Will Female-Led 'Zebras' Counter Tech’s Unicorn Obsession?

Unicorns have been a huge trend in and out of the tech world in the last few years. While silver hair and rainbow eyelashes characterized a nostalgia-inspired beauty trend, the “unicorn” label more prominently describes disruptive startup companies valued at $1 billion or more. 

Yet the age of unicorns could soon see its dusk. As bloggers voted “Baba Yaga” the next unicorn in beauty, the “zebra” emerged as a practical-yet-fantastical unicorn alternative in the tech world. Following a year in which “feminism” was the reigning term and female silence-breakers graced the cover of Time, it should be no surprise that women are leading the charge in this transition.

Why zebras? Unlike a mythical shiny-horned horse, zebras are real. As companies, “zebras” are also grounded in reality: Their goal is solve meaningful problems while repairing existing social systems. As the Medium article proposing this concept aptly describes, zebras fix what unicorns break without sacrificing profitability. 

VCs have long been attracted to unicorns, which in part explains the gender gap in VC funding. Women tend to create more practical businesses that are less risky and more socially conscious, traits that characterize the zebra concept. As cause marketing grows, VCs may find these investments more worthwhile than unicorns, which at times come with more problems than they are worth. 

The unicorn problem 

To understand the problem with unicorns it’s important to understand where unicorns came from, what’s exciting about them, and what can make them problematic. 

The term is still new, coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee to describe how rare they are. But unicorns aren’t so rare anymore: as of March 2017 there were 223 unicorns, Uber, Pinterest, and Airbnb among the largest. The quantity of unicorns has led many to worry about a unicorn bubble, which would result in dead unicorns upon bursting. 

Some unicorns, like Groupon, have imploded. Others have skyrocketed to success but in doing so have done damage, all while hoarding huge profits by remaining private. Facebook has arguably contributed to social good, but was also a vehicle for vicious fake news propaganda. Uber, for its part, has weathered a shocking number of scandals over the last few years. 

As CEOs Mara Zepeda and Jennifer Brandel wrote for Quartz, the problem with our obsession with unicorns is that “it rewards quantity over quality, consumption over creation, quick exits over sustainable growth, and shareholder profit over shared prosperity.”

Focusing exclusively on unicorns is not helpful in a world with numerous pressing problems in finance and beyond. Is it so radical to support businesses that “repair, cultivate, and connect” instead of chasing companies bent on disruption? In a capitalist society that knows no different, it may be a hard to make the shift, but worthwhile to attempt nonetheless. 

The rise of the zebra 

Along with Brandel and Zepeda, female founders Astrid Scholz and Aniyia Williams first proposed an alternative style of investing that focuses less on unicorns in their “Sex and Startups” article in 2016. In it, they suggest the future could hold “another style of investing, one that recognizes founders with long-term, wide-ranging visions” which focuses “not only on how much money is raised, and on investor returns, but also on how we generate value for users, elevate communities, and build a more equitable and inclusive system.” 

The overwhelming resonance and response to this sentiment led these women to form The Zebra Project, publish more literature on the topic, and form a conference called DazzleCon for founders that identify with the zebra ethos. 

While these women may have put a name to the idea, it’s worth noting that there are startups out there that may be zebras without knowing it. Entrepreneur’s Handbook cites Basecamp, Zapier, and Mailchimp as startups that “fit into the current market instead of blowing it apart and seek long-term survival through sustainable, responsible growth.” (These examples, it’s worth noting, all have male founders.) 

Investors need to change their tune, though, for zebras to get the funding they need to make an impact, and become a model rising entrepreneurs will seek to emulate. 

Will zebras bring change? 

The Zebra Movement, as kicked off by Brandel, Zepeda, Scholz, and Williams, is building momentum. But is it enough to change an investing culture that prioritizes quick growth, big return, and a churn and burn style of making money? 

It may take more dead or corrupt unicorns before we see a dramatic change, but trends toward socially conscious investing, diversity initiatives, and out-of-the-box VC strategy are lights in the tunnel ahead for entrepreneurs, and women especially. Consumers are increasingly drawn to impact-driven, minority-run businesses, so investors would be wise to follow what sells.

Who knows? It may be that losing a few horns to gain some stripes is the best decision this zoo of a world could hope to make.

What You Should Do Before Launching a Voice AI Product

The market for voice artificial intelligence (AI) is booming. In Q1 of 2017, manufacturers (made up mainly by Amazon and Google) sold 2.9 million smart speakers. In Q1 of 2018, that number skyrocketed to 9 million.

Whether you rely on Siri, Alexa, Echo, Google Home, Bixby, or another product, modern consumers love the convenience and wow factor of smarter tech that answers to your voice, which means developers are coming out of the woodwork to make their mark on this burgeoning industry.

For buyers, this is great. More competition means more apps and software solutions to choose from at a decent price. For entrepreneurs and inventors, however, heightened interest means the market is more crowded than ever.

To break through the noise and give their voice AI products the best chance at succeeding in the new market, entrepreneurs must ensure that their products are easy to use and solve real problems.

Voice AI of tomorrow

Usage of voice-enabled AI devices is increasing at a stunning pace. The Global Consumer Insights Survey 2018 from PwC found that 42 percent of respondents have already purchased or plan to purchase a consumer AI device.

Despite their novelty, most of these devices have limited practical utility, yet consumers continue to buy voice AI devices in anticipation of future uses. Amazon set the stage for voice commerce by integrating shopping capabilities with Alexa. Now, companies are joining the voice commerce revolution in droves, eager to help customers order their products through smart speakers. The more common these speakers become, the more companies will see their benefits — and the more consumers will come to depend on their smart home systems.

