Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts on the Present

The tale of the Christmas Carol was a political diatribe at the time to convince the wealthy to consider the state of those less so. However, over the years the tale has become less about the wealthy and the poor and more of a personal tale of redemption. It is a tale where the protagonist has an opportunity to consider his priorities and their validity, or lack thereof. He does so though a personal introspective journey. He is not joined on his journey by others, although their effects are felt throughout. Nor is his journey something public as it occurs in the evening from the comfort of his dressing room (although comfort is noticeably absent throughout). This course has been for me somewhat of its own Christmas Carol. I am bothered that some question the lack of relevancy of the information that has been presented. I realize that my situation is somewhat unique with how impactful this information is, however, I maintain regardless of your situation this course has immediate relevancy in any situation. It is a bit like the Christmas Carol in the fact that the book, or any of the subsequent retellings, has a lesson to be gleaned regardless if it is read by a destitute person in July or a wealthy person in December. The cautionary tale of looking at the shadows of things past, the state of things in the present, and visions of things that may be, is a vital internal journey we should all take. And we should take it frequently. The journey will likely not be public, nor will it be comfortable, but it does need to be taken. Once we have made it through the proverbial night of specters we need to retain the lessons learned.

So what exactly are these lessons? What lessons are there in the Christmas Carol? It is not merely a lesson on Christmas generosity. The story addresses the idea of a business and what running a business well encompasses. It addresses the idea of charity, both to those we know and those we don’t. It ponders the idea of family, both those genetically related to us, and those we treat like family. It examines the employee/employer relationship from several different angles. [The most notable is of course Bob Cratchit, although the story is rife with other work relationships. A Christmas Carol has the main employee/employer relationships such as: the partner Marley, the servant of Scrooge who steals his belongings upon death, Scrooge’s memory of his early employment; and the more subtle relationships that abound: the bakery, the poor houses, the butcher, the boy to fetch the turkey, the solicitors etc.] These lessons are all individual but not autonomous. The more I considered the story the more it seemed like a perfect analogy for this course. In the course there were individual lessons on each of the spheres but they were not independent. The information and discussion about the changes and impact of technology was simultaneously a conversation about how we interact as a society. How we interact as a society was at the same time a discussion about how there has been a shift in our concept of self. Likewise the lessons were not segmented into business lessons verses personal lessons. The study of power not only impacts how my business interacts and functions but also how I personally pay taxes, have electricity or the resources I have to educate my child. The spheres combined to make a whole and the whole encompasses not just a commentary on business but also on life, and therein on self.    

It may seem to be a bit of a leap to translate such a personal, and iconic, tale to the realm of business but indeed I think that just the point. The two are inexorably intertwined. As an entrepreneur you are your business, and the converse is equally true. To think otherwise would be to separate the self from the actions of self. In some respect we are what we do. It would be absurd to think that our actions during the hours of 9-5 don’t matter, or that they matter any more, than our actions outside of that time.

Scrooge was visited by four ghosts. We generally think of the three ghosts (past, present and future) but forget the first specter in the story- Scrooges partner Marley. Marley not only sets the stage for the coming of the other ghosts but he also provides the impetus- the chain. The chain forged in life that he is wearing in death. Now granted most of us, especially in a business sense, don’t have such a massive punitive outcome awaiting us if we act poorly. But we do have negative outcomes, both financially and personally, that will come to be realized if certain choices remain unchanged. This is a paradox in the story as well as in all our lives. If we use the motivator as fear frequently our worst fears will be realized. It is the difference between working to make something happen and trying to have something else not happen. In the story Scrooge thinks of nothing but the future. But his motivation for the future is really fear of the past. His miserly ways are centered on the idea of never loosing the wealth he has amassed. Scrooge is running away from poverty, not working towards creating wealth. It is ironic then that when this future is realized, where the financial wealth remains, other consequences make him poor in all the other ways. Scrooge has financial wealth but personally he has nothing. His worst fears are realized. It is when he realizes these fears, refocuses, and starts working towards something, that the future becomes bright.

