By: Brianna Valleskey
How do we develop more creativity in our organizations? Most people think of creativity fairly narrowly and only in terms of art or science, but Ed Catmull believes otherwise.
“Creativity is the process by which we solve problems,” said the president of Pixar Animation Studios, “whether that’s through a story, marketing or a relationships between partners and customers.”
Ed is a 20-year veteran of Pixar, as well as the author of “Creativity, Inc.” His ideas challenge conventional wisdom about the creative process, and he was kind enough to share some important creativity hacks during his INBOUND session last week. I thought they were more than worthy of a dedicated blog post.
Ed Catmull’s Advice for Empowering Creative Thinking
Increasing creativity means removing roadblocks.
People often ask how someone can be more creative. Ed said that a better question is, “What management, cultural and other roadblocks are getting in front of being creative?"
By the time Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, it hadn’t produced a major box office hit since “The Lion King” more than a decade earlier. The studio suffered from a lack of introspection, Ed explained. Different organizational groups (marketing, finance, technical, filmmakers, etc.) within the company had different values ― as they should ― but the values of the production team prevailed. While production, itself, was optimized, that structure forced much of the creative strategies to fail.
That forced alignment around the values of the production teams acted as a roadblock for the studio’s creativity. To help solve this problem, the studio leadership (including Ed, Steve Jobs and John Lassiter) created a “story trust” (more on that below) for the Disney team to help prioritize creative values and reinvigorate the team’s process. A few years after that, Disney finally produced its next box office smash, “Tangled.”
Ego is a creativity blocker.
Another secret to increasing organizational creativity is to remove ego from the process. The idea for Disney’s story trust came from Pixar’s own “brain trust,” a group that comes together after the first screening of a new film.
They trust operates on a few very specific principles: It’s peer to peer. Filmmaker to filmmaker. The purpose is to remove management and hierarchy from the room so that the director can make decisions; not Ed or (Pixar Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter. The filmmakers are expected to give and listen to honest notes. Removing perceived oversight allows directors to actually hear what people have to say.
Another principle of the brain trust is to carefully observe the filmmaker dynamics: Does everyone contribute? Does somebody dominate? Are they trying to help each other? Is someone afraid to speak? Of course, the brain trust doesn’t function perfectly. But when it does, Ed said, magic happens.
“And by magic, I mean that you feel ego leave the room,” he said. “All the attention is on the problem.”
This is important. Removing ego allows ideas come and go without people becoming attached to them, thus enabling the creative process to flow.
New ideas are fragile. Treat them as such.
Ed claims that all Pixar movies suck at first.
“I don’t mean that because we’re being modest or self-effacing. I mean that in the sense that they suck,” he said with a chuckle.
The first version of “Up,” for example, involved a castle floating in the sky. A king lived there with his two sons, and the people in the castle were at war with the people on the ground. The sons didn’t like each other very much. They somehow go overboard and end up on the ground (in enemy territory), and then come across a large bird. According to Ed, this version sucked. The only thing that came from it was the bird and the word “up.”
The second version had a 20-minute intro. Carl floats away in the house with a boy scout. They land on a lost Russian dirigible that’s painted underneath to look like clowns. That version didn’t work, either. The fourth version brought back the large bird and introduced the films main antagonist, Charles Muntz. The main plot driver, however, was that the bird’s eggs gave everlasting life to anyone who ate them (which is what Muntz was after). The film still wasn’t working. They lost the eggs, whittled down the 20-minute prologue to four and a half minutes of pure gold and produced one of the most-beloved animated movies of all time. (Admit it: That intro made you tear up.)
“This path [of that film] was wildly unpredictable,” Ed said. “New ideas are often fragile and off track. We had to protect that crew while they working on something that wasn’t good, trusting that their motivations were going after the right thing.”
Don’t be afraid of the wilderness.
Ed Catmull probably knew Steve Jobs better than almost anybody else. After he left Apple, Steve purchased the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm (where Ed worked) in 1986 and renamed it “Pixar.” He was also running NeXT computer at the time. Ed watched Steve experience countless failures during this time, but he also watched him learn an incredible amount. Steve’s empathy changed dramatically over that time, Ed said, enabling him to become the person who returned to Apple and made it great.
“This was a lot like the hero’s journey,” Ed said, “where the hero is cast out of the kingdom, wanders in the wilderness, learns and lot and then returns to make the kingdom a better place.”
The hero’s journey refers a classical story arc, and some of our favorite tales follow this template: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Wizard of Oz and even The Princess Bride. Ed’s point here is to not be afraid to go into the wilderness (or wander or get lost or attempt something that seems impossible), as it almost always ends up being a period of immense growth.
Believe that what you’re doing makes a difference.
Ed’s final piece of advice for fostering more creativity in our organizations was simple: put purpose behind everything you do.
“If you believe, as I do, that your actions make a difference, this means you can modify your reality. You can change the future,” He said, adding that he hoped everyone in the audience would do so.
From all of this, I think we can definitively say that enabling creativity is critical to the future success of any company. I challenge all business leaders to let creativity run wild within their organizations ― to infinity and beyond.
P.S. Ed started his session by saying that Pixar does not make movies for children. The studio makes movies that are intended for adults (but still accessible to everyone). People forget that children live in an adult world, he said, and they’re built for figuring things out. They want to figure things out, and that process of figuring things out is also creative. I found this incredibly clever.
See below for a few books that specifically tackle the topic of creativity.
By: Brianna Valleskey
The first thing you need to understand about Bozoma Saint John is that she is a total badass. Not only was she the first woman ever to speak at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (praise be), but she’s also a brand executive with Ghanaian heritage currently making waves in Silicon Valley. The former Apple Music head of marketing fearlessly took on the role of Chief Brand Officer at Uber earlier this year. The ride-hailing service hit the jackpot with Boz, as she’s definitely the only person on the planet fierce enough to handle that job right now.
The second thing you need to understand about Bozoma is that she’s a masterful storyteller. She didn’t walk onstage for her INBOUND presentation. The woman sashayed. Full of swagger and sass. In the age of photo filters and tailored responses, her authenticity was extremely refreshing. And her presentation was on point.
“I believe brands are people.”
Bozoma’s story started long before she was born. She’s named after her paternal grandmother, who was the fourth wife of the village chief (her grandfather) in a Ghanaian coastal town. As a child, she and her family lived in California, Kenya and Ghana before moving to Colorado.
“I was 12, and the last thing on the planet that I wanted to be was different,” Boz said.
“But there I was, different: 5 feet 10 inches, long braids, strong Ghanaian accent.”
She felt like she didn’t belong, but her classmates were intrigued. They asked innocent, benignly offensive questions like did Ghanaian people sleep in huts? Were monkeys their friends? Had she seen a white person before? What she learned, however, was that it wasn’t the answers to those questions she needed to have ready; but rather, answers to the questions her classmates asked amongst themselves: Was Paula Abdul or Madonna a better dancer? (Paula Abdul). Which football team are we going root for on Sunday? (The Broncos).
One particular question has haunted her ever since: “What will I say?” It keeps her up at night. She wanted to say things that make her equal. She wanted to say things that make people sit up, pay attention and give her a chance. Now, she sits in a chief seat in Silicon Valley and wonders what her grandmother would think.
