Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tradeshows, Show Labor, and Unions: Customer Service and the Politics of Collective Bargaining

In the current political climate, it's not hard to find examples of the war between corporate-funded anti-union political efforts and the besieged unions that they target. Recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and with the battle over FAA funding highlight a few examples. For Republicans and their corporate sponsors, focused efforts on scuttling any entities that enable an organized opposition is a strategic theme and unions are frequent targets because they usually fit that description. And while many Democratic candidates seem happy to receive money and support from unions in a "the enemy of my enemy" theme, few are willing to battle for unions in the same way that they might have once done in the past.

Unions have a branding problem. While I don't have poll data or numbers, I can say with some confidence that from wherever you are right now, you probably can't through a rock without hitting someone who has a negative opinion of unions or, at the very least, can tell you a negative story with labor unions as a theme. Think about the amount of negativity surrounding organizations that helped establish the principle of worker's rights, paid time off and the standard work week.

For anyone in the marketing world who deals with tradeshows, the stories are legendary. Union electricians are required to screw in a lightbulb or plug in a computer with astronomical charges and one-hour minimums. Want to display large capital equipment -- forget about it; the cost of drayage (unloading it from the truck and transporting it to your booth) will be more than shipping it across the country -- even with gas at $4 a gallon. You also hear all about the cities where the unions are bad -- Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco -- and about how much better it is to exhibit in right-to-work areas across the south.

There are many rules in place for safety and predictability -- you probably wouldn't want some sales/part-time marketing guy driving a forklift, running a drill, or connecting high-voltage electrical circuits. But safety rules often just become clubs -- clueless sales guys are capable of plugging in a computer monitor and even seasoned tradeshow veterans who know the rules can find themselves sandbagged on the floor, held hostage by an on-the-spot rule interpretation, then jacked for anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars of charges. Sometimes these experiences can feel more like organized crime than helpful customer service.

The Internet is Killing Tradeshows
Unions are no more responsible for the death of the tradeshow than they are for killing the daily paper. The Internet has supplanted tradeshows as the vehicle of choice for information gathering, customer service, and engagement. Why travel? Why display? ROI is the bottom line and, no matter how important we might think that it is to have face-to-face experiences with customers, it's harder and harder to justify the expense against shrinking ROI.

Scan the industry and you'll find few tradeshows that are actually growing in size and fewer exhibit companies supporting those events. Even on the expo services end, Freeman bought Champion. Practically speaking, all of this consolidation also means fewer jobs. Like my friends in the printing industry faced, it doesn't matter if you are really good, there's just less work out there.

Jobs versus Efficiency
Year's ago while working at a tradeshow in Chicago, we had one union guy who had been working there long enough that his son was also there working. He told us the story about how, years before, the shop steward had chewed him out for using a rachet-drive tool. "You're costing us jobs," the steward had told him.

Economists might point to this as being one of the challenges that encompasses the labor transaction -- when you are paying someone by the hour to complete a task, they make more money if the task takes longer. There is no incentive for the task to be completed quickly. I once had one show laborer take a full eight-hour day to assemble one Ikea bookshelf -- if all of their products required similar assembly times, Ikea would be out of business.

The costs and hassles associated with these aspects of tradeshows is part of the reason why most companies will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting caught in that web. And with fewer companies participating or scaling down their presence, the macro effect for labor pool on the floor is fewer opportunities to make money. This can translate into squeezing the available opportunities even more as if the remaining geese could produce the same amount of gold eggs as the once prolific flock.

Back to the Branding Problem
The efficiency disincentive inherent to billable hours is a key element in the labor union branding issue. Like all of those little customer service issues that have plagued Dell and Comcast, these negative customer experiences with labor unions become viral, word of mouth brand-busters and actually transcend hourly labor to affect collective bargaining as a broader brand. Teachers, for example, don't typically operate on an hourly model, but the collective bargaining Teacher's Union often is often connected to broader brush negative characterizations. Instead of being able to ride a technical expertise brand image or even a socially responsible brand, labor unions are all saddled with an anti-productive, anti-cooperative mantle.

