Buzzwords and the Credibility Problem

It’s tempting to promote a product, service or company by using popular buzzwords. The formula is simple: pick some buzzwords, string them together in a few sentences, and voila!

Buzzwords can be appropriate and convenient. But 90% of the time, they are misused.

I am growing increasingly sensitive to how I use buzzwords, because I am noticing that I react negatively when others use buzzwords in written and verbal communications. When I start hearing a parade of buzzwords, I conclude that the person isn’t communicating – they’re just stringing together a bunch of words for effect.

I suspect that you too react negatively or that like me, you start to tune out the conversation when you hear many buzzwords. That’s the rub with buzzwords – if everyone uses them, they are no longer unique. Who cares if you have a ground-breaking or viral product if every single other company claims to have a ground-breaking or viral product?

If your audience is tuning you out, your marketing or fundraising message will fall on deaf ears.

There’s an easy solution. Talk with people.

Cut the buzzwords. They are not necessary.

image credit: Zach Inglis

Not Everything That Can Be Counted Counts

It’s tempting for startups to count everything that can be counted. After all, prospective investors and the media are often influenced by numbers of followers, visitors, users, paying customers, etc.

But there are a number of challenges when trying to count everything. Relying too much on statistics can be very distracting and can lead to decision paralysis. Startups that become obsessed with metrics often lose their way.

Many entrepreneurs and business owners forget that not all metrics are important. Albert Einstein famously said:

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Wise words – and most startups (and small businesses) should take those words to heart.

We tend to rely very heavily on metrics (at my company, crowdSPRING) and therefore, are more likely than other companies to become distracted if we don’t smartly pick and choose the metrics that influence our decisions. Sometimes, we make the right decisions and focus on the right metrics. Other times, we make the wrong decisions and lose focus, paying attention to metrics that aren’t nearly as relevant as we mistakenly thought they would be. (Last week, I suggested four questions you should ask when making decisions based on metrics and statistics).

Given the wide availability of good software and plenty of data (from your internal and from many external sources), it’s pretty easy for startups to put together measurements on just about anything.

One of the lessons we’ve learned from our successes and failures: we are more likely to succeed when we spend a greater portion of our efforts discussing and debating what should be counted – and a smaller portion of our effort counting.

Numbers are good – but as Einstein correctly pointed out, everything does not need to be counted.

Do you agree?

image credit: cambodia4kidsorg

Problems Are Opportunities, Not Threats

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

People learn best from experience.

Experience tempts us to accept that a particular solution to a problem is the best solution. For example, an engineer who solved a complex technical problem in a certain way might assume that similar technical problems could be solved in the same manner. A marketing person who achieved success with a viral marketing campaign might assume that when they next need to build buzz about a product or service, a viral marketing campaign would be the best way to proceed. An entrepreneur with a successful startup and exit might assume that they can repeat again by simply doing the things that made them successful in the first place.

I was reminded of this when recently talking to my engineering team about scaling crowdSPRING and the different approaches we can take to scale our site.

As we talked about a menu of options (hardware improvements, threading, database scaling, cache strategies, etc.), I was struck by this: we were all relating our personal beliefs based on our experiences with different scaling solutions as if those beliefs and our experiences were the only truth. For example, those who had negative experiences with reverse proxy solutions were critical of such solutions. Those who had good experiences with reverse proxy solutions spoke favorably about them.

Experiences can lead us to stop questioning, and that’s exactly what was happening in our discussion about scaling strategies. That’s a dangerous situation to find yourself because true innovation requires us to see problems as opportunities, not as threats.

It’s natural, when we see problems as threats, to try to solve them quickly and to solve them in ways that we successfully solved other similar problems. And that’s sometimes not unreasonable – solutions that worked for us before are sometimes the best solutions.

But if we want to see problems as opportunities – so that we can innovate and build on our experience, we all must remember to never to stop questioning.

Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Company’s Customer Service

I’ve talked previously about the need for startups to differentiate from their competitors and the need to understand your competitive advantage. For example, my company, crowdSPRING, differentiates by delivering outstanding customer service to our community of nearly 70,000 users from nearly every country in the world. In the following video, I offer five suggestions based on our experience, of the things you can do to improve your company’s customer service.

Can you suggest other tips for companies who want to provide world class customer service to their customers?

Worry Less About ROI – Worry More About Being Relevant

People are obsessed trying to figure out ways to measure ROI (return on investment) from social media marketing – and from other forms of marketing. ROI is important, but can be a red herring. At the end of the day, ROI is meaningless if your product or service isn’t relevant. Here’s why:

What do you think? Is relevancy just as important as ROI?

Focus On Conversions, Not Just On Site Traffic

Many companies, especially small business and startups, obsess about the amount of traffic to their site.  Site traffic is important – it brings attention and the opportunity to convert visitors into users or paying customers. But traffic alone isn’t enough. In the following video, I offer three reasons why you should spend as much time focusing on your conversion efforts as you do focusing on your marketing and other traffic-generating efforts.

What do you think? Are conversions as important as traffic-generating efforts?

Startup Tip: Challenge Your Customer’s Assumptions

Green initiatives are all around us – green building, agriculture, computing, design. But while more companies and people are doing more things, the needle is hardly moving. This is not surprising. The last several centuries – particularly the 20th – have promoted consumption as a key to a better life.

