I’m now into year four of consulting and advising mid-stage and start-up companies.
I really love this work.
I’m irresistibly drawn to the oxygen-starved activities of moving a company, piece by unchartered piece, often from $0 along the up/down slope to $100M. I’ve built bigger companies, but the scrappy, customer-obsessed culture in this general company size just sucks me in.
I’m attracted to individuals and teams obsessed with taking an idea and making it into a product, a core customer value and turning it into a market, and evolving a name into a brand that connects. Really hard and wonderful work.
Here’s the rub of course as an advisor.
Market and brand building is all about doing. At its core, the best strategy is just smart execution. Even though the discipline of a plan and the inspiration that comes from a strategic direction are useful, they are never enough. They are, at best, a preamble.
Business strategies are easy to map out on paper, cute to capture in a phrase and tweet, but invariably fall back on themselves in executional shambles. The most prophetic words on building a business come not from us practitioners, but from Mike Tyson:
“Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face.’
If you’ve ever woken up to have Microsoft, Apple, Google or Facebook enter your space, or worse, find years of work evaporate with a market shift, you know this is true. Closer to home are the many painful decisions and programs that hold lots of possibilities and just don’t deliver. They all sting and set you scrambling after you gain composure.
In my advisory work, I’ve worked to bridge the advisory action gap.
To find a way to guide and advise, but not merely pontificate and walk away from action plans. And be responsible to the company’s goals. I’ve focused on longer-term, skin-in-the-game relationships where I can take my 25 years of operational experience across a variety of models and categories, and become part of your extended team. The more I know about your business and the more you trust me, the more valuable the partnership becomes.
This approach takes lots of time and focus, and limits the size of my client base. It stifles my innate drive to dabble and flirt with new and different models and ideas. To know more entrepreneurs in a working environment which is where you really get to vet and appreciate each other.
I needed something lighter…and the result is “Office Hours”.
This is a subscription-based service to me as an advisor, to my experiences and thinking through an ongoing but lighter touch-point relationship.
It works really well with teams or individuals that don’t need to be managed, just directed.
If you have the vision and the where-with-all to put tangible structure behind an advisory role, then this model may be suited for you.
It’s simple and it seems to be working well.
Scheduled meetings at your offices or a coffee shop. Or Skype. Always face-to-face, always on a schedule, and always tied to objectives we’ve set. A couple of times a month, a hand-shake, mid-term contract commitment. Open access as needed and satisfaction guaranteed.
I’ve rolled this out through my networks for a while now. Showing great signs of traction.
I realized while writing this that in all my blogging on marketing and business, on the web and communities, this is the first I’ve written about my advisory work.
It feels good to lay out how I work with the community of marketers and entrepreneurs. I love what I do and get inspired by my clients and make their challenges very much my own.
Check out my many blog posts on building a market and how to balance core marketing tactics and thinking with the possibilities of the social web. The details of how I work in the Consulting section of this site and the Voomly Office Hours page. Then hit me with questions on how this might work for you now or sometime down the road.
The largest hole on the social web today is the one right outside your front door.
As counter intuitive as it sounds, proximity is the antithesis of the web’s dna. The key element of the web is certainly people and their interconnections, but its blind side is where these bump into each other, and businesses at the street level.
This anomaly is one of the core quirks of the web, and throws interesting wrenches and untapped upside on its usage as a business runway for neighborhoods.
Local and neighborhood from a web perspective are not necessarily the same.
Local, wrapped in the idea of a global local market, is native to the web and intrinsic to the commercial power of distributed aggregation models like marketplaces. This is a make-in-your-basement-sell-anywhere paradigm. Local is the origin and often the allure, but not necessarily nor often the market.
Neighborhood is the antithesis of this in some ways.
It’s a physical and emotional place, where we live and shop. We may buy local (stuff produced here) but it’s a matrix on the geographical grid. Neighborhoods have coordinates at the street level. Local doesn’t necessarily.
It’s odd that the web’s flatness is its power as a community umbrella across time and space, but its softness as a tool for business when you add place to the matrix.
