The Alchemy of Silicon Valley

I had the good fortune of being introduced to Vito Brandle, Director of Finance at BrightRoll, and recently sat down with him to chat about the allure of startups and the collective growth-mindset of Silicon Valley tapping into the fundamental human desire for growth. Vito’s thoughts on the startup scene—how structure can be the foundation of spontaneity—was of particular interest to me.

There was no sugarcoating from Vito on the topic of mergers and navigating change in the corporate setting. But, I found his honesty to be compelling and his unique perspective as both participant and observer equally intriguing.

Design the life you want

In this town, one could argue there are more opportunities for new companies to acquire VC funding or get acquired than there are Tesla’s gliding around on the highway. There’s no shortage of opportunity in Silicon Valley and companies large and small get acquired all the time. While it can be difficult to remain positive in the face of a corporate merger, one of the choices Vito made early on was to consciously disengage from the personal aspect of the job.

“You have to be OK with putting a part of your work-self to bed” he said. “In a bigger company you have to remove that defense mechanism and let go of the fact that ‘it’s mine’.” This allows you to function without succumbing to the highs and lows of working through change.

I’m of the belief that the best parts of life are that way by our own design. They’re architected in such a way where we enjoy what we have yet we still strive to see how far things can go. “Every choice we look at should be a set of options,” Vito said “creating options allows us to optimize.” Once the track is set, then we just need to start the engine and accelerate down that path.”

What’s the best way to begin? Take action and course correct along the way? Or plan it all out in advance and then begin? There are merits to both but only one produces real results.

Structure allows for spontaneity

Just as there are certain types of people that operate better within a structured environment there are those that perform better when given more freedom. The same is true for the framework of corporations and startups where structured environments can be engineered to deliver growth and alternatively, autonomy fosters new developments. The great irony is that while it might not seem to be the case, companies both large and small rely on some form of structure to grow.

While structure provides a starting point, the inescapable fact of life is that there is ambiguity in almost everything we do. Even when developing structure itself. This is why taking action is so important. Actions produce results (or data), which can be mined for insights. It’s in the doing that there is refinement.

The upside to companies driven by large corporations, Vito noted, is that they can teach you about process and equip you with a more formalized method of operating. Vito had virtually made a mini career out of being at corporate giant, Yahoo!, over the course of four years. Albeit having a variety of jobs and the opportunity to “wear different hats” during that time helped to stave off boredom and career stagnation.

His advice, “Tell your manager up front what you want.” Be clear on your interests, inject variety into your work, and have challenges to work towards.

That’s not to say startups have all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks. But it’s the idea, Vito alluded to, of a collective acknowledgement that everyone in Silicon Valley is creating and playing and inventing in the same sandbox. Collectively, we’re making things better as a result of taking action.

Silicon Valley is one big sandbox

“My reason for coming out here was the tech space [because it offered] flexibility and optionality and the ability to pivot quickly. People have a desire to grow and change. There’s this cohesive mindset here—almost [like we’re in] a sandbox of sorts; there’s not that many obstacles here and you can build what you want.”

Indeed, it’s this consistency of mindset among the individuals in Silicon Valley, at large companies and startups alike, that makes this particular “sandbox” a unique playground. Startups may be the bedrock of Silicon Valley but the mindset of the individuals and their willingness to take action and architect a better way of doing something is what makes Silicon Valley attractive beyond measure. “Even if you’re not the one with the shovel, you’re getting your hands dirty,” Vito remarked.

So, get moving! I’ll leave you with a shortened list of Vito’s recent reads and a link to some great pod casts:

  1. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t by James C. Collins
  2. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt
  3. Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica
  4. http://venturebeat.com/2015/04/03/10-tech-podcasts-you-should-listen-to-now/

The Inversion Point is Coming – Is Your Mobile Site Ready To Handle Business?

As Joe DeMike, Principal Marketing Consultant at Google explained at IMPACT14 this September, there is an inversion point that’s coming with regard to mobile devices.  Simply put, there will come a point in the very near future where traffic from mobile devices to your company website will overtake that of traffic from desktop (and we’re talking organic traffic). Companies need to be ready and they need to be able to provide a seamless, frictionless experience on the customer path to purchase.

Case in point, I used two types of car services to get me to and from the airport while traveling to the Impact14 conference in Las Vegas this year. I booked an Uber from my office to the airport and I took a cab from LAX back to my office.

Here’s the key difference in my choice of words which, I’ll explain, simultaneously illustrates the difference between companies that are optimizing for mobile experiences versus those that are not: I booked the Uber—implying preference in my transportation arrangements whereas I had to “take” a cab from the airport because Uber drivers are no longer allowed to pick up from the airport…Lame.

