Sunday, March 29, 2009

Welcome to the Time of Opportunity

It may not feel like it, but we are living in an era of tremendous opportunity. While this blog made this point before, I was reminded of it in reading a very interesting article called "Coke? Oreos? That's so last year" on MSN Money. The message of the article is that in these lean economic times, consumers are rethinking their values and often choose generic brands over "name-brands". The article gives examples of how this has been an opportunity for small, lesser known consumer-products companies that provide value rather than fancy packaging.

The consumer-products opportunity here is along one primary axis: cost. We believe that while the cost axis presents an opportunity for technology companies, there may also be other axes along which new opportunity can be seized in more sophisticated markets.

Simply put, we are living through a time of great market disruption. In the case of consumer markets, this means that brand names no longer necessarily mean success. For technology start-ups, we believe that within this great disruption, target markets may be willing to challenge their traditional ways of doing things along several axes: not only will they be looking for cost savings; but they may, in fact, be willing to change the way they do things more fundamentally to achieve even broader benefits.

Let me give you a few examples:

-We have all read about the success of This is not just because of lower costs. Today's market is leading customers to need to try new ways to doing things in order to make their businesses work.

Moreover, we are working with a few companies that are finding tremendous momentum in today's market:

-One of our clients is providing an entirely new way to deploy web applications in the cloud. While there are some cost benefits to its approach, the savings enabled by this company are as importantly in time and complexity as well. They have acquired 25,000 new applications in a matter of a few months.

-Another of our clients has a very low cost 3-D sensor. This means that computers and entertainment devices are able to do much more than make existing capabilities faster or cheaper. They can actually create new user experiences that will bring in entirely new markets and revenue streams.

We can all think of more examples of how companies are able to capture significant new opportunity in this market. We believe it's important to keep your eyes open for these and seize the moment.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

A Return to Passion

In his piece in yesterday's New York Times, George Anders talked about "The Secrets of the Talent Scouts". It reminded me of the need/opportunity to return to passion in the world of start ups.

Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital was quoted in the piece: "The only people who want to start a company in a time like this are the ones with the greatest conviction.”

That's exciting. Because over the last few years, the fever of money-making has, to a large degree, overtaken the passion to "change the world" that has driven start ups for a long time. For those of us who started in technology awhile ago, this passion has been a sentiment that we found missing. It reached a pinnacle (or nadir, perhaps) for me when, a few years ago, I met a very young entrepreneur who, when asked to tell the story of the founding of the company, answered with the following: "Do you want to hear the real story or the one that sounds better?" Ugh.

But now, I suspect such raw ambition without a foundation of passion wouldn't succeed in getting funded. (Yes. There are a lot of venture capitalists who aren't funding those companies either, but that's another story.)

At Roeder-Johnson, we are fortunate to represent multiple companies that have built and maintained their companies on sheer dint of will and the passion to make their visions happen. Turns out they are feeling the impact of today's economy less than a lot of other start ups.

So, what does this have to do with communications? A lot.

We believe that today, more than any time in the last few years, communications strategy and messages need to combine BOTH that passion and vision as well as the basic business case. That is, whether the founders of the company want to make cloud computing instant, a chip that does many high speed communications functions better than any network or general purpose processor, next generation multi-touch and gestural controls, or breakthrough fuel cell materials, the story that the company tells should combine four key elements:

*The inspiration for the basic idea;

*What is possible when this basic idea is realized (and, in its small way, how it might change the world);

*The business opportunities that are opened because of this breakthrough; and
*The passion that will lead to success -- through thick and thin.

It's no longer good enough to have a clever, opportunistic gimmick to make it through the challenging times we face. We have to believe that the change will really happen.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Communicating in "The Great Disruption"

This morning, Thomas Friedman wrote a very interesting column about "The Great Disruption.". One of the key points he makes is:

"So am I [an optimist]. People are already using this economic slowdown to retool and reorient economies."

I am an optimist too. This great disruption is a chance for all of us to rethink the way we do things and refine them to meet today's realities. And, while Friedman is thinking about macroeconomic issues, I think about how all of this impacts the way we communicate. Having written here and elsewhere about the great opportunity that is presented to some special companies that can come out way ahead in this economy, I want to spend a few minutes thinking about the other, good companies that will definitely continue to progress in this economy, whether or not they leap bounds ahead.

So, let me paint the scene: imagine you are a company that is managing to build its new products and slowly but surely is increasing its revenues, in spite of the state of the market. You have reason to believe that a measured, systematic approach to business will keep you on the path of progress.

So, what should YOUR communications plan be in this environment? You don't really fit either of the two models that have been widely discussed: either go all in; or just shut down all communications to save all of your resources.

Thee is a third plan. It's probably the one that is suited to most companies that are continuing to move ahead in this market:

Communicate clearly and steadily. Perhaps less than you have been used to doing in the past (but definitely more than no communications at all).

In a general sense, such a plan could look as follows:

-Spend a month to six weeks really clarifying your goals and messages and what you want to accomplish;
-Periodically (every four to six weeks) make sure you are proactively communicating with the market (through news, blogs, web site updates, and other means). If you can do a little more, fine. But don't make it a crisis.
-Use Twitter and other social media, as appropriate;
-Be responsive to opportunities that present themselves. By this, I mean, for example, two types of situations: one in which something is going on in the market to which you can respond; and the other situation is when something happens (positive or negative) to your company which presents the chance to use communications outreach to further your fortunes.

It's clear that this is a generic formula and that every company faces a different day to day environment. The real point of the great disruption is that we are all being invited and forced to rethink many of our ways of succeeding in the world. As they say, since necessity is the mother of invention; therefore it is clear that the right communications plan for each company needs to be developed in real time by the team that is thinking about how to optimize each moment.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Living in a World of Knobs

Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh is said to have fired up the troops at a major conservative conference. This, combined with a recent dinner with a friend who absolutely believes that the right answer to ALL of today's economic woes is to let the free market solve the problems, caused me to think about whether we live today in a world of many knobs rather than one big switch.

Let me explain.

If you imagine a dashboard for running the world (or the country, if you want a "smaller" picture), the image that would be conveyed to describe Limbaugh's world would be one with a gigantic switch whose two settings are: on one side is "government intervention"; and on the other side is "let the market take care of it". Limbaugh is essentially saying that the latter is the solution.

Alternatively, another dashboard might exist: one with multiple knobs, perhaps divided up by industry or discipline with varying degrees of government and private sector support represented around each knob. This latter is more of what is being used by today's U.S. government.

So what does this have to do with communications? A lot. It's obvious that in the former scenario, communicating the mission and vision is relatively easy. It's simple and clean.

But in the latter scenario, communicating is much tougher. There are nuances that are being implemented that can complicate the story.

However, we believe that even in a world of knobs -- which is likely the world in which most technology start ups live -- it is possible to develop as clean a communications strategy. It's what we at Roeder-Johnson call a "high concept". It requires stepping up above the individual knobs and seeing the single common vision that unifies all of them.

It may not be easy to define the "high concept"; but it is very important to do -- at any time of the market, especially now. We are living through a time of tremendous complexity, where everyone has many knobs they have to deal with every day. This means, for a company to raise itself above all of that fog of knobs, it needs to simplify its message.

Whether you agree with those who represent the "switch" vision of the world, there may be a lesson to take from them.

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