When the Pixel 3 was announced a few months ago there was a lot of press about the incredible Camera and the enormous Notch. Lost in this noise is a wireless charging accessory that Google calls the Pixel Stand.
The Pixel Stand is basically a standard wireless charger. It’s just a piece of plastic with no visual user-interface. Some say it’s overpriced at $79. Like I said, it’s a boring plastic stand.
But it completely transforms the Pixel 3.
This boring plastic stand transforms the Pixel 3 into an Assistant…
This boring plastic stand transforms the Pixel 3 into a photo frame…
This boring plastic stand transforms the Pixel 3 into a gradually brightening alarm clock…
Google is onto something by transforming your phone when placed in situations like on your nightstand or on your desk. Perhaps the most interesting part about all this is there is no software on the boring plastic stand. It’s all in the Pixel 3 phone.
When you place the Pixel 3 onto the stand it goes into a special mode. When you take it off it goes back to being a regular phone. It’s pretty magical to see your phone transform into something else just by putting it onto a boring plastic stand. I hope as mobile devices continue to evolve we’ll see more of these thoughtful transformations.
Have questions about the Basecamp 3 Android app? Let our awesome support team know by sending us an email.
At Basecamp, we’ve been running an initiative called Everyone on Support for nearly five years now. Each person in the company, whether a designer, developer or podcast producer, spends a day every eight weeks or so responding to customer emails. As Emily wrote a few months in, EOS quickly proved its worth: Direct contact with customers gave people a new perspective on our products, first-hand experience of the problems users were facing, and a reminder of what we were all working towards together. Lessons were learned, bugs fixed, and cross-team relationships were strengthened.
And then we got busy. With customer requests climbing, the support team lost some important people, and those that remained developed an unhealthy obsession with “inbox zero”. Our stress was infectious: Folk would turn up to their EOS shifts eager to help and leave deflated because they’d barely made a dent in the email queue. Each of them had a dedicated support team buddy to ask for help, but rather than “bug us” with questions, they’d spend hours down help-page rabbit holes. And on the rare occasions that things were quiet, they got bored because we weren’t leaving them with anything to do.
Something was very wrong, but the support team was too busy to notice. We didn’t have time to check in with each other, much less the people who were joining us for the day. We’d started Everyone on Support with the best intentions of not turning our coworkers into part-time firefighters, but that’s exactly what they became. Month after month, people would show up, grab the kind of requests they’d seen before, respond to as many as they could before their eyes started to swim, and clock off feeling bad because they hadn’t kept pace with the pros.
We hired some wonderful people, and reset our expectations for the support queue. While we took the time to train our new members, we paused EOS for a few months. That meant that we could put our whole focus on training, and take some time to think about how to do all-hands support right. As part of fixing our unhealthy behaviours, we carved out some time for “research and innovation”. I spent that time working out how we could invite our colleagues into the new, healthier space we’d created for ourselves. Here’s what we did, and what we learned.
Clear expectations are everything
Right from the start, we wanted to be clear about what Everyone on Support is. We put together a guide to outline what we expect from our guests and from their buddies on Team OMG (our pet name for the customer support team at Basecamp). A doc called What is EOS? What is EOS NOT?reaffirms our original goals for the scheme and how we’re going to achieve them together. It also reassures folk that they aren’t fodder to paper over cracks in coverage. We’ll work together to ensure their shift will be interesting, useful and fun.
As a bad manager in a previous work life, my initial impulse was to impose a solid structure onto EOS. On their first support shift, each person would respond to X number of login emails, then level up to billing issues, before starting to look at feature requests, and so on. I drew up a detailed syllabus, and asked for help fine-tuning it. Jim pinged me, and we had a great conversation, including the following question:
What does the loosest implementation of this look like? The company as a whole has been moving towards a more structured way of working for a while, but a lot of Getting Real and Rework are about doing less. How can we capture that spirit in EOS? What’s the smallest amount of work we can do to give the most support to the folks doing EOS?
I decided to scrap the syllabus. Using metrics risked the kind of anxiety around speed people had experienced in the past. Being too prescriptive would suggest that there’s only one way to succeed in support. And neither of those things got us closer to our goals for EOS.
I turned my gaze to the work we’d done to onboard the new members of the support team. OMG had done a great job of building a loose framework to support the learning of the newbies, and that felt like a better fit for what we were looking to do with Everyone on Support. I salvaged some bits from the abandoned syllabus, and repurposed them. When EOS would start back up again, everyone would have a collection of resources and some advice on handling common cases.
