Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Marketing Communications

I was having coffee with the CEO of a new startup, listening to her puzzle through how to communicate to potential customers. She was an academic on leave from Stanford now selling SAAS software to large companies, but was being inundated with marketing communications advice. “My engineers say our website is old school, and we need to be on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, my VP of Sales says we’re wasting our marketing dollars not targeting the right people and my board keeps giving me their opinions of how we should describe our product and company. How do I sort out what to do?”

She winced as I reminded her that she had gone through the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps. “Painful and invaluable” was her reply. I reminded her that all the Lean tools she learned in class–Customer Discovery, business model and value proposition canvases– contained her answer.

Here’s how.
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Define the Mission of Marketing Communications
Companies often confuse communications tactics (“What should my webpage look like or should I be using Facebook/Instagram/Twitter?”) with a strategy. A communications strategy answers the question, “Why are we doing these activities?” For example, our goal could be:

  1. Create demand for our products and drive it into our sales channel
  2. Create awareness of our company and brand for potential customers
  3. Create awareness for fundraising (VC, angels, corporate partners)
  4. Create awareness for potential acquirers of our company

(Marketing communications is a subset of the Marketing department’s mission. Read the post about mission and intent here.)

Audience(s), Message, Media, Messenger
Once you figure out why you’re creating a communications strategy then you can figure out how to use it. The “how” requires just four steps:

  1. Understand your audience(s)
  2. Craft the message for that specific audience
  3. Select the media you want the message to be read/seen/heard on
  4. Select the messenger you want to carry your message

Step 1: Who’s the Audience(s)?
An audience means – who specifically you want your messages to reach. Is it all the people on earth? Everyone in San Francisco? Potential customers such as gamers who like to play specific types of games? Or people inside companies with a specific title, like product or program managers, CIOs, etc? Venture Capitalists who may want to invest? Other companies that may want to acquire you?

What’s confusing is that often there are multiple audiences you want to communicate with. So, refer to your strategy: Are you trying to reach potential customers or potential investors and acquirers? These are very different audiences, each requires its own messages, media and messengers.

If you’re selling a product to a company, for example, is the audience the user of the product? Her boss? The person who has the budget? The CEO?

How do you figure out who the audience is? It turns out that if you’ve been doing customer discovery and using the value proposition canvas, you know a lot about each customer/ beneficiary. The first step is to put all those value proposition canvases on the wall to remind you that these are the people you need to reach.

How do you figure out which of these customers/beneficiaries is most important? Who’s the least important? If you’ve been out talking to customers, you will have an idea of who’s involved in the buying process. Who’s the user of product? The recommender? The decision maker? The saboteur? As you map out what you learned about the role each of these customers plays in the buying process, marketing communications and sales can decide which one of the customers/beneficiaries is the primary audience of your messages. (And they can decide if there any secondary audiences you should reach.) Often there are multiple people in a sales process worth influencing.

If you’re trying to reach potential acquirers or investors, the customer discovery process is the same. Spend time building value proposition canvases for these audiences.

Step 2: What’s the Message?
Messages are what you delivering to the audience(s) you’ve selected. Messages answer three questions:

  1. Why should the audience care?
  2. What are you offering?
  3. What’s the call to action?

Your customers have already told you how to craft the first part of your message. The answer to “Why should your audience care?” comes directly from the pains and gains on the right side of the value proposition canvas.

And the answer to the second question “What are you offering?” comes from the left side of the value proposition canvas. It’s not just the product feature list, but the pain relievers and gain creators.

Once you get your audience to read your message, then what? What’s the call to action? Do you want them to download a demo, schedule a sales call, visit a physical store location or a website, download an app, click for more information, give you their email address, etc.? Your message needs to include a specific call to action.

Other things to keep in mind about messages:

Message context
A message that is brilliant today and gets the press writing about you and customers begging to buy your product could have been met with blank stares two years ago and may be obsolete next year. In crafting your messages, remember that all messages operate in a context that may have an expiration date. Netbooks, 3DTVs, online classes disrupting higher ed, all had their moment in time. Make sure your context is current and revisit your messages periodically to see if they still work.

Sticky Messages
Messages also need to be memorable – “sticky.” Why? Because the more memorable the message, the greater its ability to create change. Not only do we want people to change their buying behavior, we also want them to change how they think. (This is often a tough concept for engineering founders who believe that if we just tell customers about the features that make their product faster, cheaper, etc. they’ll win.)

Consider that if you were told you were going to pay for cold, dead fish wrapped in seaweed you might not be too hungry. But when we call it sushi people line up.

The same goes for a hamburger. You may eat a lot of them, but if McDonald’s message was “dead cow, slaughtered by the millions, butchered by minimum wage earners, then ground into patties, frozen into solid blocks, and reheated when you order them,” instead of “You deserve a break today,” sales might be a tad lower.

