Marketing agility refers to your ability to adapt your go-to-market programs in response to a new situation with speed and quality. Both of those attributes are necessary. If you’re first to market, but your programs/messaging/etc. are poor then they won’t resonate. If you’ve got the best programs in the world, but you take too long to go to market then your competitors will surely have you beat.
But what can you actually do to make your marketing more agile or even agile to begin with? What muscles do you need to strengthen in order to enhance this skill?
Research shows that agility consists of several factors, including leg muscle, running technique, and straight sprint: “Agility requires muscle power in order to move quickly and technique to move efficiently.” Let’s hone in on these three areas and see how they translate to marketing:
3 Exercises for Increasing Marketing Agility
1. Leg Muscle Strength = Team Collaboration Strength
Do you have strategic, corporate-level objectives that your team’s collective goals roll up to? Have you empowered your team members by letting them know what you need them to achieve, but allowing them to work together to determine how they get there?
Agility starts with the strength of your team. They need strong collaboration skills to not only move together quickly but move together at all. Collaboration can’t happen on a one-off, project-by-project basis; but must be instilled into everything the people on your team do.
The best way to bring people together? Unite them under the same goal. Determine the top 3-5 priorities your team needs to tackle that year or that quarter in order for you to meaningfully affect the corporate-level objectives during that time period. Keep that number to less than five; if everyone is a priority then nothing is.
I’m not talking about activity goals like “launch X eBook” or “host X event” or unquantifiable goals like “assist sales team in driving pipeline velocity” or “drive customer retention through education,” but metrics-driven priorities like “penetrate 80% of target accounts” or “increase product usage by 25%.” These types of goals not only clearly demonstrate what you’re trying to do (accelerate sales and drive retention, respectively) but also how you’re going to get there.
Let your team then determine the programs or initiatives they think will be most effective to address the priorities. Remind them that not all actions are created equal: Focus on what will have the biggest impact (based either on historical data or data-driven guesses) and act as the most efficient use of your resources. Work together with them to solidify which programs you’ll keep, modify, or table for the time being.
This process prepares you for when objectives, goals, and programs/initiatives need to change. When a change in company objective or team goal is needed, your team can work in an orchestrated fashion to adjust.
2. Running Technique = Go-to-Market Technique
The programs or initiatives your team thinks will be most effective to address the set priorities will largely depend on your go-to-market technique. A strong GTM technique involves using adaptive storytelling (staying in tune with your customers) and being channel agnostic: Your story should constantly be evolving to stay aligned with your customer and you should be able to tell that story across any channel.
At least one person on your marketing team (the more, the better) should be responsible for “customer stories” or “customer research” to ensure that you’re not only telling the right stories, but that you’re telling them in the right places. This is a good fit for someone in customer marketing, product marketing, or content marketing as they are likely already in touch with your customers on at least a semi-regular basis.
When things change for our customers, a strong go-to-market technique allows us to change with them. Turning the ongoing interviews with customers into an established process helps you answer the question, “Are these tactics still relevant?” and “Does our messaging need to change?” Tactics do become irrelevant. Messaging will need to change. And sometimes an unforeseen event of global proportions will force you to all of it at once.
Sharpen your running technique by keeping all of your go-to-market programs (marketing, sales, and customer) aligned with the value prop at the core of your current messaging, and then updating them in sync with every messaging change. Sure, that’s a lot of work. But it’s better than creating an inconsistent or confusing experience as buyers move throughout the customer lifecycle.
Sometimes your stories will need to be adjusted for different media. Keep your GTM technique tuned by constantly reporting on the success of different messages across different channels and making adjustments where necessary. If a message doesn’t seem to be working in one place, test it in another channel or part of the buyer’s journey before you throw it out entirely. Sometimes the form factor simply needs an adjustment.
3. Straight Sprint = Day-to-Day Planning & Execution
How do we plan, execute, and stay focused on goals rapidly in a rapidly changing environment? My father once told me that to run a mile, you need to keep your mind on the goal and your eyes on the next three feet in front of you. (Coincidentally, that strategy also allows you to jump over obstacles or change direction when needed.)
As marketers, we love to plan in quarters. But three feet is a sprint.
Planning in shorter “sprints” allows you to very clearly define what you’re saying “yes” to over the next two weeks (or however long your sprint is). They also provide a framework for making trade-offs when priorities that do come up that cannot wait until the next sprint: If we’re taking on X during this sprint, then will A, B, or C will have to wait until our next sprint. This enables your team to focus on what is most important right now and ensures that you meet deadlines.
You exercise your straight spring muscles simply by practicing your sprints. If you’re not familiar with Agile software development or project management, Atlassian has a great guide here.
Start by planning a quarter—not just what you’ll do during that time frame but approximately when you’ll do it—in a way that aligns with the programs happening across your company also within your team. Break that quarter down into months. What does it mean for each of your marketing team members and marketing teams? Then break those months into sprints. I’d recommend running sprints for one or two weeks at a time: The goal is to be able to operate, communicate, and change quickly; bigger and bulkier plans don’t work for that.
