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.


Books on the beach

There something about a hammock outside a quiet house on an abandoned stretch of Tulum beach, Kindle and glass of Jura Poulsard in hand that drives me to read.

Much more so than in my normal frenetic pace of life where streaming a movie late at night is a more natural way to end the day.

I wrote this en route back to New York from vacation. Four of the six or so books that I read are worthwhile noting.

Heads up–none are light reading.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.06.15 AMI didn’t enjoy reading this book as well written as it was.

It grated, it bothered me, yet it was an essential exercise.

Eggers has challenged in fiction most of the core tenets of my online life—transparency, focused disclosure, crowd-sourced value, social proof and the power of communities online to impact how we live offline for the better.

The fictionalization of these traits was unnerving, uncomfortable and a bit of a lingering nightmare. Like painful squeaking of chalk on my mental blackboard.

Five days later, I’m still bothered.

This is exactly what I needed.

I thank Fred Wilson for challenging me to read this and my good friend David Semeria, for pushing me to download and try it.

Being confronted by a caricature of my beliefs is as cleansing, unsettling and useful as it gets.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the Aids Epidemic by Randy Shilts

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.04.00 AMHow could I have lived through this Holocaust and not realized it?

How could areas in cities that I lived in–the West Village  in NY and the Castro in SF been decimated and I had only a cursory awareness of this happening?

How could I not know the economic and political stalls of the Regan and Koch administration? The painful suffering of people who basically were told to go home and die.  The massive head-in-the-sand perspective of the country, the government, the press, and a straight society ignoring this underclass.

I’m 20 years late (exactly) to this story in it’s excruciating chronology and detail.

A freaking amazing book–in depth, painful, eye opening journalistic recalling of the AIDs epidemic, from the 24 hour bicentennial celebration in New York that started it, the travels and exploits of Patient Zero, the ‘NO’ of the world to acknowledge and help till the horror of the virus literally bled out of the gay community to the broader population.

Not for the faint of heart or the closed minded. It’s thriller, a page turner only not fiction and not on most summer reading lists.

I internalized this story and think not how much better but how different this would have been if we had had the web, a culture of information exchange and transparency, and integration of the gay population as we do today.

I’m still reading this (very long book). It pounds home that then, and now, what we don’t see is the largest part of reality we live every day. .

Lianna Sugarman couldn’t have been more right that this would grab and shake me hard.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.08.33 AMI like reading business books by people who have been in the trenches, been in charge and won. There’s a combo of smarts, skill and made luck that is worth learning from people who have done it from the ground up and truly changed the world.

Ben is certainly one of those.

It was my pleasure to pay $14 to live through the sweat and anxiety of the really hard decisions that building a company is all about. Dollars running out, clients cancelling, firing your friends, sleepless quarters and unfathomable difficult decisions that we all make by locking ourselves in a room with trusted advisors, grabbing the data at hand and taking a shot.

Fred Wilson mentioned this book in a post. Aaron Klein’s comments encouraged me download it and give it a morning on the beach.

I know personally that the glamorization of building a business is just bullshit.

It was refreshing to hear it from someone else who loves his business successes but doesn’t mythologize them

Uncommon Stock Version 1.0 by Eliot Peper

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.09.13 AMEliot is a first time author, young , easy with words and a light touch with dialog.

He creates a fictionalization of startup lore and life. Almost a novelization of all the truisims about startup life as documented in a host of blogs.

A smart theme that holds together because  he is honestly inspired his main character Mara and Boulder as a place.  It lacks a bit of real life sweat and anxiety that is core to start up life, but notable nonetheless.

Eliot has lots of talent.  If he finds a way to imbue the passion that he puts into off road biking and road running, rock climbing and exercise into the realities of startup business, his stories will be long-term keepers.

Big congrats to Brad Feld and his new venture FG Press which published this.

Enjoy these books should you care to try them.

Light reading these are not. Important uses of  time? Absolutely!



Dreaming the future

I had a waking dream about a world where our identities were completely decentralized.

Where there was a coin, like Bitcoin, that held securely who we were as we traveled around the web and lived life. Where URLs were irrelevant. Where place online didn’t matter.

Where the web just served me whenever I needed it with a tap on my phone. Where everything was secure and the middlemen across a multitude of industries were burnt toast.

Where democratization of information was not a risk, but a necessity to kick start change.

