Sunday, June 10, 2012

You Are Not All That Special....

Having highlighted one college commencement address in an earlier post and since it is that time of year, I found a high school commencement address that I believe should be broadcast to everyone!

Sometimes, we just need to be reminded that we just are not all that special! 

"David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at the school, delivered his rather unusual speech (see full text below) Friday, telling graduating seniors that they had been “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.” It was all said in the context of telling students that there is a big wide world out there and that they should not succumb to a culture in which everyone gets a trophy. McCullough, son of the award-winning historian David McCullough Sr., advised the students to seize the future by doing what they love, rather than taking a job for money. “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you,” he said near the end of the speech. But he wasn’t exactly kind in getting to his message. “Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special,” he said."
You can read the address here in its entirety.

Life is not about what you have done but rather what you are doing.  Like the earlier commencement address, its about the world rather than about you.  Maybe what we need to do is focus less on self help books, or books that will improve you or make you successful but rather we need to focus on educating ourselves of others; other countries, other cultures, other people....

Maybe, just maybe, you are not all that special, maybe, just maybe, you might be wrong....

But if so, you have a lifetime to explore, to test, to challenge, and to move forward.....

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Conversations, Social Media, and E Commerce

There is a tremendous focus among the leading minds of the internet on the concept of "conversations."   The thought process is quite apparent at blogs such as Arnold Waldstein, William Mougayar, and AVC and with start ups that are attempting to facilitate "conversations" such as Engagio and Disqus.

I think that Arnold states the obvious when he says, "Engagement is the new currency of the web but it’s still very scarce."

We are constantly reminded about engaging the consumer, developing communities, and all the other jargon that is used to define the illusive benefit of the web.  Its one thing to discuss the concept of "community" on a blog that gets 200,000 visitors a month on average and enjoys over 150 comments a day to any article, on any topic that is posted; that is an engaged community where commenting has become conversations.   

The real battle, is between, is the internet truly a tool to redefine social relationships or is it nothing more than another marketing/advertising channel?  I hear a lot about "community managers" and I cannot help, after searching the web for "what does a social media community manager do" but realize that the concept of social media as nothing more than a marketing/advertising channel is winning by a long shot!

The reality is that social media needs to foster something more basic than 'community' or 'engagement' and something fundamental to 'conversations' and that is a sense of BELONGING.  

I would recommend the following two articles:

In a world of big business vs. everyone else, the battle between the web as just another advertising channel vs. fostering engagement, communities and conversations, is one that we must take seriously.  No conversations occur without a sense of belonging.  Nothing becomes a 'brand' without a fundamental belief on the part of the consumer that the 'brand' belongs to or holds value to them.  A community is nothing more than a 'place' where someone feels they belong.   Someplace between promoting products, seeking business connections, and or hyping our own expertise, the web has to foster a sense of 'belonging.'

I think that one small company has found the ideal, and I enjoy reading every single one of their posts:  Door County Coffee & Tea.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Rethinking Company Culture

It appears that the idea of a "company culture" and or hiring for "culture and fit" are all the rage among start up companies and it needs to be a more pressing  priority for most established companies.

But, we need to rethink, exactly what we mean when we use terms such as "culture" and "fit."

All companies have a "culture" and anytime people come together a "culture" will develop rather quickly.  Regardless of what is the stated company culture the reality is real company culture does not "trickle down" but rather bubbles up.

One of the greatest achievement of the United States was that we became a "melting pot" for a variety of different cultures of the individuals that migrated to this country; thus companies should be thinking about recreating the melting pot experience rather than trying to establish cultural ghettos.

Can your corporate culture accommodate this (courtesy of Emily Merkle):
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
                                                                              - Steve Jobs

Wouldn't it be an awesome experience to manage and lead such a group of people?!

The reality is that using "culture and fit" as a guidepost in hiring really is nothing more than attempting to "clone" employees.  If one believes that their company is truly unique and that it takes a special kind of person to be successful in one's company then realistically you are not going to find "fit" but rather you will have to nurture it.  Management is about nurturing; its dealing with the unknowns of individuals and the disruption, or dynamics, of the work environment.

Our goal of building awesome companies and or organizations is to realize that we want to hire people who will have an impact on the company culture.  What would New York City look like if everyone "fit" the city culture; would it be as vibrant and dynamic?  Too much of an emphasis on "culture and fit" will not create the vibrancy and dynamics of a New York City but rather the staid and tradition bound culture of "Mayberry R.F.D." 

In regards to employees, we want to create a positive collective experience, we want employees to know that they can make a difference, regardless of their job duties, and that the concept of "empowering" naturally includes "diversity."  

