Category Archives: Weblogs

Make Your Website Real-time For Free (Putting Social First, of Course)

Today Rebelmouse dropped the $9.99 monthly fee on using Rebelmouse to power your own website at your own domain. Here’s the announcement post with the details. The key quote is:

Rebelmouse drops subscription fee

We’re now giving away many of the features that used to come with a $9.99 a month price tag for free, including the ability to make RebelMouse your own website on yourname.com!

I think it’s a great business move. Traffic on Rebelmouse.com has soared to more than 15 million unique visits monthly, and some major brands and media (Time, NBC, Burger King, ESPN) have caught on and are using it regularly. That success with enterprise makes it a good business move to open up more to individuals and small business. Which means even more traffic.

How can you use this in your business? Rebelmouse channels a social media stream to a website. In effect, it turns your social media engagement, or choices you make with hashtags or other blogs, into a perpectually-updating automatic website. This turns social media into a tangible web asset you can use.

Yesterday Dan Lyons posted Top Marketers Raving About Rebelmouse in Hubspot. And my favorite example is where I consolidate all my blog posts, automatically, at blog.timberry.com, which uses Rebelmouse to automatically catch all my blog posts using RSS feeds. And I also use it for our blog.eugene-social.com.

You can sign up for Rebelmouse for free at www.rebelmouse.com.

(Disclosure: I’m quite biased. Proud, actually, because the founder of Rebelmouse is my son Paul and its director of community is my daughter Megan. And I have a very small financial interest too.)

Management And the Art of Saying No

Do you recognize this tactic?

I was at the Apple Latin America headquarters in 1984 for an appointment with Hector Saldana, general manager. I arrived on time for a meeting, Hector came out of his office and welcomed me, walked me to the place to get coffee, and left me in a conference room, promising to be back shortly.

He came back in about 10 minutes, we talked for about 10 minutes, and he was gone. Back in another 10 minutes for maybe 15 minutes, then gone, back, gone, etc. Strategy is focus

I recognized the tactic as what the overbooked pediatrician used to do when he had a room full of parents and babies. Hector was holding several meetings at once. I certainly couldn’t complain, I was a consultant and he was my client.

On the contrary, as I watched, I saw management in action. He came into the room, shaking his head. “Tough situation,” he said. “I’m always saying no to people.”

We talked about that, and Hector said: “Management is nothing more or less than knowing when and how to say no.” That may not be original, but that’s the only time I ever heard it.

Since then, I’ve watched. One of the hardest things business owners and operators do is deciding not to do something. It’s the art of saying no.  Particularly for a growing business, the difference between strategy and chaos is knowing when and how to say no.

This is against the background of the fact that Strategy is Focus. Most growing companies want to do far more than they can effectively do. Bright managers want to seize every opportunity in sight, and all at the same time. In the real world, however, displacement is a fact of life.  Everything you do in a business rules out something else that you can’t do as a result. To grow your business you must focus on well-defined target markets, well-defined products and services, building competitive advantage, capitalizing on your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses.

Yes, all of that seems obvious, and the best strategies are in fact obvious. They come straight from the SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknessess, Opportunities, Threats). They are maintained over the long term, meaning several years.  Successful strategies will be copied by competitors.  Better a mediocre strategy consistently applied over several years than a series of brilliant strategies pushed one after the other.

All of which makes focus the key to effective growth strategies.  And, furthermore, focus means exercising discipline in management, not trying to do everything.  Saying No.

The Vital Fresh Look for Business Survival

The artist knows the scene. He lives there. But he closes his eyes, squinting, to get a fresh view of it. Sometimes things get too familiar. 

Back in the 1970s when I was a foreign correspondent living in Mexico City, I dealt frequently with an American diplomat who provided information about Mexico’s increasing oil exports, which were a big story back then. We had lunch about once a month. He became a friend.

Then one day he told me he was being transferred to another post because he had been in Mexico too long. “What? but you’ve only been here for three years,” I said. I was disappointed for two reasons. “You’ve barely learned the good restaurants!” He explained to me that the U.S. foreign service moved people about every three years on purpose. “Otherwise we think we know everything and we stop questioning assumptions,” he said, “that’s dangerous.”