“I know I made my grandmother proud when I made a trip to the White House last winter,” she said while showing a picture with her and the Obamas. “Those who have walked this walk before us are so proud to see us standing in this space.”
Just as our ancestors’ legacy will forever leave a mark, Bozoma intends to leave a mark. No place will ever be the same once she sashays through it. More importantly, her story demonstrated how her culture shapes her personal brand.
“I believe that brands are people,” Boz said. “They have personalities. They have perspectives. They have hopes and dreams and fears and failures.”
Without the storyteller’s unique perspective, she added, the story falls flat. In one way or another, each storyteller injects their own excitement, their fear, their purpose into whatever tale they’re telling.
“A ride is such an intimate space.”
There’s someone/something in each our lives we want to make proud, Bozoma said. What is that for you? What motivates you? It could be people, events or even injustice (#takeaknee). She bet that each person in the entire room could name a brand that holds some sort of meaning to them. Even if that meaning seems irrational, we still believe.
“It is the belief that makes us choose that shoe brand over another, that drink over another, that disruptive ride-sharing app over another,” she said with a laugh. “I want to inspire that choice.”
Until this point, Boz explained, the brand of Uber has relied on the left side of the brain. The side that is rational, analytical, data driven, factual, objective and literal. But then things changed. Dirty laundry was aired, and people wanted to delete Uber. Suddenly, she explained, the left side of the brain couldn’t make sense of using the app.
The right side of the brain, however, is full of emotion. It’s the side that is sorry. It feels bad for wrongs and wants to make them right. It cares more for the human reaction than the mechanical, and Bozoma believes it has been silenced for too long. Uber has 16,000 employees dedicated to the future of technology and making the world a better place. That includes engineers, marketers, service reps and, of course, drivers.
“A ride is such an intimate space,” Boz mused. “When you get into a car, you’re a few feet away from a complete stranger.”
Some people choose to ride in silence; others engage in conversations that can go literally anywhere. Bozoma often hears drivers say they feel like therapists. People get into the car when they’re feeling sad or angry or anxious, and they talk their feelings out with someone they just met because, sometimes, it’s safer than a close friend.
“The chances are so slim. Probably impossible. There’s no math. Only magic.”
Long before joining Uber’s team, Bozoma had ordered an Uber Black at South by Southwest. She was terrified when it pulled up. The car looked as if it had been really good at some point, but then went through something terrible: parts had been smashed, the paint was keyed, the carpet was torn. She made a joke about it when she got in the car. Instead of laughing, the driver was embarrassed.
Boz asked him what happened. The driver got even more embarrassed as he proceeded to explain that his car had been vandalized by taxi drivers while he was helping a rider get her bags at the airport. The driver began to apologize. He knew he shouldn’t be driving the car like that. But his brother had recently passed, and he wanted to make extra money so he could honor him by seeing their favorite artist perform at SXSW: Iggy Pop.
Bozoma gasped. She got goosebumps. At that very moment, she was on her way to have dinner with Iggy Pop. What is the probability of her getting into that car with that person on that very night?
“The chances are so slim. Probably impossible. There’s no math. Only magic,” she said.
Bozoma doesn’t believe in accidents. She immediately knew they were meant to meet and that the driver should come to dinner with her. She invited him. They both cried. During the meal, she sat in wonder at their fortune while the Uber driver told Iggy Pop his story. She had met a total stranger in a city that wasn’t her home and made a powerful connection that they’ll both remember for the rest of their lives. It all started with an Uber.
“It’s important to see ourselves in the stories we tell.”
Now that Bozoma works at Uber, people feel inclined to tell her their own stories of using the ride-hailing app. But so much has changed in the way we tell stories about technology. Back in the 1980s, she said, technology was either fantastical or informational. Brands like Levi’s were selling a good time, and technology seemed almost out of reach. She explained that though we talk about a great divide between races and classes in America, technology platforms and products have lessened it (if not eliminated it entirely).
“The story we tell about [technology] can’t be cold. It has to be warm, like us. It has to be intimate,” she said.
Technology can connect us with other human beings, but what actually connects us to each other? Emotion. Human emotion drives all of our decision-making, Bozoma said. When you hear these stories, it’s her intention to make you feel something positive ― to recall them with inspiration or delight. As a brand marketer, that is her goal. She said that all brand stewards must be authentically themselves when telling their stories.
“It’s important to see ourselves in the stories we tell,” she said. “I hope that for each of you, the diversity of our stories will not just be told, but appreciated and celebrated.”
Naturally, everyone in the audience left with all the feels (i.e. Bozoma accomplished her goal). She’s high on my list of role models, and I’m looking forward to see her storytelling magic come to life at Uber.
By: Brianna Valleskey
How does one even begin to describe Michelle Obama? Lawyer. Activist. Feminist champion. Wellness crusader. Mother. Education advocate. Role model. Beacon of grace. Oh! And, of course, the former First Lady of the United States.
HubSpot’s INBOUND had its biggest day ever when the conference hosted Michelle as a keynote speaker this morning. Thousands of attendees woke up before the crack of dawn to get through stadium-level metal detectors at the conference center, secure an actual seat in the main stage auditorium and wait for hours just to hear the former First Lady speak. Ms. Michelle Robinson Obama did not disappoint.
In addition to sharing feelings on being in the spotlight and transitioning out of the White House, Michelle opened up about what it means to know yourself and be truly authentic. Her ideas were deeply moving (like people-crying-the-audience moving). I couldn’t not write about it. So here’s some motivation from the icon, herself, on living a life that’s genuine to you.
How to Be Authentic (Courtesy of Michelle Obama)
Do not let your voice be silenced.
Michelle’s currently writing a book. As she’s been collecting stories of her life for the book, she realized that a narrative starting to emerge: believing in your authentic self.
“Who I am, I was that way at three [years old]. I was a loud mouth. I was confident in myself,” she said. “If I was successful, it’s because of that. I was always Michelle Robinson Obama."
Michelle never tried to be anybody else. But not everybody is tapped into their authentic selves like that. Some of us have been taught that our opinions are less valuable. Women, especially, who have sat in a classroom, in a boardroom or around a conference table can relate to this. Women have been socialized to sit there and be quiet, she said. They think 12 times before opening their mouths. There’s so much that goes on that shushes women in the world, but it often happens in subtle ways.
“We can look at ever sector and every industry and find ourselves quietly letting our voices become invisible,” she said. “We can’t afford to just sit by.”
The key to not letting your voice be silenced is to love yourself. If you don’t like who you are, it’s easy to let people walk all over you. Michelle urged people to not only love themselves, but ask what it is about them that makes their opinion less valuable. Challenge the status quo. Understand your innate self-worth.
Do not live without empathy; without compassion.
Like every political figure, Michelle and her family have undergone loads of criticism. You can get past it by distinguishing between productive criticism and pure craziness (the latter of which is usually pretty easy to identify). But fame is a monster. Michelle explained that when you’re famous, people feel like they have the right to walk right up to you on the street and say anything they’d like. It doesn’t bother her as much as it likely bothers her kids.
“When you’re a grownup, what other people say about you doesn’t matter. You know who you are,” she said. “But when you’re young, and you don’t know who you are yet, it becomes difficult.”