Basecamp is a company which values independence. The best approach was to give everyone everything they need to succeed, and then get out of their way.
Communication is key
Basecamp’s support team are thoughtful, kind humans. Instead of telling them how to manage their charges, I encouraged them to talk it out, and discover the way that person works best.
I suggested that each EOS day start with a discussion about what our guest supporter wanted to do, and end with a catch-up about how it went:
Your job is to help ensure that your buddy has fun, learns something new and feels good about their shift. Creating the experience that best works for them is going to come down to good communication.
A two-way street
Team OMG is full of good listeners (it’s our job!), and we’re as interested in learning from our coworkers as we are in teaching them. When updating our buddies list, I tried to pair people along shared lines of interest. Time zones made this tricky, but I’ve managed to connect support folk interested in research and product development with specialists in data and design, and the two-way insights have started to flow.
One size does not fit all
When training new OMG team members, we recognise that everyone learns and works in their own way. That’s something we’ve built into our approach to Everyone on Support: for some people, we pick emails that will be of interest and provide hints as to the answers; for others, we leave them to it, and stand by in case they have any questions.
Once someone’s comfortable with email support, it’s up to them how they spend their time with us. If something fits in a single day, and is going to benefit our customers, then it’s a good use of a support shift. People on EOS have squashed bugs, launched customer research projects, improved our internal tooling, leveled-up our external documentation… and that’s just the start!
Everyone on Support is a work in progress, but it feels like we’re going in the right direction. For six months now, we’ve been running a much more chill, cheerful — and constructive — version of EOS. I’m going to keep steering it with a light touch, and check in with people, to see how they feel about where we’re headed. Basecamp’s approach to all-hands support aligns with our values and how we choose to work as a company — so you may not be able to apply everything here to your own initiatives. We didn’t get it right on our first try, and we’ll make more mistakes in the future. It’s worth it.
Do you offer all-hands support? How does your approach differ to ours? Or are you thinking about rolling out something similar in your organisation? And what concerns or challenges are holding you back?
An online community for leaders looking to become better
“How do I become a better leader?”
I’ve spent my entire working life trying to answer that question. The answer, unfortunately, has never been very clear. I found books to be one-sided, conferences require you to be there in-person, and mentors who I trust not always available (nor do they always have the experience or answers I’m looking for!)
So we built “The Watercooler” — an online community for founders, CEOs, owners, executives, and managers to talk candidly about our struggles and our successes. No matter where you live, no matter where your company is located in the world, we now all can support each other on the path to becoming better leaders.
Who The Watercooler is for
Business owners who don’t have the time (or have never been interested) in attending leadership seminars, but crave thoughtful discussion around how other folks think about leading teams.
Managers who are having a tough time transitioning into their new role, or feel like they haven’t learned any of the “leadership stuff.”
Founders who’ve been hiring quickly, and scaling and managing a rapidly growing team is starting to feel overwhelming and a little perilous.
People who believe that great leaders never stop learning, and continually ask themselves: “How do I become a better leader?”
Remote Companies — Challenges of building a great remote environment.
And more: Growing the business, product strategy, work-life balance, social events.
Who makes up The Watercooler Community
At The Watercooler, we value leaders who have a shared commitment to becoming better — those who come from a place of humility and honesty. Upholding those qualities are important and is the only way we can ensure an open dialogue on sometimes tough and personal topics.
As a result, we have a strict review process for members. You can either be referred to The Watercooler by a current member, or you can apply for membership here.
About two weeks ago, we invited current Know Your Team account owners as part of a private beta… and it’s been amazing to see the conversations, honest insights shared, and helpful advice exchanged in only 14 days. We’ve discussed topics like “how to let someone go” and “how we run our all-hands meeting” and “how to create fairness between locations in a distributed company.”
With 130+ folks who joined our initial private beta, here’s what a few folks have told me about The Watercooler so far:
The Watercooler is just $20/month to join (or $200/year if you’d like to save 15%). This is to cover our maintenance costs and ensure we have a high-quality, moderated community.
Hope to see you at The Watercooler!
As a CEO myself, reading the threads in The Watercooler has been energizing. It’s made me feel like, “Phew, I’m not alone!” and helped me think through my actions and thought-processes on certain topics. I’d love to include you in the conversation. And, please feel free to share it with friends and colleagues who you think might benefit and add value to the community.