Thus it is through the lens of the future we are able to live in the present. But it must be a goal of the future, not a fear of the future. Like Scrooge we need to consider in business not only the financial success but also what a full picture of our future looks like. We need not to fear the coming of new things but rather embrace them and try to direct them. The fear of the past, and subsequently the future, is a huge motivator when it comes to the changes we have discussed. People fear technology. They fear unemployment. They fear the looming deficit and a return to recession. Their fears ultimately will be realized if they don’t revise their goals. If they spend their days fearing unemployment, and railing against a future where their job doesn’t exist, they will miss the opportunity to create a new job. By the time they realize their error likely their worst fears will have come to pass. However, if instead, they look at the present through the lens of where they would like to go they may find options to create a bright future.

Also, it was the visit from Marley that alerted Scrooge to this picture and made him open to the information the coming ghosts were going to share. Had Scrooge not seen Marley the story would have been a different tale all together. In our lives, both business and personal, we need to keep our proverbial eyes open to the visit from Marley- the indications of the future that may be if our actions are not changed. Some of these indications are financial: a steep drop in sales, a loss of market share, or a general change in financial health etc. But so many of these indicators are not financial: employee involvement, personal satisfaction, company social responsibility etc. Like Scrooge we could be healthy financially but headed for an unsuccessful future.

Which is perhaps the crux of the whole conversation- what is your definition of success? This course left me with infinitely more questions than answers. In all the popular retellings of the Christmas Carol the story is quite dark but is made light at the very end when Scrooge learns his lesson, goes forward keeping Christmas well, Tiny Tim lives and all is right with the universe. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, life is not nearly as tidy. We do not have such simple measures by which success is gauged. Nor do we have the convenience of lessons being so overtly delivered and defined.

We do not get visited by ghosts (well, at least most of us don’t) that extol the areas that need our attention. We don’t have a visit from Marley that warns of us explicitly of what our future may hold. We don’t have the luxury of viewing the past by returning there. Nor do we have the ease of knowing which of the shadows of things that have been are relevant to what is to come. No the past is messy and jumbled. It is painful, encouraging, exciting, relevant and irrelevant all at once. It is only through the lens of the present that we try to filter the lessons of the past. What has lead us to where we are? What have we forgotten that would best be remembered? What have we remembered that would best be forgotten? What is important to us today?

For the present one doesn’t think they generally have the experience of being able to spirit in on other peoples worlds to observe. However, with the proliferation of information, and degradation of privacy, we do somewhat have that ability. With Facebook at once I can be both at home and celebrating Christmas with my friend in South Africa. With YouTube I can be a fly on the wall at a fortune 500 company’s annual meeting. With social CRM I can be doing them all at once. So in the multi faceted world of technology and information where do you go? What do you do? How do you know what is relevant to your future, both personally and professionally, and what is merely a side note? Our guide through the journey of the present is the future. It is where we want to be that defines what we should be focused on now. But what is that? Where are things headed? Where would we like them to be headed? Are we looking at things that will be or things that might be?

Which brings us to the future. In the Christmas Carol the future is a dark and forbidding place, a place full of death and despair. But these are things that may be, not things that will be. By the end of the movie the future is a place of life and joy, a place of success and bright days ahead. Unfortunately life is, again, not as clear cut. The future holds most certainly some dark and forbidding elements. The earth’s resources are being consumed at an alarming rate. The population continues to expand at an exponential rate that economically is unsustainable. Technology is marching forward making jobs obsolete and futures uncertain. But technology is also providing infinite possibilities. Technology is making our lives easier and may well be the answer to the population and environmental quandaries of our present. A few years ago there was a very short article in a business magazine about how an entrepreneur defines success. Certainly part of success is measured financially, but there are other measures as well. Success can be measured also by flexibility, fulfillment or impact on surroundings. The inevitable question for the future is how do you define success? With all the countless scenarios, both good and bad, what are you striving for? How can you make that happen?

So what does it all mean? Where does that leave us? I think it leaves us trying to keep Christmas better than any man alive, which is to say striving towards making our personal and professional visions of success a reality. To do this I think we need to not be motivated by fear. We need to open our eyes to the Marleys in our lives. We need to consider the past in light of the present and the present in light of the future. And we need to do it constantly. Like Scrooge brought some Christmas to everyday we too need to consider the lessons learned, both positive and negative, and integrate them into our actions. This is exactly what this course has been for me. A constant journey to consider the past, present and future and examine where it is I want to go. Now I just have to work on the continuous process of defining where that is. A personal and professional journey? Unquestionably. Comfortable? Decidedly not. Necessary and relevant? Absolutely.            