One reason that the needle is hardly moving: failure to change assumptions. Manufacturers continue to produce tons of products – with “Energy Star” or “green” labels on it. We’ve done little to alter our assumptions about consumption and as a result, it seems like we’re fighting a battle we cannot win.

Green initiatives must demonstrate efficacy and also must educate people and persuade them to sometimes spend MORE money, often for less. For every green business, there are dozens who don’t care much about being green. Those promoting green practices are starting to understand that real progress will require people to change their assumptions about consumption.

Startups can learn an important lesson from the public’s collective response to green initiatives: to change behavior, you sometimes have to change people’s assumptions. This is especially true for startups that are trying to get people to do something they’ve never done before. Before Twitter, most people would have said that it would be impossible and futile to attempt to converse in 140 character phrases. Twitter has succeeded, in part, by persuading people to change their assumptions about the length of communications.

It’s not enough to have a technically superior product. Betamax was technically superior to VHS. HD DVD was technically superior to Blue Ray. Consumers don’t always buy the best products – they purchase products they believe are best. Many consumers ignore organic foods because of price – despite the fact that they believe that organic foods are healthier. Solar energy has failed to gain acceptance except when the government heavily subsidizes the technology so that the price of solar is equal to or less than competing technologies.

It’s not easy to change assumptions. Companies that attempt to do so are seen by some as heretics. Apple is perhaps one of the best examples. Thousands of articles have been written during the past week about what’s NOT included in the upcoming iPad. People assume that because other manufacturers have included usb ports, cameras, and other bells & whistles on tablet PC’s, that the iPad should have all of those things too. But Apple has never followed – they’ve always led by asking their customers to change assumptions about how they would use their PC.

Remember when Apple removed the floppy disk from the iMac G3 in the late 1990s? Many people were shocked and it took nearly all other manufacturers another decade to start selling PCs without a floppy drive. By challenging assumptions and asking their customers to change their behavior (i.e. stop using floppies), Apple has continued to prosper and innovate.

Consider the products and services your company offers. Most companies compete solely based on price and/or features.

The smart companies…innovate by educating and helping to shape their customers’ assumptions. What are you doing to challenge YOUR customer’s assumptions?

Apply Agile Thinking To Everything You Do

Some of you have heard the term “agile software development”, which refers to a process of software development based on frequent, iterative development. crowdSPRING has been applying the principles of agile development to our own software development efforts for the past year.

We were bogged down throughout much of 2009 launching new products in part because our thinking was too grand. As a result, we ran into too many roadblocks that require further discussion, research, debate, and planning. This caused us to be less effective – and delayed product launches and improvements.

About six months ago, we looked at our non-software development processes (business, strategy, finance, etc.) and wondered why we also couldn’t apply many of the same principles (of agility) to those processes.If you read the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto, you quickly realize that the same principles can apply to many things outside of software development.

About 6 months ago, we started applying principles of agility to everything we do. This has helped us immensely to streamline our processes, to reach quicker decisions, and to iterate our policies and practices much quicker than we had done in the past. We see clear advantages to this approach – I discuss some of these advantages in the following video.


Startup Tip: Working With Lawyers (Part 4 of 4)

This is the fourth of my four part series, focusing on ways that startups, entrepreneurs and small businesses can work better with their lawyers.

Last week, a post on Venture Hacks briefly discussed the 10 reasons why entrepreneurs hate lawyers. I felt that post, while good, missed an opportunity to offer practical advice on what entrepreneurs and small business owners should do when working with lawyers. Many of these frustrations are fair, but you can take steps to improve your relationship with your lawyer – and more importantly, to find a lawyer you trust. In the video below, I discuss five things that entrepreneurs and small businesses can do to reduce their frustrations and to improve the relationship with their lawyers.

By way of background for those who don’t know me: prior to crowdSPRING, I practiced law for 13 years. During that time, I counseled and represented clients (from internet startups to Fortune 100 companies) in transactional matters and in complex trials. I’ve set at the table as a lawyer, and now have the perspective of an entrepreneur. Here we go (Part 4):


Startup Tip: Working With Lawyers (Part 3 of 4) (Interest, Fees, Responsiveness)

This is the third of a four part series, focusing on ways that startups, entrepreneurs and small businesses can work better with their lawyers.

Last week, a post on Venture Hacks briefly discussed the 10 reasons why entrepreneurs hate lawyers. I felt that post, while good, missed an opportunity to offer practical advice on what entrepreneurs and small business owners should do when working with lawyers.

Over the next two days (If you haven’t seen it, here are parts one and two of working with lawyers.), I’ll talk about how you can better work with your legal counsel and will suggest some strategies to help you find a good lawyer. I’ll use the Venture Hacks post as a guide. Every day, working backwards from reason 10, I’ll discuss three of the reasons why entrepreneurs hate lawyers (I’ll save the top reason for the last day).

By way of background for those who don’t know me: prior to crowdSPRING, I practiced law for 13 years. During that time, I counseled and represented clients (from internet startups to Fortune 100 companies) in transactional matters and in complex trials. I’ve set at the table as a lawyer, and now have the perspective of an entrepreneur. Here we go (Part 3):