Goodbye SXSW! 
I’m home, and firstly, I want to say thanks to Jamie for first suggesting this conference and then to all of you, who helped nominate us to attend.  We hope that our observations have been useful, and if nothing else, have given you food for thought.
To my fellow attendees:  Maarten, Derek, Amy and Nick.  I could not have chosen a better group to share this experience with. I envy your stamina!  As warned, I pooped out well before you, but not too soon to truly enjoy your company and get to know each of you better.  Safe travels, and let’s continue to stay connected. 
New tools I used this week:- Tumblr.  Pretty fun being a blogger for a few days.- Groupme:  great way to stay in touch with each other- Meeteor:  networking tool that goes further than LinkedIn and FB- Twitter:  As you can tell from my blog, I’m too verbose to ever use Twitter myself, but I am really inspired by the potential for aggregation and social curation of Twitter content (thanks again Rebecca from SocMetrics).

Goodbye SXSW!

I’m home, and firstly, I want to say thanks to Jamie for first suggesting this conference and then to all of you, who helped nominate us to attend.  We hope that our observations have been useful, and if nothing else, have given you food for thought.

To my fellow attendees:  Maarten, Derek, Amy and Nick.  I could not have chosen a better group to share this experience with. I envy your stamina!  As warned, I pooped out well before you, but not too soon to truly enjoy your company and get to know each of you better.  Safe travels, and let’s continue to stay connected. 

New tools I used this week:
- Tumblr.  Pretty fun being a blogger for a few days.
- Groupme:  great way to stay in touch with each other
- Meeteor:  networking tool that goes further than LinkedIn and FB
- Twitter:  As you can tell from my blog, I’m too verbose to ever use Twitter myself, but I am really inspired by the potential for aggregation and social curation of Twitter content (thanks again Rebecca from SocMetrics).

12 March 2012 ·

Product Development: Branding, Design and Consumer Centricity

It’s been great sharing this experience with you all, and the focus for my last blog is on product and brand.  There were a few really salient points that came across to me in the various sessions I attended focused on brand and product:

…brands need to leave the “broadcast relationship” with consumers.   Instead, brands need to focus on sharing communication, innovation and the very product itself.”  (from “Brand as API:  Connect Differently”)

Brands are built on what you do, not what you say.” (from “Designing for Awareness in the Attention Economy”)

Coherence is what builds brand equity.” (from “Brands as Patterns”)

A lot of what I heard and say reinforced my own changed thinking about CN.  Everywhere, I was being reminded of the old adage "customers buy on emotion and justify with fact."  I think that brands and product developers and marketers everywhere are realizing that without inviting customers to collaborate with them, brands can no longer expect to be relevant and memorable, and what is setting great brands and great products apart in this new “attention economy” is their ability to be the interface for a mutually shared experience.

How this applies to CN starts with asking a few fundamental questions:

  • Why is it that a company that has genuinely and legitimately helped consumers save money for decades not a resonant advocate or authentic voice in our own products to the “savings-minded” consumer? 
  • Why do bloggers on savings sites seem to be more successful in distributing and leveraging our content than we ourselves are? 

The answer is both simple and complex.  The truth is our products lack a meaningful emotional connection with the consumers we serve.  We are a utility, a tool.  We are a “broadcast” medium. 

We have not gone far enough into inviting consumers to collaborate with us, and this is the first thing that needs to change if we to be truly consumer-centric. 

Find the voices of our consumers and our influencers in the larger world and invite them to be a fundamental part of the product itself (CN): 

  • Curate and re-distribute THEIR content alongside ours and make them a meaningful part of the nuts and bolts of the site.
  • Help influencers (both brand influencers and our product influencers) directly leverage our content to improve their own lives and the lives of people they know
  • Create a human network of savers (with names, and faces and words) and showcase them directly interacting with brands and our content.  Make our brand a part of a genuine community.
  • Invite brand influencers (i.e. Fitness-focused women who love Balance Bar) to live on our brand pages and create a level of value-added brand equity that neither a brand nor we can create alone.

