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Why Failure is Always an Opportunity

Why Failure is Always an Opportunity

I’ve written before about not making a cult out of failure. How there can be an obsession with failing that seems to place too much value on what we learn from failure. I talked about how it can be problematic to focus too much on failure when success is in fact be the greatest teacher most of the time. Whether you call it “failing fast” or something else, I remain convinced that, for the most part, we should focus on success rather than failure.

So what happens when we do fail? Massively. Undeniably. Something went wrong, and there is little but a smoldering wreckage and a fair bit of shame, or pain, or loss to ponder?

Is failure the end of the world, or just the end of something that needed to be over and done with.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that failure can be a signal that a particular course of action, or a particular set of behaviors isn’t cutting it anymore. Failure is the signal that what you were doing is a dead end. Failure is feedback that if you want to be successful, something needs to change, and you’ll need to figure out what that happens to be, and make the adjustment.

There is an entire section on this in Napoleon Hill’s book, Outwitting the DevilIf you’re struggling to come to terms with some form of failure in your life, I cannot suggest that book highly enough.

robert-downey-jr-mugshotFrom Heroin to Movie Star

An example I’m partial to is Robert Downey Jr. whose heroin addiction nearly ruined his life. He lost everything and ended up in prison – a golden Hollywood boy on the front pages for drugs. Life brought him some failure in order to tell him, “this course of action won’t cut it any longer.”

Downey listened and then climbed back from time in prison and rehab to the global stage with the Iron Man trilogy and The Avengers, some of the highest-grossing movies of their time.

Talking about his time behind bars, Downey said,

When the door clicks shut, then you are safe. There is nothing aside from a rogue correctional officer that can do you harm if you have the right cellie. You are actually in the safest place on Earth. Safe from the intruders.”

Downey isn’t talking about being safe from intruders or things that go bump in the night. He is talking about being safe from his addiction.

Addicts will tell you about the peace that comes from being locked up where their demons cannot find them. The bars served Downey as the discipline and self-denial that he couldn’t find in himself. The bars kept him from finding more heroin. They kept him safe from his demons, and so he felt safe.

The bars represent the feedback failure offers us. The bars are the signpost that alerts us when we have reached a dead end. There is no way forward. It’s time to do something new, and experience rebirth. It’s an opportunity to be the phoenix.

From Layoffs to Startups

When I was a couple of years out of school, I took a job with a consulting firm that did software requirements gathering. At the time, I didn’t know enough about the nature of software requirements to recognize that it wasn’t going to be a good fit for me. There was too much work behind a computer and not enough interacting with the outside world. I hated it, and as a result I wasn’t good at it.

I found myself working 16 hour days to keep up with work that everyone else seemed to be able to just do. I felt myself failing night after night, miserable, but unwilling to give up and quit. This went on for months until the company and I parted ways in a round of tech layoffs. They picked me to go because I clearly wasn’t as good as anyone else at the work. I had failed.

I vividly remember my feet hitting the pavement outside the office with a feeling I couldn’t shake that, “this is the best thing that happened to me this year.” On paper, that gut feeling didn’t make any sense. I’d lost a well-paying job (2 times my previous salary), and a promising career track in product management. But I’d spent nearly every day there there miserable, trying to figure out why things just weren’t working.

The money and the potential career just weren’t worth it. I didn’t love the work, but had things worked out differently, I might have ended up muddling through my career that way. But instead, the layoff set me free to find my next gig.

About six months later, I drove back by the company’s office on the way home from a new gig that would shape my life, and ultimately bring me to San Francisco.

Failure is feedback.

Failure is an opportunity to evolve and become a better version of yourself. Failure is the start of something brand new. When we accept failure as a sign that we need to change course, it becomes a tool. When we look back at the times we’ve failed and ultimately ended up in a 10x better place, we gain confidence to pursue our success and fear failure less and less.

If all failure brings is feedback and opportunity to 10x our current standing, we learn we have less to fear from failure. We learn to believe that we can do the impossible: see failure (when it comes) as a blessing.

Seeing failure as a blessing is incredibly hard when failure and shame tend to go hand-in-hand. Success brings acclaim and glory. Failure brings scorn and shame, and if we listen to those emotions too closely, we may not pick ourselves back up again to try the next thing.

Shame is a powerful emotion that tells us to stop doing something. Shame makes us want to hide our faces from the consequences of our actions. Shame can keep us from getting out of bed for weeks on end. It’s easier to start the next episode of Game of Thrones on Netflix than to face the shame from failure.

Sometimes prison bars are comforting because they are the full force of our shame coupled with a physical barrier that prevents us from repeating our failure.

But if we knew we weren’t going to repeat our mistakes, we might be able to accept them as opportunities to grow. Touching the hot stove may leave a scar, but that serves as the remainder of the place of our failure – the place we don’t want to return.

Five Stages of Failure

I think there are about five stages of failure that take us from that first moment of failing, through to integration of what we learned into our identity.

1. Sadness

Sadness is the feeling of loss. Sometimes failing removes an opportunity from our lives; one we’ll never be able to re-claim. This is incredibly depressing, particularly if a failure means having to close down a business or losing a job. It’s impossible to turn back the clock and make different decisions.

The only respite comes from a sense of inevitability. Failure means the way we were living was never going to get us what we wanted in the first place. The only solution is to leave behind behaviors that were holding us back. The sadness can be replaced by a sense of optimism that we’re moving forward towards greater success. We can become something new.

