Category Archives: Having Conviction

The power of the Unexpert.

Brand conviction

If your StartUp is going to do something original, you’ll have to ignore experts.

There’s a wonderful story I heard recently. In 1929, Werner Forssmann, was a medical intern in Germany, interested in heart conditions. Reading a periodical about veterinary medicine, he came across a photograph of a live horse with a tube inserted into its leg and pushed up to its heart.

He wondered if the same could be done in humans to help with cardiac resuscitation. He asked his supervisor, the expert in this story, if he could test his hypothesis with a live experiment. He was refused on the grounds that it would kill the patient.

He did it anyway with some comedy caper shenanigans. He asked help of a nurse, Gerda Ditzen, who declared heroically that she would only do it if she herself were the patient. He agreed but then, with a sleight of hand, tricked her, placing the catheter in his own arm after anesthetizing her. After no doubt much chuckling, they got x-ray proof that he had done it.

And because of this Unexpert, we now have modern cardiology, something up to a third of us will be enormously thankful for at some point in our lives.

Close your eyes and put yourselves in his shoes. You are 25 and that loud and slightly frightening boss you have has told you categorically not to do something. You did believe you were right but now he’s questioned you. What would you do? Imagine how hard it would have been to ignore the expert.

Despite being fired, reinstated, then fired again, and later being a fully paid-up member of the Nazi party, he was right on this one and won the Nobel Prize in 1956.

In advertising agency life, using what we would call Naïve Experts often proved to be invaluable. Someone who was smart but not necessarily an expert in the field we were working in. Someone who would ask questions we would not think of. For example, we interviewed a zoologist about play in the animal kingdom for the launch of the Sony Dreamcast and we looked into the intelligence of co-ordination and tricks for adidas football.

Having someone smart who has not been brain-washed by the orthodoxy – often your own orthodoxy you create within your StartUp team – can help you see possibilities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise…and that can make all the difference.

The story is also of course a reminder of the need to proactively do to prove your case so the naysayers are forced to pay attention. That’s why MVP’s are so popular but there’s so much more to a business than a MVP.

Putting simple versions of ideas into play that add value across all of the business is ultimately the truer test of a business concept than a single product concept, because people may pay for a product but what they are buying is a three-dimensional brand experience.

But ultimately it is the ability to ignore the naysayers and the doubt it your own mind that is the parable of that old Nazi, Werner Forssmann.

What StartUps can learn from airbnb about brand building

BHAG
Why the StartUp of 2008 might be the brand of the 2015

I’m a nomad. And I force my wife and son to be nomads. Such is the price we pay for trying to do a StartUp. It’s not pleasant but hopefully that will end soon and hopefully it will have been worth it. But as a result, I’ve become an expert in all things airbnb. Now I’m evangelist.

I might even invest if they go to IPO this year. And I don’t do IPOs. They’re all hype, CNBC up-to-the-minute bulletins and over-valuation. They have 700,000 rooms, making them the biggest lodgings provider in the world and the hard business case is strong. But what really excites me is the potential of the brand they are developing and the way they understand what the brand is. This is a StartUp that is just over 6 years old but with the brand wisdom of maturing years.

Sure, they can do brand awareness – they built that very well in the first year or two – but what they’ve always understood better than most StartUps is that it’s the brand experience that matters more than anything. The brand must look good, it must communicate well, it must have solid marketing but a modern brand is not this. A modern brand is the unified rich experience people have when they use any and every part of your business. The brand is everything you do, certainly everything that is visible.

Take the language. They have ‘hosts’. They talk of feeling at home, not of ‘staying’ somewhere. This cleverly positions themselves away from their enemy, the hotel industry

That’s another thing: they have an enemy. The don’t bad mouth them, they don’t need to, but it’s clear that they want to be seen as a genuine alternative, not more of the same. We don’t do that, we do this.

They feel different. It feels like a genuine community. We review hosts. But they review us. We introduce ourselves. We get to know each other. airbnb helps us become short-term friends.

It makes you realise that the booking.com’s and expedia’s of the world might have seemed to offer something new but really are only an extension of the old. They have value but they lack the depth of airbnb and in time I think that will be a problem for them. It’s hard to care passionately about an extension of the old. But the new creates evangelists.

It isn’t easy to avoid being like your competitive set. People huddle together for safety. Often investors, managers and stakeholders like conventions; they call it ‘best practice’. But here everyone has been smart enough to see the value of difference. (That’s something the marketing client community need to learn from as they become more and more convention bound.)