If you catch yourself focusing on "culture and fit" you might find yourself eventually with a company and or organization that has  a "herd mentality."  All companies have "values" both stated and unstated.  The key is to ensure that that gap between what are the stated values and the unstated values is kept to a minimum; this can be measured by employee morale.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Virtue Of Service To Others

I came across this article about Eric Greitens, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL, who gave the commencement address recently at Tufts University.

It was this paragraph and quote that got my profound attention:
"He called students to think above and beyond their own dreams, their own desires, and to be strong. Aristotle called this megalopsychia, greatness of soul, and considered it one of the greatest moral virtues.  'What kind of service can I provide? What kind of positive difference can I make in the lives of others?' If you work every day to live an answer to that question, then you will be stronger.'"
To Aristotle, virtues of character are dispositions to act in certain ways in response to similar situations, the habits of behaving in a certain way. Thus, good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction, making ethics an intensely practical discipline.

Greitens told the students, "The more I thought about myself, the weaker I became.  The more I recognized that I was serving a purpose larger than myself, the stronger I became."

Become part of something bigger than yourself.....

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Failure Of Human Resources

The idea that companies are resorting to requesting social media logins and passwords, and in some cases, logins and passwords for email accounts, as reported here seems almost a heartbeat away from some scene from George Orwell's "1984" or "Animal Farm."

But the reality is, setting aside the legal issues and social ramifications, human resources has failed.

With the ability to broadcast job opportunities via Careerbuilder, Monster, and now Indeed (which according to this article is at the top of the list for finding candidates) human resources is finding themselves overwhelmed with candidates for job opportunities and rather than develop better tools to evaluate candidates they find themselves coming up with nothing more than arbitrary means to winnow the potential candidates down to a more manageable level:  Relying on such things as not hiring anyone who has been unemployed for any length of time and or requesting logins and passwords to social media sites.

Exactly what benefit is derived from gaining access to an applicant's social media profile?  The reality is that anyone seriously looking for employment has already cleaned up their "act" and removed anything that might be questionable and or offensive.  As more and more employers rely on the internet to find candidates anyone who is seriously searching for employment will be a step a head of these employers.  In fact some employers, those who are on the cutting edge, have moved beyond the resume and are only interested in a candidate's internet presence!

The reality is employers have to learn how to use social media; they have to learn how to "approach" individuals on the web because of their social media presence about potential employment rather than using social media as an excuse not to hire someone.  The future belongs to those human resource professionals who learn to be proactive and connect with individuals via social media that they are interested in hiring rather than using the traditional avenues of advertising a job opening, solicit resumes, and then weed through the pile.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Big And Tall - Thinking About Niches And Knowing Your Customer

The following article appeared on this blog of the RE-WIRED GROUP and was written by Douglas Crets:

What can a blog post about search vs. social network influencers turn up about shirt manufacturers and their role in consumers’ jobs-to-be-done?
J.J. Hill & Carl Gray (LOC)
J.J. Hill & Carl Gray (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
Here’s a comment from a guy named Carl Mistlebauer at the Fred Wilson blog, AVC, which should show you how observing, analyzing and using data in new ways can make people and products into a success. Carl, as it turns out has done a lot of things.
The owners of an apparel manufacturer retired. They shifted their business to Carl, who decided to pursue a “size-centric” web 2.0 model for selling shirts on the Internet.
When we decided to build our first e-commerce site we did so believing that B2C would only be the “icing” on the cake, not the cake its self (that would always be retailers).
The reality is that even with going into it as an after thought, and even with all the mistakes we made, we still ended up having to shut down our B2C after 6 months because we could not handle the business from an inventory standpoint (our internet efforts not only created a dramatic surge in B2C sales but it also saw a dramatic increase in our B2B sales both from new retailers interested in our product and increased sales from our existing retailers).
Something happened when Carl’s team flipped the switch on the Internet model. They got customers they didn’t know they had, or that they wanted.  He had always thought that retailers were in his business model. It turns out, they were not.
Now, our traditional customer has always been a middle aged white male who is middle to working class; we also only sold pocket tees.
So, then the second go at B2C we had added tee shirts and long sleeve tees. All of the sudden we started getting sales from women, younger males, and a much broader racial demographic.
At this point I realized that B2C was definitely in our future and would eventually be our future (I still was not able to accept that our retailers would not account for less than 75% of our business.)
But what accounts for this shift? It turns out that knowing how a very specific kind of shopper does his or her shopping is the key.
The basic problem is that a 350 lb or 500 lb person shops differently than the mass market does. Thus the trouble with dealing with consultants and companies that provide services is that they think “t shirts” and then rely on their own experiences to come up with solutions; I would give them a whole 15 page document of information about our market, our consumer, and the psychology of the big and tall consumer and I would end up being presented what I call “a mass market plain vanilla solution.”
Then a couple of years ago I found out that we were selling more big and tall tee shirts than JC Penney’s did in a year, that all I had to figure out was how to offer the big and tall consumer the same options that the mass market enjoys because first of all, none of the major players in big and tall can provide these options (Threadless, Custom Ink, Cafe Press, for example) due to their size and off shoring all production, and secondly, all I had to do was figure out how to connect with college and high school age big and tall kids (male and female) then I would be locking in their loyalty for years to come (JC Penney is attempting this with their new big and tall retail stores – but again, its brick and mortar and not consumer centric.)
Then again, over the last 6 months I have visited over 15 college campuses in states with a high percentage of obese population and I realize that I need to really focus on women; that’s a whole other world for me.
Right now my real struggle is with the fact that while I have a vision of what I want and where I need to head and I have coders plugging away attempting to turn my vision into reality its obvious that there is a person missing between me and them; I just cannot seem to use the right terminology or something but it sure feels that we are speaking two different languages….
Speaking two different languages. There is what the business proprietor believes the market will do, and then there is how the people in the market behave.
How do you get to the central mental and emotional core of what the individuals in that market do? Jobs-to-be-Done is one of those ways. Slow down the film. What is the person doing, thinking, feeling and wanting at the moment of choosing?
What job do they want the e-commerce site to do for them?
For Carl, it seems his customer wanted the e-commerce site to offer everything that eveyr other t-shirt provider had ever provided, but, for her.
There’s a different business in thinking that way.

