Year: 2018

  • $1 to Spend

    I used to say that if I only had $1 to spend on my business, I’d spend it on customer experience, vs marketing. I actually think I stole that from Tony Hsieh of Zappos about a decade ago – and it held up for a long time.

    The thought process was “Why pay for more customers to enter into a suboptimal funnel when you could spend to make that funnel better for them, and in turn have a better chance to make them love you for the long term?”

    The point was to compete on value-added service for the consumer and have that layer become your company’s differentiation when compared to more commoditized approaches (mass retail, Amazon, etc.). Build your brand and defensibility around an amazing experience.

    Recently, I was asked that question again and while I still hold what I’ve previously said (or stolen) to be true, I gave a slightly different answer in these later innings of the consumer web.

    Today, I’d spend that dollar on learning about my customer. I’m less focused on WHAT we are improving for the customer than I am about learning WHY the customers are doing things and what they are trying to accomplish.

    It’s a move upstream. What are the customers’ needs, wants and pain and what’s driving them?

    Those are the non-obvious proprietary insights or “customer secrets” that you can use to build a product, service, brand, experience and/or company that are compelling and defensible. That data is more valuable than something incrementally more sexy or useful to meet their needs today. That data is the foundation of your moat for tomorrow and beyond.

    Your company is only as good as what it knows about its customers that no one else knows. In this age of measurability on nearly all fronts, the company that spends the time to piece together the less obvious story lines is the company that will own the customer. With proper execution and a continued customer obsession, that company should win.

    Steve Jobs was famous for giving customers things that they didn’t know they needed. He was a tastemaker, product builder and artist who also (like all who are successful) happened to have great timing. He also flopped on the Mac, the Lisa, NeXT and so many other projects that he “birthed”. We should all eliminate as many guesses as we can. Jobs’ hit rate was rough, and he was the legend.

    Listen to your customers’ words, but more importantly measure, observe and mine their actions. Only then can you begin to own the relationship with them by building what they need and, hopefully, monetizing their trust and attention for the long haul.

  • Speaking in Tongues

    Yesterday CNBC tapped me to join a conversation on eCom defensibility in the age of Amazon on the show Fortt Knox. A bit of an oxymoron, but fun to wax on nonetheless.

    I was joined by Jon Fortt, Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig and Nadia Shouraboura a former Amazon exec and biz founder in her own right. The conversation was focused appropriately on customer value creation. I found it amusing that Nadia tried to insert Amazon as a force for good / friend of the retailer, but managed to take a deep breath and let it slide 😉

    Always fun to do something new and if you didn’t pick up the reference, Speaking in Tongues is one of my fav’ Talking Heads albums – and if I wasn’t before, I guess I’m a non-moto talking head now too. #dadjokes



  • Chamath’s Investor Letter

    Chamath from Social Capital released his first annual letter a few days ago. He’s had a long and storied career, lately as a VC founding Social Capital, and previously spearheading acquisition for Facebook. I’ve been following him for some time. Google him for more.

    There were many notables in his ~15-page letter covering topics from investor returns to the current state of VC to their views on AI and their future investment thesis in light of these “later innings” of the internet.

    This is one of the early nuggets that jumped out at me from the piece:

    Said more simply, Big Tech will get bigger and will leave less room for obvious companies
    doing obvious things. The demands of innovation are going up, and the quality of the ideas and
    teams working on those ideas matter now more than ever in this David v. Goliath landscape.

    The issue of big tech’s consolidation he speaks to is real. We watch it every day via many proxies. The FAANG moats get larger while customers supposedly get more for their dollars now and most likely less in the long term.  Many great companies will continue to die on the treadmill next to their outsized and overcapitalized foes.

    I continue to be concerned when I think of macro issues like Facebook owning and monetizing this age’s “town square” while Facebook and Google’s combined ad duopoly continually raises acquisition and reacquisition costs for digital customers. Amazon is also playing with free and unlimited capital for the annexation of everything valuable well beyond B2C. And don’t get me started on all the issues with software patents, IP and closed systems like Apple, which make it harder for the next wave of startups to find an early foothold by being “taxed” from go on multiple fronts. I don’t know if regulation is the solve, but there is certainly a fair amount that’s broken or breaking in today’s tech landscape. #exhale

    On the topic of Innovation, I’d agree that everyone will need to spend more time, money, effort and energy to actually find durability. The easier or “more obvious” wins are neutralized in months versus years or let alone Drucker’s decades. And big tech’s gravity for attracting the true A talent needed for real innovation is only becoming harder to overcome.

    Back to Chamath’s letter – this is the view of one man, albeit a smart and experienced one, on where the puck is and is going. If you play in the digital world as a consumer, employee, leader or potential investor, you will at least expand your perspective via this quickish read.

  • Value Over Polish

    This week was Halloween, and as is normally the case, friends and OG Zillans occasionally text me magical video nuggets of yesteryear.

    At the end of this post, please see two absurd RevZilla Halloween Deals videos from 2010 and 2011 respectively. They have bad light, bad sound, bad jokes and bad dancing. Our table was also way too low so in every shot is a product and my fly behind it – well, when we’re not putting an intern or our 80-year-old landlord in a costume, at least.

    These early videos also contain honesty, perspective, a unique voice and curated product information in them. At the time, that mix of information and value could not be found elsewhere in the online motorcycle aftermarket.