It’s clear what they are against but in terms of what they stand for, airbnb are using ‘Welcome Home’ as a tagline at the moment but Brian Chesky, the CEO, touched upon the broader (and bigger) purpose in a recent FT interview when he talked of ‘creating a world where people can belong anywhere’.

Words are important so let’s break this sentence down.

‘Creating’ tells me that they make a distinction between where they are now and where they want to get to. So it’s a vision, not just a summary of what they do now. It also tells us that it’s unclear what that is exactly. It’s much bigger but not yet defined – and they are clearly comfortable with the fact that they don’t know exactly what this is but do know in a general sense. I’ll come back to this.

‘World’ is clear. They see no limits (other than the world…for now). This is evidenced through their creative output. This is worth commenting on because too many US StartUps think the world is the US.

‘Belong anywhere’ is the substance of the purpose. It implies that, in the current lodging/hotel model, people do not feel they belong and that only the airbnb model can deliver belonging.

This is their benefit: belonging anywhere. The reason to believe is that real people with real apartments/homes provide the product, not de-personalised hotel rooms. This is reinforced through the style of reviews, the nature of the properties and the nicely shot Welcome Home ‘advertising’ campaign running on their own website header and so on. Basically, everything the business does.

But it’s the room to grow in that statement that fascinates me. What other ways can they help people feel they belong?

Later in the interview he touches on what that might be when he aligns with the idea of ‘bring(ing) back the idea of cities as villages’ by making more of all available space. Wow. The high street has lost its humanity; it has become a homogenous block. Imagine a world in which individual businesses had access to the same enormous audience as the current airbnb hosts, an audience willing to try something new, who crave something distinct…you might just see a renaissance of distinct, one off shops and cafes, of cities.

As a brand person, I love this. It’s the kind of idea we’d pitch to clients but often they’d shy away from because it doesn’t talk about the product enough, because it’s too conceptual, too warm and lovely and exciting. Business people still think this stuff won’t sell: airbnb are here to prove them wrong.

What can we learn as StartUps? Lots but the headline is this: look to develop a brand vision that recognizes your competence in a bigger way than is currently delivered. Give it room to grow. Who knows how you’ll see things once the business is rocking?

What StartUps can learn from REM

motivation for new companies
Why delusional optimism is more powerful than failure for a StartUp

‘That’s me in the corner.’

When I first heard that song way back when, I was about to set off across Europe with a mate and our guitars, the world at our feet. We intended to hitch around Europe and busk to make our bread money. As it turned out, we got as far as Paris, tried to get a ride down south but, after 15 shitty hours at the side of a motorway and a night trying to sleep in the Gare du Nord whilst being threatened by skin heads with mad dogs, we gave up and decided to blow the last of our money on a train to Amsterdam where we’d artfully relax for a time before heading home.

But we changed our plan, pivoted one might say, and stopped to see some people we knew in Bruxelles, who rallied the boho crowd there and within an afternoon we’d been found a whole house and plenty of great Belgian cheese and beer.

That night, we headed out and for the first time sang ‘Losing My Religion’ by REM. It had not yet been a hit in the UK but we soon realised it had already been a massive hit across Europe. What we thought of as an obscure song drew a crowd of dozens and provided us with a hatful of change, enough to send us out drinking until the small hours. We looked at each other and grinned the grin of those who know that everything IS awesome.

So we decided to stay and not return to the UK. We spent the rest of that summer living the young bohemian dream, hanging out all day at our new friends’ houses, reading, talking, eating, drinking wine, enjoying the wonderful weather; then we’d busk for a couple of hours, playing our five songs, one of which was always Losing My Relision, making enough money to go out drinking again and have some fun. Rinse, repeat, everyday. For the rest of the summer. Oh, to be young.

In the StartUp scene, people talk about the power of failure. I’m sure there is power in failure. But I prefer the power of optimism. It is the – often delusional – power in optimism that keeps us going. Failure nearly sent us home that summer. It doesn’t matter if it is delusional, it matters that at that moment we believe in it.

And so I associate that lyric with rampant optimism, something great is going to happen. And in a way that’s what the song is about, albeit focusing on the uncertainty and occasional collapse of belief that goes hand in hand with hope.

I’m reminded of that as I sit in the corner of another café, and the song comes on my iTunes. I’m a very businessy area, not my usual. The suits talk Important Business and that’s me in the corner, looking like I’m on holiday, shorts, baseball cap, beard. I feel I’m being looked down on, just a little. Everyone talks business and looks business and no doubt feel important. They have the validation of a big company and of big deals.

