Generative research implies using research to generate ideas. The small data, or human scale, terminology indicates a method that requires close observation and deep analysis of a limited number of human subjects. Where big data is great for seeing trends and both historical and predicative analysis, small data focuses at getting at the “why” behind individual choices and understanding the human context and emotional backdrop that informs those choices.
In a recent piece for The Hive on the potential for a thriving startup incubator in Roxbury’s Dudley Square neighborhood, Scott Kirsner noted that he felt “the market for tech incubators and accelerators in Boston is already pretty crowded, and that focusing on different kinds of startups might be wise...like service startups, retail startups, apparel startups, etc.” I tend to agree with Scott here, but for reasons other than market saturation.
There is no social limit or geographical boundary to creativity, inspiration and passion. There should be a movement to create nurturing innovation centers, accelerators and incubators in a far wider geographic foot print that what we have today. Certainly there are existing elements of an ecosystem in places like Cambridge and Boston’s Innovation District that make building young companies slightly less difficult. However, given the free flow of capital (human, intellectual, financial) in today’s world, there are few barriers to creating similar environments in other parts of Massachusetts, whether in the underserved inner city, suburban locations or cities such as Lowell, Lawrence, New Bedford, Springfield and Quincy. There are civic and business leaders in every location, educational resources throughout the state, and a spirit across Massachusetts that is highly conducive to figuring out ways to “innovate on innovation.”
In full disclosure (and as anyone who has stood next to me for longer than 10 minutes recently knows well), I’ve been involved with a group called South Shore innovation for several years and, more recently, have begun serving as an official mentor at the new Quincy Center for Innovation (QuincyInno). I’ve been advising the startups at Quincy Inno on issues regarding communications and marketing and I can easily say that I’ve gotten as much from them as they have from me. Every one of the “program entrants” at Quincy Inno celebrates the opportunity for collaboration, the free exchange of ideas, the access to mentors and peers with a range of business and life experiences, and the programmatic learning opportunities that have helped to accelerate development of their young businesses and organizations. Real, tangible benefit has accrued to these small businesses that would not have happened if they a) remained “in the garage” or b) stretched their resources (budget, time, transportation) to attempt to gain access to one of the Boston and Cambridge innovation and acceleration centers. They have built marketing plans, developed new products and services, figured out how to do audience research, launched products, expanded markets, met potential investors and service providers, hired their first employees, and built deep connections in the community and nonprofit worlds on the South Shore. Eventually these start ups will be able to tap a ready labor pool that is either already located in their “neighborhood” or that will migrate outside of the major urban centers to work closer to more affordable housing options.
I understand that there are a several steps that can and should be made to make the vision of a network of innovation centers spanning Massachusetts a reality. The state government, even federal government, could do more to improve infrastructure, especially mass transit, and training and education opportunities. Again, I think the city of Quincy has done an incredible job in seeing the potential for the Quincy Center for Innovation as an economic driver and has done yeoman work in support of the Center. I know that type of support is available elsewhere whether it’s via established businesses, government, nonprofits, colleges and universities, NGOs or through inspired individuals, like Sal Lupoli in Lawrence.
Regardless of the road chosen, reaching the goal of a thriving culture of innovation that runs far beyond what exists today and touches cities and town across the state is well within reach. There is no monopoly on passion and individuals and institutions can rise to the challenge of supporting the next generation of business and social leaders if they push beyond traditional geographical boundaries and conventional wisdom.
A vey timely post by friend and colleague, Jim Barbagallo, as Twitter and others stir the IPO pot in 2013. Reblogged from Jim's "What it Takes" communications blog. Thanks, Jim.