Product versus Company Messages
There is a difference between detailed product messages versus messages about your company. At times, you may have to communicate what the company stands for before a customer is ready to listen to you talk about product messages. For example, to outflank a competitor who had faster products, Intel moved the conversation about microprocessors away from speed and technology to create a valued brand. They created the “Intel Inside” campaign.

Apple was trying to resurrect a then-dying company by reminding people what Apple stood for with their “Think Different” ad campaign

Both Apple and Intel were selling complicated technology but did so by simplifying the message so it had broad emotional appeal. Both Intel Inside and Think Different became sticky corporate messages.

Step 3: Media
Media means the type of communications media each audience member reads/listens to/watches. Is could be print (newspapers/magazine), Internet (website, podcasts, etc.), broadcast (TV, radio, etc.) or social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). In customer discovery, you asked prospects how they get information about new companies and new products. (If not, get back out and do so!) The media your prospective customers told you they use ought to be on top of your target media.

The online media your company controls (your corporate website, company Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) should be the first place you experiment finding your audience(s) and message.

Typically, you pick several media to reach each audience. It’s likely that each audience reads different media (potential customers read something very different than potential investors.) You’ll need a media strategy – a plan that describes the mix of media and how you will use it. This plan should include the category of media; print, internet, broadcast and then identify specific sites, blogs, magazine, etc.

Step 4: Messengers
Messengers are the well-placed and highly leveraged individuals who have influence over your audience(s). Messengers convey and amplify your message to your audience through the media you’ve chosen.

There are four types of messengers: reporters, experts, evangelists and connectors. (Each audience will have its own unique set of messengers.)

Reporters are paid by specific media to write about news. Which reporters you should talk to comes from discovering which media your audience has said they read. Your goal is to identify who are the reporters in the media your audience reads and what they write about, and to figure out why they should write about you. (Wrong answer – because we have a new product. Very wrong answer – because my CEO wants to be on the cover of publication X or Y.)

Experts know your industry or product in detail, and others rely on them for their opinions. Experts may be industry analysts in private research firms (Gartner, NPD, AMR), Wall Street research analysts (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs), consultants who provide advice for your industry or bloggers with wide followings. Experts may even be potential customers who run user groups that other potential customers turn to for advice.

(Today some reporters are experts – product reviewers in the Tech Section of the Wall Street Journal, or the Technology section of the New York Times (or its product review site Wirecutter)).

Evangelists are unabashed cheerleaders and salespeople for your product and, if you are creating a new market, for your company vision. They tell everyone how great the product is and about the unlimited potential of your product and market. While nominally carrying less credibility than experts, evangelists have two advantages: typically, they are paying customers, and they are incredibly enthusiastic about what they say. (Evangelists are not customers who will give a reference. A customer reference is something you have to twist arms to get; an evangelist is someone you can’t get off the phone.)

Connectors are individuals who seem to know everyone. Each industry has a few. They may be bloggers who expound on the general state of your industry and write magazine or newspaper columns. They may be individuals who organize and hold conferences where the key industry thought leaders gather. Often, they themselves are the thought leaders.

Founders ask me all the time whether they should hire a PR agency. I tell them, “The question isn’t if.  The question is when?” Influencing the messengers is what great public relations firms know how to do. They may have their own language describing who the messengers are (e.g., “influencers”) and how they manage them (e.g. “information chain”), but once you’ve done a first pass of the audience > message > media > messenger, a competent PR firm can add tremendous value.

Customer Discovery Never Stops
Understanding your audience(s) is important for not just startups, but for companies already selling products. It helps you stay current with customers, get ideas for other needs to fill and to create new products. In addition, the audience > message > media > messenger cycle seamlessly moves this learning into getting, keeping and growing customers. Today, Marketing Automation tools (customer analytics, SEO, and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms) generate customer behavior history about what messages worked on which media. These tools generate data that companies use to feed AdTech tools (demand-side platforms, ad exchanges and networks) to automate selling and buying of online ads.

Communications as a Force Multiplier

  • Smart CEOs treat communications as a force multiplier for sales, a tool to dramatically increase valuation and the vehicle to get acquirers lined up at the door. Not so successful CEOs treat it as tactic that can be handed to others.
  • Hiring a PR agency too early is a sign that the CEO is treating this as someone else’s problem. In a startup, the first pass of understanding Audience, Message, Media, Messenger can only be done with the founders/CEO engaged.
  • Getting publicity for a product that does not yet exist is how startups get noticed. But don’t fall victim to your own reality distortion field and hype a product that can never be made (think of Tesla versus Theranos.)
  • Figuring out who the possible audiences are, what messages to send, and what media to use, feels overwhelming at first. The temptation is to try to reach all the audiences with a single message and a single media. That’s a going out of business strategy. Use Customer Discovery, and your customers will teach you who they are, what to say to them and how to reach them.

Lessons Learned

  • Marketing Communications = Audience, Message, Media, Messenger
  • Use the Value Proposition Canvas to understand who your audience(s) are
  • Craft messages to match what your audience has already told you
  • Pick the media they said they read
  • Find the right messengers to amplify your message

Herding Cats – Using Lean to Work Together

When Colonel Peter Newell headed up the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) he used lean methods on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to provide immediate technology solutions to urgent problems.