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Meehoo and Exactlywatt- Interaction Defining Identity

There is a knock at your proverbial business door.
Knock knock! Who's there? Me! Me who? That's right!
What's right? Meehoo! That's what I want to know!  What's what you want to know? Me, WHO?
Yes, exactly! Exactly what? Yes, I have an Exactlywatt on a chain! Exactly what on a chain? Yes!
Yes what? No, Exactlywatt! That's what I want to know! I told you - Exactlywatt!
Exactly WHAT? Yes! Yes what? Yes, it's with me! What's with you?
Exactlywatt - that's what's with me. Me who? Yes! GO AWAY! Knock knock...
~The Meehoo with an Exactlywatt by Shel Silverstein
Last week we asked the question- who are we talking to. This question is somewhat broader than initially one might think. In your average everyday world when you are talking to someone several details are immediately evident. Their appearance, age, sex, position in the interaction, perhaps position in society, relationship to you can all be readily discerned- or at very least some concrete details are provided. If you are the proprietor of a small business you have details as to where the transaction is occurring, how long the transaction took, when the person came in, where they came in, when and where they left etc. If pressed you could likely be an eyewitness to describe the event that occurred and who it occurred with. Another manifestation of this physical way of interacting is the classic capers of the movies. The investigation thwarted by a cunning disguise of a criminal. The hapless victim didn’t know who they were dealing with and were conned in some way. The most thrilling of these movies are movies like Memento and Fight Club where even the criminal in question is being conned by his own mind as to his true identity.
The identity of your customer, the who in the who, what, when, where and why. As a business owner you would then take the aggregate of this information to find where your marketing energy and resources should be concentrated. Who were your biggest consumers? Which consumers were your untapped market and greatest opportunities for growth? These answers were usually defined by the observable characteristics/categories the customer fit into, as mentioned, and what those characteristics/categories said about how the consumer would interact with your business/product.    
So what of the knock at the door? With an online business such as mine how do I tell who is on the other side? The question is further complicated by the answer in our increasingly individualized and narcissistic society- Me! But me who? Exactly. It all seems a bit overwhelming at the outset. At the same time as we have infinitely more information at our disposal about our customers in some ways we have substantially less. As a small business we have lost the physical contact and interaction that was so often used to define the when, where and why of our marketing efforts.
The more I considered this question the more it became clear that the question was the same, who is at your door? What is the identity of the customer? It was the answer that had changed. It wasn’t the question of identity, or even the identity of the customer themselves, it was our definition of identity that had changed. Just as businesses were able to discern the identity of a customer based on the physical interaction, in turn, the physical interaction was used to define and shape our identity. Identity was defined by our sex, age, appearance, location (to be discussed more in depth shortly), education, status etc. It was our identity that defined the interaction.  It is now the interaction that defines the identity. How we interact with this new technological world of business says more about our identity as a consumer than who we physically are. In other words if your customers find you through a social networking site, internet browser, mobile app or through the phone book is more important in defining your customer than whether your customer is male or female. Whether your customer is going to join your online community or post a favorable (or unfavorable) review is a more relevant to defining your customer identity then what chronological age your customer is.
In addition to changing the way businesses and others see us the technological advancement allows us more flexibility in our self concepts of identity. Who I was, who we all are, was defined at least partially externally by the physical characteristics and the physical reality in which I function. Now when I am giving a review of a product, connecting online, or making a purchase, I no longer have to define my self by who I physically am, or even, who I realistically am. Our concept of identity is no longer held to the physical constraints of reality but is now defined as we wish to define it. For all intents and purposes in the online world we can write our own self.
Now granted, these things work together, how likely we are to interact, and how we interact, with technology is partially defined by some of these physical identity factors. But the distinction is that demographics is now more accurately defined by technographics. Who we are as consumers is more accurately defined by what we do.
The other aspect of identity that has shifted with technology is the concept of place. Part of the demographics was the physical location of the consumer. Where does the consumer live? What does that say about the customer? What neighborhood(s) would be the best location for your business? Where do you want to advertise? Again, the question is the same, but the definition of the answer has changed.  