Conservative politicians and anti-union corporate interests like to pitch competition as the only viable solution for the billable hours dilemma. In essence, they push the idea that, instead of being charged for high-priced rigger and the use of the automated lift, all you really need is to find a guy who is hungry enough that he is willing to climb up a 25' rickety ladder at the lowest price.

While this of mindset has eroded our economy and sent most physical labor jobs overseas constantly seeking the lowest wage with the least worker's protections, most of us that are involved in tradeshows aren't interested in destroying the labor market or asking people to do things that we wouldn't do ourselves. In his post, Stop Blaming the Unions for Trade Show Failures in Chicago, Keith Johnston of PlannerWire writes,
I have heaped a fair share of blame on unions for their part in the rising costs of trade show exhibiting for a long time, In fact, I have a posts where I call out all of the sides to rethink how they are working together at McCormick Place here in Chicago. 
I will lay blame where it is due and now, it is not the unions, not by a long shot.
It's a good post (and a good blog) -- worth a read. But while costs are certainly a contributing factor in the dying tradeshow industry, costs are not really at the heart of this labor union brand problem.

So what is the answer?
In our current political and media environment, ideological zealotry often drives message on a foundation of perceptual relativism over substance. Science, facts and tangible experiences often come up short. For some percentage of the anti-union crowd, facts or amazing customer experiences will never change their position. Short of the public humiliation associated with being caught on record embarrassingly booing police, firefighters or some other public servants that they've previously lauded as heroes, these people are probably a lost cost. But what about the rest of us.

Imagine a transformation of the customer service relationship on a much smaller scale. Imagine what might happen if a tradeshow was able to negotiate a flat fee for all show labor and services. Imagine if, instead of being billed on an hourly rate, you could just get help when you needed it, perhaps more than you needed, but it didn't matter how long it took (assuming that it was completed before the show started). Imagine if the show management was able incentive the workers on the floor to reduce the amount of work that needed to be done on the floor and that shows with less work were more profitable. Imagine how this might change the customer experience.

Early engagement. Rapid resolution. These are the kinds of techniques employed by businesses that have struggled with customer service issues -- imagine how they might be implemented in tradeshow labor. Would it solve the branding problem? Maybe not completely, but it might be an interesting step forward. Or at least an interesting thought experiment.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Geico Guinea Pigs - Awesome Multi-dimensional Ad Campaign

Because they run so many ads, most of us have seen at least a few Geico commercials. Some of their thematic concepts can be rather tired and they seem to have no hesitation about continuing to ride them into the ground. But when it comes to advertising campaigns with creative ideas and humorous concepts, they also seem willing to take some chances.

They have a new Guinea Pig ad that had me laughing when I first saw it broadcast. Sure, it used the tired old talking animal approach, but it took it and used it in some different ways. It was altogether unexpectedly good. Good enough that it got a word-of-mouth recommendation from me to my girlfriend. It got even better when she pulled up the YouTube video on her iPhone -- and they included a link to download the Geico Guinea Pig game for her phone. I know what you're thinking -- the game is going to be really crappy, right? Wrong. It was actually a reasonably well done little casual game -- surprisingly well done. We were suitably impressed.

So, hat-tip to the team at Geico and here's a little word-of-mouth viral push: a link to the Geico Guinea Pigs YouTube video -- good marketing!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Arrington Has A New Blog

There's not much point in speculating on the direction that it may go, but Michael Arrington's new blog, Uncrunched, has launched and the comments are totally worth a read.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Job Application Process and Marketing - The Hidden Message Behind the Differences Between the Front Door and the Back Door

Just the other day, I happened to come across a job listing with this listed as the application process that you must follow or, "Applications that do not adhere to the format will be ignored." According to the job post, you need to send an email to a specified address with a specific subject line (I've stripped that information out in order to provide a layer of anonymity). Here is how they specify that the rest of the email should be formatted:
- In the first line of the e-mail include your education details
- In the next 3 lines include your last 3 job titles, employers and duration
- In the following line include your desired salary
- Include 3-5 bulleted points listing your top strengths and your top measurable achievements, please be concise
- Attach a writing sample
- Attach a summarized one page resume -- preferably in .PDF format
Now it's not unusual for businesses to look for ways to screen candidates, but this one struck me as really pushing that envelope. I began to reflect on the entire approach, what it said about the position, about the company and about the process.

Why Would You Ask A Potential Employee to Structure an Application This Way?
The most obvious answer might be to establish a screening process that reduced the volume of submissions. Of course, the question that this points to is, what volume of submissions do you need to hit for it to be too much? At one end of the spectrum, you probably have numbers like Google, while at the other, the number may be zero or one. Even with the volume of resumes that they receive, Google doesn't force candidates to jump through hoops like this.

When it comes to demand generation marketing and the front door of the company, most businesses have strategies for addressing inquiries and screening leads. While web-to-lead forms may provide a low-pass filter that helps increase the likelihood of a lead qualification, we also use techniques like lead scoring to further automate the filtering process. What's more -- if you scan enough leads (assuming a certain amount of data beyond basic contact info), you can develop your own internal sense of scoring pretty quickly. Long story short, if the goal of this "structured" method of pre-screening is to streamline the process, the underlying message seems to speak more to laziness or lack of capability on the part of the reviewer than an actual process improvement. That's probably not a message that a business would want to communicate.

Another objective of this process structure might be an effort to escape the automated loop of volume job submissions. By asking candidates to do something different, this might filter out candidates that only had a casual interest in the position or make bulk applications -- application spam. But the corresponding question that you have to ask is, if you need the candidate to escape the existing application ritual, is it necessary to create such an extensive list of requirements? Stepping through a web-based form could achieve the same goal. Clearly, there is some deeper motive at play.

Please Be Concise
I think that the most telling aspect of this requirements list is the statement, "please be concise." The statement, along with many of the accompanying requirements, carries the tone of a school teacher setting down homework requirements for students. And it's just as pretentious as that college instructor who said it the last time. Layered underneath the words is the message, "our arbitrarily imposed structure is more important than you."

Clearly, this is not a job where you have the opportunity to transform their operations. This is not a position where they expect to be awed by their candidates. This is role that will execute on a specific set of parameters as though they were working the line in a factory. Creative ideas? Alternative approaches? We have no use for them here. Did I mention that this list of requirements is for a marketing role?

Communications and Your Customer
Imagine if this set of communications rules were customer facing. Instead of job requirements, imagine if you were to use this kind of framework or phrasing in your RFP. Of course, that hypothetical doesn't quite match because to make it truly similar, you would need an existing standard for RFPs, but then force customers to restructure their existing materials to match your RFP format. The whole prospect seems ludicrous. So, why would it be okay for prospective employees, for potential contributors to the health and well-being of your business?

When the economy is bad, some businesses treat is as a license to push employees harder, to drive the business on the desperate sweat of workers who can't afford to demand better. In a market where jobs are rare and your flexibility to change is limited, some use it as an opportunity to make people lick boots and jump through flaming hoops, they promote fear and profit from it.

If you're a marketing professional and you see a job listing like this, I would suggest that you close the listing and walk away. The language that they use suggests that they aren't open to new ideas -- your work here noteworthy, just another homework assignment. No creativity. No fun. Just work.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Real World Gamification

I came across this interesting story of gamification yesterday. It's an interesting read.

AIDS Puzzle Solved By Computer Gamers

Techcrunch, Soap Operas, Start-ups, Exit Strategies and Hunter Thompson - This Ain't The Bubble of Love

If you missed the news -- or failed to Tivo your soaps -- the drama surrounding the staff at Techcrunch has continued through the week and into the weekend. Sunday morning while going through my usual blog-reading ritual, I came across this story, TechCrunch Writer Skewers New Editor In Resignation Letter, over on Talking Points Memo. Anyone that's been watching already had some idea of where this was going, it was simply a matter of which writer.