Read on and see which seamless and frictionless experience you would prefer:

The Uber

  • Exiting my office building, I open the Uber app and use the pinpoint location to alert a nearby driver I would like to be picked up.
  • Moments later, I get a text message saying my driver is en route and the expected wait time is less than 5 minutes.
  • The driver pleasantly greeted me. He offered me bottled water and gum upon getting settled inside his clean, well-kept vehicle.
  • The driver used the company-provided smartphone to input my desired location.
  • We chatted back and forth during the entire ride to the airport.
  • Since my payment details are on file with Uber, there was no swiping of my credit card or fishing through my purse for cash—even tip is factored into the Uber rides.
  • In short, I arrived at my destination and left the car feeling happy and knowing that I would use Uber’s services again.

The Cab

  • Exited baggage claim at LAX and climbed into the cab giving the driver the exact office address for my destination. He did nothing with the information except nod, start the meter and shift the car into drive.
  • We spend the next minute debating the state of traffic conditions on the freeway versus side streets. When it becomes apparent to me that the cab driver does not know which route is faster, I pull out my smart phone. A quick look on sigalert.com ends the discussion; we will take the freeway (where is his smartphone?).
  • No conversation.
  • I advise the cab driver to exit the freeway and proceed to Pico to make a quick left and then right using back roads to the office (seriously, where is his smart phone?). He is flustered saying “but you said it was on Olympic?…” I say, “this method takes the back roads, it’s OK.”
  • The cab pulls up outside the office. This being the part where we exchange money for his service, I tell the cab driver I will be paying with a credit card and would like a receipt. His reaction is one of visible displeasure that I don’t have cash to give him.
  • I swipe my card into the machine and tip him 20% (since I’m such an inconvenience). The machine doesn’t work and I have to repeat the process again (seriously?!). Finally, receipt in hand, I silently vow not to take a cab again unless I absolutely have to.

These two experiences are night and day and, to a large degree, illuminate the disparity between companies that have optimized their websites to handle mobile engagement and transactions versus those that have yet to. A snippet from DeMike’s presentation, “mobile users will notice and be delighted by the small things you do for them to enhance their experience.” Some of the unique user needs (Read: mobile optimization principles) included:

  • Optimize your entire site for mobile
  • Don’t make users pinch-to-zoom
  • Make product images expandable
  • Tell users which screen orientation works best (if applicable)
  • Keep your user in a single browser window
  • Be clear why you need a user’s location

As it stands, there is a big disparity between the companies that are ahead of the game and those still thinking of getting on board the mobile bandwagon. The time for thinking has past. It’s time for action. I agree, the inversion point will happen and when it does, upon finishing an experience with a brand on a mobile device, marketers will want their customers feeling happy and knowing they’ll use the brand’s services again.

For your viewing pleasure, here are a few snapshots of what this years presenters had to say on mobile.  The IMPACT14 conference is an annual event hosted by the Internet Marketing Association.

Joe DeMike's technical check list
mobile commerce
build best in class experience
Cross device compatability
build app that enhances site

Please visit the event photo gallery for more photos of the event.

News Flash: 15 Year-olds Are Not Tweeting

For anyone reading this from a branding perspective and wondering, “where should I be?” or “what social networking site is best for my brand?” Think about your target market first. Think about why they would be on a particular social networking site (consider the values, activities and benefits offered) and then find a creative, constructive and intuitive way for consumers to interact with your brand. But don’t think you have to “tweet” just because everyone else is doing it. Because news flash: your target market may not even be participating in that space.

While having dinner a few nights ago with family friends, I took the golden opportunity to chat up their 15 year old son on his preference for social networking sites.  Sure, he has a MySpace and Facebook page.

“Do you tweet?” I asked him.  He stopped a moment, “do I what?”  Now I was puzzled and tried to explain the recent phenomenon (known as Twitter). “Do you, you know, ‘tweet’? It’s a micro blog on this site called Twitter…” I could see he had no clue as to what I was talking about.  His preference was, in fact, Facebook.

Moving up into the next target market, personal friends of mine roughly ages 24-29 who have otherwise abandoned their MySpace sites in favor of communicating on Facebook.  Is it for the cleaner interface?  Or the ability to network amongst a foundation of college-based individuals?  Whatever the reason, it seems the grass is looking greener on the other side.

As for me, I maintain a presence amongst these popular social sites, but have recently tailored my postings.  For example, I wiped out all profile information on my MySpace page in favor of creating a profile full of photos highlighting the places I’ve traveled and exciting things I’ve done.   I communicate with many of my real friends through Facebook where my profile page reflects a slightly more intimate “me” yet still simplified with pictures, info and posts on my wall. As for LinkedIn, I’m all about it.  I recently added my blog to my page and included a handful of great books I’ve read.

For anyone reading this from a branding perspective and wondering, “where should I be?” or “what social networking site is best for my brand?”  Think about your target market first.  Think about why they would be on a particular social networking site (consider the values, activities and benefits offered) and then find a creative, constructive and intuitive way for consumers to interact with your brand.  But don’t think you have to “tweet” just because everyone else is doing it.  Because news flash: your target market may not even be participating on that social platform!