The sprint should comprise all the tasks, projects, and campaigns/programs that will be completed within that given period of time. Allow your teams and team members to elect what they think they can complete within the sprint. (A smart product manager I used to work with taught me that no one person should plan for more than five hours of tasks each day because we know that, inevitably, more things will always come up.) I recommend using a project management tool like Jira, Asana, or Trello to keep track of the tasks each of your teams and team members commits to each week.
Sprinting means creating a program calendar and task list, but being ready to pivot. Keep evergreen programs in your back pocket for when things fall through or you experience an unexpected change.
This brings us back to that idea of uncertainty and discomfort: The smartest teams control what can be controlled, and then build the muscles needed to be ready to change.
Why does marketing agility matter? Because faced with the weight of sudden or massive change, the teams who have focused on building this strength will not falter. They’ll keep moving like water: fluid enough to slip through pebbles, but strong enough to carve through rock.
This piece is part 2 in a series about marketing agility. To read part 1, click here.
Our marketing agility has been tested as of late.
COVID-19 stripped away core components of business strategies across the globe, forcing us to face the weight of unprecedented change; a new world where business travel and in-person events are replaced by remote work and budget cuts (for both us and our customers). Our strategies were hit with an asteroid. Overnight, our ecosystems changed.
Most of the mass extinction events on earth have been due in some way or another to global warming—with as much as 75% of all life on earth disappearing in a single episode. In a changing environment, you either collapse or adapt.
Nothing is as costly as inaction.
Adaptation vs. the Fear of Change
In nature, adaptation is the process of a species becoming fit to live successfully in its current environment. Nature is very budget-conscious; it can’t afford to simply let life in an ecosystem die out when things change. Biological forces are always working to maximize the return on nature’s investments in living things, so adaptation is a natural reaction to an evolving ecosystem.
Marketing agility means successfully adapting to new (and continuously evolving) environments. It’s the ability to adjust your marketing programs quickly and easily based on often unforeseen circumstances related to your company, your customers, or something else in your ecosystem.
This isn’t a foreign concept to marketers. We’re constantly making changes based on different criteria like timeframe, data, or engagement. But in this case, I’m talking about dealing with seismic shifts: tectonic plates moving inches at a time below the surface that form a richter-breaking earthquake. Having the marketing agility to maneuver massive change not only rescues you in dire situations, but it helps you execute more effectively on day-to-day changes.
Fear of the unknown is very real. When something unprecedented happens, no one wants to just throw away a go-to-market approach that has worked for 24 months straight without another surefire plan in place.
But we must come face-to-face with that fear in times like these, when our families, our companies, and our customers depend on us. We must be brave enough to stop for a moment and take stock of the current situation in order to determine the best course of action moving forward—whether or not that means abandoning programs we spent 18 months trying to build.
You never have to throw anything away, of course, as long as it continues to drive measurable results. But keep a close eye on it, and at the same time proactively research your new environment and test some new things based on what you learn. Utilize adaptive storytelling.
Stories build our identity. They help us understand the world, and they shape the way we see it.
In business, we tell stories with our brand design and messaging, through our events and experiences, via the content and communications we share, in the sales and customer conversations we have, and so much more. We’re telling stories constantly to help people understand why our product or service is relevant to them.
What we say in those stories must be relevant to our audience—not ourselves. The messages you bring to the market must answer the question of why you’re reaching out to that audience (whether on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis) and why they should care. Otherwise, you’re a stranger with a sales pitch or a glazed-over digital ad.
If a brand is the sum of all interactions someone has with your company, then your collective go-to-market message is the conversation you’re having with your audience. Are you talking about you or about them?
Hopefully, your core narrative and messaging framework are, indeed, relevant to your audience. You solve a challenge, satiate a desire, or provide something else valuable enough for people to invest. And that value is something that’s relevant to each and every individual in your audience. It's what ties them all together in a common thread.
“Personalization” is for building relationships with individuals. Relevance is for building relationships with the masses.
PSA: Call Your Customer
Relevance ensures that the way you communicate your value speaks to what matters most to your audience today. Your core message might resonate with your audience on an overall basis, but if it’s not among the, say, three-to-five top things they are thinking about prioritizing within the next week/month/year then they’ll scroll right past you.
In the attention economy—where scarcity exists not in the amount of space we can use to get in front of our buyers, but in the length that we can hold someone’s interest—being relevant means staying close to our buyers and customers. We hold someone’s attention by bringing valuable information as a resource, answering their questions, and helping them make informed decisions.
But the world changes quickly. What mattered to many of us two months ago isn’t even a blip on the radar anymore. And that can happen to our buyers or our customers on any scale (big or small) at any moment, whether or not we know it.
We must always know how to make our core value and messaging hyper-relevant to what matters most to our audience today; this month; this quarter; this year. If we can’t speak to that, then maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing.
This approach, of course, requires staying very close to your audience. Listening, conversing, interviewing your customers as much as possible. As marketers, we spend so much time reading about them and writing for them and talking about them, but we don’t often get the same amount or frequency of face time as some of our other customer-facing counterparts.
This is the part where I tell you, The Marketer, to call your customer.
Living, Breathing Stories
Of course, many of us in the marketing discipline do already call our customers. We interview them for case studies and put them on our advisory boards and ask for product feedback.