Here's a link to Paul Carr's last post, I’m Leaving TechCrunch. Here’s Why. It's worth a read. If you're into the soap opera, you can also read Erik Schonfeld's, Paul, I Accept Your Resignation. The whole thing is probably the best example of a Silicon Valley gossip story since Valleywag was gobbled up.

Still, I found Paul Carr's piece interesting and inspiring on a number of levels. This post isn't so much about the current events at Techcrunch. Let's start with brief synopsis of the big picture story of the Techcrunch events:
  • Guy founds start-up based on unique product and experiences unexpected success. 
  • Start-up grows and grows, hiring people and expanding their audience.
  • Eventually, a larger company sees that success and thinks that they need them some of that money.
  • The big company eats the little company and two things happen:
    - The people at the little company realize that it is not a little company any more
    - The people at the big company run around saying, "Oh my god, oh my god, can you believe what they were doing? We have to fix this."
  • Big company people try to fix, little company people become former, and the combination makes that which was acquired not be that any more. 
In essence, this is little more than a cycle of life in the world of start-ups and M&A. Within this cycle, you'll also see the people from the little company -- people who have lived and breathed the birth of the little company entity -- passionately morn the demise of the little company. These people have tasted the fire and have dreamed of changing the world. They have seen the world of possibility.

What Does It Mean When You Buy A Blog?
So what does it mean when you buy a blog -- do you buy a writer, do you buy a voice, do you buy an audience or maybe even a community? Is it similar to what News Corp. got when they purchased MySpace? Is it what Time Warner got in it's deal with AOL? Perhaps it's like buying a cast of puppets, dreaming of all of the new ways that you can use them to make money, then pissing off the puppeteer and pushing him to quit -- even if you own the puppets, do you really own the characters, the voices, or the show?

It's hard to fault the founders of a start-up for finding an exit strategy and a payout. Finally, there is a financial return on all that work, all of those hours invested. Perhaps it stabilizes the business, perhaps it brings the infrastructure that you need -- there are many reasons that it may be a good idea, strategic justifications for the choice. But for the big company with the fat wallet, the equation is different. I think that I would have a hard time recommending the purchase of a web media property or the idea of 'buying' a relationship. Sure there are a host of meta-justifications that you can use -- it will look good to investors, expand our market opportunities, open a whole new world of consolidated advertising options, etc. -- but you can't buy the audience.

Paul Carr's post opens with a quote from Hunter S. Thompson. Full disclosure, I've always been a fan of Thompson and invested in many of his published works. It goes without saying that I'm not the only fan of Thompson. As with successful start-ups, there have been many that have attempted to mirror Thompson's style, to clone his formula -- maybe make it gonzo journalism in the cloud or gonzo journalism for web 2.0 -- then expect success. A common formula for the Thompson wannabes is lots of drink, maybe some drugs, a dash of crazy, then maybe try to write something. But try as they might, it's never the same.

Like many start-up guys, I think Hunter Thompson carried a certain amount of loathing for the take-over and monetization of the culture that was before it was 'The Summer of Love.' As a cultural record, gonzo journalism like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is deeply nuanced. Much of the joy and the humor is only really available if you understand the history, if you understand the culture, if you are the audience. For the rest of the world, it's just some silly story about some crazy guy who takes a lot of drugs. Inspiration? Or perhaps it's similar The Man Show once Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla left.

In life, in history, there are moments. They last for the blink of an eye and then they are gone. Even Bob Dylan is amazed by the things that he wrote when he was younger. But it's not a recipe. Sure, you can look around and find an amazing amount of genius cooking right here in the bay area -- the perfect environment to culture sourdough and free-form ideas -- but you don't get there just by being here. So while the world imagines a bay area like The Social Network or they dream of their 2.0 riches, perhaps they will sit back and think, "what we need is an office like Yelp with a beer keg and an Xbox room". We were just outside of Atherton when the VC funding kicked in...

