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January 1, 2011 / companystarter

My Blog has Moved!

I’ve moved my blog to my new dedicated URL: www.whatimpact.com. Please visit that site for future postings, and be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed.

Thanks!

Ian

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December 4, 2010 / companystarter

My Personal Philosophy – Live Right Now

There’s a lot I believe in, but nothing is more prevalent for me than the ideas summed up by two simple words, Carpe Diem, Seize the Day.  Although I’m a procrastinator when it comes to the little (and bureaucratic) things, for those life-important moments, I never let anything get by.

What can I say?  I’m an entrepreneur.  For entrepreneurs, every moment not seized is a moment lost.  The idea that it can be done later just doesn’t make sense.  Here’s a short catalogue of my Carpe Diem moments:

  • Started my first “company” right after high school, offering lifeguarding and swimming lessons privately to folks in the neighborhood.
  • Spent my junior year abroad and traveled to 13 countries in that year.  Particularly memorable is an 11-day trip to Turkey after my parents expressly forbade me to go and 2 days after I spent a night in the hospital for dysentery.  My parents said, “you’ll have time in your life to come back and do it.”  I never would have, and it was one of the best trips I took that year.
  • Moved to Tel Aviv when I was 24 when everyone told me I was crazy.  I lived there for four years and it’s had a profound impact on my life.
  • Started my second “company” in Tel Aviv offering e-learning consulting services to organizations. I just called up every e-learning CEO in Israel and told them I would promote their services, and I received one-on-one demos from each. It never got off the ground but it taught me I could do business in an industry I knew nothing about.
  • Started my first Company called Integrated Learning, offering private tutoring services across the country. We grew to 10 cities, had 40 teachers, and helped hundreds of students before closing down.
  • Proposed to my wife after 10 months of dating. She was the one, why hem and haw?  Of them all, this is the best choice I ever made.

These are just a few.  Now, of course, I’m starting my second Company, the most complex and impactful venture to date, and we’re “THIS CLOSE” to launching.  Website is nearly done, and sample product is scheduled for first-time delivery on Dec 15. Once those samples come, IT’S ON.

That’s why through it all there’s been one song that’s been kind of an anthem for me.  I heard it long ago and every word has stuck with me every day of my life.  It’s brilliant, it’s imaginative, and it sets me on fire every time I hear it.  It came on in the car today, and thus this post:

Time
by Pink Floyd

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
And you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

November 3, 2010 / companystarter

Consulting Projects Rock! Part II: They Rock For Everybody

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called “Consulting Projects Rock,” where I reported on the initial conversation I’d had with a group of MBA club leaders in the hope of starting two MBA consulting projects.

Today I held the kick-off meeting with the two teams that ultimately came to fruition (15 resumes later, these guys rose to the top!).  As I wrote then, we’ve created two projects this year to cover two very important areas of our business – marketing and operations.  We have already done a ton of work in both of those areas, of course, and these MBA teams will fill in all the blanks.

While I’m SUPER excited to be launching these projects, and get back the results, I’m mostly just excited to be working with these students.  We met in a bar near campus (yes, I paid) where, after they all signed NDAs, I introduced them to the company and our plan.  I showed them our prototype, walked them through our charities and how we’re going to engage in cause marketing.  They asked great questions, dug deeper, and we examined all facets of the business.

And as they got excited, I got excited.  And as they got more excited, I got more excited.  These guys didn’t know us at all, but they already love what we’re going to do.  Not clear yet why I’m so excited?  THEY’RE OUR TARGET DEMOGRAPHIC!  And they LOVED it.  What does that mean about other students around the country?  Hopefully, a lot!

But as I said, I love working with students.  After I went through all the ins and outs, the successes and failures, the pros and cons, we went around the table and each one told me more about their background, what their career aspirations were, and what they wanted to get personally out of this project.  Each had a different answer – one wanted marketing experience, one wanted CPG experience, one wanted operations experience, one wanted nonprofit experience and one wanted entrepreneurial experience. We fit all those in one company!  One person told me she’d been shut out of a job offer because, in spite of being incredible, she lacked a specific thing that this project will give her.

As a startup, we haven’t yet hired anyone, haven’t provided any jobs, haven’t stimulated the economy.  We’ve paid some vendors good money to do amazing things, but the real oomph of employing people for their benefit hasn’t happened (yet).  But already, our ideas are benefiting people in amazing ways, and each of these students, if they do well, will be better positioned to launch their careers when this project is over.  And for that, I’m super proud.

October 29, 2010 / companystarter

Knock Their Socks Off, Every Day

In his latest NYTimes editorial, Thomas Friedman continues his ongoing crusade to drive up American competitiveness in an age where the world is flat and we compete with everyone at all times.  In this edition, he tells us, “Everyone today… needs to think of himself as an ‘artisan’…and bring something extra to their jobs…Average is over. We’re in the age of ‘extra,’ and everyone has to figure out what extra they can add to their work to justify being paid more than a computer.”

