Local Onliner Bookshelf: Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Start-up Bubble

I had mixed feelings when I first heard about Dan Lyons’ new book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.

The book focuses on Lyons’s short, 1 ½ year tenure as a content person at HubSpot, the much admired SaaS (Software as a Service) company for SMB Inbound Marketing that successfully IPO’d in 2014. Lyons clearly had some scores to settle with the company, where at 52, he was twice as old as the average employee. As a lifelong journalist who rose to be Newsweek’s Tech Editor and the secret writer of The Fake Steve Jobs blog, he was unlikely to drink the non-critical, cheerleading Kool-Aid that he claims the corporate leadership demanded in exchange for little supervision, endless snacks and beer, and “unlimited vacations.”

In my own experience, the HubSpot leadership team has done a great deal to articulate the opportunities of social media and content marketing focused “Inbound marketing” as a cheap and efficient substitute for advertising. But Lyons lands many punches against the company, whose executives he derides as “charlatans.”

According to Lyons, the new concepts of Inbound Marketing are a cover for little or no controls, and in fact, the company doesn’t even abide by them internally. Lyons observes that its sales and marketing costs aren’t based on inbound marketing. The high levels of SMB churn that the company experienced required endless pitching by the company’s telemarketing center to bring in replacement customers.

Lyons also notes that companies like HubSpot tend to get a free ride from critical eyes, with the tech press looking for exciting VC heroes like Marc Andreessen and John Doerr. The VCs are really just glorified salesmen, he feels, with little concern for making profits or rewarding mom and pop investors.

Much of the book focuses on a terrible human resources situation at Hubspot for Lyons, who was a prize catch to join the team as TheFakeSteveJobs celebrity blogger and was given a very senior level salary (never disclosed). He never really fit in at the startup with its cult-like culture (he claims), lack of a hierarchy that would reward senior level people, and constantly shifting strategies.

To be sure, Lyons, while often funny, can be a self-righteous whiner at times. But in this account, he takes no prisoners, and raises many important points about the need to look beyond the rhetoric when evaluating new, high-flying tech companies.

Posts Over At NextWaveSMB: Amazon Echo, Mapvertising, SMB Listings, Website Options, Video’s Next Generation

Here is a peek at the 5 most recent entries from my new blog: NextWaveSMB (sponsored by Booker). We’re taking a fresh look at some of the tech issues coming up for SMBs.

1. “Hey Alexa, Hire a Plumber”
“Amazon Echo is an 9” wireless speaker that hears your spoken query and quickly retrieves “answers” from the Internet, your computer, or the Internet of Things in your house (i.e. your Nest Thermostat). You can ask it to play a song or turn off your lights. You can also ask for a ride from Uber or hire a service pro…..”

2. The New Mapvertising
“Here’s a fairly safe prediction: mapvertising will become much more important in coming years…. It will go far beyond the SMB’s use of maps today, which typically focus on throwing a basic map on the Website, and boosting search rankings. Indeed, several marketing concepts are in development that integrates maps with local offerings, including local delivery services and ‘Connected Cars.’”

3. Building Up SMB Lists for Impact
“Almost 80 percent of SMBs maintain some kind of customer list, according to BIA/Kelsey. The vast majority, however, don’t have a real strategy for adding to the list, or zero-ing in on specific customers. Given the technology and services available, the under-leveraging of customer lists is a missed opportunity……”

4. Weighing SMB Website Options: What Are Your Real Needs?
“For many SMBs, Websites remain highly relevant anchors for driving leads and showcasing relevant content and services– blogs, maps, photos, videos, event calendars and scheduling. The question for many SMBs is: how much Website do you need? Websites are hardly a “one size fits all” affair…..”

5. Video’s Next Generation: Driving SMB Awareness and Engagement
“Video for SMBs is entering a new generation, as it becomes more oriented towards online and mobile and can take advantage of cheap and easy video tools. Now, it is up to SMBs to rethink and get more engaged with their video strategies. Today, SMB videos can be produced on smart phones for little or no cost, or at a higher level by networks of trained videographers. And video search has become so sophisticated that videos can be found across the Internet via search engines and other platforms.…”

Yiftee Sees Opportunity in eGift Cards for SMBs

Coupons, pre-paid deals and card-linked offers have established themselves in the local digital promotion ecosystem. But what about gift cards?

Leading Gift Card companies like BlackHawk Network and Incomm provide dozens of gift card slots in retail establishments for hundreds of national brands, from Amazon to Starbucks. On the Internet, First Data’s Gyft and Transaction Wireless provide card-to-online registration for many of the same national brands.