Today, his company BMNT does for government and commercial customers what the Rapid Equipping Force did for the U.S. Army.

Pete and I created the Hacking for Defense class (with Joe Felter and Tom Byers.) One of the problems our students run into is that there are always multiple beneficiaries and stakeholders associated with a problem, often with conflicting value propositions and missions.  So how do you figure out whose needs to satisfy?

Here’s Pete’s view of how you do it.


Unlike businesses, government organizations don’t sell products, and they don’t earn revenue. Instead, they have missions to accomplish and very hard problems to solve.  They use a variant of the Business Model Canvas –  the Mission Model Canvas – to map their hypotheses, and they get of the building to do beneficiary discovery. (A beneficiary can be a soldier, program manager, commanding general, government contractor, stakeholder, customer, etc.)  And just like in a commercial business they are trying to determine whether the value proposition solves the problem and helps the beneficiary accomplish their mission.

Discovery for both business and government is similar in that the only way to do it is to turn assumptions into facts by generating hypotheses, developing Minimum Viable Products and getting out of the building to test those MVP’s in the trenches where the customers and beneficiaries work. Early in the discovery process, teams are faced with a cacophony of personalities and organizations. Often, they struggle with understanding which person or group represents a beneficiary, supporter, advocate or potential key partner. It’s only through repetitive hypothesis testing that they begin to sort them all out.

It’s in the trenches however, where things become different.

Multiple Beneficiaries, Multiple Conflicts
Unlike their commercial counterparts, government problem solvers are often faced with multiple beneficiaries associated with a problem, often with conflicting value propositions. As these differences become apparent, teams must make decisions about the value proposition trade-offs between conflicting beneficiaries – sometimes even pivoting completely in favor of one beneficiary to the detriment of another.

During last year’s Hacking for Defense class at Stanford Team Aqualink experienced the conflicting beneficiaries’ problem.  The result was a significant pivot of both beneficiary and value proposition.

Aqualink started with a problem given to them from the chief medical officer of the Navy SEALS – they had no way to understand chronic long-term health issues divers face. Divers work 60 to 200 feet underwater for 2-4 hours, but Navy doctors currently have no way to monitor divers’ core temperature, maximum dive pressure, blood pressure, pulse and the rebreather (air consumption), or the dive computer (dive profile) data.

Having all this new data would give a diver early warning of hypothermia or the bends. More importantly the data would allow the medical director to individually assess the short and long-term health of each diver. And medical researchers would have access to detailed physiological data. The medical director tasked the team with building a wearable sensor system and developing apps that would allow divers to monitor their own physiological conditions while underwater and to download it for later analysis.

In the first week of the class this team got out of the building, suited up in full Navy diving gear and did customer discovery by spending an hour in the life of the beneficiary.

But as the students on the Aqualink team spoke to the SEAL team divers, (another one of their beneficiaries), they experienced an existential crisis. Most of the divers were “ambivalent” (read hostile) about the introduction of a vitals monitoring platform, (“If you gave to us at 0900, it would end up on the bottom of the ocean by 0905.”) Having worked so hard to get into the SEALS, no diver wanted doctors telling them they could no longer dive.

After further questioning, the team discovered the reason the divers were spending so much time underwater – they often did not know where they were. To find out, they had to get a GPS fix. This meant their minisub (called the SEAL Delivery Vehicle) had to rise to within 6 feet of the ocean surface so the GPS antenna could broach the surface. And to do so they had to surface slowly to avoid giving the divers the bends.

The divers told our student team, “Screw the health sensors. Build us a GPS sensor that can be deployed from 100 feet underwater.”

Now the team had a dilemma. They would have to decide which beneficiary to focus on – the SEAL Team medical director, who was the sponsor of their problem, or the operators of the delivery vehicle and divers within SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One, along with their immediate chains of command in SDVT-1 and Naval Special Warfare Group 3.

When they went back to the medical director with their findings, he was surprised as they were.  “Never knew that’s why they spent all that time down there.  Heck, yes, fix their problem first.”

Understanding the Problem Context and Problem Ecosystem
As Aqualink shows, getting out of the building – interviewing the beneficiaries, drawing their workflows and mapping a day-in -their-life – will give you a more complete picture of the context in which a proposed problem exists. Talking to multiple beneficiaries will lead to better understanding of the entire ecosystem of the problem. Often this will show that the problem you have been given is merely a symptom of a larger problem, or is the result of a different problem.

The solution is to:

  1. Cross check the results of your discovery between different beneficiaries. Often, you’ll find that they seldom have a complete understanding of one another’s workflows and pain points but instead are championing the solution to a mere symptom of a different problem.
  2. Share what you learned in discovery among the different beneficiaries. This will arm you with the tools needed to get them (or their leadership) to agree on the right problem that needs to be solved first. In many cases this will lead to your first pivot!