I've been volunteering as a marketing mentor with MITX's "MITX Up" program since the beginning of this year. MITX Up is essentially a "hack" for start-ups that is dedicated to solving marketing problems, as opposed to grinding out code. MITX has assembled a diverse and dedicated cast of marketing pros who meet monthly at start-up venues like MassChallenge, TechStars, and the Harvard i-Lab to assist entrepreneurs at various early-stage companies. The teams of marketers are assigned to different start-ups each month and collectively help outline marketing strategies and plans, develop messages, focus positioning, identify new target audiences, and brainstorm both launch and post-launch marketing and communications programs. I've worked with start-up companies that are trying to crack industries as different as food, sports and healthcare and have met some really fantastic fellow marketers in the process. The sense of passion and community is palpable at these sessions and I've learned as much from the start-ups and my marketing teammates, as they have from me.
Our next MITX Up event will be dedicated to working with student entrepreneurs at Northeastern University, which will be a different type of experience than the previous gatherings...and I can't wait.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the increased prominence of employee/internal communications skills required in PR and corporate communications job descriptions. In the past, employee communications was too often an orphaned job, delegated to the HR department, and revolved mostly around benefit communications and administrative notices. Internal communications planning around major initiatives was an afterthought bolted on to the tail of a more considered external communications plan. It was only the belated realization by corporations that -- thanks to the social media revolution -- every employee is effectively a company spokesperson and ought to be treated as such. Employees are an audience that should be engaged as thoughtfully and deeply as any prospect, customer, influencer or media member. It's heartening to see more companies getting on board with this notion and demanding that their communications departments (or partners) bring the same degree of creativity, consistency, tech savvy and respect to internal communications as they to do external programs.
Simple observation over the last 12 months has shown a bulge in funding for companies engaged in EdTech of many flavors and companies that are in any way cloud-related. Couple this info with the ongoing flow of dollars to mobile and the trend nationwide to non-classroom-based eduction and I think one can begin to feel significant momentum building toward a whopping market opportunity.
I'm more intimately involved in the EdTech market (disclosure: I have been advising 30Hands Learning for the last year) and I've seen as many different approaches to recreating the learning environment as there are companies in the market -- and the interest is coming from established LMS players as well as a sea of startups. Most all of them have a mobile component with a slightly different twist in implementation, though all of them have tablet fever. At the same time, a robust, secure and efficient cloud service is all but a necessity to create and scale the infrastructure for many of these efforts, (consider the needs of a truly massive open online courses, for example).
The only thing the technology world likes more than crowing about innovation is declaring a bubble. Some believe that EdTech is hurtling toward bubble status even as I write this. While there may be more losers than winners eventually, the time is now to hit the massive well of opportunity that spans academic and commercial markets for those organizations who can innovate, scale and manage growth spurred by this convergence.
Like the bumblebee, which I am told is technically not able to fly based on its wing geometry but seems to have done just fine for the last few millenia, the MassTLC UnConference should not work. I participated in my first UnCon this year as part of a team of bloggers made up largely of public relations people who know their way around an industry event. I have certainly slogged through my share of stultifying business get-togethers in 25 years of PR work but I've never seen anything like the agenda-free, planless, exercise in productive anarchy and populist coordination that is an UnConference.
Nor, have I been so bloody energized by an event before. From witnessing the Herculean cat herding of the first hour's real-time agenda creation which brought forth a full day's worth of compelling sessions to the utterly democratic sessions themselves, I found this to be the most fun and most useful event I've attended in years. With an audience approaching 1000 attendees that was equal parts young entrepreneurs, old pros, start-up stars, established companies, media types, VCs, coders, marketers, CEOs, interns and every title in between, the ability to network widely and learn deeply from a range of perspectives was invaluable. The session topics covered a spectrum of relevant issues like advertising, finance, PR, public policy, edtech, SaaS, mobile, team building and much more. The "rule of two feet" was the order of the day. This means that any attendee who found a particular session less than riveting was encouraged to get up, politely leave, and find another session in which to participate. Open participation is the key to making this type of event work. The attendees own this event entirely from setting the agenda to driving productive conversation in each session. I met a host of new people from across the business landscape of New England, and I saw a number of people who I know well engaged and participating in a completely different context. It all worked beautifully and as much as I was there to record the proceedings for MassTLC's blog, I became fully involved myself and felt professionally strengthened at the end of the day. I'm looking forward to the 2013 Innovation UnConference already ... or at least another gathering of this kind in the near future.