It’s just me and my laptop. I’m just writing down ideas, thinking stuff through, for free. But you know what, I’m the guy in the corner, the odd one out, the who might just be doing something special, creating it from scratch, full of optimism…and occasional doubt. We StartUppers should revel in our corners, in our outsider-ness.

So whenever I hear those words ‘That’s me in the corner’, a shiver goes down my spine – and yes, a mourning for that life -but I do feel rejuvenated, I’m reminded of the joy and the drive of optimism and now I feel it again. And you know what, as I sit here with no income but with a hatful of creative energy and new ideas, I thank the gods for Buck Mills Berry Me.

What StartUps can learn from our Neanderthal cousins.

Strategy for fears, entrepreneur fears, new business fear
How StartUps need to identify and compensate for their fears.

If you haven’t listened to Seth Godin’s podcast from 2012 on Starting Up, you should. He’s not only a smart man, with some great experience and supporting anecdotes, he’s a really engaging teacher. It still leaves some questions unanswered as far as I’m concerned (and I’ll come back to that in a subsequent post) but he covers much of what you’ll face, from the practical, to the strategic, to the emotional and human.

In episode 12, he talks about fear. He tells us: Be clear and precise on what you fear because it’s that fear that will derail you.

Kennedy was wrong when he declared, like a New Age life guru, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. No. Fear is human. We are hard-wired to be fearful when we embrace opportunity…because back on the savannah (or wherever Neanderthals lived…I’m too busy to check that…), when we went out to find our food, there was always a chance we’d get killed. And that fear, over thousands of years, became part of our hard-wiring. Fear goes hand in hand with opportunity, because opportunity involves risk. The hard-wiring still serves a purpose. Which is good because it won’t go away soon.

It seems to me Seth Godin is not saying rise above fear or challenge fear, or anything as dramatic and heroic as that. He’s way too practical and real for that. He’s saying: plan for fear, have worthwhile insight into yours and deal with it strategically.

For me, a lot of my experience is in pitching to win big pieces of business. You need to be right. You need an answer for everything. In short, it needs to be complete and you need to be the one saying what is and what isn’t. If they disagree, that’s fine, it’s just a difference of opinion but you have to show that at least it’s all been thought through. And I’ve been the so-called expert in the room at my discipline so that puts me at an advantage.

So what I fear is not having the answer, of being seen to be still working on it, of making it up as I go along. But Lean StartUp thinking tells me I have to embrace incompleteness, or at least a recognition that things will need to change and I must get the idea in front of people – generally strangers given I’ve just moved here – for them to pull it apart.

Added to that is the simple truth that as an entrepreneur, you don’t know it all but at this stage you are doing it all. You have to get the best answers you can get despite your ignorance. So you know you’re walking into a conversation with ideas outside of your area of expertise.

I fear incompleteness I guess because somewhere in the back of my mind I think it makes me look ‘less’; less proficient, less likely to succeed, to attract belief, support and so on.

The StartUp lesson – from Seth – is to really be honest about what you’re fearful of, and that includes your own – and your partners if you have them – very human, very real personal fears – and then plan for them and find a way to compensate.

Where does that leave my fear? At the moment, I’m going to attempt to pre-empt the failings of the idea, be clear on everything that’s bad about it, what areas will probably change, what is still being worked on. That’s the plan anyway but it might not be that smart a thing to do. In fact, I might be making that up as I go along.

What StartUps can learn from a newspaper created in 1843

Brand building, new business branding, new company branding, entrepreneur branding

How alienation creates loyalty, precision creates personality and you should kill convention.

The Economist launched in 1843. Yes, it is seemingly steeped in Pall Mall’s musty traditions and famous for its printed edition but it is a brand that any smart StartUp should look to for inspiration. It is, without doubt, one the world’s most progressive, coherent and targeted brands. I love The Economist. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. It doesn’t just have a point of view, it has a point of view designed to upset some people.
When they launched, the stated their aim was “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. Clearly, you don’t want to be the unworthy, timid ignoramus.
It’s a brilliant way of not only positioning what you are but also defining what you are not. This then allows them to be clear about not only who they are targeting but also who they are not targeting, are in fact keen to alienate, something they have done brilliantly through advertising. Take a look at this genius. And this.
Great brands often create imaginary tales in our heads and mine is of a Victorian David Niven type editor using his calf-skin gloves to slap an unworthy cad who has just tried to buy a copy of his beloved Economist.
This isn’t simply about separation. It creates a virtuous circle, with users feeling more distinct, more celebrated and it is this that makes them more loyal. That’s the genius of this approach.
How many other brands are confident and brilliant enough to do this? Some b, ut nowhere near enough.