2. Anger

Sadness can give way into anger at just about everyone. When something goes wrong, it’s an easy solution to blame everyone but ourselves. That doesn’t help. Anger directed at anyone else allows us to be the victim of our circumstances rather than accepting responsibility for our lives. If we’re the victim, we can’t learn from our mistakes, which means we can’t move past the failure. Holding on to anger at anyone, even ourselves is a distraction that keeps us from moving forward.

3. Acceptance

Acceptance happens when we acknowledge the sadness and anger over our failure. We can accept our situation as a starting place. Once we’ve begun to accept where we are, we stop holding onto the past, and can start focusing on the future. But acknowledging the current state of affairs allows us to simply be where we are rather than focusing on where we could have or should have been. We first acknowledge where we are and then we are free move onto the next thing.

4. Gratitude

Gratitude means we start finding ourselves grateful for the opportunity to be in a new place. We’re grateful for the lessons earned along the way, and have faith that we’ll seize the opportunity to grow into the next phase of our lives. The gratitude is for the chance to leave a place that no longer served us so that we can find somewhere better. We have an unshakeable sense that we’re on to bigger and better.

5. Peace

Gratitude brings us to peace. Peace lets us examine the past in a weird state of contradiction. We can look back through mistakes that were made and examine them for lessons, but rather than feel stress or anxiety, we are at peace. We’ve let go of the fear and shame, and see the past as both the end of something unhealthy, and the beginning of something new.

Failure is Re-Birth

Failure is something to find immense gratitude in. It is a new chance at life. It’s your opportunity to grow into the next version of who you are. It’s your chance at an exit from where you are, and the time to discover where you will be soon.

Failure is the brick wall that tells you the most blessed message you, as a thoughtful, caring person could ever hope to receive – this isn’t going to work. You need to figure out a better way to live.

And seeking a better way to live is the only way to really live. Be grateful for those opportunities when they come at you. And if failure’s brick wall pays a visit, find it within yourself to be forgiving of your mistakes, admit what they might have been, and accept the opportunity to correct them, and set your course anew.

The wind will rise to greet you, and your sails will carry you far.

We can end with a quote from Winston Churchill.

Success consists in stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Social Is Responsible for 57% of Your Sales Funnel

Social is 57% of Your Sales Funnel

Recently, I asked the question does social matter? and explained that the internet and social media have fundamentally altered the ways that businesses and customers interact with one another to develop relationships, manage the customer experience, and to buy and sell products.

Today, we’re going to look at how Social Media has horned in and taken responsibility for over half of your organization’s sales funnel.

The internet has democratized the traditional sales funnel.

Before the internet made it possible for you to Google reviews about a company, the only info that existed about the organization you wanted to buy from existed in the form of advertisements and marketing collateral. That information came straight from their marketing department or agency, and their only goal was to serve you the info you would need to hand them your money. 

In other words, that information was suspect. 

But, you couldn’t know if the marketing info was accurate or not without buying. The availability of word of mouth reviews of the company would be limited to your immediate social circle of about 100-200 people.

Then the internet and social media came along. Suddenly you can google a review of anything, and find it. You can hop on Twitter and see what people are saying about @foobrand right that instant. You’re watching the unfiltered customer experience unfold in front of your eyes, and you can decide for yourself if the organization is living up to its brand promise or not.

Social is 57% of your Sales Funnel

In a recent study, Google and CEB found,

“Business buyers do not contact suppliers directly until 57 percent of the purchase process is complete.”

That means for more than half of the sales process, your customers are not in contact with your salesforce, but are self-serving themselves the information they need to buy. During that time your sales team can’t guide your potential customers through the funnel, so your social strategy has to pick up the slack and address that 57% of the funnel.

Product information is either pushed by your organization, or pulled by customers doing research. Information you push is carefully managed to ensure the greatest possibility of the sale.

Potential customers are going to pull the information they need to make an informed purchase, and social is one of the primary places they are going to pull from. They’re going to pull it from social precisely because it’s impossible for you to micromanage your brand on social. Potential customers know that current customers are going to tell people exactly what it’s like to do business with you.

Are there more positive, testimonial-esque interactions, or are there more complaints? We know that customers resort to social as a last resort, so you can assume a high numbers of negative social interactions (relative to positive ones) indicates a high volume of unsatisfied customers.

How quickly is the company responding to customers and potential customers on social? Customers will have issues, and will need support. Companies that get it, have teams in place to respond within a few minutes (30 at the most).

Good social support looks like the following

  1. A fast response
  2. A bespoke response – Details matter. Copy/pasting on social indicates a major part the customer experience is an afterthought. What about the part that happens behind the scenes? Ugh.
  3. Empathy in the response. Customers that feel heard are happy, referenceable customers, even if they have a large problem.
  4. The brand accepts responsibility for getting to a resolution quickly.

Support is sales at this point. Your sales team is either empowered by the social support happening the public eye, or they have to work that much harder to win the sale.

Your social team is already addressing that 57% of the funnel, whether you want them to or not.

They are either addressing it like United Airlines, and turning potential customers off, or they’re addressing it like Virgin America, and blowing customers’ and potential customers’ minds with a great experience. Your social presence is a direct reflection of your customer experience.

If your social presence sucks, customers will opt out and never make it all the way to your well-trained sales team. If your social is awesome, it becomes lead generation. Customers pick up the phone and call you with over half of their questions answered.

Customer Relationships and Lead Gen….

Relationships built by your social media team can be developed and taken “offline” to email, phone calls, in-person interactions, and then to sales. At first, 140 characters doesn’t seem like much, but that’s the beauty of it. The commitment to engage 140 characters is such a small one that it’s easier to start the initial conversation on Twitter than picking up the phone.

And once you’ve got the conversation started on social, you can begin developing trust – trust that will show up in every subsequent stage of your sales funnel.