I look forward to learning from you at The Watercooler. See ya there!
The smallest action as a leader can have the biggest impact.
“I had no idea it mattered so much.”
A CEO said this to me about a year ago. I’d run into him at a conference. As we sat down at lunch together, he shared something that had happened to him recently…
A few months prior, he had asked his team a question through Know Your Team (they’re a happy customer!). The question was:
“Would you like a new office chair?”
The CEO initially thought the question was a little silly, to be frank. Did office chairs really matter? He doubted anything meaningful would come of the question, but he decided to ask it anyway.
Turns out, every single person in the office (they’re about a 14-person company) responded with, “Yes, I’d like a new office chair.”
Not only that, but many of them wrote lengthy, in-depth responses about how unhappy their chairs were making them — how it hurt their lower backs, how it kept them from concentrating and focusing on their work.
“I was shocked,” the CEO told me. “Something I thought was so small, was actually pretty big.”
So he decided to do something about it. The following day, the CEO asked everyone to pick out their own office chairs via Amazon or another site online. The chairs got shipped to the office the next week. Everyone spent a few hours all together during one afternoon, assembling their new office chair, laughing and joking with one another.
To the CEO’s surprise, it became a bonding event. He described:
“That single moment alone — getting people new offices chairs — boosted morale in the company more than anything else I’ve tried. The energy of the office has completely shifted since then.”
“I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on training programs and all sorts of employee engagement initiatives… and office chairs was the thing that did it?!”
The CEO couldn’t help but laugh. He never expected that acting on something so small would make such a big difference.
But it did. And it makes sense.
Taking action on something small is the single most effective way to increase morale in your company. When you do something that an employee suggests, you’re literally sending the message: “I want things to be as YOU would like them to be.” That’s powerful. Actions truly speak louder than words in this case.
It may sound obvious, but we often forget this as leaders: People share feedback because they want some form of action taken. No one is saying they’d like a new office chair just for the sake of saying it — they’d like the issue addressed somehow. Doing something (even if it is just getting new office chairs) reinforces that you’re listening as a leader, and encourages folks to speak up and be honest with you in the future.
Consider it a “quick win.” No matter how small, it makes a real difference.
Is there something small that was requested by an employee, that you haven’t gotten around to yet? Knock out the quick win.
Is there a decision that you’ve been sitting on, because you didn’t think it was that important? Knock out the quick win.
Employees value responsiveness. They’ll feel encouraged that their words led to action. That momentum will have a positive effect on morale.
Even if it’s office chairs, it’s a quick win. Knock it out.
When people talk about monetizing, they’re usually talking about some sort of scheme. Because anything that needs to be monetized can’t just be simple. If it was simple, you wouldn’t need a word like monetize. You’d just be making money selling a service or product.
No, monetizing is that word we need to explain how Facebook makes money. They’re monetizing friendships and privacy. Twitter is monetizing clever quips and the latest freak-out over Trump (often the same thing). Snap is monetizing looking silly to your friends with branded filters.
Most of these monetizing schemes are all variations on the same theme: How to sell your attention, your eyeballs, to someone else. So what’s good for business is whatever can extract the most attention from your sockets. Talk about an abusive, adverserial dynamic.
The industry euphemism for this is “engagement”. But really, anyone who’s monetizing could not care less whether you’re actually engaged or just addicted, zoned out, or not even in the room. As long as the app is open, the video is playing, the timeline is updating. As long as the metrics meter is ticking, monetizers be monetizing.
The defense is that this is how we get these apps for free. How oxymoronic. Here’s this thing for “free”, if you give me the most valuable things you own: Your attention, your privacy, your peace of mind. The price tag may say $0, but it ain’t free.
This doesn’t mean that you’re buying nothing. There’s all sorts of wonder and delight in them silos. But is it worth it?
That’s really the crux of being monetized. It’s a sly, hazy, and indirect way of getting charged. It’s not easy to compute the balance after you’ve been deducted, but deducted you’ve been. And it’s well worth paying closer attention to just how much.
But right now that’s pretty hard. When you start spending your attention, or “engagement”, on a new app, it’s like eating a beef jerky stick from the gas station with the declaration: Full of mystery meat! You probably know it’s not going to be good for you, but it’s easier to explain away when you don’t exactly know how bad and bad in which ways it is.