    Over time, to find the right video positioning and ultimate sweet spot for conversion, trust and brand development, we tried a lot of things that were quick and cheap, knowing if customers revolted we’d take them down.

    It was the internet and while our jokes may have sometimes been funny only to us, no one was really offended. If anything, our customer base applauded us for taking chances and being us, even if we got it wrong or they didn’t get it. A great side effect of some of the most bizarre was that customers would say, “I feel like I’m part of your inside joke, even though I don’t get it.” Brand equity built, albeit from a different angle.

    I actually can’t remember ever taking anything down except for an early video at a FBI shooting range and a Cinco de Mayo deals video which in hindsight was not appropriate. Maybe 2 videos out of thousands.

    My point in all this is that as businesses scale, managing polish, professionalism, voice and production value become important things, especially when you have teams that are accountable specifically for those actual functions.

    Be careful though, that polish doesn’t get in the way of moving fast, iterating quickly or launching things that may be rough proofs of concept that ultimately lead to major ah-hahs down stream. Sometimes you have to place off-kilter, half-baked or riskier bets, knowing that it’s the necessary cost of R&D for future upside.

    Playing it slow, safe and polished is what some incumbents do. And they are the ones who are sitting ducks, just like they were in 2008, when we showed up in Moto and pressed record with our “loose” script.

    Most importantly in my experience, customers will always forgive production, polish or presentation issues so long as the value of the information they need or want is there. They will keep watching, root you on and hopefully tell you to “raise the table away from your pants” lovingly in the comments. They are your feedback loop. Make sure you’re listening.

    All that said, now please enjoy 2010’s RevZilla Halloween Deals tour de force as well as 2011’s Halloween dancing intern. The legendary Akash, patriarch of the RevZilla intern family tree.

    Pro Tip: If you only click one of them, click the second one. #amazeballs

    Thanks Taylor and Chomsky for the inspiration on this one.



  • GreenLight Fund Philadelphia

    My friends at Kynetic invited my wife and me to attend a fundraising dinner last week for the GreenLight Fund Philadelphia.

    There are many great causes out there that are always looking for time, talent or financial support to help further their mission of supporting others or accelerating positive change.

    In the last few years, my wife and I have gotten closer or involved with some of them (Tony Hawk Foundation, Vetri Community Partnership, The First Tee etc.).

    Tara and I are usually focused on causes aiming to support at-risk youth or provide foundational support structure to those who didn’t start their lives with a lot of it.

    I’d heard of the GreenLight Fund before but wasn’t fully aware of their approach nor their foothold in Philly for the last seven years. GLF was actually founded by VCs at General Catalyst in Boston fourteen years ago.

    The primary focus of the evening was on a new entity, under the GreenLight umbrella, that is providing financial intelligence and asset-building programs for a target group in need. That program was not founded in Philadelphia, but is now being migrated here with the help of Greenlight Philly. It was a very powerful conversation and recounting of recent impact.

    Now I’m newish to the non-profit world, but there were a few high-leverage things that jumped out at me as more unique to Greenlight and it’s almost “accelerator” approach to social impact.

    1. Greenlight identifies the best and most impactful organizations nationally and then attempts to help them expand their reach into new communities and target markets quickly.
    2. Greenlight works with organizations to help them develop a self-sustaining non-profit model, which lessens or eliminates their reliance on fundraising.
    3. Greenlight cities combine local government and business leadership to prime the pump, and offer programs being expanded from their original market quicker and more efficient traction in the new city. Essentially, they create a locally connected launching pad for incoming programs from other areas.

    The biz guy in me loves this on so many levels. Results oriented, high leverage and well connected. An efficient use of time and social dollar, no doubt.

    My wife and I are looking forward to learning more as we lean in further.



  • CNBC Disruptor50 Event Philly – Video

    Last week I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the CNBC Disrupt50 event in Philly.

    I was joined by the COO of Rent the Runway, Maureen Sullivan, and we were interviewed by CNBC senior media lead Julia Boorstin. Julia, to her credit, made a great effort to ask less obvious questions of both of us.

    They called the panel “Renting and Revving in the Age of Amazon”, which sounded as ridiculous as it was awesome.

    It highlighted topics on customer value creation along with attempting to cover “Amazon proofing” the business, which Maureen and I both agreed is impossible and has been for over a decade. (cue Jaws theme)

    If you know the RevZilla backstory, my early segue in this talk is not new information. I did, however, get to speak about the approach to becoming an “indepensible resource” for your customer, the “final 10%” uses-cases which Amazon will have a hard time executing on across retail, and I even got pulled into the goPuff weeds.

    I also got to give a shoutout to my pop, who was in the back of the room, for his contribution to RevZilla’s origin. Remember, he forbade me to have a motorcycle in high school or college, which eventually turned into my bad-decision Ducati Monster purchase at 26. With the then dearth of great moto eCommerce options, RevZilla was born.

    Here is a link to the full article about our panel. Here is the article with embedded video clips for the whole Disrupt50 day.

    I do love that this is the quote they pulled: “If you are in B2C, it is great to provide consumers with vitamins, things they love and that make them feel good, but it is way more valuable to be a painkiller.”

    I say it all the time. Clearly one of my favorite frameworks.

    Know your customer. Know their pain. Offer them relief. Become valuable to them. Win.

    See the full video on YouTube:

    Yeah, I’m wearing Iverson and Kobe non-matching Stance socks on stage. It is what it is.


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