The goal is to sort out who has a value proposition that must be addressed first.

The power of beneficiaries helping one another
While discovery with multiple beneficiaries can be confusing and exhausting, there is immense power when all the beneficiaries work together. Therefore, the goal of customer discovery is not just to understand the pains and gains of individual beneficiaries, but to find a shared purpose between all of them.

Once they understand they share the same goal, they can solve pain points or create gains for each other using the resources they already control. A “shared” sense of purpose is a very powerful step in the pathway towards a deployable solution.

When the Department of Energy asked BMNT to build a training program for getting veterans into advanced manufacturing jobs, we saw the power of a shared purpose between multiple beneficiaries first hand.

The problem we were asked to solve is that of the 10,000 veterans who leave military service every month, many remain unemployed or underemployed, yet at the same time the number of unfilled advanced manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is expected to climb to over a million by 2020. From a business perspective, obtaining technically qualified talent is among the top constraints to growth in the US.

Seems like it would be a match made in heaven, right?  Not so fast…

While we initially thought the beneficiaries of the effort were the veterans, we quickly discovered there were other beneficiaries in advanced manufacturing. We found these additional beneficiaries had different pains and gains which in turn required different value propositions to solve their problems.

Our customer discovery taught us that there were three additional beneficiaries:

  • Universities needed to grow their enrollments. Our discovery showed us universities were willing to create programming for Advanced Manufacturing, but first needed to see a business case for how it would increase their enrollment to make it a worthwhile effort.
  • Industry needed to attract and hire qualified employees. We learned that technically qualified employees within industry were in such demand that the number one way to get qualified employees was to pilfer them from others.
  • Government Agencies needed to help their communities build skilled labor pools to attract new industries.

And we learned that our initial beneficiary, veterans leaving service, didn’t need internships or low-paying jobs, but needed jobs that paid enough to support their families.

We found each of these beneficiaries had a shared purpose. And each of them had a value proposition that would create a gain or relieve a pain point for another beneficiary. These were big ideas.

We found that as these overlapping value propositions emerged, we used the results to get the beneficiaries to come together in a workshop designed to jointly create a shared minimum viable product that they could then use to test within their own organizations.

Bringing the groups together in a workshop also served to align value propositions between beneficiaries by demonstrating that there was a way to create a single program that served all their needs. And we created an environment that allowed each beneficiary to discover that the other beneficiaries were partners they could work with in the future.

What was the impact of bringing the beneficiaries together in a workshop and creating this beneficiary ecosystem for advanced manufacturing?

Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) created a veterans’ jobs program. They teamed with a local college to create internships that allowed veterans to work during the summer.  In turn, the local college created additional advanced manufacturing classes to meet LLNL’s technical needs and the regional workforce investment board provided funding.

In Fort Riley, the Army base in Kansas, the military teamed with Kansas State University to create an advanced manufacturing program. Kansas State created a series of advanced manufacturing classes. Soldiers leaving the service can take these courses at a nearby campus beginning up to six months before they leave service.

An unexpected consequence is that today there are soldiers from Fort Riley using advanced manufacturing processes to create parts for vehicles and equipment at the Army base.

Lessons learned

  • Government problem solvers will often be faced with multiple beneficiaries with different value propositions. Share what you learn from different beneficiaries with each other to sort out which has a value proposition that must be addressed first.
  • The benefit of having multiple beneficiaries is that their strengths can be used to help one another create gains and relieve pains for one another. Creating a shared sense of empowerment from working together smooths the pathway towards scaling the right solution.

Why Some Startups Win

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?

I was having a second coffee with an ex student, now the head of a marketing inside a rapidly growing startup.  His company had marched through customer discovery, learning about the customer problem, validated solutions and was now scaling sales and marketing.  All good news.

But he was getting uneasy that as his headcount was growing the productivity of his marketing department seemed to be rapidly declining.

I wasn’t surprised. When organizations are small (startups, small teams in companies and government agencies) early employees share a mission (why they come to work, what they need to do while they are at work, and how they will know they have succeeded). But as these organizations grow large, what was once a shared mission and intent gets buried under HR process and Key Performance Indicators.

I told him that I had learned long ago that to keep that from happening, you need to on-board/train your team about mission and intent.

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Why Do You Work Here?
I had taken the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy. We’d managed to secure another infusion of cash, but it wasn’t going to last long.

During my first week on the job, I asked each of my department heads what they did for marketing and the company. When I asked our trade show manager, she looked surprised and said, “Steve, don’t you know that my job is to take our booth to trade shows and set it up?” The other departments gave the same type of logistical answers; the product-marketing department, for example, said their job was to get the product specs from engineering and write data sheets. But my favorite was when the public relations manager told me, “We’re here to summarize the data sheets and put them in press releases and then answer the phone in case the press calls.”

If these sound like reasonable answers to you, and you are in a startup, update your resume.