Somewhere around 20-30 times a day, one of her children has to engage with a stranger who comes up, asks for a photo, shares an unwarranted opinion, etc. Michelle tries to be a model of grace for his kids. They see her reaction to all the fame as guidance.
“I think my kids are resilient enough to be empathetic to people, but it does take practice,” she said. “We all have to be a little empathic in this world. We have to exercise patience.”
Her advice: Take a moment to know yourself. Know your truth. Don’t let what other people say define you. Responding in anger might feel good in the moment, but it’s always better to handle people with kindness.
Do let your work speak for itself.
Michelle did not want to be a First Lady of slogans or symbolic gestures. It was important for her to enter the White House with a strategy and a set of initiatives that were part of that strategy. Even though every news story about her during that first year in office focused mainly on what was wearing, she didn’t feel the need to prove herself. She knew that her work would speak for itself; that people would come to know who she was through it.
“If you’re doing good work, and it’s having a good impact on people, all that other stuff will work itself out,” Michelle said.
And it did. Her initiatives changed our country’s dialogue around health. They moved the ball on nutrition and exercise, as well as created more conversations to enlighten people about what they’re putting in their bodies. But doing great work is about more than a legacy. It’s about how you treat the people around you (especially, those who work for you). Michelle loves managing people. Throughout her career, she has always treated her teams like family. That means asking how they’re doing, asking about their families and generally caring about their lives.
“You can’t get a job done with people and not recognize their humanity,” Michelle said.
Her philosophy of being a good manager is one of empathy, compassion and patience. Leaders shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re working with actual humans.
Do absolutely anything.
What did Michelle say that she learned in the White House? That she can really do anything.
“As a woman, as a minority, as someone who is tall, as someone who is different ― we are put down with messages in our heads of what we’re capable of doing,” she said.
She joked about how people would ask her how she learned to be the First Lady, as if she didn’t have an entire life before getting to the White House. Each blow, each negative comment she had experienced long before then had made her the strong woman she was by the time 2008 rolled around. She was ready for the challenge of being the First Lady.
“Life teaches you grace. It gives you that ability, when you encounter obstacles,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of obstacles. Those things make you stronger; make you better.”
It’s hard to not believe those words when coming from a powerful, incredible woman like Michelle. I can’t wait to read her book. Also, her favorite song off of the Lemonade album is “Love Draught.” YAS QUEEN.
By: Brianna Valleskey
There’s no question that Slack’s growth has been tremendous. The cloud-based collaboration software and message app now boasts more than nine million weekly users, six million daily users, two million paid users and 50,000 paid teams. Though the product officially launch in February of 2014, Slack generated an incredible amount of momentum throughout 2013 with clever marketing tactics like letting friends use it for free to provide feedback and inviting people to a “limited preview release.” (You can read more about it here). I learned a lot more about Slack when its CEO, Stewart Butterfield, spoke at this year’s INBOUND conference. Stewart is also the co-founder of Flickr, which sold to Yahoo in 2005 for (reportedly) around $20 million. So clearly, he knows a thing or two about scaling a business.
My favorite piece of advice had to do with coming up with Slack’s name. He cited “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding,” which advises choosing a name that you can say aloud and not have to spell for people. Fun fact: Slack was very nearly called “Honeycomb.” But, Stewart and his team wanted a name they wouldn’t feel embarrassed to tell others, was easy to say and spell (ideally, and English word), and had some emotional resonance. He explained that “Slack,” is a technical term in project management, describes how much excess capacity a system has to take on work. The Slack platform was designed to make people more productive and successful. And when that happens, you get some slack ― more room for creativity and innovation.
Thus, the Slack brand was born. But Stewart knows there’s so much more to branding than a catchy name and stylish logo. He shared a lot of other important leadership tips that contributed to Slack’s success. Below are some of my favorites.
Stewart Butterfield’s Seven Steps for Startup Success
Step One: Create a collective knowledge base of your company.
Not surprisingly, Slack’s own software has contributed quite a bit to the company’s growth. One of the major benefits of Slack is that it maintains a record of every conversation. If you’re an employee at a new company with 10,000 people, for example, you start off with an empty inbox. Billions of messages have been shared between people before you started, but you don’t get access to any of that information. Slack automatically accrues a massive archive of what’s happening at the company over time, Stewart explained. That enables new people to easily understand social protocols, norms, who answers questions, who makes decisions, etc. just by scrolling through various channel histories. There’s also a real value to those records in terms of more accurately communicating messages to other team members who might need to coordinate with your team.
Step Two: Foster alignment with lateral transparency.
The more a company grows, the more difficult it becomes to maintain alignment across an organization. Transparency helps. Slack provides that transparency in the sense that it removes opacity from an organization. People have the ability to understand what’s going on in various departments, instead of feeling left out on decisions and updates. Technical operations can see what the support team is dealing with. Designers are in tune with what engineers are working on. Stewart said that most of management’s effort in any company is coordinating people so that everyone understands what’s going on throughout the company. Slack helps with that.
Step Three: Don’t immediately search for an exit.
Stewart admitted he somewhat regrets not trying to make the Flickr platform even better for users before selling it to Yahoo. He can’t definitively say that Slack will never be acquired, but it’s not in the plan right now. Slack’s current valuation is in the billions of dollars. The company now has $200 million in annual recurring revenue, and Stewart said it would be a “banonkers” (his combination of bananas and bonkers) decision to not see how far they can take it. Instead, he said Slack should be the giant company that goes around acquiring other companies.
Step Four: Encourage risky projects.
When people are at a big, fast-growing organization, they tend to gravitate toward safe projects because they don’t want to put their job performance in jeopardy. Yes, those projects could have high rewards; but they also have high risks of failure. In order to keep innovating, however, Stewart said you need people to keep going after those risky projects.
Step Five: Branding is what happens when people interact with your company.
Slack has responded to almost every single message people have tweeted at the company, thousands of which Stewart, himself, replied to from the company account. He believes that a brand is the sum of all the interactions people have with your company. That’s why Slack focuses on small details like fast-loading pages and clearly written copy. But more importantly, the company responded to every single one of the thousands of customer support tickets they’ve received over the years. He thinks of if as investment in marketing. And it works. Slack has a 98 percent customer satisfaction rating.
Step Six: Put customers first. Always.
Internally, Slack’s measure of success in the long term is the amount of value it creates for our customers. Create so much value for your customers that they’re happy to pay you, Stewart advised.
Step Seven: Exercise and meditate first thing in the morning.
Oh, that’s not Stewart’s routine. He joked that he starts most days by grabbing his smartphone and looking through all his emails and slack messages until he’s so anxious that he just has to get out of bed. He does not recommend this. “Those people that exercise and meditate in the morning ― follow what they do,” he said, laughing.
What’s ahead for Slack?
Of course, Stewart’s session had to touch on what the future holds for Slack. Part of the current roadmap is to make the software smarter, perhaps even creating a feature that acts as a “virtual chief staff.” The software would read all your messages for you and proactively suggest the most important tasks for you to complete that day. Stewart confessed that he probably has more than 50,000 unread messages at any given time (which that makes sense given his CEO status). He manages to get through 50-70 percent of the messages that are important to him. It would be great if he could get through all of them, he said, and with a sense of priority.
