Tag Archives: running own business

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.

Your Big Advantage over the Big Boys.

business difference

How StartUps can make the most of the blank canvas.

It’s easy for a StartUp to feel intimidated. To think you are not worthy. To look at the big boys with awe, with all their resources, their profile, their confidence, their relationships. You might assume that if they chose to confront you, you’d stand no chance.

But I’ve worked with them all my professional life and guess what? You’d be wrong.

The truth is that their disadvantages might just outweigh their advantages. Corporations are a complex battle of interests, laden with conservatism. They are risk averse…in fact, worse; often they are decision averse. Often the mindset is: doing something new creates the potential for risk, whereas doing nothing avoids that potential…so stick with doing nothing. And in that environment, that’s actually smart: because that’s how the corporation is often structured, that is the reward mechanic and behaviour follows.

There’s some talk about corporations beginning to be more like StartUps. But in all but the rarest of situations, this misses the point. Corporations are bureaucratic because they have to be. They have due diligence and institutional investors, they have heavy structure, processes, organograms…but more importantly they have a hive of people and a culture.

Legacy system buries itself deep within an organization. You can’t unpick it. You can’t alter the mechanics and expect a new mindset. That’s the wrong way round. (Personally, I believe that once an entity becomes a corporation, it creates the conditions for its own demise. But more on that some other time.)

StartUps have no legacy. They have a blank canvas. They are free to do what they want. And this can be the biggest advantage in the world.

But you have to focus on the areas where this blank canvas can lead to the greatest advantage. That’s not going to be product, or supply chain, or sales, R&D or talent.

The two areas they will find it impossible to beat you are:

1. They can’t think as small as you.

2. And they can’t think as holistically as you.

To the first. You can target a tiny but perfectly formed audience. In fact, you must. Not just focus better but show them the love. Find – or create – a gang. Not an audience, a gang. A gang is about belonging, about having something you are anti and about feeling special. Prove to them that you were designed for them and only them. You can grow from here, not by compromising but by pulling more and more people into that gang.

To the second. You can aggressively deliver your brand concept through every element of your brand. Corporations find it so hard to control this, on a practical level and on a human level. But it’s easy for a StartUp once they think not as a business but as a brand that does business. Change the experience people have when they connect, buy, use and share your business so it captures the uniqueness of your brand idea.

As I’ve written before, Airbnb does this as well as any StartUp. But using an existing brand makes the point more clearly and I’ll use the most famous brand in history, Coca Cola.

We are told the brand idea of Coca Cola is happiness. But you know what, it’s not really.
It’s brown sweet fizzy drinks. Which they then use to lay claim to happiness.

It’s a critical distinction. The product drives everything, not the brand.

Take the brown drink away and what have they got? Nothing. The brown fizzy drink is their legacy system. But what if Coca Cola was a StartUp? What if they had the same blank canvas you have?

How can you build a business around Happiness so it lasts forever, not matter what trends there are in product use? Here’s my back-of-a-fag-packet thinking.

Coke should have started to build from Happiness Factory and position themselves as an experience brand.
Happiness isn’t simply about taste and mouth feel, it’s about entertainment. Coke should have bought Pixar.
They should own theme parks and days out.
They should have acquired/built the play-centre ecosystem that’s growing so quickly in Asia.
They should own handshakes, smiles and jokes.
But they didn’t and they are becoming less and less culturally relevant.
(To be fair, their bar was very high….and their Christmas play is good, you have to give them credit for that. And they do lots of great tactical work like this in the Philippines…but I’m making a point.)

The StartUp lesson is: use your blank canvas to create a branded business – not just a brand image – that reeks difference. Then you can slap that big bully right back in the face.

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 modern art.

The Best Naming Tool for StartUps

There are two broad ways of naming your brand: literal naming or imagery naming.

The literal describes literally (not surprisingly) what you do or offer: Salesforce and Compare the market – and at the slightly more imaginative end: Band-aid and Rubbermaid. For that reason it can also be called descriptive naming. But this group can also include eponymous naming ie. after a person, usually the founder; so would include Levi’s, John Lewis, Bloomberg, Marks & Spencer. You could claim some of these actually fall into our second group and I think that’s especially fair for a name like adidas, which although short for the founder Adi Dassler is so meaningless on its own, we can call it an imagery name.

Imagery naming is a much broader and more abstract group. It would include metaphorical naming, which has an actual meaning even if it’s hidden away – like Monopoly, Shell, Land Rover. There’s subset of this group: the mythical. So Prudential, Nike, Ariel. Or there are those with no meaning but are suggestive- like Aviva and Google (although dictionary.com tells me it was ‘introduced by U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner (1878-1955), whose nine-year-old nephew allegedly invented it’.)

There are those names that sit somewhere in the middle, other than the adidas type of name. I’d put Pinterest in this middle space although it clearly has a literal, descriptive element. You pin your interest. But they didn’t call it Pin Your Interest, they deliberately removed meaning by crunching the words together like a crisp sandwich. LinkedIn also sits in the middle. Instagram too but I think it is closer to Imagery with a dash of literal (or you could argue it’s metaphorical I guess?).

