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: