The Innovation Stack: How to make innovation programs deliver more than coffee cups

Is your organization full of Hackathons, Shark Tanks, Incubators and other innovation programs, but none have changed the trajectory of your company/agency?

Over the last few years Pete Newell and I have helped build innovation programs inside large companies, across the U.S. federal science agencies and in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community. But it is only recently that we realized why some programs succeed and others are failing.

After doing deep dives in multiple organizations we now understand why individual innovators are frustrated, and why entrepreneurial success requires heroics. We also can explain why innovation activities have generated innovation theater, but few deliverables. And we can explain why innovation in large organizations looks nothing like startups. Most importantly we now have a better idea of how to build innovation programs that will deliver products and services, not just demos.

It starts by understanding the “Innovation Stack” – the hierarchy of innovation efforts that have emerged in large organizations. The stack consists of: Individual Innovation, Innovation Tools and Activities, Team-based Innovation and Operational Innovation.

Individual Innovation
The pursuit of innovation inside large companies/agencies is not a 21st-century invention. Ever since companies existed, there have been passionate individuals who saw that something new, unplanned and unscheduled was possible. And pushing against the status quo of existing process, procedure and plan, they went about building a demo/prototype, and through heroic efforts succeeded in getting a new innovation over the goal line – by shipping/deploying a new innovation.

We describe their efforts as “heroic” because all the established procedures and processes in a large company are primarily designed to execute and support the current business model. From the point of view of someone managing an engineering, manufacturing or operations organization, new, unplanned and unscheduled innovations are a distraction and a drag on existing resources. (The best description I’ve heard is that, “Unfettered innovation is a denial of service attack on core capabilities.”) That’s because until now, we hadn’t levied any requirements, rigor or evidence on the innovator to understand what it would take to integrate, scale and deploy products/services.

Finally, most corporate/agency innovation processes funnel “innovations” into “demo days” or “shark tanks” where they face an approval/funding committee that decides which innovation ideas are worth pursuing. However, without any measurable milestones to show evidence of the evolution of what the team has learned about validity of the problem, customer needs, pivots, etc., the best presenter and flashiest demo usually win.

In some companies and government agencies, innovators even have informal groups, i.e. an Innovators Alliance, where they can exchange best practices and workarounds to the system. (Think of this as the innovator’s support group.) But these innovation activities are ad hoc, and the innovators lack authority, resources and formal process to make innovation programs an integral part of their departments or agencies.

Innovators vs. Entrepreneurs
There are two types of people who engage in large company/agency innovation: Innovators – those who invent new technology, product, service or processes; and Entrepreneurs – those who’ve figured out how to get innovation adopted and delivered through the existing company/agency procedures and processes. Although some individuals operate as both innovator and entrepreneur, any successful innovation program requires an individual or a team with at least these two skill sets. (More detail can be found here.)

Innovation Tools and Activities
Over the last decade, innovators have realized that they needed tools and activities different from traditional project management tools used for new versions of existing products/customers.They have passionately embraced innovation tools and activities that for the first time help individual innovators figure out what to build, who to build it for and how to create effective prototypes and demos.

Some examples of innovation tools are Customer Development, Design Thinking, User-Centric Design, Business Model Canvas, Storytelling, etc. Companies/agencies have also co-opted innovation activities developed for startups such as Hackathons, Incubators, internal Kickstarters, as well as Open Innovation programs and Maker Spaces that give individual innovators a physical space and dedicated time to build prototypes and demos. In addition, companies and agencies have set up Innovation Outposts (most often located in Silicon Valley) to be closer to relevant technology and then to invest, partner or buy.

These activities make sense in a startup ecosystem (where 100% of the company is focused on innovation,) however they generate disappointing results inside companies/agencies (when 98% of the organization is focused on executing the existing business/mission model.) While these tools and activities educated innovators and generated demos and prototypes, they lacked an end-to-end process that focused on delivery/deployment. So it should be no surprise that very few contributed to the company’s top or bottom line (or an agency’s mission).

One of the ironies of the tools/activities groups is rather than talking about the results of using the tools – i.e. the ability to rapidly deliver new products/services that are wanted and needed – their passion has them evangelizing the features of the tools and activities. This means that senior leadership has pigeonholed most of these groups as extensions of corporate training departments and skeptics view this as the “latest fad.”

Team-based Innovation
Rather than just teaching innovators how to use new tools or having them build demos, we recognized that there was a need for a process that taught all the components of a business/mission model (who are the customers, what product/service solves their problem, how do we get it to them, support it, etc.) The next step in entrepreneurial education was to teach teams a formal innovation process for how to gather evidence that lets them test if their idea is feasible, desirable and viable. Examples of team-based innovation programs are the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps @ NSF), for the Intelligence Community I‑Corps@ NSA, and for the Department of Defense, Hacking for Defense (H4D).

