. Flexibility is a behavior style you bring to the way you get things done. It determines not only your openness to other points of view, but also your ability to thrive in undefined (or very defined) situations.

More often than not, a company will not have a mix of employees in such a way that all of these brain types are adequately represented.  Most businesses tend to hire similar types of people, with similar thinking styles.  For innovation, an organization will need people with advanced “conceptual” type of thinking abilities, as Browning explains above.  These conceptual people will have different way of looking at things where they generate ideas, notice trends and data points others would miss, and tie them all together to come up with solutions that fit the big picture nicely.  They enjoy challenges and focus solutions at an idea level, but not at a process level.  They are not detail oriented, but if their ideas can be picked up by other people in the organization who ARE detail and process oriented, innovation will most likely occur.

Browning lists a number of useful interview questions to ask to identify strong innovators, but also cautions:

“If you want innovative ideas to surface in your company, it is your job to cultivate an atmosphere in which all types of creativity are valued. Before you hire your perfect candidate, make sure your organization is truly ready to hear new ideas.

One note of caution: look for competence, not just blue-sky thinking, because ultimately you need ideas that will benefit your bottom line. Experience with real world solutions is a bonus in any job candidate.”

Douglas Merrill, CEO and founder of ZestFinance, a Los Angeles-based financial services technology company, echoes Browning’s recommendations but articulates it in a very different way.  In his article “Why Hiring People Who Annoy You Helps You Innovate“, Merrill lists his three rules to follow when innovating an existing brand or starting something new:

Hire People Who Annoy You.  Research shows that diverse teams tend to come up with a wider variety of answers, and, thus, are more likely to find the surprising winning idea. The converse is also true: If you build a team that looks alike, thinks alike, and wears the same shoes (pardon the pun), you will get groupthink and generate only one answer, and hope it’s the right one.

Social psychology has taught us that we tend to like people who are similar to us, and the higher the similarity, the more likable the person. This suggests a hiring strategy–hire people who annoy you. As long as you’re ensuring they are smart, the people who annoy you represent the diversity you and your company require.

Don’t Copy, Remake. There is an entire cottage industry devoted to teaching you how to be innovative… They tell you what was done, not why it was done… Don’t copy the surface behavior–understand the goals, and do them in your context.

Don’t Create, Listen.  The purpose of innovation is not simply to build something new, but to win new customers, new markets, or new products. While you think you may know what they want, in reality, you don’t. Rather, you knew what customers wanted back when the company started, but now the only people who really know what customers want are the customers.

So how do you find out what the customers want? My advice would be to nix the focus groups. While they’re generally not representative of your actual customers, it’s also true that humans can’t describe what they don’t know… In many cases, you can see what customers want by watching their behavior.”

There is no reason to be confused or misdirected by all the hype about innovation.  Innovation is real and it happens every day, all around us. If we understand what innovation really is, and what it means for our business, then all it takes to achieve it is to have the determination to reshape our organization and hire the right people to lead the way.

To borrow from and paraphrase Shakespeare, be not afraid of innovation: some businesses are born innovative, some achieve innovation and others have innovation thrust upon them.  Does innovation lead to greatness?  I do not believe that it is sufficient, but it is very much necessary.

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Facebook: Show Me The Money

Amazing how a website and a company that did not exist a mere ten years ago is so popular. There are some who cannot even start their day without logging in to Facebook and updating their status. Others criticize the site and boycott it due to privacy concerns. A lot of shareholders who bought Facebook shares at the IPO price are furious, while other investors and industry analysts are hopeful about the future and what the company may become. There is already a movie about Facebook out there, with rumors of a sequel. Not only are there hundreds of books about Facebook in bookstores, there are actual businesses out there that help you make your Facebook profile and photos into an actual, real-life book. There are songs about Facebook, even a mini Facebook musical! Facebook is all over the place and in our lives, whether we like it or not.

The latest Facebook news that had everyone excited was the 1 billion active users number.  At the beginning of this month, on October 4th, Facebook announced that it reached another milestone with 1 billion monthly active users, according to an Amazon Web Services (AWS) factsheet.  The previous milestone was on July 2010, with 500 million active users.

The active user term, which is different than registered users, is defined by Facebook as “the number of users who have logged in during the previous month.”  While merely logging in doth not a truly active user make, the term is still a lot more interesting to me than a registered user, especially considering the many fake accounts created on Facebook for purposes such as increasing the number of “likes” for a specific piece of content.  Facebook announced last month a significant increase in efforts to delete fake accounts and false likes.