Halloween has just passed and I took my young daughter trick-or-treating. There is sort of a trick-or-treating strategy that seems to occur inherently. Who are you going to go trick-or-treating with? What group will net the best opportunity for candy. And then comes the all important where do you go? What neighborhood gives out the biggest and the best candy? What houses are handing out full sized candy bars? What houses are handing out the stale off brand candy from last year? Where do you target? This has long been the same questions we ask as a business. Where are the best consumers? Who has the biggest and best candy? And, like trick-or-treating the strategy has been what neighborhoods have the best chance of being profitable? Sure there is always a house or two in the neighborhood, or a consumer or two in the bunch, not worth the time and energy. But overall some neighborhoods are vastly better than others.
So what of the online world? What happens when the customer’s physical address doesn’t have much relevance on how likely they are to be a good customer? I would posit the answer is the same, just with a different definition. We as an online business still care where our customers “live” and what kind of “neighborhood” they “live” in. It is simply the definition of the address that has changed. The address is no longer the house at the end of the block it is the individual Facebook page created by the consumer. The neighborhood is no longer a section of town, but rather the social networking group that the customer belongs to. These are the new locations. These are the new “places” of which to ask the old questions about. Where do our best customers “live”? What are the best neighborhoods for advertizing? For growth opportunity?
So this information is great if you have individual consumers making an individual purchase. But what portion of the information is applicable a business to business environment? In the continuing theme of our fruit stand with our walled cities the information is pertinent if you are selling fruit to individuals but what if you want to sell fruit to another business? What if you want the contract to be the fruit provider for the whole jousting team? What if your business model isn’t built on selling one apple but rather cases of apples? It used to be that with the physical separation of the business location and the individual customers a business to business environment was in a different location than an individual sale environment. Also the business purchasers were different from individual purchasers. The separation of a work self from a personal self led to a different work identity. If someone worked as a purchasing agent of a business the purchases made by that person would be from the perspective of a the business, not of the individual. The identity of your customer thus would have less to do with the identity of the purchaser and more to do with the identity of the business. In other words the fact that the majority of the purchasers were male or female would be less important information then the fact that the fact that the majority of the companies purchasing from you were located in a certain place, or were engaged in a certain type of business.
With the change in the economy and jobs, coupled with the hybrid of job arrangements, there has been a degradation of the separate work identity. We no longer have a separate facet of our identity dedicated to working 9-5 for 30 years at a single job. We now have mobile devices where we can check our email constantly and, in some respects, are always working and on the clock. We have social networks where our “friends” include our co workers and professional contacts as well as our purely social contacts. We have professional networking sites that blend the social with the professional. The line is no longer black and white. Not only have we blurred the line between our professional/work selves and our social selves but businesses have developed a social self as well. Businesses have Facebook pages and twitter accounts. They have interactive forms, executive blogs and social communities. Successful businesses are no longer simply selling a product they are selling an experience. They are creating a relationship.
All this blurring of roles and lines leads to the question of whether business to business is even an accurate distinction anymore? Did a client purchase from you because they personally liked your product, or a personal friend recommended you, or did they purchase from you because the business liked your product? Likely the former. Furthermore if that same purchaser goes to a new business they are likely to contact you again. You have started a relationship with the purchaser, not just the business the purchaser happens to work for. Likewise this social situation can be leveraged to start a relationship with the business as well. It is really the flattening of the purchasing environment where individuals are starting to have similar power as the business, and perhaps eventually, will supersede them.
Knock, knock. Whose there? Me. Me who? Me everyone.
Coming next: The fruit stand of the future
Resources to answer the questions for your particular business:
Defining the concept of technographics visit:
Free technographics profiling tools:
Where are your customers talking/where do they live:
Summary of The World is Flat:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Say What?! Both free and priceless at the same time

