The Climate March, community driven markets and agtech

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 6.58.02 AMI simply couldn’t resist the urge to chronicle the Climate March, held this past Sunday in New York.

I was there and blown away by the sheer magnitude of people and spirit.

As a New Yorker living in the flood plain downtown, climate change is not an abstraction but reality, as two times out of the last three hurricane seasons, our building was evacuated and we were handed a personal warning sign of changes surely to come.

Of course, climate change touches everyone and everything not just us. From the rising level and temperature of the ocean, to how we produce nutrients to feed the world, to the rising alcohol levels in the wines we drink.

This march, even for NYC, with some 400,00 strong participating, was hyper symbolic simply by its density and size.

It was also a wondrous and large-scale mess from the crammed, uncontrollable mass of humanity overcrowding the uptown trains on a lazy Sunday morning to total bedlam at the intersection of 77th Street and Central Park West.

For myself, ever the pragmatic optimist, it was a graphic reinforcement of my personal belief that truly giving a shit about something, and sharing that belief, is a force that can change the world.

I was egged on to write this by a friend’s Facebook comments to my Instagram photos of the march. ‘Does it really matter?’ was her question punctuated with glass-half empty ennui and painted in inevitability of doom and gloom.

My response is undeniably—Yes!

It is the only thing that matters! Without caring nothing gets done.

Let’s be clear that what was united in this sea of chanting humanity at the march was the passion and collective acknowledgement of a real threat. That’s the key point.

Beyond that communion, it was a jumble of slogans, crazily diverse, many misguided, blaming our current state of the planet on everything from Wall Street to Obama, to industrialization to the decay of religion and ethics.

As diverse as the messages was the population. A melting pot of people, seniors and baby boomers aplenty, but way more teenagers acting out awareness, many costumed, dancing with childlike seriousness and pensive joy.

Granted that this march was more expression than platform, more celebration of unity than a coherent coalition or fund raising effort. Some of the secondary offshoots like Flood Wall Street, and Choose Life over Money seem counter productive if not misguided.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 6.58.59 AMBut—exultations at this level mollifies most everything else, even the practical, to some extent.

This was a gathering to show solidarity, to cheerlead the fact that people do care and are willing to do something about it.

I never found my group at the march and in my wandering about, two truths struck me, one from my heart and one absolutely from my head as a businessperson.

The largest cultural changes always comes from the heart of the people up, not from legislation and the government down.

This seems to play itself out time after time in my life.

People are the kernels of the largest changes, not government nor certainly institutions. People are in fact where businesses and government get their cue and permission to act.

Think back to the world you lived in the day after you graduated high school. My bet is the largest cultural changes you are living with today are the ones that you personally were part of making happen.

Civil rights, gender equality, the criminalization of bigotry and hate crimes, gay rights, sexual freedoms—even recycling and large scale composting–all started from people, from individual actions atomizing into groups and communities embracing trends that evolved society and eventually impacted government.

In my personal world, the change is really dramatic.

Post high school, no one was out of the closet, gender equality was an aspirational idea, with not even a hint of reality. Racial and religious intolerance was commonplace. Littering wasn’t even a concept and on the health front, lead was a prime ingredient in the paints used in every elementary school. Asbestos was wrapped around every plumbing pipe in NA.

All of these were taken on by the people and to varying degrees moved in the right direction against overwhelming odds. Fueled by the web of course and instantiating a new moral status of transparency and civil customer rights.

The world is hardly perfect but you are wearing blinders if you don’t see this as a better place and time. And even moreso if you don’t think the world’s population can’t tackle the massive issues affecting everyone—climate and equally of how to feed the world’s hungry without killing the planet itself.

I call bullshit on the doom and gloom crowd.

We shall prevail and not only will change happen it will happen in ways that drive our economy, not hurt it.

Saving the earth just may save the world’s economy

This is not a feeling, this is calculated hypothesis. Maybe optimistic but smacks of possibilities.

VCs are now talking about investing to do good. I applaud this but I also know they are following the money as well and investing smartly.

I believe the real money from capital investments over the next decades will come from AgTech more than tech, from logistics ingrained with sustainability and from leveraging science as truly the partner of computer and behavioral sciences.

I believe that projects around carbon footprints, growing more nutrient dense food per acre, water usage, power and land usage generally are ‘good’ as in the realm of stuff for the ‘common good’ but equally, they are where the smart money is going to be made.

The real reason I’m positive on the future is because good intentions and great business will come together here as a perfect wave.

That not only does the mass of people I followed down Central Park West have a heart to push and support change, but it is also the market for the products of change.