But what I’m suggesting is just a regular cadence of check-ins just to understand what’s top-of-mind for them. It’s not a sales call, but rather a way to understand how they’re thinking on a day-to-day basis, throughout different times of the year, and during unique events. What decisions are they considering and when (and why)? Thank them for taking the time to speak with you with a coffee or cocktail. (Alternatively, you could send them a handwritten note or another token of appreciation if you don’t live in the same region.)
Cycle through interviews with different customers to ensure you’re getting a diversity of perspectives. Keep the questions short (don’t exhaust your interviewees) and focus on getting into their state of mind to be the best resource possible. Find out …
At the same time, be sure to establish a strong pipeline of feedback from your sales, support, and other customer-facing teams. Use the same set of questions with these internal teams and compare that research to yours. Find the patterns. Then craft a mini messaging framework that aligns with your core framework but is hyper-focused on where your audience’s head is at right now.
As a situation changes or time goes on, allow that messaging framework to evolve. Even something as small as a change in certain vernacular should or a specific emphasis should be allowed to inform you’re saying to the market. Use continual research in order to make educated guesses on where to iterate. Let your stories live and breathe.
“Brand journalism” is one of those murky terms that typically has to do with sharing stories about a brand to build affinity; and it usually involves some combination of public relations, content, and corporate communications.
What I’m describing here is more like ... adaptive storytelling, where you know the story but you allow it to grow and adapt to the situation as necessary. This allows you to be a lighthouse to your buyers, customers, and community when they’re navigating uncertain waters; a reliable and trustworthy safe harbor.
Tone-deaf messages without relevance (and in uncertain times, hyper-relevance) fall on disinterested ears. Winning brands build relationships like people do: by creating mutual value, through shared positive experiences, and being there in times of need.
This piece is part 1 in a series about marketing agility. To read part 2, click here.
By Brianna Valleskey
Yesterday, I launched a rather sizable content-driven campaign celebrating National Dog Day (the Boston Terrier to the left was part of said campaign).
The content piece in question was a video of dogs reading our product reviews. Think of a lighthearted version of Jimmy Kimmel's “Mean Tweets” mixed with dogs running around offices accompanied by voiceovers of the amazing things our customers have said about us. People loved it.
The relevance to a national holiday, charitable aspect of the posts, and (of course) the dogs, no doubt all played a role in the success of the campaign. But even more than that it’s good content.
Why? Because this video both provided value by sharing people’s experiences with our software and tapped into our audience’s emotions by making them laugh at dogs typing on laptops, hosting meetings, etc.
I think that matters more than ever in the ocean of (largely mediocre) content that is thrust upon consumers every day. And calling it “mediocre” is my way of being nice.
According to Content Marketing Institute, “content” is defined as relevant and valuable. Most companies seem to understand that the media they create needs to be somewhere in the same universe as the product they sell. But I cannot believe the number of blogs I’ve read that felt like a literal waste of my time—meaning, they provided me with zero value.
On the flip side, some content I’ve seen is so incredible that I would (and will) dare to call it “art.” The lovely people over at Oxford’s free English dictionary classify art as works primarily appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.
Everything else, in my humble opinion, is just crap.
Let me share some examples.
Great (Sometimes Awesome) Content
Ok, so content = value, right? That means your reader should walk away with something they didn’t have before engaging with your content.
Perhaps you teach them something brand new (or a newer/better/faster/unique way of doing something they already know). You could also offer them a new way to look at something or spark their imagination to come up with new ideas on their own. Or simply outline actionable strategies or specific tactics they can implement almost immediately. No high-level stuff here. Your audience is offering their time to absorb your content, so give ‘em the goods kids.
One great—and potentially obvious—example: the HubSpot Academy. HubSpot offers robust educational courses (including videos and quizzes) all about inbound marketing for free. When you finish, you’re granted the “Inbound Certification” badge to proudly display on social media or add to your resume. They teach you about an entire marketing strategy and then enable you to show off your new chops. That’s value.
Grammarly, an online grammar checker targeted at writers such as myself, also offers exceptionally valuable content. A quick Google search of “affect vs effect” (a common grammar question for any non-language-obsessed readers out there) shows a Grammarly blog as the first result. You don’t need to read any further than the first paragraph to answer the question, but you can continue reading for a deeper understanding if you wish. That’s value AND efficiency.
And in my current role at Sendoso, we even turned a direct mail piece into content marketing by sending out a dimensional slider with pop-up boxes featuring ideas for direct mail campaigns.
Once again, we provided value and hopefully got their wheels turning so they could craft their own amazing offline marketing campaigns.
Content That Transcends to Art
A piece that taps into your emotions becomes more than content. It may not be the Sistine Chapel, but I think there’s a case to be made for it to be (at least on some level) considered art.
The first way I’ve seen the emotional aspect come into play is with humor. Remember the Dollar Shave Club video? The minute-and-a-half video starts with a guy sitting at a desk and slowly descends into obscurity, all while informing you about the product. Brilliant. Bold, cheeky, and hilarious to boot. Impossible not to share.
Another format that’s impressed me comes from Sigstr, an email signature marketing tool. They have an entire section of their website titled “Sigstr Comedy” that’s simply a collection of articles sharing how pop culture characters would use the product. Some of my favorites include “If Star Wars Characters Had Email Signatures” and “If the Founding Fathers Had Email Signatures.” The blogs both make you chuckle with their creativity and demonstrate the many different ways their technology can be used.
