Friday, June 29, 2012

Your Name Matters

From the Boston Business Journal's "Startups &VC" daily update yesterday:

Networking startup Plexxi raises $20.1M as it emerges from stealth

That groan you hear is from me, frustrated that yet another startup has chosen a really stupid name. What the heck does Plexxi mean? How will anyone remember that double x? Does the double x mean it's specifically for women?

I see names like this all the time now: Bozuko, Bebo, Sclipo, Plurk... they sound like baby talk. I know a fair amount of these are selected by the availability of short domain names ending in .com, but seriously, how can you expect customers to take you seriously when you say these names?

For a company, a name is a first impression. I can tell you that when I research vendors, online tools, and service providers that if I am embarrassed to say your company's name, I'm not going to buy your services.

I can hear the start up kids saying, "But all the good .com names are taken! We have to have these names!" and I want to point out that I know how to type .info, .net, .org and many other extensions into an address bar. That if you master SEO, I can click on search engine links without ever having to type into my address bar. That as a company, you can stand out by NOT being on .com, or that it's your job to teach your customers to type something else into their address bar.

The Next Web has a nice roundup of really silly web startup names. What's the silliest name you've heard of lately? 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cat Whispering: What Miso Can Teach You About Social Media

As a little girl, my family adopted an abandoned cat that we named Hungry. I can remember being frustrated at first that Hungry liked my dad better than he liked me, and the simple explanation that my dad gave me for this. My dad fed Hungry every morning and every evening. He told me that if I fed Hungry, I could teach him to like me more. I can still recite the lesson plan for my cat: "Kate is food. Food is good. Kate is good."

Cats are interesting creatures with very particular personalities. Unlike dogs, which are inveterate pack animals and seek out family bonds, cats don't necessarily need a companion, human or otherwise. But they can be socialized.

On Thanksgiving last year, my husband and I took in a cat that we named Miso. Miso was terrified, having been taken away from a smoky, airless home where dogs used her as a pissing target, and then taken to another house where she was terrorized by a very territorial cat and a hyperactive dog. We have two mellow cats, so our house was deemed a better location.

It has taken about 8 months, but Miso is learning to be cuddled. My plan for befriending her involved gentle contact, finding out where she did and didn't like to be petted (she adores having her neck rubbed, but will not tolerate any touching of her feet). She jumped up on counters and attacked houseplants, so I used a misting bottle to get her down, and then cat treats to reward good behavior. It's a slow, painstaking process. To train a cat, you have to be willing to know where the limit is, to watch the cat to see how she reacts. You have to have persistence, to try and try again, sometimes come away with some scratches, and keep going anyway, with compassion, understanding, and love. And the payoff, a purring pal that snuggles you while you watch Law & Order reruns, is pretty sweet.

I have an unofficial nickname of "Cat Whisperer," because I have a knack for understanding cats. But really, the lessons of reaching a cat are subtle, and are well applied to social media.

What? Cats and social media? No, I'm not talking about LolCats.

Social media, whether used for a specific aim (sell a product, increase event attendance) or a general one (establish thought leadership, build a community), is a channel that acts a lot like a cat. If you're out on Twitter or Facebook, you're trying to herd cats. You have a bunch of personalities floating around who may or may not want to interact with you (or anyone) and you need to reach them, to establish a meaningful connection.

Starting out, you don't know who's out there, what they like or don't like, but you have to start somewhere. So you begin with a single message: "Welcome to our Page!" Maybe someone says hello back. Maybe no one does. So you try again "Are you interested in books? Check out the new selection of fiction at our library!" Maybe someone tweets back. And you've learned that books are something you can use to make a connection.

Getting into social media, though painstaking, gets easier when you know what you want. When I cared for a feral cat in my backyard, my mission was to capture her to have her spayed. (Five years later I had to give up when I moved, but I did get around to being able to pet her.) With Miso, I wanted her to feel comfortable in my home and have an affectionate relationship. When you set up a Facebook page or a Google+ hangout, it's really important to know what you want to accomplish. Without a game plan, you might spend all your time and energy and in developing something, and then it could fall by the wayside, because you don't know what to do with your newfound friends. Do you want to gather a temporary community for a single event? Or are you building a donor base that you can use to continually fund a non-profit's mission?

But the real key here is to listen to your audience. In the beginning, I'd pick up Miso and almost instantly she'd squirm, wanting to get down. So I'd put her down, because that's what she wanted. Over time, she learned that contact was nice, and now I can hold her for a long time. So if you audience is telling you that they don't like so many sales-y messages, stop sending them. Change your content, test your content, find what they like and then keep doing it.