The trust also gets stored as brand equity that will transform into testimonials, social media conversations, and customer advocates who will proudly represent your organization to their own social following. Suddenly, your social efforts have a positive network effect. They are a self-sustaining reaction of positive customer experiences visible to the entire world.

At that point, all your sales team has to do is say,

“I’m just a sales guy. Don’t take my word for it. Look at what real customers are saying on Twitter right now. I’ll wait.”

Suddenly, your existing customers are part of your salesforce. 

Now, you still have to have a mind-blowingly good product and customer experience. Those are table stakes. No amount of marketing can prop up a terrible product for very long.

But once you’ve got the product and the experience moving, using social interactions to connect with customers at every stage of the purchase process, builds your organization’s brand and stellar reputation, and affect your sales in a measurable way. Just ask customers, “where did you hear about us?” and track how many come in from social.

Social matters in a huge way to your sales team and your bottom line. Ignore social, you’re not just ignoring those fuzzy words like “brand” and “community” and “relationships.”

If you ignore social, you’re ignoring the first 57% of your funnel.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

The Things We Share Define Our Culture

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cultural things that we, as Americans, share (or don’t) with one another.

This Christmas, I was apart from my family, and spent my time with folks who I have about a year of history with, sharing a loosely traditional type of meal, gathered together in a secular manner. There wasn’t really any talk of Santa Claus or Christ, other than the “I don’t really believe in that stuff,” or “I’m definitely not going to tell my kids there is a Santa Claus…if I end up having kids.”

I think it bothered me less that I was disconnected from my family (although I missed them terribly), and more more that I felt disconnected from any sort of deep cultural narrative that my friends and I all shared, and gathered to celebrate. I felt a collective *meh* of everyone for the holiday. Like we were all taking time away from the office for what was effectively a cultural relic whose importance and meaning was beginning to fade from our collective memory.

The Christmas holiday has been separated from the tradition that gave it birth, and as a result lost most of its cultural significance.

In other words, when you disconnect the concept “Christmas” from the Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, or from the cultural myth about a benevolent Saint Nicholas who gives gifts to children at Christmastime, the day on the calendar becomes an empty vessel where meaning used to be.

It’s now second nature for us to separate most traditions or cultural norms down to their individual parts, disconnecting them from the larger narrative until their once rich meaning ceases to exist altogether. As a culture, I’m not sure that America is acknowledging that deconstructing everything leaves us with parts can never add up to the sum of the whole.

And with a holiday like Christmas, everyone unconsciously acknowledges the nihilistic space that remains, and rushes to redefine the narrative around the day as simple “the time we spend with the people we’re close to.” That doesn’t pack nearly the same punch,

For tech workers in San Francisco, Christmas feels like a break from email and work, the two main things we have in common. Email and work are two of the major things that make up our culture. They are where we spend most of our time, and form the modern-day “tribes” of American cities.

I’ve been mulling this over for the past few months, but was spurred to action the other day when Gmail went down for almost 2 hours. My acquaintance Andrew Leonard, who I love because he is living the dream as a full-time writer, wrote an article about how Gmail going down was a rare moment of cultural unity for all of us.

Partisan divisions, culture war skirmishes, gender hostility … all gone. When Gmail went down, we became one nation, out of many inboxes. The reaction to the Gmail outage probably caused a sharper drop in productivity than the outage itself.

There’s something sweet about seeing such unity forged from catastrophe — however fleeting that unity might be, however quickly we returned to our own demarcation zones soon afterward.

Of course there’s a bit of satire, but Jesus doesn’t it ring true? Our most powerful moment of cultural unity, the thing that bridged all the chasms between ideologues, the experience we all shared and saw through the exact same lens was when a monolithic tech company’s server farm hiccuped for 2 hours.

Gmail kills our productivity for 2 hours, and there is gnashing of teeth. What are we to do without being connected to one another via email?

This isn’t an isolated example. It’s been like this for the last decade. In 2006, when I was in college, Facebook made sweeping changes and introduced “the Newsfeed.” American college students (we were still the only ones with Facebook access) rose up in protest, joining “Anti-Newsfeed” groups on Facebook (irony?) by the hundreds of thousands.

I remember refreshing the main Anti-Newsfeed group to watch its numbers jump by the thousands every few seconds. At the time, America was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we ignored that most of the time.

This was the great cause of my generation; the thing we would rise up and fight: Facebook changing the way they served us our friends’ status updates.

If the things a culture fights for and dies for are the things it values the most, what are we fighting for in America? Is there any sort of uniformity, or is something like Gmail going down the closest we get to the consensus of shared tradition these days?

To want for a renaissance of tradition isn’t a popular sentiment today, but I find myself secretly wishing for the social cohesion I felt when I lived in Mexico and Chile. Those were countries that had a rich traditions they celebrated, and perpetuated strong cultural identities that their people were proud of, and carried with them when they travel or emigrate. Americans pretend to be Canadians when we’re abroad.

I would walk across the entire country for a moment of American cultural unity that wasn’t tied to a social network, or my email provider.

Of course, that may be indeed what I have done. I followed manifest destiny to the end of the American continent, chasing my fortune to the land of gold rushes and tech bubbles. But in a land of innovation, where the new is always assumed to be better than what came before it, the only tradition we share is to eat our traditions at the table of progress.

What is our collective identity when the only things we have in common are the email applications and social networks we spend our time on? What happens when those inevitably pass away, out-innovated by the next startup?

There’s a great movie called “Killing them Softly” that has a sub-narrative running throughout the film about how America isn’t a country, it’s a business. The reasons Americans freely associate and form groups come down to getting paid and very little else.