Other than the 1 billion active users, the AWS factsheet lists a number of other interesting facts, some of which piqued my interest:

Age Demographics.  Median age of users has been declining since 2007.  On the milestone date of July 2010, the average median age of users joining that week was 23.  As of September 2012, it went down to 22.  This steady decline in median age is a good indicator of increased total user activity volume in the future.

Global Reach. The top five countries where people connected from at the time the latest milestone was reached were, the United States, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, in that order.  (Turkey was Nr. 7) same top five in July 2010. With the exception of the United States, the top countries are all emerging economies, which is good for future growth expectations.

Location Based Content.  There were 17 billion location-tagged posts, including check-ins, since the launch of the check-in capability in August 2010.  That there were a simple average of 17 location tags per active user is good news for the future of location based services.

Mobile.  Facebook now has 600 million mobile users.  A 2011 year end report by ITU (International Telecommunications Union) that surveys the global mobile and online landscape puts the worldwide number of mobile phone subscriptions at 5.9 billion, which has probably reached 6 billion by now.  That means roughly one out of every ten mobile users in the world is on Facebook via their mobile phone.  That is also good news. Or is it?

Mobile has been a risk factor for Facebook for a while now.  In February of this year, Facebook’s original SEC filing for its IPO listed mobile as a core part of the company’s strategy:

“We are devoting substantial resources to developing engaging mobile products and experiences for a wide range of platforms, including smartphones and feature phones. In addition, we are working across the mobile industry with operators, hardware manufacturers, operating system providers, and developers to improve the Facebook experience on mobile devices and make Facebook available to more people around the world. We believe that mobile usage is critical to maintaining user growth and engagement over the long term.”

At the same time, the same SEC filing pointed out to risks to the company’s bottom line due to mobile usage:

Our advertising revenue could be adversely affected by a number of other factors, including … increased user access to and engagement with Facebook through our mobile products, where we do not currently directly generate meaningful revenue, particularly to the extent that mobile engagement is substituted for engagement with Facebook on personal computers where we monetize usage by displaying ads and other commercial content.”

Even before the IPO, Facebook had its eye on the mobile world.  The company acquired Instagram in April of this year, for a cool USD 1 billion, although Instagram will remain independent of Facebook and will not be integrated into the company, at least not in the near future.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented:

“Now, we’ll be able to work even more closely with the Instagram team to also offer the best experiences for sharing beautiful mobile photos with people based on your interests. … We think the fact that Instagram is connected to other services beyond Facebook is an important part of the experience.”

Zuckerberg explains how they have been addressing the mobile issue at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco last month.

“Q: Is mobile a strength or weakness for Facebook?

A: There are more users, they spend more time on Facebook, and we’re going to make more money on mobile ads. … We’ve had right-hand-column ads and it’s been great, a multi-billion-dollar business. But on mobile, we can’t do that. It’s clearly going to have to be different. We’re seeing some great mobile ad products being developed. There’s a huge opportunity. The question is getting there.

Clearly we’ve had a bunch of missteps there. The biggest mistake we made as a company was betting too much on HTML5, because it’s just not there yet. … We just couldn’t translate it to mobile with the quality we wanted.  We had to start over and rewrite everything to be native. We burned two years. It may turn out it was one of the biggest if not the biggest strategic mistake we made.”

The company has also been testing its own mobile ad network according to BusinessInsider‘s Owen Thomas, who explains the tests:

“Facebook is doing a limited test of ads on mobile websites and mobile applications, displaying ads to people who are logged into Facebook.  So, if you are logged into Facebook on ESPN, and you head over to ESPN’s mobile site, you might see an ad for Domino’s Pizza.  That ad won’t say that your buddy Nicholas loves Domino’s, though: According to a Facebook rep, these ads won’t have the “social context” that ads on Facebook’s own website show.

An ad network could be a lucrative new source of revenue for Facebook.  But the ad-network space on the Web is incredibly crowded and competitive, with Google dominating the business.  The mobile-ad space is just getting started. And Facebook has a lot of data on users—not just demographic information, but the apps they use, and the apps their friends use.  One pool of customers for a Facebook mobile ad network: app developers who want to get more people to install their software.  Facebook is already selling ads on its own website and mobile apps that help encourage users to download new apps. Placing those ads on other Facebook-enabled apps and mobile websites could tap into big app-promotion budgets.”