Over the past day or two, I've found myself occasionally skimming through the Techcrunch headlines and bylines, looking for something... toothsome. Instead, what I've felt most strongly is a sense of absence. Something is gone now. Sure, I've seen a couple of posts from people who were theoretically in the drama, some from people who didn't appear to be involved -- but there is a meta-layer of energy that's gone.

And for Paul Carr, I wish him well and I'll probably follow him on Twitter. For Paul I would borrow this quote from Where the Buffalo Roam.
Well I guess if I had to swear one way or another, I'd say Lazlo wasn't insane. He just had very strange rhythms. But he stomped on the terra. Lord Buckley said that. It's hard to say he got what he deserved, because he never really got anything, at least not in this story. And right now, this story is all we have ... It's sad. But what's really sad is it never got weird enough for me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Branding Pivot: The Ladders Moves Away From Only $100,000+ Focus

In my bulk emails this morning, I received an email from The Ladders tagged with the subject line, "Bye-bye!" A quick review noted that they're abandoning their "only $100K+ jobs" focus, instead focusing on operating a curated board. Here's a clip from the email:
We're expanding, and today we say "bye-bye" to helping only those over $100,000 and "hello" to helping all career-minded professionals. TheLadders now takes all salary levels and shows the right jobs to the right person. So while we're saying goodbye to our narrower segmentation, we are not saying "goodbye" to keeping your job search on TheLadders relevant, focused, and targeted.

So, for example, you won't see jobs that pay half (or double) what you're currently making. You won't see jobs outside of your field — we still won't show sales jobs to finance professionals, or marketing jobs to technologists. And we won't be letting in scammy jobs, work-from-home schemes, or commission-only opportunities — we'll still be vetting every job and every recruiter before we allow them into our community.
I never liked the $100K+ positioning myself. I always felt like it put too much emphasis on numbers and not enough emphasis on the quality of the candidate or the job. My sense is that now, when the economy is so crappy and the job outlook so bleak, that finding any fish in the opportunity pond is a hunt. Still, other than a slight scent of despair, do you really feel like this expansion of their audience does anything for you? If you were an established customer under the old $100K+ umbrella, do you feel a greater sense of connection now that they have expanded their marketing circle?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Abortion Laws, NPR, Media Bias, Politics, Journalism and More - Some Light Weekend Reading

While scanning through some of my usual blog reading, I came across this post on Crooks and Liars. 'We Have No Idea Who's Right' - NPR Passes The Buck On Abortion Legislation Coverage and Jay Rosen Passes It Right Back, by Susie Madrak.
Jay Rosen's blog is Pressthink, and he's on the journalism faculty at New York University. (He's also the former chairman of the Department.) When he critiques your coverage, people tend to pay a lot of attention. Read his detailed take down of the NPR abdication of their journalistic responsibilities over a story about abortion regulation, and his response to the "both sides are mad at us, so we got it right" thinking that passes for actual journalism:
This led me first to the full post on Pressthink, We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR. It's a really interesting read. What I think you'll find in the piece is that it does a great job of elaborating and clearly defining many of the issues that people like Jon Stewart complain about when they criticize cable news -- only, in this case, Rosen is structured and comprehensive without pausing for laughs. It's a long piece, but after reading it, I went on the explore the rest of Pressthink.

My next stop was on this post, Why Political Coverage is Broken. It's another excellent post. But don't think we've just gone for a deep dive down the politics rabbit hole, there are some great marketing aspects to this piece. One concept that he touches on in the piece is the idea of politics as an inside game. Here's a snapshot.
When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to “win.” Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can… well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game invites the public to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement,” which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.
He also connects that with a couple of other themes, one being what he labels the cult of savviness. Here's his description.
In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
What I find interesting with this idea -- and his connecting it to politics -- is that one aspect of modern marketing also revolves around this insider / savvy approach to connecting with your base audience. From tech media and rumors about new products and roadmaps to fashion marketing and even the whole idea of restaurants, foodies and 'elite' patrons, there is an aspect of modern marketing that involves building an insider community. In essence, this insider-elite is community building, but it's something more.