“Decision fatigue is a real thing,” Stewart said. “The more decisions you have to make about priority depletes your ability to make those decisions.”
I definitely see where he’s coming from here. And with the pace that artificial intelligence is advancing, this feature might be something we could see in the near future. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with the amount of connectivity and productivity I get from the current platform.
By: Brianna Valleskey
Jen Rubio is my hero. She’s the co-founder of Away, a lifestyle travel brand that makes thoughtfully designed luggage, but also a super sharp entrepreneur, marketer and commerce expert. Jen used to run social media at Warby Parker, where employees would tweet video responses to questions about the product (while wearing Warby Parker glasses, of course) ― a visual branding strategy ahead of its time.
So when I found out Jen had a spotlight session at INBOUND this year, I was ridiculously pumped. She spoke about creating a brand with emotional appeal, building a product that actually helps people and marketing to a mass customer base (while also finding ways to specialize). Check out my summary of her insights below.
The Principles of Building a Brand People Love
1. Birthing an innovative brand ≠ reinventing a business model.
Not every entrepreneur has to reinvent the wheel. Or, as Jen put it, reinvent an existing business model. Warby Parker wasn’t the first business to sell glasses online. Away isn’t the first luggage company. But Jen knows this. How you can differentiate your business, she explained, is by creating an incredible brand that consumers want to interact with.
Every brand has an origin story (a founding myth), and Away’s story starts with a piece of broken luggage. Frequent travelers have likely noticed that the same few luggage brands always show up in airports. You assume it’s because those brands make quality luggage. Why else would people buy it, right?
Then Jen’s luggage broke. She went online and asked her travel-savvy friends what kind of luggage to get. The answers that came back surprised her: “I don’t know, but don’t get what I have.” Most people had inherited their luggage, received it as some sort of parting gift from a former job, or simply didn’t like it.
“There was just no overwhelming sense of brand affinity for luggage,” Jen said. “Travel is something that everyone does. It’s something that excites people. But why wasn’t there a travel brand that people were excited about?”
So she set off to make an awesome luggage brand that resonates with people, and for a reasonable price: All of their bags sell for under $300. Similar bags would cost anywhere from $600-900 in retail stores. But part of Away’s mission was to create quality-to-price value.
2. Design intention must equal customer perception.
Before creating the first prototype, Away did research. A lot of research. They started by sending out surveys where people were asked to check off the boxes of each feature they wanted in their luggage. All of the boxes would be checked off. When asked which features people wanted to pay for, none of the boxes were checked. So the Away team switched to field research.
“I cannot tell you how many hours we spent watching people pack,” She laughed. “We’d visit our friends and extended networks with coffee and bagels simply to watch them pack.”
Those hours were worth it. The team uncovered insights that helped them understand what to design for: People don’t like their shoes to touch their clothes. People snatch plastic bags from hotels to store wet clothes and dirty laundry.
“People are so used to having a crappy experience packing their luggage. They didn’t know how to describe what they needed,” Jen explained. “We had to witness them doing the act.”
Away iterated on their product hundreds of times to create its minimalist design. The more people use it, however, the more they realize why certain features are in place. Take the two zippers on each bag ― they create a distinct set of clicks when you clip them into the (TSA-approved) lock. You get both the satisfaction of a packing job well done, as well as the assurance that the bag is firmly shut.
Another part of good design is just making sure that what your design intention is equals the customer’s perception. Away’s luggage is made from polycarbonate (the same material used to make fighter jets), but they wanted the suitcase to have a little give in case it was ever dropped on the ground. So a flexible prototype was made and tested with a focus group. The result? The focus group assumed that the material was cheap and flimsy.
“We’re lucky that we had that group,” Jen said. “If we had gone out to the market with that, we couldn’t have been there to explain to every customer the thinking, intention and design behind what they perceive as cheap material.”
Those are the tiny details that make people obsessed with the product, Jen said. Customers frequently write in to thank Away for making them better packers.
3. The delta between good design and brand is emotion.
Jen loves to travel. She’s been to ~60 countries and all seven continents on the planet. The core of Away, as a company, is to create a beautiful, thoughtfully designed suitcase. But, she explained, you can have things that are beautiful and well-designed, and you still don’t feel a sense of connection with that product or that company. What makes something a brand is the emotional connection you feel with it.
“If we can inspire our community of people to look at a map and feel like all of it is in reach, then we’ll have done our job,” Jen said. “I know that seems like a lofty statement for someone who makes a suitcase, but the small things count.”
If that’s not creating an emotional connection to a brand, then I don’t know what is. Away’s secret sauce is to mix that emotion with phenomenal design. The brand identity for their luggage is very minimal: clean and simple, but not austere. It’s meant to attract a large market (i.e. people who travel). The company appeals heavily to specific market segments, however, by frequently collaborating with different brands. Away has worked with companies like West Elm and celebs like Rashida Jones to reach new audiences and go all out on various designs. Each collaboration has its own soul and spirit. (As I’m writing this, Away is featuring a gorgeous piece of luggage made in collaboration with Amastan Paris on its website).
“It’s easy to say your product targets people between the ages of 16 and 60 who travel, but you probably aren’t going to make anything exciting,” Jen said.
As a brand, Away is definitely exciting. But it’s also down to earth. Jen mentioned that Away isn’t meant to be like that person you follow in Instagram who takes all these amazing trips you’ll never be able to afford. Instead, Away is the person who you see travel somewhere and think to yourself, “I’m adding that destination to my list.”
4. Telling people about your product < Demonstrating what it enables them to do.
The experience of traveling is the essence Away’s brand. A key part of traveling, your luggage can really make or break a trip. Jen believes that packing and unpacking doesn’t have to be the worst part of it. That’s why Away exists as a travel lifestyle brand that monetizes by selling suitcases.
“A lot of luggage brands use their product pages to talk about the tech specs, materials and dimensions,” she said. “We do that, but a large majority of our product page is showing the bag in action: being packed, being stored under your bed, etc.”
Away’s store in NoHo (NYC) doesn’t sell luggage. It sells the experience of travel. One corner of the store is dedicated to the suitcase, where shoppers can move it around. Pack it. Play with it. But another corner is a cafe filled with travel books, magazines and city guides. It has shelves filled with things that you bring with you on a trip (like a sleep mask and headphones).
“If you’re not telling the story of what your product can enable something to do, then you’re just a company that sells things,” Jen said. “You’re not a brand.”
What I loved most about Jen’s approach is how she integrates seamlessly product design with brand storytelling. I’m looking forward to see what Jen and her luggage company do next. You can follower her on Instagram and Twitter at @jennifer.
P.S. I hope Jen writes a book someday. In the meantime. here are some great books on branding ...
By: Brianna Valleskey
Dug Song has been hacking since he was eight. The 42-year-old started three Internet security companies, survived the dotcom bubble and absolutely loves skateboarding. Those two sentences, alone, are pretty awesome. But he’s also the co-founder and CEO of DUO Security, one of the fastest-growing SaaS providers in the world.
