Category Archives: Work

Authentic All The Way Down

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Courage and authenticity count when brands align with causes.

As I was leaving a doctor’s appointment recently, I saw a sign in the lobby that had been placed there by the building’s management company. It invited me to check out the work they were doing with a local cancer organization. As a civic-minded and charitable person, I suppose I should have applauded the message. In my capacity as a curious capitalist, however, I wondered a bit about what motivated them in putting the sign there and why on earth they selected the organization that they did to support.
I firmly believe that is no longer optional but in fact it’s necessary for brands to align themselves with causes. As I argued in a previous post, the majority of American consumers, especially Millennials, give a lot of weight to a brand’s social image when making a purchase. But when it’s done in a slipshod way it doesn’t have the desired impact and can even have a negative one instead. In the case of the building management company, they had clearly tried to select a cause (cancer) that no one could object to. But in doing so they picked something that makes no sense for their brand. Am I more likely to rent in a building because the management company supports this organization, or am I more likely to simply ask for a decrease in my rent? The same is true to grocery store bag fee donations and the like — at best they shame you into donating, but they don’t enhance the image of the store’s brand.
On the flip side, when the brand is well aligned with the cause and can therefore bring some expertise or some unique value to the table, it really resonates and has a tremendously positive effect. Consider the big outdoor clothing companies like Patagonia, LL Bean, and REI. A core part of their marketing message is an aspirational one about exploring the great outdoors. When you find they are active in conservation, it feels almost obvious and you assume that they can add value through their domain knowledge, outdoor programs, and distribution networks. One, Orvis, even goes so far as to provide a matching fund not just for its employees but for its customers’ donations to conservation related causes.
There’s actually a pretty easy test for whether a brand is well aligned with the cause it supports: can it justify spending money from its marketing budget to promote its work on the cause? In the case of the grocery store or building management company, that would be a hard case to make. The causes have nothing to do with renting space or selling groceries. In the case of the outdoor companies or other Millennial-focused brands like Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker, Etsy, or Shinola, the connection feels so natural that you can’t imagine an ad or a mention that doesn’t include the cause. If you’ve heard of those brands at all, you can say what causes they support. It’s authentic all the way down.
One concern that I frequently hear from marketers is that many seemingly natural or authentic causes might be controversial and therefore turn off potential customers. For example, should tech firms explicitly support immigration programs given that they are highly dependent on immigration to get the skilled labor they need? Or should cosmetics companies support organizations working on women’s equality and advancement?

While these might not seem like controversial causes to many or even most people, big companies often fear the anger of even a relatively small proportion of their customers.
But as Richard Edelman and other industry thought leaders have argued, almost all brands benefit more from the enthusiasm of a large group of customers than they risk from the disappointment of a generally pretty small group when it comes to taking a stand on issues. Steering away from controversy at the cost of authenticity leaves a brand feeling just what it is — boring, spiritless, and commodity, trying to be all things to all people but in fact being unimportant to anybody. In the musical, would you rather be Burr or Hamilton?
But how do you know if a cause is successfully resonating? If it passes the marketing test above, there are KPIs that can measure it’s impact. Cause isn’t a good fit for direct response marketing, but it can certainly have a big impact on net promoter score (NPS), employee satisfaction index (ESI), and opens opportunities for earned media, organic social media shares, and brand sharing that money can’t really buy.

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Women of the Valley

In the wake of the resignations of Dave McLure (500 Startups), Justin Caldbeck (Binary Capital), and, of course, Travis Kalanick (Uber), I think it’s incumbent on everyone in the tech industry to not just take a pledge, but to take an active stand on the issue of sexism in the tech industry and, in particular, in Silicon Valley. This isn’t because it’s something new, it’s because the issue is finally being taken seriously and there is momentum that needs a few more pushes to really get rolling downhill. I’d like to see more people both sharing stories to show what a big deal this is as well as making suggestions for fixing it. So with that, here’s my experience.

First, let me say that there is undeniably a serious and endemic issue here. I’ve given hundreds of pitches to investors in the course of my career both as the principal and in the best supporting role for both male and female CEOs. I’ve seen the difference in how these executives were received. I’ve been asked to effectively put a pre-nuptial agreement into investment documents (literally, not figuratively) when I’ve presented with a female executive. And I’ve seen an entire sector (online childcare) – which now supports billions in market capitalization – belittled as a “babysitters club”.

The numbers alone tell a striking story. A priori, any industry that is only 7% women clearly in decision-making roles has some kind of gender gating. And it’s true at the engineering level as well. Phrases like “engineering culture” often get conflated with “brogramming” and for investors “pattern recognition” has become a euphemism for profiling and outright sexism. If you only fund or partner with entrepreneurs who look like the ones you’ve seen before, you just get more 20-something Asian and white guys.

Dean Kamen’s wise aphorism that you get what you celebrate applies here as well. The zeitgeist  of the tech industry has become about celebrating the indefinite prolonging of adolescence. Sometimes that becomes explicit as in the eulogies to some of the fallen – for example Kalanick was celebrated for his ability to spend 12 hours in a hot tub. Sometimes it is more visible in the products that are being created. But until that changes, it’s unlikely to be a welcoming place for women.

As a tech founder and CEO myself, I am proud that Public Good is 44% female including a woman cofounder/executive and women in every functional area. We’re a small team, but it’s difficult to correct a bad course later than it is to focus early on. I believe that one critical aspect to achieving and maintaining that is understanding that a lot of what has driven women out of the industry can seem to many men to be subtle. For example, many engineers like to talk about their beards. While it may seem trivial, this clearly isn’t something women can really relate to. When the problem in many cases is, as Cheryl Sandberg points out, women not having the confidence to lead, these things really matter. An inclusive culture encourages that confidence so focusing on that and starting early are certainly keys to success. I welcome more advice and suggestions and hope these ideas are useful to someone as well.

To paraphrase Bill Gates, if you’re not fully utilizing half the taken in the country it’s not clear how America’s tech industry will continue to lead the world.