In the case of politics, this perspective makes it easier for us to see the aspects of PR and business that are used to sell us candidates, legislation, and political positions. In some of the examples highlighted by Rosen, you get the feeling that, rather than being engaged in democracy and real efforts to improve our society, we are left with the meta-data of politics and something less than even the lowest common denominator. Can the same be said for products and services that find life through the insider game?

For years, critics of Apple have approached Apple product users as cult-like, blindly purchasing Apple products without regard to feature set or functional performance. The 'technology pundit' class of the media has promoted ideas like, Apple really needs to make a netbook or they are doomed; Apple is working on an oversized iPhone to compete with netbooks and it needs to be revolutionary or it won't sell and they are doomed; Apple introduced the iPad, it's ho-hum, it lacks features, and it will never sell; how is Apple's iPad going to keep up with the features of the XYZ product, they are doomed. The simple truth is that, in the world of products, there is an absolute quality that exists outside of the marketing and PR meta-data. While the first wave of promotion may lead to crowds around a product or a service, consumers ultimately build loyalty and repeat business based on actual performance. While a crappy, over-hyped movie may open to crowds, they usually loose audience quickly.

All in all, the Pressthink blog has some interesting content with some interesting insights that may make your marketing wheels spin. Take a look -- you may find yourself with a weekend of reading material.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Regulation that we all agree with...

As I've noted in the past, I really try to avoid writing about politics here. However, sometimes I can't help myself. The other day, I was working on this post -- sort of a funny idea that had been percolating in the graphic design part of my mind -- but I wasn't really feeling it was publish-worthy. Then I came across this second, slightly related story in the news, and I knew that the two must be published together.

Here's what I started...
One political meme that gets a lot of traction these days (there's a whole party built around it, more or less) is the idea of less government regulation. Everyone hates regulations... why should the government make rules? We can do so much better without all of these government regulations, etc.

Have you ever tried to park your car in a lot with no lines?

When you park in a lot that has been striped, you may find yourself periodically frustrated -- the lines are too close, there aren't enough close spaces, that guy took two spaces, etc. At the same time, there is an established sense of order. Instead of complete chaos, your parking lot problems tend to be more like Seinfeldesque notions of mismatched numbers of hot dogs and buns.

Most parking lots are systems that are ripe with with frustrations. They may cause you to question the motivations, logic or intelligence of your fellow humans -- or perhaps the rather low regulatory threshold that we set for enabling people to operate a vehicle. But who would really question the idea that the structured space increases utilization over an unregulated space? 
Then, I came across this story, GOP Jobs Plan: More Snakes? Here's an excerpt.
GOP members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today called attention to a proposed regulation that would restrict the transportation and importation of nine types of snakes, including the Burmese Python.

In a new report entitled "Broken Government: How the Administrative State has Broken President Obama's Promise of Regulatory Reform," GOP members cited the proposed snake ban as one of seven examples of red tape choking off job growth in an already ailing economy.
Now admittedly, if I hadn't seen this post, I wouldn't have known about the constricting force that snake-selling regulations have on our economy -- perhaps even the global economy. At the same time, this probably wouldn't have made my top ten list of solutions to fix the economy, much less my top seven. Still, the creative part of me is pretty impressed -- in terms of message, this is truly an example of out-of-the-box thinking.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Techcrunch, AOL, and Huffington Post Controversy: Corporate Tries To Come To Terms With Start-up

About a week or so ago, a corporate politics and drama found it's way into the posts coming out of Techcrunch. I first came across it through this post, Editorial Independence, from Michael Arrington. Linked in that post is another from MG Siegler, Techcrunch As We Know It May Be Over. But perhaps the best explanation of the core of the story comes from Paul Carr in his post, The CrunchFund: Actually, Tim, We Don’t All Have “Different” Standards.

Here's the simple story synopsis for you: Arrington and AOL launch a venture fund. People raise questions about the ethics of writing about the companies that you invest in and how that may shape the editorial direction of Techcrunch. Controversy ensues. Corporate management attempts to make changes to correct "explosive" issue, and may also inadvertently put out the fire that makes the engine go. Meanwhile, we watch and read.