I was fortunate enough to catch Dug at a fireside chat via Startup Grind Detroit this week. The event was hosted at the Bamboo Detroit coworking space, so naturally the conversation geared toward entrepreneurship, startups and growing businesses. Dug’s insights were candid and refreshing. No buzzwords. No growth hacks. Just honest and concise advice based on the lessons he’s learned from building multiple businesses. Below are three imperative elements of successful business growth he talked about during the event.
3 Critical Elements of Healthy Business Growth
Purpose: Thoroughly understand what you’re trying to do.
Security is one of the biggest global issues of our time. And because security can be painful and difficult to use, Dug explained, many companies (big and small) lay below the security poverty line. Most companies have the financial resources to acquire security software. What they lack are the human resources to manage it.
“We have a mission of democratizing security,” Dug said. “We think security can’t be effective unless it’s easy.”
That’s why DUO built a world-class security platform that people actually enjoy using. Dug used to be an open source developer, even though he had a full-time job. But he created open source code in his free time because he believed that everyone should have access to encryption. It’s his purpose. And DUO is built around other people who share that purpose.
DUO further democratizes security by sharing educational content for free. Anyone can easily access the eBooks, videos, infographics, events and more on the website. That’s part of the DUO sales methodology: Help, help, sell. Team members go out of our way to be helpful with people before they even try to tell them about what DUO offers.
As a company, DUO understands why it exists. The team members are eager to work together toward their mission of making security easier to use and more accessible. As Robert Baratheon puts it in the first season of Game of Thrones: “One army, a real army, united behind one leader with one purpose.” That is the foundation of a strong business.
Community: Bring people together. Help them grow.
Fast-growing businesses must think hard about the composition of the team. No football team would recruit only running backs. That’s why Dug and his team put a lot of consideration into assembling employees with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. He said they work hard to ensure every hire is additive in some unique way.
More importantly, the leadership focuses heavily on how they can help employees reach their professional goals. How does DUO fit into the story arc of their careers? Managers have weekly one-on-ones with employees to discuss how things are going with them, how the company is doing and how DUO is helping their career.
“We just have a bunch of systems to try and keep track of someone’s career at DUO,” Dug said. “But if someone decides they want to do something else, it’s no sweat. We cheer them on.”
It was at this point during the fireside chat that I decided working at DUO would be awesome (Note to self: Check out DUO job openings online). DUO also borrows organizational learning activities from agile development. Specifically, retrospectives. Teams get together on a regular basis and discuss what’s working, what’s not, what should they try next, etc. It’s also an opportunity for them to give shoutouts to other team members for doing great work. They open and close each meeting with a few minutes of peer recognition.
The final piece of community building Dug mentioned was a board report he puts together with his team. Every six weeks, each of the functional team leaders write down all their plans, successes and problems they’ve experienced over that timeframe. This process allows them to document every major decision, every success, every failure, every learning. And he doesn’t just share it with the board; the entire company has access to the document. Their community shares collective knowledge.
“If you don’t know where we’ve been, you don’t know where you’re headed,” Dug said.
Culture: Focus on passion, not payouts.
Starting a company is hard ― any entrepreneur can tell you that. Every day is either the best or worst of your life. When DUO started, Dug explained that it was just him, his co-founder Jon Oberheide and a stuffed tiger (Note to self: Ask Dug about stuffed tiger). He related building a company to skateboarding: 80 percent is falling on your face and then getting back up to try again.
“Any kind of exponential growth comes with the long, flat part of the hockey stick where you’re just grinding and hope you don’t die,” he said.
But DUO grew and made it past its first few years, which (statistically speaking), means a company will likely survive. Dug credits the company’s purpose, community and culture for making it through those years. Note that when Dug says “culture,” he’s not talking about ping pong tables and beer Fridays. Real company culture is how people treat one another; how they work together to achieve a goal. Although Silicon Valley tends to fetishize failure, Dug added that there’s a certain degree of ambient failure that DUO wants to see at the company.
“If people try things and nothing ever goes wrong,” he said, “we aren’t trying hard enough.”
A couple people asked Dug if there was in IPO in the future for DUO, but he seemed more interested in continuing to grow the company than looking to exit. This isn’t his first rodeo. Building a great company is hard when you haven’t practiced building crappy ones. Dug answered the IPO question by saying that entrepreneurs should get some experience building companies that get increasingly bigger and broader in scope and scale. This hinted that DUO is aiming for more than just profit. The company’s passion for genuine company culture and healthy business growth proves it.
I’ve been to a lot of startup events where entrepreneurs share their wisdom, but I’ve never been quite as impressed as I was at this event. I look forward to watching DUO continue to grow.
P.S. Here are some of my recommendations for books on being an entrepreneur and leader...
By: Brianna Valleskey
I work with a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses that all want the same thing: growth. And that’s great! Growing your business means serving more customers, creating new jobs, generating innovation and, of course, increasing the bottom line. But, this is also where I see a lot of companies start to fail.
We know that failure is common among small businesses. According to the Small Business Association, about two-thirds of businesses with employees (not sole proprietorships or “solopreneurs”) survive at least two years, and almost half survive at least five years. Often-cited articles from outlets like The New York Times, Forbes and Inc. document the numerous reasons many business fail: dysfunctional management, slow or stagnant cash flow, financial illiteracy, poor value proposition, lack of cash cushion, operational flaws, low demand for the product or service … the list goes on.
There are a few areas, however, that I feel like haven’t been discussed at length. These observations come directly from companies I’ve either worked with or worked at, some of which are absolutely killing it. Others, not so much. Here’s what I’ve learned from being on the front lines of multiple SMB companies.
3 Things that will Absolutely Run Your Small Business into the Ground
1. Try to do too many things at once.
Successful business growth involves a lot of moving parts, including a well-oiled lead generation funnel, a fluid sales process, strong customer retention and (of course) a strong value proposition for your product or service. The trick is that you can’t perfect all of those things at once. I know of a software company that was constantly struggling to communicate their value prop, while also trying moving upmarket, expand their product and reduce customer churn. The result? They couldn’t do any one of those things well because the company lacked focus. In addition, they lost almost half of their employees ― some were voluntary departures after being overworked; others were laid off due to the company’s poor performance.
I also know of a company that has a 98 percent retention rate with high-profile customers like Uber and Paypal. I kid you not. This CEO waited for years to perfect his company’s product and implementation process so he could ensure customer success. If you don’t believe this method works, just look at Slack. The company started building their product in December of 2012, launched a beta version (they called it a “preview release) in May of 2013, and then finally launched to the public in February of 2014. Slack spent 14 months perfecting its product. As a result, its become one of the fastest-growing companies in the market.
2. Undervalue your employees.
You can have the best product in the whole world; but if you don’t have good employees to market the product, close deals with the right prospects, serve your valued customers or iterate on the product, you do not have a business. And you will not make money. I won’t even go into the fact that a service business is based entirely on the performance of its employees. Another company I’m familiar with brought in a majority investor that completely changed the company culture. They rid the company of anything that didn’t have to do with business operations, especially anything that resembled “startup culture” (or an immature culture, as I imagine they viewed it). No more autonomy. No more monthly company roundtables. No more team-building events. No more beer Fridays. No more ping pong during office hours. Oh, and office hours were strictly defined as 8-5 or 9-6. The company culture soon became dry and lifeless. People starting leaving. Multiple employees voices their concerns to management, but soon most of the management was leaving, too. The concerns then fell on deaf ears. To my knowledge, they still are. And the business is not doing well.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Look at Uber: After blatantly ignoring employee complaints of its employees, the company suffered a public relations disaster of epic proportions when those employees went public with their stories (examples here and here). Some of the companies I work with, on the other hand, understand the deep value of investing in your employees. They treat the company as a horizontal organization and value each individual’s point of view. Those organization are growing like crazy. Seriously. One of them is even on Inc.’s list of fasting-growing companies in the country. And it’s all because they treat their employees like the most loyal customers. In return, the employees are happy to come to work, be productive and take part in such an enthusiastic atmosphere. Sir Richard Branson was right: “Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business.”