This group of 400,000 and the hundreds of millions they touch in their networks across the web, are both the spirit for change and the consumers who will support it with their choices of what to buy and what not.

This is a big deal. Product without markets fail. Markets chanting for products they can love, change the world we live in.

I also agree with Rob LeClerc, CEO of AgFunder, that AgTech as a category is the next major asset class in the capital markets.
If you can solve any one of thousands of critical agricultural supply chain opportunities, the market is already here.

Wrapping up

This was the best use of a Sunday afternoon I’ve done a while.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 6.58.21 AMTo say that people don’t care is simply not true. The march here and around the world proved that. People seriously are concerned and united around that concern.

To think that world leaders can ignore this—I guess is possible, but not for long as the coming generations will be way less patient that we are. And they were out en mass at the march.

The real power here is that the people who were present were united in spirit and will create the market to support it.

From rose colored,peace-signed glasses on baby boomers to musings on AgTech economics—simply a great day.

September 11th…stopping to remember

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 9.59.46 AM

 Reblog of my post from a year ago. Feels as right today as it did then.
____________________________________

All day yesterday working on my schedule, whenever I noticed the date, my concentration ground to a halt.

I kept thinking back to that Tuesday, 12 years ago, being stranded in San Francisco on business with the country’s air space shut down. Sitting in bars, watching the news with strangers and having the reality of what happened burned into memory by the incessant replaying of the events on network news.

Talking on the cell to friends in New York, every one of them, shell-shocked. Many of them seeing the plane hit the second tower. Watching the buildings crumble and a very different world appear as the dust settled.

I came back on the first flight out, the Saturday night redeye, circling into JFK over the smoking debris.  I remember walking to the intersection of West Broadway and Canal, staring at the barricades on the South side of Canal Street. The surrealistic image of a Schwarzenegger movie billboard that was coming out with him fighting terrorists somewhere. In smug contrast with the real grim reality on the streets.

I’m not going to recap. We all have our memories and have dealt with them. Many moved out of town. Many took years to come to grips. Everyone moved on.

This was a pre iPhone camera world. A pre Facebook and Twitter reality where real-time sharing and connections were absent. Rather than post, you walked around seeing scores of make shift memorials with flowers and pictures of people. Telephone numbers scrawled on papers to call if you saw or heard of someone.

In retrospect, it feels like a black and white photograph of a different time. Frozen yet wrapped in very real memories. My memories as I was there.

People need memorials of horrible events to place them. I light a candle for the passing of my father and grandfather and it helps ground my thoughts. The fiasco of  building the new Freedom Tower and the passage of time has squandered the memory of this event somewhat. Even today, more than a decade later, the memorial is not really complete, surrounded by a fence and a construction site.

The reality of 9/11 was that we felt attacked where we lived. As you went further from the physical event, even uptown, it became less real, less yours and less somehow immediate.

In the years following, when I worked in LA, I tried mostly in vain at my companies to make the day mean something. Invariably it always fizzled. It meant as little to many on the west coast as to many people I work with today in their 20′s. They aren’t insensitive, but, to them, it’s a historical event, not an experience that shaped any part of who they are. That distance is the difference.

I’m not a romantic about this. And I didn’t lose any friends or family. And while sensitive and a downtowner, I don’t gush over this often or have loose emotional ends.

But it’s important, because if I don’t make it so, it will indeed go away. If the only reminder is of the skyline view in pre-9/11 movies or photos with the towers in them, this is indeed a waste.

When I posted something about this on Facebook yesterday, a friend responded that the  9/11 light sculpture that they erect every year is her favorite.

The light sculpture is indeed amazing but it’s more art than memorial to most unless we personalize it.

The connection between the fact that crazies who truly hated us navigated hijacked planes using Broadway as their map to the towers, is somehow below the surface. The family from New Jersey who I met in Union Square that brought their then young children into town to experience the community side of this nightmare, is absent somehow in those beams of light till I talk about them.

This post is my nudge to myself to spend a few moments thinking about it. Connecting the dots so that they stay real.

I’m all about moving on. I’m a hardass generally. For this particular memory, making my own little memorial of it on my blog seems like the right thing to do.

The Wellness Market

The Wellness Market is an anomaly, undefined and amorphous by definition yet potentially a game changer for how consumer products are marketed and sold.

On one hand it’s an economic torrent with some $2T a year estimated in spend.

On the other hand, it’s a completely ambiguous, self-defining category loosely covering everything from fitness to meditation, from workout apparel to fashion, from beauty products to self-help to nutrition.