So there’s a spectrum. Which do you choose?

I’m not going to get into the relative merits of these two directions right now. But there are a host of things to think about and work through. That’s for another time. You might already know which type you want to build upon. My point here is: you don’t need to know before you start generating names if you have the right tool.

And here’s the right tool.

new business naming, entrepreneur naming

This is The Great Bear, by Simon Patterson, which I saw at The Tate Modern, I think in 2001. In his excellent piece, each underground (or metro as they say elsewhere) line is built around a theme, usually a profession – philosophers, musicians, film stars, engineers – but sometimes not – planets. What you need to do is this. Take the same logic and start generating names. Meaning, instead of a profession, you might start with user benefit and create an underground/metro line of names around user benefit. As you move along to the suburbs, stretch the meaning and exaggerate, more and more. So just as suburbs have exaggerated names like Sunshine Gardens, you might have turned a humble user benefit into World Changer. Unlike the real world, the suburbs might end up being the more interesting place.

Then develop another theme. Like user description. Or technology involved. Or product description. The point is to have as many underground lines as you can think of.

Of course, because you can use any type of theme for a line, you can mix both literal naming with imagery naming. You’ll have lines that cross, and nodes that start new themes and therefore new lines. Clearly it won’t actually look like the London Underground but it will have lots of names, good bad and many completely daft. But that’s creativity. Write everything down.

Do as many as you can. Go back to it a day later and go again. See if there are any new lines. And maybe go back the next day. Until you’re done.

Sleep on it. Then evaluate. And we’ll talk about evaluation tools some other time.

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.

The StartUp Planner Giant Wall-chart

Start Up Planning, Project Management, time management
How less is more for any StartUp

Napoleon attempted to do one of the most ambitious StartUps in history.He wanted to create a European Union – run by France – 150 years before European countries volunteered to sign up to this plan voluntarily (only it ended up being run by Germany). He should have achieved it. This was one of the strongest StartUps ever. He had the vision, he had the strategy, he had the team, he had the resources….but it turns out he didn’t really have the project management plan to pull this all together.

Not that I’m trying – or indeed would want – to compare myself to Napoleon but I’m now struggling with the same issue. It is enormously difficult to do all the things that need to be done. And what makes this particularly dangerous is that by trying to complete 10 tasks I’m more likely to fail to complete Task 1. When one plate begins to wobble, you chase that and then they all start to wobble.

Let’s put this into perspective. I’ve run big projects, helped set up businesses before. I’m not an idiot. Anyone who gets to senior positions in the agency world is usually pretty competent. Hell, I’ve even adopted a boy from Ethiopia and if you’ve ever been through that kind of process you’ll know that makes me a professor of logistics. But there are more plates and fewer plate spinners.

So here’s what I’m doing about it and maybe this can help other StartUps.

I’m working on a UNIVERSAL project management plan. Sometimes we think we have a plan when we really only have a partial plan. l was involved in starting an agency whose birth was reliant on winning an enormous pitch. So creating an agency and pitching at the same time. It was chaos, people walking out, break-downs…horrible stuff. One of the things I did was to create a several dimension plan (somewhere between four and six dimensions for the physics buffs out there) that covered not only all the elements of the pitch process – like brand concept, overall marketing model, big idea creation, manifesto sizzle edit, campaign executions, rollout, distribution model, various platform mock ups and so on – but also the operational build of the agency itself.

I’ve just realised that what I’ve been doing this time round is partial plans. I need to include the big stuff and the small stuff and the tiny stuff – and put clear timing against it. It’s always a good discipline to work back from a deadline date.

For me that means work on product development, brand building, design, marketing plans, networking, cash flow, web design, ecommerce…and probably a few more besides. I also have the family logistics that I need to plan in…visas, Employment pass, Xmas travel etc.

Within this plan I need to FOCUS better. I’ve just listened to a podcast with the founder of the search engine DuckDuckGo.com who has published a book about getting traction. They worked on one marketing platform at a time, seeing each as a distinct stage in their traction getting plan. Exhaust SEO, then move to Reddit ads, exhaust that, content marketing, print PR, TV PR, business development.

Marketing textbooks would say this is wrong. And my recent career has involved building multi-platform marketing ecosystems for my clients so this seems counterintuitive to me. But now I’m in the grime, I can understand the practical value. I need to go away and think that through…

Finally, I’m learning project management plans also have a human element to it. The more I talk to people, listen to podcasts, read up on stuff, the more efficient I get. The ‘we did this’ or ‘you should talk to x, he knows about that’…this helps you both create the plan and work through the plan. So I’m on it, I just need a bigger piece of paper.
Start Up Project management

What StartUps can learn about naming from Computershare

marketing brand names

Naming and the importance of not getting it wrong in a StartUp

I was going to hold off before I had a rant…but I’ve just had a letter from Computershare. And it’s a sorry story, or more like a farce, of the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ variety. But importantly, there’s a strong lesson for any start-up here about brand naming strategy, something that often does not get given enough thought. At it’s simplest, there are two ways to name your brand: either literal (this-is-what-we-do like SingTel or this-is-who-I-am like adidas, names after founder Adi Dassler, Kelloggs) or imaginative (glorious mythical associations like Nike or attractive fruit like Apple, Orange etc…).

