Mid-Market Companies Have a Distinct Edge in Disruptive Innovation

Middle-market, entrepreneurial companies are poised for dramatic growth and market opportunities in coming years if they can embrace disruptive innovation, according to former Silicon Valley engineer and now Florida-based venture capitalist and private equity investor Mike Wetzer.

At the recent International M&A Partners (IMAP) Fall conference in Miami, Wetzer told an audience of middle-market merger and acquisition specialists from around the globe how the innovative companies that they frequently represent are sought after by the largest companies in the world. Wetzer emphasized that streamlined, smaller companies can innovate quickly while big companies can’t innovate fast enough.

Those companies that focus on disruption stand to make it big. Wetzer recounted organizations he is currently and was previously involved with as prime examples. While a consultant at Accenture, Wetzer worked with a team at Raytheon that turned aircraft design and construction on its head. Private jets were traditionally designed and built in sequential development phases, but this team instead chose to bring designers and builders together under one roof, leverage advanced 3D all-digital design and utilize state-of-the-art composites. The result was a lightweight aircraft constructed in two carbon composite fuselage sections which were connected to the wing with just a few bolts in a fraction of the time and cost. The project was completed in 38 months, shedding years off the typical design and construction process.

Another disruptor is a new entry to the on-demand economy, Dallas-based Pickup. The app-based service helps consumers and retailers deliver heavy or bulky items around town, like those occasions when you might borrow a friend’s pickup truck. Pickup executives originally thought its customers would solely be individuals but have since worked with retailers like Pier One, Williams Sonoma and Crate & Barrel. It has now expanded to 39 cities and is changing how larger goods are delivered from retailers to consumers’ homes.

By hiring what it calls “good guys with trucks” to do the moving, Pickup actually owns no trucks, following the lead of other disruptive companies, like Uber. Pickup doesn’t own vehicles, Facebook doesn’t own content, Airbnb does not own real estate, and Alibaba does not own any inventory.

For small and mid-sized business, Wetzer sees remarkable opportunity for innovation and disruption. He points to a 2015 Vanson Bourne survey done for EMC which shows that many organizations fail to innovate in an agile way, predicatively spot new opportunities, deliver a personalized experience, operate in real time or demonstrate transparency and trust. These shortfalls open the door for companies to take advantage of current trends.

Entrepreneurs should explore three main areas for opportunities to disrupt:

  • Technology, including 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things and others
  • The shrinking planet and opportunities surrounding globalization and the competition for resources
  • Society, including social media, privacy, crowdsourcing, the millennial powershift and others

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the following activities can harm innovation: 

  • Discouraging creativity
  • Not evaluating fully
  • Pushing a top-down agenda
  • Forcing structure
  • Confining innovation to R&D
  • Criticizing first
  • Derisking/scaling back
  • Rejecting ambiguity
  • Acting like a know-it-all

One of the main takeaways of the IMAP conference is that innovation is not necessarily a clean business. Disruption is, in fact, says Wetzer, raucous, and even the current processes for innovation used by companies are open for disruption.  

It’s clear that disruptive innovation is a major differentiator for startups and middle-market companies, as large-cap companies struggle with innovative growth. Small and mid-sized companies are nimble enough to innovate in a meaningful way, Wetzer says, while large-cap companies can’t innovate fast enough – though they are willing to pay handsomely for it.

Is Instagram the Future of E-Commerce?

It’s been an interesting year for Instagram; the platform crossed 1 billion monthly active users, released IGTV and made even more impressive iterations to Stories. Unfortunately, these milestones were mixed in with the news that its founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, would be departing after more than eight years at the helm, serving as both CEO and CTO, respectively.

However, when we think about some of Instagram’s biggest feature releases over the past 12 months, none might be as significant as the launch of shoppable media, a product that will undoubtedly transform how e-commerce brands utilize the platform going forward. Back in March, Instagram released Shoppable Posts, a feature that now allows brands to tag products within a post. With three clicks, a user can now go from that post to the brand’s Add to Cart section on their website.

This was then quickly followed up with Shoppable Stories Stickers, a feature that allows you to shop your favorite products directly from stories. However, the biggest indication that Instagram is making a big play into the world of e-commerce came in September, when The Verge reported that Instagram plans to eventually launch its own standalone shopping app, called IG Shopping.

What does all this mean for small e-commerce brands? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about how businesses can utilize Instagram as a medium to scale their business.

For small businesses selling products online, how important is Instagram as a marketing/sales channel?

