Tag Archives: startup lessons

A System For Everything

Creating-a-brand-system

Can brand creation be systematized for a StartUp?

In his recent Reith lectures, Atul Gawande’s anecdote rich narrative tells us how failures in health care are more often than not the result of failures in systems. People say it’s the failures between people (partners) that kill StartUps but I suspect it is often the failures in StartUp systems that drive this.

One of the big tech developments in healthcare was the shift at the start of the 20th century from home care to hospital care and, with this, the rise of professional doctors, nurses, operating theatres and so on. Death in childbirth had been common beforehand. Did the shift to all this professionalism and expertise lead to a reduction in deaths in childbirth? No, it did not. The reason being that there was not enough ‘Infection Control Procedures’, like sterlising equipment or a room properly…or even doctors washing their hands properly.

One might think this problem has gone away. It has not. We are told that there are six million infections caught each year by people whilst being cared for in western hospitals. Less than 5% of all health professionals wash their hands properly in Indian hospitals. The spread of Ebola is a failure of a sanitization and protection process, as the virus creeps into those tiny gaps in clothing and finds its host.

Gawande believes that the problem is that we have more knowledge and expertise than we know what to do with. We’ve created a world of over-complexity. We’ve got too smart for our own good.

But the avuncularly cozy and positive Gawande is confident was can improve things.

We cannot leave it to individuals. Individuals cannot cope with such complexity. We need to create a system that connects and manages us.

This is not only about inventing and building the system but also about executing and managing them ruthlessly. He doesn’t say this but in effect he is suggesting we use this uber-system to create a hive mind, in which the individual operates under the collective. Like the Borg. Only collective effort will allow us to deal with over-complexity.

Now are we in a position to do this though. Technology, data, knowledge give us greater tools than ever before. This is the Age of the System, he declares.

Anyone in StartUp will recognize this over-complexity. Gawande’s belief though is that not only can super-charged systems cope with over-complexity, than can accommodate even more pressure. By introducing aggressive systemization, we can do much more than we thought possible.

The specifics seem prosaic. Make behaviours the norm. Create check-lists. Identify defaults. Introduce feedback loops. He also makes two interesting cultural suggestions. One, the participants need to be managed so they have the humility to accept that even the best (the experts & bosses) fail. Two, in one very successful system the checklist was managed by the person with least power, the telephone operator, I assume, so they would not question it (unlike, let’s be honest, gobby senior staffers).
…..
I’d be more skeptical of his specific suggestions if it were not for the fact that across the 8 major hospitals involved in the trial there was an average reduction in complications of 35%, and an average reduction in death of 47%.

So imagine the impact of strong systems in the chaotic, over-stretched, under-experienced environment of a typical StartUp. Imagine getting your UX to work with PM and producers on every type of process and workflow in the business.
…..
Can a creative process be systematized? I’m interested in brand creation…can that be systematized?

A brand is structured. That structure, at its simplest, covers 5 things.
1. As precise a target as possible.
2. A position within the context of a marketplace.
3. The overall purpose that’s going to own that position.
4. The behaviours, personality and identity that going to execute this.
5. The traction plan that will impact the market in the strongest possible way.

(I know, it’s that simple!…Can you believe there’s whole industry based on that…;-))

To populate that structure, a series of strategic issues need to be considered. Or put in plain English, a list of precise questions need answering intelligently. It’s probably quite a long list but it’s not too long.

Answering intelligently clearly depends on the quality of the people who are answering but what matters more is the quality of the hive.

You clearly want people who are smart and, although not necessarily experts, understand and are interested in the basics. They’ve thought about brands, which ones they love, which ones they respect and why. The hive must know how to work together. To discuss. To debate. To conclude. To let it go and move on.

Coding has a system but is also creative. I think we can look at a brand in the same way. We don’t because it undermines our creative egos. But I actually like the intelligence and creativity of the system.

So if you can figure out what the precise questions are and work them through, I think any StartUp can systematize their brand creation and execution.

Or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars/pounds you haven’t got to a brand consultancy…

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.

What StartUps can learn from idiocy

New York City

How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity.

Dear Mr Dean & Mr DuLuca*

Sometimes I wake up on Writing Day not knowing what I will write about. But then, as if by magic, I stumble upon some sort of business idiocy and I thank the Lord/Vishnu/John Lennon for that.

My wife is 7 months pregnant. And we have a highly energetic 1-year-old son. Going to a café or restaurant can be a little stressful.

I first went to Dean & DeLuca over 20 years ago on an early trip to New York. For a boy from the crumbling post-industrial north of England it represented the New York I had dreamed of. I spent more money than I could afford and told people about my experience for years. I’ve been back several times on my New York trips.

So when we saw one in Singapore, we went in and I told my wife about that distant memory.

Very soon it was obvious that’s all it was, a distant memory.
It lacked that energy and ‘click’ of the New York experience, that professionalism and conviction.
The food was average at best and over-priced, in that way you only get in Asia, when companies come in, see the wealth and cynically inflate prices and/or reduce quality.

My wife asked for a glass of ice-water to compensate for the over-salted eggs.
The waiter said he could not give her ice-water, she would have to buy a bottle.
In Singapore it is standard to offer ice-water. Regardless of that, one would expect an upmarket café to have an instinct for hospitality, rather than obsess about the cross- and up-sale, especially for a pregnant lady.
I tried to encourage the waiter to rethink.
He made it clear that he wasn’t allowed to rethink.
I asked for the manger.
He came and said it was management policy not to give ice-water ie. it was policy to drag every last cent out of the customer.
So as the manager, can’t you change it?
No, I’m not allowed.
But you are the manager, right?
Yes, but not that manger, it’s a different, more senior manger.

So the guys who aren’t on the ground tell the guys on the ground what to do at every turn and do it in such a way that it’s going to lead to annoyed customers on the ground.

Meanwhile my pregnant wife remained unquenched and 1-year-old got more agitated, put his hand in the ketchup the waiter had thoughtlessly put in front of him.

To his credit (or once the embarrassment of what he was doing got too much), the manager eventually brought some ice-water. I worry he’ll get a slapped wrist for that.

I’m sure there are various issues you could cite about corporate structures but I’m not interested in those. I bought into – and spoke in glowing terms of – the good names of Dean & DeLuca, the brand.

I’m going to post this on my blog under the title: How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity. You’d think that was so obvious it didn’t need saying. Isn’t it depressing that it does?

I hope this motivates you to address what is both a structural and a policy issue. Give the guys on the ground a chance to do a good job. You might be surprised.

Otherwise, as unassailable as you might think you currently are, those various smart StartUps who seem irrelevant now are going to catch up quickly.

Best wishes

*Dear reader. This is not a real letter. I’m trying to make a point. But it is a real experience. I was going to email them this but then I thought they’ve’ already proven they can’t really be arsed how I feel – and I normally get paid for this stuff so I’m not going to give it away unless it is deserved. But apparently there was a real Mr. Dean, who was from that most venerable of vocations, the cheese merchant, and Mr. DeLuca, a publishing man. I hope the StartUp lesson is obvious: be human, we don’t need any more corporate idiocy.

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.