C-Suite in a quandry: To Blog or Not To Blog…

Should CEO’s be on social media? That is the question many boards, PR advisers, marketeers and C-Suite occupants are faced with these days. Partly driven by existentialist angst (“I Tweet therefore I am”), partly a desperate act of “me too”, many CEOs are in a dilemma about how to engage with the new media.

While it might sound like a good idea to have a CEO blog, in the wrong hands or used inappropriately, it can come across as inauthentic, too corporate, or just crass.

The use of CEOs as “personal brands” is nothing new – think of Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch etc. And while social media has the potential to extend the CEO’s reach to customers, shareholders and employees, it also abhors a vacuum. If companies do not take control of their public persona, their customers and employees (supporters and detractors alike) will fill the void for them.

I am seeing this debate play out in different ways:

First, there is a difference between a personal brand and a business brand, so it is important to establish boundaries while recognising how the CEO’s personal standing can be used effectively to complement the corporate presence.

Second, having the CEO recognised as an expert can enhance personal influence but may not directly benefit the company if it is not relevant to the business – does Warren Buffet’s prowess on the ukulele boost instrument sales, or help the share price of Berkshire-Hathaway?

Third, if CEOs do choose to outsource their blog content, make sure it is genuine and aligns not only with the CEO’s personal values but also with those of the company, customers, shareholders and employees.

Finally, CEOs or Boards struggling with this topic, or those worried about whether to take the plunge into social media would be advised to consult Dionne Kasian Lew‘s new book, “The Social Executive”, which is sure to become an essential guide on the subject.

 

 

 

From student hacker to start-up mogul – an audience with Jonathan Teo

“The man with the Midas touch…”

Jonathan Teo, tech VC with a Midas touch, has been back in Australia recently, and found time to stop by Lean Startup Melbourne for a Q&A with Michelle Bourke in front of an audience of 350 members of the local startup scene.

With a track record that includes Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat in his portfolio of start-up investments, Teo is obviously someone who deserves to be taken seriously, but the candour and humility with which he talked about his experience made for a very down-to-earth evening with such a high-profile investor.

As usual, the event was hosted by Inspire9, with generous support from Kussowski Brothers, Startup Victoria, Products Are Hard, BlueChilli, Investors’ Organisation, Startup Weekend and National Australia Bank.

Teo’s backstory has been told elsewhere (childhood in Singapore, college in Sydney, post-grad at Stanford, Google engineer, venture capitalist…) but the combination of having a great mentor, working in the (then) emerging technology of cloud computing, and some “right time, right place” good fortune has provided him with a powerful platform from which to join the upper echelons of silicon valley VCs.

“The Secrets of My Success”

Naturally, people wanted to know the key to his investing success. Rather than referring to some “special sauce”, Teo pointed to some simple principles:

  • Relationships – strong relationships are essential, both within the founding team, and across the right networks and insiders
  • Self awareness – many founders don’t see their own capability gaps, and therefore can overlook inherent weaknesses in their business
  • Key metrics – know what run-rates the business needs to achieve to meet its performance goals (cash burn rate, retention levels, acquisition costs, daily and consecutive customer usage)

In particular, Teo stressed that new distribution models form the lens for assessing new investment opportunities.

“Show me the money!”

During a discussion about bringing in investors, Teo was pretty sanguine – what works for some start-ups, won’t work for others. If you can self-fund, then do so; if you do need to tap external funding, start with friends and family (who will generally be more patient than professional investors); and if you have to bring in VC’s, make sure you know the trade-offs. He also suggested that crowdfunding is great for consumer plays, but ultimately valuations are determined by demand.

“New Thang”

When asked where “the next big thing” was going to come from, Teo was understandably coy (or simply discreet), and politely suggested it could emerge from somewhere in the audience. What he did offer were some thoughts on emerging trends that will influence future start-ups:

  • Fewer mass-market consumer products – according to Teo, “only China can support a purely domestic consumer play”
  • Less focus on patents, more emphasis on survival – not that IP isn’t important, just that the cost and effort of securing patents mustn’t outweigh the need to generate revenue in the early stages
  • Content niches – unique content is key to attracting advertisers and subscribers, and when combined with rich user data makes for compelling communication and network apps
  • The human touch – products that bring a more human digital experience will gain traction

Finally, Teo predicted the growth of disposable hardware – not sure I agree with this one, but I understand what he is getting at. Personally, I’d be more interested in recyclable hardware, and greater user-serviceable and customisable components.

Declaration: Thanks to the hosts and sponsors, I along with everyone else enjoyed the bounteous gift of free pizza laid on by the organisers.

Whose content is it anyway?

Faust 2.0

Every social media and digital publishing platform is engaged in a continuous battle to acquire content, in order to attract audiences and bolster advertising revenues.

Content ownership is becoming increasingly contentious, and I wonder if we truly appreciate the near-Faustian pact we have entered into as we willingly contribute original material and our personal data in return for continued “free” access to Facebook, YouTube, Google, Flickr, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, MySpace, etc.

Even if we knowingly surrender legal rights over our own content because this is the acceptable price to pay for using social media, are we actually getting a fair deal in return? The fact is that more users and more content means more advertisers – but are we being adequately compensated for the privilege of posting our stuff on-line? Even if we are prepared to go along with the deal, are our rights being adequately protected and respected?

In late 2012, Instagram faced intense public backlash against suggestions it would embark upon the commercial exploitation of users’ photographs. While appearing to backtrack, and conceding that users retain copyright in their photographs, there is nothing to say that Instagram and others won’t seek to amend their end-user license agreements in future to claim certain rights over contributed content. For example, while users might retain copyright in their individual content, social media platforms may assert other intellectual property rights over derived content (e.g., compiling directories of aggregated data, licensing the metadata associated with user content, or controlling the embedded design features associated with the way content is rendered and arranged).