Local merchants don’t really have the same capabilities, however, and are mostly limited to issuing check-like gift certificates. One SMB gift card solution was provided several years ago by Adility. It has since been folded in with Incomm and focuses on validated coupons. A current candidate is Yiftee, a three- year-old startup launched by Donna Novitsky, who previously launched BigTent, a social groupware provider for women currently owned by Care.com.

Yiftee provides online promotion and gift card capabilities to both national and local businesses – the former acting as a traffic draw, and a validation point. “SMBs are more comfortable when they see brands like TGIF or Sephora doing the same as they are about to do,” says Novitsky. She notes that the inspiration for Yiftee came from a deal that BigTent ran several years ago with Groupon. “We wanted to a better job of generating profitable business for SMBs, not bargain hunters with no margin for the SMB.”

The company currently supports 55,000 locations, with 5,000 of those local brands. Ultimately, independent stores and local chains are expected to represent the bulk of the company’s activity, giving consumers the ability to “shop local” for gift cards on mobile and online.

Independent stores pay Yiftee $30 a month (or $240/yr) to put a button on their website and FaceBook and sell unlimited, customized eGift Cards. They also get to take part in the Yiftee network, which is used by both consumers and enterprise customers to find local businesses and purchase eGifts. No setup fees or technology integration or training is required. National players pay $12 per location when they sign up 10 or more. Up to now, chains with up to 300 locations, such as Schlotzsky’s Bakery Cafe, have been the company’s sweet spot.

One additional advantage of using the card is it provides a set of user analytics. Plastic cards don’t provide much data on the purchaser, recipient or occasion, unlike digital cards, notes Novitsky. If advertisers include a TXT link to their ads to “win” a card, they can complement TV, cable TV, radio, social and print campaigns and see what is really working. eGift Cards are frequently used as “Thank You’” presents, for customer recovery, and as marketing incentives by local merchants and community members, such as real estate agents, to drive local business.

Some of the sales for Yiftee come from direct requests by consumers and companies who see a listing on Yiftee.com and want to get a card. (I requested one from “A Little Shop of Bagels” in my hometown). Most, however, are being sold on the merchants’ websites and social media channels, bringing more customers into their stores. Yiftee also signs up merchants via payment processor partners, such as Global Payments.

“Hey Alexa!” HomeAdvisor, TalkLocal Are Customizing for Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo represents a new eco-system for commerce, and is arguably, one of the biggest innovations in recent years. By simply voicing a request triggered by a common command, (“Hey, Alexa”), users can tap into hundreds of apps that are being specially designed to link their Web info – from movies and music to medical info. The key to Echo’s success over Apple Siri or Microsoft Cortana is that it is hands-free. The speaker can “hear” across the room and very quickly respond.

Over the next several months, Echo is likely to go even bigger, as the original $179 hands free speaker is now being supplemented by Amazon Tap, a smaller $129 portable speaker. The software is also being built into various devices.

We’ve been wondering how long it would take for it to hook into local services. Last week, HomeAdvisor added its Instant Booking feature, which sends service pros out to a location. CEO Chris Terrill said in a statement that “Smart-home platforms are the next big growth accelerators for local home services, and no other player in our category has the scale or technology to unlock the power of the connected home for homeowners.”

TalkLocal is also being added to the system. That makes total sense to us. TalkLocal is a service that automatically captures user’s calls, transcribes the message for its request elements, and links it to local services as a lead.

Co-founder Manpreet Singh tells us that TalkLocal initially expects a modest trickle of leads – 12 or so – to come in via Echo. “Few people will anticipate their plumbing needs. You’d have to be very lucky to discover us while in the midst of a plumbing problem,” he says. “Over time, more people will discover us.”

Deploying for Echo has been an experience for TalkLocal, which has worked closely with the Echo team in Seattle. Singh notes that TalkLocal has had to adapt to Alexia’s unique linguistic needs. “Designing commands and rules for a voice-enabled AI can be like finding a powerful but very clever trickster genie,” he jokes.

Experimentation has also been required. While TalkLocal provides over 40 service categories, it will launch with just a few. “Each service category is a virtual paradigm shift in terms of relevant terminology and possible linguistic pitfalls,” says Singh. We also want to give ourselves the opportunity to learn more about how users interact with the current skill.”

Singh adds that TalkLocal plans to do beta testing “with a ton of users” before launch. “We need as many users as possible engaging with this new type of technology. We can only anticipate so much about what people will say and do, or what expletive or prank requests they might try to submit,” he says.

TalkLocal’s Manpreet Singh

Randy Parker: ‘The Top 3 SMB Ad Platforms are Facebook, Facebook, Facebook’


The new focus for SMB advertising is very precise targeting , and that means building campaigns with Facebook, according to SMB marketing entrepreneur and Constant Contact co-founder Randy Parker. “The top three ad platforms are Facebook, Facebook, and Facebook,” says Parker. “There is no second place.”