I’d love to see all monetized apps come with a declaration of costs and consequences. Maybe like ads for drugs in the US are forced to walk through the side-effects. Perhaps more people would think twice if the label for Facebook read:
Everything you say and do on Facebook will be used against you by advertisers for targeting that’s most likely to catch you at your most vulnerable, needy moment. Your consumption of the echo chamber timeline will lead to a narrower field of vision of the world. We may try to tinker with your mental well-being at any time, if we determine that a depressed state increases engagement on the A/B by any margin.
Consumption of a monetized apps should always be pondered with skepticism. The whole lot of them fall into what we should label “a family of products with known mental carcinogens; further study recommended”.
It wouldn’t surprise me if twenty years from now we view the likes of Facebook with the same incredulity we do now to smoking: How could they not know it did this to their health?
For the past 13 years, I’ve been selling a simple piece of software called Basecamp. A saner, calmer way to manage projects and communicate company-wide. There’s no monetization scheme, just a good product for a fair price. That’s it.
The easiest way to be disappointed is to expect others to act contrary to their self-interest. So really, we shouldn’t be disappointed to hear that Zuckerberg is enthusiastic about finding a way to appease Chinese censorship.
Facebook has already gobbled up an incredible 1.8 billion people and auctioned off their eyeballs and privacy with astounding economic success. If Zuckerberg can lock up another 1.4 billion Chinese, Facebook could feed the growth beast for at least several quarters!
It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.
Calling bowing to Chinese’s suppression of dissidents a “conversation” makes about as much sense as defending Thiel’s board seat as “diversity”.
But as I said, we shouldn’t be surprised. Of course Zuckerberg is going to spin an opportunity to double his user base as something that’s good for the world. That’s the thing about the new class of tech lords. Unlike the robber barons of old, they so desperately need to cast their greed and growth as a direct blessing to the world.
It reminded me of the Sinclair quote about a man and his paycheck. Repurposed for the age:
It’s difficult to get an entrepreneur to understand something, when their valuation depends on them not understanding it.
It seems painfully obvious that if Facebook arms the Chinese government with tools to suppress and hunt dissent, the slogan of “making the world more open and connected” is definitively a sham. But maybe this is just Facebook growing up and succumbing to the same market pressures as everyone else. Google dropped “Don’t Be Evil” a while back too.
It’s hard to have a backbone when it has to carry the weight of billions of dollars. At the very least it seems that several Facebook employees decided that their conscience was worth more and quit over having to work on this. Kudos to them.
It all started in September 2015. I had recently graduated from DePaul University in Chicago, where I had studied Information Technology, and I was flying out to San Francisco to join the ranks of Silicon Valley — the promised land for any twenty something tech hopeful. “All the biggest and best companies are out there. That’s where I want to be,” I told myself.
I always knew I’d be working in tech. I had my first computer when I was about four years old, and I vividly remember the look of MS-DOS as I watched my father install a Star Wars X-Wing simulator on it. I’d always been fascinated by computers, and finding out how they worked. It only made sense that I’d make that my life profession and move out to Silicon Valley.
I planned on being in the Bay Area for two weeks. After my first week, I knew it wasn’t for me. I went to countless Ruby, Rails, and other tech oriented networking events, talked to some founders, and set up some interviews. None of it felt right. I felt like a number, a cog in the tech machine. It was all about making it big and getting that next round of VC funding. That’s not what I envisioned it to be like. On top of that, I felt hostility when telling people at the coffee shops that I was there to get a job in tech. It was as if people wanted nothing to do with me once they found out I was trying to implant myself there and contribute to the decline in culture and rise in tech that has proliferated throughout the Bay Area. I wanted out.
I stayed for part of the trip with a friend who worked at Google. I used to dream of working at a company like Google when I was in school… but seeing the reality of it made me question that dream. At Google, my friend said he’d routinely put in 80-hour work weeks. That’s insane! It was like a badge of honor to people out there. Granted, part of that was his two hour bus ride to and from Mountain View, but still, there was no way I was going to be doing that, even if that’s what it took to be a Googler.
I no longer wanted to be a cog in the Silicon Valley machine. I wanted to be a human, working for a company that valued me, and enabled me to do meaningful work that would help me make my small dent in the universe. I went home to Chicago and refocused. I started to think about what type of company I wanted to work at. I wanted to work somewhere that would care about me as a person, enable me to positively impact other people’s lives, and preferably do some sort of work with Ruby on Rails.