(I was recently asked by the Mass Technology Leadership Council to join a team of bloggers covering the Innovation UnConference. Our work was posted on the MassTLC blog. This particular session was left off the blog for reasons unknown but I enjoyed it, so I thought I'd post the content here. I promise a fuller post on my overall impressions of my first unConference later this week.)
Public Policy Horror Stories
MassTLC Innovation UnConference Session 3: 1:15 to 2:15, Nov. 16, 2012
Session Leader Nick Grossman, Union Square Ventures
While mercifully short on horror stories, the session provided an eye-opening look at the role local, state and federal government can play in the life of any business. Attendees ranged from representatives from Google, Verizon and U/Mass to startup entrepreneurs and an international business development exec from a cold yet exotic locale. What follows is a distillation of the comments and discussion from all participants in the session.
Innovation – especially truly disruptive innovation – has a tendency to “ruffle feathers” among public and private entities with a stake in the old order. When those entities are governmental and regulatory, companies can find themselves suddenly faced with business challenges they had never anticipated. Some examples cited included the recent difficulties faced by Uber and AirBnB, two companies in the peer-to-peer economy vanguard who found early successes in circumventing an established economic model yet found themselves faced with an existential crisis when local and state authorities threatened to shut them down for violating existing rules for the taxi and hotel industries. In the education market, Coursera drew the negative attention of Minnesota regulators who briefly attempted to boot the online education company out of the state for violating a very out-of-date statute related to the regulation of educational institutions.
Though Coursera ultimately prevailed, and Uber solved its problem with a consumer-driven social media campaign that made officials sit up and take notice, problems such as these will persist as long as the pace of innovation grows at a faster clip than does the capacity of regulatory bodies to absorb, understand and act appropriately toward each new development.
Companies are not helpless in this matter, however. Though it is seldom done in the earliest stages of a start-up’s lifecycle, it is important to start looking for a select few potential influencers within government that can provide information and guidance to young companies and, as the company matures, develop into an advocate on their behalf with regulators and legislative bodies. It is important, too, that like-minded companies or companies that share a market sector put aside their competitive issues and band together to present a united front and serve as a large and credible provider of information and relevance to governmental entities. Verizon is working to create an organization such as this in Mass. and Union Square is building a similar group to advocate to government on behalf of “Peer Economy” companies, like Uber and AirBnB.
Though few companies contemplate at their outset the role government can play in their daily business, it is safe to say that every company has the potential to engage with government at some stage in their lifecycle. The result of that engagement can be more positive if the company begins to think of government in the same way it thinks of partners, customers, media and analysts… and does so from its earliest stages.
While awaiting the bleating of the punditocracy on both sides of the political spectrum, here are a few quick points that any corporate leader (from start-up founder to multinational CEO) can take away from the recent U.S. Presidential and Vice Presidential debates. 1. Passion is priceless: Passion is a necessary pre-condition for any conversation in which one party must convince another of an idea. In the first debate President Obama came across as listless and disengaged. As I’ve said to countless execs over the years as we prepared for media meetings, if you don’t seem all that interested in what you’re saying, why should your audience devote any effort to listening to you? Passion, well-focused, is priceless and you must work hard to draw your audience (reporter, financial analyst, the American electorate) into your story and make them feel your energy and spirit. In the VP debate, both Biden and Ryan seemed to have a better grasp of this notion than Obama or Romney and projected engagement and enthusiasm for the event. 2. There is no substitute for preparation: Again, Biden and Ryan were well-equipped and well-prepared. The flow of the debate was smooth and each managed to assert his position in context (for the most part) which is a usually a sign of good preparation and the sort of mental relaxation and agility that solid preparation produces. In the presidential tilt, Obama was a shambling mess. He may have had his facts at hand but couldn’t call them up in an efficient or convincing manner. The received perception of the President as utterly unprepared for the event was the single great take-away of the evening and is demonstrated in his slipping poll numbers today. Romney started out well -- you knew he had worked hard on the whole “five point plan” approach -- but he grew shrill over time and began to force-feed his various positions into every question, regardless of context. Frankly, I’d chalk that up to Governor Romney getting a little too excited over his good fortune, as if he were a prize-fighter who, with each passing round, grows to realize that his opponent seems to have been training on a strict Twinkies-and-beer regimen.