Earning Our Earned Media

So after much ado about something we are finally on Facebook and Twitter.

In our walled cities analogy we have invested in the farm, we have created the business and have established some owned media- namely our website. We have produced fruit, okay well in our case it is not technically fruit per se, but we have produced a product worth purchasing. We have sold the product to the customers who happened to stop by our farm. They have overwhelmingly liked the fruit and business has been good. Now we want to expand our business. We want to open a farm stand within the walled city of our customer and their network.

So we set up a stand outside the walled city. This is where we are currently at. We have a Twitter account and a Facebook account, but so what? There are two issues we have encountered with this recent foray into leveraging our owned media to get to the all coveted earned media. First and foremost we are still ultimately outside the walls of the city. Secondly now that we have a platform to start a conversation, what do we say?

We are still outside the walls of the city. With our website we learned early on that launching a product is not simply as easy as posting something on the web. Initially we had this idea, as many do, that if you build it they will come. With all the hype about online e commerce conventional wisdom was not only would they come, but they would come in droves. Yes, post a website, and suddenly you would have more business then you could handle. This of course was not the case. Then came Google. Conventional wisdom steps in again with a new claim- buy a Google add- a simple few click and few cents here and there and then they will come in droves. You can sit back, relax and watch the customers roll in. This, of course, was still not the case. Now we have progressed to social media.

Twitter burst on the scene. You could reach large groups with 140 characters and one little click. You could have industry input from the best minds in the industry. You could have instant access in real time to the innovations and inner workings of those you admired, those who inspired you, you could ‘follow’ those who you wanted to follow. Couple Twitter with Facebook with half a billion users is a gold mine just waiting to be tapped. Imagine if you had a fruit stand in that city, more fruit than you could ever produce could be sold. Plus, with the platform being based on customer recommendations and networks, and customer recommendations being the highest driver for other customers, we are assured instant success. Get a Twitter account, build a Facebook page, friend a few friends, and voila, customers for all. Only, of course, this is not the case. Not entirely surprising given that neither paragon of social media business has yet to turn a profit themselves.

Not that our fruit farm isn’t still doing well, it is, and we continue to sell our fruit to those stopping by the farm. But business at the fruit stand hasn’t picked up just yet. We are still outside the city shouting at the walls. We have a Twitter account with no followers. Mind you the Twitter account for An Entrepreneur Accidentally gains followers daily, while the business account remains stagnant. The Facebook page is followed by friends and family, but no customers yet from either social media channel.

Which leads into the second problem of our social media world- what do we say? The crux of the social media is that it is supposed to be a conversation. At the moment we are a bit like the shy person on a date, or the crazy person at the fruit stand shouting at the walls. We don’t have much to say and what we do have to say isn’t yet part of a conversation. It is simply us shouting. So how do we start the conversation?

The success of a social media campaign is defined by engagement. Normally a media campaign would be defined by ROI but the metrics simply aren’t established for how to directly determine the ROI of a social media campaign yet. Or if they are established (as some like HP claim) they aren’t being shared with the rest of us just yet. So how engaged are our customers? I had reviewed all the analytics for our website, which were impressive for engagement, and for our social media campaign, which were dismal. The gap was substantial. When customers came to our website they were engaged, spending what in the web world is considerable time, and were ultimately being turned into purchasing customers. So what was the gap? Where were the social mentions of our product occurring? Starbucks suggested listening to the conversation before joining in. Before trying to force the conversation with your customer listen to what they were saying first and let that be a driver. So I visited and did some searching as to what was being socially said about my particular product.

A bit surprising to me was that people overwhelmingly want to see videos of our product. That is where the conversation is occurring and the social media is happening. Having been in this business for so many years the product seems pretty self explanatory to me. But apparently that is not the case for our customers. The customers take the video of the product as a virtual experience or interaction with the product, and with our company. One of our competitors is excelling at entering into the conversation with customers. The social media buzz is concentrated around this competitor although they don’t even have a Facebook page or a Twitter account. They do, however, have a YouTube channel. We had discussed as part of our social media strategy a possible novelty video using our product in a unique way. The thought never occurred to us that our customers would just want to see the product itself in a video format. Obviously now, in addition to coordinating, creating and maintaining the other social media, we will need to enter into YouTube to enter into our customers conversations. I do think having established our other social media will give us a distinct advantage in integrating the videos into a comprehensive digital approach rather than a single channel of digital engagement.

Not only is social media an amazing technological advancement but it is ‘free’. With all the previous media waves you had to pay someone for the possibility of infinite wealth. But now it is all available for free. Only it isn’t really free. It is time consuming, and your time as an entrepreneur is one of your most precious resources. Time is a bit like Word Press’ slogan is both free and priceless at the same time. Like your customer endorsements and earned media, both free and priceless. One of the challenges of the social media campaign has been how to coordinate the media. There were multiple accounts and pages to log into. Why couldn’t we just post one to one account and have the information circulate throughout all the accounts? There were of course costly social CRM software that would accomplish that fact, and eventually we will need to invest in one of those programs, but there had to be a simpler (and cheaper) immediate solution. I wanted software solution that saved time and resources facilitating the upkeep of this social media campaign. Of course, as it turns out, there are multiple solutions. The two I found most user friendly were for multiple twitter accounts and for multiple social networking platforms. Now on my dashboard I can see the news feed coming in from the various accounts as well as post to the accounts simultaneously. Now I just need to figure out what to post.