Even if a social media site is “free” to use (and as we all know, we “pay” for it by allowing ourselves to be used as advertising and marketing bait), I would still expect to retain full ownership, control and use of my own content – otherwise, in some ways it’s rather like a typesetter or printer trying to claim ownership of an author’s work….

The Instagram issue has resurfaced in recent months, with the UK’s Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. The Act amends UK copyright law in a number of ways, most contentiously around the treatment of “orphan” works (i.e., copyright content – photos, recordings, text – where the original author or owner cannot be identified). The stated intent of the Act is to bring orphan works into a formal copyright administration system, and similar reforms are under consideration in Australia.

Under the new UK legislation, a licensing and collection regime will be established to enable the commercial exploitation of orphan works, provided that the publisher has made a “diligent” effort to locate the copyright holder, and agrees to pay an appropriate license fee once permission to publish has been granted by the scheme’s administrator.

Such has been the outcry (especially among photographers), that the legislation has been referred to as “the Instagram Act”, and the UK government’s own Intellectual Property Office was moved to issue a clarification factsheet to mollify public concerns. However, those concerns continue to surface: in particular, the definition of “diligent” in this context; and the practice of some social media platforms to remove metadata from photos, making it harder to identify the owner or the original source.

Meanwhile, the long-running Google book scanning copyright lawsuit has taken another unexpected twist in the US courts. From the outset, Google tried to suggest it was providing some sort of public service in making long-out-of-print books available in the digital age. Others claim that it was part of a strategy to challenge Amazon.

Despite an earlier unfavourable ruling, a recent appeal has helped Google’s case in two ways: first, the previous decision to establish a class action comprising disgruntled authors and publishers has been set aside (on what looks like a technicality); second, the courts must now consider whether Google can claim its scanning activities (involving an estimated 20 million titles) constitute “fair use”, one of the few defences to allegations of breach of copyright.

Personally, I don’t think the “fair use” provisions were designed to cater for mass commercialization on the scale of Google, despite the latter saying it will restrict the amount of free content from each book that will be displayed in search results – ultimately, Google wants to generate a new revenue stream from 3rd party content that it neither owns nor originated, so let’s call it for what it is and if authors and publishers wish to grant Google permission to digitize their content, let them negotiate equitable licensing terms and royalties.

Finally, the upcoming release of Apple’s iOS7 has created consternation of its own. Certain developers with access to the beta version are concerned that Apple will force mobile device users to install app upgrades automatically. If this is true, then basically Apple is telling its customers they now have even less control over the devices and content that they pay for.

Outside of a small circle of friends, there’s only connections…

"A Dance to the Music of Time" is an epic tale of friendships and relationships

How many true friends can a person really have? Friends you would go to the cinema with, and who would walk out with you if you didn’t like the film? Friends whom you would invite to stay at your home for the holidays? Friends who would tell you when you had made a fool of yourself, but not hold it against you? Friends from whom you would borrow money or to whom you would lend money?

Social networking makes it all too easy to connect with people we’ve barely or never met. Instead of investing our time and effort in cultivating meaningful and lasting friendships, social media encourages us to “collect” as many virtual friends as possible, and we spend increasing amounts of time in vicarious “sharing” – but how many of these “connections” can we actually count on as our friends?

The question occurred to me as I read the First Movement of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a literary tour de force situated somewhere between Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” and Evelyn Waugh’s sequence of novels from “Decline and Fall” to the “Sword of Honour” trilogy.

At the heart of Powell’s 12-novel saga is a group of four friends – Jenkins, the narrator, and his three contemporaries from school – Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool. As we follow their adventures over a 50-year period, we discover the interweaving relationships and often tangential connections that run through their lives. We also witness the subtle change in relationships between the main characters – especially the ebb and flow of their individual circumstances as they fall out of favour and lose contact with one another for years at a time. The reflective and considered format of the novel allows us to see that as in real life, there are periods when the friends positively dislike each other and are frequently disappointed by their personal shortcomings and irritated by their annoying habits.

Powell’s epic work of fiction reminds us that even among our strongest and most enduring friendships, there can be episodes of absolute dislike, as well as times of empathy, loyalty and support; and of course, being only human, our opinions and views of our friends can change over time. Powell’s perspective also confirms that most of the people we encounter in social and professional situations are mere acquaintances. We must surely recognize that our personal friendships are each valued on their own merits, and we enjoy different friendships for different reasons – we do not simply have a homogenous group of “connections” that are all exactly the same. There is nothing wrong with being part of well-connected and inter-related networks, but we must guard against reducing all these relationships to a single dimension.

Unfortunately, most social networking platforms operate on a binary structure where we are forced to make simplistic choices of either “friend” or “unfriend”, “like” or “unlike”, “follow” or “unfollow”. And there is something rather materialistic and incredibly narcissistic in the way that the number of “likes”, “follows” and “shares” we collect on-line is not only representative of our popularity, but it is somehow an indication of how fabulous a friend we really are.

Unlike the real world, these on-line platforms do not recognize the subtle dynamics of our true friendships, nor do they acknowledge that we value each of our friendships for the different experiences that we draw from them. We also have different friends with whom we enjoy doing different things, and we probably don’t introduce all our friends to one another (and certainly not at the same time).

Of course, younger generations who have grown up with social media may have no qualms about the reductionist nature of social networking, and the inherent opportunity it affords them to “connect” with as many different people as they can. But for someone like myself who is quite happy to count fewer than a score of people as my true friends, I relish the quality of my friendships, not the quantity.

Apologies to Phil Ochs for (mis-)appropriating his song title.