In contrast to single-purpose activities like Incubators, Hackathons, Kickstarters, etc., these curricula teach what it takes to turn an idea into a deliverable product/service by using the scientific method of hypothesis testing and experimentation outside the building. This process emphasizes rapid learning cycles with speed, urgency, accepting failure as learning, and innovation metrics.

Teams talk to 100+ beneficiaries and stakeholders while building minimal viable products to maximize learning and discovery. They leave the program with a deep understanding of all the obstacles and resources needed to deliver/deploy a product.

The good news – I-Corps, Hacking for Defense and other innovation programs that focus on training single teams have raised the innovation bar. These programs have taught thousands of teams of federally funded scientists as well as innovators in corporations, the Department of Defense and intelligence community. However, over time we’ve seen teams that completed these programs run into scaling challenges. Even with great evidence-based minimal viable products (prototypes), teams struggled to get these innovations deployed at scale and in the field. Or a team that achieved product-market fit building a non-standard architecture could find no way to maintain it at scale within the parent organization.

Upon reflection we identified two root causes. The first is a lack of connection between innovation teams and their parent organization. Teams form/and are taught outside of their parent organization because innovation is disconnected from other activities. This meant that when teams went back to their home organization, they found that execution of existing priorities took precedence. They returned speaking a foreign language (What’s a pivot? Minimum viable what?) to their colleagues and bosses who are rewarded on execution-based metrics. Further, as budgets are planned out years in advance, their organization had no slack for “good ideas.” As a result, there was no way to finish and deploy whatever innovative prototypes the innovators had developed – even ones that have been validated.

The second root cause emerged because neither the innovator’s teams nor their organizations had the mandate, budget or people to build an end-to-end innovation pipeline process, one that started with innovation sourcing funnel (both internal and external sources) all the way to integrating their prototypes into mainstream engineering production. (see below and this HBR article on the innovation pipeline.)

Operational Innovation
As organizations have moved from – individual innovators working alone, to adopting innovation tools and activities, to teaching teams about evidence-based innovation – our most important realization has been this: Having skills/tools and activities are critical building blocks but by themselves are insufficient to build a program that delivers results that matter to leadership.  It’s only when senior leaders see how an innovation process can deliver stuff that matters – at speed—that they take action to change the processes and procedures that get in the way.

We believe that the next big step is to get teams and leaders to think about the innovation process from end-to-end – that is to visualize the entire flow of how and from where an idea is generated (the source) all the way to deployment (how it gets into users’ hands). So, we’ve drawn a canonical innovation pipeline. (The HBR article here describes it in detail.) For context, in the figure below, the I-Corps program described earlier is the box labeled “Solution Exploration/Hypotheses Testing.” We’ve surrounded that process with all the parts necessary to build and deliver products and services at speed and at scale.

Second, we’ve realized that while individual initiatives won “awards,” and Incubators and Hackathons got coffee cups and posters, senior leadership sat up and took notice when operating groups transformed how they work in the service of a critical product or mission. When teams in operating groups adopted the innovation pipeline, it made an immediate impact on delivering products/services at speed.

An operating group can be a corporate profit and loss center or anything that affects revenue, profit, users, market share, etc. In a government agency it can be something that allows a group to execute mission more effectively or in a new disruptive way. Operating groups have visibility, credibility and most importantly direct relevance to mission.

Where are these groups? In every large company or agency there are groups solving operational problems that realize “they can’t go on like this” and/or “we need to do a lot more stuff” and/or “something changed, and we rapidly need to find new ways to do business.” These groups are ready to try something new. Most importantly we learned that “the something new” is emphatically not more tools or activities (design thinking, user-centric design, storytelling, hackathons, incubators, etc.) Because these groups want an end-to-end solution, the innovation pipeline resonates with the “do’ers” who lead these groups.

(One example of moving up the Innovation Stack is that the NSA I-Corps team has recently shifted their focus from working with individual teams to helping organizations deploy the methodology at scale.  In true lean startup fashion, they are actively testing a number of approaches with a variety of internal organizations ranging in size from 40 to 1000+ people.)

However, without a mandate for actually delivering innovation from senior leadership, scaling innovation across the company/agency means finding one group at a time – until you reach a tipping point of recognition. That’s when leadership starts to pay attention. Our experience to date is that 25- to 150-person groups run by internal entrepreneurs with budget and authority to solve critical problems are the right place to start to implement this. Finding these people in large companies/agencies is a repeatable process. It requires patient and persistent customer discovery inside your company/agency to find these groups and deeply understand their pains/gains and jobs to be done.

Lessons Learned

  • Companies/agencies have adapted and adopted startup innovation tools
    • Lean, Design Thinking, User-centric Design, Business Model Canvas, etc.
  • As well as startup activities and team-based innovation 
    • Hackathons, Incubators, Kickstarters, I-Corps, FastWorks, etc.
  • Because they are disconnected from the mainstream business/mission model very few have been able to scale past a demo/prototype
  • Use the Innovation Stack and start working directly with operating groups
    • Find those who realize “they can’t go on like this” and/or “we need to do a lot more stuff” and/or “something changed, and we rapidly need to find new ways to do business”
  • You’ll deliver stuff that matters instead of coffee cups

The State of Entrepreneurship

Co-founder magazine just interviewed me about the current state of entrepreneurship – in startups and large companies – and how we got here. I thought they did a good job of capturing my thoughts.

Take a read here.

click here to read the rest of the article

CoinOut Gets Coin In

It’s always fun to see what happens to my students after they leave class. Jeff Witten started CoinOut four years ago in my Columbia University 5-day Lean LaunchPad class. CoinOut eliminates the hassle of getting a pocket full of loose change from merchants by allowing you to put it in a digital wallet.

Jeff just appeared on Shark Tank and the Sharks funded him. We just caught up and I got to do a bit of customer discovery on Jeff’s entrepreneurial journey to date.

What was the Shark Tank experience like?
It was surreal. We were not prepped or told what to expect, and really just thrown into the “tank” like a baby in the deep end. Given the stage and possibility of embarrassment, it was very intimidating. With that came a ton of adrenaline – it felt like a gallon of it was pumped into my veins – and it allowed me to focus and defend the business/myself as if there were no tomorrow. Looking back I can barely remember what went on in there, but just that I went in with a fighter’s mentality of not letting them speak over me, bully me or misrepresent what we are doing.

SHARK TANK – Coverage. (ABC/Michael Desmond)
JEFF WITTEN (COINOUT)

Anything about the Lean LaunchPad class or just being an entrepreneur in general prepare you for pitching on Shark Tank?
The class was almost a mini shark tank – I still remember the very first pitch we did in front of the class. Each time you speak publicly, or even privately for that matter, about your business I believe that you learn something and help improve / sharpen your pitch. Also, as an entrepreneur, you have to fight every single day. Nothing is easy and you need to convince people that your new way of doing something brings value that someone should pay for. That mentality certainly is one I needed to survive the “Tank.”

Coming into the Lean LaunchPad class, what did you know about starting a company?
I knew very little! I had lots of thoughts that turned out to be wildly incorrect and off target. I had a faint idea of how to interact with potential customers, but no real-life experience doing so. I also knew how to write up a great, theoretical proposal and presentation but that was about it!

What was the 5-day LaunchPad class experience like?
The 5 days were still one of the most intense stretches I’ve gone through (even more intense than some law school finals)! I was working with 4 other folks for the first time and we had to slam together as much as possible to come to some legitimate findings by the end of the course. We actually forced our way into a retail conference that was going on in the Javits Center and ran around berating a million different very large companies, half of whom told us to get lost. At the end of the day, we were able to re-focus and come up with half decent findings with the help of the business model canvas and mentoring from our professors. It was a real whirlwind, but when I look back, many of the discoveries still animate the product and company today.

Jeff’s original CoinOut presentation after five days is here

What did you learn in the LaunchPad class?
I learned how to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), test it with real customers and ask the right questions to get unbiased feedback. I took those learnings and implemented that immediately in a pilot while still in school. I feel like I’ve done 30 different MVP’s and customer tests over the few years since the course and continue to use the lean methods in all things we look to do for our customers and merchants.

What were the biggest learnings in your first 3, 6, 12, 24 months as an entrepreneur?
The biggest learning was that it’s vital to get out of the building. After getting some data and feedback it’s easy to then say we have enough and know what we need to build. Still today, even after a couple years at this, I have to remind myself that we always have more we can learn from potential and existing customers.

I would say the first 3 months it was to keep asking questions and iterating based on what we were getting. After 6 months, it was learning how to tackle everything with grit and determination as if there were no other option. And in the 12 – 24 months it was to always keep an open mind and never assume a product is right until you truly have product-market-fit. We keep doing pivots to this day. We believe we will always be searching for a better version of product-market-fit!

What are the top three things you wished you knew when you started your company?

  1. I wish I knew how critical good distribution channels are, particularly in the early stages of a company. You can have the greatest product in the world but if it can’t get into customers’ hands efficiently and effectively it is meaningless.
  2. I wish I knew how difficult it is to change people’s perceptions in large companies. Sometimes when you are hot out of the gates with entrepreneurial fever you think you can do anything. I think that is always a valuable feeling to have, but when selling through to larger organizations I’ve learned you need to temper your expectations and do as much as you possibly can to mitigate the risks of partnership ahead of time. Show them why they need to do it rather than why it would be a nice thing to have.
  3. I wish I knew how much fun this was going to be because I would have gotten in sooner! Many people say how hard entrepreneurship is, and I 100% agree. It is incredibly hard. But it is also rewarding like nothing else and when things work out well it is really fun.

See the articles about CoinOut in Forbes and in Columbia entrepreneurship and on Shark Tank episode 23.

While we can’t guarantee an appearance on Shark Tank, the five-day Lean LaunchPad class at Columbia is offered every January and open to all Columbia students.

We Have A Moral Obligation

I was in Boston and was interviewed by The Growth Show about my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies.The interviewer was great and managed to get me to summarize several years of learning in one podcast.

It’s worth a listen.

At the end of the interview I got surprised by a great question – “What’s the Problem that Still Haunts You?”  I wasn’t really prepared for the question but gave the best answer I could on the fly.

Part of the answer is the title of this blog post.

Listen to the entire interview here:
Taking the Lean Startup From Silicon Valley to Corporations and the State and Defense Department

Or just parts of the interview:
1:20  Failure and Lessons Learned

Hacking for Defense @ Stanford 2017 – Lessons Learned Presentations

We just finished our second Hacking for Defense class at Stanford. Eight teams presented their Lessons Learned presentations.

Hacking for Defense is a battle-tested problem-solving methodology that runs at Silicon Valley speed. It combines the same Lean Startup Methodology used by the National Science Foundation to commercialize science, with the rapid problem sourcing and curation methodology developed on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq by Colonel Pete Newell and the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.

Goals for the Hacking for Defense Class
Our primary goal was to teach students entrepreneurship while they engaged in a national public service. Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps the US Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.

Our second goal was to teach our sponsors (the innovators inside the Department of Defense (DOD) and Intelligence Community (IC)) that there is a methodology that can help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. That if we could get teams to rapidly discover the real problems in the field using Lean methods, and only then articulate the requirements to solve them, could defense acquisition programs operate at speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions.

Finally, we also wanted to show our sponsors in the Department of Defense and Intelligence community that civilian students can make a meaningful contribution to problem understanding and rapid prototyping of solutions to real-world problems.

The Class
Here’s a brief description of the Lean Methodology our students used:

If you can’t see the video click here

Our mantra to the students was that we wanted them to learn about “Deployment not Demos.” Our observation is that the DOD has more technology demos than they need, but often lack deep problem understanding.  Our goal was to have the students first deeply understand their sponsors problem – before they started building solutions. As you can imagine with a roomful of technologists this was tough. Further we wanted the students to understand all parts of the mission model canvas, not just the beneficiaries and the value proposition. We wanted them to learn what it takes to get their product/service deployed to the field, not give yet another demo to a general. This meant that the minimal viable products the students built were focused on maximizing their learning of what to build, not just building prototypes.

(Our sponsors did remind us, that at times getting a solution deployed meant that someone did have to see a demo!)

The Hacking for Defense class was designed as “fundamental research” to be shared broadly and the results are not subject to restriction for proprietary or national security reasons. In the 10 weeks the students have, Hacking for Defense hardware and software prototypes don’t advance beyond a Technology Readiness Level 4 and remain outside the scope of US export control regulations and restrictions on foreign national participation.

Results

  • Eight teams spoke to over 800 beneficiaries, requirements writers, program managers, warfighters, legal, security, customers, etc.
  • Seven out of the eight teams realized that the problem as given by the sponsor really wasn’t the problem. Their sponsors agreed.
  • Received from a problem sponsor mid-live stream broadcast “we are working funding for this team now.”
  • Over half the student teams have decided to continue working on national security projects after this class.

This is the End
Each of the eight teams presented a 2-minute video to provide context about their problem and then gave an 8-minute presentation of their Lessons Learned over the 10-weeks. Each of their slide presentation follow their customer discovery journey. All the teams used the Mission Model Canvas, Customer Development and Agile Engineering to build Minimal Viable Products, but all of their journeys were unique.

The teams presented in front of several hundred people in person and online.

21st Century Frogman

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The video of the team presenting is below.  You can see all their slides right below this video.