One morning in January, while doing my usual job-hunting, I saw DHH tweeting about an internship program for the Summer of 2016. This was my shot. I’d dreamed of working at Basecamp, and maybe the internship program would give me that edge I needed to get started with my career in Ruby on Rails. It wasn’t the full time job I was looking for at the time, but after reading the internship description, I was in love. I knew this was for me. It was everything Silicon Valley wasn’t. Basecamp was hosting an internship program that treated their employees like humans, and like real professionals. This was a far cry from the traditional “go get me coffee” or “file my papers” internships you hear about. We’d be solving real problems the business faced, given a foundation to learn and grow, and be treated like the managers-of-one they were looking to bring on board.
I finally heard back about a month after I had applied, and to my excitement, they wanted to interview me! I prepared for the interview by going over my Ruby on Rails knowledge, practiced the FizzBuzz test, and went over past interview questions I’d gotten with other companies while out in California. None of that was needed. That’s not the Basecamp way… I should have known. I’d read REWORK and REMOTE after all — we don’t hire programmers based on parlor tricks, so why I thought their internship interviews would be any different is beyond me. Perhaps I was still stuck under the delusions of Silicon Valley — I forgot this doesn’t have to be the norm.
Instead of whiteboard problems and FizzBuzz tests, I had a very human talk with two different Basecampers. We talked about why I wanted to be an intern at Basecamp, what projects I’d done in the past, and even got nerdy and did a deep dive into how I did geolocation for a weather website I’d made. I left the interviews thinking, “That felt like talking to a friend, not like an interrogation.” That’s how an interview should feel.
During my internship, I was given complete freedom to work on my own while helping build out internal tools that helped make fellow Basecampers jobs a bit easier. I remember my first day, I asked, “Where do I start?” and my mentor looked at me and said, “Wherever you want.” It was on me to find a problem, set my own direction, and build out a solution. The type of work I was doing wasn’t meaningless grunt work like most internships I hear about, but instead I was doing work that impacted people every day. Feedback like, “This is such a wonderful feature that will get a ton of usage. Your work will have a meaningful and positive impact on our day to day work lives for a long time,” was the norm here.
As my internship came to an end, I looked back on the work I had done and realized I was beginning to make my small dent in the universe. I’d had the opportunity to work on all of our internal tools, and even got to make a few entirely new ones myself. The things I made are being used every day, and they solved real problems we faced as a business. I was able to do meaningful and rewarding work during my internship. I was treated with respect, given autonomy, and in return, I was able to put my best work forward to make Basecamp the best company and product that I knew how to make.
At Basecamp, I was treated as a thoughtful tech professional. They believe in a 40-hour work week, so that I could enjoy my time outside of work just as much as I love sitting down at my computer to write code. It’s that type of culture that has made Basecamp such a great company, and that same ethos oozes into every part of the product. I found myself at a place that cared much more about the customers than the bottom line. It’s incredibly inspiring and refreshing to see that. I’m now working at Basecamp on Team Data, and I’m looking forward to making my dent, on my own terms. Being at Basecamp is the anti-Silicon Valley, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
Interested in becoming an intern at Basecamp during the Summer of 2017? We’re looking for brilliant managers-of-one who are interested in making a difference while working on real business problems, with a passion to make Basecamp a better place. If that sounds like you, head over to our internship page and apply!
Ten years ago, I was unemployed. For fifteen months I tried and failed to find a job. I scoured the internet, the newspapers, asked friends, acquaintances, strangers for introductions or hints at where to find somewhere.
After a while, it was hard not to take the rejections personally, to value myself less with each “sorry, we’ve decided to go with someone else” or “we’re looking for someone with more experience”. To burn through savings, face the mounting debt and poverty and think that I deserved it.
Well-meaning friends, advisors at the local Job Center and internet sites would give the same advice.
Focus on your resume.
Take the time to tweak your employment history here, edit your interests there, adjust your presentation to suit the company you are applying to. Tell a compelling story which makes it easy for the company to hire you for that job. It all makes sense that this is the way to go if you are going to be successful at landing an interview.
There’s an unchallenged assumption at the heart of this well-meant advice. That the resume is the best tool to market your skills, and no application is complete without one. For many people, that assumption is actively harmful.
A resume is an effective delivery method for bias.
Take this study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, which discovered that white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks. Or perhaps this study by Devah Pager, Bruce Western and Bart Bonikowski:
black applicants were half as likely as equally qualified whites to receive a callback or job offer. In fact, black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison.