And where transparency always seemed the right choice without the horrid compromises that certifications and standards demand.

I thank Albert Wenger’s excellent post yesterday for this fueled inspiration and now, Fred Wilson’s post today, for the whisperings of a new and different world. And some telling comments from Brandon Burns on both posts.

I’m listening and can’t stop thinking how this impacts just about everything, from how we live to how we market our companies.

Of course, this idea of a distributed identity, decentralized coined reality and transactions is not the real view from my window today. It’s not something that is really actionable.

Or is it?

Is it behaviorally already there in pieces? Has the market and culture already shifted with technology as the lag?

Usually big shifts like the Internet happen–then culture slowly intersects, verticalizes them to our behavioral needs in every imaginable form.

Bitcoin and transactional systems aside. A protocol of value aside. Even the absolute of decentralized identity aside as well—change in the market is already afoot.

The web and the big identity platforms are unbundling before our eyes. Even the marketplace itself is following suit with transactions part of where we discover what we want, not where we necessarily go to find it.

Do people really make a choice between using Facebook, What’s App, Twitter, Instagram and others? Not at all.

Are our identities really tied to just one of them today? I don’t think so.

All of the platforms are sub- and supersets of each other. How we sign on is not really who we are.

Everyone is on Facebook and Instagram though the communities in each are very distinct. The same picture posted in each will gather a mostly different set of people. This is true from platform to platform and app to app.

Bitcoin or something akin to it will certainly happen. A decentralized identity—maybe—but the change they represent to how we live, work and market is already in process and our common ways of doing things in flux.

I discovered Wollit this morning. A Bitcoin-based, cause-focused fundraising site. It’s scant and early, not well explained yet just felt very right. A Mcluhan-esque approach where indeed it makes sense as form and content become one, feels like a norm that has already become part of us.

Even from an everyday use case, pre the coin becoming tamed and ubiquitous, it’s already a behavioral layer in how we act without understanding a thing about the protocol.

It’s front and center in how groups and communities are formed today.

Most all group structures are horrific, yet we form groups and communities every day. We cut through different platforms forsaking the idea of a centralized place with a basic need in time. (Check out Vintage141 as an antidote.)

The market already understands decentralized realities all to0 well in how we act and connect with people on the web.

I started this rant with a jolt, fueled by a rush of Bitcoin intellectual stimulus with decentralized identity as the chaser.

Bitcoin is a wondrous mess and the most interesting thing happening on the web today. Most don’t understand it, most will ignore it till smart people build services that do something that matter. And just works.

That’s our birthright as consumers to demand this.

When that happens, it will spread like crazy, as people already live a semi-decentralized reality today.  Its inefficient,  but we are comfortable with it. Most of us simply embrace and incorporate the new when it does the job or sparks the imagination.

When Bitcoin is stable, my bet is we will use it without the need for education. We already understand the idea and act on it in human terms every day.

But the big realization—and the big upside to me—is that everything is yet again going to get turned on its head. A whole generation of new apps and solutions will flood in. A whole new way to market and connect new values with customers will be discovered.

The market will simply take it in stride, and adopt it as their own as it just makes sense.

They did it without fuss or bother when social became platformed because the behaviors were already present and the upside, enormous. They will do it again I think for very similar reasons.




“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

This quote from New York painter and printmaker Chuck Close has been pinned to my desktop for years.

I use it as a direct challenge to push myself forward every day, and, at times, to kick myself when I simply can’t get into gear.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 6.45.22 AMChuck is one of my personal heroes. His wall-sized, haunting self-portrait is front and center as you walk in my apartment.

The back-story about him is key to the intent behind the phrase.

He was a well-known abstract painter in SoHo who, 20 years ago, had a stroke, almost died, and became paralyzed. In the aftermath of recovery, he redefined artistic expression in a format that was not restricted by, but freed by his physical limitations. And elevated himself to the very top of critical and popular success in the art world.

I keep churning on this fact.

Most of us get a cold, grab our cat and go to bed, get better, then lament lost time.

Chuck was struck down in his late 40s, confined to a wheel chair with only limited hand movement on one side, and simply went to work, strapping a paintbrush to his hand and creating a new genre of art.

His quote is surprisingly polarizing to most everyone I’ve shared it with. And invariably misunderstood.