At its core its simply a catchall  term for living a healthier life, embraced by Google and other corporate wellness teams, your local Vinyasa Yoga studio and business coaches alike.

It’s undefined, mostly leaderless and exploding from humble beginnings as a predominantly women’s yoga gathering idea with a few supportive brands a few years ago, to most everyone doing most anything.

It’s so vague it’s almost meaningless. It’s so core to a change in cultural perception, it cuts through everything, and feels solid and  just right.

Wellness is simply life with an ingrained healthy attitude towards how we want to exercise, work, eat and interact with people…and ourselves.

It’s still below the mass market surface but bubbling up as a strong foreshadowing of changing consumer behaviors that will transform our markets, and, to some degree, culture in general.

Is this an idea or a market, an aspiration or a reality?

This is the real deal.

Just a very different slant on a market change.

It’s easy to stereotype this as the juice drinking, LuluLemon wearing, stroller pushing, Yoga and Crossfit moms and dads with scads of expendable income and a fashionable bent towards health and wellness.

It’s easy to pooh-pooh this as the epitome of the $12 green juice trend.

It’s not.

This is about people, a huge cross section of the market spanning all economic strata, deciding how to spend their expendable income. I agree that it’s not for the economically challenged budget but it is not the purview of the rich either. It is about people choosing exercise, food, clothes, products in general that fit a conception of their own core values. Not religious or acerbic or whacked out,  just overtly healthy.

Healthy as a life choice and a point of view.

It’s also tied in some ineffable way to the rhythm that the social nets bring to our lives and sense of community, and the demand by the population that we have transparency in the goods and services we buy.

When you look at the wellness population, it’s clear that the same people doing Yoga and Pilates, making fitness and nutrition part of their lives are also riding bikes, adventure and wine tasting travel, starting companies, writing code, raising capital and families.

Wellness as an umbrella of beliefs is nothing less than the beginnings of a new market norm. More inclusive and aggregating as a community force then exclusionary and niche defining.

The thread that binds this wellness landscape together is neither income nor age.

If anything, this segment, and the culture mushrooming up around it, is very much about the enjoyment of how we live our lives and how we work. It’s touching how exercise enters our personal lives and equally how executive coaches are teaching pacing and balance to CEOs.

Do not side step this one as a hula hoop type trend.

It connects me personally to clients my son’s age. It connects people sitting next to someone else on the plane. It connects you to those you meet at an exercise class. It connects all of this to a new business perception of how to manage people and the stresses of our work lives.

Massive brands are paying serious attention. And it is not uncommon to see a billion dollar company and local artisanal brands team up to sponsor community activities around this theme. The consumer is the great equalizer and somehow, this sense of wellness is the glue tying the pieces together

It’s a bit ineffable but amazingly powerful once you get your head around a reconfiguration of the consumer marketplace with health and community and a sense of self empowerment at its core.

It’s a game changer for a host of segments that are still stuck in the old world.

I have a friend with a plan to disrupt the $60B weight loss industry by taking it out of the calorie counting reality of 25 years ago and toward what people need today, a coherent and body/mind/spirit process with support to feel and look better in every aspect of life.

This is not the only billion dollar pot of wellness gold out there.

A trend that will fizzle or a market change?

You know the old adage that ‘the future is here we just haven’t found it yet’?

What is happening with the wellness world is similar, as it has been percolating up from a core yoga niche and alternative nutrition enthusiasts. But uniquely different as this feels more like a rising tide of consumer perceptual change than a cross over or mainstreaming process.

As recently as a year ago, it was estimated that 1 in 4 women purchased under this category, and with trillions in sales, this is hardly a niche.

A market change this certainly is and it has brought some sweeping transformations with it that are ingrained into the fitness and food sectors already, but spreading into how fashion, self help, even tech and business solutions are being sold.

Two defining pieces jump out as core.

A rapid consumerization of the market. All markets.

Remember when there was a consumer and business market, when how products were sold depended on the characteristic of the product not the channel they were purchased through or the wants of the consumer?

That was the definition of niche marketing in a nutshell. Unique language to the product not the person.  This is fading and fast.

I see a predominant focus on the person as the single buyer, choosing products for family, personal, fitness, leisure and business all within the same vernacular.

Those of us who advise teams and fill whiteboards figuring out how beliefs become micro brands and brands markets, understand that this is not a subtle change at all.

Inclusiveness is the market side of an open web

Wellness at its core is about defining yourself by what you like, not by what your don’t. About connecting across differences and across category to find the binding thread.