Now keep in mind that these guys were pioneers, starting the company way back and took on the descriptive and potentially category defining brand name of Computershare. If share dealing on computers was invented today you’d give your left arm for that name.

I had a few shares in a company I worked for (M+C Saatchi), nothing impressive and I had to buy them at market price – why bother? you say…I know, but at the time I was learning. They’d started at 125p, dropped to 25p in 2008 and when all my old colleagues sold out, I stuck in there knowing it was a competent company and they knew how to run a business, then pretty soon they got back past 125p, climbed up some more and at some point earlier in 2014 got to 350p. I would have felt smart – or at least brave – if it weren’t for the fact that if I was the real McCoy, I’d have bought more at 25p…so that’s something to learn from…or not. If you believe in the company, buy while it’s cheap.

So when it fell back to under 300p, my newfound investment wisdom kicked in and I thought I’d sell a proportion to lock in at least some of the profit, not loads but good holiday money (although I should point out, we are frugal holidayers).

Here’s the story. I sold online through this company called Computershare, who as far as I can tell ‘own’ the dealing of the shares I bought. Soon I got a screen confirming the sale. But apparently not. A week later I got a letter saying I had to send certain documents, otherwise the deal would be cancelled. Not actually cancelled – instead, they would re-buy the shares at the new market rate, even if it was more expensive.

I was travelling and so didn’t get the letter until too late. So they rebought the shares at the market rate. Fortunately, the price had gone down a little, so at least I wasn’t liable for a large gap. But I was pretty annoyed: surely they could have communicated with me in a more timely, 20th century manner. I skyped them (well, I was on skype, they were probably on one of those heavy, black phones from the black and white Sherlock Holmes films). It went something like this (they claim to have recorded it but that’s way too modern, I reckon they used a stenographer…)
Me: You bought shares for me without my agreement. I could have lost serious money.
Them: It’s in the Ts&Cs.
Me: On the sales confirmation page, why didn’t it say something about the fact I hadn’t really sold them until you got the docs, instead of saying ‘sale confirmed’?
Them: I don’t know.
– Surely you have an obligation to make that clear? With all of your competitors it’s done there and then.
– Yes, it should be clear, I’ll look into it.
– And couldn’t you have told me in amore timely manner, so I could have done something about it?
– We sent you a letter.
– But that took two weeks to get to me and I was away. Why didn’t you email me?
– We don’t send emails.
– What??? You are called COMPUETERshare. Surely you have computers and therefore you have email.
– I know, but we can’t send emails to customers.
– What??? You could have phoned me then.
– We don’t phone customers.
– Seriously? OK, I want to complain but I can’t see anywhere on the website where I can email.
– It’s not on there. You be better to send a letter.
– What??? It’s not 1875…!!!

You get the picture. Funny in a desperately sad kind of way.

Still keen to lock in some profit, I sold again when I was back in the UK, at a lower price unfortunately. So I’d lost some profit. I called them, on the telephone, as I think they’d prefer to call it, made sure everything was right & proper and the sale went ahead. And in the absence of any income coming in here in Singapore, it is paying for our accommodation.

Then I get another letter, talking about regulations blah blah, asking me for more docs…otherwise I won’t get the money. But I already have the money. And it has been spent. So I want to get in touch with them from here to see if it’s still necessary. But of course there is no email address on there, no IM, no twitter….nothing that might actually involve a computer and it’s a long way away and there’s seven hours difference.

So tonight I need to find a quill and some parchment and I will pen my response and put it on the next steamer to London. They should get it in Spring.

So what can your average start-up learn from this when it comes to brand names.
First, if it’s a literal name that describes what you do, you have to live up to your name, not just now but FOR EVER. As expectations of computers change, so must you – and back then it was slap-you-around-the-face obvious that computers were going to change. A lot. Your business needs to future proof the name. Or don’t call yourself something you can’t be certain you’ll always live up to.
Second, really think through whether you want a literal or imaginative name. There’s been a movement to the literal this-is-what-we-do names which is largely driven by Google and SEO but also a lack of belief in the emotional nature of brands. But think about the brands’ people love. More often than not, they are named imaginatively and therefore are more emotional. It’s a tough one and you need to weigh up pros and cons.
Third, the more revealing element to this story is that this is a business that isn’t being honest with itself. That goes way beyond naming. With a name like that, you create an expectation. Are you delivering? If not, change and be seen to change. Be brutally honest with yourselves always and you might avoid having a blog post poking fun at you.