Archive: strategy

Rezession die beste Zeit für Social Media? [German]

Peter Turi hat ein Video – Interview geposted, dass er mit mir auf dem DLD 09 geführt haben. Darin stellt er solche spannenden Fragen wie:

1) Ist Rezession eine schlechte Zeit für Startups?

2) Wird sich bei den Startups die Spreu vom Weizen trennen?

3) Wird YouTube sevenload verdrängen?

4) Was ist das “nächste große Ding?”

Hier sind meine Antworten:

Interview Turi2 (2009): Interview with Axel Schmiegelow about his entrepreneurship (German) from curtis newton gmbh on Vimeo.

The Future of (web) TV

Reflecting on the current discussions, last at the Delphi Executive conference in Bonn, and at CeBIT which I both attended as a speaker, I recalled the very lively panel at DLD 09 around online video and social media. If you are interested in the topic, the video gives you insights with Brightcove, Endemol, sevenload and Termor Media and a great moderator, David Kirkpatrick from Fortune Magazine.

About the specifics of how we perceive the value of recurring WebTV Content, please check my Interview at ETRE in Stockholm:

ETRE 2008: Axel Schmiegelow describes the sevenload community and “The Future of TV” from curtis newton gmbh on Vimeo.

What makes good leadership?

A lot is being said and has been written about how strategies and market mechanics determine the success or failure of ventures and large companies. But any entrepreneur will confirm that it usually is execution which decides the fate of the company, especially in venture companies. Thus, leadership capabilities may be the most important skill set of venture management.

Leadership, management, and the principles which guide how employees are motivated and directed in their tasks are usually treated either as a self help topic in management books or as the HR side of company organization.

It might be time to focus on leadership and HR capabilities in the strategic dimension they have for the company. This means to recognize that the best company strategy can be killed by the wrong leadership methods. Good leadership is not only an important requirement for management. It is the necessary condition for company success!

In the region of North Germany where part of my family comes from we say that a fish always stinks from the head, which in my opinion puts in a nutshell the essence of leadership. If your venture team is not motivated or doesn’t excel, start at the head.

Ted Levitt once said that

organizations exist to enable ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things,

which I believe is only a way to say that things happen only if people do them. The success of a company is only achieved if the employees and the managers of that company willingly take the necessary actions to enable that success.

That is certainly first and foremost a question of deciding which of the actions that are available in a given situation is chosen, but it is equally importantly a question of ensuring that every employee executes that strategy in the way that best ensures success, including feedback and adaptation of the strategy when problems arise.

Achieving this, however, is a question of leadership.

Since all dictatorships eventually fail, leadership cannot be reduced to the ability to bark orders. All great historic figures acclaimed for their leadership, from Julius Cesar to Napoleon, from Spartacus to Martin Luther King, are all admired for their ability to inspire, to motivate, and to convey a sense of purpose to a large number of people, i.e. to the organization that they led.

Inspiration however, is nothing without credibility. Credibility, in turn, is only achieved through authenticity. Authenticity is only achieved through honesty. Applied to the world of the 21st century and the context of leadership in business organizations, this means that a truly successful leader needs to combine the ability to inspire others with a set of skills and principles that are tenets of credibility as a leader:

1. An inspiring sense of purpose.

2. A clear set of unflinching values. Shifty leaders command no respect.

3. Honesty at all costs.

4. The ability to communicate necessities and convey a sense of urgency to a team.

5. The ability to define the organization as a community serving a common goal.

6. The ability to honestly admit own mistakes and address the weaknesses of the organization.

7. Relentless commitment to the company goal, including the necessary ability to “punish underperformance”, without humiliating anyone in the organization.

8. The ability to lead by example, including in personal matters such as health or respect for others.

9. The discipline to pursue a strategy and tactics that belong to that strategy and to adapt these whenever necessary, not only “acting from the gut”.

10. The intelligence to always overestimate competition and underestimate your own position.

Most of these traits require a certain level of self-assurance, respect for others, and clear view of your own shortcomings that is incompatible with most managerial egos. But while there are enough cases of at least temporarily successful egomaniacs, in the long run only those entrepreneurs intelligent enough to value, respect, and reward their performing team members, and self-critical enough to recognize their own mistakes become truly great.