Today, if I want to find out what the difference is between the Rofosco and the Terlan grapes, I just ask my networks. A holistic vet who does Skype calls with your pet? No problem. Even where to eat the next time I’m standing at the corner of St. Germain des Pres and Rue di Buci in Paris.
But add location within a neighborhood, the idea of around-the-corner and human touch, and it starts to fissure. Need a trusted cat or babysitter who works in your neighborhood? Or to gather a group of people within four blocks to petition to get the street lights fixed? Non trivial.
This is the world of tear-offs at the local coffee shop, or in-building emails or bulletin board systems. The web just doesn’t parse itself this way well.
It is possible to sit at your desk and build a community online around people who believe in and share recipes, for example, for non allergenic cooking or natural wine or city cycling or cat rescue. But open a restaurant at street level and you’ll find quickly that exercise on the social nets are easy to do, but less actionable in filling up your reservations.
From the neighborhood business side, this nothing but upside and possibility.
There’s a reason that we still get flyers under our apartment doors. Not that they work but there is no real or readily available alternative.
Neighborhood is the next connected frontier. Many are trying figure out how to make this work, none that I know of as yet are doing so with much success.
Groupon and its clones thought they had an answer. Foursquare, while I’m awed by its ambition and determination, serves better from the user side in than from the business side out. If I had a street level business I would try it but my expectations are not high for results.
This discontinuity between the power of the web to verticalize in interest across a horizontal swatch of space and its impotence in the face of place and neighborhood is one of its more interesting dichotomies.
This is the marketing and community nut to crack.
It’s becoming more interesting every day, as more and more, the web as a virtual reality is being turned on its head and taking what I think is its rightful place as a connecting ramp grounded in a physical street address.
There’s a retail renaissance in the making, a developing concept of connected retail where things are sold, person to person, in stores, trucks, popups, pushcarts. And location becomes visible and intrinsic, the open end of the web’s connection.
We will see more brands built online moving to street-side store fronts to touch their customers, build community and city connections and drive business and brand. In New York at least, a spot of sidewalk is honestly a greater kickstart to a community of users than a URL by itself.
Connected neighborhoods are one of the last miles of the social web to get tethered to the real world. Or maybe this is the first time that the social web is anchored in real world at all.
For businesses and marketers, this is a puzzle piece that’s been a long time coming.
For almost two decades now we’ve built on the web to capitalize on its reach, its immediacy, its frictionless nature. We’ve thought brilliantly how to imbue behavioral characteristics to UX , to transactions, to virtual connection. And the science of web marketing has followed.
A connected neighborhood turns this trend on its head. It will make the web bend to people’s and businesses needs rather than us to it. The web is where we register our views not live our lives. The web is where we connect with the intent to meet. The web where shops down the street will find customers one the web that live on the next block and bring them in the door.
Web marketers may lament that there are no tools to do this. There aren’t.
Savvy marketers and business people will start where they always have, with the person in front of them and tie the string starting with place and immediacy. That’s always been where it belongs.
2012 was a challenging year in a lot of ways. Not bad certainly, but not business as usual.
Those of us with small and mid-sized companies did battle with the economy and the marketplace, fighting to find firm footing, with lots of flailing around to catch updrafts for growth.
Funding for seed and A rounds was more uncertain than any of us wants to remember. From a marketing perspective, it was momentumless in many respects. The very oxygen that start-ups and small companies breathe was sucked out of the web by the big social nets as they monopolized the world’s log on screens. Traction was a slog.
The rule of thumb for me, all last year, was “Focus on what you can control”. When you strip away grander schemes, clear all the obfuscation that surrounds critical decision making, nothing else matters. And time wasted is opportunity squandered, good market or bad.
This idea that you need to focus down hard never steers me wrong.
Even in boom years, the initiatives that pay back are those that come from focused execution as a strategy, not from trying to chase the market from behind or conjure up end runs around consumer behaviors or competition.
Many of my advisory clients last year, funding aside, smartly focused and dug deep rather than chasing after a market that had no real rudder. They dug into the core values of what they did for customers and partners. Removed excesses and pushed aside nice-to-haves.