It’s clear that Instagram is building the tools that will eventually make it seamless for users to purchase directly from their feeds, and if you have an already established presence on the platform, it will certainly give you a head start on your competitors. Right now, when looking at big brands like Glossier, Gap, and Nordstrom, they’ve optimized their feeds for shoppable media, and it will be the small brands that adapt quickly and deploy similar strategies that will probably have the most success long term.

What are some of the biggest benefits of shoppable media?

Historically, Instagram has allowed one link on an account. For retailers wanting to drive traffic to their store, they resorted to the now infamous phrase “link in bio.” Shoppable media changes all of that; the ability to tag a product in an image is an absolute game-changer for brands. From now on, if you liked those Vans you saw on your timeline, you can tap them, and with just a couple more clicks, you can purchase them straight from the Vans website. In short, the user journey has been completely transformed and has now become much more seamless.

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What steps should startups and small businesses take that to build a brand on Instagram?

Keep it simple. Create great content that you know your ideal audience will love, write captions that are truly unique, and speak specifically to your customer, and, finally, research and use the best and most optimized hashtags. If you do this, you will gain traction. In addition, choose four to five hashtags that your ideal customers use on a daily basis, and engage with the posts under those hashtags regularly.

Once you see that community forming, you can then integrate some shoppable posts into your feed. You don’t want to saturate your feed with product shots; a good percentage of shoppable posts to have in your feed is about 20 to 30 percent, as you don’t want to lose sight of what influenced those people to follow you in the first place.

Is there a fear that Instagram might turn into one big call to action and lose the qualities that made it popular?

The short answer to this is no. Instagram just passed 1 billion monthly active users, and of those, 25 million are businesses, and you have to remember that you must be a business to utilize Instagram’s shopping features.

As a brand, it’s important to be conscious of what enticed your followers to follow you in the first place. If you lose sight of that, and your feed loses that entertainment factor, engagement will eventually drop off and that trust that you worked hard to develop with your customers will inevitably decline.

If Instagram launches a stand-alone shopping app, what will it look like?

Reportedly, it will be set up in a way in which the user can browse collections from brands they already follow, and they will be able to purchase products associated with those brands directly within the app, just like you would on a regular e-commerce store or Amazon. Similar to IGTV, you will be able to access this shopping app straight from your everyday Instagram app. For now, these are just rumors.

What is the No. 1 tip for a small business that is starting to use Instagram as a marketing channel?

Hire a part-time photographer/editor. The first step to standing out on Instagram is having crisp, professional-looking photography, and if you do this, the rate at which people pay attention to your images on their timeline will certainly increase. After that, it’s imperative to write great copy, and use and engage with the best hashtags, but none of that matters if your images aren’t top quality to begin with.

What’s the best parting advice for a small brand that wants to eventually become a huge brand on Instagram?

Experiment and see what resonates with your audience, and what the most successful levers of growth are. Get extremely creative with Instagram stories, partner with some microinfluencers, dabble with some original video content, and because it’s such a marketing whitespace at the moment, why not try producing some vertical video content on IGTV? A brand that is great at experimenting with every feature that Instagram has to offer is Away; another one is Casper, following these two and seeing how they utilize these features would be a very good place to start.

Overall, it’s apparent that Instagram is making significant moves into the world of e-commerce, but will they become a large player? We will have to wait and see.

7 Tools to Boost Your Team's Productivity

As a business owner or manager, you want your team to be productive. There are literally thousands of tools out there that claim to boost the productivity of individuals and teams, but very few deliver on the promise.

Below are seven tools that I use every day that have helped me and my team stay productive. 

1. Slack: Slack is perfect for any team but more so for teams with remote workers or contractors. It centralizes all of your team’s critical communication into one app and integrates with tools you already use. Setting up Slack is easy and using it is even easier. It’s your virtual office, and using Slack is almost like being the same room with your co-workers.

2. Skype: Skype is a communication and collaboration tool that combines video, voice and text chat. Skype keeps you connected with your entire team for free. If your team size is small, Skype can be a great tool for communicating with team members. You can include up to nine people in a call. You can also buy Skype credits or a subscription to call others on their phone or forward calls to your phone. In any business, there are times when you need to call someone directly. A Skype credit can be handy for those situations. It can reduce your long distance and international calling costs significantly.

3. Asana: With Asana, you can organize to-do lists, projects and meeting information, conversations, and emails in an easy-to-read dashboard. Team members can stay on top of all information, allowing you to quickly identify issues that need attention. Asana is especially useful for distributed teams as team members are able to stay in touch with the rest of the team. Asana is free for teams up to 15 members. You can get access to all features like data export and additional dashboards by upgrading to a paid plan.