Discussion: Monetization or Reach [English]

Frank Huber recently tackled my post about Monetization in his Blog (in German)

and contradicted my views of the subject based on 2 reasons: in his opinion, YouTube has shown that “size does matter” and sevenload hasn’t followed my recommended strategy at all. Here’s my reply to his post:

1) It’s undeniable that the “natural market leader”, who’s the one that goes for reach first, is the one who can win the rat race for size. I did point this out myself in my own post. However, it would be wrong to believe that the YouTube strategy and more specifically the YouTube exit is something that can be replicated. Ex post, Google’s investment in YouTube makes a lot of sense for a company that gave up a fraction of it’s shares. But there is exactly one buyer fitting that profile, and that is Google. There’s always exactly one worldwide or www-wide dominant company per segment that can be successful with a sheer “reach” priorization and with such an Exit strategy – so it’s hardly good advice for startups to emulate that model unless the startup is entirely sure of being the first one in its category.

My argument wasn’t that reach or the number of users/clients won is irrelevant- in fact, it’s the opposite. I just think that it is healthier to achieve this reach or customer base with a working and efficient business model than without one. And XING is a good example of this: From its first day back in 2003, Lars Hinrichs (Founder of XING) was already charging 5- € in monthly membership fees, even though at the time subscription models were still widely perceived as unfeasable in the German internet market.

2) sevenload’s strategy is NOT that of gaining a gross increase in our reach at all costs. We’re following an approach of pure, organic growth (up to now we haven’t spent a single € for advertising) which allows us to best offer a differentiated platform and cover the “Long Tail” of content. This allows us to offer advertisers rates that are up to a factor of 10 greater than those of normal video portals – and of most most conventional internet portals as well. Because of this difference, we are the market leader as measured in:

- Unique Visitors (> 10 Mil real unique visitors per month),
- active registered users (> 300,000),
- average visit duration (> 25 min. per visit and registered users > 45 min),
- content volume and
- revenue (we will be the Web 2.0 company with the highest turnover in Germany this year and most likely the only one that will be profitable). We achieve all this thanks to a revolutionary advertising model that is highly effective for advertisers.

Interestingly, though gross reach was not a primary target, this strategy has led to an sustained increase in precisely our gross reach and has put us in second place in the German market in terms of gross reach, right ahead of Clipfish, despite Clipfish’s massive cross-media subsidisation by the leading German TV Channel, RTL, and a full integration in DSDS, Germany’s “American Idol” Format.

In my opinion this once again proves the wisdom of Al Ries’s main marketing theorem:

Create a new category, then dominate it

My post on monetization does nothing more than offer a methodic approach to defining the category a startup strives to dominate in business model terms rather than in media terms.

Monetization or Reach?

In a recent discussion I had at a meeting of which I am a non-executive member, the eternal discussion of

whether priority should be given to monetization or to reach and internationalization

was brought up. The debate centered around the question of whether or not the exit perspectives of the venture (of which I am also a shareholder) would increase or decrease, depending on whether the business model was first proven, at the detriment of international reach, or whether monetization should be allowed to lag because entry into several international markets at once would be a priority.

To me, this debate simply has the wrong starting point. While it is true that exit markets, such as the stock market or the M&A market, are – just like any other market – subject to buyer preference analysis, and while there is some credit to the claim that understanding the decision making “fashions” of typical M&A acquirers does help you in setting the price of your venture at exit,

timing towards such an exit market is more of a gamble than a company strategy.

In my experience, having now gone through two boom and one bust phases, the best strategy for a company to pursue is to

create a viable business model that creates value for customers that customers are prepared to pay for.

This may not always be the “sexiest” portrayal a startup can give itself (as opposed to: we are the next Facebook), but to paraphrase the old saying about design following function or form following function-

PR and the Elevator Pitch should follow the strategy and not the other way around.

This is why I literally get angry at classic venture capital thinking that sees company strategy solely in the dimension of “How will this fit my exit market? How can I sell this story to an acquirer?”. I would always strongly advise any founder

to have a clear and separate vision of their business model that cannot be influenced or swayed, save by the customer

and to work relentlessly on proving and creating that.

Incidentally, succesful American start-ups have often proven that this is the best strategy since they have always focused on gaining size and growth in their home markets before over-focussing on internationalization. In general, this has given them the size and clout necessary to, if need be, acquire whoever it was in a landscape within a specific market. It is true, that this does not always work and that some local markets have been lost even for giants such as Yahoo! and E-bay because they haven’t gone local on time, but conversely there is no known example of a company that went for reach without a viable business model and survived.

Eventually, you do have to pay the bills.