Terence Tse, Mark Esposito and Olaf Groth discovered that racial bias isn’t the only form of bias in play when assessing resumes.
CVs have led recruiters to focus too much on grades, university reputations, and prior work experience. The problem with these hiring criteria is that they’re biased toward applicants from more wealthy backgrounds. These families usually have better connections and networks, can provide better education opportunities, and can afford to pay reputable universities’ tuition fees. In addition, children who have grown up in the upper echelons of society are also much more used to the social norms that guide successful “acceptable” behavior
This bias works even if you know about it.
A resume is optimized to make it easy for hiring managers and recruiters to eliminate candidates. There’s a whole market of applicant tracking software designed to automate the process of easily discarding candidates which don’t fit certain criteria, based solely on their resume.
A resume is ineffective at finding the best employees.
Bertram smiled. He grabbed a pile of resumés from his desk, then started dealing the resumes out, first one back onto his desk, second into the recycle bin, third onto his desk, fourth into the recycle bin. When he was finished, he had thrown half of the resumes away. “It’s simple.” Bertram told Ernestine. “Just don’t hire anybody who’s unlucky.”
I’d hope that businesses take the search for talent more seriously than that. And yet, we look at a resume as proof that past success leads inevitably to future success. If you want to find the best people, you have to dig deeper than that. What someone has done is not as interesting as what they are capable of doing. Hire for the person they’ll become:
A lot of future perfect people are stuck in current mediocre positions. They just haven’t had the chance to do their best work.
So what do we do instead?
I’m not suggesting that if you are looking for a job, you should abandon your resume. Work the system, send it in. Get paid. The onus for this change lies with employers. If we’re serious about finding the best candidates, whoever they are, then it’s time to reject resumes. Not just the unlucky half, but all of them.
What would happen if the next time you are hiring, you ask for no resumes?
Provide some simple instructions as part of your job post. Ask for a cover letter, not a resume. Describe what you are looking for in the cover letter, and what you don’t want to see. This almost certainly means that you’ll need to do more interviews. Expect that. Spend that time having good conversations about the skills and qualities you are looking for, and give your applicants the chance to shine. Consider structured interviews and create a rubric for scoring them, to further reduce the impact of bias on your hiring.
Give it a try. Maybe you’ll find a way to a more diverse, talented workplace.
The company seems to be finding its groove again. Seems being the operative word. Lots of cool stuff that’s actually shipping, but whether it’ll make a dent in the world remains to be seen. Yet at least there’s some promise and optimism back. The ghosts of “cutting off the air supply” and IE6 have finally been vanquished.
Besides, the company just isn’t scary any more. Or tone-setting. Or, in many areas of past glory, even relevant. And perversely enough, that’s exactly what is setting it free to try harder, try again, and make an impression with a crowd that’s no longer dispositioned to reject the effort because Microsoft is the big bad wolf.
There’s no more wolf any more. It’s more like a puppy. Or a Golden Retriever at best. Nobody is afraid of Microsoft. So since they can’t rule the roost through fear, they’re trying the long route of — let’s not get ahead of ourselves and kid about LOVE — intrigue. And frankly some hope.
The two titans of integrated hardware and software are Apple and Google. And they’ve divided the spoils of the world just a little too neatly between them. It’s bizarre, but I actually want to see a resurgent, strong Microsoft. If for nothing else, to take the smug confidence of both titans down a peg.
I’m hoping real hard that either the Surface or the Hololens or SOMETHING out of Redmond is an honest-to-god big hit with the general public (outside of gaming). Not another cool demo or R&D plaything. But something that ships and in quantity.
I’ll be honest and say I held a grudge. For a long time. And that axe wasn’t getting buried until that hopping, jumping, dancing buffoon was out the door. But now that he is, and Gates is busy spending his loot curing the planet, do you know what? I can forgive.
Yes, I know they’ve been pining for it, so here it is: Microsoft, I forgive you. And I’m actually excited for the work you’re doing. ✌️
Would you believe that we actually have a Windows app for Basecamp 3? Yes, hell indeed did freeze over and Ballmer started flying.
I explain why I pursued speaking gigs as Know Your Company’s main means of marketing, and if you should do it too…
“How do you get the word out?”
As the CEO of Know Your Company — a two-person company with over 12,000 people using our software — I’m often asked this question. Figuring out how to attract customers is always a tough thing to do.
For us, we’ve relied on three ways for people to find out about Know Your Company: Inbound marketing + press (stuff like this and this), customer referrals (CEOs who love our product tell their friends, or employees will recommend us to their CEO), and speaking at events and conferences.