Nicholas Carlson, also of BusinessInsider, talks about why the Facebook mobile ad network is such a big deal:

“Right now on the web, the most successful advertising business other than search is advertising targeted to specific users based on lots of anonymized data collected about them. [e.g. location, age, gender, web surfing history, purchase history].  Web publishers know who is looking at their ad inventory and they can sell their inventory to advertisers looking to reach certain types of people.  The problem that Facebook’s ad network will solve is that at the moment, mobile app publishers do not have the same amount of information about the people who are using their apps and looking at their ad inventory.

The reason that web publishers know who is looking at their ad inventory is that web users, in their surfing, download something called “cookies” to their browsers. When they load a new page, the publisher of that page can read past cookies downloaded, and build a data mosaic of the person looking at their ads.  On mobile, apps are separate pieces of software from browsers. They cannot look at the cookies downloaded in the browser. iPhone browsers don’t download cookies at all, anyway.

So mobile app makers are flying blind. Right now, they are selling ads using a very old-fashioned model. They are guessing what kinds of people might like the content that their app offers, and then asking advertisers if they would like to buy ads to reach those kinds of people. Advertisers don’t like to buy ads this way these days, and they don’t have to.”

Last Wednesday, Facebook announced the rollout of its mobile app installation ads program to all developers. That means that all developers on Facebook can build ads that link from Facebook’s Android and iOS apps to either Google Play or the App Store, resulting in ad revenue for Facebook.

Facebook’s stock price will certainly benefit from any additional revenue the company can get.  The company’s stock price closed last week at USD 19, exactly half of its IPO price of USD 38.  There are two main reasons for this poor stock performance.

One of them is the expected and scheduled unlocking of shares over the next seven months.  The current volume of 700 million shares is expected to increase to 2.5 billion shares.  A Bloomberg article published mid-August lays out the schedule:

“The shares freed up yesterday represent 14 percent of the 1.91 billion that will become available for sale in the coming nine months. The next expiration date comes between Oct. 15 and Nov. 13, when restraints are removed on about 243 million shares. Lock-up expires on about 1.2 billion shares on Nov. 14, and for 149.4 million shares a month later. A final round comes May 18, 2013, with 47.3 million shares becoming available.”

The other reason is the uncertainty around Facebook being able to generate new revenue streams.  Until now, Facebook had two main streams of revenue: Advertising and Payments.  Advertising, as we touched upon above, is moving away from PCs towards mobile and how Facebook’s mobile strategy will play out remains to be seen.  Payments, which until now really means Zynga, the social game developer, is not looking too great, mostly because Zynga is trying to move its gaming transactions away from Facebook to Zynga.com.

So Facebook really needs to figure out how to show its investors and the rest of the business world the money. The company is reported to be kicking a few ideas around, according to Erin Griffith who covers New York startups for PandoDaily:

“On its quarterly reports, “Payments” is the category of revenue that Zynga falls into. The hope is that Facebook will expand this category beyond small game-related transactions and into virtual wallet territory.  The company has also said it will take its real time bidding ad exchange off its own site to be implemented across the web. It’s another ad-related product but unlike the Sponsored Stories Facebook is hand-holding its advertisers through, this opportunity has advertisers salivating, because no other site on the Web has as much data about so many people, voluntarily supplied with a real name attached, as Facebook does. There’s also dating, e-commerce, and search. Perhaps one of its acquisitions from this quarter–Karma? Face.com?–could create new streams of revenue.”

Facebook’s recently announced online gift store, Facebook Gifts, is one of these ways.  Wired.com’s Ryan Tate explains:

“Citing its unique ability to recommend products, Facebook opened an online gift store. The move edges the social network onto the turf of e-commerce king Amazon, but at an opportune time: Amazon is busy making movies, computer hardware, cloud computing services, and entering other markets far afield from its core business of selling physical goods.

Not that Facebook is trying to usurp Amazon just yet. The launch of Facebook Gifts is modest: Facebook is emphasizing sub-$50 products like socks, cupcakes, teddy bears, and Starbucks gift cards. The idea is that Facebook will see words like “happy birthday” or “congratulations” on someone’s wall and prompt friends to buy the person something through the new store.

It’s an obvious and proven idea, one Facebook acquired when it bought year-old mobile gifting startup Karma in May. In the ensuing months, Facebook has rebranded the service and created a desktop version of the app, which is what is being launched today as Facebook Gifts. (From 2007 to 2010, Facebook operated a store by the same name, but it only sold virtual goods.)”