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VA Companion

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Austra Lumina

If you can’t see the video click here

 

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Xplomo

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Seacurity

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The video of the team presenting is below.  You can see all their slides right below this video

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Surgency

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The video of the team presenting is below.  You can see all their slides right below this video

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Broadcom

If you can’t see the video click here

 

The video of the team presenting is below.  You can see all their slides right below this video

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If you can’t see the presentation slides click here

The Innovation Insurgency Spreads
Hacking for Defense is now offered at eight universities in addition to Stanford – Georgetown,  University of Pittsburgh, Boise State, UC San Diego, James Madison University, University of Southern Mississippi, and later this year University of Southern California and Columbia University. We established Hacking for Defense.org a non-profit, to train educators and to provide a single point of contact for connecting the DOD/IC sponsor problems to these universities.

The Department of Defense has expanded their use of Hacking for Defense to include a classified version, and corporate partners are expanding their efforts to support the course and to create their own internal Hacking for Defense courses.

Another surprise was how applicable the “Hacking for X…” methodology is for other problems. Working with the State Department we offered a Hacking for Diplomacy class at Stanford.

Both the Defense and Diplomacy classes created lots of interest from organizations that have realized that this “Hacking for X…” problem-solving methodology is equally applicable to solving public safety, energy, policy, community and social issues internationally and within our own communities. This fall a series of new “Hacking for X…” classes will address these deserving communities. These include:

If you’re interested in learning how to apply a “Hacking for X…” class in your workplace or school we’ve partnered with the 1776 incubator in Washington DC to offer a 2-day “Hacking for X…” certification course 26-27 July for those interested in learning how. Sign up here.

It Takes a Village
While I authored this blog post, these classes are a team project. The teaching team consisted of:

  • Joe Felter a retired Army Special Forces Colonel with research and teaching appointments at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), the Hoover Institution, and the dept. of Management Science and Engineering. Joe is the incoming Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia.
  • Pete Newell is a retired Army Colonel currently a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy and CEO of BMNT Partners.
  • Steve Weinstein a 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley technology companies and Hollywood media companies.  Steve is CEO of MovieLabs the joint R&D lab of all the major motion picture studios.

Our teaching assistants were all prior students: Issac Matthews our lead TA, and Melisa Tokmak, Jared Dunnmon, and Darren Hau.

We were lucky to get a team of 25 mentors (VC’s and entrepreneurs) who selflessly volunteered their time to help coach the teams. Thanks to the team Lean Startup mentors: Paul Dawes, Tom Bedecarre, Kevin Ray, Craig Seidel, Daniel Bardenstein, Roi Chobadi, Donna Slade, and Rafi Holtzman and other advisors; Lisa Wallace, Peter Higgins, Steve Hong, Robert Medve.

We were privileged to have the support of an extraordinary all volunteer team of professional senior military officers representing all branches of service attending fellowship programs at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC) at the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI). These included: Colonel Lincoln Bonner (US Air Force), Colonel Curtis Burns (US Army), Captain Kurt Clark (US Coast Guard), Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Helphinstine (US Air Force), Colonel Seth Krummrich (US Army)), Commander Leo Leos (US Navy), Lieutenant Colonel Eric Reid (US Marine Corps), Colonel Mike Turley (US Army), and Colonel Dave Zinn US Army.  Additional volunteers from the active duty military providing support to our teams included  Lieutenant Colonel Donny Haseltine (US Marine Corps), Captain Jason Rathje (US Air Force), Major Dave Ahern US Army) and, Major Kevin Mott (US Army).

And finally a special thanks to our course advisor Bill Perry, former Secretary of Defense and Professor Emeritus, and Tom Byers, Professor of Engineering and Faculty Director, STVP.

Fireside Chat with Sebastian Thrun

I did a fun fireside chat with one of my most favorite people –  Sebastian Thrun – at the Udacity conference. Sebastian is the embodiment of a renaissance person. I first heard about him when his driverless car won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He founded Google X and led the development of the Google self-driving car. He was a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford and before that at Carnegie Mellon University.

And he asks great questions.

If you can’t see the video click here

1:17     Hacking for Defense (Why did we create it?  What is it?)

3:30   Lean Startup (What is it? How it started, How did the class get on Udacity)

5:30   Pricing (Customer Validation, Sales, Pricing)

8:30  Customer Discovery (What is the Lean Stack)

10:13 What Advice Would You Give to Yourself at 18?

12:37 Small Businesses vs. Scalable Startups (Should I take Risk Capital)

15:48 Can you Teach Entrepreneurship?

19:03 What’s the Craziest Problem I’ve Ever Seen? (The Navy SEAL’s)

21:25 How Do You Find Out What Customers Really Want? (Customer Discovery, Pivots)

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
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