3. Underinvest in proper marketing.
I know this part seems totally biased because I’m a marketing geek. But hear me out. In the age of endless information, marketing is the number one way to get your product noticed. It involves understanding your buyer, the problems your company solves, the problems it doesn’t solve, and its unique value proposition. I once spoke to a business with an innovative product. But the company had never invested in marketing. They thought that once they built the product, they’d build brand awareness and people would start buying. You know who else built brand awareness? TiVo. You know who’s stock has decreased 85 percent since reaching its peak over a decade ago? TiVo. The company spent so much time building a brand that they forgot to create their category. People understood what TiVo did, but they didn’t understand why they needed it.
I can’t think of a single person I know who uses (or even owns) a TiVo. You know almost everyone I know has? Netflix. TiVo let you watch what you want, when you want. Netflix lets you watch what you want, when you want. But consumers didn’t know they wanted that until Netflix embarked on a rather brilliant marketing scheme of creating exclusive content. Now, we can’t live without it. More people are cutting the cord on cable and relying exclusively on streaming services like Netflix. People used to say they were going to “TiVo” something. People now say they’re going to “Netflix” and chill. Another note I need to make in this section is that I see a lot of companies leave marketing in the hands of people who are not competent. It’s as if marketing is viewed more as a side function, rather than an imperative driver of brand awareness, lead generation and customer acquisition. Hire marketers who can craft strategic campaigns and measure their results ― especially ones who can write well. When your messaging is clear, your sales go up.
These are just my thoughts based on experiences I’ve had working with SMB companies. I’d love to hear your insights, too. Feel free to leave a comment below, or check out some of my favorite books on business and marketing.
By: Brianna Valleskey
[TRANSCRIPT} Today, I’ve been thinking about thinking. A little meta, I know. But bear with me on this. I’ve been thinking about how our internal dialogues define us. Being conscious of the inner monologue in my head has changed a lot of what actually goes on in there.
I used to be really mean to myself. I was cruel in the way I talked to myself, the way I thought about myself. I was hyper-critical about everything I said and did. I was always comparing myself to other people. And God forbid I make a mistake, because that was literally the end of the world.
And this made me miserable, because our thoughts create the reality we live in. Our thoughts become our intentions, which become our actions, which becomes our reality. So I was self-perpetuating my misery, and it was awful. It wasn’t until someone told me, “Wow! You’re really hard on yourself” that I was like, “Oh my God. You’re right.”
Since then, it’s been a process of unlearning all of those terrible self-talk, inner dialogue habits, and re-learning how to be nice to myself. And in case anyone else is going through, or has gone through something like this or is just thinking about how they want to make changes in their internal dialogues, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned.
How to Create a More Positive Internal Dialogue
1. Meditate on the good stuff. What are you grateful for? What makes you happy in life? What gets you excited and energized and passionate and obsessed? Focus on that. Think about how you can do more of it. Talk about it. The universe reflects what you put out into it. So if you focus on those things — be grateful for them — there will be more of them in your life. Or at least you start to recognize them more because you’ve taken an attitude of being more grateful.
2. Don’t let the little hater get you down. The little hater is the voice in your head telling you that you aren’t good enough, skinny enough, pretty enough, rich enough, smart enough, etc. etc. Screw that guy. Listening to him (or her) will only keep you from doing the most important things in your life. Every time I write a blog or make a video, the little hater tries to tell me that I shouldn’t because people will think I’m dumb or my ideas or dumb. But who cares? Sure, some people will probably think this is dumb but that’s ok because for me to be a life-changing force in some people’s lives, I’m probably going to be an idiot and a loser in other’s. I’m not going to let that stop me from bringing my art into the world.
3. Be f*cking nice to yourself. I’m serious. When you start to get mean in your head, think about if you would say those things to your family or your friends or your significant other. And if you wouldn’t, then don’t say that shit to yourself. Because loving yourself means treating yourself like someone you really love. So cut the crap on the rumination and instead focus on how fortunate and grateful and loved and fabulous you are because we’re all on our fascinatingly unique path and comparing your progress to someone else’s is like comparing apples to broomsticks. I don’t know what that means. Anyway, recognize your innate value as a human being and talk to yourself in a way that you would want someone else to talk to you. That’s what’s going to create the reality you live and exist in every day.
If you have any thoughts on creating your inner dialogue, I’d love to hear them. You can also check out a few books that have helped me learn more about loving myself below.
By: Brianna Valleskey
The most important day of your life is not the day you you were born. I don’t remember being born. Do you?
It’s not the day you die, either. That would be a real bummer if the most important day of your life was your last one.
In fact, graduating college, getting married, or even having a child don’t count either. Those are definitely important days. But what I’m here to talk about is the absolute most meaningful day in your entire life. Are you ready for it?
The most important day of your life is not the day you were born. It is the day you find out why.
This might sound familiar. A similar quote that’s been incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, Anita Canfield and even Helen Burns has made it’s way around the Internet: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
When I first came across this quote, I liked it. Those words could not have chosen a better time to find me. Shortly after I started my digital marketing business, I had the opportunity to launch another (similar but not quite the same) business with a colleague and successful entrepreneur whom I looked up to. The opportunity seemed fantastic; I could launch this other company with someone who had experience and learn a ton about running my own business; I would receive a steady income from my business partner for working on this new venture three days a week; I could meet people, grow my network and make a name for myself. How could anyone pass up that opportunity?
I certainly wasn’t going to. As my therapist likes to say, however, “In life, there are problems.” A couple of months in and things weren’t going quite as well as I had imagined. I didn’t love the work I was doing for this joint venture as much as I loved the type of work I did for my own business. I struggled to build the brands of two different companies at one time. I realized that my business partner had different values than I when it came to the way we ran businesses. I barely even had time to work on growing my own business, and I was starting to burn out.
But ― I would tell myself any time I felt overwhelmed holding back tears and staring intently at my dark ceiling at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday ― building businesses is hard! I knew this would be hard. I’m not afraid of short-term pain for the long-term gain!
And all of those things were true. Building businesses is (really f*cking) hard. I know that now and I knew it then, but I’m doing it because I love working hard and serving customers.
What was also true, however, was that my shiploads of stress came from tiny voice in the back of my mind that knew the side venture wasn’t right for me. I hear feel it whispering to me when all else was silent. But I wasn’t ready to quit.
Not until I saw that quote, at least; I don’t remember where. I know my Freshbooks accounting software pulls out some pretty inspirational stuff on a regular basis, but I feel it was more likely I saw it erroneously attributed to Mark Twain on social media. The most important day of your life is the day you find out why you’re here. I was electrified. I remember that day! It was somewhere between the worst heartbreak of my life and getting Neil Gaiman’s famous advice to graduating art students tattooed on my forearm (“Make good art”).
I’ve always been a writer. I took my first journalism class at 14 and successfully pursued the field through college and internships and entry-level jobs until I took a writing job with a tech startup a decade later. Technically, it was marketing. But all that comes down to is exceptional communication. Marketing is, after all, simply about getting someone else excited about something you’re excited about. It was a good fit for me, except that I had lost my love for the art of words.
For the love of art
In between college and pursuing a sustainable career and binge drinking with friends and abusive relationships and hating myself and all the distractions that keep us from actually doing something, I forgot about how important writing was to me. It didn’t seem to matter too much that writing helped me make sense of the world; that I had won awards for my writing; that people connected with me through my words. I got lost. In life, there are problems.
Fortunately for me, the universe had a plan. I also had a plan ... to quit my writing job and attend a coding bootcamp to become a software developer. (For the record, that’s actually a really good plan for a lot of people. I was doing it for the wrong reasons.) But my marketing job involved working under a phenomenal manager and brilliant writer, who made sure I constantly improved my craft. So when my best friend and partner in the healthiest romantic relationship of my life broke up with me to figure some stuff out on his own, my soul was ready. I started writing for myself again. I felt reborn.
From that moment on, I’ve known that my raison d'etre consists of two things: Writing and helping people. I spent a couple more years at that job to learn, grow and master the art of marketing (business is art, too, you know) before I made the move to start my own company. I’d received a lot of incoming requests to help various businesses grow based on my work at the last company and my network, so I was very fortunate to be able to start Brave Ink on a relatively secure foundation.
I was excited about the work I was doing and the ways I was helping my clients. In my gut, I knew it was right. I was living my purpose and staying aligned with my values. But seeing that quote made me realize I didn’t feel that way working on this other venture with my business partner. I knew why I was born, and that wasn’t it.
My version of this advice puts less emphasis on the importance of the day you are born. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good day. The chances of you existing are 1 in 10^2,685,000 (that's 10 with two million zeros behind it ― basically, you’re a miracle). But the day you discover your purpose determines how you will exist for the rest of your life. It isn’t enough to discover your purpose; you must make a conscious decision to act on it every day.
Here are a few other things you need to know about the most important day of your life.
1. The most important day of your life cannot be planned. Sorry, but it’s true. You can’t force your purpose in life to show up when it’s convenient for you. It only comes exactly at the moment it’s meant to. (Or, as the first Harold and Kumar movie prefers to put it, “The universe tends to unfold as it should.”) But here are a few questions that might help you get going in the right direction: What makes you feel most alive and makes you feel excited to get out of bed in the morning? What did you love to do most as a child, before the world told you what kind of career path you should take? When you dream of doing something meaningful with your life, what does that look like?
2. The most important day of your life is followed by the most important decision of your life. What will you do next? Now that you know why you’re here, how can you make the most of it? What will your legacy be on this world? How will you choose to spend the rest of our short time on this rock hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour? That could mean you make locally roasted coffee and employee people in an underserved community or third world country. Perhaps you want to build electric cars and plan humanity’s colonization of Mars. Or maybe you’re here to use your unique gifts to help the lives and businesses of people around you.
3. Only you can identify the most important day in your life. For some people, the most important day of their lives is when they become a parent, and that their purpose in life is to raise these little human beings they’ve brought into the world. That’s awesome. Your most important day could be the day you taught your neighbor’s kid to skateboard, and now you want to build a community skateboarding program for other children. That’s awesome, too! It doesn’t matter what other people think, or whether they say it’s too big or too small. As long as you’re living your life to the fullest, sharing your unique gifts and inspiring passion in others, you are definitely living out the reason you were brought to this earth.
We don't get to choose to be born, but we do get to choose who to be.
Our world needs more people who are excited about what they came here to do. You’re never as stuck in one career path, relationship, mindset or geographic region as you think you are. There’s always room to reinvent yourself or your mission, and who knows? Maybe you’ll experience the most important day in your life more than once. Now THAT would be something.
By: Brianna Valleskey
Marketing is much older than we think.
Some experts maintain that the discipline of marketing emerged after the standardization of quality products halfway through the 20th century forced companies to find other ways to distinguish themselves from competitors (see: brand management). Others note that market research was first identified as a business activity in the early 1900s. Some even assert that marketing has been around since Gutenberg’s moveable type enabled the earliest print advertisements.
These claims, however, depend highly on one’s definition of marketing. The American Marketing Association describes it as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” Quite a mouthful. Investopedia provides a more clean-cut explanation, where marketing is “everything a company does to acquire customers and maintain a relationship with them.” But my favorite comes from researchers and textbook authors Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong: “Marketing is the social process by which individuals and organizations obtain what they need and want through creating and exchanging value with others.
In this sense, marketing began millions of years ago. Hundreds of millions. With plants.
The Ancient Origins of Marketing
As Hope Jahren explains in her book “Lab Girl,” the primary purpose of sex on planet earth exists is to mix the genes of two separate beings and produce a new individual with a gene code identical to neither parent.
“Within this new mix of genes are unprecedented possibilities, old weaknesses eliminated, and new weaknesses that might even turn out to be strengths. This is the mechanism by which the wheels of evolution turn,” Jahren writes (poetically, I might add, which is a difficult feat in the realm of science writing).
She goes on to describe that sex requires touch, where the living tissues of two separate individuals must come into contact and then attach. This is a problem for plants.
Since they cannot move, many plants can (and still do) scatter their pollen on the wind in hopes that any amount will land on a female flower -- an incredibly inefficient process. So nature came up with a solution about 135 million years ago, biologist Dave Goulson describes in his book, “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees.”
“Pollen is very nutritious. Some winged insects now began to feed upon it and before long some became specialists in eating pollen. Flying from plant to plant in search of their food, these insects accidentally carried pollen grains upon their bodies, trapped amongst hairs or in the joints between their segments. When the occasional pollen grain fell off the insect on to the female parts of a flower, that flower was pollinated, and so insects became the first pollinators, sex facilitators, for plants,” Goulson writes. “A mutualistic relationship had begun which was to change the appearance of the earth. Although much of the pollen was consumed by the insects, this was still a vast improvement for the plants compared to scattering their pollen to the wind.”
A mutualistic relationship? That sounds like individuals and organizations obtaining what they need and want through creating and exchanging value with others.
Evolution & Adaptation
Goulson offers even more: “Insects had to seek out the unimpressive brown or green flowers amongst the surrounding foliage. It was now to the advantage of plants to advertise the location of their flowers, so that they could be more quickly found and to attract insects away from their competitors. So began the longest marketing campaign in history, with the early water lilies and magnolias the first plants to evolve petals, conspicuously white against the forests of green.”
Plants began marketing themselves millions of years before our first ancestors walked the planet. Our verdant, immobile fellow beings were the earth’s first marketers! It’s no wonder that studies show interacting with nature can increase creativity. And I’m sure there’s much more we could learn from nature.