The people I spent my holidays with were indeed my San Francisco family – people I have a lot of respect and love for. These are absolutely the folks that I spend most of my time with, but again, the relationships revolve centrally around technology products, and shared beliefs about how a business should be run. We all come from very diverse backgrounds with unique beliefs and practices, many of which if brought into the open would meet in conflict over core issues.

We joked to hide our nervous realization that our daily lives are now significantly defined by the connectivity delivered to us by a tiny handful of corporations.

What is the American cultural legacy we are leaving behind? What do we as Americans believe as a country? Is there still a cultural narrative that ties us together but doesn’t have to be justified by revenue or profit? As a man seeking to find his way and a fabric to weave into, where am I to turn?

Can I Google the answer? Will the servers be up?

Bon Iver, Risk, Hazardry, and when to say “I’m Just Gonna Call It.”

I spent the better part of a few moments today piecing together all the “Starred” songs on my Spotify. First thing I noticed was how my strategy for starring songs has changed over the past 2 years. I also noticed how I can track the trends of what I was listening to or working through at given points in my life. I listen to music as much to help me focus as to help shape my mood.

If I want to feel like a badass, I listen to Aloe Blocc. If I’m working out, I’ll listen to something like Breaking Benjamin or Metallica.

I was going through the playlist looking for a song that capture a sentiment I wanted to express and send to someone. I tend to catalogue songs that represent a given epoch in my journey, and they often become a memory capsule of the emotions I had at that time. Listening to Aloe Blocc anchors not only the badass emotions I wanted to generate, but also their counterparts: a series of negative feelings that weren’t productive at the time.

Listening to these songs is like following my own trail of breadcrumbs and retracing a timeline of emotions I was cultivating, people I had met, and ideas that I was working through at a given time. Sometimes a few weeks back, sometimes years back. It’s like reading an auditory journal. Or an AI penning a song to describe a moment you shared with it.

The song at the top of the page, Beth/Rest, off of Bon Iver’s sophomore album, was there with me at a number of pivotal moments in the past 2 years.

I remember a girlfriend dropping me off at an airport, and knowing with a lot of sadness it would be a while before we saw each other again. As I connected in DFW, I played the song, and figuring that an airport is as good a place as any to cry in public, I found an unoccupied gate and spent a few minutes doing just that. Beth/Rest helped queue the tears as I watched jets take off, waiting for my own.

The song represents coming full-circle, back through memories of the good and the bad, and finding a lot of beauty in how the past will play into the future. It’s a song about acceptance and resolve. Acceptance of where the present has brought you, the choices made along the way, and how to proceed forward with the best of intentions, and a focus on what has and will continue to be beautiful.

There’s a line where Justin Vernon makes the statement,

 

I’m just gonna call it.

 

It precedes the lines,

 

Sure some hazardry /
For the light before and after most indefinitely.

 

His poetry is amazing, and his choice to act for the beauty he encounters along the way is how I chose to live my life. I want to be in service of the beauty I can find, and willing to stop and appreciate it when I discover it. I’ve never gotten to those places of quiet wonder without experiencing some risk and hazard along the way, which is probably why I don’t have too much problem putting myself in harm’s way when I think there might be a sunset from the Marin headlands after an afternoon walking in Muir woods afterwards.

It never crosses my mind that jumping in front of some risk might not be worth it for the experience, for the journey, for the beauty. Risk for me is often a way of adding a bit more possibility to any given choice. Add risk, add potential reward. Do this intelligently, and God-willing, you can move a bit faster than the mean. Most of the time, the risk is a paltry sum for the potential reward.

Sometimes, despite all the fear, you just gotta call it. Face the hazardry, and remember the exquisite beauty of the experience that will be your traveling companion along the way. I think this is the surest way to fall in love with your life, and whomever happens to join you along the way.

Here’s to that.

Austin W. Gunter

Flappy Bird’s Creator Should Be Admired

Let me start off strong.

I really admire the creator of Flappy Bird, Dong Nguyen, for pulling his Gangnam Style level of popular game out of mobile app stores.

I admire him not because I think it’s masterful marketing. I don’t think the dude is pulling a “McRib Sandwich” and is going to re-release his game sporadically to drive up demand.

Rather, I think the self-styled “indie game developer” is genuinely troubled by the attention he’s gotten from the app, and doesn’t want the burden that comes along with his sudden internet fame. Yes, burden. He’s turning the game off because the money and all the attention he got was affecting his life in a way he was unwilling to accept.

Look at the number of re-tweets and favorites. When I wrote this post, re-tweets were over 8,000, and favs were over 4,000. That’s absurd engagement most marketers would kill for. What in the wide world of tech startups would drive someone to walk away from that?

I think the answer is integrity. I think Dong is serious about living a simple life as an indie game developer, and he’s unwilling to sell out his life to get internet famous.

As an aside, that’s not to say that the folks starting tech companies are out of integrity. Far from it. Most of the founders I have the opportunity to know and connect with are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and I look up to them.

I’m just saying that it doesn’t look like Dong ever aspired to that life, and now that it is being offered him, he’s turning it down.

It would probably be pretty easy for someone like Dong to get caught up in the insta-fame of a smash hit game that he’d created.

Take the money, and adjust your lifestyle accordingly. Try and make your next game as much of a moonshot.

Lose sight of why you got into this whole line of work in the first place as you try and maintain the same level of success.

I admire Dong because I think he represents a narrative that I don’t see much in Silicon Valley: that of the sustainable business. He’s not trying to make a dent in the universe, he’s trying to live a simple life. He’s a master craftsman, and small business owner. He’s living his life through the games he designs.

Dong possesses such a clear sense of who he is and what he wants out of life (a calling, maybe?) that he was willing to walk away from an estimated $50k daily revenue from his wildly successful game.

In a recent conversation with my friend Alex King, he talked about moving from the Bay Area to Denver so that he could build a successful dev agency and get out of the startup pattern he was in: Build something for 1-2 years >> sell it off for cash >> watch those two years of work (two years of your life) get iced inside of a larger organization.

Get paid, but never make a lasting impact.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Dong isn’t just walking away from the money. He’s also happily walking away from thousands of folks tweeting at him when they find themselves suddenly addicted to playing Flappy Bird. Dong was too successful with Flappy Bird, and unwittingly made it addictive. This brought him a lot of attention he didn’t want, and the attention got in the way of game creation.

Rather than turn up the addiction volume (Ahem, Facebook), he pulled the game.

The dude has earned the attention of the entire planet, now addicted to playing Flappy Bird, along with a game that is printing cash, and all he wants is to get back to his simple life. He creates small games that generate enough revenue to keep the lights on. In Vietnam, the cost of living must pale in comparison to what it is for the same folks who live in San Francisco and are eagerly observing and writing blog posts about this enigmatic game developer.

No doubt, there is a subset of founders in the Bay Area are screaming that Dong is a f*cking idiot for turning off a magical spigot that every day rains down $50k to his bank account.

I don’t think he’s an idiot. I think Dong knows what he wants out of life far more than most people. And he’s also giving himself the permission to live his life out on his own terms, particularly when it comes to making big sacrifices to live that life.

Dong knows what he wanted out of life, and was willing to walk away from riches and world-renown because those two things would interfere with that dream.

Here’s hoping we can all find the same clarity Dong has.

Props to you man. Keep living your life.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

When I Grew My Own Vegetables

I just bought a bonsai tree for my bedroom. It’s a tiny, bent thing that sits on top of my printer, underneath my window. It will never grow tall, but I’m looking forward to having it alongside me as I go through the next years of my life. When I get up each the morning, I look out over Polk Street and Nob Hill towards the Marin Headlands with my little tree.

It’s been several years since I started my vegetable garden and learned to grow my own food. From my urban apartment in downtown San Francisco, I missed the feeling of being surrounded by vegetation, and the simple pleasure of watching plants grow.

Living on the 12th floor of a high rise, it’s easy to feel out of touch with the rhythm of nature. I spend most of my time engaging with the world through my phone or one of my laptops. It’s not unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s life in Her.

Even when I go outside for a walk, I’m surrounded by buildings and asphalt rather than trees and nature. Where I am now is the most urban environment I’ve ever lived in. It’s the first time I don’t have woods outside my window, or a river in my backyard.

We’re all connected to the natural world around us, but I think it’s easy in the pursuit of career excellence to find myself intent on working late rather than getting out of “the city” to take a breather and recharge my batteries surrounded by nature.

When I was first getting my career started, I was living with my parents for a bit. They have this big giant yard that backs up to a creek, and that was when I decided I was going to start a garden I could eat from.

I researched this type of gardening where you can fit tons of different crops into a small space, each into a square foot of soil, and built one with a friend. I had everything from this really amazing spinach vine that loved the Texas heat, to red basil, to jalepenos, and on. Not everything I planted grew, but I was just learning and getting started. 

Every day, I would come home from a stifling job at a consulting firm and water my garden. I’d change out of my biz casual and into some jeans to hang out with my plants before dinner.

Walking around my garden with the hose, I felt connected to everything, and very at peace with myself. In some ways, it was better than having pets. The plants were cool being with me as I was in my head with my thoughts, letting the day wash over me like the water from the hose.

As the water seeped into the soil, I could watch the plants respond and thank me.

The red basil would fill the air with the smell of fresh basil as soon as its soil got damp. It was letting me smell it as a way of saying thank you. The plant was offering itself back to me as gratitude for caring for it, and I loved it for its beauty and simplicity.

Over time, I could tell that they each knew me and responded when I was nearby. I never knew plants had such personality or a deep capacity to connect with us.

The last year or two I lived in Austin, I moved every 6 months. My garden at home froze one winter, and I didn’t stay in one place long enough to let anything else put down roots.

Even though I don’t have a garden today, growing my own food still profoundly affects how I experience the world.

When I cook, the food I make today, years later, is still influenced by what I grew in my garden. Every pizza I make or order comes with with spinach and basil, even though it’s difficult to find red basil most of the time.

I yearn for the time when I’ll be able to return to a life when I’m daily connected with the environment and growing the food I eat. I believe we’re supposed to live in lockstep with the rhythms of the natural world that surrounds us, but it’s easy to disconnect from that as we swim in a sea of technology.

A natural rhythm is part of why I love to travel for work. Arriving in a new city for an event, I can fall into step with the rhythm of the conference I’m attending. It carries me along for a few days, and I am a full citizen of the community that forms.

But once the show is the over, as I head back home, the show tears down and the rhythm disappears. Outside of work, there are fewer and fewer rituals to be a part of as a 20something male. I’m not the only one feeling this, but I lament what I perceive to be a great loss that comes from our deeper connections to our devices and our jobs, which have 24/7 access to us, but at the expense of creating more and more shallow, temporal connections with one another, and with the earth that would breathe life into us.

And breathe into us something more than endless push notification and urgent fires to put out. But rather life that offers us less to do via a touchscreen, and more for us weave into the fabric of every step we take, and the small rituals that over months and years of repetition form our identity.

A walk through Muir woods. A slow afternoon at Dolores Park, empty on a Monday when everyone else is busy at work. Silence between two people.

