Posts Tagged ‘marketing’

Advice to new college grads: figure out how something is produced

by Hang

This advice has no basis in anything but intuition but as this recession is deepening and more and more of my friends are facing the prospect of un or underemployment, I have one piece of advice: Figure out as much as possible about how one thing is produced. The actual details don’t matter so much, what’s important is to gain the holistic, birds eye view of the entire production process.

What do I mean by the entire production process? I mean try and look at everything. If it’s a physical product, figure out where it’s manufactured & what the manufacturing process is. Figure out the logistics of shipping it from the factory to the store. Figure out how vendors relations and the sales process works. Figure out the task of marketing, what are the various channels it’s marketed through. Figure out the corporate philosophy, both as it’s stated and as it’s applied on the ground and understand the impact that this has on the final product. Figure out the R&D stage and how the idea for it was shaped. Figure out all the design constraints and internal politics that lead to in looking like it’s final form. Figure out the legal landscape that it lies in. Figure out it’s competitive market and how it’s situated in the context of similar products. Figure out how the users think and feel about it, what narratives they’ve built up around it and if there’s a culture around this product. Figure out how the social mores of different cultures and socioeconomic classes play into differing amounts of acceptance for this product. Figure out how the internal accounting rules work and how that impacts the budgets for various departments. In short, just go exploring.

The choice of product is largely irrelevant, what I think is important is to see the diversity of effort that needs to happen for something to be produced, the complex web of connections that constitutes a modern economy. What’s more, it forces you to step outside of the box of abstractions and deal with real, concrete scenarios in all thier glorious messiness. But focus on one product and one product only so that you achieve another limited, but far more useful form of blindness. Of course, even with the tightest scoping possible, you’re still looking at a lifetime of work so it’s up to you to define you’re own personal stopping criteria but I can say for myself I’m nowhere near to stopping. Each step leads to a new step to explore, it adds another hundred things to my already massive to-understand list. Someday, I’ll assume I’ll stop breathing and that’s the day I’ll stop doing this.

What’s the benifit of this? It’s hard to express to someone who hasn’t already done it. Figuring out the entire process gives you perspective and context. It situates your own tiny role within a larger context. I know a lot of bright, enthusiastic, dedicated people who are leaving school and the thing that most frustrates me about them is that they just don’t *understand*. They’ve been trained within their particular discipline and culture for their entire schooling career and they’ve lost the ability to see the forest for the trees. What’s more, it’s given me a certain peace and groundedness. The modern economy is abstractions piled upon abstractions. There’s something viscerally solid about understanding an entire process. Before doing this, I felt like I was floating in a sea of clouds designed to insulate and protect me. Those clouds were great but there was something insubstantial about the entire thing. Now, with the feeling of at least one foot on secure, stable ground, I feel more confident in pushing my head much further into the clouds and maybe that’s the most important reason of all.

February 13 2009

Easy polarization/Hard polarization

by Hang

Don’t be afraid to polarize people. Most companies want to create the holy grail of products that appeals to every demographic, social-economic background, and geographic location. To attempt to do so guarantees mediocrity.”

- Guy Kawasaki

And I think Guy Kawasaki is absolutely right, choose focus over breadth is absolutely the right approach to take for most startups. That being said, I think there’s also something incredibly dangerous about this sort of view. The problem is, there’s an easy way to be polarizing that doesn’t work and a hard way to be polarizing that does work. They look similar enough from the outside that most people take the easy way and then blame the system for their failure.

By saying you’re only going to appeal to a certain group of people, you give yourself permission and latitude to say no a lot. No, we’re not going to build this feature because the market we’re targeting doesn’t think it’s important. No, we’re not going to change our message because our message appeals to our target market. And, if you disagree, well… you’re not the person we’re going after.

No can be an incredibly powerful tool but it can also be a dangerous one when it shellacs your from criticism. The easy way of being polarizing is to just arbitrarily decide your target market based on what you wish your target market could be and then act all defiant and proud about how polarizing you are.

The right way to be polarizing is to match the freedom to say no with the constraint over when it can be said. You don’t get permission to say no until you are able to say yes. Yes, this is the exact market we are targeting. Yes, we have a deep understanding of how they think, decide and act. Yes, we have a channel through which we are regularly receiving feedback which we take seriously. Unless you can succinctly and explain what your target market is and why they appreciate your product, you’re not being polarizing, you’re just giving yourself permission to swear a lot and draw whales on your website.

January 27 2009

Make it right

by Hang

At some point in your professional career, you will make a mistake and you will do something that ends up causing serious inconvenience or harm to the people you are working for. In these circumstances, I see people default into one of two different attitude, make it right or make it go away.

Making it go away entails doing the least possible to get the person in front of you to stop complaining. Shift the blame, absolve responsibility, offer enough to restore the situation to the status quo.

Making it right entails doing enough that the person in front of you goes away satisfied and this is much more rarely seen.

The first step of making it right is owning up and it goes something like this:

You’re right, I’m sorry, I should have…

Each of these 3 components is essential. The “I should have” is important because it communicates to the other person that you understand the scope of the problem and what needs to be done to fix it. It allows both parties to come to an agreement over the extent of the grievance.

But too many people think that just owning up is enough to make it right. It’s not, owning up is cheap and just owning up by itself is merely an advanced form of making it go away. The next step is to remove the hurt.

You did something wrong, it’s not the end of the world but you did hurt someone. Merely restoring things back to the status quo does not remove the hurt. Instead, you need to transfer the hurt onto your shoulders and show that the consequences for your mistake hurt you more than it hurt them.