Coming next…
Who are we talking to? How do you get an invite into the walled city?
The fruit stand of the future, how business models need to change in the new economy

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Disintermediation of PAID MEDIA: The Third-Wheel

In our continuing analogy of customers as the walled cities the paid media is analogous to the feudal lords. The media conglomerates get a stipend for the privilege of speaking to their audience like when a price was paid to the lord for the privilege of using, and working, his land. The lord did not work the land (produce the goods) nor was he the primary purchaser of said goods. The lord’s value, and consequent wealth, came in that without him one did not have access to the land needed. The paid media exists on the premise that they still have the ownership to these cities, this land, and our livelihoods as small business depend on leasing this all valuable resource. But what happens when this isn’t the case anymore? What happens when we no longer need the feudal lord?

In some ways the demise of paid media is equivalent to the disintermediation that is occurring through all business sectors from a consumer perspective. In the consumer sector there has been a mass disintermediation (removal of the middle man) as now the consumer can buy direct. Consumers, as purchasers, no longer require a retail outlet in order to make a purchase. In days of yore whole businesses were created as simply resellers. The business’ whole function was to have access to the products, or information, and act as an intermediary or channel for the consumer to purchase them. Now consumers can use a myriad of channels (web platforms, apps, browsers) to purchase directly from the manufacturers or, in the case of information, access information directly themselves- hence the disintermediation.

The demise of paid media is the disintermediation of the mass media outlets between the businesses and consumers from the business perspective. Just as the consumer can purchase direct the business likewise can sell direct. We, as small business owners, no longer have to lease the land from the feudal lord. We no longer have to talk to (or rather more aptly at) consumers through the paid media channels. You no longer have to advertize through TV, newspapers, radio or even internet banners to get the word out about your product/brand/service. In fact advertising through those channels has become less and less effective. As the paid media has been taken out of the conversation interactions have become more a conversation between customer/consumer and a business. Like going out on a date paid media has become the awkward third-wheel. The person who is not really involved the conversation but rather keeps trying to interject and interrupt. Paid media is person in the conversation trying terribly hard to be relevant, exciting and engaging but succeeding in being mediocre at best.   

For the moment paid media is still ever present but we are almost to the point on our date that the third-wheel is recognized as such both by themselves and others, and politely excuses themselves from the evening’s activities. So that will leave just us and the customer. Herein lays the questions of this new wave of business. How do we keep the date going? In other words for those customers we have garnered using the paid media of old how do we keep them engaged? How do we keep the conversation going and our business relevant? When a place in the city isn’t determined by allegiance to a feudal lord, when indeed any farmer can be in the city, will your farm still be chosen by the cities inhabitants? This is the crux of the reintermediation, having your business add value back into the interaction. Leveraging consumer input, innovation and intelligence to make the interaction fulfilling and engaging for them as well as you. Businesses are created to fill a need. However, now the consideration is not just the generalized need of a society of a whole but the customized specific need of the individual consumer themselves. To thrive in the new wave of business we need to keep the date going with all of our customers. We need to be chosen on our own accord by the cities inhabitants as providing a valuable service or product.

For the new customers we are looking for an invitation into the walled cities. We are looking to be introduced for that first date. We are looking to start the conversation. The interest and benefits must be mutual, not one sided. With out the gloss and focus of the intermediary businesses, and consumers, must stand on their own. So where does that leave us?

There are three types of media- paid media, owned media and earned media. With the disintermediation of paid media the importance lies with leveraging our owned media to get earned media. Owned media is, for all intents and purposes, your business. It is you- the plot of land, the shop, the snazzy outfit you chose for the date. It is the channel of communication you generate, you control, you upkeep. The earned media is, as the name implies, the word of mouth media. The media you earned because of how cool you are. It is neighboring city who recommended your farm and the friend who set you up on a blind date because she thought you would be a good match.

