Tag Archives: running my own company

Where the river stands still.

Brand vision
Why StartUps should think about what won’t change (and why customer research is flawed).

As an entrepreneur or strategist, at some point, we will have thought long and hard about how future change will affect the business. But is change as important as not-change?

Jeff Bezos offers us this piece of magic.
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. …”

Most brand development work I’ve been involved with started with the here & now and then looked at how things would change. Generally, the fact that the here & now might also be the future was perhaps sometimes assumed…but not really explored. No surprise really: we are bombarded by change propaganda by the Self Help Industrial Complex, which exhorts us to ‘embrace change’. But Bezos asks us to embrace What Won’t Change. Change is positioned paradoxically as both a threat and an opportunity for betterment.

But often advantage lies in exploring what others have not explored. So I applied the What-Won’t-Change exercise to my own StartUp concept.

I know that the structural change in the economy will continue.
I know corporate life will be less interesting to more people.
I know that people will want more control in their lives.
I know that therefore there will be more and more StartUps and small businesses.
I know that many of the people who found these StartUps and small businesses will be smart, eager to learn and keen to put time and money resource against things that improve and grow their business.
I know they will look to the internet for this, not to corporations who would traditionally have served these needs. They now expect the internet to do these things.
I know affordability will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.

Thus, I will focus on helping the new legion of StartUps and small businesses with an online service that is highly affordable.

But I think Bezos would say most of the points on my list are not knowns; they are assumptions. And he’d be right. Let’s look at what he knows for comparison.

“[I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

His knowns are pretty much indisputable. My list is not like his list: it is full of assumptions and therefore it is disputable. Most business decisions though are made against assumptions. The entrepreneurs task is to make an assessment about the probability of those assumptions being correct, based on the facts and information you have, or can find, and – let’s be honest – the instincts you have. That’s the best you can do. And it’s often good enough if you’ve done that task thoroughly. I’m sure Bezos thinks the same way. He doesn’t only build a business around the knowns but also the probables.

This does raise a bigger point though. Some people will demand that you prove the case. I’ve had many clients ask for definitive proof. But you can’t prove it. You never can. Reality isn’t about knowns. The consumer will never tell you want they want in the future. Because, guess what, they don’t know. They don’t think about it. That’s your job. Their job is to get on with their lives.

If you’ve ever actually done face-to-face research, you will see up close and personal that weaknesses of any research method. People are disinterested or over-enthusiastic or guess.

There is no method that can tell you what you want to know about the future. Whilst some methods are better than others, all research is looking in the rear-view mirror, as the saying goes. Even the idea of simulated tests or MVPs can’t avoid this. Their use is in guiding your understanding of the probable. They can’t give you certainty.

In fact, it’s a more informed decision if you focus on what you know about now. When you get too far into change and the future, you too start guessing. A lot. It’s hard not to slip beyond smart assumptions and into flights of fancy. As the T-shirt demands: Where is my light sabre?

When you are a StartUp, you need to be pragmatic. You design for the future but you do it from the here & now. So perhaps the Jeff Bezos StartUp lesson is: Focus on what you know and what you kind of know and leave the future to sort itself out.

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.

Why StartUps should be outraged by Christmas

brand consistency

The brain science that shows why consistency helps people understand what your StartUp stands for

If you want to shape the way people understand your StartUp you have to start with the human brain. When you’ve got the spanners out on the day-to-day operations, it may not seem like it but as a business leader, you are a brain surgeon.

We learn through repetition. But the brain has a lot to do. Much of its energy is simply dedicated to keeping us functioning at the most basic of levels – keeping us breathing, our organs operating. Keeping our senses active and responsive puts an added burden on the system. So when it comes to actively thinking about stuff, figuring out day-to-day issues, making decisions…well, that really pushes us to the limit.

So you can imagine how much energy the brain wants to dedicate to figuring out what to buy. Much, much less than traditional economists would like to believe.*

The brain deals with this by simplifying wherever it can. As a boy my mum used to berate me for doing things the easy way (such a mum thing, as if making it harder was somehow better) but clearly that’s what nature seeks to do. The brain is designed to work that way.