Start-ups, Investment, and The Dung Pits of Glyve
There's an interesting related post from MG Siegler on his personal blog, It’s Not A Mirror, It’s A Crystal Ball. In it, he attempts to explain how Techcrunch operates and why it's different from traditional media. Here are a couple of good excerpts:
And it works because instead of a reliance on top-down management and editing, the emphasis is on hiring the right people.
And this one...
The point of all of this is that most of the articles written this past week about TechCrunch have absolutely no idea how TechCrunch works. People think it’s run like The New York Times, but in reality, it’s run much more like a fast-paced blog written by a bunch of individual writers.
What he is highlighting here is a culture that works a lot like a start-up. Instead of depending on top-down direction for guidance, the operating model is built on strong individuals who understand the requirements and contribute to the overall organization independently without extensive process controls, turn-by-turn directions, or extensive efforts at finding consensus.

Start-up culture is different than the culture in established businesses. When Techcrunch was assimilated by its larger corporate owners, I think we all knew that there would be a day when the parent business culture would be imposed on them -- even the folks at Techcrunch (posts about the issue tend to live under the banner of 'editorial independence'). We've all been looking for indicators. This may be the moment when the winds change and that impending corporate storm blows through.

At the heart of this controversy is the idea of Arrington's venture fund, investing in these start-ups and how that might influence coverage on Techcrunch. When most people envision the world of start-ups, they think about the era of big money IPOs, the wild Hollywood-like party scenes from The Social Network, or the $50 billion dollar valuation for Facebook. What they don't see are the millions of ideas never brought to market, the hundreds of thousands of ideas that were pitched but couldn't find resources, the people sitting in coffee shops up and down the Peninsula looking for work. They don't see all of the businesses in Techcrunch's Deadpool, the ideas that never reached their exit strategy.

These days, it is the rare start-up that goes public. And while a case can be made that when the clowns on CNBC talk about some business and it's stock, that herds of non-researching investment lemmings follow them blindly in whatever direction they point, most of us can't invest in the start-ups that are covered on Techcrunch, good or bad. You can't buy stock in AirBNB. You can't buy stock in Quora. Square may be a cool app and a cool company, but you can't buy stock. You can't even buy stock in Facebook or Twitter... yet.

A lot of the traditional rules surrounding investment and media coverage are supposed to be designed to protect us from some clown at CNBC or the Wall Street Journal pimping some news or a stock, watching the market react, then profiting from that move -- buying at an artificial low or selling at an artificial high. Forget about PR and shaped messaging for a minute, all of us that work with marketing and media know that there are publications and outlets that operate on a quid pro quo basis for coverage and the degree of trustworthiness that you weight their content. As someone who has followed Techcrunch for a number of years, it doesn't read like a pay-for-play pub. In fact, one of the things that has always made Techcrunch such a great news source is the way that it doesn't follow all of the rules of traditional journalism, publishing numerous stories that percolate more from insider circles than from press releases, then updating with additional content as the story develops.

Some might question whether financial interests might shape the coverage and that might ultimately affect the success or failure of the start-up and it's corresponding financial performance. To them I would say, look back through the archives of Techcrunch. Over the past couple of years, there have been several companies that seemed to receive positive coverage and failed nonetheless. While positive PR coverage can be an emotional shot of helium for an organization, ultimately these companies live and die on their concept and their execution.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of this whole story is wrapped in the meta-story. I've never met Michael Arrington and I don't know him personally, but from all that I've seen written, I feel like I have a sense of some of his underlying motivations. For many of us that have been involved in start-ups, there is an excitement and an energy that you don't get when you live in the traditional corporate world. It's kind of like playing live rock and roll. These days, when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards take the Rolling Stones on tour, it's not about the money. I'm sure that it's a nice chunk of change, but you can't underestimate the addictive properties of the fans, the music, and being the center of attention. Inventions, new technologies and new ideas can have those same addictive properties. Here in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, it's these things that fuel the culture.