Of all the channels we’ve tried, I’ve found speaking at events and conferences to have been the most interesting experiment for us. While speaking wasn’t the biggest source of sales for us last year (we saw 47% of our sales come from inbound marketing, while 38% came from speaking opportunities) — it’s where our greatest learnings have come for me as a CEO, and for our business.
In fact, because of this, I purposefully chose to focus on speaking gigs for the past two and half years as our primary way to get the word out.
From pursuing these speaking opportunities, here’s what I’ve learned…
You get directly in front of your customers. Fast.
Instead of waiting around for potential customers to find us, speaking has enabled me to go to where our potential customers already were. At Know Your Company, our target market is business owners with 25 to 75 employees who’ve felt growing pains. So for us, it made sense to zoom in on conferences where business owners with 27 to 75 employees were attending, and go directly to them.
The most perfect example of this is an event called Owner Camp, run by the Bureau of Digital Affairs. A few times a year, they host a three-to-four-day gathering of about 30 CEOs of digital agencies — all who have 10 to 100 employees. It’s right in our sweet spot in terms of our target market.
I’ve spoken at this event about four or five times, sharing best practices on how to get honest feedback from your employees. We’ve also helped sponsor it for the past few years now.
At each Owner Camp event, we ended up selling our product to between two and seven different companies. With our average sales per month being four to five companies last year, speaking at and supporting Owner Camp has been a fruitful partnership and significant source of sales for us.
So if you’re a company looking to get traction, consider seeking out speaking opportunities like Owner Camp — where you can be a “subject matter expert,” and the audience is specifically in your target market range.
You build trust and credibility with your customer.
At its core, selling is about trust. The person who’s buying from you needs to trust you — that you’re an expert, that you’ll deliver on your promise. What better way to establish that trust, especially as a young company, than to have a customer watch you speak.
When I started speaking at conferences (particularly ones that were more high-profile) I saw how my association with those events helped build trust with a potential customer and influence a sale. For instance, we’ve gained about four or five customers who had stumbled across my Big Omaha talk on our website. These customers told me they liked the content I’d presented in that talk, or learned something useful from it. In other words, watching me speak gave us credibility as experts in helping CEOs solve this problem.
You hone in on your messaging.
This is perhaps the greatest benefit we’ve had from pursuing speaking gigs. Early on when I first took over as the CEO for Know Your Company, I had some general ideas about how to frame our service to our potential customers. However, when you give a talk, that’s completely taken up a notch; you have the most ripe opportunity to test your messaging with a live in-the-flesh audience, and refine your talking points firsthand.
For example, after presenting “The Top Four Questions to Ask Your Employees” at a conference, I watched people’s reactions to it. Everyone took out pencils and started to frantically scribble down what I’d put up on the slide. I made a mental note that information was very useful to people. And I’ve since included that in more talks, podcast appearances and media appearances that I’ve done.
Another learning I had was after I gave a talk at the 99U Conference this past May. I similarly saw a strong reaction to the data I provided on the top blindspots that CEOs have. So I turned it into a blog post, and now it’s been one of our most popular pieces I’ve written to date.
I also learned that the simpler I can boil down a message, the better. For example, a lightning talk I did at Business at Software was one of the most well-received talks I’ve given (you can watch it here). It’s the most concise talk I’ve done, and it hits on two key takeaways: “Ask for feedback in the right way” and “Act on feedback in the right way.” And that’s it. I keep this in mind as I write blog posts, speak on podcasts and write copy on our marketing site.
Lastly, it’s different.
Speaking is a medium that stands out. You’re able to showcase a bit more of your personality, your emotion, who you are. Blog posts are everywhere (ironic, as I’m writing this blog post right now, heh…) In a day and age of information overload and constant message bombardment, it pays to have your voice be different and memorable.
Now, there is one giant cost to these speaking gigs…
It’s time consuming and highly involved. A fellow business owner once told me, “Preparing for a talk expands to fill all available time.” So if you give yourself two days to prepare, it’ll take all two days. Give yourself a week? It’ll take a week. That’s time and attention being taken away from other areas of the business. Not to mention the amount of time, energy, anxiety and stress you’ll expend while you’re at the conference giving your talk.
Don’t get me wrong though: it’s also the most rewarding thing when someone comes up to you and says they’ll use the best practice from your talk at their all-company meetings. Or when someone emails you a month later and tells you that your talk helped them through a difficult situation with an employee.