2. As you read the content, it feels like it is from a single person, despite it being the output of so many writers in so many places. That’s perhaps partly because of the legendary Writers Guide every journalist must follow but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of their own humanity, of their emotion. Like The Borg, they’ve become one. They are smart but wear it lightly, with smart asides and witticisms; they are fair, honest even if it upsets, to the point. They know their collective personality precisely. It’s the ultimate demonstration of a unified culture.

3. The brand is the famous one, not the people. The people are invisible. It goes completely against industry conventions – it’s so radical and progressive, I’m shocked to hear it’s always been that way. Wikipedia tells me that the current editor says this is because “(the) collective voice and personality matter more than the identities of individual journalists” and reflects “a collaborative effort”.

4. They quaintly call it a ‘newspaper’. Despite the fact that it is more like a magazine. Despite the fact that newspapers have become so grotty. They wear the word like Marilyn Munroe would have worn a plastic bag.

And the funny thing is; I’m not sure they’ve ever really thought of themselves as a brand in the way that most brands would.

So the StartUp lessons are these:
It’s not just about targeting, it’s about anti-targeting: are you clear on who you are trying to alienate?
Avoid general personality words: what are your precise and distinct personality traits?
Are you killing conventions? Don’t just avoid conventions, undermine them, do the opposite.

Lastly, if you don’t already, you should subscribe because its breadth of cleverness will drag you from your StartUp bubble/cesspit and broaden your horizons and therefore inspire thinking that will make you better at your job.

What StartUps can learn from what’s wrong with the iPhone 6

StartUp Brand Vision
How conviction ultimately means more to any StartUp than chasing your customer

Apple’s iPhone 6 finally launched here in Singapore. Before we go any further: I so wanted one and we are a 10+ Apple product household. Certainly not boo boys.

I’d read the reviews and quite honestly I need to move beyond my iPhone 3 (I know! I’m so old skool…) I was even excited. I went down there on Day 3, which is pretty active for me. Queues, lots of touching, playing, discussion…

But what I saw disappointed me. So I didn’t join the queue. I thought I’d sleep on it. Cut to a few days later. My bus stop entertainment is ‘guess-the-phone-from-5-paces’. It was an iPhone but I couldn’t tell – and that’s with a beautiful back-lit bus stop 6-sheet next to me.

In the past, it was always easy spotting an iPhone. In recent years – since the decline of Motorola probably – everything else kind of looks the same. Like cars nowadays. The Wind Tunnel research effect, as BBH say: the way consumers in research create a generic average that all market participants follow; after all, who in the corporate world has the bravery to question research….

For the iPhone 6 it’s not just the size, it’s the shape as well. It looks like a phone not an iPhone. It’s been said that this was done for the Asian market. But did you see how many people queued in Shanghai for the previous iPhones?! The Asian market was perfectly capable of loving a unique Apple phone, they didn’t need it turned into the generic to get it.

Maybe they’ve got so big they think the only way to get bigger is to go more mainstream and therefore more generic. But rather then create a new generic (which for me is a key element of their brand coding), they follow what’s there. There’s a view that this is common problem that comes with scale, for example, with investment funds: you get too big to find the great stories, growth flattens, so despite being the market leader you have to follow the market. It’s inevitable, so that argument goes.

Whether they still overtly talk about it or not, much of the the Apple brand power and long-term loyalty/fanaticism is rooted in the spirit expressed by Think Different. It’s by people who think different. And it’s for people who think different. When Lee Clow’s (lovely bloke, spent some time with him when working on adidas) team at Chiat Day produced that ad, they didn’t just articulate a vision, they created a benchmark for the brand to always live up to.

For now though, this isn’t about the broader Apple brand. Not yet anyway. Apple still has a lot of brand reserves, goodwill it can trade on, chances it can therefore take. And I do believe it will do something that will live up to the brand spirit, something mind blowing and game-changing that reminds us why we loved them. Maybe it’s one of the features of the phone that will turn into a new amazing ecosystem, NFC being the most obvious candidate. Or maybe it’s the health play that was being talked about last year.

Despite it being big, glamourous, outrageously successful Apple, there are some clear, simple lessons here for any StartUp.

One, your brand needs to live in everything you do, every product, every touch-point, every experience. Otherwise, someone who should be in your Most Valued Customer segment (ie. in this case, people like me) will start the trash talk…and that soon gets around.
Two, there’s always, always going to be change. The big guys struggle and then the small guys have a chance…hello Xiaomi to name one of several. Brilliant. Be optimistic, you’re in with a shout.
Three, think different, think bold, think you don’t need to please anyone apart from your own majestic vision. That bloke who used to run Apple knew that.