This puts a pretty final nail in scarcity as a business model and exclusiveness as a market ploy.

The market wants frictionless, informed, fun, referential and participatory buying. In everything we buy from tomatoes to s-crm systems.

The market acid test

I’m steeped in this segment personally by investment and personality certainly, but to varying degrees most of the people across all the work that I do in many types of business, and friends from all walks of life, are part of this.

People generally are more aware of the impact of both how we eat and exercise impact our lives, but also on how our attitudes and poises in office and out, are more critical to not only mental health, but team building and productivity.

I see this as goodness.

The acid test here is not the staying power of the term, but the behavior. Not wellness as a category but people and how they want to interact and consume generally.

Whether wellness as a market or category will last over time is irrelevant.

If you push wellnes aside as a term, but embrace a sense of inclusiveness, a sense of being the market you are selling into, and address consumers cross category with the same sense of transparent openness and intent, it will be a win.

Regardless of what you sell.

That’s the test of changing markets. This one is fast becoming the status quo.

 

Our love/hate relationship with PR

PR invariably gets a bad rap.

We think of it as the hype itself.

But no one disagrees that unbiased third parties singing your praises to the right audience moves markets and customers like nothing else.

Even those who proselytize the social web as new marketing (not I), who state that the press is indeed dead (not quite true) will go weak kneed when their restaurant or gadget, company or service ends up front and center in the New York Times.

Or the Financial Times for that matter. Or the focus of a post in a massive blog community. Or the industry pub that’s really a big deal.

I’ve never built a company or brand where PR as a strategy was not a major piece of the puzzle.

I’ve also never hired an agency that I didn’t think would change the world’s view of my product. And in almost each and every case, I ended up firing them for not getting the job done as time went on.

My experiences are not unique.

On one level, agency structure is the built-in problem. How we pay for and work with them today is about the same as it was decades ago.

The model just sucks.

It’s painful and pricey for the small company. It’s laborious and problematic for all. It always purrs along during the honeymoon before it crashes.

I have many friends who are pros in this field. I hire them. Fire them. Love them as people and professionals, but the model is a problem—and there is not a good or new solution that I’ve seen.

It’s one of those pieces of the marketing  puzzle that at the right time is the perfect choice.

It comes with a bit of pain, a price that always feels like too much, and a process that continues to make me crazy. But the results really can change the playing field.

I have four simple questions to keep me honest about whether bringing in the PR specialist is the right choice.

-Can you crisply state what you are about?

PR mavens help craft stories to connect your company value and a specific market interest. That’s their craft.

As simple as it sounds, if you can’t clearly articulate in a straight and crisp way what you are about, wrapping it in a story to another community of listeners just won’t work.

The real experts get this. They can’t help you be successful without it.

When you get turned down by your agency of choice this is usually why.

 -Are you absolutely clear on your intent?

We don’t always know, especially at an early stage, exactly what we are about as a company. We are often targeting a market shift before we can really satisfy it.

If that’s your stage, this is the wrong strategy. If your goal is ineffably to simply build brand, rethink is my advice.

If you are taking your product and brand to new markets, vertical slices of a broader horizontal segment, connecting what you do to a broader market movement then nothing does this better than PR.

Visualizing specific success in new contexts is my litmus test for a PR campaign. It’s a horrid strategy to go fishing with.

-Are you hiring a specialist or a generalist?

If your PR campaign’s goals sounds like the job description of your marketing person, you are probably contracting out what you should be hiring in.

If you are retaining your PR person for specific knowledge and contacts, but also expertise on the  behaviors of a specific market, you are checking the right box towards this decision.

All markets are ecosystems, not simply a podium to stand on and shout from. The right person will make that clear in the first conversation.

They can learn your product to the point necessary.

You need to insure that they really know their market cold and understand the nuances of the consumers.

-PR is about partners as much as about press

We all want our New York Times morning. We want it badly.

But we all work, market and sell in interconnecting networks. Each partner is part of a community of consumers, a publisher in their own right and part of your story to that unique piece of the market.

The press and industry pundits are unaffiliated and objective to a degree by definition.

Partners, by design, are the complete opposite, but are in many ways equally powerful.

When your financial institution recommends a brokerage firm, they are brokering trust. When your gym hosts lectures from nutritionists, they are leveraging your choice of them to their partners’ products or services.

Partnership PR moves the needle when it works.

Common goals across different communities of customers is a strategy that may not be as explosive as a piece in the Wall Street Journal, but it can deepen your brand before your eyes and supercharge customer acquisition with surprising speed.