What’s more powerful than making people laugh is making them feel valued, motivated, and maybe even inspired. Dove and Nike are two brands that immediately come to mind. One of Dove’s most popular films (note that they are called “films” and not “ads” — we see your angle here Dove), “Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” still gives me chills.
The video taps into a common insecurity (self-perception) among their target audience (women), then shows them that they’re more beautiful than they think. Feels all around. Nike is also all-aboard the women’s empowerment train with ads like “What will they say about you?” This one, in particular, shows women around the world kicking ass and owning their story.
Watching that video makes me want to go conquer the world. I have a positive emotional and aesthetic reaction to the media, making it more than just content and worlds away from much of what else is out there.
This is Just Crap
Let me start by saying that producing high-quality content is no cheap or easy task. You need the right amount of time, money, and people—something that many organizations understandably cannot pull off.
So I’ll highlight the severity of this issue by picking on a company with more than enough of those resources who will be absolutely unaffected by my scrutiny: Salesforce. I recently stumbled upon this piece from their site Quotable, which is marketed as a “regularly updated destination for exclusive, helpful, thought-provoking, and entertaining articles that benefit sales leaders, managers, and reps.” The second article under their recommended section is titled “3 Tips for Building an Inside Sales Team.” Generic. But sure, I’ll bite.
The three tips in this piece are to …
These are not “tips.” This is the standard formula for building an inside sales team. The article doesn’t have a publish date so there’s no way of telling if this piece is many (MANY) years old considering what’s being sold as “thought-provoking.” Even if that’s the case, it certainly has not aged well and should not be one of the second-most recommended pieces on the site.
I gave Salesforce the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this website is old and hasn’t been updated in forever? So I hop on over to their regular blog. There’s a blog titled “4 Steps to Develop Engaging New Customer Experience Strategies.” Cool. I’m all about the CX.
But this blog is even worse. The four steps are …
This article was published today. Today! And it is certainly not about customer experience. Those are vague steps for improving … anything, really. I learned nothing about what I should ACTUALLY be doing to create new customer experiences. What kinds of questions should I be asking about our current experience? What obstacles should I look to tackle or areas that generally need improvement? Yes, deployment means “bringing something to life” and there’s literally nothing about “optimization” other than the subhead, itself.
Where are the brainstorming exercises? Where are the CX metrics I should measure? How do I solicit feedback and buy-in from our team on what the new initiatives should be? What’s the best process for optimizing? I’ve finished this article with more questions than when I started. And now I’m mad because I wasted my time on something that literally brought me nothing, creating such an awful customer experience that I had to write 1,500 words about it.
If Salesforce can bring 100,000+ people to San Francisco every year for their annual user conference and build an entire ecosystem of companies that only sell to their customers, then they can certainly invest in value-added content. But they’re not. And this is the problem.
Content can and should be better. Not every organization may be able to produce a Cannes Lions-winning advertisement, but they can at least offer some sort of value.
Our readers deserve something for giving us their time and attention, especially in this world of ever-increasing noise. I hope other marketers feel the same.
By Brianna Valleskey
Why do some ads go viral?
And why are others so easy to forget?
I started thinking about this after Nike’s “Dream Crazy” advertisement came out a few months ago. The video features former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, whom people love or love to hate.
You could argue that the video’s 27 million views are because Nike decided to feature Kaepernick in an ad, but the controversy was just a hook.
A much more real story lies at the heart.
If you haven't seen it, the video plays motivational music while showing people of every gender, race, religion, and economic status pursue their dreams in spite of societal standards: A child without legs in a wrestling match. A Muslim woman boxing. A homecoming queen who’s also a linebacker. An NFL player with only one hand. A professional tennis player from Compton.
“If people say your dreams are crazy—if they laugh at what you think you can do—good,” says an identified narrator. “Stay that way. Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy isn’t an insult. It’s a compliment.”
Damn. That’s something I can really feel. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Having a “crazy” dream is something I think everyone has experienced at least once in their lives.
And then there was the #LikeAGirl campaign from Always, where young women and little girls explaining what it means to run “like a girl.” While the teenagers acted like damsels in distress, the girls ran their adorable little hearts out. It’s a sweet but sad reminder of how society warps the way girls see themselves as they grow up. That video has 66 million views.
Two very different commercials. Same effect.
So what’s the secret ingredient?
They're our way of making sense of the world.
“When people read a book, watch a movie or hear a story, regardless of medium or format, it is imperative that they see themselves in the story,” write SapientNitro executives Gastron Legorburu and Darren McColl in “Storyscaping.”
These stories are so powerful because they tap into something that millions of people have personally experienced. The story in the ad becomes our story (and vice versa).
And this has been the case for thousands of years.
From Cave Paintings to Kaepernick
Of course, modern marketers were not the first storytellers. Cave paintings dating as far back as 40,000 thousand years ago inform us that our ancestors felt the urge to express their experience.
“Whether it’s Neanderthal elbow rubbing or social media socializing, story is central to what it means to be human,” write Legorburu and McColl.
Perhaps this can, in part, explain why the same stories appear across space, time, and culture.