People decry and lash out at it as an attempt to demystify inspiration. I get that.

We all hold on tightly to our need to be struck by inspiration as the driver behind our labors. But even more so, I think we hold to our right to disclaim inactivity because we are not inspired or blocked.

There are many lists of how to get over creativity blocks and inactivity. Far fewer on how to spur it forward without stoppage.

Chuck believes that:

“things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will – through work – bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].”

This is a truth to live life by for me.

It touches on the dynamics of discovery that I constantly search for, not in artistic expression as I’m not an artist, but in my work–ferreting out new markets, trying untested solutions for building communities and stumbling forward making products and brands on ever new ground with constantly evolving consumer behaviors.

In my own work, like the semi-blank canvas of an artist, the answers and grids of yesterday’s solutions provide guidance, direction and assurity, but in actuality, it’s a new world each and every time.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 6.53.38 AMChuck’s artistic pragmatism and impatience with whining maps to my long held belief that, in marketing and life, the best and truest strategy is a smart and flexible execution. Most everything is in the doing, not the plan. And doing itself is most often its own motivation and momentum.

Strangely, his quote is connected to another ongoing meme that I just can’t shrug off.

The rallying calls of ‘Do what you love’ and ‘Follow your passions’ are now acculturated from the tech entrepreneurial niche into our broader society. A transformative and positive behavioral trend of today’s world.

Recently though I’ve realized that for me, they are too pat an answer and not quite true.

I believe there’s a continuum in our lives and careers that evolves over time. It impacts how we view our work, how we continue to build our skills, how we maintain momentum over time and how inspiration is harnessed for productivity and invention on both personal and professional levels.

At one end, it certainly starts with embracing what we love and the passions we swim in that define ourselves. But it travels far to the right over time, across the timeline of our experience being driven even more so by what we just become great at doing. And that excellence at doing is who we really are.

I see this evolution a lot working with young, brilliant entrepreneurs that are red-eyed with talent and conviction, supercharged with passion towards their projects, but without the experience to be self cognizant of how they navigate decisions and their own strengths. They are natural talents, who have yet to learn how to replicate their successes in new environments and rechannel their developing instincts.

I’m no less clear on my passions than when I walked into Atari to build their enthusiasts community twenty five years ago. But I wake to work every day now, grab my toolbox of skills and expertise, and tackle new projects and ideas as a matter of intent and discovery, more than a push from burning uncertainty behind me. More a plunge into just figuring it out and doing it. It’s a process–muscle memory if you will, that can be called up to flex in new situations over and over again. And no less exciting, imaginative, or flexible, just different and more measured.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 5.23.23 PMI think that this is what Chuck is implying as well.

It’s not only about artistic creation. Few of us are visionaries, geniuses, or artists.

But we all discover genius in our work, just nail it in spite of odds, find focus and drive to do impossible unchartered and seemingly unconnected stuff at times.

Friends have told me that I’m simply rebranding the power of focus with this train of thought.

I don’t think so.

We are all bombarded by information, by limitless interesting mini-interruptions incessantly. Focus is a way of shutting things out.

To me, it is a matter of filtering the world to the purpose at hand. It’s less conscious than ingrained, more about sifting through what I need with intent rather than unplugging and drawing the blinds to avert distraction.

Chuck’s phrase is connected to who he is and his accomplishments obviously.

But I’ve adopted it to my own needs on my own continuum.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 6.53.05 AMMy interpretation is that inspiration is the abstraction, inspiring work is itself both the driver and the result. And the process of discovery is the real pace of work itself.

Most everything we do is an infinite map of little pieces that we tackle one at a time, on an ever developing grid of direction.

We have intent, a framework of experience and belief to guide us, but we are literally connecting the dots in real time as we push forward. Flexibility alongside determination and experience is the toolbox for creating something new and larger than the sum of all the parts.

This is true for a marketplace, a cross network application–true for an artistic creation possibly as well

Not unlike one of Chuck’s giant, super realistic, room-size canvases, made up of hundreds of one-two inch laboriously painted squares that are the limit of his physical mobility, each tackled separately on a giant matrix over a year’s time.

As a whole, it seems perfect and connected into one coherent, brilliant, and planned out forward looking image. In reality it was the intersection of maniacal planning, creativity, skill and pure creative happenstance.


Thanks to Gianfranco Gorgoni for his photo of Chuck.