3. Read the room early and often: It's vital for an exec or candidate to know precisely to whom he or she is speaking. One benefit of being able to "read the room" effectively is to quickly assess how much re-direction one can credibly deploy. In a debate the gating factor is the moderator. Jim Lehrer lost control early and Gov. Romney, especially, ran roughshod over him. Martha Raddatz was a far tougher customer and limited Ryan and Biden's attempts to take-over the debate agenda. This type of stylistic disparity is evident in most media and analyst meetings, too. It's incumbent upon execs to know the personality and professional demeanor of their "interrogator" in advance and work within that frame to get their point across effectively.
Larry Lucchino, president and CEO of the Boston Red Sox, has noted more than once in recent weeks that the Boston Red Sox brand has “taken a few hits” as a result of last season’s precipitous September chicken-and-beer-fueled nosedive and this year’s unmitigated disaster on virtually all fronts on and off the field. What follows here is not an attempt to pick the sporting carcass of the 2012 Sox mess, nor will I bring up the interesting approaches to team motivation and communication taken by manager Bobby Valentine (another post entirely awaits there). The Boston Red Sox today, however, present a compelling example of how some organizations completely swing and miss (groan…) when it comes to understanding what is and what is not branding.
As I’ve said here before, branding is all about the emotional connection an organization makes with its audiences. Sports fandom is entirely about emotion and Lucchino is correct in saying that much of the brand damage has come as result of the fact that the Sox have sucked mightily this year and have not qualified for the playoffs in the last three seasons. In the midst of this on-field chaos, the marketing organization at Fenway Park has been relentlessly pitching an unending series of items and ideas from commemorative bricks and Red Sox Nation club cards, to a phony-baloney stadium sellout streak and the perhaps mock-kidnapping of Wally the Green Monster as a means to sell, sell, sell anything and everything to fans who are increasingly disengaged, if not actively hostile. A simple glance at redsox.com reveals a commerce-dominant site, a fair amount of team-pushed news, little outside content, zero fan engagement, and social links at the very bottom of the page. Online, the Boston Red Sox don’t appear to be very interested in anything other than their own noise and purse. In what amounts to a season of failure, the team comes across as an organization that is utterly tone-deaf.
Today, there are so many ways for customers to interact with an organization that there can be no excuse for the organization not to participate in -- if not be the main catalyst for -- a richer exchange with its core audience. Engagement and transparency are requirements of a proper branding effort that the Red Sox lack today. In the PR world, we call this type of relationship development “building a reservoir of goodwill.” We advise clients that it is a mandatory investment of time and energy that has nothing at all to do with selling a product. By being seen as an open, engaged and trusted member of a community, any organization will be better served when, invariably, that organization’s prospects take a turn for the worse. However, like too many corporations, team execs only seem to engage when forced out in a crisis (e.g. last week’s flap over a news report that the team might be for sale) or appear with a new product gambit in hand.
By living into these requirements, the Red Sox, and any organization, can do so much more to help condition the environment around which their fans and customers emotionally connect with and reflect the team’s desired brand image. The Red Sox are not cultivating enough of these opportunities for legitimate engagement without a price tag attached. The communication, dialogue and engagement between team and fan, organization and audience, is broken and no amount of heavy shilling (no, not this guy) will rebuild that bridge of trust.