“Every culture has a flood story about how the whole earth was flooded and things started over,” says mythologist John Bucher on an episode of Ologies. “Stories of floods predated Hebrew scripture, [from] Amazonian culture, Greek culture, Roman culture, Asian culture.”
Stories are the driving force behind the history we learn, the religion we practice, the government we follow, the beliefs we hold, the people we love, and even the way we think about ourselves. Studies show that reframing your narrative can yield a more positive identity.
And yes, gamification of social media platforms makes them incredibly addictive. But there’s more to it: What other medium gives people complete and utter control over how others see their story? Not to mention the ability to voraciously consume stories about others.
Legorburu and McColl again: “Humans have an innate ability to take disparate events and connect them together to create meaning.”
To tell stories is to be human.
But why is it that the marketers at Nike and Always and other world-dominating brands can use stories to awaken our hearts and, consequently, open our wallets?
This is Your Brain on Stories
Long before Joseph Campbell and “The Hero’s Tale” helped George Lucas produce the most well-known space opera of all time, Aristotle taught us that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end.
This three-act structure is important, mythologist John Bucher explains, because the way storytelling structure works actually mirrors the way the human brain solves a problem.
1. A goal or yearning is introduced, but conflicts and/or obstacles arise.
This goes even further.
“Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response,” writes Harrison Monrath in a Harvard Business Review article.
He goes on to say that research from Neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows how our brains produce cortisol (the stress hormone) during tense moments in a story, while sweet/cute/etc. elements of a story can cause our brains to elicit oxytocin (a chemical that makes us feel good). What’s more? A happy ending can trigger the release of dopamine in our limbic system, making us feel hopeful and optimistic.
Zak, himself, writes in another Harvard Business Review article that these findings 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,” Zak writes.
The advertisements from Nike (Dream Crazy) and Always (#LikeAGirl) are character-driven. For Nike, the character is the underdog. With Always, it’s adolescent girls. But there’s another element still that makes them so powerful.
“The most successful storytellers often focus listeners’ minds on a single important idea and they take no longer than a 30-second Super Bowl spot to forge an emotional connection,” Monrath writes.
This, my dear readers, is key.
Stories are Shared Experiences
What’s the one word, phrase, idea, or vision you want your audience to walk away with? And how will you get that across before you lose their attention?
Nike doesn’t just want you to dream big. It wants you to dream crazy. And Always wants women and girls everywhere to know that “like a girl” is not an insult.
Neither of these things has anything to do with the products Nike and Always sell. Yet, Always saw a higher-than-average lift in brand preference after the #LikeAGirl ad, where purchase intent grew by more than 50%. And Nike experienced a 31% increase in online sales following the release of its Dream Crazy spot.
So what does this all mean?
The best marketing isn't marketing at all—it's storytelling. Authentic, emotional, and character-driven stories stimulate our brains and saturate our hearts.
Stories trigger the most important brand message of all: You belong.
Everything else is posturing.
By Brianna Valleskey
My primary takeaway from “Avengers: Infinity War” had nothing to do with the Avengers.
Don’t get me wrong: The movie, itself, was great. But afterward, I was most intrigued with the Guardians of the Galaxy. One Guardian in particular--
Yep, the soft-spoken empath with antennas who joined the Guardians in the sequel.
Mantis can sense and manipulate the emotions of other people (although her character in the comics is much more robust), and those abilities play major roles in both “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Infinity War.” One of the most effective uses of her powers are to make someone feel relaxed enough to soothe them into a deep sleep.
(Spoilers ahead. But seriously go see these movies.)
At the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” the team attempts to stop Ego (a “god-like” living planet and Quill’s biological father) from planting seedlings across the universe to consume planets and turn them into extension of himself. No bueno. But they need Mantis to put Ego to sleep so they can destroy the cosmic brain at the core of his planet. I mentioned that he’s a planet, right? But she does it, like a total badass.
And that’s not all. Infinity War features Mantis playing an integral role in a plan to stop Thanos from collecting all six Infinity Stones and using them to exterminate half of all life in the universe. He keeps them in a gauntlet on his left hand to harness their power. But before he’s able to find them all, some of the Avengers confront him on his home world.
Thanos is ridiculously powerful (and even more so with the Infinity Stones). So it takes a combination of Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Spiderman, Quill and Drax to distract and restrain him. The secret weapon to their strategy is—you guessed it—Mantis. She lulls him into a stupor while Iron Man and Spiderman attempt to pull the glove containing the Infinity Stones off of his hand. And they almost succeed! That is, until Quill finds out that Thanos killed Gamora, starts attacking him and basically ruins the whole plan.
Anyway, the point is that a character trait that might typically be perceived as “feminine” or even “weak” actually turns out to be incredibly powerful and useful when it comes to saving the galaxy. After seeing that movie, I developed a hypothesis that empathy might also actually be incredibly powerful and useful when it comes to running a successful business.
So I did a little research.
Why Empathy is an Underutilized Superpower in Business
In a study of 1,850 of CEOs, HR professionals and employees, Businessolver found that eight in ten agree that an empathetic workplace has a positive impact on business performance. What’s more? A whopping 87% of CEOs believe that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace. Nine out of ten employees, however, reported that they felt empathy remains undervalued.
So should we value empathy more at work? Let’s take a look at some its effects:
Empathy fosters an engaged workforce.
We’ve all heard that Gallup statistic that says only 32% of employees are actively engaged at work. It’s staggering, but not as much as the fact that actively disengaged employees cost the United States $450-550 billion each year. The organizational benefits of employee engagement are measurable: Businesses with the highest levels of employee engagement experience 22% more profitability, 21% more productivity and 10% better customer ratings.
Here’s where empathy comes in: When working for an empathetic employer, nine out of 10 employees are more likely to stay with an organization that empathized with their needs, and eight in 10 are willing to work longer hours. Those in demanding industries like tech, healthcare and financial services will even trade pay and work hours for an employer they perceive as empathetic. So empathetic leadership actually makes employees more motivated to work for that organization, which could offer an effective direct antidote to active disengagement.
Empathy increases job performance.
Although many theories identify empathy as an important part of leadership, the Center for Creative Leadership analyzed data about 6,731 managers from 38 countries to find out. Their findings were consistent across the sample: empathy is positively related to job performance.
Managers who show more empathy (not just have empathy, but act on it) toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. By their bosses! Not by the reports directly receiving the empathy, but by the person the manager reports to. The researchers also speculate that empathetic leaders effectively build and maintain relationships—which they cite as a vital part of high-performing businesses worldwide.
Empathy stimulates innovation.
While empathy is often regarded as a soft skill (and not particularly pertinent in the world of business), Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes it’s a wellspring for innovation (as well as a necessity for CEOs). Innovation, he explains, comes from “one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.” And that’s exactly what empathy supplies.
“Most people think empathy is just something you reserve for your life and your family and your friends, but the reality is that it’s an existential priority of a business,” Nadella said in a Bloomberg interview last year.
He asserts that CEOs should be both empathetic and confident (but also willing to learn). Given that Microsoft’s stock price has more than doubled since he took over the company in 2014, I think he might be on to something here.
So, how do we cultivate more empathy at work?
More than half of employees struggle to demonstrate empathy (however, eight in 10 of them are open to empathy skills training). Businessolver offers a template for your workplace called the “Empathy Manifesto,” but here are a few tactical tips the report also provides …
1. Acknowledge individual needs: According to the study, employees and CEOs agree that the top empathetic behaviors are understanding and/or respecting the need for time off and for flexible working hours.
2. Advocate for your employees: Employees also cited more traditional benefits (like insurance, retirement contributions and paid parental leave) as empathetic, and said that lowering costs was the most empathetic practice related to benefits.
3. Have face-to-face conversations: Nine in 10 of the study’s respondents rated face-to-face conversations and team meetings as the most empathetic way to communicate. Men cited recognition for accomplishments as empathetic, while women emphasized collaboration and one-on-one conversations.
(Notice that all of those activities focused more on supporting individuals, rather than initiating team-building activities, which tends to be a popular approach.)
One final aspect I would anecdotally add is to have empathy for your customers. Talk to them. Understand who they are, what they care about, what keeps them up at night, and how your product or service makes their lives better.
But it all starts from within. Foster empathy internally, and you’ll be better at empathizing externally with the people you're in business to serve.
By Brianna Valleskey
Look, I totally get it — “authentic leadership” sounds like the latest, trendiest, buzziest, fluffiest idea to come out of Silicon Valley.
But after the fallout of events like Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress for Facebook’s failure to protect user data, Theranos CEO Elizabeth being accused of fraud, and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver (just weeks after a highly publicized sexual harassment allegation by a former engineer), this concept is more important than ever. We need to demand more honesty and courage from ourselves and our leaders. We must do better.
Fostering authenticity as a business leader, however, is complex. As London Business School professor of organizational behavior Herminia Ibarra explains in a Harvard Business Review article, people in leadership roles sometimes struggle with maintaining a balance.
“To be authoritative, you privilege your knowledge, experience, and expertise over the team’s, maintaining a measure of distance,” she says in the HBR piece. “To be approachable, you emphasize your relationships with people, their input, and their perspective, and you lead with empathy and warmth.”
Personally, any leader who works at being approachable automatically earns my respect (and therefore, my adherence to their authority). But I recognize that particular insight comes from focus group of one. So I’ll explore the topic further.
The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center recently held a panel about this very topic, featuring two badass female leaders: Meredith Davis, Head of Communications for The League, and Sara DeForest, VP of Marketing at HYP3R.
(Full disclosure: Sara is my boss. She’s a phenomenal, fearless leader and recently wrote a piece about her approach to authentic leadership that you should definitely check out.)
The panel was pretty casual, but there were some powerful takeaways. Here’s what I learned.
Know who you are.
This isn’t just about your name, or your gender, or your job title, or your marital status, or your credit score, or the number of times you’ve rewatched all nine seasons of “The Office.”
This is about your soul.
“It all starts with know what your values are: Who are you? What is your mission?” Sara said during the panel. “Knowing what you stand for.”
There are three important elements to this statement: Who you are, what you stand for, and what your purpose is on Earth.
Who are you? Is your ideal Saturday spent painting miniature Warhammer models? Awesome! Are you a restless, wanderlust-filled traveler? Very cool. Do you love Soulcycle? Fine! I don’t care! Just embrace it! And--more importantly--be honest with yourself about it.