Titles Are Not Your Job
When I pressed my staff to explain why marketing did trade shows or wrote press releases or penned data sheets, the best response I could get was, “Why that’s our job.” In their heads their titles were a link back to a Human Resources job spec that came from a 10,000-person company (ie. listing duties and responsibilities, skills and competencies, reporting relationships…)

It dawned on me that we had a department full of people with titles describing process-centric execution while we were in environment that required relentless agility and speed with urgency. While their titles might be what their business cards said, titles were not their job – and being a slave to process lost the sight of the forest for the trees.  This was the last thing we needed in a company where every day could be our last.

Titles in a startup are not the same as what your job is. This is a big idea.

Department Mission Statements – What am I Supposed to Do Today?
It wasn’t that I had somehow inherited dumb employees. What I was hearing was a failure of management.

No one had on-boarded these people. No one had differentiated a startup job description from a large company job. They were all doing what they thought they were supposed to.

But most importantly, no one had sat the marketing department down and defined our department Mission (with a capital “M”).

Most startups put together a corporate mission statement because the CEO remembered seeing one at his last job or the investors said they needed one. Most companies spend an inordinate amount of time crafting a finely honed corporate mission statement for external consumption and then do nothing internally to make it happen. What I’m about to describe here is quite different.

What our marketing department was missing was anything that gave the marketing staff daily guidance about what they should be doing. The first reaction from my CEO was, “That’s why you’re running the department.” And yes, we could have built a top-down, command-and-control hierarchy. But what I wanted was an agile marketing team capable of operating independently without day-to-day direction.

We needed to craft a Departmental Mission statement that told everyone why they came to work, what they needed to do while they were at work, and how they would know they had succeeded. And it was going to mention the two words that marketing needed to live and breathe: revenue and profit.

Five Easy Pieces – The Marketing Mission
After a few months of talking to customers and working with sales, we defined the marketing Mission (our job) as:

Help Sales deliver $25 million in sales with a 45% gross margin. To do that we will create end-user demand and drive it into the sales channel, educate the channel and customers about why our products are superior, and help Engineering understand customer needs and desires. We will accomplish this through demand-creation activities (advertising, PR, tradeshows, seminars, web sites, etc.), competitive analyses, channel and customer collateral (white papers, data sheets, product reviews), customer surveys, and customer discovery findings.

This year, marketing needs to provide sales with 40,000 active and accepted leads, company and product name recognition over 65% in our target market, and five positive product reviews per quarter. We will reach 35% market share in year one of sales with a headcount of twenty people, spending less than $4,000,000.

  • Generate end-user demand (to match our revenue goals)
  • Drive that demand into our sales channels
  • Value price our products to achieve our revenue and margin goals (create high-value)
  • Educate our sales channel(s)
  • Help Engineering understand customer needs

That was it. Two paragraphs, Five bullets. It didn’t take more.

Building a Mission-focused Team
Having the mission in place meant that our team could see that what mattered wasn’t what was on their business card, but how much closer their work moved our department to completing the mission. Period.
It wasn’t an easy concept for everyone to understand.

My new Director of Marketing Communications turned the Marcom departments into a mission-focused organization. Her new tradeshow manager quickly came to understand that his job was not to set up booths. We hired union laborers to do that. A trade show was where our company went to create awareness and/or leads. And if you ran the tradeshow department, you owned the responsibility for awareness and leads. The booth was incidental. I couldn’t care less if we had a booth or not if we could generate the same amount of leads and awareness by skydiving naked into a coffee cup.

The same was true for PR. My new head of Public Relations quickly learned that my admin could answer calls from the press. The job of Public Relations wasn’t a passive “write a press release and wait for something to happen” activity. It wasn’t measured by how busy you were, it was measured by results. And the results weren’t the traditional PR metrics of number of articles or inches of ink. I couldn’t care less about those. I wanted our PR department to map the sales process, figure out where getting awareness and interest could be done with PR, then get close and personal with the press and use it to generate end-user demand and then drive that demand into our sales channel. We were constantly doing internal and external audits and creating metrics to see the effects of different PR messages, channels and audiences on customer awareness, purchase intent and end-user sales.

The same was true for the Product Marketing group. I hired a Director of Product Marketing who in his last company had ran its marketing and then went out into the field and became its national sales director. He got the job when I asked him how much of his own marketing material his sales team actually used in the field. When he said, “about ten percent,” I knew by the embarrassed look on his face I had found the right guy. And our Director of Technical Marketing was superb at understanding customer needs and communicating them to Engineering.

Mission Intent – What’s Really Important
With a great team in place, the next step was recognizing that our Mission statement might change on the fly. “Hey, we just all bought into this Mission idea and now you’re telling us it can change?!”  (The mission might change if we pivot, competitors might announce new products, we might learn something new about our customers, etc.)

So we introduced the notion of Mission Intent. Intent answered the question, “What is the company thinking and goal behind the mission?” In our case, the mission of the company was to sell $25 million of product with 45% gross margin. The idea of teaching intention is that if employees understand what we intended  behind the mission, they can work collaboratively to achieve it.

