Canadian geek in Myanmar

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The Secret Sauce of Startups

“So, tell me everything I need to know to start a tech company in Vietnam”

That was a question I was asked last week. And the guy was totally serious.  Even worse, he was an overseas Vietnamese or (VK as we are more commonly known here), in his 40’s and had just joined a tech startup as an ‘advisor’.

I had breakfast with a lovely female entrepreneur today and she told me she gets many similar kinds of enquiries. Either that or ‘how do you balance entrepreneurship with life/kids/etc’.  We had a good laugh over this supposed secret sauce of entrepreneurship, as if there was a silver bullet of some kind that made you brave (or crazy) enough to take the leap into this world.  If I had this sauce, I’d be rich and taking a helicopter to breakfast not a beat up, hot and run down Yangon taxi.

But after a couple of hours mulling this conversation, I realized that there actually is an answer.  The next time a want-erpreneur asks me, I’m going to say just fucking get on with it. Or I guess the more common vernacular is JFDI – just fucking do it.  Here’s the big secret: not one of us has all the answers and if we’re doing it right, we start with way more questions than answers. Every single entrepreneur I know goes through patches of faking it because that’s just what needs to happen.

Someone asked me today what my biggest lesson from last year was and I said that I learned to forgive myself.  Just fucking get on with it but give yourself room to fail.  Just fucking get on with it but forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Just fucking get on with it and when you fall, pick yourself up and move on.  So just fucking get on with it.  What’s the worse that can happen? Well, I guess a whole lot actually. But take it from someone who has gone through the worse possible first “exit”, it’s all survivable.

2013 Lessons

I love this time of year. In the first week of January I’ve finished my annual allocated week of self-reflection and am now looking forward to all the possibilities and opportunities ahead. While we could (and should) live every day like this, there’s something about January 1st that brings to mind clean slates and white canvasses. The year ahead is still so full of hope and possibilities and I for one can’t wait to see what it brings.

I’d like to say that I’ll get better at writing more regularly but let’s get real, that’s probably not going to happen.

This past year was amazing for me on so many different fronts but it also came with its fair share of punches too. With that said, here are a few lessons I learned in 2013.

Lesson: give everything your best shot and learn from it but move on when it’s done.
I’ve never had to do as much media in my whole life as I did in the second half of this year. On one hand it definitely confirmed that I was right to not go into PR. It also taught me to appreciate how difficult it is to control messaging – this from someone who has been in marketing for over a decade. I don’t think that there was one story that came out of the dozens of interviews I did that I was actually happy with – or even got all the details right. But it is something that you can’t dwell on. Once the story is out, there’s little that can be done unless you want or need to go into full crisis management mode. The other lesson here is to not trust everything you read.

Lesson: Negatively has no place in your life so it needs to be let go.
I have always told my community staff that haters hate and there’s little to be done about that. While this holds true with entrepreneurship, people aren’t really hating on a product but usually on you, which makes things really personal. I’ve always been pretty blasé about what other people think of me, which served me well this year but it’s still much harder to not take offence at some of the things that are being said by perfect strangers who see your world through a small straw. I’ve learned to stop reading comments on the media coverage – some things are just not worth reading.

Lesson: Life as an entrepreneur is hard enough, find the right support system.
Perhaps what is more shocking and difficult to come to grips with is how your friends and acquaintances react. The reality is that some people will always be either jealous or envious of another’s successes. Some also view our world as a zero sum game, which is just foolish. Luckily I have also found a couple of friends who are amazing. As entrepreneurs themselves, they understand the crazy. They listen, don’t judge and certainly don’t try to ‘solve’ my problems.

Lesson: Your time as an entrepreneur is highly valuable so don’t waste it.
I’ve had to be much more protective of my time this year. It’s amazing how many people want just a few minutes of my time to ‘explore’ opportunities. Even more incredible are the people I knew who crawled out of the woodwork to get a piece of the action. I spent far too much time earlier this year in meetings trying to put together partnerships. Amazingly, or maybe not, there are way too many people out there who really don’t want to add anything but their dubious ‘consulting’ skills for astronomical amounts of money, time and equity.

Okay so now that the venting is over, time to refocus on the important things – building as awesome team and having a blast along the way!

Social Media: beyond the fun and games

Social media doesn’t always have to be used for entertainment. Here are some examples where social media is being used in developing and emerging markets to promote human development.

Presented at the Myanmar Blogger’s Forum.

What the heck is going on in Myanmar?

Here’s the other presentation I had created for Barcamp Saigon that I couldn’t present. Just an overview and I had a lot of little voice over tidbits that I don’t have time to add to the notes but still a lot of data points I’ve gathered over the past few months.

Online marketing the way the big kids do it

The few times that I’ve talked to leaders in Vietnam about their online product or marketing initiatives, I’ve been fairly shocked in how much they spend on some pretty base line stuff.  Agencies and experts all pitch online advertising and social media initiatives that build likes and followers but few have really gone beyond that to true conversion.

That’s right, I don’t do online advertising

When I tell people here that I built and led teams that created online experiences with millions of unique visitors, communities with tens of thousands of followers and tens of millions of units sold, yet I have no idea how to do an online media buy, THEY are shocked.  That’s right. I’m an online marketing expert and I don’t know anything about online advertising because frankly, it’s the least exciting part of the equation for me.  Let the advertising dudes run numbers through their spreadsheets, I’m more interested in analyzing who these potential customers are, where they are coming from, where you lead their journey and how you get them to buy.

So what does that mean?

Going beyond CPM’s

Most of the activities I see in Vietnam only circle around the top of the funnel with little in the way of moving the customer to full conversion. I *think* it’s because most people here are relying on their agencies to do their online strategy.  Agencies certainly have their uses but they universally love “impressions” which used to infuriate me at EA.  So old school! Who cares if someone may or may not have seen my banner on the Facebook side bar?  Until they do something about it, it means nothing to me. Up until now, that’s not been too major of an issue in Vietnam but as more and more brands go online, the fight for mind share is going to get tougher.  Consumers are starting to turn blinders to the noise on websites, something we saw happening in North America years ago.  It’s no longer enough to just buy online ads.

Performance Marketing

At EA we used to call it performance marketing.   While it sounds like yet another buzz word, like gamification, the underlying logic is that you are actively and continuously interacting with your leads. It’s one thing to build a fancy, flashy website and content that people “like” but are you actually converting them?  In Vietnam, it seems to be only about building a contest or Facebook app, in addition to the online buy of course.  No mention of segmentation, personalization or multivariate testing.

Ah, the tools

Online marketing is scientific, which means creating hypotheses and lots of testing but doing it really quickly.  One of the reasons I love what I do is that the online marketing world has countless tools to test, iterate and optimize at a speed that is not possible with any other form of marketing.  These days most of the tools are either free or so cheap that it’s close enough.  And yet the only tool I’ve heard the experts here mention is Google Analytics. Soon this isn’t going to be enough. If everyone is doing the same thing as you are, you need to find an edge.

So how do the big kids do online marketing?

If you are in Asia and want to take your online initiatives to the next level, get a hold of me and I’ll show you what an online strategiest for one of the largest brands in the world actually does.

Gamification for marketing

Earlier today I had the opportunity to speak at the January Web Wednesday event in HCMC.  Below is a copy of my deck with speaking notes.