Coming next, how do we use our owned media to get earned media? What can we do immediately to optimize our owned media to account for the move of the business interaction to a business conversation? Once we are in the conversation what do we say? How do we listen?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Twitter Resources

Some amazing resources are available at anytime, to anyone, anywhere. Check out who I’m following at:!/entrepreneuracc/following

The TechnoSphere 2: Business Intelligence

  1. Business Intelligence: What is it? Where's it headed?
Where we are:
·         Our systems are not as integrated as they should be. This is the crux of the problem so many small business owners face with their business intelligence or information systems. You start on a system; because it’s cheap. Because it is the system your accountant uses, or at very least, the system your sister-in-law who has graciously agreed to do your books is vaguely familiar with. By the time you get to adding programs they have to integrate with your existing software and systems because that is where all the information lives. So you end up adding on to the existing program/system with other systems that are sold by the same company, or at very least will work the system you have in place. Is it the system you would have purchased or designed at the outset? Likely not, but few small business owners had that advantage when we started nearly ten years ago. The fully integrated system, allowing for substantial growth and long term information tracking, were extremely cost prohibitive and relatively industry specific. Just starting out the resources were such that those programs and systems were quite simply not an option.
·         Our accounting system was also chosen because it was one of the few systems that would support assemblage of raw materials to finished goods. The most cost effective, and widely used, systems- such as Quickbooks- were modular based. At the time you could purchase a module to do the additional accounting you required. Needed inventory tracking? There was a module for that. The catch was that they would only track finished inventory, not raw inventory. There was no module available for assembling the raw inventory and then tracking the raw inventory, work in progress and finished goods. Mind you the need for this tracking was highly theoretical as when we started out we didn’t have the info structure to a) input the information, b) analyze the out put or c) need the system at all. But given that our business was manufacturing in nature it made sense we would eventually need that capacity, and we eventually did.  
·         So, by the time we get to adding other information systems, a CRM for example, we had only one choice. There was only one major CRM on the market that would work with our accounting software that didn’t require a ton of additional employee exporting and importing through an intermediary program. Even then the CRM software’s integration with the accounting software is limited. We don’t have access to specific purchasing information for the client in the CRM software or access to notes and emails sent in the accounting software. The systems are linked only tenuously.
·         In yet a third system of customer input the information a client inputs through all of our web forms then has to be imported separately into the accounting system and the CRM software respectively. In addition the shopping cart used is yet a fourth system where information must be coordinated.
·         Then, of course, there is the additional system of email, which while becoming antiquated, is still a primary form of business communication for many folks. We have an email server but also have to back up the individual email systems as part of the information lives on the individual machines themselves, not in the central server. This is still an upgrade from our first few years of business where we didn’t have a server and all of our information lived on secondary hard drives manually installed in individual computers.
·         Then there are the additional systems like our server, networking, inter office messaging software, server and information back ups (internally, externally, in the fire box and cloud based). There is also a room full of filing cabinets. Yes, that’s right, filling cabinets. Over sixteen of them to be specific housing information and physical copies of images for thousands of images and clients. We have a print business where clients are long term clients. We have a large percentage of repeat business which we encourage by offering exceptional customer service and a commitment to quality. So, if a client calls up after a few years looking to re order we need to provide a product that is somewhat approximate to the previous product ordered. If they order a new product instead, or in addition, to their previous order the new product as well should be in line with their previous order. Herein lies the rub. We have not, as of yet, constructed a way that our digital records can compensate for the physical prints we keep on file. Sometimes a client ordered on an older technology, or with a different substrate, or an old ink formula and their print is vastly different then our current technology. How do you translate a color proofing job to a digital format? Can that even be digitized? If so how would one digitize it?
·         The same goes for the paper copies of invoices etc we keep. Can they or should they be digitized? How does one go about digitizing sixteen filing cabinets worth of information? Is it worth digitizing them with man-hours required verses profit generated from having the information digitized? Would it be better just to proverbially cut our losses and start digital from this point on? Does physical storage have a place in the digital world?
·         We have several remote versions of our systems which is useful when running a small business. Our systems can be operated remotely and work can be done from any location with a wi-fi connection.
·         While we have done a relatively good job of maintaining our systems and trying to have them “talk to each other” the grand notion of all the information being available at any time is still exactly that- a notion, not a reality.