I remember that day still because I’ve seen the same phenomenon so many times in the years since, in business. We — business owners and operators — are so obviously likely to fall into the same trap. Our business landscape is constantly changing, no matter what business we’re in, but we keep forgetting the fresh look. “We tried that and it didn’t work” is a terrible answer to a suggestion when a few years have gone by.  What didn’t work in 2000 might be just what your business needs right now. But you think you don’t have to try again what didn’t work five years ago.

This is why I advocate the “fresh look” at the market at least once a year.  Existing businesses that want to grow too often skip the part of business planning that requires looking well at your market, why people buy, who competes against you, what else you might do, what your customers think about you. Think of the artist squinting to get a better view of the landscape. Step back from the business and take a new look.  Use the standard Know Your Market techniques and content, just applying it to your business, not a new opportunity.

Talking to customers — well, listening to customers, actually — is particularly important. Don’t ever assume you know what your customers think about your company. Things change. If you don’t poll your customers regularly, do it at least once a year as part of the fresh look.  As an owner, you should listen to at least a few of your customers at least once a year. It’s a good exercise.

For creativity’s sake, think about revising your market segmentation, creating a new segmentation. If for example you’ve divided by size of business, divide by region or type of business or type of decision process. If you’ve always used demographics, use psychographics instead.

Remember to stress benefits. Review what benefits your customers receive when they buy with your, and follow those benefits into a new view of your market.

Question all your assumptions. What has always been true may not be true anymore. That’s what I call the fresh look.

(Image: istockphoto.com)

(Note: this was first published here in April of 2006. This version is slightly modified) 

Which is Worse: Making a Mistake or Losing an Opportunity?

What a great thought: how people approach failure is a key to success. That comes straight from Why Failure Drives Innovation, an article by Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing, published in the Stanford Graduate School of Business news page. Consider this:

“Failure” is a dreaded concept for most business people. But failure can actually be a huge engine of innovation for an individual or an organization. The trick lies in approaching it with the right attitude and harnessing it as a blessing, not a curse.

In his article, Prof. Shiv pits fear of making mistakes against fear of losing opportunities. 

He says most individuals, managers and corporations live with fear of making mistakes:

In this mindset, to fail is shameful and painful. Because the brain becomes very risk averse under this line of thinking, innovation is generally nothing more than incremental. You don’t get off-the-charts results.

The entrepreneur, however, is more worries about losing out on opportunities: 

Places like Silicon Valley are full of type 2s. What is shameful to these people is sitting on the sidelines while someone else runs away with a great idea. Failure is not bad; it can actually be exciting. From so-called “failures” emerge those valuable gold nuggets — the “aha!” moments of insight that guide you toward your next innovation.

I like that a lot. I’ve written often that one of the most important traits for entrepreneurs is being able to live with mistakes. This makes perfect sense to me.  

Backroom Backbiting Will Bite You Back

There’s a coffee shop in the Portland (OR) airport with the tagline “good coffee … no backtalk.” It’s hard to see in my picture here, but there it is. 

What I make of this is a reminder about a fundamental business practice that way too many business owners forget. You can’t, simply can’t, let your employees get together and amuse each other by telling stories of how annoying the customers are. 

Seems obvious. But it happens all the time. Criticizing somebody else is the best ice breaker between strangers. When you sit beside a stranger in a plane, does conversation start with how wonderful air travel is? Or does it start with how bad the airline, how late the flight, how small the seats? We criticize. It’s who we are. 

But don’t let it happen behind your scenes, backstage, in your business. Don’t let your employees do it. 

I have no data to prove it, but I’d bet that the the annoyed and self-righteous tone of the petty bureaucrat and counter minder starts behind the scenes, with people sharing stupid questions and annoying traits of the customers. 

Don’t let that happen to your business. 

(Image courtesy of Shelley’s Coffee Notes)

Some Suggestions for Family Business

I’ve done business with my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and various mixtures of those. Of course the classic advice on this is not to mix business with family.

But people do. I read somewhere that 62 percent of the gross national product of the Western world is produced by family businesses.

Furthermore, I don’t believe (much) in general rules or best practices.

But here are some suggestions that might help you manage the mix between family and business relationships.

