Archive for March, 2009

“Only connect” isn’t just about literature.

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Email isn’t just a way to tell customers that you have another sale going on.  It’s not just about click-thrus or actual sales of the featured item, though it certainly can be.   What it can be is an amazing tool for building a relationship with a customer.  It’s an amazing covenant, really. Out of all the retailers out there, a person has actually chosen to receive your communications. They’re telling you of their interest and a decent expectation you’ll send something relevant and worthwhile of their time.

They are not telling you of their endless patience. They’re not telling you they’ll be less annoyed if you waste their time, fill their in-box unnecessarily or spam them.

Why do so few retailers use their email to connect? Tell your customers what you’re about.  Tell them what you offer, sure, tell them you have great values or benefits or whatever you want.  But try to look further than the sales of this specific email.  Think about how you feel when you get the email of a friend you’re not super-close with, but there is a “hello” in your in-box.  Think about them being excited to hear from you.  Another come-on doesn’t do that.  What about a human being writing about something they know that might interest the receivers?

Think about all the frenzy about social media marketing and blogging now.  We need a blog! says the VP of marketing of LargeCorp.  Sure.  You might.  But try an email first.  Tell them something.  Treat them like people.  Build a relationship.  Think of it as old-school social marketing.

Business Cards

Monday, March 30th, 2009

There’s a lot of talk now about personal brand, which can feel sort of overwhelming. I’m not sure what my brand is, especially in any sort of work-y, elevator speech sort of way. But I did work with a very talented designer on a small run of personal business cards and I’m completely in love with them. They are me, in a tiny double-sided rectangle. The colors are vibrant and stylish. My initials, which I confess to be inordinately fond of, are prominently featured. The cards say: totally feminine, totally strong.

I’m not sure what my brand is but I know these cards express some aspect of it. It’s a fun exercise if you’re able to do it.

We’re live!

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

I’m pleased to announce the birth of www.sustainstores.com!

I met the Sustain team in November and we realized how complementary a relationship could be–they needed someone who knew retail, who knew e-commerce, who knew about launching a business quickly and efficiently.  Throw in some awareness of socially responsible business.  During my first meeting with the VP of Business Development at the local Panera, I kept thinking, Wow, is it possible for any opportunity to be more up my alley?

It’s been a great few months.  These guys walk the walk of green living.  They believe, they put their money where their mouth is and they’re funny and fountains of ideas to boot.  I’ve enjoyed launching this business immensely.

Know Thy Customer

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

It’s so important I call it a commandment instead of a rule.

Figure out who your customer is.  Find her (in my life, it was always a her but it can be him, it can be babies, it can be pet owners who live off the grid.) Stay as close to her as possible.  Never lose sight of her.  Anticipate her needs and fulfill them.

And this is key: Make sure there are enough of her to support your business model.

One of the worst things about starting a business in the ’00’s is that customer service is a cliche–something everyone talks about and consumers barely hear anymore.  One of the best things is that even though everyone talks about it, many fewer walk the walk.  If you are truly customer-focused it will shine through.

I spent 10 years at BigCo where superior service was the mantra.  When we started ours, it was in our DNA. But it’s still easy to get lost in your needs (maybe to save money, a pretty worthy goal), and your wants (people inside the company get more quickly bored by your marketing, your models and your products, than any customers do who interact with you twice a year if you’re lucky.)

It’s amazingly clarifying when making decisions: who is this person and what does she read?  where does she shop? how much does she spend?

Name her. Know what she drives. Know if she’s a student, an urbanite, mother, a grandmother.  And embrace who she is, not whom you want her to be. Many companies target an aspirational persona: she ends up being  “27-years-old with plenty of disposable income who is very educated but loves fashion” because that’s what’s cool or sexy or what the head designer really wants to design for.

And she’s not necessarily you.  I think this needs to be repeated. She’s not you. Just because you go into a store and buy something regularly you are not the arbiter of what your customer wants.  If you’re going after a customer exactly like you, and that target demographic and psychographic is written into the business plan, well, okay, fine.  But otherwise, resist the urge to be the focus group of one.  If you are a 35 year old woman who lives in Atlanta and just got married, you do not have the inside scoop to know all the trends for wedding gifts, registries, etc.  Most people who get married are not 35 and there are far more brides outside of Atlanta than in it. You have anecdotal insight and that’s great. But unless you have experience in the industry and are getting paid for your knowledge, you are not the end-all and be-all in knowing what the bridal customer wants, just by sharing that experience.  Far worse is even the lack of anecdotal experience–a vague goal of reaching “people like my parents” or “teenagers” or “people like us.”

Be specific, be targeted, be narrow.  There’s always time to widen.  Know thy c

Start-up Fatigue

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

I love the start-up experience.  It’s addictive.  The lack of bureaucracy, the decision-making, the ability to create something out of nothing, the autonomy, the speed, the nimble-ness.  It’s fantastic and I really believe everyone in corporate America should experience it.