So if you do have to reach several international markets at once (because you are in a European market with too small a home market or because your board is adamant or because you have that peculiar megalomania that most entrepreneurs – including me – indulge in, I would advise the following order or priorities in formulating your company strategy:

1) Define your Business Model

2) Prove it by acquiring your reference customer base

3) Identify the growth factors in your business model with respect to paying customers

4) Identify the multipliers or incumbents in other international markets

5) Internationalize on a sales / business model driven basis by acquiring reference paying customers in those markets

The perceptions of your target exit markets can change faster than you can change the positioning of your company.

But a functioning business model and a continuous revenue stream are two realities that a) always let your survive independently of your VC backing and b) always find an acquirer.

Where there is a business model, there always eventually is an exit market.

It’s a People’s Business – HR is Key

After 15 years of entrepreneurship the realization I come back to more and more, and in these hyped times even more strongly, is that finding the right people is the one determining factor that will decide whether you will have success or not.

On the one hand that seems like a trivial statement and on the other implementing that realization is a continuous challenge. It starts of course, with a founding team – where anyone who has started up a company knows that what seems to be a perfect team at the phase of imagining the product/the service or wrapping up the prototype, may turn out in effect in the next 6 months not to be the right set of talents and personalities. However, the HR topic becomes even more relevant when you’re hiring your first 20 employees- often finding the right person can be very crucial, even in seemingly less decisive functions such as finance or organization, or even some parts of marketing.

In that critical phase where the company is not yet known, and it is hard to find people who are at all willing to work for the company, management often makes a compromise. In essence you may have no choice, but that compromise can be more costly than not hiring a person at all – and it is always much harder and much less fair to get rid of a person who is in the wrong position, perhaps without fault, than to make the necessary effort to take the right decision in the beginning.

I at least have made this mistake over and over again and I still do not feel much smarter. At the same time, having to go through the process of selection and de-selection of the right team can be very critical for the company culture as well, because issues of fairness and the relationship between the HR consequences and your own management mistakes becomes a predominant topic, especially if you have to let people go. This is all the more relevant because in the initial phases of a company, management is bound to make many mistakes, so the issue of fairness becomes even more dominant.

For employees to understand that the fact that management makes mistakes (and will as shareholding/entrepreneurial management, very probably not be ousted), and at the same time accept that co-workers who were hired on a risky job in a company with an uncertain future, are fired, makes it even more apparently unfair.

There are only 2 ways of avoiding that:

1) be as intransigent (if not more intransigent) with lacking performance on the entrepreneurial or the management’s part (start there). As we say in German “A stairway is always swept from the top”.

2) Secondly, make objectives clear, understandable, quantifiable, but also adjustable and communicate continuously around these objectives, so that the standard of performance is understandable for every employee. This also means that objectives have to relate to the company mission and to the overall goal in a way that every employee understands, shares, commits to and identifies with.

Hiring the right people and finding the right balance between clear objectives, clear leadership, strong enthusiasm and group identification is probably the hardest challenge in setting up a company – this is where companies fail, all other mistakes can often be corrected or adjusted, if need be with fresh capital, but once a company’s corporate culture or the mix of talents and resources is poisoned it’s very hard for a company to overcome that stage, and to then regain enthusiasm, regain momentum and catch up with a market that has probably moved on.

To put it simply, at the end of the day, every company is just a group of people trying to achieve something, set up their own rules and gain success. For that and for the entrepreneur endeavoring to achieve success there is no easy way out, there is no toolbox and there are no simple solutions. It is probably the area where he or she most needs to continuously revise (on a daily basis) what he or she is doing, by which principles and with which success. It is the prime area of self-improvement for an entrepreneur, alongside self-management.

It’s all about Psychology

Even the smartest VCs still need an irrational exuberence moment to take their decision. The Financing of the Next Big Thing (NBT) is secured – but in the round (won’t be more specific in case one of them reads this) some of the VCs, though very smart and rational, still need the feeling of “we’ve got to rush to the bandwagon” before they really commit. And that means we have to waste some energy just to prove that we can scale fast really fast.

We believe that you have to finetune your Value Proposition. and make yourself sticky before you explode – or you wil get ephemereal and lose the audience you reach. That doesn’t mean being slow or defensive – it means spending as much energy on retaining customers / users as on winning new ones. Not an easy one. But probably the secret to success.

Now customer retention is probably achieved by the basics:

- compelling, understandable value proposition
- swift, perfect service delivery (including technology)
- simple mantra (see Guy Kawasaki on that) that’ll be told at every party

In short: gain not only a lot of contacts, but a relevant portion of mind share as well.

I’ll report more on this, because we have devised a nice little strategy to comply without wasting marketing reach. There is Gold there.

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