Another idea is Social Search.  Matthew Ingram of GigaOm explains:

“… The social network already handles about one billion search queries every day, and [they are] basically not even trying. For comparison purposes, that’s about 20 times as many as Microsoft’s Bing search engine gets — and about a third of the 3 billion queries that Google handles every day. But it’s not just about volume: the critical factor is that Facebook’s searches are all about finding socially relevant information, from people to brands and related topics.  To give just one example, the Facebook CEO said a question might be something like: “What sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York, and liked?” This is the kind of answer that Google simply isn’t very good at providing — or at least, not yet. It can show you sushi restaurants within a few miles of your location, and it can show you ratings from Yelp and other services to help you choose, including reviews from its recently purchased review providers Zagat and Frommer’s, which are starting to show up in the “one box” results for restaurants. But it can’t really show you which ones your friends like, unless they all happen to be on Google+.”

The idea I really like is the Integrated Social Utility concept. Why launch a gift store instead of providing Amazon with the social customer data? Why go into social search, instead of providing Google with the relevant social activity and user recommendations?  Why build an e-wallet instead of partnering with PayPal? Why create a matchmaking website and not leverage the experience of eHarmony?

Facebook is not an e-commerce site. Nor is it a search engine, a payment business or a dating site.  It is a social utility.  Just like other utilities, it is meant to work with other businesses, not compete with them.  That means it can be the provider of all kinds of social data to whoever is willing to pay for it.  Facebook has the ability to be the irreplaceable partner of every internet based business out there, integrated into their systems, providing them with data about their customers they otherwise would not be able to get. If the other businesses are willing to play ball, I believe that is the best long term strategy for Facebook.

But do not take my word for it.  Zuckerman said it way back in 2007, at his first interview with TIME:

“Q: Why do you describe Facebook as a “social utility” rather than a “social network?”

A: I think there’s confusion around what the point of social networks is. A lot of different companies characterized as social networks have different goals — some serve the function of business networking, some are media portals. What we’re trying to do is just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information and share information. We always try to emphasize the utility component.”

Well, Facebook, you clearly talked the talk in 2007. Now, five years later, please start walking the walk.  Your investors and the rest of the billion people are waiting.

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Do Not Let Your Startup Die

Last month, we talked about some of the reasons that usually cause new ventures to fail in Entrepreneurs: 10 Mistakes, 5 Lessons And 3 Methods To Learn Wisdom, and also stressed the importance of learning from other people’s mistakes, as recommended by Martin Zwilling and Confucius.

Prof. Noam Wasserman of Harvard Business School agrees with them.  Wasserman, who spent decades researching startups and why they succeed or fail, has compiled a database of experiences from 10,000+ company founders, and shares his findings in his book The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup.  Let us take a look at some of the most common mistakes:

Co-founding with friends or family.  Wasserman found out that the most common decision of entrepreneurs is to team up with someone they know socially.  While this is understandable, it is the least stable of all teams, because the founders will most likely be of very similar backgrounds and have too many of the same skills, being unable to complement each other’s shortcomings.  To fix this, founders should be aware of these collective deficiencies and complement their personal strengths with professionals, either as partners or consultants.

There are also emotional issues, because it is more difficult to decide and say what needs to be done on topics such as compensation, decision making, responsibilities when dealing with friends or family.  The solution is to actively pursue the “tough discussions” while building firewalls between the work relationship and the social relationship to protect the social one from harm.

Early equity splits.  73% of the company founders included in Wasserman’s research decided on how to divide the equity within a month of founding.  While a decision needs to be made on who owns what share of the venture upfront, mostly because of funding requirements, the equity division should never be permanently fixed.  At the beginning of a venture there is a lot of uncertainty.  What will the strategy be? What roles will each of the founders play? How much will everyone be able to invest other than money?

Most divisions are equal splits, which assumes that all founders will provide equal contributions.  That almost never happens, at least one person will feel that they are contributing more than their fair share, which will inevitably lead to problems.  It is best not to set equity stakes in stone, but rather to agree upfront upon a dynamic mechanism that enables a redistribution of equity over time based on performance and contribution of the founders.  Something like a vesting plan over time or based on achievements of milestones works well.

I advise my consulting clients to always write and sign a gentlemen’s agreement before starting any venture, a legally non-binding document that lays out the founders’ decisions on issues such as how to redistribute equity over time, how to share profits if and when they materialize, what the overall roles of each founder will be, what the general decision rights are, how the equity will be valued if a founder decides to back out of the venture, which expenses will be reimbursed and so forth.  Such an agreement is always useful, as it exerts moral pressure on the founders to be more cooperative, eliminating many problems over time before they arise.

