What startups can learn from Studio 54 and the velvet rope

Studio 54 opening night

As soon as we launch a startup we’re secretly desperate to get as many users as we can as quickly as possible. Even if we’ve hacked some kind of alpha test, or user MVP – or any other buzz mechanism to justify that this shit is gonna work. That aside we still want users, bodies, customers, people to come, use, share, evangelise as quickly as possible. It’s all about speed to market, so we move super quick to make this happen. Speed of customer acquisition is the key right?

Maybe not. Maybe what we should really be doing is the exact opposite. Maybe we should keep people out. Even those in our desired audience. Maybe we should be focused less on the quantity of users and instead focus on the quality and frequency of interactions with insiders. Those we let in. Just like a popular night club does, it creates desire by creating a space not everyone is allowed into. The line outside, is not a bug, it’s a major feature.

Look at anything valuable in life, and you’ll see a place where people had to earn their spot. People had to get invited, pass a test, earn recognition, or create value before they were allowed to be part of the thing in question. This process creates the human fear of missing out

When Facebook launched you had to have a Harvard email address to join.

When Gmail arrived, you needed an invite to get access.

When Uber came along it launched city by city.

The first Tesla cars went to high profile people.

Even the original Frequent Flyer programs were by invite only.

And Studio 54 turned exclusivity into an art form, literally.

While it is very hard to build a big business with a tiny audience, it is much harder to create a great product while trying to please everyone. We should instead create an isolated market so we can serve the faithful few. Make a product they love so much that they can’t help but talk about how great the thing is. we need to get them raving about it so others will want in on it. We need to put a velvet rope around what is on the inside. We need a door person who has the task of saying ‘Not in those shoes pal‘ or the classic ‘members only tonight.’ Of course, none of this is actually designed to exclude others, it’s more about making those on the inside know how special they are, that they are part of creating something valuable. It’s only then that they’ll help you make something which can grow beyond the group who started it.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

Learn why data matters with one simple photo

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 9.23.54 am

If I was to ask you what the kids in the above picture were doing – beyond burying their faces in their smart phones, there is an almost infinite number of possible answers:

Messaging a friend, Face-timing their mum, Commenting on a blog, Snapchatting, Booking a flight, Submitting their homework, Buying a pair of sneakers, Updating their FB status, Getting directions, Sending a friend some money, Finding a cafe for lunch…. they might even be talking to directly to each other. The point is we don’t know. We can’t know by observing behaviour from the outside. Instead we need to get inside the data to find out what is actually going on.

This is a big shift in marketing and business in general. We can’t simply observe, we can’t just ask, we’ve got to mine. And while this movement might have started with the smart phone, we’re now entering an era of general purpose machinery and computing. End products which change their purpose based on who is using the technology. Malleable products like 3D printers and self drive cars will mean the only way to know what’s really going on is to match usage and observation with data. Increasingly this will need to involve collaboration, and the effective way to do that won’t be just taking the data without asking, or tricking people with hidden terms and conditions, but collaborating with it. In order to do this we need to develop a trusted relationship where we share the marketing process with our users just as if they are part of our internal team. If we do this, we can bake a bigger revenue pie where we all get a piece.

New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now. 

The Uber attitude & surge pricing

Travis from Uber

Today the ride share service Uber, did more again of what it seems to be good at – acting like jerks. During the Sydney Siege they conducted a price surge and put prices up to reflect the demand for transport at a time of serious civil disturbance. But the most disturbing thing, isn’t the price, it’s really the attitude.

This is one time when industry disrupters can take an important lesson from their industrial era counterparts. Let’s take legacy airlines. Our national carrier Qantas has on many occasions diverted flights at no cost to pull people out of countries which present an immediate danger to Australian travellers.

While Uber later countered their original decision with a ‘Oh, and we’ll pay the fares’ tweet – below – it was clearly an afterthought when the rightfully astounded community reacted.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 4.09.50 pm

It turns out our natural intentions are revealed by how we behave before we get feedback.

New book – The Great Fragmentation – out now!