  1. Beware of the crossover. The cause of most family business problems is the crossover between different relationships. You don’t mix boss and subordinate relationships with parent-child or siblings or husband-wife. People who are successful working with family separate the roles so you don’t get into family behavior when you’re talking about business. You have business discussions and personal life, and never the twain shall meet. That’s really hard to do, but it’s also vital.
  2. Use physical location to help. Make a rule not to talk about business at home and not to talk about home and kids and relationship problems at the place of business.
  3. Use physical presence to help. Don’t talk about business in front of the kids. Or the parents.
  4. Recognize communication triggers. Often what started as business discussion is suddenly husband-wife or sibling-sibling or parent-child, stop. Call time out. Have a signal. Adopt a safe word. We spend years in patterned habitual behavior based on the family relationship so stopping it for business is hard. We have to work on it.
  5. Don’t forget to acknowledge the advantages of family business. You are working with people you know and trust who care about the same things you do. You share the problems. You share the rewards.
  6. Don’t pretend it’s all arms length and objective. Family factors influence decisions. It’s naive and distracting to pretend they don’t. Try to be aware of how and when they do and manage the long-term objectives accordingly.
  7. Never stop learning.

My wife and I didn’t intend to build a family business. I was on my own consulting and building products and she was (still is) my advisor and confidante. We grew older and our children grew up. People who were once preteens spending Saturday mornings putting sticky labels on plastic software disks grew up and became interested in the business. We never pushed them to, but never tried to avoid it either.

We did employ a family business counselor for several years. Her name was Bonnie Brown Hartley and she was good for us. We met once a month for a session she ran. At one point that was me and my wife and a son, and later our son left but we had two daughters and their husbands involved. The family meetings were a useful format.

The best thing Bonnie did for us was insist on a written family business code of conduct. I won’t pretend we never broke it, but it was a good idea.

(image: bigstockphoto.com)

The Paradox of Profits

We take it for granted. One of the main goals of a business is making a profit. Right?

Maybe not.

Answer this question: What makes a business more valuable? Is it profits, or growth? Or future prospects?

And then this question: Don’t you have a straight trade-off between profits and growth?

Assume you have money still in your bank account after you’ve booked costs and expenses.

  • That money could be booked right then as profits. 
  • Or you could spend it instead on marketing or product development to enhance future growth. 

Reinvesting profits really happens before the month is closed and that discretionary money is booked as profits. Once it’s down on the accounting statements as profits, it’s almost always going out of the company.

If you can, reinvest your profits before they become profits. 

(Image: shutterstock.com)

The New JOBS Act, Crowdfunding, and Shoes Waiting to Drop

It’s less than three weeks since the new JOBS act opened the door to exciting new crowdfunding initiatives. This could be a sweeping change, an end to antiquated laws requiring startups to get investment mainly from so-called accredited investors. And it could be another deregulation causing a lot more problems than it solves. 

For the curious, here’s a quick reading list I’ve compiled, full of excitement, eager anticipation, fears, contradictions, and contention.  

  1. Gene Marks has a good summary in Drilling Down: What Small Business Should Know About Crowdfunding on the New York Times. This one is positive and optimistic. 
  2. For a scathing indictment of the whole idea, how it’s actually more of the deregulation that caused the great recession, try Why Obama’s JOBS Act Couldn’t Suck Worse, by Matt Taibbi on Rolling Stone. (Don’t you love the title? Nothing ambiguous about that.)
  3. For a more long-term academic/intellectual view, try Yale Professor Robert Shiller’s Democratize Wall Street, for Social Good, also on the New York Times. 
  4. Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo.com and a very well-known and vocal successful entrepreneur, raves about the underlying idea of crowdfunding in The Two Most Important Startups in the World, posted a couple of months ago, before the new bill passed. 
  5. Bob Rice, New York venture capitalist, posted Forget Crowdfunding: Why JOBS Matters on the gust.com blog. A couple other posts on the subject on that blog — which is the major platform for angel investment — are Antone Johnson’s train wreck post, in which he fears the worst from crowdfunding before the bill passed;  and then his somewhat-relieved revision in his back on track post a week later. 
  6. Last but not least (since we’re on my blog at the moment) is my What Worries Me About Crowdfunding on the Huffington Post. What worried me then, before the bill passed, still worries me now. 