4. HiveDesk: Time is money, and every business needs to track employee time and productivity. HiveDesk is an automatic time-tracking software application. You can set up projects and assign employees (or yourself) to these projects. Employees or contract workers first download the app. Once the employee logs in, the software will start tracking their time. It can also record screenshots in case you need it to back up the time sheets. The best part is the productivity reports that help you understand how productive you and your team have been. HiveDesk can be especially useful in tracking the time of consultants (or those who work remotely) and cross-checking their invoices. If your business bills clients hours, HiveDesk can be very handy for both tracking the time spent on a project and backing up the invoice with screenshots.

5. Dropbox: Whether you want to keep your personal files in one place or share files with your global team, Dropbox is your solution. Files on Dropbox are backed up and synced, and can be accessed from a desktop computer, mobile device or laptop. Your important data and documents are always with you.

6. DocuSign: DocuSign is transaction management software. It provides a simple and secure way to electronically sign documents and collect signatures from others. It eliminates the cost and hassles of printing, signing, scanning and sending documents electronically. It saves a lot of time and is super easy to use. If you hire contractors or consultants, you can use DocuSign to streamline the process of signing the paperwork. No more hassles and costs of physically shipping documents for signature. You can also link DocuSign with your Gmail account to open documents in DocuSign.

7. Groove: Groove is a customer support collaboration application. With Groove, you can collaborate on all your customer emails, social media posts, chats and calls together in one place.

How to Create Advocates to Grow Your Brand

Digital clutter has become a real problem, rendering traditional media and even digital advertising less effective. If you want to grow your brand’s presence and increase trust online, you need to invest in brand advocates.

A brand advocate is an individual who organically promotes your product. They advocate on your behalf because they believe in the quality of your brand, not because they’re paid to promote you.

You can (and definitely should) leverage the power of brand advocates to grow your company without coming off as self-promotional. Advocates work for your brand 24/7, bringing you new customers, boosting your credibility and helping you edge out the competition.

Find your advocates

Why sell yourself when your devoted customers will sell for you? Use these smart strategies to create loyal brand advocates to grow your brand.

1. Build a community.

Our world might be digitized, but we still crave human connection. The best way to forge genuine relationships with potential advocates is through creating an online community.

Communities support your audience by giving them an online family. Over time, the emotion behind community-building converts your customers into loyal brand advocates.

Follow these guidelines before creating your community of loyal followers:

  • Identify the community you want: Advocate communities don’t just appear out of thin air. You have to be intentional about how you set up the community. Decide what will bring your followers together, whether it’s a charity, social movement, hobbies or support. Make sure this is in line with your brand and your offerings.
  • Do some recon: See what other online communities are doing and how they operate. Join the communities if you can, noting what aspects you want to use in your own community.
  • Participate: A community is nothing without a leader. That’s why brands have to participate in their communities every single day. Answer questions, start conversations and always reply promptly.
  • Take it offline: You can have wonderful conversations online, but to truly build relationships, your community needs a little face time. Host offline events for your community to connect with each other. Host workshops, conferences or hip gatherings to give your members a space to chat.

2. Empower employees.

We focus so much on growing customers into brand advocates, but every business has an even better advocate hiding right under their noses – your employees! Every single employee in your organization should be a brand advocate.

And not because you tell them they should be an advocate. Your customer experience, mission and culture should be one that automatically encourages employees to advocate for your brand. Happy employees mean you have a willing force of individuals ready to sell your brand any time, day or night.

If you want employees to become brand advocates, empower them. When they feel like they have skin in the game, they can grow and find purpose in their work, leading to increased satisfaction and, ultimately, brand advocacy.

3. Connect with influencers.

If you want to reach thousands of people without a huge budget, look no further than influencer marketing. Influencers give you access to their readymade audience. When an influencer advocates for your brand, there’s a higher likelihood you’ll find more customers and even more excited brand advocates in a short amount of time.

Influencer marketing is more subtle than other forms of marketing, and that’s why it works so well. They give their audiences content that both entertains and solves their problems – without the hard sales pitch. Use the influencer’s credibility to connect with new audiences in your niche.

4. Maintain existing relationships.

Let’s say you’ve put in some elbow grease and you have a tribe of dedicated brand advocates. Congratulations!