Colors, Apps and Cognitive Shortcuts

airbnb app icons old & new

I have my apps set up so that they will automatically update whenever I am connected to wifi. It’s pretty handy to have the latest version of something, assuming of course they make it better than the previous version.

But what I’ve noticed recently, or more aptly haven’t noticed, is that apps have a habit of changing their logo, or colour scheme. Which most often means I can’t find it, and all of a sudden I have the chance to drop the habit of using their service, or even worse finding a replacement. It’s worth remembering that the shape and the colour of an app’s logo is the cognitive shortcut we look for when we need to use it. And more often than not a logo or colour change is really only serving the people who make it and not those who actually use it. Unlike aribnb (who recently changed their logo) get front page stories when someone in their office sneezes, most app developers and curators are not so fortunate.

Just because we become bored with something we see a zillion times a day, it doesn’t mean our customers want to relearn what to look for.

New book – The Great Fragmentation – out now.

A list of things large companies could do without

I’ve spent an equal amount of time in large corporates and startups. With the success that large companies have achieved comes an entirely new set of cultures which they could do without. So here is my top 10 list of behaviours large companies could do without:

  1. Public reading events. Organise a room full of people and stop their work to read stuff to them instead of actually providing an inspiring change instigating presentation.
  2. Pre-meeting meetings: Getting everyone ‘on the same page’ – I felt sick writing that… yuck. Time wasting. Have some courage people.
  3. Promoting the best political performers: Ensuring the political champions kick on instead of those making a difference in the market.
  4. Skimp on the product: Remove cost from product instead of having a product in which customers would tolerate price rises for.
  5. Creating information spirals: Gathering more research to reduce risk and avoid making a ‘go’ decision while the market opportunity gets taken by nimble competitors.
  6. Developing slogans instead of getting stuff done: A company I worked for had a new one each year. One was Fewer Bigger Better. It was a great way to justify not doing anything.
  7. Developing internal language: Having a culture of industry jargon, codes and acronyms to create the ‘self aggrandising’ illusion of intelligence. Talking to themselves
  8. Mistake avoidance culture: Creating a fear of decision making, by rewarding staff for not making mistakes.
  9. Penny pinching: Closing the stationary cupboard during a tough year, yet the senior people can still afford those first class trips to international trade conferences.
  10. Global alignment: Ensuring the packaging for Australia is the same as the packaging in Lithuania when the product comes out of different factories and is served in different cultures. Confusing when global focus is a disadvantage.

What’s your favourite piece of corporate folly?


Wood chips, sugar & hazelnuts

It was recently the 50th birthday of that favourite chocolate spread we sometimes convince ourselves is ok to eat between two piece of bread. Nutella.

Nutella Jar

What a lot of people don’t realise is that Nutella is what it is because they couldn’t afford to make it the way they wanted to. Originally Nutella was a pure chocolate spread, but during the post WW2 era, a time of heavy rationing in Italy, they bulked up the ingredients with hazelnuts. They did this because hazelnuts were plentiful in the local area and much cheaper than cocoa per kilogram. The presence of mind to turn to the woodchips, in this case hazelnuts, and remarket the brand was very clever indeed. The branding was adapted to talk up the nut credentials and make people believe it was actually a hazelnut spread.

In fact it only has 13% hazelnuts and a whopping 52% sugar by volume – ironically about the same amount as the white label on the jar. While I’ll leave the moral discussion on the marketing of Nutella for another blog post, the question it poses for all of us is this:

How do we turn necessary cost cuts or lack of availability of inputs into brand advantage?


Getting media coverage for your startup

There’s a lot of things I’m not good at, getting free media coverage for my startups is not one of them. Every project I’ve ever worked on I’ve managed to get major mainstream media coverage for it.

I recently wrote a post for the crew at Pollenizer on the Sammartino methods in getting how to get media coverage. I call it:

How to media hack your startup to awareness.

Like most things in business there is a recipe, and once you know it you can cook up that dish just about any time you have the right ingredients. A couple of my favourite recipes are right here.