The relatively new science of neuroscience has shown that our brains look to create patterns to simplify understanding. This is physiological. As we digest information, synapses fire and as they repeat this process, that information becomes more established in our brains. Or as Steven Pinker, the famed writer on neuroscience, puts it: the synapses that fire together, wire together.

Which is why Christmas is a brand disaster. Christmas is probably the most mismanaged, chaotic and complicated brand construct there is. There have been way too many brand managers trying to get clever with the core concepts, no quality control and clearly no budget restraint. Is it trashy or upmarket? Religious or for everyone? About parties or about family?
Consumer driven or a chance to reflect? Father Christmas, the elves, reindeers, snow, Dickens, Only Fools And Horses, the right potato dish….it’s all over the place. The final nail is, of course, hipster Christmas sweaters. Different synapses are firing all over the place. It’s chaos, like the firework mayhem on a Shanghai street at Chinese New Year.

The Christmas brand is saved though by having not one but two of the greatest brand ideas of all time: a saviour was born on that day and it is a time for goodwill and critically therefore presents to all humankind. (See my earlier post ‘Why Christmas can be an inspiration for StartUps’), And because of that, we let it get away with the bad stuff. We are so engaged in it, our brains make the effort to process and join together this disjointed randomness.

The question you have to ask yourself is this: is your brand idea so strong that it can get away with a lack of consistency? The answer of course is NO.

You don’t have two of the greatest ideas of all time (apart from you at the back, well done) so you have to deal with the realities of the human brain. And those human brains want things to be simple so they can’t stop thinking about it and get on with the important stuff like breathing, running, interpreting the inputs from your senses and so on.

And consistency is the bed-fellow of simplicity. Your job is simple: this is what our brand stands for, told time and time again, maybe in different ways but never in contradicting or conflicting or ways. Christmas though is full of contradiction and conflict (not just the dinner, but the concept).

So don’t do what Christmas does. Learn from the error of its ways and deliver your concept consistently and simply across all of your business.

* If you are dubious about this, please refer to any of the following: Heath on Low Involvement Processing; Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’; Coates ‘The hour between dog and wolf’; anything by Steven Pinker. Or indeed any credible book on how the brain works.

The Questions You Start a StartUp with

brand difference, brand behaviour

Why you should be thinking about your brand idea as soon as you have your product idea.

You have that moment, when a bunch of thoughts, ideas, fluff and anti-matter coalesce and BOOM, your Big Bang. There’s a surge of adrenaline, you stop still and it hits you: This might just work…I’d start with content….I’ll use an API…and I can own the search terms…and if we did x then y would happen…and we’d have a network effect and, OH MY GOD, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!!!! Quick!! LEG IT!!! How do we build the #*#?in’ thing?

You spend the next year thinking about the product, the broader offer, operations and money.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the world, there’s another over-excited human being going through exactly the same thing. Maybe not that moment, but in the grand scheme of things, when they make the Internet Era start at 1.5 minutes to twelve on the civilization clock, it’s around the same time.

The fact is we live in a world of over supply. It’s too easy to make stuff, especially digital stuff. Whether it is copying or just landing on the same idea, you won’t be alone.

The first questions StartUps ask themselves tend to be about product, or business plans, or traction. But once you have you’re big idea, your first question should be this:

How can I defend it when people are copying me?

The answer to that is to do something that can’t be copied.

The one thing that is nearly impossible to copy is the bundle of intangibles, mental associations and gut feel about your business that exists in customer’s heads. What we call a brand. You can leave that for customers to create on their own or you can try to shape it yourself and that is what we call a brand building.

Brand is difference, brand is emotion and logic, brand is complex, brand is everything the business does. To use Warren Buffet’s vernacular, brand is your moat. There are other moats but they are harder to control yourself.

So once you have the big idea, you should ask yourself: how does my big idea translate into a brand concept?

Once you have a point of view on that (and yes, it can iterate to begin with, just like a product) you should ask a second question:
how does everything the business does deliver that brand concept?

This will result in lots of things in lots of places. The product will change, the offer will change, operations will change. It will be infused with a unique spirit.

So with two questions, you’ve created something that is very hard to copy.

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 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.