The ones that seem the best prepared for this year didn’t buck the tide but kept peeling away the onion till they hit value and engagement. Then honed and strengthened. Had patience if cash flow allowed, and didn’t jump to pivots without real data.
For myself personally, I focused on the near-term needs, not on the long-term dreams that were too big to grasp and impossible to take steps towards. And took some big flying (and tangible) leaps into the unknown along the way.
Aging is a bitch. For all of us, it has a way of creeping up and demanding acknowledgement. Last year I doubled down, made health a mission and adopted (with a lot of guidance) a belief that nutrition and smart exercise, not diet and random activity are the way to greater and longer-lived vitality. A way to work with the body to insure that it supports us, not that it simply doesn’t get in the way. What and how I ate and exercised became a studied obsession.
The results were terrific. A business, the brainchild of Lianna Sugarman, LuLitonix, grew out of this as a way to take these nutrition ideas to what we hope will be a sizable niche market. Maybe larger. It’s just barely getting started but I’m thrilled at some early signs of acceptance.
It’s no secret that I have a passion for wine as culture, community as a market model and the empowerment of the global local on the social web. I’ve been blogging on these ideas for years. And for as long, have been circling around a way to connect these passions into a new kind of marketplace starting in New York.
Last August, I said ‘go’ to a very early version of this idea, theLocalSip community wine marketplace. A natural mash up of wine shops, New York neighborhoods and an on-foot, connected population. Five months in, it’s been both inspiring and humbling. I’m both trepidatious and excited as v 1.5 rolls out in the coming months. 2012 wrap up wine community post here.
More than you expect comes from focusing on less.
There’s a magic that comes from smart focus on the possible that brightens areas that you just couldn’t fathom prior. Focusing on what you can control to me is not the strategy of last resort, it’s a first resort solution.
The illogical truth almost always holds true. If you focus down hard on what has value, what can be moved or swayed, what can be tangibly touched, stuff happens that is beyond your control. Beyond volition.
Maybe this is the same as making our own luck. Maybe it’s just a reflection on the dynamic nature of life, but by focusing on the tangible, the targetable, the ineffable seems to move along with it. Regardless…it just happens.
On day four of this new year, just doing it with intent and not wasting time on the emotional excesses around events, stripping away what can’t be seen as purposeful, seems to be working fine.
It’s a strategy that I’m going to keep running with this year.
2013…bring it on!
One of the big gotchas of the social web is that what makes it so empowering for individuals is also it’s greatest challenge as a platform for business.
At its core, the web is naturally a platform for people. It highlights each of us in the center of a self-curated world with our popularity equaling our reach and influence.
It is as personally powerful as it is addictive. Remarkably self-centered and surprisingly a great platform for collective groups of individuals, the community.
Lately, the idea is being bandied about as fact that for businesses to be successful on the web, somehow they need to take on a personal persona and exist side by side on an equal plane with you, me, General Electric, our favorite restaurant, our dentist and Walmart.
It just isn’t so. And a dead end marketing strategy.
I’m not a social commerce denier in any way. The opposite actually.
I’ve posted endlessly on how the web has changed not only our lives but also the essence of how we do business. How the customer is squarely the center of the commercial world. And that we are entering the world where marketplaces are the most natural platform for business.
But, companies aren’t people, no matter how humanized. And neither are brands. Business is not a masquerade, a product in an individual’s clothing.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy. The web as an organic platform for people and communications, and businesses’ uncomfortable use of it for commercial purposes.
For people, the web is a frictionless runway. Individual voices, transparent messages, global reach for the clear of intent are not the exception. The web as a platform for connected individuals just works.
For pundits and people doing business as themselves, it’s a dream platform. There is little separation between the brand presented to clients or fans, and the more cleverly you share your quirks, the more somehow this informs the potency of your professionalism.
But as companies or for products we sell that are beyond ourselves, this is simply not the case. It just doesn’t hold true.
Selling stuff and services as a company is where the social continuum appears to splinter. The web doesn’t belong to companies; it belongs to their customers.
