In 2011, my now-partner Chris Moody (and then-CEO of Gnip, which I was on the board of) kicked my butt about my endless statements about hating marketing. His thoughts on recasting “marketing” as “thought leadership” appeared on this blog in a post I Don’t Hate Marketing.
It remains a great example of one of the reasons I blog, which is to think out loud, get feedback, learn, and iterate. From that point forward, I changed my entire perspective on “marketing” and now focus almost all of my ideas around “marketing” on thought leadership.
Recently, we’ve seen leaders of several high profile startups implode, along with the current and possibly future expectations around their business. The one everyone was talking about last week is WeWork. Mike Isaac’s book, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which I read a few weeks ago when it came out, is another contribution to this mix. And, there are a number of others, including many who are trying to keep out of the limelight all of a sudden.
A few days ago, I was pondering the idea of a “cult of personality” around a company or an institution and trying to come up with a way to describe when a cult of personality was dominating what was going on within and around a business. In many cases, a cult of personality can propel a company to extremely high profile or valuations, but it can also very quickly cause things to go completely off the rails.
If you ready my writing, you know that I like to use the word “obsessed” instead of “passionate”, and I much prefer working with people who are obsessed with what they are doing, rather than just passionate about it. I think passion is easy to fake, especially around entrepreneurship, and biases strongly toward extroverts. Obsession is almost impossible to fake, and while it can be unhealthy in the extreme, it is a powerful filter for me when talking to entrepreneurs.
While I was meditating yesterday, my mind was particularly noisy. I don’t know why, nor do I judge myself around it, but as I was watching (and labeling) the thoughts bouncing around, simulating a pinball machine in my mind, one popped out and lingered.
Entrepreneurs who create a cult of personality are obsessed about me, me, me.
I remembered the thought again this morning which prompted this post. I now have a simple way to separate between cult of personality and thought leadership.
When the entrepreneur or CEO becomes the center of the narrative – or more specifically makes themself the center of the narrative – that’s a big red flag from my perspective.
One of the jokes in my little universe is that “every time I hear the word ‘marketing’ I throw up a little in my mouth.” I’ve been joking about this long enough that it’s become conventional wisdom that I hate marketing. Yet, if you look at many of our successful investments, they are extraordinarily good at marketing and some people suggest we (Foundry Group, me) are also good at marketing.
Thirty minutes ago, Chris Moody – a long time friend and COO of Gnip – sent me an extremely thoughtful email titled “Food For Thought”. I read it, thought it was 100% correct, and asked if I could reblog it verbatim both as (a) an explanation of how I actually should / do think about marketing and (b) an example of how I learn through direct feedback.
Chris – thanks for taking the time to write this. You nailed it. The way I articulate how I think about marketing will be permanently different going forward.
At this point I’ve probably heard/read most of your basic philosophical points on the various aspects of building a successful business. I agree with most of them of course. However, there is one area where I’ve consistently felt that you have under represented your true feelings and it feels like your general input on the topic has been mostly nonconstructive. I’d like to try to help change that for the good of the broader entrepreneur community (and to make you look even smarter).
The topic is marketing. I have no doubt missed some brillant thoughts you’ve offered to the community and I’m sure you’ve provided countless pieces of good advice to individual entrepreneurs in one-on-one situations. But, the sound bite version I’ve heard from you on a few occasions goes something like this “I hate traditional marketing. Focus on building a great product or all the marketing in the world won’t matter.” When I think about the first time entrepreneur, this response feels particularly unhelpful. And, the second part of the quote could be applied to almost all aspects of a startup business including sales, finance, etc. If you don’t have a great product, none of the other shit matters.
And yet, when I see how Foundry Group approaches marketing and when I look across your portfolio companies, I see a very common thread around how you guys approach marketing. I would characterize the theme as “marketing through thought leadership.” In more basic terms it is expressing marketing ideas via “this is why we are doing what we are doing and why it is important” instead of “hey, look at me.” Have a new product feature? Sure blog about the feature, but spend way more time on why the feature is important to your overall purpose and beliefs.
To illustrate the point, I’ve recently talked to/interviewed a few current/former people from Rally and ReturnPath. When I ask them “what is the most significant thing you did from a marketing perspective to accelerate the business” the answer across the board has been “we focused on being a thought leader in our space.” As you well know that is the same approach we are taking at Gnip and I see it in many of your other portfolio companies too. Not sure it is always a conscience effort by the companies, but it seems to be pretty consistent across the portfolio..
When I think about FG itself I see tons of “marketing activity” but most of it could also be just be labeled: thought leadership. You sponsor conferences around topics that you care about. Your blog post are rich with “here’s why did it and why it matters” instead of “here’s what we did”. In fact, your whole theme based approach is really about thought leadership focused in a few areas. Foundry Group clearly believes that startups have the power to change the world. You guys spend countless time and effort expressing your opinions on this topic. You write books to support your beliefs. If you only talked about what you do with your startups “we invested in x, we sold y”, the conversation would be short and have a limited audience. Instead, you talk about what you believe and why startups matter. As a result, you have built a real following around people that care about the topic.
If I were going to create the Brad Feld sound bite for Marketing it would go something like this “Don’t do marketing. Focus on becoming a thought leader in your space. Talk everyday with your customers, perspective customers, partners, and the world about why you do what you do and why you think it is important. The reality is you can only talk about what you do one or two times before people think ‘got it’ and stop listening. But, if you talk about what you believe and point to countless examples that exemplify your beliefs , you can build real engagement with people who care/believe the same things.”
Not trying to put words in your mouth. Just saying that the actions that I see don’t match the words that I hear and I think there is easy opportunity to change that for the better.