If this seems confusing, think about Amazon.  Really, what is “Amazon” as a product or brand?  Amazon is a superior product because of the user-generated recommendations, ratings and reviews.  In fact, one could say that Amazon “brand” IS the voice and shared experience of the community.

Be generous with what we know and find ways to share that knowledge to benefit our stake holders at every level of the value-chain.  We know what people buy.  We know where they shop. Can we help them DIRECTLY make better decisions and save more money?

  • We need to use our store-level information better:  consumers live and shop locally at their favorite retailers.  We’re getting there with product carried and geotargeting, but we need to do BETTER than make location-awareness just an overlay to improve relevance. 
  • We need to leverage our substantial and timely local knowledge (promotions, popularity, availability, price) to CREATE demand. Yes, CREATE demand, not just exploit it.

I can’t wait to get back to work!   Beyond the chance to meet new people and learn new stuff, I have found that the most pleasurable part of this trip has been the chance to think about my job and my product unfettered by the constraints of workday realities.  It’s been great to spend 3 days thinking about what SHOULD I do versus what CAN I do.

12 March 2012 ·

Meeting old friends! Mark Frein, a fellow Carleton ‘92 alum and old friend and I met up at SXSW. Mark is a partner with The Refinery, a leading Leadership consulting firm and just returned to Austin after 20 years in Vancouver. Besides the awesome taco dinner and margaritas Mark treated me to, he also spent time subtly head-shrinking me until I wised up. Gaaahhhh! Guess I am still “bossy…but in a nice way”. Thanks for the qualifier, smarty pants.
I can see why Mark has been such a successful teacher and coach. Great listening skills coupled with insight, empathy and caring. As we talked about our respective professional experiences, he left me with some good advice:
Value and invest in people
Create, learn and practice a common vernacular for talking about success and for goal setting
Value the integrity of the company culture, and make that culture a competitive advantage
Take risk
And finally, on the subject of fostering change, whether personal or professional: practice/play/perform = learn = change. This can be read in both directions. To change requires learning…

Meeting old friends! Mark Frein, a fellow Carleton ‘92 alum and old friend and I met up at SXSW. Mark is a partner with The Refinery, a leading Leadership consulting firm and just returned to Austin after 20 years in Vancouver. Besides the awesome taco dinner and margaritas Mark treated me to, he also spent time subtly head-shrinking me until I wised up. Gaaahhhh! Guess I am still “bossy…but in a nice way”. Thanks for the qualifier, smarty pants.

I can see why Mark has been such a successful teacher and coach. Great listening skills coupled with insight, empathy and caring. As we talked about our respective professional experiences, he left me with some good advice:

  • Value and invest in people
  • Create, learn and practice a common vernacular for talking about success and for goal setting
  • Value the integrity of the company culture, and make that culture a competitive advantage
  • Take risk

And finally, on the subject of fostering change, whether personal or professional: practice/play/perform = learn = change. This can be read in both directions. To change requires learning…

12 March 2012 ·

Sonogram Future Watch: Breakout trends…

Dear Baby “Don’t call me Jack” Collins: 

As you are busy incubating, so apparently are a bunch of new technologies.  I thought it would be nice to provide you with a quick update of what the latest buzz is on breakout trends:

Geolocation:  everything is local.  More location based check-in excitement.

Mobile everything:  the next generation of tablets, augmented reality, HTML5 based multi-platform apps, mobile wallet

More social media and networks:  niche social media platforms, social curation, memes, the living internet (check in networks of non-human creatures like heath checks on herds of cows, or infectious diseases…it’s confusing.)

The Cloud.

3D printing:  body parts, manufacturing on demand, uber-customization.  (this is my personal favorite trend!)

Gamification 

Smart TV

4D experiences (this is also confusing…)

Get started on thinking about you are interested in.  If you’re gonna be a start-up billionaire by the time you are 10, it’s not to soon.  Remember your favorite auntie Amori!

12 March 2012 ·

Learnings and Observations: Organizational Transformation

One of my self-selected assignments coming to SXSW to learn and observe what I could in various sessions focused on this area, and report back.

SXSW is a lot of things, but it seems to me that it is primarily a stage for the telling of the dramatic story of the great individual – the maverick, the innovator, the singular and extraordinary “new idea” among the work-a-day ordinariness of everything and everyone else.

Being an ordinary individual myself, and being extraordinarily happy being just that, I wondered if a collection of ordinary folks like myself had a chance be great, to work in great companies that were not the Faceooks’, Zappos’ of the world, to be the builders and sustainers of a great nations.

So the first question I asked is:  what’s a great company?  There are a lot of buzz-worthy answers as you can imagine, but I’m less bought into the hype of the “hot new startup” or the “I must work at Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon” to be great.

As one of my favorite poets and thinkers, T.S. Eliot once noted when asked to opine on the characteristics of great nations, that the most important value of great nations is that they “waste less”.  I think the expected answer would have been that great people, or a concentration of great people is what creates great nations.  What Eliot said, and what comes back to me as brilliantly perspicacious observation, is that great nations are great because they waste less, not because they have more.

I’m with you, T.S Eliot. Here are stand-out examples from SXSW sessions related to some great companies (and frankly, some totally bullshit ones too) and their efforts to waste less:  waste less time, waste less effectiveness, waste less human capital, and most importantly, not waste the chance to be great..

Sessions Attended:
· Decentralized Organizations: Do They Work?
· The Start-up Passion Smack-Down
· Culture Networks and the Codes that Drive Them

These are some ideas presented that resonated with me personally, and speak to my own experiences working across all sorts or companies.  Organization transformation fails, or at least struggles when known and damaging dynamics are not honestly addressed and don’t have effective structures in place to address them.

Unequal hierarchies or perceptions of power don’t meaningfully recognize and reward contribution within cross-functional groups/teams.
Example Presented:  “Sales people are more important than executional/operational people”
Interesting concept:  From Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab discussing his “LoveMachine” concept of $ bonus assignment (not, it’s not that!).
Direct application:  Empower cross-group respect and interdependence by allocating portions of a bonus pool that an individual may qualify for to peers, subordinates and others in the company.  For instance, if the goal is to “equalize” back-office and front office teams in goal achievement, assign part of a sales director’s bonus to a direct allocation from their operational, marketing, product and support teams.  Do the same across each group:  sales directors directly assign bonus contributions to product development, operations etc.  Direct impact on incentives can powerfully change and equalize group dynamics and reduce the impacts of territoriality, intergroup bias and poor negotiation.
 
Transparency of data and lack of consistent and available “health and welfare” checks lower trust, focus, productivity and honest assessment.
Example Presented:  Rigorous scrutiny is perceived as “negative thinking.”
Interesting concept:  From John Bradberry.  Create a 6-7 metric continuous measurement tool against 4 cornerstones (Leadership, Market, Math, and Execution) of any product/division/overall company.  Rated simply as “Green, Yellow and Red” and updated monthly as a shared tool for managing performance.  This is different than discussing these questions at the “management level”.  This is proactively and transparently score carding effectiveness and sharing it publically as a level-setting exercise to build rigorous scrutiny.
Practical application:  “Founder” blindness is a tendency that bedevils practically all startups or new ventures, whether in a new company or in a new initiative.  Passionate believe a prerequisite for creation, but it fosters a general aversion to negative thinking, and more than that, it fosters the belief that rigorous scrutiny is inherently negative.  A frequently updated, published scorecard to continually asks and answers questions like:
· Do we have the right people in the right roles?
· Is the technology platform and approach enabling or limiting healthy growth?
· How strong is team chemistry, trust and coordination?
· How effective is our engine for generating leads, qualifying prospects and closing sales?

There is a lot more to share and to learn.  I’ll leave you all to post questions or better yet, initiate discussions among yourselves.

Background reading:  http://www.hbs.edu/research/pdf/07-090.pdf

12 March 2012 ·

Amori Langstaff

SXSW riff on what makes great product design, ways to organize for innovation and not make yourself crazy. And last but not least, a flight of imagination into the future, dedicated to the coming generation! I'll be tying to find prescient signs of things to come...

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