Professional vs. emotional investors. It is quite common for entrepreneurs to ask their family or close friends to invest in their venture when they get started.  They do this because it is easy, mostly due to an existing emotional bond and established trust between the parties.  However, investment decisions based more on emotional than rational reasons can cause problems.  It is essential that the founders have an honest and open discussion with their investors and explain the risks and timelines very clearly to manage expectations.  If a founder’s grandmother who put money into the venture suddenly gets anxious and asks for his money back just when the startup is trying to launch a product, there will be management problems due to added stress on top of everything else that is going on.

The emotional investors also lack the scrutiny of professional investors.  Professional investors are very rational, caring a great deal about their money and where they put it.  They would not hesitate to point out to flaws or weaknesses in the business, maybe even offer suggestions and would not at all care about the feelings of the founders, the way a grandmother might.

Having said that, it is also true that while professional investors add value, they also bring control risk.  Emotional investors would not fire a founder because they do not like their performance, but professional investors would, and have.  52% of the company founders included in Wasserman’s research were replaced as CEOs by the time they raised their C round of funding. Of those, three out of four were fired by the board, i.e. professional investors.

Conflicting goals of founders. Sometimes startups are launched without the founders having a shared understanding of why they are getting into the venture.  While everyone is intent on “building something” in the initial stages, later on, they may have different ideas on how to proceed.  Without a mechanism such as the gentlemen’s agreement, this may lead to significant problems for the founders, both personal and financial.  Wasserman talks about what he calls the “rich-vs.-king dilemma.”

“The king is a visionary who wants to bring something to fruition and have an impact on the world without having to sacrifice the idea or have others twist and turn it. This person is more control-oriented and should think about being a solo founder, bootstrapping the venture, and finding inexpensive employees who are going to be more rising stars than rock stars.

The founder who primarily wants to get rich will do what it takes to grow the venture, including hiring the best employees, finding the best co-founders, [and] giving up control to the investors with the best financial resources, guidance, and networks. They don’t mind imperiling control in hopes that the pie will grow a lot bigger—and their slice, while smaller, will be much more valuable.”

How about an entrepreneur’s point of view?  Andrew Montalenti is not an academician.  He is the co-founder and CTO of Parse.ly, and speaks from firsthand experience as an entrepreneur in Why Startups Die, where he conducts a post mortem on startup deaths, based on patterns he discovered:

  • Marriage Trouble: If you [and your partners] can’t work well together and co-motivate each other through thick and thin — then the startup will fail.
  • No Bootstrapping Plan: If you have the mentality that “without funding, I can’t work on my startup”, then your startup will likely die.
  • Startup is a Career Move: If you are treating your startup as a “career move” — a way to move up in the “startup ecosystem” and end up a C-level executive at some other, VC-funded rocketship, then, in all probability, your current startup will fail.
  • Refusal to Change Original Idea: You should be obsessed with your company’s mission, but willing to change your company’s approach given new data or circumstances.
  • Pre-Emptive Scaling: Worrying about “scale” in the early days of your startup is simply a bad investment.
  • Growing Too Fast: The more your company starts to feel like a big company, the slower you will move, and the more you will spend.
  • Scared of Code: Nothing simultaneously focuses your team in its mission and gathers the most useful market feedback like actually building software prototypes… Without concrete, tangible progress toward a product, it simply becomes too easy to walk away.

Montalenti has a general piece of advice for startups: Be persistent and continue moving forward, no matter what.  He makes references to Paul Graham, who is known for his work on Lisp, for co-founding Viaweb (which later became Yahoo Store), and for co-founding the seed accelerator Y Combinator.  Graham is also the creator of the famous “Startup Curve”.

Graham, an experienced incubator who has seen quite a few number of startup failures, tells entrepreneurs what to do to survive:

When startups die, the official cause of death is always either running out of money or a critical founder bailing. Often the two occur simultaneously. But I think the underlying cause is usually that they’ve become demoralized. You rarely hear of a startup that’s working around the clock doing deals and pumping out new features, and dies because they can’t pay their bills and their ISP unplugs their server…They may have to morph themselves into something totally different, but they won’t just crawl off and die. They’re smart; they’re working in a promising field; and they just cannot give up.  All of you guys already have the first two. You’re all smart and working on promising ideas. Whether you end up among the living or the dead comes down to the third ingredient, not giving up.”

There are many ways a startup can die, but there are also many ways to prevent that from happening.  Learn from other people’s mistakes, do the hard work, and most importantly, keep the faith.

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