It’s All Getting Personal

It’s a bit weird, this Author thing. Let me try to explain.

For as long as I can remember, putting words on paper has been an integral part of my life. It started when I was a kid, with little plays and poems. Then in high school it became short stories and full-length plays. Then in college some more plays, some student films, and the occasional joke for a journeyman standup comic. When I was done with school, I wrote about a dozen screenplays, and then when the Writers Guild strike hit, I wrote an epic story for one of the very first movie-like computer games.

Shortly after that I moved to the business side of the computer software publishing model, only occasionally penning a bit of dialogue here and there for a certain Carmen Sandiego. My life became focused on technology, marketing, sales, finance, and team leadership. As I’ve said before, I really didn’t write much for a couple of decades, other than business plans and PowerPoint decks, which I was later told might have had saleable option rights for media exploitation given my need to always tell a story (if only I then had an agent!).

All through these periods of business creativity and innovation, I never had much trouble calling myself a writer, because I felt pretty good about my ability to form pithy sentences and get other people to take an interest in them. Even when I wasn’t writing per se, people would call me a writer, and I would show up at writerly events and schmooze with writers because I could keep up with the banter and liked most of it. I felt fine about this. It never felt stuffy, arrogant, pretentious, or the least bit weird.

Then I hung up the spreadsheet programs for a while and wrote my first novel, This Is Rage. Suddenly I was an Author—at least that’s what my publisher called me. I fell into silence at that descriptor. That was weird. In that same window, one of my most valued mentors introduced me at lunch as a Novelist. I looked at him in fear and more silence. “No, it’s just me, Ken, the writer.” It was and it wasn’t. That’s when things started to change.

You can go online and look up all the different uses of Writer vs Author vs Novelist vs. Schmuck Who Types and Prays for Good Reviews and Modest Royalties (that last one is harder to find in search, so I think I’ll tag it). Here’s the really hard part, especially for me: Once you decide you want to sell books and do public readings and speak at lunches and conventions, you have made the implicit decision to transform yourself from Writer to Author. What’s hard about that? You now find yourself being public about things you never thought were your job to expose. Take, for example, this blog post. It’s a little different from most of my others, huh? It’s getting personal.

PlatformIn the publishing world, they call this “building your platform.” It’s not a platform you stand on in Hyde Park and it’s not a platform you adopt as a political candidate. It’s the sum total of all your networking outreach, private and public. You gotta go light up Twitter (@CorporateIntel) with clever BRIEF memes your soon to be amassed Followers can follow. You gotta have an Author Page on Facebook that gently steers people toward buying your new book without being too crass about it. You gotta pump up your LinkedIn Profile so your business associates know what you’re doing but don’t think you’ve gone completely rogue. You gotta get busy on Google+ which means you have to figure out how Google+ works and learn to repost everything there to get it scraped into the index.

Why in tarnation do you need to do all this? Can’t you just write the dang book (that’s hard enough!) and toss it over the wall to your publishing team? Well, I suppose you can if your name is Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell. The rest of us quickly learn our real name is more like P.T. Barnum. When you are deemed an Author, you are also deemed Promoter-in-Chief, because if you won’t get out there and rally people behind your work, why on earth would anyone else? The introverted tendencies of writing reverse themselves into Living Out Loud! If you don’t think you can do it, you can always go back to being a Writer. In this day and age, writing for an audience is putting yourself out there, and no matter how uncomfortable it is to type the word Author after your name as some bizarre form of professional title from The Bloomsbury Group, you really have no choice other than to accept obscurity without a fight.

Okay, two more points and then I’ll wind down. First, if you know me, you know I’m a lousy introvert, and second, if you know me, you know I ain’t going down without a fight. Publisher says build the platform, I’m building the platform. Please don’t leave me out here on the ledge in the clown suit alone. Like me or something.

Here’s how I am reconciling this weirdness, this discomfort, this near unholy demand to say please pay attention to me. I’m going back to my business roots. It’s all about mission statement. It’s all about brand promise. Writer, Author, or Schmuck, that’s my job.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the easiest to forget, and the ones most worth remembering. Two years ago I wrote a post on the importance of a mission statement in a business. What I emphasized was that it only mattered if it was more than words. At the top of this blog you see the words:

Ideas. Business. Stories.