This is not to say that commerce doesn’t spring out of community. Nor that conversations across the web don’t indeed sell product. Or that transparency isn’t an essential component of doing business today.
But the idea that companies need to act like as individuals and refabricate themselves to exist on the social web is chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole.
With people, our product is our personality. With companies, our personalities are in the products and services we provide and how we deliver them. The aggregate of that is the brand that our customers bestow on us over time.
Every one of us and every company falls prey to trolling the social web on blogs for comments and connections, on Facebook and social nets for new customers and prospects. We do it cause its there and it’s easy. It’s an incomplete strategy.
Every business and marketing person faces this pull and contradiction daily.
Individually we start each day, checking into our nets to discover products and things to do, connect with friends and plan our lives. We get to our offices; sit in front of our computers and often stare dumbfounded about how to discover and talk to those same customers that look just like ourselves.
This is the social web business dilemma in a nutshell.
Building markets and understanding customer behaviors are neither simple nor trivial tasks. And complicated of course by the newness of the social web itself and its constant state of flux.
For myself, regardless of the market segment or social platform, these guidelines work for me as a marketer:
-Acknowledge that the web is not about your company or product but the customer’s view of them. Cede them control and embrace the messiness of the market if you want to harness it.
-Every product, every community of customers is unique. Crossfitters want to celebrate their personal fortitude while learning how to get more fit. Organic Avenue is as much about what’s in the juice as to how it tastes. SoulCycle, the monster spinning brand,is about instructor heroes, including their SoulPups.
-Don’t try to sell where your customers play. Nobody transacts on Facebook. Trying it again is against the human grain and won’t work.
-Measurement is not the end goal. Understanding customer behavior is. If your takeaway is a number you are not learning enough.
Try these directions on for size and apply them to the specifics of your business and the social platforms you are using.
This is very hard stuff to crack. A combined task of marketing, community management, product development and every external facing connection in your company.
Understanding your customer’s behavior is no less complex and ineffable than your customers themselves and the market they represent. There is certainly no easier way to do this and possibly, in today’s connected world, no other way at all.
Cross posted from theLocalSip blog, a passion project of mine in collaboration with the best wine shops in New York. Community-driven commerce for the wine world built on a global network of neighborhoods is the goal.
I’ve been dreaming for a long time about a marketplace connecting wine lovers with the best wine shops in the country and the most interesting winemakers across the globe.
I’m a passionate lover of how wine enhances our lives and builds friendships. And an unabashed wine shop junkie.
I just love popping into shops all over the city, walking out with a bottle I never heard of and a new connection with a fellow wine aficionado I hadn’t met before.
That great feeling that I get when someone sells me a bottle along with a story of a winemaker making wine in a unique way with some grape I never heard of that will somehow be perfect for my evening.
Vinous serendipity at play.
theLocalSip is live now. In Beta. In its infancy. Actually a neonate with a lifespan so far measured in hours;-)
A platform for a marketplace that will happen between wine lovers and shops. A celebration of a global neighborhood of common interests.
A huge thanks to the participating shops for taking this journey. You rock! We have something special here that will grow and change and work.
An equally big thanks to the some 200 folks who were in the system while I was sleeping and accessed some 3000 pages. And the many email responses with good suggestions and encouragement.
My ask to wine enthusiasts:
Play around with theLocalSip.
Start by doing what I just did.
- Go to Find Tastings
- Select This Week
- Select All Neighborhoods
I see amazing tastings to go to. Two at Frankly Wines. Two, even more, at 67 Wine. A couple at Chambers Street Wines. One at September Wines. One at Natural Wine Company. These are the tastings at a glance for Week One on Day One of theLocalSip. Great wines being poured by passionate and informed people.
I won’t make it to all of the tastings but I will buy wines on line with one click regardless. I’ll build a favorites list and share it to my friends across the city and the country and suggest they buy a few online or wander into the shop if in the neighborhood.
This is Day One of theLocalSip. Shops are applying from every neighborhood in New York. Tastings around the corner from wherever you live.
I’m super excited.
Make this community your own. And have fun with it!