Parker, who is developing Brevi Ads, an integrated, automated ad platform for SMBs that uses Facebook solutions, says that Facebook’s targeting abilities generally cost less than $150 per campaign, and are better than what Proctor & Gamble would spend millions of dollars on ten years ago.

“If you own a stroller store, you can target women 25-45 who live nearby, and filter in people with a child under the age of three and who bought baby gear within six months,” says Parker. While you could split your budget with Twitter, LinkedIn and Snapchat, “you are probably better spending all of it on Facebook,” he adds. You might plug in Instagram as part of that – Facebook owns it.

Parker and his Boston-based team are building Brevi to take the power of Facebook and apply it to SMBs. He notes that the solution integrates such features as SMB scheduling and shopping carts to better understand the SMBs’ actual needs in each vertical.

“You want to automate by going deep” with the business, says Parker. “Your problem is not that you want to run a Facebook ad. You want people to come for your 5pm Yoga class.“

We are now in the third generation of SMB marketing, Parker adds. “The first generation was getting online and figuring out how to market digitally. The second generation was coached DIY: what we did with Constant Contact. In the third generation, marketing will be truly automated.”

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Introducing Blog #2: NextWaveSMB

BLOG ALERT: I have a lot of fun with Local Onliner, which for 10 years, has focused on “local” companies, industry development and executive thought leadership. Now I am introducing a second blog: NextWaveSMB.

Sponsored by the thought leaders at Booker, the new blog uniquely focuses on tech strategies and insights for SMBs. There is a lot of new technology out there, but not enough people assessing what is important for SMBs — and why. One day, everyone is shouting about loyalty programs. The next day, everyone is shouting about beacons. The next day….hey, lets get some perspective here!

The first bunch of posts take an SMB-centric view on a range of key subjects, including video, Marketing Automation, Website strategies, churn, email, last mile marketing, sponsored content, the shift to marketplaces, beacons, transaction data and MarTech. Today, for instance, I’ll be writing about Facebook’s Fan Builder program, which can target recent customers for “likes” with as little information as a phone number.

We’re pretty excited about the opportunities for the blog, and the way that it complements, at a high level, the SMB Insights on The Booker Blog. We are also encouraging submissions from the SMB community. Ping me if you have some thought leadership you’d like to share.

I also want to note that NextwaveSMB is being launched alongside SheBoom, a blog being developed for women SMB owners by theONSwitch’s Nancy Shenker. (Nancy’s speaking next month on the Women Leading in Local session at BIA/Kelsey’s Engage show in Austin).

SMB Loyalty Marketing Trends: A Discussion with Venga CEO Sam Pollaro

Venga CEO Sam Pollaro

The conventional wisdom in the industry is that a loyal customer brings in 5X the revenue of a new customer. A slew of loyalty marketing platforms are reinforcing the CW with new technology that reach deeply into understanding and targeting loyal customers with superior analytics, incentives and ad campaigns.

Loyalty platforms include such players as Upserve (formerly Swipely) and Fishbowl. Another one of these platforms is Venga, a provider of loyalty services for 500+ sit-down restaurants in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

CEO Sam Pollaro tells us that Venga has seen a shift in the loyalty market over the past couple of years. It has begun to change from explicit loyalty programs (i.e. punch cards or card linked offer programs) to implicit programs using payments and social media to more subtly track customers and their habits.

Pollaro says Venga’s goal in its implicit approach is to “surprise and delight.” “When customers spend $500, an alert might be added to their profile,” and they might be given a dessert or a special table the next time they come in, he says. Or if they have indicated they like a certain kind of wine, they can be notified when a special shipment comes in.

Offine-to-online marketing is another trend that Venga is riding, mostly with the help of social media. Facebook, in particular, uses its direct response capabilities to help Venga develop “Fan Builder” campaigns, that lead to more Facebook likes; “We Miss You” campaigns that target customers that haven’t come in for a while; and “Special Interest” campaigns that will target customers based on their past visit and purchase history with specific imagery in an ad, such as a wine or beer bottle.

More than 50 percent of customers can be tracked down on Facebook from customer lists with just a phone number, says Pollaro. Because they are Facebook members, there are no opt-in requirements, he notes. The program is especially useful, since restaurants typically can only collect emails from 10-15 percent of their customers. Facebook is also more effective than programs such as Gmail, since Gmail now segregates promotional emails.

Venga is seeing especially good results for its clients since it is targeting consumers that are already fans. Pollaro says the company sees 3-5X typical restaurant response rates. The high click-through rate also cuts cost-per-click rates by 50 percent or more.