So the next time you need a little creative inspiration, talk a walk through a nearby park or conservatory. The fresh air, quick exercise and presence of the world’s most experienced marketers will surely spark something inside your mind. I also highly recommend you check out this excerpt of Goulson’s book that was published in Scientific American. Save the bees.
Here are links to some of my favorite books on science and nature:
By: Brianna Valleskey
I am, admittedly, biased when it comes to this topic. Journalism was (and always will be) my first love. And it was my education and years as a journalist that shaped my idiosyncratic approach to marketing. As a journalist, my goals were to create, educate and serve. As a marketer, my goals are to create, educate and serve.
I was recently featured in an article by Andrew Friedenthal, marketing campaign research analyst for the online reviews firm Software Advice: How to Succeed at Marketing in the Age of Adblock. Friedenthal proposes that the future of marketing lies within a concept that seems counter-intuitive to traditional go-to-market practices: transparency.
“Ad-blocking has become ubiquitous amongst most seasoned internet users today, making it harder than ever for marketers to reach out to potential customers online,” Friedenthal told me in an email after the article went live. “I wanted to write an article about ways that marketers could get around ad-blockers, and from my research it seemed that the most effective method is to adopt a form of more personalized, transparent marketing that those customers will welcome, instead of blocking it.”
Transparency is the very foundation of journalism. Without it, media are quickly identified as inaccurate, biased or sensationalized. A reporter’s only constituents are her readers. Their writing moves people, because they know how to tell a story that reaches into the depths of our hearts. Some of the greatest authors were also journalists: Charles Dickens; Ernest Hemingway; Mark Twain; Geraldine Brooks; Neil Gaiman. Journalists have mastered the art of clear communication and definitive messaging.
A quick note: Marketing is a very different craft than journalism. I’m not saying that marketers should try to be journalists (or pose as them), nor am I saying that “marketing” is a part of the fourth estate. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the profession of journalism and its practitioners, which is why I want to credit them for the strategies below that I use for modern marketing.
Here’s what I learned from being a journalist about writing well, educating your readers and serving a greater cause - all of which comprise this unprecedented idea of transparent marketing.
Journalists develop trust with their audience.
Journalists don’t ask for trust; they earn it. Credible news media do this by being transparent about who they are, what they’re reporting, how they’re reporting and why they’re reporting. They serve their readership by bringing forth important, relevant and interesting information. In return, the readers give them loyalty and credibility. The consumers have control. When Friedenthal was drafting his piece on using transparency marketing, he sought out experts on the subject. That’s how we started talking.
“As you explained to me, in order to provide that control to your consumers, you need to be crystal clear in your communications with them so that they know what your business does, build up a sense of trust with it and see you as a resource, rather than an imposition,” he told me.
Between the Internet, social media and traditional media, people are constantly being marketed to. It gets old. Andrew said the plethora of information now available on the Internet gives people more answers than they know what to do with. As marketers, we must be a trusted source that stands out from the crowd.
“By building up your brand with consumers, you can become that trusted source whose content they will actively seek out, and who they will then trust when it comes to making buying decisions,“ Andrew said and I completely agree.
Marketers can build trust by being upfront about who they are and what they’re trying to do. Publish and editorial mission statement on your website or blog. Clearly communicate what your company does and how it helps the lives or businesses of your customers. Maintain a consistent narrative throughout your branding and messaging - if something has to change, be honest about it with your audience. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and transparency builds trust.
Journalists answer important questions.
A primary role of journalism is to act as a watchdog of government, and one way the media does this is by asking and answering tough questions. How high up in government did the Watergate scandal go? (Bob Woodward and Richard Bernstein). When will the U.S. ban segregation in interstate travel? ( Ethel Payne). What are the working conditions like for immigrants in the meatpacking industry? (Upton Sinclair). Marketers must do the same for the industries they serve.
Friedenthal’s thoughts on how marketing can adapt this method echoed my own: “Marketers need to be active in this Internet-wide conversation, providing direct, useful, transparent answers to the questions related to their business. If you are a resource, and not just a product, you draw customers to you, rather than having to go to them (and potentially getting rebuffed by their ad-blocking software).”
The easiest way to understand what questions you can answer for your audience is to ask them. Interview your audience and buyer personas. Find out what their key challenges and pain points are. Understand what questions they want answered (instead of what questions you think you should answer for them). You can even go so far as to search websites like Quora or conduct SEO research to uncover the most common queries from your industry. Do your readers need an updated guide on the most popular industry data and trends? That’s a blog post. Are they interested in learning about unique tactics from thought leaders? Blog post. A prospect wants to know what ROI they’ll see from your solution? Start writing.
Journalists facilitate productive conversations.
The news media serve their readers by introducing new ideas and bringing issues to light. As communications researcher Stanley J. Baran explains, “Media may not tell us what to think, but that media tell us what to think about.” Marketers have the same duty - to bring to light important topics within their industry. This demonstrates to your audience that your mission is more than just creating a profit; it’s furthering that field or vertical as a whole.
“As you pointed out, one of your key goals should be to ‘build your credibility in your field and demonstrate to consumers that your goal is to help them,’” Friedenthal commented. “Creating useful and helpful content as part of a marketing campaign may not immediately make as many sales as an advertisement on Facebook or Google, but in the long run it prepares you to take on a more transparent style of marketing in the coming years.”
In the future of marketing, transparency will be key. We’re surrounded by millions of advertisements, brand messages and marketing attempts that the only thing setting organizations apart is actual authenticity. Journalists do it. Marketers can, too.
By the way, here are some of my favorite books about journalism and writing well:
By: Brianna Valleskey
The human brain loves stories. They help us connect with others and make sense of the world. They shape our opinions and move us to action. The best stories bond us with strangers and fictional characters across space and time, allowing us to sympathize - or even empathize - with people we've only met through the magic that is storytelling. And there's science behind why.
Earlier this century, neuroeconomist Dr. Paul J. Zak and his lab studied why stories affect people so deeply. The key? How a story is told. To create a connect between the characters and audience, a story must both grab and retain their attention. This bond causes the audience to share the emotions of characters, and even mimic those feelings after the story is over. Even after it's over! That's how powerful stories are.
What caught my attention was how Zak described the significance of these findings in a Harvard Business Review article:
"These findings on the neurobiology of storytelling are relevant to business settings. For example, my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later. In terms of making impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits. I advise business people to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story. Why should customers or a person on the street care about the project you are proposing? How does it change the world or improve lives? How will people feel when it is complete? These are the components that make information persuasive and memorable."
Every marketer, advertiser, public relations manager and communications manager should take this to heart: There is power in a story, as well as the art of communicating one well. This is something we've anecdotally known for ages. Recent data from Spiceworks shows that the most valuable skills for B2B tech marketers (a particularly competitive field) are soft skills, writing skills and content marketing skills.
Across generations, marketers agree that the basic elements of storytelling and communication are imperative to their job. Stories engage our mind and spirit, as well as act as an effective means of transmitting information. That's why they are passed down through generations and centuries, and perhaps also explains why many journalists become effective public relations professionals - they are technically trained in the storytelling arts.
For anyone in the fields of marketing, PR and communication, remember that stories are your most powerful weapon. Go save the world.
“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” - Ben Okri
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, growth, mindfulness, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.