Breaking Every Rule In The Book


I had the pleasure of attending the Biz Stone keynote at the ASI Dallas show. Seconds before our photograph was taken, I said he must feel like Santa Claus having to pose with so many strangers. I am sure he’s heard worse small talk. As the founder of a distributor and co-founder of a social software company, I was smitten with the stories from his entrepreneurial journey. I credit ASI for bringing him to the Dallas show because he's not your typical ra-ra motivational speaker that usually puts bums in seats.

I learned a lot and I wanted to share some key highlights.

1. In order to be spectacularly successful, one must be prepared to fail spectacularly

This serves as a good reminder to anyone who has ever wanted to achieve entrepreneurial success. Rarely do rewards accrue to the person who has one foot in and one foot out. According to Stone, being ready to just "go for it" is today’s prerequisite for those looking make a real impact. Stone's leaving Google to start a string of failed startups (podcasting software, a blogging platform for bad blog posts) served as strong examples of this point. Twitter’s success was indeed built off of Odeo’s and Sideblogger’s failures.

2. Empathy and altruism are the new marketing

This is an eye opener for traditional business people that invest the majority of their budgets in their sales force. Stone credited the hiring of a corporate social responsibility officer in its early days as one of the keys to the company’s success. While sales people are important to any business development initiative, emotional connections to one's brand are driving the success for a new generation of businesses. Twitter didn't grow because of a slick sales team. It grew because it addressed a communication void in the world.

3. Compelling content and being human form the core of any great Twitter strategy

Someone asked Biz about how to build a great following on Twitter. “Write great content and be human” was his response. Simple. Yet not as easy as it sounds. He discussed quality over quantity and pointed out that there are too many people focused on goosing their Twitter follower count instead of focusing on organic growth and engagement. He cited the example of a San Franciscan pie shop (with 3000 followers) having more social media success than your average Twitter celebrity (with 1,000,000+ followers).

4. "I don't do homework"

As a high school student, there weren't enough hours in the day for him to do his school work and extracurricular activities. So he came up with a personal philosophy: “I don’t do homework”. No question his intelligence is off the charts (not sure everyone could do this and pass), but I was interested in the underlying message. Sometimes following a prescribed path is not the way to come up with a breakthrough discovery. I am not surprised that a product like Twitter was co-founded by a guy who never did his homework.

5. You must be a user of your own product.

The most effective way to understand what it's like to be your customer is to actually use your own product. You need to be emotionally invested in its success and it needs to solve your problems first.

6. “It's not a triumph of technology. It's a triumph of humanity”

I loved this one. Technology alone is not the answer, humanity is. The best example here is how Twitter (a pretty nerdy technology tool on its own) captured people's imaginations because of its ability to connect people. Twitter gave groups of people the ability to communicate with each other and, in the process, allowed large groups to form around a single idea (Moldovian revolution, "there's a better speaker across the hall at SXSW", etc). He drew a comparison between Twitter’s ability to organize people around ideas and a flock of birds engaged in a beautiful dance.

7. Studying graphic design is a great foundation for business

This is certainly not what you hear in your average guidance counselor's office these days. Arts programs don't provide the defined paths that many professional programs do. While professional degrees are important for many jobs, they can be a hindrance when it comes to creating something out of nothing. Just like Twitter came from a few brainstorm sessions about developing a social communication platform on top of SMS text messaging.

In summary ...

I was struck by how many of these lessons can also be applied to the promotional products industry. Each of these stories reinforce timeless business principles: how to build a strong brand, emotionally connect with your customers and create a compelling competitive advantage.

These are important lessons for us given the uncertainty our industry faces in 2012 and beyond (among them, the fracturing of our supply chain, the rise of web based merchants, massive competition and commoditization). How we deal with these growing challenges is a function of how we start thinking differently about how we go to market. For those who do this effectively, these challenges will be seen as opportunities.