We recognized that there would be a time marketing would screw up or something out of our control would happen, making the marketing mission obsolete (i.e. we might fail to deliver 40,000 leads.) Think of intention as the answer to the adage, “When you are up to your neck in alligators it’s hard to remember you were supposed to drain the swamp.” For example, our mission intent said that the reason why marketing needed to deliver 40,000 leads and 35% market share, etc., was so that Sales could sell $25 million of products at 45% gross margin.

What we taught everyone is that the intention is more enduring than the mission. (“Let’s see, the company is trying to sell $25 million in product with 45% gross margin. If marketing can’t deliver the 40,000 leads, what else can we do for sales to still achieve our revenue and profitability?”) The mission was our goal, but based on circumstances, it might change. However, the Intent was immovable.

When faced with the time pressures of a startup, too many demands and too few people, we began to teach our staff to refer back to the five Mission goals and the Intent of the department. When stuff started piling up on their desks, they learned to ask themselves, “Is what I’m working on furthering these goals? If so, which one? If not, why am I doing it?”

They understood the mission intent was our corporate revenue and profit goals.

Why Do It
By the end of the first year, our team had jelled. (Over time, we added the No Excuses culture to solve accountability.) It was a department willing to exercise initiative, with the judgment to act wisely and an eagerness to accept responsibility.

I remember at the end of a hard week my direct reports came into my office just to talk about the week’s little victories. And there was a moment as they shared their stories when they all began to realize that our company (one that had just come off of life support) was beginning to kick the rear of our better-funded and bigger competitors.  We all marveled in the moment.


Lessons Learned

  • Push independent execution of tasks down to the lowest possible level
  • Give everyone a shared Mission Statement: why they come to work, what they need to do, and how they will know they have succeeded.
  • Share Mission Intent for the big picture for the Mission Statement
  • Build a team comfortable with independent Mission execution
  • Add a No Excuses Culture
  • Agree on Core Values to define your culture

The No Excuses Culture

Getting ready for our next semester’s class, I asked my Teaching Assistant why I hadn’t seen the posters for our new class around campus.  Hearing the litany of excuses that followed –“It was raining.” (The posters go inside the building.)  “We still have time.” (We had agreed they were to go up a week ago) — I had a strong sense of déjà vu. When I took the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy, excuses seemed to be our main product.  So we created The No Excuses Culture.

No Excuses as a Core Value  
In addition to customer discovery, creating end user demand, and product strategy, Marketing also serves as a service organization to sales.  It drove me crazy when we failed to deliver a project for sales on time or we missed a media deadline. And I quickly realized that whenever there was a failure to deliver on time, everyone in my Marketing department had an excuse. Making excuses instead of producing timely deliverables meant we were failing as an organization. We weren’t supporting the mission of the company (generate revenue and profit), and the lack of honesty diminished our credibility, and our integrity.

I realized that this was a broken part of our culture, but couldn’t figure out why. Then one day it hit me.  When deadlines slipped, there were no consequences – no consequences to my direct reports when they failed to deliver on time, no consequences to the people who reported to them – and no consequences to our vendors.

And with no consequences our entire department acted as if schedules and commitments didn’t matter. I heard a constant refrain of, “The sales channel brochure was late because the vendor got busy so they couldn’t meet the original deadline.” Or “the January ad had to be moved into February because my graphic artist was sick, but I didn’t tell you because I assumed it was OK.” Or, “We’re going to slip our product launch because the team thought they couldn’t get ready in time.” I had inherited a department with a culture that turned commitments into vague aspirations.  We had no accountability.

I realized that for us to build a high-performance marketing organization that drove the company, this had to change. I wanted a department that could be counted on to deliver. One day I put up a sign on my door that said, “No excuses accepted.” And I let everyone in the marketing department know what I meant was, “We were all going to be ‘accountable’.”

I didn’t mean “deliver or else.”

By accountable I meant, “We agreed on a delivery date, and between now and the delivery date, it’s OK if you ask for help because you’re stuck, or something happened outside of your control. But do not walk into my office the day something is due and give me an excuse. It will cost you your job.” That kind of accountable.

And, “Since I won’t accept those kind of excuses, you are no longer authorized to accept them from your staff or vendors either.  You need to tell your staff and vendors that it’s OK to ask for help if they are stuck.  But you also need to let everyone in your department know that from now on showing up with an excuse the day the project is due will cost them their job.”

The goal wasn’t inflexible dates and deadlines, it was to build a culture of no surprises and collective problem solving.

I don’t want to make implementing this sound easy. Asking for help, and/or saying you were stuck created cognitive dissonance for many people. Even as we publicly applauded those who asked for help, some just couldn’t bring themselves to admit they needed help until the day the project was due.  Others went in the other direction and thought collective problem solving meant they could come into my office, and say they “had a problem” and think I was going to solve it for them without first trying to solve it themselves. As we worked hard on making “no excuses” part of our culture some couldn’t adapt. A few became ex-employees. But the rest felt empowered and responsible.