He goes on to describe several services that can be done by anyone with training – barber, nurse, or waiter – and says that only the ones who do something extra, who add their passion and provide more value, can be truly successful and earn wages above the average.

Have you ever paid more for a basic service because the provider offered a little something extra?  Certainly we do that at nice restaurants all the time.  How about the dry-cleaner who offers to drop off your clothes at home?  Wouldn’t you purchase your computer from a store that offered extra support?

The real question is this – what are you doing to knock your customer’s socks off every single day?  Are you adding value to their lives by giving them more than they paid for?  Are you differentiating yourself from the next guy?  Or the next 100 guys online who do the same thing you do?

If not, look over your shoulder.  The guy coming up behind you is.

October 26, 2010 / companystarter

Cause Marketing Growing Pains

Photo Credit: Molly Thornberg

When I began this blog a few months ago, I promised myself that I wouldn’t use it to critique other cause marketing campaigns.  After all, I’m about to embark on a campaign of my own and until I can prove that mine works, what right do I have to critique anyone else’s?

But I have been studying other people’s campaigns, incredibly closely, to learn the best that’s out there and what not to do.  And it’s in that light that I want to spend a little time on the recently vilified (and seemingly now defunct) Skechers cause-related brand, Bobs Shoes.

By now, plenty of folks have written about Bobs and its obvious rip-off of Toms Shoes.  The feedback was overwhelmingly negative, with criticism levied against Skechers for copy-catting Toms Shoes, coming across as an insincere campaign, or just flat out failing to follow some of the now-developing rules around cause marketing.  You can read several of these assessments yourself here, here, and here, as well as an article in the LA Times making the same basic argument.  I won’t spend time reprinting what they’ve already written.

I first came across Bobs Shoes while reading Lalia Helmer’s blog.  In her respectful post on this topic, Lalia took the time to really analyze what Skechers had done wrong and ultimately provided readers (like me) with compelling lessons learned.  I read it on my iPhone on the metro, and, feeling a little more enlightened, retweeted it automatically:

Great analysis and lessons by @laliahelmer: Business Tht Cares- How Not To Do Business Philanthropy-Like Skechers BOBS http://bit.ly/bwixJh

Then, having absorbed those lessons I did what every good citizen of the tweetverse would do – I forgot all about it in favor of the next tweet and the next interaction.

A few days later (today), it resurfaced.  Scrolling through the iPhone, again on the metro, I found the post calling Skechers a #fail and I decided I had to investigate further for myself.  In doing so, I discovered a few things:

  • Almost everyone writing cares a whole lot about marketing. They know cause marketing and they know good cause marketing from bad cause marketing.  And they have been studying Toms Shoes for several years now.  My guess is that Skechers reaches more people than have heard of Toms, people who would be impressed with the idea of BOGO and proud to support Skechers for doing it.
  • Reading the comments sections, not everyone agrees Skechers is doing such a bad thing.  People note that Skechers is giving two pairs to charity for every pair they sell, that the Toms Shoes founder actually wants his model to be copied, and that they’re charging a few dollars less than Toms.  What’s so bad about that?
  • And, as I also applaud Lalia and the Digital Mom Blog for doing, they note that Soles4Souls, the nonprofit beneficiary of the campaign, donates millions of shoes to children in need and does great things (well, almost everyone.  One of my favorite bloggers, Saundra Schimmelpfennig, noted in her comments on Lalia’s post that giving free clothes to developing countries ruins their local economies, and that’s a damn good point.  She also wrote a blog post about it today on her blog).

And so I came to a different conclusion, and the whole reason I put off developing my business tonight to write this post.  Bobs Shoes already seems like a thing of the past.  There is no mention of it on Skechers website and links from a week ago now lead nowhere.  The campaign may still be ongoing in stores, but not online.  I can only imagine that Skechers pulled it after all the criticism.  And remember, it’s good criticism and for cause marketing to work in the long run companies have to do more than just copy other campaigns and who knows – maybe it’ll be back in a few weeks firing on all cylinders.  But in this case, a well-liked nonprofit (Soles) lost what probably would have been a solid revenue stream all because they decided to go with a business model that already proved to work.

I hope as we develop into a peer-reviewing community that we will continue to uphold the goal of promoting the causes we support.  We lampoon campaigns, declare them DOA before consumers have had a chance to engage, and hold them to a standard whose ink is still wet.  Rightly, we worry about the effect of bad campaigns on the cause marketing field, we worry about cause-fatigue and cause-washing, and we worry about violating consumers’ trust.  Companies must be more transparent and do away with the BS language they use to sound more benevolent than they are.  But we must remember that on the receiving end of each critique is a cause.  Lalia’s post is a good example of how to have the right balance.  Otherwise, causes may be the unwitting victims as cause marketing continues to evolve.

September 15, 2010 / companystarter

Consulting Projects Rock!