Building an online network, an online community is really tough work. It means being incredibly persistent, being patient, and using feedback to guide your strategy.

Now go out there and herd some cats.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Five Simple Ways to Improve Your Corner of the World

Think globally, act locally. We all know the slogan, but it's often hard to do the things that make our corner of the world better. Here in America we live in a land of high expectations for productivity, we work more than our European counterparts, and we hardly ever take vacations. So many times, we're struggling to make sure we have clean laundry, dinner on the table and enough money for rent that the idea of doing something good for our communities has to fall by the wayside.

I firmly believe that like those blog posts telling you the five simple things you can do to increase productivity, there are a few simple things you can do to give back to your community.

  1. Donate blood - I give at Children's Hospital Boston, and it takes less than an hour, every two months. You can check at local hospitals for blood donor centers, or find an American Red Cross location near you. Blood is a precious resource that you can give to those in need.
  2. Donate clothing and furniture - In Cambridge, MA, is a great organization called Heading Home that works to help people avoid homelessness. They can always use donations of used goods to help furnish their apartments, and clothes for the needy. Other places to donate are Goodwill or Planet Aid.
  3. Fight Litter - I hate litter, and I often will pick it up off the street, anywhere, if I can spot a trash can from where I find the litter. It's a stupidly simple task, but it keeps our streets clean, which helps dispel the broken windows effect in a neighborhood.
  4. Say hello to your neighbors - How many of your neighbors do you know? I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone, which meant that when something went wrong, we all knew to pitch in and help. It's harder in an age of cell phones to actually stop and say hello and introduce yourself, but that's honestly what keeps a community together. 
  5. Find a mentoring program - I participate in two mentoring programs: one at my alma mater Simmons, where I mentor a student in the MBA program, and one with the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury, where I write letters back and forth with a middle schooler. These take about two hours a months to do, but they help me connect with my community.

There you are, five things, big and small that you can do to improve your corner of the world. I'm sure that you can think of others--what are some simple things that you do to improve your corner of the world?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Recap

Ah Friday, the end of the traditional work week.

Here's what was new on the blog this week:

Cookies and Process Evaluation - How a simple afternoon of baking leads into thinking about how often we evaluate our recipes for projects.

Breaking Down Strategy - Inspired by Lois Geller's Forbes piece, this article breaks down strategy into its most basic components.

And here are some interesting articles from around the web:

Productivity on Fridays - Liz Strauss gives you a game plan to end the week with a strategy for making Mondays more productive and less stressful.

Apps I Want To Go Away - Sam Grobart on the unusual fact that Apple won't let you delete the Stocks app from your iPhone. (I have often rued that point myself.)

Social Media Global Domination - Lisa Gerber talks about how mass commodification and Facebook are working to destroy the charm of the special and local.

Have you found any good reads lately? Feel free to share them in the comments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Breaking Down Strategy

Lois Geller contributed a very interesting piece to Forbes recently, dealing with strategy. Why Strategy Matters has an excellent example of Strategy vs. Tactics, in describing the Illiad’s section on the Trojan Horse.

Geller describes the frustration of the Greek armies, unable to scale the walls of Troy to conquer the city and take back Menelaus’ wife Helen. Their strategy had involved trying to knock down or disable those walls to get inside. When they were foiled, the switched the strategy: instead of huffing and puffing to blow the walls in, they would convince the Trojans to open the walls themselves. The Trojan Horse was the Tactic for this, but the strategy was the “How” of the equation.

It’s a great piece, and an excellent way to highlight the difference between strategy and tactics. It got me thinking, how often do we confuse strategy and tactics? So I went back to my MBA text, Crafting & Executing Strategy: The Quest for Competitive Advantage: Concepts and Cases, and on page 4, found this simple definition:

A company’s strategy consists of the competitive moves and business approaches that managers are employing to grow the business, attract and please customers, compete successfully, conduct operation, and achieve the targeted level of organizational performance. 

 It’s really a mouthful. I wanted even more abstract. Here’s what I came up with:

Objective: What you want to happen
Strategy: How you will make that happen
Tactic: A specific action item of your strategy

In the case of the Trojan War:

Objective: Retrieve Helen, Conquer Troy
Original Strategy: Use military force to knock down Troy’s walls and invade
Revised Strategy: Have the Trojans open their own walls and invade
Tactic: Hide the military in a giant horse that the Trojans bring within the city walls.

What I really like about this breakdown is that you can apply it to anything, and then knit objectives and strategies together in a functioning matrix.