A few years ago, I dove headfirst into my career in the expectation of creating amazing value, achieving escape velocity, and then escaping the rat race and the trap of working my whole life because that was “the plan.”

I’m still working towards that goal, but when I wake up in the morning, sometimes I think there are more answers found in my little banzai tree than any blog post I could read, or any startup veteran who could give me advice.

Sometimes I think that complicating my life in the pursuit of an ultimate goal of simplicity might not be the shortest distance between two points.

Meanwhile, my little bonsai tree patiently waits for me to get home to water it. It reaches ever skyward to the sunshine that gives it life.

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Does Social Matter?

Does Social Matter?

My good friend, Jacqueline Hughes, has made her career out of being social. In the growing Austin tech scene, Jacqueline is the go-to person for events, outreach, digital marketing, and connecting businesses with customers. Currently, she’s producing events for the Austin TechStars. She also helped found and produce the quickly-growing Austin Startup Week, and has worked with a bunch of startups in the city.

Jacqueline and I both started our careers during the recession in 2009-2010. At the time, I don’t think I realized how a terrible time it was to be a new college graduate (with a liberal arts degree, no less) searching for work. But I still look back with admiration at Jacqueline’s approach to building her reputation and her career from scratch.

Jacqueline’s secret was to get very social, very fast.

Rather than bide her time and wait for the economy to improve, she made a list of every single tech-related event in Austin and started attending all of them; 3-5 a day sometimes. At first she was just somebody who attended a lot of networking events. But after a few months, she began building influence and developing relationships with influencers in the city. After a year, Jacqueline was everywhere, at every event, and she knew almost everybody. Today, she’s responsible for some of the most prominent startup events in the city, and is sought out as the expert in marketing and events in Austin.

Being social was a shortcut to some very real-world results. Without that strategy, she would have to go through the same saturated channels to get her career going. It would have taken longer, and been much less effective at demonstrating what she actually brought to the table.

What’s the point of telling Jacqueline’s story?

Jacqueline’s story demonstrates the increasing value social has to the future of business. The point is that social really is still waiting for widespread acceptance because it’s not entirely clear how “being social” drives bottom-line results. Social does drive results, but the ways that it drives those results doesn’t resemble more traditional ways, and the results can often be difficult to fully quantify.

What Comes Next?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been covering a few different angles of what social media means for your organization, and understanding how to evaluate the right person to man your social program. Soon, I want to cover the essentials for setting up your social media strategy for the first time.

But before I get to what you need to do to set up your social strategy, I think it’s important to dig into why building a strong social media presence is essential to the success of the modern enterprise.

My argument is that excellent social marketing is becoming as essential as excellent engineering or excellent financials are to your business, but I have a chip on my shoulder about how much credibility social has in a traditional business context. Since social is what I do, I’m vested in the process of articulating what it is, and why it matters to your organization.

Social vs. Engineering vs. Finance

Yes, I know. The term “social” doesn’t yet engender the same level of respect that “finance” or “engineering” does. Frankly, there’s a lot of historical justification for that. Finance and engineering are well-established as keys to business success. Many of the folks responsible for some of the most massive creations of value and wealth we have borne witness to in the last century were either financial or engineering geniuses, but you probably wouldn’t describe them as primarily social creatures.

John D. Rockefeller was a financial master whose methods of double-entry accounting provided a foundation not only for the unparalleled success of Standard Oil, but also laid the groundwork for modern-day accounting as well. He was also a famous introvert and a recluse. Mark Zuckerberg is the brilliant engineer who revolutionized the way we connect with each other with Facebook. He’s also sometimes described as having “a touch of Asperger’s.”

Having a business that strives to financial excellence produces a company with clean books, and a strong business model. Having a business that strives to engineering excellence produces amazing technology that re-shapes our lives.

But what does it mean to have a business that strives to have social excellence? What’s the result for your organization in real-world terms that matter to growing a strong company? Doesn’t social actually get in the way of keeping your nose to the grindstone and building a profitable company?

No. Not anymore. In the past, that was true, but not any longer.

Twenty years ago social didn’t matter very much to the revenue of large organizations, and it didn’t matter at all 40 years ago.

Today, social matters a lot because technology has fundamentally changed the nature of how customers interact with businesses, and that has created an impetus to develop new ways businesses interact with their customers.

Social has changed the way customers interact with businesses.

Customers Are More Empowered

There used to be a very structured and organized way that businesses would transact with customers. In order to sell, a business established direct and sequential sales and marketing channels to push a message and a product to potential customers. Corporate hierarchies followed this model, taking on rigid structures, organized themselves around making those straightforward sales in a militaristic fashion.

Forty years ago, a potential customer only had a few channels to interact with a company. The company controlled their image via advertising and sales channels. Most of the information that existed about products and customer experience was massaged for the benefit of the company, not the customer.

Prior to social media, a customer’s access to word-of-mouth about a company was limited to their social circle. Outside of that, the only ways they could learn more was more or less to send off for a catalogue, or call a salesperson directly. Each of those were touch points that a large organization could own.

The advent of social has dramatically increased the number of places a customer can go to learn about a product and a company. The effect has been a boon for customers because organizations can no longer dominate the conversation about their products.

When anyone can publish what it was like to do business with your organization in an infinite number of places on the web, the truth about your company will come out for better or for worse.

In fact, as I’ve pointed out, the only way you can “control” the message around your organization anymore is by ensuring your customer experience is so good when it shows up on social media it shows up in the form of testimonials rather than rants.

But having an effectively infinite number of places for customers to learn about your organization means that traditional, rigid corporate structures that don’t have social baked into their DNA are not directing their efforts at the most effective activities and channels to engage with their customers.