Today I stood outside talking to our neighbors, on one of those not-really-that-warm-but-sunny days that feel like the tropics just because we live in the upper midwest after a long winter.  The husband is in a start-up; I brought up some of my job options with Big Companies and he reacted viscerally.  I can’t do it, he said.  Monday morning meetings reviewing sales, seeking approval for everything, cover your ass decision-making.  He’s right–and the thought, momentarily, was awful. That’s what I’m choosing if I choose Big.

And then I thought, I’ve been doing Tiny Company since 2006. I don’t know how long it will last but right now (and maybe it’s just because of this economy) I have start-up fatigue.  I will cover my ass in my decisions.  I will seek approval.  Right now, my teeth are twinging madly and I really just want dental insurance.  I want to not worry about cash flow. I want to not feel horribly guilty because the cab ride turned out to be longer (read: more expensive) than I thought it would be and the last thing the company needs this week is to reimburse a (not really that) big expense report.

This may pass.  But after years and moments of wanting all sorts of crazy things, or thinking I didn’t want much, I know this: I want disability insurance!

If you don’t keep going, of course it doesn’t go.

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Penelope Trunk wrote a pretty brilliant blog post today that I’m not going to improve much upon, but there was a specific line I especially wanted to pull out.  She’s writing about why she lives in Madison WI, why it’s better to live in an inexpensive place when you’re starting a company.  I concur with everything she said but my favorite line is this one:

“And a big reason that startups fail is because the founders don’t keep going – searching for what will work.”

Yes. If you don’t keep going, of course it doesn’t go.

There’s no magic ceiling of money that means you’ve spent too much.

There’s no magic timeframe that means it’s been too long before you met this or that milestone.

Either you’re in and you keep going.  Or you’re out.  And then, get out because there’s far too many start-ups out there trying to make it, and they need your tiny little share of consumers’ wallets.

Not moving forward, not keeping on trying, not keeping cash flowing by any means necessary, not having a plan or a strategy–that start-up doesn’t really deserve to make it.

We know how to do this

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Less than a week until the new website launches.  I’ve been in e-commerce since the mid-90’s and seen all sorts of launches: companies, sites, applications, services, software and hardware, and there’s always that specific shot of adrenaline of getting everything in line, worrying you don’t have everything in line, and working working working until it all comes together and development becomes production and a transaction…actually…happens.

But I know it will happen and the worry is just the usual anxiety over getting everything on the to-do list crossed off.  Not the launch.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with the same handful of people for most of my career, first with the Big Co, the Start Up, and now StartUp2. Total pros and complete trust. It will all happen and on time and the first customer will most likely have no idea she’s the first customer and will think her browsing and buying is the most routine thing in the world because it will work perfectly.  How many teams can say that?  Of course it hasn’t happened yet so it may seem arrogant, but I predict with confidence that this launch will happen smoother than smooth.  As L says with a shrug, “We know how to do this.”

How a start-up succeeds, #1

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

So, how does a start-up succeed?  Lots of ways.  And there’s plenty of ways to fail too.  Here’s number 1:

1) Secure funding.  Count on whatever you think you will need will be adjusted upward.

The CEO’s job is to secure funding.  There is never enough money.  The CEO’s job is to always, always, always be looking for more.  If the CEO does his or her job, the start-up may be able to make it.  But without money, finding customers, providing the right product, fulfilling orders and excellent service doesn’t really matter.

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

A regular Saturday. Library with the boys, met a friend for lunch, bought the little one his first pair of shoes (they’re those clunky white first walkers, so heavy he can’t walk in them–he’s actually regressed today and went back to crawling to get anywhere.)  A beautiful day–for these parts, anyway–and we went to the park.  I keep thinking about moving, about future Saturdays in our future place, what it will be like.  I told the older one we might have to get a new house soon, but we’ll pick a really good one.  He said, Nah, let’s stay. I moved across the country when I was five and I remember so much of it, or at least think I do.  What will he remember?  What will  he think of the new library, the new parks, the new weather?  He’s five; he’ll be happy, ultimately, wherever his family is.  What will *I* think? is the real question.

Friday, March 13th, 2009

It’s an incredible, amazing, wrenching thing to launch a start-up, create a whole company from scratch. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done, and that includes (though doesn’t beat out) having my children.  Creating things that didn’t exist before and now do because of you, and bear your fingerprints all over them–it’s intensely creative and satisfying and, well, just intense.

So when things don’t work out; when money burns faster than you ever anticipated; when the people you trust are shown to be achingly fallible; when factors way beyond your control knock it to the ground; where does that leave all that pride and satisfaction?

One answer is that makes you a lot less afraid of failure.  Not that I’m unused to failure in the most mundane parts of my life way before this.  But this was on a bit grander scale.  The banks cancelled their lines. Demand started to soften. And suddenly, there was just no money. I nodded when told, yeah, we’ll have to leave.

I went out to my car and contemplated how terrifying my life had become with a family I solely support, a newish mortgage  and no job in what was turning out to be the Great Recession and cried and cried and cried.  And in the days and weeks afterward I cried more. And then I cried less.  And then I stopped crying.  And then I realized, I failed, I lost a job, the best job I’ve ever had or ever will have, and I’m still okay.  In fact, I’m not afraid if it ever happens again. I could try it again and it might fail.  And that–inexplicably, wonderfully–is just fine.