Objective: Increase Lead Conversion
Strategy: Engage customers over social media
Tactic: Search Twitter for customers who are asking questions about the product

Objective: Collect donations for food pantry
Strategy: Share information on social media networks
Tactic: Ask your existing network to ask their networks

What do you think? Is this too simple? How do you define strategy?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cookies and Process Evaluation

I make a mean chocolate cake. My recipe is called Groovy Chocolate Cake from the delightful cookbook Chocolate Kicks and Other Recipes for the Chocolate Addict (1970). The special ingredient is sour cream. Oh yes, it's a delicious cake.

A few weeks ago, I felt like brownies, so I hunted up this book and decided to actually try one of the other recipes in it, the titular Chocolate Kicks. I've since discovered that the times/heat settings for the baking don't quite line up with my futuristic kitchen. So I made adjustments.

Today, I attempted Chocolate Weeds. (I should also point out that while 75% of the recipes in this book are named after pot references, none of them include marijuana in the ingredients.) They're supposed to be cookies, with pecans. I made the batter and was stunned to see how runny it was. "Oh well," I thought, "maybe they fluff up in the oven."

Nope. They turned into these hard, flat, unappetizing discs that were amazingly difficult to get off of the cookie sheet. So I went back to the batter. It really was quite runny. I decided to add more flour. I added in 1/4 cups until I felt it was stiff enough.

The second pan came out much better.

I've now noted in the book that instead of 1/4 cup of flour, if I make this recipe again I need 1 cup of flour.

In baking with old cookbooks (and the majority of my cookbooks are very old), it helps to remember that today's ingredients are different, as are how we prepare food. (For one thing, this cookbook always asks you to melt the chocolate in a double boiler, but it's much simpler to do this in a microwave.)

When you're working on a project at work, or examining a business process, so often companies do things the same way, because "that's how we've always done it." But if you're running a process the same way today as you did in 1970, you could be missing out on improvements. Does your organization always rely on the same person working at the same post in the assembly line? In the early days of the company, New Balance experimented with letting assembly line workers switch roles along a schedule, so that the person who did Step 1 could see what all the other steps on the line were. This led to workers finding best practices on the assembly line, and improving the product, not to mention the process.

Take a look at the current recipes of your company. When did you put together each process? What are the moving parts? Are those parts still relevant? Does a project that has used to take 3 people to do now take 5 people to do? Why? Is the process changing? How?

I recommend finding the quietest time in your company's yearly calendar and focus on one department, project, or process every year. Examine the nuts and bolts, preferably with those team members, and ask them what they need to do their job better. If you can take this time to make one process better this year, you can use that productivity to identify the next area for improvement.

Cookie, anyone?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Friday Recap

As the week wraps up, here's a look back at what was on the blog this week:

And, to keep you up to date on social media and strategy, here are some tasty articles from around the web:

  • Social Media Today: Using social and email to boost your content strategy
  • Online Media Today: Clean over clutter keeps visitors on your website
  • Quora: A fascinating discussion surrounding popular pins and what makes them go viral

Plus, because it's Friday, a catchy song to start your weekend:

Have you read anything interesting this week that you'd like to share? Please leave a link in the comments!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Password Protection: LinkedIn Passwords Hacked

This week, LinkedIn reported that about 6.5 million of its customers' passwords were hacked by a Russian pro hacker and shared online.

You might be thinking, "What's he going to do with that? Add bogus duties to my job descriptions?" Probably not. But more likely what a hacker will do is trace those passwords to any other accounts you might have with the same email address and try and go for your bank account, or something equally valuable.

Before you freak out, here's what you need to do.

Go change your password on LinkedIn right now.

Changing Your LinkedIn Password

How do you change your password? It's not that hard. First, visit and login. Then, in the top right corner, where you see your name, hover your mouse to activate the drop down menu and click Settings.

Once inside your settings menu, you'll see your main account information, and right by the word password, click Change.

The next step is simple. A menu will pop up and ask you to input your current password, and your new password (reiterated for security).

Simple, isn't it? Phew.

But wait. There's more you should do.

Was Your Password Hacked?

As reported by Mashable, a company called LastPass has set up a secure tool that lets you see if you old password was one of the ones that was compromised. After changing my password yesterday, I ran the old one through the tool this morning:

Uh oh. So my password was in that batch. That meant if I used that password anywhere else, on any other site, it needs to be changed. It took a while to locate them all, but they're safe now.

Protect Your Passwords

Password hacking is a fairly common occurrence, but there are some steps you can take to keep your passwords safe.

  • Use different passwords. This should be common sense, but I know plenty of people who use the exact same password for everything: Facebook, bank account, email, news sites, etc. Don't do this, because if someone hacks that password, they can get to everything you wanted kept safe online. 
  • Don't use your birthday, SSN, or address numbers in your password. Lots of people do this, and it makes it very easy to guess their passwords. 
  • Create difficult to hack passwords. My favorite trick is to create acronymic passwords. Take a sentence that you'll remember, like "My first dog's name was Fido." Now take the first letter of each word or substitute numbers for words, and you get a password that you'll remember and a hacker will have trouble figuring out: m1dnwF. It fits the six letter requirement, plus has a number and a capital letter in it, so it will pass most password requirements.
  • Don't share your password. If someone needs to access your account, don't give them your password. Log in yourself, and then watch everything they do.
  • Check your spam filter and trash folders on a regular basis. Recently, Jessie Cross of the Hungry Mouse blog fell prey to someone who hijacked her domain name after hacking her email. She missed the change of ownership on the domain name because that person had set up a filter to get rid of any notices of the changes. Every two weeks, take a quick scan of your trash and spam folders in your email account--who knows, you might have even missed some real mail thanks to over-zealous filters. 
  • Change your password regularly. I know, I know, this one is a big hassle. But really. Do it. Make a reminder in your calendar, say, every three months, and change all your passwords. You'll thank me later.
Do you have any tips or tricks to share about keeping your passwords secure? Please share in the comments. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Regrowing Ideas

My very first job was on a farm. I planted, tended, harvested, and sold vegetables; strawberries in June, squash, tomatoes, peppers in July, and corn in August. It was a lot of work, but it meant having a job outside in the nice weather and though it involved getting up at dawn most days, I would also get to end my workday in the early afternoon.

Today, I live in the city, and I don't have a lot of garden space, but I do like to attempt gardening in pots. There is always something amazing about planting a seed and watching it grow into something bigger.

Left: May 26, Right: June 4

Two weeks ago, I saw a photo on Pinterest that led to an article on replanting roots. Since I had some green onions in my fridge that were almost used up, I saved them, and planted them. Today, they are thriving! It's an amazing idea, to save something you might otherwise compost or throw away and find that it can grow back and be used again. 

But green onions aren't the only things you can coax back to life. Months ago, I buried an avocado pit in soil, hoping to bring it to life. Nothing seemed to happen with it, but I let it be, in sunlight, and kept quietly hoping it would do something. 

Lo and behold, a few weeks ago I started seeing life. This is my avocado plant today. After a long while of incubation, it's ready to grow into something bigger.

In business school, one of my wise classmates often remarked during group projects, "That's a great idea, but where does it fit in the project?" The answer was to create a "parking lot" for those ideas, to stay until we found a place for them (if there was indeed a place for them).

Ideas are your seeds, your roots, your pits. They may be new ideas, like a packet of seeds, that just need time to grow. They might be old ideas to reconsider, like green onion roots that just need replanting. Or they may be bigger ideas that have to sit and incubate, waiting for the right moment to emerge.

As a gardener, I watch my plants, look for signs of overwatering, too little light, dryness, anything that might keep them from reaching their full potential. When dealing with ideas, you must steward them, find the right place for them, the right medium to allow them also to emerge into their full potential.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Being Gertrude Stein

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso
I'm currently reading Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company and I was delighted to learn that Gertrude Stein was almost 30 when she began her writing career.

I am only beginning to know Gertrude Stein, but I think for a long time I will be picturing her in my head as portrayed by Kathy Bates in Midnight in Paris. But I am so far struck be her meandering career in the first part of her life. She dropped out of high school, then went to Radcliffe to study the fledgling field of psychology under William James, and from there intended to start a clinical career, and so enrolled in the medical school at Johns Hopkins. But three-quarters of the way through medical school, she no longer wanted to be a doctor. and she left, to travel with her brother Leo to Paris, where she re-emerged as an connoisseur of modern art and a writer.

Stein was the leader of an influential circle of thinkers, writers, and painters.  I'm trying to think of anyone at the top of such a Mastermind group who took such a circuitous route to success. I think of the US education system, and the standardized tests we train children to take. Next, it is determined that the best route to success is through a 4-year college experience, maybe a master's degree and then straight into the silo.

Certainly, Stein came from a privileged background, with an annuity and never needed to work for a living. But still, she created a new genre of writing, the word portrait, and built a new system of characterology based on her academic learnings and melding in the learnings from her amazing circle of acquaintances. What produced Stein's contributions to literature was her decision not to stay in the silo, but to meander, to step into different streams, and ignite her ideas with the flint of diversity.

Edited: Just a few hours after I posted this, I read this article on the advantages of the generalist over the specialist. It has more business applications than this post, but the point is the same: the silo is not the be-all and end-all.