Tag Archives: start up

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.

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.

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.

Starting up is hard to do

StartUp worksspace
Why StartUps need a proper desk

I think it was Neil Sedaka who said starting up is hard to do. Or was that breaking up? I’ll assume for the sake of this post he was talking about a tough StartUp he’d been involved with. Because starting up is hard…but in a good way.

After the coziness of salaried employment I’m sat here at my new (temporary) desk. Kind of alone. But then again, no politics, no power plays, no sulking. Other than my own. And being alone teaches you a hell of lot.

I know it’s obvious but because you’re alone you play all the roles. An old friend of mine started his own thing, just him, all alone. But he’d literally play all the roles. He’d answer the phone and say ‘I’ll see if he’s free’…even the client’s joined in: ‘would you like to take that back to the office and talk it through’. I think they liked him so much they wanted to – subconsciously at least – give him the respect of being a ‘proper’ company.

So I’m on my own and doing everything. It’s not like I’ve never done this before. I’ve been involved in three stand alone attempted StartUps and three within an existing business (still counts in a way). But there was always a team from the off. Now I am the team and there’s loads to do, much of which I’ve never done before.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Comfort Zone Theory, there are three stages as I was taught it:
1. Comfort
2. Stretch
3. Break

A few days ago, I was talking to a guy who has a great little StartUp, already operating, already proven. They’ve done a great job but he is pretty much petrified about visible marketing/PR, the stuff where they have to be seen to say something and even perhaps show a face, rather than SEO etc. SO he keeps putting it off.

In a StartUp you’re constantly being pulled out of your comfort zone, having to learn new stuff, both hard & soft skills. We all have to develop new coping mechanisms to make sure we stay in the Stretch Zone and don’t slip into Break Zone. After we got him to drink more beer I think he began to relax.

Hell, I’m even trying to learn some coding…I thought it was going well until I pressed save and nothing happened. That was at midnight. But at least I got my ‘beta’ site up and running, for now just something that I hope proves to the local authorities that I’m serious about this business and I’m not hear to sponge (on what exactly?! It’s costing me an arm & a leg to stay here with no income!). I’ll talk about the website development in a subsequent post.

Also – and this feels symbolically significant – I took on some pay-as-you-go office space at Collective Works. Having a workspace away from the kitchen table at home is good. But perhaps it’s greater value is the network effect. Normally, in an office, it just happens but not now. The stuff I’m confortable with is the product development, the business plans, the website and the content dev etc. etc…as valuable as these are though, I’m beginning to suspect that the network is going to be at least as important. And guess what, I’ve been rubbish at it. (I’m in good company: check this great piece on this from the excellent James Altucher.)

However, in pay-as-you-go space people don’t really talk to each other. What I’ve come to realise is that I need to get out of my comfort zone and force a network, I need to be proactive and make it happen. Now I’m asking pretty much anyone and everyone out for a coffee/drink. So this is going to be interesting…can I carry it off? So far it’s going OK and I’ve realised that:
1. You need people to bounce stuff off. Two brains are better than one. And other StartUp types love to help out, it’s in their blood.
2. Despite not working together, you, effectively, pool your skills. They teach me about SEO, I teach them about brand development.
3. You are energised by all these other StartUps trying to make it happen. That gives you momentum/ a kick when you need it.
4. Someone always knows someone else you should meet. So within a matter of weeks you have a network you can barely keep up with.

So the lesson for any StartUp is to force a network: get some office space, ask people out for a drink, email people you’ve never met, ask Person A if they can introduce you to Person B, sit in the right bar at the right time. Look it might not be the golden key but it’s got to improve your chances.