However, this isn’t the end of the road. Relationships are the backbone of advocacy. You have to continually support your advocate relationships to keep the spark alive. Use these tips to keep your brand advocates engaged for a long-term relationship:

  • Provide outstanding content: Regularly provide blogs, videos, podcasts and more that give your advocates value. Remember to involve your advocates in the content process, sharing their reviews and stories.
  • Acknowledge milestones: Just like any other relationship, it’s important to remember significant dates. Check in with brand advocates on their birthday or send them an award for mentioning your brand on social media. A little acknowledgment goes a long way, boosting their emotional connection to your brand.
  • Inner circle access: Everybody wants to feel special! Give your advocates the insider access they crave. Use loyalty programs that give advocates early access to deals, contests and freebies. These experiences make them feel valued and appreciated, which encourages even more brand advocacy down the line. 

The bottom line

Stop fighting tooth and nail to get more exposure for your brand. Leverage the power of brand advocates through communities, empowering employees, working with influencers and keeping the spark alive with your existing advocates. The result will be a growing group of people who rave about your brand, and that’s worth its weight in gold.

Optimizing Your Open Enrollment Communication Process: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we explored the early stages of designing the communcations plan around your organization’s Open Enrollment campaign. In Part 2, we look at executing and measuring the Open Enrollment campaign.

Now that you and your team are well organized, it’s time to start rolling out the Open Enrollment campaign to your employees. Here are eight important steps to ensure that your team extracts the most value and engagement during this process.

1. Create awareness.

One to two weeks before the official open date, get open enrollment on people’s calendars. This ‘Get Ready’ email should include the ability to add calendar items for not only deadlines, but events prior to deadlines—like online information sessions.

2. Open the gates.

When open enrollment begins, send out your general announcement messages to each of your segments, new participants, experienced participants and non-participants. Tailor each message to fit the segment, but primarily stick to process and expectations. Let recipients know what to expect, provide links to detailed content pages and repeat the calendar item options.

3. Invite the family.

Shortly after the initial announcement, provide appropriate segments with the ability to opt-in family members to receive upcoming messages. This is simply a headline and link to an opt-in form. The family member will generally need to complete an email loop to be added to the list.

4. Provide education.

A couple of days after the general announcement, start your education process. Your employees generally don’t want to read dense packets of information in an email or wade through five file attachments. Distill benefits options into crisp, descriptive sentences and short lists of key bullet points (with links to details).

Tell stories about why an employee might select one plan over another. You will have different messages for different segments, such as a “Discover your new and different benefits options,” for more experienced personnel and perhaps, “How do I decide which plan is right for me?” for newbies. You can increase engagement by using more visuals and keeping messages to less than 500 words. If that means sending more than one message each day, that’s more effective than cramming 1,500 words into one email.

5. Respect employees’ time.

It’s impolite to send campaign messages after an employee has completed the enrollment process. Take care to send a thank you note as soon as they complete the process and remove them from the campaign. If they still have the option to make changes prior to the deadline, let them know in the thank you message.

6. Send smart reminders.

You should pre-program three general reminders: a “mid-point” reminder, and “two days left” reminder and a “morning of” reminder. You can increase motivation by providing data within those messages, such as, “37 percent of employees completed open enrollment with the first three days.” Depending on your tools, if you measure open enrollment engagement and track metrics, you may be able to customize reminders by linking to the next step (based on the recipient’s campaign behavior or feedback).

7. Provide situation-specific recommendations.

At this point in the campaign, the HR and Communications teams may see patterns of feedback and frequently asked questions. For any employees who have not completed the process, send out a message addressing these specific issues. You can generally assume that there are more silent people who have the same questions.

Use this same approach for any webinars, discussion groups or other Q&A activity. Don’t expect that just because the discussion and Q&A are on the intranet that employees will seek them out. It’s safer to send a proactive email with the answers to the three most common questions and link back to the full content.

8. Deadline push.

If employees haven’t made a decision by a certain date, follow up based on behavioral information. If you don’t know what action your employees have taken, you’re relegated to sending blanket reminders. This can waste time and irritate people.

Post-Campaign Analysis

For continuous improvement, you will want to run post-campaign surveys, analyze all your data, and compile a report complete with recommendations for what to change or do differently next year.

It’s useful to look at your data to see which campaign steps produced the most engagement and when certain groups of employees completed the process. You will likely discover additional segmentation and education opportunities.

The goal of an open enrollment campaign is not simply to get employees signed-up. It’s an opportunity to help employees become more satisfied with their benefits and feel good about the company. It’s an employee engagement opportunity you should make the most of.