Last year I put together a team of three MBA students from a prominent university to help develop our nonprofit evaluation strategy.  I met the president of the Net Impact club on campus, a nation-wide MBA club with chapters in nearly every business school.  We developed a simple project description, emailed it out, and got stellar resumes.  The project results were stupendous, the students on the team were fantastic, and our nonprofit partners we have today all came out of the analysis and recommendations they put together.

This year I’m taking it even further.  I met last night with the presidents of the Net Impact club, the marketing club, the operations club, and the consulting club.  We developed two projects for students depending on their interests – one helping flush out some of our supply chain questions and the other helping develop marketing campaigns. The social enterprise element permeates through it all.

Everyone was excited to be a part of it and the project descriptions went out today.  Cutting across both projects are opportunities to:

  • Work on real-life issues instead of business school case-work
  • Be a part of a start-up company that will hopefully be a household name one day soon
  • Work on a social enterprise that will provide real benefit back to society

B-School students eat this stuff up and I’m super excited to get all this work done (for free – yay!).

If you have projects that are sitting on the shelf in your office because you haven’t had time to get to them, or feel like you lack the specific skills to address them, I highly recommend a b-school consulting project as one way to go.  Every business school has on-campus clubs whose presidents would love a chance to bring something interesting to their club members.  And getting ahold of them is easy – just look on the business school’s website.  Reach out directly – you’d be surprised how receptive they’ll be. Or, just contact the career management office at the school and they’ll tell you what to do.

That said, a few things to be aware of when working with students:

  1. They are really really really stressed. Business school students are usually cramming 5 classes at a time, often very short classes (5-8 weeks long) with papers, tests, and assignments due every week.  They are job hunting, spending hours in mock interviews, resume reviews, and networking.  They belong to more clubs than they can handle, and they’re usually partying down whenever they have a spare moment.  You have to be respectful of their time and don’t expect more than 3-5 hours a week, which is probably enough if they’re working in teams.  That said, always remember that in this relationship you’re the client so be firm enough that they realize this is a real commitment.
  2. Be very clear in the scope of the project. Like all consulting projects, identify the timeline and deliverables ahead of time, so it’s very obvious to the students what needs to be done and by when.  Give them the flexibility to figure out how to do it, but don’t leave any of your expectations unclear.  They will lose interest quickly if they don’t know what they’re working towards.
  3. Offer them further incentives. Find other ways to make the project meaningful for students other than the resume builder.  Some universities will let students do projects with a professor’s oversight for a grade.  Be gracious and sign the papers so students can get the credits for doing something they love. Let them take part in conference calls and in business development opportunities. Give them access to your vendors and partners so they can not only get more comprehensive information for their work but also gain the extra experience of working with outside organizations.
  4. Make it as strategic as possible. No one is in business school to do grunt work.  Students go to business school so they can get away from their mundane jobs and get into high-thinking strategy jobs (they don’t realize they’ll still do grunt work after business school – no need to burst their bubble).  Make sure your project has at least one deliverable that’s strategic in nature and forces them to really think through problems that need to be solved in a creative way.
  5. When the results come in, ingest them like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs need to know every facet of their company. It’s fine to outsource projects but that doesn’t mean go on autopilot. When push comes to shove, it’s your company and your solution. Know what decisions the team made and why, and understand their outcomes fully. When a VC asks you why you made a particular decision, the answer better not be, “because that’s what my MBA consulting team reported.” They will not be impressed.

These are my personal experiences, both as a student and now as an opportunity provider.  I’d love to learn how you’ve worked with students in the past. What advice do you have, and what lessons have you learned?

September 13, 2010 / companystarter

Aren’t We All in this Together?

Competition between nonprofits has been widely discussed, mostly as a result of the Komen phenomenon. The Wall Street Journal picked up the debate recently, but bloggers like Megan Strand have been discussing it for months.

So what about competition between companies engaged in cause marketing but in the same space? We social enterprise entrepreneurs face a difficult set of choices. We create a double bottom line company to create wealth, and then spread some of that wealth to society. (It can’t be the other way around because the latter can’t happen without enough of the former).  Of course, not everyone agrees with this definition but that’s a different discussion.

What do we do as competing firms? We want other social enterprises to be successful because we care about their causes and don’t want to see those causes fall victim. But at the same time, we need to be competitive, we need to be better than the next guy in order to be a successful company.

On the other hand, if we approach the market collaboratively we run the risk of being taken advantage of. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma playing out in all its glory.

We have several “competitors” in our space doing somewhat similar work.  No one is doing exactly what we’re doing (aren’t you enticed to find out what that is?) but that doesn’t mean they’re not competing.  How do we handle that?  What do we tell our partners?  What do we tell our investors?

My answer is to err on the side of respect. The cause space is still open and cause fatigue is not (yet) a reality. Those companies that are faking cause marketing probably won’t shake out but those who genuinely engage will benefit each other by paving the way for each other’s success. Consumers need more good cause marketing right now so they can gain sophistication and the market can mature.  Plus, I’d rather live in a “zillion sum” world.

Well, that’s just me. What do you think?