Social means that organizations can no longer push a well-manicured message about their products and have it stick. Rather, customers are now able to pull the information they need from googling around and using various social networks. Customers now decide for themselves when they’ve learned enough about a company.

Social has fundamentally changed the rules of how businesses engage their customers, and the businesses that “get it” are going to be clear winners in the battle for dominance in their markets in the coming decade. It won’t look like dominance, though. It will look like a lot of social interactions happening everywhere, all the time, between brand and consumer. Think less “trade show floor” and more “meetup group.”

If your organization isn’t out there in the thick of it, engaging your customers where they are, you’ll miss the boat. Social has arrived on the scene, and your organization needs to have a plan for social excellence just like any other business discipline.

In the next post, I’ll explain the Social Buying Process, and demonstrate how the internet and social media has fundamentally disrupted traditional sales funnels, and how social business allows you to use this to your organization’s advantage.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

 

Bye 2013. Hello 2014.

Dear 2013.

As I requested, you were nothing like I could have expected, but better than I’d hoped. Thanks for making my head spin, and bringing me back home to my center. I have nothing but gratitude for everything that I’ve received from you this past year.

 

Dear 2014.

I greet you with open arms. Where I remained open to what 2013 had to show me,  I’ll take what I’ve learned from that year and apply it with focus and clarity in the decisions that I make, and the actions I’ll take. Where 2013 rewarded me for remaining open, you’ll reward me for knowing when to say yes, and when to say no. It’s time to build on the foundation we laid, and create something ambitious in the next 365. 

Ready…set…

Go.

The Cynefin Framework for Modeling Business Decisions

Tonight, I discovered the Cynefin Framework for decision-making. I recognized intuitively a lot of the lessons that this model illustrates when it comes to analyzing and orienting to properly make decisions and act in a business, or otherwise complicated environment. Prior to watching the video, I could not have articulated any of that intuitive understanding, which really means I didn’t have anywhere close to a full grasp of that intuition yet. If you can’t articulate something, you don’t understand it well enough. 

What struck me as worth noting about the video is the following. 

The Cynefin Model is a sense-making model, not a categorization model. A categorization model would be the typical 2×2 “up and to the right” model that consultants use, where the framework proceeds the data. The categorization model allows you to easily categorize data and make a decision, but the 2×2 model, for example, might not have been appropriate to perform the analysis required to make the right decision. It was rigid, so it made for quick decision-making, but that doesn’t leave room for creative or innovative ways of thinking that are essential to success in business these days.

A sense-making model, like the Cynefin model, is where the data precede the framework. The framework for action and decisions is then allowed to emerge with the data, not the other way around. The inherent assumption with the Cynefin is that a one-size fits all decision-making model may not be sufficient for all problems. With that in mind, we need a model we can use to orient ourselves to the situation at hand, analyze, and act according to model that emerges from data, not the other way around.

This fits in well with the ideas I’m working on about the importance of Social business, because the challenges of Social are creating new situations and challenging that may confound the old ways that large organizations manage and take action. In order to respond to Social, our organizations require new models for decision-making, and my sense is that the Cynefin Framework recognizes the causal differences between systems of action and decision-making, and gives us a structured method to deal with and communicate about ambiguity in a fast-moving, sometimes chaotic environment.

I think that many people are comfortable with the ambiguity, but it’s helpful to have a reputable model that can withstand the rigors of a fast-moving business.

Watch the short video.

I went off the deep end a bit here. 

I still hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Social Media: A Trailing Indicator of Customer Experience

Social Media: A Trailing Indicator of Customer Experience

Contrary to popular belief, customers complain on social media as a last resort. Customers will give your brand the benefit of the doubt before they jump on Twitter, or write one of those scathing Yelp reviews. We want to have a great experience, and don’t see picking a fight on Facebook as the best first option when something goes wrong. We’ll try and contact the brand first. Only when that fails do we get out the megaphone and shout in the commons.

Take Canadian musician Dave Carroll, for example. In 2008, Dave was on a layover a Chicago O’Hare International Airport, flying United Airlines (yep, I’m going there), a company that frankly has spent the last decade or so developing a reputation for less than stellar customer service. Dave was about to become one the most legendary examples of how one moment of poor customer service can impact everything about an organization, including its stock price.

As Dave waited for his connecting flight, he heard a fellow passenger exclaiming that the United baggage handlers were throwing guitars out on the runway. Rightly assuming that they might be trashing his very expensive Taylor guitar, he notified three separate stony-faced United representatives at the gate who did absolutely nothing.

You know where this is going.

Dave arrived at his destination to find his $3,500 Taylor guitar smashed inside the case.

When Dave made his claim on the guitar, United rejected it on a technicality, saying they were not responsible for the damage done to his guitar because he didn’t file his report within 24 hours of the event.

Dave then embarked upon a year-long process to find someone inside United Airlines who would accept some responsibility and buy Dave a new guitar. After a year of working his way through all layers of United Airlines, all he found were people willing to pass the buck.

After a year, Dave was ready to hold United accountable.

He wrote a song called “United Breaks Guitars,” posted the music video to YouTube, and stepped back to watch the fireworks.

Buying Dave a new Taylor for $3,500 was about to look like a bargain for United.

The song took off. Within 4 days, the music video had racked up so many YouTube views that United’s stock price fell 10%, costing shareholders right around $180 million.

Suddenly, Dave Carroll’s phone is blowing up with folks from United who want to get a hold of him to remove the video. Too little, too late. Dave didn’t take it down, and the song lives on on YouTube. Today, it has more than 13,000,000 views, a reminder to the company that social media now allows customers to hold them accountable for their customer experience against their future revenue.