Next is what you stand for. Is there an enduring idea (or ideas) that drive your day-to-day actions?
I believe that words are the most powerful tool we have--capable of rallying people to war and making them yearn for peace. I believe that black lives matter. I believe in women’s rights, LGTB rights, workers rights, refugee rights, clean energy, recycling, teaching art in schools, universal background checks; that simply believing in someone can change their life; that the most important person to love in the world is yourself; and that a little humanity can go a long way.
Finally, why are you here?
The fun thing about purpose is that it can be whatever you want it to, like …
Meredith knows her purpose. Without skipping a beat, she declared that her mission is to mission is to give a voice to sex, dating and relationships to people in her generation. Boom! I love it. Short and sweet. Your life’s purpose doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be true to you.
Deep in my soul I know that my purpose on earth is to write and to help people. That’s it. And a lot of things fit those criteria, so I’m able to stay committed to my mission and still remain flexible in my approach.
Or, instead of having one overarching life purpose, your life may be comprised of a series of mini-missions. That’s ok, too! Also, your mission can absolutely change over time. What’s purposeful for you today may not be in ten years. Go with the flow. The universe tends to unfold as it should.
Be that person.
So you know who you are--good! But are you able to outwardly convey that? If you can’t communicate who you are effectively, Sara explained, it’s going to hinder productivity. But being true to yourself self doesn’t mean being constantly vulnerable or spilling your guts. It involves exercising different facets of your persona in various situations.
“I feel like people are always surprised when they find out I do comedy, but it’s an aspect of who I am,” Sara said. “There are different parts of our personalities that flourish in different environments. Who I am on stage isn’t necessarily who I am at work, but it’s still all me.”
Sara added that you also need to ensure whatever work environment you choose to be in also aligns with you you are. She consistently invites our team to come to her comedy shows, and I think it’s amazing (both because I love comedy and seeing everyone’s human side creates stronger bonds).
Meredith made a great point that sometimes being purpose-driven can also mean putting your company’s goals before your own personal mission. She cited an example from her first year at The League, when she owned the customer support function. The dating app was getting a lot of emails from the LGBT community, who wanted to be able view both men and women in the community (but select different preferences for men than for women).
“I wanted to help! Let’s change the roadmap and make this happen!” she exclaimed. “But I realized that we only had so many engineers, and that the long-term goals of the company needed to not focus on this at the moment.”
Instead of pushing the product team to make a change that aligned with her goals, she choose to be relentlessly scrappy and help those users find a workaround. THAT is dedication to both your company and your customers, ladies and gentlemen.
Build (really) genuine relationships.
For Meredith, this is all about the little things--like having your coworkers know what you like or what you do on the weekends. She encourage managers to really understand what their direct reports find valuable.
“I think having authentic leadership in a company also means allowing people to progress in what they really want to be doing,” she said. “Maybe they don’t want to be at your company for another year or two. So we sit down with them and help them make career plans, while they’re still at The League.”
This is super smart, and something LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman talks about in his book, “The Alliance.” Millennials are mobile; they probably won’t spend 15 or 30 years with your company. But if you’re willing to invest in their overall career path (rather than only what you can get from them in this current role), you’ll actually foster more loyalty and trust. It shows team members that you care about them as people (and not just work machines).
Another idea Meredith brought up was Creative Fridays, where team members can work on whatever creative things they like that are related to The League (Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin talk about a similar idea in their 2004 IPO letter). I think this is great (despite the large amount of criticism surrounding the idea) because it brings an element of autonomy to a person’s role.
Meredith also talked about being positive, acting as a cheerleader for everyone in your organization and encouraging people to share ideas. In the same breath, however, she emphasized the importance of staying grounded. Sara echoed that sentiment, adding that staying grounded involves surrounding yourself with genuine people and making sure you have a good support network of people who will give you honest feedback.
“For me, building a great network starts with my team: making sure we have a good culture, making sure we make time for brainstorming sessions,” Sara said. “I learn a lot from my team. We all have different skill sets, and I think we compliment each other that way.”
Hearing that from your boss = #AlllTheFeels. [Cut to a shot of me in the audience literally holding back tears.]
Grow, evolve, adapt
Authentic leadership is an ongoing process. Organizational behavior professor Herminia Ibarra highlights this in her HBR article.
“The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are—doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become,” Herminia shares. “Such growth doesn’t require a radical personality makeover. Small changes—in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact—often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead.
Sara specifically touched on adapting to diverse communication styles. She’s a words-based person (like me), accustomed to digesting information through the written word. Our CEO, however, is very much a visual learner. So Sara had to learn how to communicate what our team was working on and accomplishing in a very visual way, even getting as granular as learning how to make incredibly aesthetically pleasing presentation slides. But that’s what it takes. And that’s how you stay true to your authenticity but also accommodate others.
As with all growth, a journey of authentic leadership means you may not recognize the person you were a year or two ago
“Being a leader evolves over time. The leader I was three years ago isn’t the leader I am today. And the leader I was three years ago isn’t the leader The League needs today,” Meredith said.
A final tidbit from Meredith that I loved:”Empowering leadership in all facets of an organization is really crucial.” Preach, woman. My boss (Sara) does a marvelous job of entrusting each member of our team to truly own their work and be an expert in what they do. That combination of confidence and respect from a leader is magic, and motivates me to do my best work every day. I highly recommend it.