I could go on with the reading list, but it’s already too long. 

So which is it? All hail the new era of startups let loose from the nasty bureaucratic constraints? Or the opposite, run for the hills because chaos is coming? Obviously somewhere in between the two. Also obviously, a lot will depend on who does what in crowdfunding, and how quickly, and how well. If this new world starts with some very visible unsuccessful but popular deals, for which a lot of people lose money, that’s one scenario. If the regulations manage to control the scams and somebody builds a good crowdfunding site with some reasonable precautions, then that’s another scenario. 

So I’m waiting for that the shoe to drop. 

Truth, Magic, Stories, and the Digital Campfire

Do yourself a favor and watch Marco Tempest on this brilliant six-minute TED video. If you don’t see it here, use this link to go to the TED site to watch it. After you’re done, I’d like to tell two true stories that seem somehow related. And before the video, I want to highlight some quotes from it. First:

Experts believe that stories go beyond their capacity for keeping us entertained. We think in narrative structures. We connect events and emotions and instinctively transform them into a sequence that can be easily understood. It’s a uniquely human achievement.

And second, Marco’s delightful definition of social networking, as…

… the digital campfires around which the audience gathers to hear our stories. We turn facts into similes and metaphors and even fantasies. We polish our affections of our lives so that they feel whole. Our stories make us the people we are, and sometimes, the people we want to be. They give us our identity and a sense of community.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

And from there, two true stories:

  1. In the late 1990s there was a business plan that won almost a quarter of a million dollars in MBA-level business plan competitions that was a fictional exercise, using real people, presenting a technology that sounded plausible but didn’t exist. The contestants who submitted and pitched the plan had no intention of ever launching the company it described. They wanted to win business plan contests. And they did.
  2. I once witnessed overwhelming, loud, bawling, personal-loss kind of grief, so all-encompassing that nobody else in a carful of people could talk, over the death of a fictional character is a movie.

And I think that if you watch this TED talk, you’ll see how these two little stories are related.

Q&A: Valuing a SaaS Business

This question was posted on my “ask me” page on my timberry.com site. I can’t promise to answer all the questions I get, but I try, and I’m particularly happy when I get one whose answer might be useful to other people. So here’s a question:

Do you have any idea how to value a SaaS business? Do we use our users, growth in users, revenues, margins, or what? What do investors like to see?

My answer: I’m probably a bit biased on this one because of my position in Palo Alto Software, which publishes our LivePlan SaaS offering for online business planning. But I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. Here’s what I can do to help:

  1. I really like How should you value a SaaS company, posted a few months ago by Robin Vessey and then edited by Joel Spolsky on OnStartups. Joel knows software. You’ll see there that it’s about a variety of factors, usually done on a case-by-case basis. It’s a combination of baseline revenue multiple, market potential, value of the technology, and what’s needed to take it to the next level. This is a good discussion.
  2. Notice that Robin and Joel don’t even mention profits or margins. High-tech companies are almost always valued on growth and revenues, not profits. I explained why in profits are overrated here on this blog.
  3. I read recently that publicly traded SaaS companies are valued at 5-20 times revenues. Publicly traded means that their stock appears for sale to anybody on a major stock exchange, which makes them inherently different from the smaller startups. And, unfortunately for you and me, we smaller private companies take a discount on the numbers of the big companies because we aren’t big and our stock isn’t liquid and we don’t have to publish financial information. Even there, however, it’s still more about growth and revenues than profits. A SaaS company showing strong growth and breaking even or losing a bit does better than a SaaS company with profits and stable.
  4. Investors vary on revenue vs. growth in users. I’d say that revenue is much better than just growth in free users, but then look at Twitter and Facebook and the like, which got huge valuations first for huge user bases and then only later for revenue models. So that’s debatable. When I read a business plan I mistrust user numbers that aren’t tied to revenues, because that’s too easy.

What really matters is the future. Valuation isn’t what something is worth, but rather what somebody will pay for it. So what really sells, in SaaS, is its future. There’s nothing better for valuation than indicators of growth in paying users, stories that tell about market need, and a team that can push it. And it’s magic. There’s no MBA algorithm that applies.