Everything is “priority one”
One other thing needed to be fixed before we could implement “no excuses.”  I realized that my groups inside of marketing had become dumping grounds for projects from both inside and outside of marketing – with everything being “priority one.”  There was no way for us to say, “We can’t take that project on.” And yet, simply accepting anything anyone wanted Marketing to provide was unsustainable.

We quickly put in a capacity/priority planning process. Each marketing group, (product marketing, marcom, trade shows, etc.) calculated their number of available man-hours and budget dollars. Then every week each department stack-ranked the priority of the projects on their plate and estimated the amount of time and budget for each. If someone inside of marketing wanted to add a new project, we needed to figure out which existing one(s) on the list we were going to defer or kill to accommodate it. If someone outside of marketing wanted to add a new project before we had the resources, we made them decide which of their current projects they wanted to defer/kill.  If we didn’t have the resources to support them, we helped them find resources outside the company. And finally, each of the projects we did accept had to align with the overall mission of the company and our department.

Over time, accountability, execution, honesty and integrity became the cornerstones of our communication with each other, other departments and vendors.

We became known as a high-performance organization as we delivered what said we would – on time and on budget.

Lesson Learned

  • No excuses for failures given, just facts and requests for help
  • No excuses for failures accepted, just facts, and offers to help
  • Relentless execution
  • Individual honesty and integrity

That was it. Four bullets. It defined our culture.

Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy

When you’re up to your neck in alligators, don’t forget the goal was to drain the swamp.

I love teaching because I learn something new every class.

This time it was, “Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy.”


The latest “aha” moment for me when I was at Columbia University teaching an intensive 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class.  The goal of the class is to expose students to the basics of the Lean MethodologyBusiness Model Design, Customer Development and Agile Engineering.

In this short version of the class, students (in teams of four) spend half their day out of the classroom testing their hypotheses by talking to customers and building minimum viable products.  The teams come back into the class and present what they found, and then they get out and talk to more customers.  Repeat for 5 days.  All teams talk to at least 50 customers/ partners/ stakeholders, and some manage to reach more than 100.

One of the teams wanted to create a new woman’s clothing brand. The good news is that they were passionate, smart and committed.  The not so good news is that other than having been customers, none of them had ever been in the fashion business. But hey, no problem.  They had the Lean Startup model to follow. They could figure it out by simply talking to customers and stores that carry unique fashion brands.  How hard can this be?!

2_8_maraBy the second day the team appeared to be making lots of progress –  they had talked to many women about their clothing line, and had marched up and down NY stores talking to buyers in clothing boutiques.  They built detailed value proposition canvases for each customer segment (young urban professional woman, students, etc.) –  trying to match customer pains, gains and jobs to be done with their value proposition (their new clothing line.) They were busily testing their hypotheses about customer segments and value proposition, seeing if they could find product/market fit.

In listening to them it dawned on me that I had fallen victim to teaching process rather than helping the teams gain insight. I asked them to remind the class what business they were in.  “We’re creating a clothing fashion brand,” was the reply.  I asked, “And how much fashion brand expertise do you have as a team?” “None, we’re using customer discovery to quickly acquire it.”  On the surface, it sounded like a good answer.

But then I asked, “Has anyone on your team asked if any of your 120 classmates are in the apparel/fashion business?”  After a moment of reflection they did just that, and eight of their classmates raised their hands. I asked, “Do you think you might want to do customer discovery first on the domain experts in your own class?”  A small lightbulb appeared over their heads.

A day later, after interviewing their classmates, the team discovered that when creating a woman’s clothing brand, the clothing itself has less to do with success than the brand does. And the one critical element in creating a brand is getting written about by a small group (less than 10) of “brand influencers” (reviewers, editors, etc.) in fashion magazines and blogs.

fashion-brandWhoah… the big insight was that how you initially “get” these key influencers – not customers or stores – is the critical part of creating a clothing fashion brand. This meant understanding these influencers was more important than anything else on the business model canvas. The team immediately added brand influencers to their business model canvas, created a separate value proposition canvas for them and started setting up customer discovery interviews.
The lessons?

  • This team was entering an existing market. (The team had already drawn the Petal Diagram mapping the competitive landscape.)petal-and-canvas
  • In an existing market there is a track record for how new entrants create a brand, get traction and scale. Many of the key insights about the business model and value proposition canvases are already known.
  • In an existing market, going through customer discovery (talking to customers, buyers, distribution channel, etc.) without first asking, “Are there any insights that can be gained by understanding the incumbent strategies, can be a trap for the unwary.”

Ironically, when I was entrepreneur I knew and practiced this. When I started a new venture in existing markets I would spend part of my initial customer discovery attending conferences, reading analysts’ reports and talking to domain experts to understand current market entry strategies. (None of this obligated me to follow the path of other companies. At times I took this information and created a different strategy to disrupt the incumbents.) But as an educator I was getting trapped in teaching the process not the strategy.