The song is so well-known, that it’s become a part of Dave’s online marketing strategy. Google him, and see how much SEO juice is also directed at his hit single.

google dave carroll

Dave’s milked the popularity of a song, and even wrote a book, titled, United Breaks Guitars, which I think I may have to read because it’s about the power of social media and customer experience.

It’s hard to grok the power of a YouTube video to bring a company’s stock down hundreds of millions of dollars in a few days. But it makes sense when you understand that social media allows consumers like Dave the power to tell future customers exactly what the experience of buying from a company is like so that they know whether or not to do business with that company.

For example, here is how Taylor Guitars handled the situation.

Search for any brand on social media, and you’ll get an up to the minute sense of how well they treat their customers. Since organizations cannot massage the messages their customers send, the only way they can ensure that people say nice things about them is to deliver excellent customer experiences every single time.

All this is on my mind, in no small part because I had another set of delayed United Airlines experiences over the weekend.

This was the 4th and 5th time (in a row) that I’ve had minor to massive delays on a United flight. With the amount of flying I do, things are statistically bound to happen, but there was too much of a pattern going on for me to keep quiet.

Because I know what the receiving end of this feels like, I had resisted doing what so many customers do when they have a bad customer experience: I went on social media to rip United.

Their responses (which I assume were robo-tweets) ranged from lame:

To insulting:

To “are you even paying attention?”

It’s clear nobody was paying attention on their social channels, which means they’re missing a huge opportunity to engage and listen to their customers. Social media is an important trailing indicator of your customer experience, and smart brands are aware of this and picking up on it.

[ASIDE: As the social media person for WP Engine, I hope I don’t bring bad karma on myself for yelling at them on Twitter, but frankly, I was at a breaking point, and that’s one of the things social media is good for: allowing customers to hold brands and companies accountable for their service, good and bad. Social media means it’s the first time in history an individual customer had enough leverage to complain and have a company listen.]

Now, no company, no matter how beloved can maintain 100% customer satisfaction with 100% of their customers. There will always be things that can go wrong, and some customers are simply harder to please than others. However, the more a company does to deliver on their brand promises behind the scenes, the more positive things their customers will say about them in public.

It’s easy to identify the organizations that get this. Do a Twitter search for @VirginAmerica for one of my favorite examples. They have testimonials and stories about positive experiences from customers raving about how much they love flying with them. People even tweet about how they’ve actually made an entertaining pre-flight safety video. Customers are delighted with the entire Virgin experience, and they aren’t shy about saying it.

What’s more, the whole organization “gets it.” Earlier this year, I met a Virgin America pilot wearing Google Glass who now follows me on Twitter.

As more and more consumers continue to adopt social, more and more brands will realize that they can use social as a way to measure sentiment, and evaluate how empowered their staff are to thrill customers. An accurate picture of an organization’s customer experience, either positive like Virgin, or negative like United, will take shape over time on social media.

More succinctly: social media is a trailing indicator of your organization’s customer experience.

Organizations that get this, empower their employees with the latitude to deliver excellent customer interactions, and to engage with their customers on social media.

Customers like Dave Carroll don’t show up at the airport itching unleash social media wrath on their airlines. But they will if monolithic company processes restrict employees from taking initiative to solve the customer’s pain. United Airlines isn’t made up of a bunch of heartless robots who wanted customers like Dave to have broken guitars.

But the company is made up of antiquated processes that leave very little room for employees to take initiative and over-deliver for an unhappy customer. Those antiquated processes don’t take into account how social media gives individual customers leverage against a billion-dollar company. They also don’t take into account how powerfully social word of mouth affects purchase decisions.

Some Metrics to Drive This Home

According to Nielsen, 70% of consumers will trust the independent opinion of online strangers that they haven’t met, and 92% trust the opinion of people they know. What’s more, we’ve seen consumer trust in earned media, like social, increase 18% since 2007. Those numbers mean that customers are beginning to believe that social media will show them exactly what it’s like to buy from you, and they are using social to guide their purchase decisions.

If you’re not actively monitoring and tracking your customer experience on social media, you should start yesterday. In this era, social media should help organizations differentiate themselves, not by broadcasting their message, but by showing customers that they care. Social media gives you a channel to listen and begin tracking your social customer experience metrics. Once you’ve got those metrics in a spreadsheet, suddenly you have the power to make improvements across the entire organization to affect everything from customer cost to acquire, retention, support, in addition to marketing and branding.

What Can You Do?

Here’s a list of metrics and questions and that will give you a place to start thinking about your company’s social media presence, and help you identify ways to improve your customer experience.

Compare the number of positive interactions to the number of negative interactions on social. Are testimonials more common than complaints?

  • How many social conversations per week are you having?
  • Which social networks are your customers most active on?
  • How often do your customers use social media to get support? To complain?
  • How many social referrals do you get each week?
  • Do customers interact with your brand about more than just your product? Do they tweet photos wearing your swag, make inside jokes, or create memes about your product? If not, there’s a good chance they don’t love you as much as they could.
  • Will current customers stand up for you on social, or do they pile on when someone has a problem?
  • How frequently do customers engage on social?
  • When customers need support on social, how quickly do you respond?

I’d love to read more about these in the comments. The first step is simply to begin measuring what you see your customers doing on social media each week. Only after you have a picture of their normal behavior should you worry about coming up with a plan of action that will help you increase positive interactions, and decrease negative ones.

I’ll be digging into those topics in future blog posts. For example, there are ways to increase positive social interactions, and encourage testimonials by socially rewarding your customers for interacting with you positively to on social media by featuring their positive posts, and making sure they know you *hear* their negative tweets, which are meant to be constructive.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter