2 things I learned at the Inc. 5000 Conference

I’m leaving the Inc. 500 | 5000 Conference in Washington D.C. feeling inspired. The Inc. 5000 is their list of the fastest growing companies in the United States over the past 4 years. This year, Traction was ranked #1399.

I go to a lot of industry events for advertising and digital media, so it was a refreshingly optimistic opportunity to be in the presence of an “industry” of entrepreneurs. To be honest, before I went, I wasn’t too enthused. But I left feeling really humbled to be among this proud group of people who are making the American Dream happen for themselves every day.

Sound sappy? Maybe, but it’s how I feel this morning.

Last night, they gave the Entrepreneur of the Year award to a woman who, despite being severely handicapped in a car accident when she was 23 years old, invented an “invisible bib” for people in wheelchairs to protect their clothes—and turned her idea into one of the 5000 fastest growing companies in America. I’ve never felt so genuinely humble.

The conference brought in one of the best list of speakers I’ve ever seen. Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great, tore the house down. Tony Hsieh from Zappos spoke. Randall Graham from (Traction’s former client) Bonny Doon Vineyards. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue. Eric Ryan from Method Products. BET founder, Robert Johnson. ZipCar CEO, Scott Griffith. And so on.

I even got to have a one-on-one conversation with Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke (see video below). I’m hoping he’ll consider me to be part of the advisory council to the new Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We talked about Twitter and how Traction’s healthcare premiums (they went up 40% between 2007-2008).

So, what did I learn?

Two things:
• Truly great brands don’t define themselves by their products, but by the experiences they provide to their customers
• What you do on the inside is as important as what you portray outside in creating a real brand

Just two weeks ago, I was in Hangzhou, China as a guest of my client, Alibaba.com to attend their 10th anniversary celebration and the APEC SME (Small Medium Enterprise) Summit. Great speakers there too, including Bill Clinton and Nobel prize winner Mohammed Yunnis.

Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, also gave a great speech at APEC.

And, here’s something telling: The advice he gave was almost a carbon copy of the advice I heard over and over again at Inc. 5000.

• Zappos does not define itself as a great online shoe store. It’s their goal to provide the greatest customer service in the world.

• JetBlue does not define itself as the great airline. It’s their goal to provide the greatest customer service in the world.

• Starbucks does not define itself as a coffee company. It’s their goal to provide the greatest customer experience in the world.

And all of these leaders had the same thing to say about how to get there. Exceeding customer expectations was not the most important thing in the world for their companies. What was?

Exceeding employee expectations.

It all starts with providing the greatest employee experience in the world. It was striking that again and again, the thing that made all of these companies so great was their people and their people were great because they loved their jobs, understood the vision of the company and their role in it.

Zappos employees are offered $2,000 to quit anytime during their training period to weed out anyone who doesn’t truly believe in the vision. One JetBlue employee told David that she was famous because she worked there—people would call out to her in church and at the supermarket. Woo hoo, JetBlue. Stuff like that.

As a branding professional, these are two insights that are critical to understand. The world's greatest companies don't position themselves around product attributes or holes in the competitive landscape. They define themselves by the experience they deliver.

That experience is not window dressing. It starts at those companies' very core—their people.

Traction has defined our mission as being a respected creative agency where the experience getting there is as great as the work itself. Since, we started our company in 2001, we've had three people quit ever.

The Inc 5000 made me feel like we're on the right track.

MC Hammer on Social Media Strategies

This post was written by guest blogger, Jim Reed

During Adweek's Social Media Strategies conference this week, keynote speaker MC Hammer told a childhood story about how he would walk to the Oakland Coliseum on game days from his Oakland neighborhood and watch 50,000+ people stream into the stadium. It didn't take long for him to realize that the likelihood of someone buying something from him was pretty good. He wound up selling popcorn, peanuts, soda, etc. but Hammer makes this analogy to a group of social media marketers because the odds are in the numbers. Facebook now has more than 300 million active users, so in the long run marketers are bound to sell something.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are the latest toys for marketers to ponder, but the results are still to be determined. Conference panelists and speakers agreed that brands need to be on these platforms now because it takes time to gather a following, to get a stride, to see what works, and most importantly to provide a channel for your customers to reach out to you and hear from you. There was a lot of discussion about putting an actual human behind the tweets and status updates. Rather than a stiff corporate logo with carefully crafted copy for each tweet, consumers will identify more with a real person who can type with wit in real time. Dunkin Donuts has Dunkin Dave. Comcast, who has a notorious reputation for bad customer service, now has a guy name Frank answering customer complaints via Twitter. We at Traction have several humans chiming in (Adam, Theo, Renee, Kellie, Jim) – the point is to maintain a personal voice.

But what about Facebook? The big takeaway from Facebook is to remember that microsites are islands in the Internet – no one will visit your pretty microsite unless you spend great effort and great cost driving traffic to the site. So don't make a microsite experience on Facebook. Leverage the features inherent to social media by encouraging users to express themselves and share with their friends. At Traction we incorporate these strategies for our client, Adobe. On Facebook we encourage users to upload their own creative work, to participate in discussions, enter sweepstakes, and of course share content such as tutorials and interactive games.


Small is beautiful

I'm in Hongzhou, China at the APEC SME Summit. "Small is beautiful" is the theme of the day. This event coincides with the 10th birthday celebration of our client Alibaba.com. Kobe Bryant is speaking today and Bill Clinton will be speaking to this crowd via closed-circuit video.

So, it's a big deal.

It's been an amazing weekend so far. One that I'll not forget anytime soon. Last night, AliFest, was a bizarre and magnificent celebration of Alibaba's success over the past decade providing a platform for SMEs (small and midsize businesses) around the world to survive and grow.

More to come...

-- Posted from my iPhone


Interview with Pandora founder Tim Westergren

This week I had the honor of being the first-ever guest host on Susan Bratton's DishyMix podcast! My guest was Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora. If you don't know Pandora, it's a genius service—are recommendation engine that creates radio stations customized to your personal tastes in music. Have trouble finding the music you love? With Pandora, it finds you.

How? You'll have to listen to the interview. Good stuff.

Download it on iTunes here. I'll update this with a link to Susan's blog when she gets back from Burning Man and posts a transcript.