You can't control an ecosystem

Last week marked my ninth year of being on Twitter, matching nearly a decade that I’ve worked in / around tech and The Web.

In that decade I’ve dug into a vast array of projects, including managing design + development, building a brand from scratch, researching/reporting on stories as a journalist, creating my own startups, and mentoring entrepreneurs.

While this has been an intense year, it has also reinforced a bunch of lessons from that time, many of which I’ve written about here on this blog. That includes things like taking the time to do work correctly, designing a good creative process, letting people chart their own course, and negotiating more than just salary.

When I named this site Ecosystems and Entrepreneurs in 2015, I was thinking a lot about how structure works…both good and bad.

2017 has turned out to be all about looking at structure and power, revealing what’s been hidden in some cases for hundreds of years. One of the overarching lessons right now is that you have to be willing to give up power in order to actually see change.

This means you have to do more than just provide a seat at the table, invite people, or follow-up.

It means that you actually have to deliver the power to decide what happens and how the structure looks and functions, to people who haven't had it much or at all, or who have been systematically devalued. 

This is what takes to balance an ecosystem. And it’s not just a difficult task to engage in, it’s a deeply uncomfortable one. If you aren't deeply uncomfortable right now there is a high probability you aren't dealing with structural power in any real way

Ecosystems depend on variety, innovation, creativity and new ideas, and a healthy ecosystem has porous boundaries and a variety of actors with different motivations.

That’s something that is almost perfectly captured for the digital economy and startups by Brad Feld in the thoughtful and practical book, Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.

I’ve read it a couple dozen times now, and the stories and people in it highlight a central point: you can’t control an ecosystem.

Controlling an ecosystem kills the best, most creative part of it…and it's a mistake that is often made by people who have power and don't really understand the ecosystem that they are a part of. Or, let's be more blunt, they work only for themselves and people who are loyal to them.

That doesn’t mean that those with power won’t try to control an ecosystem, but it does mean there will be consequences.

Without creativity, without imagination, without welcoming new ideas and new people, an ecosystem will die. Often, that decline looks very rapid but it’s really the result of years of refusing to listen, to understand, to see the deeper forces at work.

It’s hard to say what that will mean for the United States in our current political scenario, but if our ecosystem is to self-correct and find a way to spit out the toxicity, we’ll have to absorb that point about control first.

When (and how) to outsource marketing in a startup

One of the most interesting problems early-stage startups run into is when to actually invest in marketing. 

There's no one size fits all answer, but there are tested and true approaches. Most importantly, if you're a founder or early employee, the starting point is to assess where you are...

"We are working on an idea and have some early customers / users of our product"
"We have a company that’s making money (revenue positive) on a consistent basis, and has a clear business model and path to growth"

For early-stage startups, outsourcing marketing is almost always a mistake. This is because you haven't identified your market(s), and built enough of a community or customer base to withstand changes.

Rand Fishkin of MOZ, recently published a deck on all the ways startups suck at marketing, and how to avoid them. In some ways the conversation is similar to hiring a sales team before you're ready to scale: you have to actually do the work yourself first.

But the crucial point Rand makes, and that many people miss when they're busy encouraging you to outsource your marketing, is that marketing in a startup is a mix of strategic and tactical work. 

If you look at startups like Airbnb, you can see that early on they grasped the importance of experimenting in-house first, before outsourcing. The content, community, and brand that you build is a serious part of a company's IP...just ask the co-founder at any startup that is/was the de facto product manager.

An idea like Airbnb idea always looks brilliant afterward, but the person figuring out the marketing early on in a startup is also by definition forced to grow a community, acquire customers, and validate what works and what doesn't...AKA, develop the strategy and tactics that will stick around for a long time. 

Often, when you outsource marketing before you have a system, process, or strategy for balancing growth hacks and tactics vs. strategy (incl. long-term narratives, stories, design considerations etc.), you end up making poor decisions, and wasting money. 

This is particularly true when it comes to paid ads via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other channels. You may get clicks, views, and downloads, but when people arrive at your product or online channels there isn't a reason for them to stick around, no way for them to connect to you beyond the initial transaction. This becomes a problem when you change the transaction or pivot your company. They will never tell you they don't know what you're about, but they certainly notice. 