If your site had half an hour of downtime, don’t just give people half an hour of credit, give them 2 days of credit. If you make a mistake on your billing, don’t just refund the discrepancy, write off the entire section you billed them for. If you accidentally wipe all of their personal data from your servers, well, you’re pretty screwed, I have no idea what you should do.

The only way to remove the hurt is to show people that you’re equally as motivated as them for the hurt never to happen again. This is the only way you can restore trust in someone that you won’t be making the same mistake again.

This is great, you might be thinking. Making it right sounds like some noble, code of honor type shit which only an idiot would not want to follow. But making it right is also fucking hard as well. It requires an extraordinary level of effort to keep yourself at the standards that are imposed by making it right. I personally think that making it right is important enough to strive towards those standards but understand that it’s not something that can be undertaken lightly.

January 24 2009

My tips for face to face networking

by Hang

A friend of mine recently asked me to put down some of my thoughts on how to more effectively network. Being a natural introvert, networking is not something that’s come easily to me. But after putting some conscious effort into improving my skills, I’m at the point where people are usually quite surprised to discover that I’m an introvert by nature. I’m not an expert on networking by any stretch of the imagination but here’s some tips I’ve gathered over the years:

  • Networking is a technique, not an activity. For too many people, networking feels foreign and forced because they think of networking as a specific activity. The imagine a big group of people who come together to “do networking” and rightfully run away from this image in horror. Networking should never be an activity, it should always be a means to an end rather than an end of itself. You’re always networking in order to achieve something whether it’s to learn background knowledge about an industry, form a contact who you can collaborate with later or trying to recruit someone for a job. Networking is a way to achieve your goals which naturally leads to…
  • Know what you want out of networking. There’s a lot of different things you can get out of networking and there’s a different way of doing it for each goal. At different points in you’re life you will be looking out for different things and you need to adapt your approach to suit. I always keep a rough mental checklist at the back of my head for the types of stuff that I need. For example, a few months ago, I was really interested in swapping concepts and ideas in order to spark a burst of inspiration whereas now, I’m more interested in learning about how I can accelerate my development or opportunities to work with someone. Having that list allows you to direct the conversation to a more productive path.
  • Know your spiel. Your spiel is your way of communicating to other people about who you are. “These are the project I’m working on, this is what I think my job title is, these are some cool things I’ve done in the past, this is what I consider myself an expert on”. After some experience with this, you should be aiming to get the patter down so you can rattle it all off in a smooth fashion. Your spiel is important because it allows other people to know who you are. I’ve been at one time or another been known as “the social networking guy”, “the security guy”, “the identity guy”, “the startup guy” etc. Having an easily attached identity is important because it allows the other person to answer the most important question in their mind:
  • “What can this guy do for me?”. Boiled down, networking is two people coming together so they can both answer this question. Paradoxically, what I believe in is that the best way to answer this question is to flip it around and instead ask “What can I do for you?”*. All the best networkers I’ve ever met were marked by their incredible generosity and the feeling that they genuinely cared about you more than them and that’s what made them great networkings. As a result, I’ve adopted a position where the first question I try to answer when I meet someone is “What is their problem and how can I help them fix it?”. That being said, you only have a certain amount of energy and time and so choose the people you choose to help wisely.
  • Be genuine. People get the impression that networking is this smarmy, insincere post that you need to put on to get ahead. That may be how networking is portrayed in the movies but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Networking is only useful if it’s a genuine effort. You don’t have to enjoy it but you at least have to be sincere about it.
  • The road to the top will be long and hard. A lot of people start out thinking that with the right combination of tricks and diligence, they’ll soon be reaching the inner sanctums in which they will be networking with the true power brokers. Simple mathematics quickly dispels this notion, not everyone can be in the inner sanctum or it wouldn’t be inner anymore. The brutal truth is that you’re only useful to people to the extent that you can provide them value. Networking can help you parley your skills into opportunities but they won’t help a whit unless you do the hard work of developing those skills in the first place.
  • Honor your commitments. If you say you’ll look up something for them, do it. If you say you think you can introduce them to someone, do it. If you tell them you’ll email them, do it. If you don’t think something might be possible, don’t say it is. In any circle small enough to be worth networking into, your reputation will follow you wherever you go so make sure it’s sterling.
  • Always be on. For the serious schmoozers, networking isn’t just a tool, it’s a way of life and it’s integrated into everything they do. If they’re reading the newspaper, they’re thinking about how the news might help one of their friends. If they meet someone at a bar, they’re running their networking stack in the back of their brain. If they’re brushing their teeth… well, they’re probably just brushing their teeth, nobody is that extreme. But there’s a transition point you make from networking being a thing you do to a thing you are and jumping over that gap turns you into a different person. I’m hesitant to say that this is a necessary of even desirable transition but it’s an important one for anyone who’s gone through it.

I don’t put much credence when people say they’re not suited to networking or that it’s not important for them. I think especially for a lot of geeks, there is an almost defensive fear about conscientiously developing the social skills necessary for effective networking as if that diminished their technical credentials in some way. Networking is not some arcane activity or bizarre social ritual, it’s a natural part of human interaction which, like many others, can be greatly improved with some assiduous practice.

* There is a Chinese parable that Hell is to be seated at a giant banquet table filled with all manner of delicious food and yet be unable to taste any of it because each person at the table is equipped only with 6ft long chopsticks. Heaven is the exact same table and the exact same feast, yet everyone is enjoying themselves because they are feeding each other.

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