The pros get this and work both channels.

When my PR person suggests that I consider them for marketing work, I know I’ve made a questionable choice. When they start building strategies that touch on partner marketing and shared ecosystems, it invariably means that the smart thinking is in the room.

PR is dysfunctional by its very nature

We love the results. We struggle to be realistic about our goals. We believe our dreams as real. We confuse our manic drive for market acknowledgment with a tempered sense of whether we really are what we want the headline to read.

We just want it because we need it. We want it because we just do.

It makes you think about the famous Woody Allen joke from Annie Hall:

“…a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

The brother and the chicken. People and relationships.  PR and the market’s nod to how wonderful we want to be. Sometimes they fit, often they don’t.

‘We just keep going through it coz we need the eggs.’

 

Ageism and categories of irrelevance

I take people pretty much at face value.

I don’t group them by gender, race or religion. I’m basically category and prejudice blind.

A series of posts, one by Fred Wilson on Ageism, caught me off guard around the idea of being locked in and limited by these cultural groupings. Specifically ageism.

What struck me in the comments of Fred’s post was that age was a hard and fast market bracket, something to be overcome.

One commenter asked what the breakdown of his portfolio CEOs by race, background and gender was.

My response was who cares?

What you measure is what you use as a metric for value. The last thing we need are categorical measures that divide and discourage diversity.

Who of what age is doing what is, of course, data, but neither relevant nor I think very useful.

In my naïveté, I was a bit blown away that there was a downward stigma attached to it.

We all know that pro basketball is a younger person’s game, but I didn’t think that carried over to CEO, CFO, marketers, sales people, corporate account managers and on and on.

At the core of this is not age of course, it’s relevance and group dynamics.

Discomfort with age diversity within groups is a trend that, while understandable in some respects, has a rough and stupid side to it.

The rub is that ageism is not about how our parents will get treated. It’s about the 40 year olds in 10 years, the 30 year olds in a decade if they aren’t VPs and the entire turmoil in the fat part of the employment marketplace for whatever group is right of center at the time.

It’s also about how our culture is addressing (or ignoring) the reality that our lives are now 20+ years longer and that extra decade or so of productive work is in the middle, not the end.

And that in a world excitedly embracing entrepreneurship as a mass market occupation identified with youth, ageism is a problematic piece of the puzzle.

One that I never thought about much  til a week ago when I read in post after post that in your 50s and 60s, your relevance, except for the exceptionally talented or successful, was fading to grey. Literally.

I challenge those who are funding and staffing this generation of new start ups to think about diversity cross ages and experiences as a plus.

I’m not a head in the sand type of individual.

I’m also potentially not the norm here as I’ve packaged my extensive experience as the very definition of relevance to a new world. That’s what I sell.

Of course age does indeed matter. We see it front and center.

We worry about it from the age of the candidates we elect to public office.

We want to hire young unattached people who will work 24/7 and buy into the dream.

We sit back as executives and think that some spots on our teams are best for the analytical or the creative, the experienced or the just break the wall down types. We know that carrying a bag three times a year for thirty days at a shot is just not suitable to all.

Diversity of age, impacts teams and dynamics and fit. This is as much reality as age itself.

I love New York at dawn now, as that is when I like to begin work, get on Skype with European clients and write.

Back in the day, dawn was breakfast at Lucky Strike in SoHo then heading home after a long night out. As the song so rightly goes–Oh – Blah – Di, Oh – Blah – Da.

To be clear, as an advisor, my clients are invariably younger than I am. Some considerably.

We get along better than fine. We work like maniacs together. We do dinner, and I choose the wine. We even go to the gym, do floor intervals and Burpees.

Afterwards though, they go out to clubs and I grab a movie on my couch with Sam the cat and start the next day at 5 again with purpose and energy.

All is good. This is as it should be.

Do you think layering in people from culturally different backgrounds was not disruptive at one time? No question.

Do you think that layering teams that are as diverse as society itself is a new way to work? Without a doubt.

The market is changing, as is the workforce and the level of talent at a younger and younger age is a reality.

People whom I work with are smarter, more mature and aware of themselves than I certainly was at their age.

Brilliant actually at times, but with a narrower focus as they simply don’t have the exposure and breadth of experience as yet. I provide that. I mentor their teams. More diversity on the teams would not but help.

A while back, in some string on Facebook I made a comment about being in the middle of life. A dear friend (and I know exactly who this is) said ‘In!! middle age’. I told her oh so politely to fuck off.

Age can sometimes be a number with benefits.

Be open to it.