If you or someone you know is a founder trying to figure out where to start and/or how to quickly work up a system for early-stage marketing, there's a bit more info here that you can steal/borrow/edit, under "Marketing from scratch, for startups" --->  Google Doc: Frameworks for creatives / entrepreneurs / startups


How to describe what you're working on vs. who you are

This past week marked year 4 of the Creative Startups accelerator in Albuquerque. 

I went through the very first year of the program in 2014 with a local news startup, and although I'd already worked in and around startups (including a rapidly growing venture backed company in San Francisco), the experience provided a ton of knowledge about what it's like to build a business model in the early stages.

One thing that stuck with me: the toughest problem a founder faces in the early going mimics something we all face as individuals...what is your company? And who is it for? 

Whether you're growing / building / experimenting as a company or as an individual, that's a central question, more broadly phrased as: Who are you? And who are you for? 

It's a tough one to answer, and in mentoring + watching companies in the accelerator each year I've seen startup teams/founders regularly struggle to clarify their answers, particularly when boiling down their pitch deck and story. 

Often, the anxiety produced by trying to answer those questions stirs up imposter syndrome, and rather than trying to stamp that nervous energy out, I've learned that simply restructuring the language goes a long way. 

No matter who you are, "who are you?" is a nerve wracking question. It demands what feels like a binary answer (Good or Evil, Smart or Dumb, It Works vs. It Doesn't Work, etc.), when the truth is that contradiction and duality are everywhere in the universe. 

But describing what you're working on, anyone can do that...

  • We experimented with 500 users that we personally invited to try our travel rewards app, and based on their feedback we're now working with 2 informal partners to invite 3,000 of their customers to try it
  • I realized I didn't love project managing IT anymore, so I started taking classes in one of those code schools to learn Javascript and see if I'd like it
  • My co-founder and I opened an online shop in August of 2016 and have been experimenting with selling prints, t-shirts, and handmade items from local artists to Japan 

I've found that framing it that way helps answer "who am I" and "who are we," and set real milestones that you can actually measure over time, whether you're growing a company or simply growing as an individual. 


The connection between creatives, value, and survival

A few weeks ago I gave a talk for CreativeMornings on survival, being a child of immigrants, and what I've learned about networks and value. 

I rarely give public talks like this one, but it got me thinking about how we tend to frame startups, founders and tech as creating and uncovering value, while art, music, writing and other forms of creative work need "support," or are tagged as philanthropic activities instead of core parts of both our society and economy. 

We recently conducted a survey for ABQ Creates (which I've been running for about a year) that covered responses from 369 creatives in a variety of industries. 40-percent of respondents listed their total household income as $35,000 or less, with 25-percent making $25,000 or less.

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How pattern matching builds over time

It's been a while since I wrote about choosing your work in the midst of turmoil.

Some of that is because of the normal hustle of building a new thing from scratch (I'm currently working on ABQ Creates), and some of it is because I'm feeling the same political / structural extremes we're all being subjected to right now, and trying to figure out what type of value I need to deliver to help with the situation. 

One of the things that entrepreneurs of any sort struggle with (the good ones anyway), is not just the value of their own work and/or company, but what it means in a broader ecosystem.

If you're designing a matching platform, for example, you may be able to make money and grow a company, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a good job. Uber's continued struggle with both their business model and (lack of) ethical structure internally illustrates how good things can look while simultaneously being a trash fire that threatens to overwhelm any value provided. 

The best founders that I've met care a lot about pattern matching - that is, making sure that the company's value is clear in both directions to audiences, customers, and employees.

If your value is aligned correctly, you can easily say "Cool idea! But we are working on something else" or "Let's run a test for the next 6 months growing this product area that our customers are consistently asking for." 

If your value is not aligned correctly, if someone gets to your landing page, product, event, etc. and it turns out you were telling them one thing but delivering another, there's almost nothing you can do to fix the situation. Even if you quickly pivot to provide what they expected, you've already created a pattern mismatch.

Mostly, pattern matching is about knowing what you are testing vs. what already works, and making sure that what you say or present matches what you actually do. Over time, pattern matching correctly builds audiences, customers, fans, and helps you grow individually and as an organization/company.

It's also a hedge against bad ethics, one-hit wonders, and non-sustainable business practices.