March - Tee Madness!

Yes, its March and its time for the annual tournament of 64 awesome brands to face off in TEE MADNESS; a bracket style showdown!

Quite simply Tee Madness takes 64 of the best up and coming t-shirt brands and has them square off in a March Madness style tournament.  After the brands signup, the competition will begin:  Brands square off head to head competing for YOUR vote!

For more information you can visit the site HERE or check out the TEAMS and visit their websites HERE.

This is something that a tee shirt company should have gotten behind!

I came across this via I AM THE TREND and STORE NVY.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Communities and Branding: Learning From The Master

Over the course of my professional career I have been associated with some of the most recognized brands in apparel.  This association was behind the scenes as we either owned the license to produce the goods or we financed the turnaround of the troubled brand; this would include brands such as Spuds Mackenzie, Big Dogs Sportswear,  and Jimmy Buffett's Caribbean Soul to name just a few.

One of the great things about being behind the scenes is that you get to understand the brand, the thinking behind the creation, and you get to observe the personalities involved.

From the evolution of screen printing in four color process on white or pastel colored shirts to where we are today, you realize that the concepts of "branding" and "community" has been at the forefront of success and longevity of numerous tee shirt lines long before their current vogue with the advent of the internet.

Even after all these years and with the explosion in imprinted apparel graphic design, I still believe that Micheal Latona, who was the original artist of some of the best graphic designs that launched Jimmy Buffet's Caribbean Soul and who then went on to establish Harlequin Nature Graphics as the premier nature graphics screen printing company, is still the most creative artist/screen printer ever.  Here is the only sample I have of his work on my computer (he did everything by hand):

After 40 years Jimmy Buffett is still the absolute master of the concepts of  branding and community both on and off the web!  From Caribbean Soul, Parrotheads, to Margaritaville he has continuously and consciously developed his brand and his community;  lets be honest, would Florida be as popular of a vacation destination without him and his music?  That is the ideal of "lifestyle."

Today, we throw around terms without ever thinking about the core characteristic of the terms that we use.  We talk about "brand" when we probably should be using the term, "label." We can relate to, like, and recognize a "label" but a brand involves something deeper; an essence, a spirit, a quality.  Labels create, market and project their message on the consumer, while a brand has their message projected upon them by the consumer.

We talk about "communities" as something relating to individuals, with a shared interest, coming together and we believe that the future is about communities.  The reality is "a shared interest" can also be nothing more than a fad or a craze:  At one time things like hula hoops and pet rocks created "communities" also but these communities eventually moved on because they were not anything more than a craze.

The reality is a "community" has to be much more than about shared interests; it has to be about "lifestyle."  Virtual communities must become real communities as a first step to advancing to lifestyle status.  Lifestyle, like brands, must involve something deeper than just "shared interests."

Lifestyle is about perspective and attitude, most people don't realize that Jimmy Buffett started the Save The Manatee Movement back in 1981; that was the beginning of the broadening of the budding brand beyond music.  He did fall behind in the area of apparel, that was more the fault of the individuals behind Jimmy Buffett's Caribbean Soul/Caribbean Soul and Tommy Bahama ended up the dominant player in that market but Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville is attempting to re establish themselves in the apparel market, and doing so with the recognition that their "community" has aged.  One day even Threadless will have to grow beyond tee shirts!

Then, its fascinating to watch how Jimmy Buffett and Margaritaville can evolve and adapt as witnessed by their newest adventure, the "gamification" of a brand/lifestyle, which idealistically is the goal of every consumer product company:

The brilliance of wisdom!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cafe Press Goes "Kiosks" On Campus

Cafe Press, dot com company that provides customization services and offers to create storefronts for anyone; its a $127 million dollar business that promotes its self as "...A key differentiator of our business model is our ability to profitably produce customized merchandise in small quantities on a when-ordered basis."  

The reality is while their sales fluctuate from year to year, quarter to quarter, their profitability swings wildly between profitability and staggering losses.

Here is a video where the CEO explains the company much better than I ever could:

Now, this market is filled with a lot of competitors, Zazzle and Spreadshirt, being the most obvious, but the reality is every town has a screen printer who will provide the same services and the internet is chock full of promotional product companies that will fill in whatever else you want besides tee shirts.

At some point you have to differentiate yourself  from your competition in a meaningful way, right now Cafe Press is:

          * A company with over 300 million products (that is designs) a consumer can pick from.
          * These 300 million designs can be ordered on over 600 product SKU's (from apparel and
             drinkware to posters, electronic accessories, and more....
          * They have over 2 million shops and they receive over 135,000 new designs every week.
          * If by some odd chance you cannot find what you want you can create your own with
             there online design tool.
          * Over 11 million unique visitors a month to their website and they ship 6 million products

In 2010 Cafe Press had 2 million customers, shipped 2.7 million orders, with an average order size of $47.

So, to grow their business they are testing a "kiosk" at Western Kentucky University.  Now, for the retailers perspective this is not a bad idea; a customer comes in, sits down at a computer in the kiosk and designs and orders something.  They then pay the retailer and in a few days the consumer can return to the bookstore and pick up their order.  It brings the retailer a second visit from the consumer and it saves the consumer shipping.

But, why would anyone, with a computer and internet access, feel compelled to visit a college bookstore to design and place an order with Cafe Press?

If a company, such as Shapeways, were to establish kiosks on college campuses that would be a brilliant idea because they have something that is relatively new to the consumer market, its something that is not all that well known nor understood, thus the exposure on college campuses would make logical sense.

But for a company like Cafe Press, it really seems like nothing more than a duplication of something they already provide.  Now, Western Kentucky University's bookstore, has decided to take this Cafe Press Kiosk and create their own, on campus, "Threadless" community by holding weekly tee shirt design contests.

Thus the concept of a "kiosk" or a "store within a store" is basically the first volley of Cafe Press to create a Threadless community on every college campus where it can gain entry to the college bookstore!  Campus groups competing in design contests against each other which will eventually lead to college design teams competing against other college design teams!  Obviously, Western Kentucky University was chosen because Cafe Press has offices and manufacturing facilities in Louisville, Kentucky and Western is the only university in the state that has an independent bookstore.

The reality is that its not the kiosk that will create the demand but rather the community that creates the demand; is there an existing community that wants this opportunity?  If there is its probably safe to assume that they are already part of the Threadless community and right now there is no established Threadfan community in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

I am a big fan of interactive kiosks, shops within shops, and pop up shops, and I believe that internet brands and retailers will eventually have to develop the ability to integrate on line with off line.  But, I think Cafe Press needs to to realize that a kiosk can also be nothing more than a duplication of something readily available without a more obvious strategy; and they need a strategy which reduces their products/designs, reduces their SKU's, and increases the dollar value of their average order.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Half Time In America,,,,

Whenever a discussion begins about the future it always includes technology, the internet, start ups and entrepreneurship.

It also seems that the focus ends up being on Silicon Valley, New York City, and Boston.

Its as if the future belongs to the two coasts and the great vast land mass between the coasts will be left in the past.  

Then you find that Detroit, the city that most of us believe is boarded up, decaying, and nothing more than a collection of crumbling buildings is actually one of the fastest growing centers for technology start ups in the United States!

What makes Detroit special?  Maybe its because the city and its citizens knew they had nowhere to go but up?  But, if anything the following articles about the start up revolution in Detroit not only prove that the future can belong to any city or town willing to put out the effort, and Detroit provides a road map of how to embrace a technology renaissance:

          Start Up City USA

Most cities seek to support their existing businesses and or attract existing businesses from other locales to populate their industrial parks.  But the reality is the future belongs to those communities, both big and small, who find a way to break with the traditions of the past and seek to create a culture of innovation.  

Most local communities depend on a Chamber of Commerce and or a some quasi official economic development group both of which operate on traditional principles of creating economic growth which do not foster opportunities and innovation.  An analysis of Detroit offers the following roadmap for changing the existing pattern:

The reality is the future belongs to those communities that create a culture of innovation, regardless of their size, demographics, or geography.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ecommerce Matures

In 2009 retail sales, excluding food and motor vehicles, totaled $3.6 trillion.  While everyone focuses on the dramatic gains in online retail, or e-commerce, which soared from $42 billion in annual sales in 2002 to $197 billion in 2011, the reality is that even with its soaring growth, e-commerce is still a mere pittance of total consumer retail spending.

When you realize that Amazon, the Walmart of the internet, makes up a third of all online retail, then the stark reality of the potential of e-commerce is quite obvious.  When you realize that 36% of all units sold by Amazon are actually via third party vendors you cannot help but wonder if Amazon is an online retailer or rather becoming a retail "community."

Of course there will be a continued push to expand the concept of retail further and further into new areas, and we have the continued efforts to champion the concepts of  social commerce or "f-commerce," mobile commerce or "m-commerce," and the constant chatter of frictionless payments and a host of other ideas to continue to champion ideas over the existing brick and mortar retail grid.  Oh, and we will continue to hear all the predictions of the demise of traditional retail and the idea that consumer expectations can only be met by technology.

There is no doubt that traditional retail, brick and mortar retail, big box retailers, and department stores all have a myriad of issues and shortcomings, but that does not negate the fundamental shortcoming of e-commerce:  Which is the "experience" of retail; as e-commerce matures, and if it is to continue its growth patterns, online retailers will have to find a way to capture the "experience" of retail.  

We will focus on this with our T Shirts on Tuesday series:

          March 6th:    Cafe Press Goes "Kiosks" On Campus
          March 13th:  Threadless Becomes A "Brand"

          March 20th:  An "Indie" Superstore

There really is no reason to discuss ideas when we have the efforts of some of the leading ecommerce innovation leaders pointing the direction to the future.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Entrepreneurship, Social Media, and Making A Difference

It is hard at times to discern the true value of the internet from all the hype that exists around and about the web and the internet.  It seems as if the internet and technology can cure everything that ails us, our society, and our economy; as if eating, drinking, and breathing code can solve everything.

No doubt I could be considered a skeptic, and of course I have been skeptical of the teaching of entrepreneurship in schools before and my thoughts about social media and ecommerce are well known.

But, every now and then you come across something that truly represents the hype of the internet as "revolutionary" and you have to acknowledge that; Kickstarter is an example of a real revolution.  Kickstarter represents a new way to fund creative projects; its where the concept of "crowd funding" is brought together with artists, filmmakers, musicians, designers, writers, illustrators, explorers, curators, performers, and many others to bring projects, events, and dreams to life.

In particular, I think that it is an obvious way, in smaller communities, for young people, for creative people, to become entrepreneurs and solve problems in their local communities.  One clear example, which was brought to my attention at AVC.Com was T.A.G. (Teen Art Gallery):

You can learn more about T.A.G. here or view their Kickstarter submission here.

A group of young people, taking the initiative to come together to plan and organize a teen art gallery.  This is exactly what entrepreneurship is all about; this is what social media and the promise of an online community is all about.

I am glad to see that this particular project is now fully funded and will move forward!  But do take the time to search the various projects seeking funding at Kickstarter and see if this is a way for you, as an individual to make a difference.  Or, become an entrepreuner and start your own project!

Another example of entrepreneurship, social media, and making a difference is Donors Choose, which is an online charity that connects donors with classrooms in need.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Start Up You: "Its New Years. You Suck."

FAKE GRIMLOCK is an internet sage; a straight shooting internet sensation of few words, who I am honored to have met and now unashamed to say I follow!

He has ushered in the New Years with advice on how to think of yourself as a start up!

I think his best advice is here:

So, in 2012 lets do as he says in his conclusion:



FAKE GRIMLOCK, the master of words....few words!


I meant to include past guest posts by Fake Grimlock and I did not, so here they are:

Fred Wilson's Blog, A VC, "Minimum Viable Personality"

Brad Feld's Blog, Feld Thoughts, "Be On Fire"

Eric Rie's Blog, Start Up Lessons Learned, "Start Up Is Vision"