I never take for granted that with a talk, you have an opportunity to really make an indelible impact. You can share your perspective in a very personal way that text sometimes can’t do.
Is it worth it?
For us, especially in the first two years of business, this time and energy has been totally worth it. As I mentioned earlier, it accounted for 38% of our sales last year (over a third!). And the learnings alone have been priceless. It’s how we’ve been able to level up our marketing — to figure out what to write blog posts about and, to refine our marketing content. For us, it made sense to sacrifice what goes into preparation for the sake of learning and the immediacy of simply getting in front of our potential customers.
Now as we’ve honed our message more and transitioned the product to allow more people to sign up more easily via self-service… that time-energy cost is something I’m more conscious of. So this year, I’ve pulled back on the number of speaking gigs I’m doing (around six, instead of more than 12).
I still find speaking gigs incredibly valuable for our business — it’s just that tradeoff is now something I am a little more conscious of, now that our business has evolved.
Should you pursue speaking events, too?
If you’ve been reading this, thinking, huh, I’m in the same boat as Claire — I’ve been running a business for a few years, and I’m trying to refine our messaging and get in front of more folks quicker. Or perhaps you’ve been in business a bit longer, but you’re looking to differentiate yourself from the competition… Awesome! I think it’s totally worth giving a shot.
Here are a few things I’d recommend doing as you approach getting speaking gigs…
(1) Apply to a speaking event where they’ll video you. The very first speaking gig I did was actually before I was the CEO of Know Your Company. I’d started my own consulting practice helping CEOs get to know their employees better, and I gave a short lightning talk at Ignite Chicago (you can view it here). And the neat thing about Ignite Chicago is they video your talk. This means my content became package-able and distributable. I could take that video link and send it to prospects, or put it on our website. On top of that, a lightning talk via video is effective because it’s short and to-the-point. There are a bunch of Ignite talks and similar organizations in a bunch of cities. You can look them up here.
(2) Before speaking at a conference, attend one. Before I sponsored and spoke at the Owner Camp events, I simply attended one. Greg Hoy, one of the founders, invited me as an attendee. From there, as an attendee, you can first see if this is a conference where speaking would be helpful to your company. And secondly, you can get to know the organizers and understand what their needs are. If the opportunity is right, you might offer how sharing your expertise in a talk could add value to their event and be helpful to their audience.
(3) Be nice and genuinely interested in everyone you meet. How I ended up getting invited to speak at MicroConf is I met the co-organizer, Rob Wailing, in Thailand (of all places) the year or two prior. I’d seen Rob give a talk in Bangkok, and I thought it was phenomenal. I went up to him afterward, over lunch we chatted about Know Your Company, and I got his thoughts on our business. When we parted ways, I had no ask. I didn’t try to sell Know Your Company to him or get anything from him. I was simply genuinely interested in hearing his perspective. And then several years later, he reached out and asked if I wanted to speak at MicroConf. It pays to be nice and genuinely care about the people you meet at an event.
(4) Find which conferences attract your target market. To get the most out of your speaking opportunities, you’ll want to figure out exactly who the attendees are and get in front of them. For us, that meant conferences where CEOs are, like Business of Software and Owner Camp, and where employees of small to medium-sized businesses are, like Big Omaha and 99U.
(5) Aim to be helpful, not self-promotional. When pitching your talk to the event or conference, look to provide helpful insights — not to sell your product or service. What’s a burning question or pain that your audience has? Address that. For us at Know Your Company, it’s employee turnover, company growing pains, being the last to know as a CEO, and not knowing how to give and receive feedback from employees.
(6) Provide a unique discount or offer at the end of your talk so you can track the ROI of the particular event. One of the trickier things with speaking events is that it can be difficult to track if an actual sale came from an event. I tried to track this in several ways. When I would give a presentation at Owner Camp, I announced to folks that if they told me before the end of the conference that they wanted to buy the product, I’d offer a 10% discount. And at MicroConf, I told folks that if they did end up buying the product I’d give them five free employee accounts if they mentioned that they saw me present at MicroConf.
Hopefully my experiences give you some context to decide whether speaking at conferences as a CEO is something that would be useful to your business. I’d seriously weigh the time-energy trade off against the benefits of getting in front of customers right away and the learnings you’ll gain around messaging… But if the weight falls on the right side, go for it. I definitely don’t regret it.