What we can do to improve immediately:
·         Moving to more integrated software/information. We purchased our CRM software almost two years ago now which likely means there have been upgrades to the software itself. A greater level of integration and information may be available with a simple upgrade.
o        While information in the CRM software (notes, documents, tasks etc) are not really necessary to appear in the accounting software it would be helpful to have the information from the accounting software (items purchased, cost per item, total purchase history etc) readily accessible from our CRM software.
o        Additionally it would be nice to have a more automated version of the CRM software. Initially when the software was purchased we were told it could automate some functions based on input in the accounting system, when in fact this wasn’t the case. Automation of those customer contact systems would be incredibly helpful and a huge time and resource savings.
o        Further integration between our web forms and our accounting system and CRM software may also be possible. The web forms, and shopping cart, were created several years ago and there is likely an updated version of both of them that would interface better with the other information input systems.
o        The shopping cart we currently use has an updated version that looks like it will integrate with our website on levels that we have previously had difficulty with. We ship from various zip codes to various zip codes and have various weights and quantities for our products. Previously the two main problems in constructing a shopping cart were the number of items and the complexity of shipping. Since the marginal cost of information storage has become virtually zero the number of items offered in most shopping carts has become unlimited so the number of items restriction has been eliminated. With an upgrade to the premium service it looks like we may also be able to address the complexity of the shipping issue with an availability of 20 shipping zones and various shipping calculators.
§         How will the shopping cart interact with our current accounting and CRM software?
§         Our accounting software came out with a shopping cart module, we need to investigate if this module would be a better choice with our current system
§         Are the shopping carts optimized for mobile viewing?
§         How easy are they to institute with our current site? Do we need to higher out the incorporation of the new cart or can we have one of our current employees do it?
·         It may be time to upgrade our system entirely. There is a new version of our current CRM software (new version that is supposed to combine online shopping system and e commerce, Google analytics, business analysis, customer contact and CRM software while also offering cloud based portions of applications and storage. Perhaps an upgrade to that software would be an instant solution to the dilemmas of our current systems.
·         Creating a customer service system. In addition to purchasing and deploying the new software our business model needs to incorporate the information and input generated by those new systems. They say a system is only as good as the information you put in it but it is only as useful as what you do with the information that comes out of it.
o        Where and when are we going to find the time to learn about the new technology and implement it? Not only is it difficult to find time to research the new technology but then you have to find the resources to purchase the technology. After all of that you need to construct the system that works with the new technology, either as support to or interpretation of the information going into or coming out of the technology. Then you have to learn the new technology as well as teach all of your employees the new technology. Each new technology is a huge resource commitment only part of which is the financial investment.  
o        Making a plan for transition to the new technology/system. How to dovetail the deployment of the new technology to have as little disruption of our services and functions as possible.
o        How are we going to scaffold a listening info structure?
o        How are we going to transition out of owner/operator into more of an owner only capacity?
o        How are we going to translate our current commitment to customer service and quality into a business wide system rather than an employee dependent relationship?

Where things are headed:
·         Accessibility of information for small business
o        Will data mining decrease or increase the gap between business sectors? Previously it was only the very large business that had access to the kind of in-depth customer information and demographics that have now become almost common place with the proliferation of social media. But currently that information still comes at a premium or through an intermediary. As the information, and availability of systems to access the information, continues to be come more interconnected and available will the access to that information become more tightly controlled or less? In other words will the power of Facebook be increased creating a new information oligarchy (as asserted by Michael Wolff) or will in be decreased toppling the social network giant before it ever has a chance to become a profitable social network giant?
o        Back to our analogy of all walled cities the information availability is like a map. The map tells you where the cities are and what the cities have to offer. Where should I best go to schlep my wares? The question is will there be one or two map makers that have the control over the maps or will there be a million roadside stands where you can by the maps?
·         Accessibility of successful businesses systems for small business. There was an article I read once about this ceiling for small business. How there is a large percentage of small business were never likely to make a million dollars in sales. They simply didn’t have the tools to grow beyond that milestone. Furthermore the longer a business said under the million dollar mark the more likely they were never to reach that mark. As I mentioned it is hard to upgrade your systems when you have started with a system that doesn’t coordinate well with other systems. But how will that change when the system you started with does coordinate well with other systems? What will the future look like when the system you started with is the big business system only on a small business level (SaaS)? What will the business ecosystem look like when everyone started with systems like that? When most business have a business model that not only allows for almost infinite expansion but also for innovation?