That has been my brand promise to you, the underlying essence of this whole Author mishigos. You buy that, you buy me. I’m pretty sure the rest is arts and crafts.

Rolling deeper into my non-Author roots, as I was driving to a meeting last week, I heard a snippet of a radio interview with Dane Ban, the CEO of much-beloved Trader Joe’s. He was asked what advice he most often gives emerging entrepreneurs. He replied that a business has to be about a mission. Rather than leave it at that, which already resonated with me, he went on to quote the esteemed Peter Drucker in The Practice of Management:

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

Simple. Relevant. Profound. Try to challenge it.  Very, very hard.

So as weird as it feels to me, as uncomfortable as it is being made for me, I am building that platform in advance of the launch of Endless Encores. Its subtitle is not coincidental: “People, Products, Profits—In That Order.” That also appears near the top of this blog in my mission statement. It all comes around. Like I said, it’s all getting personal.

Come along for the ride, will you, please? Don’t force me to come to my senses and claw my way back in. That might make me a writer again. How scary would that be?

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Brands In Memoriam 2012

Frequent readers of this blog know that I am obsessed with the concept of creative destruction, the intangible but daunting market force where an invention that is vital takes out that which has become defunct, and the nascent replaces the established. For those of you just stopping by, you will find any number of mentions of creative destruction as you page through my posts on innovation—it represents for me all that is true and real in deploying creativity to survive in business, perhaps best captured in the title of Andy Grove’s definitive book, “Only The Paranoid Survive.”

As a result of creative destruction, every year we add more once significant names to the Dead Brand Graveyard. Recent memory had us bid adieu to such iconic enterprises as Palm, Saab, Lehman Brothers, Zenith, Compaq, Borders, Circuit City, Ritz Camera, CompUSA, Mervyn’s, Friendster, Tower Records, Polaroid, and Kodak. I polled my network on Facebook for suggestions to include this year and got way more than I could include in a single blog post, many of which could be argued are still on the bubble; some have already quietly jumped the shark, others are still operating as near zombie brands, not yet coming to terms with their imminent vaporization. I invite those dear friends who offered their suggestions to include them in the comments below—as well as anyone else who can see what is certain to end badly—as internal politics and stagnating ideas cause those who should know better to obscure the mandate of leadership.

Here then are my top label farewells for the current calendar year:

Continental Airlines Logo Circa 1940sContinental Airlines: As a result of the merger between United and Continental, the marketing folks did the right thing and picked one brand to make it easier to find your tail logo on the runway. Was anything really lost if this was just a merger? Ask the people (like me) still stuck flying United—yeah, the customer experience did the impossible and took another plunge. If you aren’t 1K at this point in your frequent flyer status, melt down your Premier Card, there are so many top dogs in the system the rest of us matter not, kiss upgrades goodbye. Choice on routes? Funny how the routes and times keep getting de-duped. It’s ironic that an industry that flies you around in the sky at 500 mph and largely invented the modern loyalty program today can’t come up with more clever ways to achieve growth than eliminating its own competition—plus five extra inches of leg room, baggage checks, and those yummy inflight box lunches are now upsells. The parade of eliminated airline brands welcomes another, while customers fume with rising prices and deteriorating service. Hard to believe this is a path to long-term health and improved profits in a backbone industry our economy needs to thrive.

Fresh & Easy: This expansion into the USA didn’t go so well for UK grocery titan Tesco. Any ideas why? Been in one? Okay, that’s a good start. Here’s another—where was the segmentation analysis? Same prices and quality as the giant American supermarkets like Safeway, but a smaller footprint and thus fewer shelf offerings. Same footprint and attempted laid back environment as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but no real upscale inventory warranting premium prices or nice people to kibitz with you at checkout. No meaningful differentiation to be found, and small parking lots, too. Ready made portions for young working professionals weren’t a home run in a market with as much choice and variety as ours. Head on competition with Wal-Mart—which can operate at scale near 3% net income while it’s strategically expanding in the grocery category—was a capital-intensive bet inclusive of acquiring real estate and building new stores, a tough play requiring far-ranging commitment and vision to warrant the pain. Without either, Tesco cut its losses and retreated.