The fashion brand team’s experience was a great wake-up call.

From now on my first question to startups in an existing market is: “Tell me the critical success factors of the existing incumbents.”

Lessons Learned

  • In an existing market, draw a Petal Diagram with adjacent companies
  • Focus part of your initial customer discovery on learning competitive insights.
  • Describe how those companies entered the market. What was critical?

 

Hacking for Defense Goes National

Our goal was to scale Hacking for Defense classes across the US – giving students the opportunity to perform national service by solving real defense/diplomacy problems using Lean Methods. In exchange our government sponsors benefit from 1) access to talent that most likely would never have served the country, 2) getting solutions as minimum viable products/prototypes in 10 weeks, 3) exposure to a problem solving methodology used in Silicon Valley and battle tested in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week we are doing what we said we’ll do – scale the class nationally:

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None of this would be possible without Pete Newell and Joe Felter and the entire team at BMNT and the extraordinary teaching team at each of these universities.

This week I’m in Washington co-teaching the 2nd Hacking for Defense Educators and Sponsor class.  More universities coming to the program, more government sponsors sharing problems, more variants being taught in 2017 (Diplomacy, Impact/Development, Space, Cities, Hollywood, etc.)

Innovation – something both parties can agree on

icorps-logoOn the last day Congress was in session in 2016, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a bill that increased innovation and research for the country.

For me, seeing Congress pass this bill, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, was personally satisfying. It made the program I helped start, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) a permanent part of the nation’s science ecosystem. I-Corps uses Lean Startup methods to teach scientists how to turn their discoveries into entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses.  I-Corps bridges the gap between public support of basic science and private capital funding of new commercial ventures. It’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right. Over 1,000 teams of our nation’s best scientists have been through the program.

The bill directs the expansion of I-Corps to additional federal agencies and academic institutions, as well as through state and local governments.  The new I-Corps authority also supports prototype or proof-of-concept development activities, which will better enable researchers to commercialize their innovations. The bill also explicitly says that turning federal research into companies is a national goal to promote economic growth and benefit society. For the first time, Congress has recognized the importance of government-funded entrepreneurship and commercialization education, training, and mentoring programs specifically saying that this will improve the nation’s competitiveness. And finally this bill acknowledges that networks of entrepreneurs and mentors are critical in getting technologies translated from the lab to the marketplace.

uncle-sam-2This bipartisan legislation was crafted by senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI). Senator John Thune (R–SD) chairs the Senate commerce and science committee that crafted S. 3084. After years of contention over reauthorizing the National Science Foundation, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson worked to negotiate the agreement that enabled both the House and the Senate to pass this bill.

While I was developing the class at Stanford, it was my counterparts at the NSF who had the vision to make the class a national program.  Thanks to Errol Arkilic, Don Millard, Babu Dasgupta, Anita LaSalle (as well as current program leaders Lydia McClure, Steven Konsek) and the over 100 instructors at the 53 universities who teach the program across the U.S.

NSF I-Corps Oct 2011But I haven’t forgotten that before everyone else thought that teaching scientists how to build companies using Lean Methods might be a good for the country, there was one congressman who got it first.  lipinskiIN 2012, Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Il), co-chair of the House STEM Education Caucus, got on an airplane and flew to Stanford to see the class first-hand.

For the first few years Lipinski was a lonely voice in Congress saying that we’ve found a better way to train our scientists to create companies and jobs.

This bill is a reauthorization of the 2010 America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, which set out policies that govern the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and federal programs on innovation, manufacturing, and science and math education. Reauthorization bills don’t fund an agency, but they provide policy guidance.  It resolved partisan differences over how NSF should conduct peer review and manage research.

I-Corps is the  accelerator that helps scientists bridge the commercialization gap between their research in their labs and wide-scale commercial adoption and use.

Why This Matters
While a few of the I-Corps teams are in web/mobile/cloud, most are working on advanced technology projects that don’t make TechCrunch. You’re more likely to see their papers (in material science, robotics, diagnostics, medical devices, computer hardware, etc.) in Science or Nature.

I-Corps uses everything we know about building Lean Startups and Evidence-based Entrepreneurship to connect innovation to entrepreneurship. It’s curriculum is built on a framework of business model design, customer development and agile engineering – and its emphasis on evidence, Lessons Learned versus demos, makes it the worlds most advanced accelerator. It’s success is measured not only by the technologies that leave the labs, but how many U.S. scientists and engineers we train as entrepreneurs and how many of them pass on their knowledge to students. I-Corps is our secret weapon to integrate American innovation and entrepreneurship into every U.S. university lab.

Every time I go to Washington and spend time at the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health I’m reminded why the U.S. leads the world in support of basic and applied science.  It’s not just the money we pour into these programs (~$125 billion/year), but the people who have dedicated themselves to make the world a better place by advancing science and technology for the common good.

Congratulations to everyone in making the Innovation Corps a national standard.

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