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July 05, 2012

Real Valley Stories: Leveraging Assets to Get One's Way

Editor's Note: Part 7 in an irregular series of stories from my 13 years in Silicon Valley. Part 6 talked about the a trade show booth nightmare. This time, an example of how you can leverage opportunity to achieve a goal.

Practically every employee has had a point in their career when they have run into friction with management on ideas or strategy. How you deal with this conflict, explain your ideas, and try to convince those who aren't yet sold can have a big impact on what gets implemented and how you are perceived by your colleagues. Hold to your guns too strongly, as I almost did back in 2000 over URL structure, and you could be out of a job. Become too passive, and it's unlikely you'll do much besides become a wallflower.

In the 2006-07 timeframe, about when I started posting on this blog regularly, I was sure of the impact social media and blogging would have on the way customers interacted with each other and brands. But while I was blogging in the evening hours on strategy and playing the part myself, during the daytime hours at the office, I was struggling to get my management team to go along, no matter the examples I brought up, the guidance from our current PR team, or the links I found on the web.

As sure as I had been in 2003-04 that leveraging Google Adwords ahead of the competition would give us increased visibility to customers, buying keywords for our industry, I was sure that we once again had the opportunity to be leaders in what was a fairly slow moving market. But my boss, the VP of Marketing, said my time would be better used doing a demand gen campaign than writing a blog. When the PR team and I appealed to the CEO, and asked him what blogs he read, he drew a blank, looked up, and said "those Louis sends me." Aside from being frustrated at what I perceived to be a lack of intellectual curiosity, I felt like a fraud - unable to  get my company to do what I was telling others they should. My Clark Kent and Superman cape was showing holes.

But opportunity struck, surprisingly, when I was asked to solicit additional public relations firms, as we ramped up for what would be our first approach at entering the public markets and filing an IPO. The main reasoning for taking on an elite firm was that we wanted one to assist with not just the standard marketing and PR, but also analyst relations and investor relations.

While that in itself was a lot to do, I tagged on more. In creating my requests for proposal (RFPs), I made it mandatory that any firm bidding also had to propose a thorough social media and blogging strategy. In phone calls with each of the firms I reached out to, I made it clear that this was mandatory - and I would not consider anyone who did not lead with a comprehensive strategy that explicitly suggested I lead the company's blogging effort. Everyone, no doubt wanting to win the contract, agreed.

In the next few weeks, firm after firm came through our doors, telling us about their PR, AR and IR acumen, their industry expertise, and one after one said that our company should initiate a deep social media strategy, including blogging, and each one told our VP and CEO that I should lead it. After hearing this three or four times, my boss turned to me, and smiling, said, "What the hell? Did you tell them all to say this?" I played dumb, but eventually they wore down, and social media and blogging, including activity on Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader shared links and FriendFeed was part of our standard activity - at a time when larger competitors were still figuring things out.

I'd like to say the story ended up with roses. We ended up filing the IPO and later withdrawing it, and the quiet period disrupted some of our ability to be more active. Later, after I left the company in 2009, they filed again, before being acquired last year. But for me, it was good to see I could leverage the assets I had to achieve what I wanted, even when seeing executive debate. You don't always get a chance to get an external team to preach your ideas to your management, but if you do find the opportunity for leverage, it can't hurt to give it your best shot.