Newsweek: This one is spiritually sad for us old school hard news and analysis junkies, except that I cannot remember when I last touched a copy of this magazine, even in a dentist’s office. Bought in 2010 from The Washington Post by audio magnate Sid Harman for $1 and assumption of the losses, ostensibly for sentimental reasons, it was then merged via IAC with The Daily Beast and put under the direction of star editor Tina Brown (there’s a cost saving measure, huh?). Circulation and ad rates for the print version of Newsweek never regained momentum sufficient to cover costs, so this year we heard announcement that the print edition is ceasing. Can Newsweek digital-only survive as a differentiated masthead next to The Daily Beast? Can you imagine a good reason to continue two separate editorial teams? Can you imagine the same editorial team producing two presumably different publications? Have you tried to sell display advertising lately for vertical online editorial products? And just what is a News-Weekly in the age of internet microsecond breaking info copy? At 79 years on the newsstands and in mailboxes, Newsweek had a good run, it just stopped evolving.

Hostess: It seems obvious to many that the sub-brands of 85-year-old Hostess will live on post the uber bankruptcy, and there will be some snack distributor out there continuing to put Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs on grocery store shelves everywhere (other than Fresh & Easy, see above). The master brand is likely to die with the corporate entity, as executive management was unable to make a deal with the labor union representing the workers who made the Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs. So 18,000 people lost their jobs because no deal could be reached between managers and workers? I don’t think that’s the whole story. Try a balance sheet too weak to support internal investment after emerging from a prior bankruptcy with private equity imposed debt and mounting unfunded pension obligations. The real culprit in my mind—you got it, thinner margins and declining market share due to lack of innovation. Hostess management—now asking for bonuses in liquidation—failed to bring relevant new products to market in a climate where obesity and diabetes became part of the vernacular. Wonder Bread may have been the greatest thing since… whatever came before it, but not in a world of seven grain all natural high fiber baked fresh daily, sliced thick and thin or not at all, your choice.

Blackberry: I am going out on a limb here, calling the magnificent former high-flier from Research in Motion dead even though launch of a new platform has been loaded into the cannons for ignition. Why do I say it’s gone with two new Blackberry’s rolling out as soon as next month? As noted in the Wall Street Journal last week, “Consulting firm IDC recently estimated that RIM’s share of the global smartphone market stands at 4.7%, down from 9.5% at this time last year and from more than 50% in 2009.” Sorry, but when a company has less than 10% of the market share it had three years ago, I am not sure how you could classify a recovery as anything more than a dangling lifeline. What went wrong? Ever try to use the Blackberry browser? There is no word in our language of which I am aware to adequately modify the word slow. With an extremely late to market touchscreen interface, where was the incentive for app developers to develop apps? Those of you who know me know my devotion to the thumb driven analog keyboard, but when I tossed it in for an iPhone 5, I knew the rest of the thumbers were coming too.

There were a number of brands suggested by my colleagues as sighted on death watch, but I’ll let those opinion makers chime in themselves and go out on their own limbs as I did with Blackberry. I have my suspicions about who might be on deck for next year’s list, but I will keep those sealed for now in a paper envelope so as not to publicly curse them or too soon embarrass myself for being wrong. Some in the soon to be gone circle I still like and am hoping for a comeback, though not many.

I think I may make this an annual feature. History would suggest I won’t have much trouble coming up with a list each year. Why chronicle the abdicated? Creative destruction is permanently embedded in our business culture, and even the greatest company can be gone in a single product cycle if customers aren’t understood to be our ultimate boss. With constraints on distribution forever less a moat and abundant technology a ceaseless path to increased consumer choice, business leadership requires nimble execution, unending responsiveness, and gracious humility to constantly win anew customer loyalty. It’s a lesson we all need front and center to do our jobs honestly and well: Innovate quickly or die.