By Brianna Valleskey
There’s sizeable obsession around the idea of making a brand seem more human right now. A quick Google search yields at least 10 pages (yes, TEN. I stopped looking after that) articles touting tips and tricks to make your brand sound/look/feel/act more human.
It makes sense. People buy from people (and brands) they know and trust. Even in the realm of business, Maya Angelou’s famously poetic quote about relationships rings true: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Purchasing decisions, like most decisions, are made based on emotion. So, if you can create at association between your brand and positive feelings (beauty, strength, safety, warmth, excitement, sexiness, etc.) in the minds of consumers, you’ve struck gold. And the quickest way to do that by talking to them directly through social media.
But I think what we need to remember is that a business is not a human - it’s a tribe of humans all working toward the same goal. And that’s the image that should be reflected in your brand messaging.
The problem arises when brands become fixated with the idea of appearing human. In their attempt to appear more authentic, they come off as less genuine. I’ve seen some instances so cringe-worthy that it was like watching your Baby Boomer father try to be cool by saying something is “on fleek.” For what it’s worth: I give the businesses that are trying to be human more credit than the ones who use social media as another channel for self-promotion or simply a glorified RSS feed for their blog.
But I think what we need to remember is that a business is not a human - it’s a tribe of humans all working toward the same goal. And that’s the image that should be reflected in your brand messaging.
As helpful as high-level strategic advice can be, I also want to provide some practical examples of what I mean. Here are some companies doing it well across a few different industries (for the purposes of this article, we’ll mostly focus on their Twitter presence):
Slack (@SlackHQ): B2B Tech
Slack knows that a brand is the sum of all the interactions people have with your company. That’s why the organization responds to almost every single tweet directed at their Twitter account (in the early days, especially, thousands of those replies came from Slack’s own CEO, Stewart Butterfield). The company is also super transparent and proactive about updating customers on support issues. Six million people use their platform every day, and they keep everyone up-to-date via both their Twitter account and Slack System Status page. The best part? They always sound super approachable and down to earth when communicating to their users.
Also, have you heard of #beeftweets? It’s an internal Slack channel the company uses to draw attention to customer complaints on Twitter related to product issues, feedback, feature requests, potential improvements, etc. The Slack team discusses how to address the issue. If a fix is in order, it’s launched within a couple of days (as the complaints are typically minor). Then Slack tried to respond to the original complaint on Twitter to let the user know that they made the fix. I can’t think of a better way to make your customers feel heard, understood and appreciated.
Grammarly (@Grammarly): B2C Tech
Grammarly really, really understands their audience: millennial (or at least tech-savvy) people who want to write well. They use their Twitter profile to inspiring #MondayMotivation quotes or funny #FridayFeeling memes, but also to share helpful spelling, grammar and punctuation tips and tricks.
Another wonderful trait about Grammarly is that the company immediately responds to people who tweet at them. I’ve posted a few times about the weekly writing stats they email out, and they always respond with a fun, encouraging message that legit makes me want to be friends with them.
Seriously, does it get any better than a meme from “The Office”? I think not.
Sephora (@Sephora): Retail
Sephora acts like your bright, sassy, funny and fun BFF on social media. (That branding is consistent across all of their platforms, as well. The login portal of their website says, “Hi, Beautiful.”) The company uses tons of emojis and their own branded hashtags (#SephoraSkincare), in addition to posting content that’s super relatable to their audience.
This is the kind of stuff that makes your customers think, “Yeah, that company really gets me.” Also, instead of merely pushing their products, Sephora provide helpful beauty tips and tricks. They also polls to let their customers chime and celebrate holidays that aren’t specifically related to what the company does. Celebrating is just human nature.
DiGiorno (@DiGiorno): Food & Beverage
I want to meet the person who runs the official DiGiorno Twitter account and shake their hand. It’s seriously so funny. And not just once-in-while-while-gem-of-a-tweet kind of funny; I’m talking consistently, habitually hilarious.
I’d also like to note that the vast majority of the content coming from their Twitter account is simply comical content. The rarely publish adds. Seriously! I counted the company’s 50 most recent tweets and only three of them were ads. That’s only 6 percent of the social media posts on their account! My hypothesis is that it’s a strong sense of self-awareness that their ad message is already pretty well known (it’s not delivery, etc.), and the company has found that it’s a better use of their time to simply build brand affinity. Brave, DiGiorno. Your strategy is brilliant.
A lot of marketers talk about branding as this abstract, philosophical concept. But I think it’s much simpler than that: consider the people you want to connect with: What do they care about? Where and how do they consume information? How do they communicate? What groups do they want to be a part of. As Chris Brogan says, “Business is about belonging.” So make your brand simply a tribe of people that your customers (current and potential) would want to be associated with, and they’ll naturally gravitate toward you.
And yes, I realize that as a female writer working in tech who f*cking loves pizza, these are all brands I personally love. But there are plenty other examples out there that I’m sure I’ve missed. Do you have any favorites? Let me know in the comments below!
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
Marketing is much older than we think.
Some people argue that the discipline 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. A few 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 groups 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 a few years back.
Save the bees.
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, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.