So imagine wandering through the crowds of potential start-ups, of brilliant ideas and enthusiasm to change the world. It's there in that pool of talent where entrepreneurs and paradigm shifts are born or reborn. In that world, where ideas muck about, you can see some amazing ideas come and go. Some need little more than a life raft, a springboard to launch, a pittance to achieve orbit. Perhaps you simply need to call up your old friend Mick, make a few amends, and schedule a tour -- grab another taste of the fire.

The End?
Now it's been announced that Michael Arrington had decided to "move on" from Techcrunch. And, I suspect, that along with Arrington's departure, we're also seeing a milestone in the erosion of an editorial perspective that shaped Techcrunch and made it what it is -- or was. No, it won't be the absence of Michael Arrington that killed Techcrunch; rather, it will be the top-down corporate management that crushes the start-up culture aspects from the organization.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Amazon Gets California Affiliate and Sales Tax Reform Deal Through State Assembly

I came across this bit of news on the Amazon affiliate program and the sales tax law.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Lawmakers on Friday sent Gov. Jerry Brown a compromise bill that delays California's effort to force online retailers such as to collect the state's sales taxes while retailers lobby Congress for national rules governing online sales taxes.

Under the compromise passed Friday, Amazon agreed to resume working with its affiliates.
No news yet as to whether Gov. Brown will sign it into law.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dreamforce 2011 Social Enterprise Theme: Can There Be An Arab Spring In Business?

I attended Dreamforce 2011 this last week. It's an amazing, crowded event packed full of more people than you could imagine in event focused on enterprise software. They were saying 45,000 attendees this year.

One of the great things about Dreamforce is the new Salesforce features and hear the messaging that surrounds them. One theme for this year was 'Social', Chatter, and the idea of 'the Social Enterprise'. Forget about how they've been pushing Chatter for three Dreamforce events now (and probably still wrestle with a significant chunk of their customer base questioning the value or how it all fits), this year's keynote drew upon the events of the Arab Spring to remind everyone about the role of social media in the transformation. Here's a description from SF Gate:
Showing images from this year's wave of protests and revolutions throughout the Arab world, some of which were fueled by protesters' interactions on social networks, Benioff said a version of the Arab Spring could soon be coming to the corporate world.

CEOs who aren't listening to customers or employees online risk losing their jobs, he said.

"It's not so long from now we'll start to hear about Corporate Spring and Enterprise Spring," Benioff said. "We've seen Mubarak fall. We've seen Khadafy fall. When will the first CEO fall for the same reason?"
Arab Spring. Revolution. It's powerful imagery and it evokes a strong emotional response. Clearly, I'm not the only one who was struck by it (check out this post, The Tragic Triumph of the MBAs on Techcrunch). But while it makes for an interesting premise and it underscores social media, does simply connecting these two concepts using a like analogy really make sense?

Imagine If The Arab Spring Analogy Made Sense
Imagine if the greatest challenge that enterprise employees faced was a dictatorial CEO who stiffled them, prevented them from participating in business processes, corruptly siphoned off all of the company's resources to himself and his cronies, and generally kept the company from being great. If these repressed employees only had a platform to find one another, to communicate, to plan protests...

Of course, the simple truth is that these are not the great challenges facing most enterprise employees. Even if they were, would a corporate-supplied, enterprise communication tool provide the platform for their communication? Imagine if Twitter was a platform developed by the Egyptian government.

It's true that Social Media can be a transformational thing. Within the enterprise, the ability to expose conversations and flatten communication channels can be change-making. More importantly, it's difficult to grasp the importance of being able to shape your own content through the follow architecture. In terms of, the easy ability to integrate and build an application that Chatters, then publish that stream is an amazing feature that dramatically expands the doorway to the Internet of Things. But that not the same as Arab Spring.

Sorry Marc, The Social Enterprise is not The Arab Spring Enterprise. But you get points for trying.