Right now, not many smart speaker owners use their devices to shop. They’re more interested in information, like order statuses. That could change quickly, though. Who knows what consumers will want from their speakers in 2019? The world of voice AI today is a blank canvas, waiting for innovative entrepreneurs to make their mark.

Is your voice AI start-up ready for debut?

The voice AI market might be in its infancy, but like all the best tech trends, it will reach adulthood in record time. As competition heats up, entrepreneurs need to know whether their products are good enough to make the cut. Check out these four tips before launching your voice AI product.

1. Do your SWOT analysis

Even if you did not go to business school, the value of a good SWOT analysis is not lost on entrepreneurs. In emerging markets, it is critical to map out your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in achieving market dominance.

For example, you might be strong in your existing relationships with potential vendors, but weak in investment capital. That might mean you should focus on your prospects with the biggest potential before trying to expand. And if someone else is racing to beat you to market with a similar product (threat), but you have a company interested in testing your beta (opportunity), use that information to act from a position of power.

2. Handle the legal aspects

When the U.S. Patent Office was first set up, they probably did not anticipate anything quite like voice AI. If you believe your invention is truly novel, consult with a patent attorney to learn how best to protect it.

A patent might not cover the whole invention, but it could cover a unique feature that makes it inventive. If you designed a function unlike any other, a patent could give you a leg up in a market where low barriers to entry invite plenty of copycats.

3. Understand present vs. future potential

Knowing your market will help you envision your strategy. Voice AI will redefine the way people shop, communicate, stay organized and much more. With so much potential on the table, present and future, don’t limit your vision for either period. Incremental developments now can complement the future.

Will your solution address needs five years from now? Could your work become a part of a larger platform; and if so, what do you need to do to stay ahead of that situation? The more you consider how the present will give way to the future and what could be, the better you will be able to define the space and revolutionize it.

4. Seek objective insight

If an investor asked you what you knew about your market, you probably wouldn’t say, “I just know in my gut that it’s big!” Even if you are not having trouble with your business plan or strategy, seeking objective advice or input will not only provide critical insights but potentially identify hot spots to address. Rather than shirking from the weak areas, tackle them head-on. You may be able to turn potential flaws into opportunities.

Seeking objective third-party experts for input on the technical merits of your invention or market analysis can also be simple, cost-effective and insightful compared to engaging those closest to the technology. If the reviewer tells you that your prized feature confuses audiences or another company tried and failed with the same idea last year, consider that information before moving forward. Maybe you need to rethink your market. Maybe you need to simplify the interface. If you don’t reach out past arm’s length, however, you may never know.

The voice AI market in 2019 is ripe for massive growth. If you think your solution deserves a spot in the limelight, take a step back and be prepared for an independent evaluation, think about the future of the industry, and bring in an extra set of eyes to spot the holes you might have missed.

Startup Guide to Hiring a Consulting CTO

Building the right team at the right time and stage in a company’s growth can make or break its success and ability to scale, especially for a startup.

While many successful companies are launched without a co-founder with a technical or engineering background, knowing when to hire a chief technology officer (CTO) and an internal software development and engineering team is an important part of your company’s growth.

Why (and when) to hire a consulting CTO

Consulting CTOs can provide the technical expertise and management experience to custom software development companies that help early-stage startups meet their strategic goals. So when might it make sense to bring on a consulting CTO?

Some of the factors to consider in your decision and hiring timeline include:

  • You are an early stage startup working with an outsourced or bootstrapped software development team
  • Your company does not have a technical co-founder or member of the management team
  • Prohibitive costs involved with recruiting full time or long term CTO
  • Finding technical and engineering talent with the right leadership skills and background to meet your goals
  • Your company does not need a full-time CTO at your current stage of growth
  • Your startup is facing a product launch, and you need to quickly bring on an experienced technical and engineering professional with the right management and leadership skills
  • Your startup is launching a product or spearheading a project that requires a unique skillset or type of experience that your current management and development team is lacking or has limited experience or knowledge of the technology and market
  • For general oversight capabilities and technical due diligence
  • As a short-term resource in the early or mid stages of your startup’s growth while you look for the right long-term candidate if you later decide that it makes sense to fill the position permanently

The “right” time to bring in new leadership will vary from company to company. Addressing your engineering team’s current pain points against the organization’s needs and plans to scale in the short and long term are a great place to start in determining when to hire outside talent.

A consulting CTO can provide the flexibility and expertise necessary to succeed in an early stage startup environment.

Qualities to look for in a CTO

In addition to flexibility, technical expertise and management experience, and relevant knowledge in your field, there are a few qualities to look for in a great CTO candidate:

  • Stellar engineering background
  • The right experience for your company’s product line and vision for growth
  • A robust professional network to leverage
  • Good communication skills
  • Relevant leadership skills 
  • A strategic thinker
  • The right set of tools

As most founders and investors know, things seldom go according to plan in the startup world, especially where technology is concerned. Whether you have a small team operating on the lean startup model or are growing at a rapid pace and already have several talented engineers on your team, things can (and probably will) change at a moment’s notice.

It may be difficult for you to predict when your startup will benefit from hiring a technology manager or CTO, and in many cases the answer to the question “When should we bring on a CTO?” is “yesterday.” A consulting CTO can join your team quickly and is trained to work and solve problems in a startup environment.

4 Ways to Scale Your Digital Marketing Agency

Managing a digital agency successfully is an enormous task. In order to maximize profit, it is necessary that you adopt the following tips as your guide to grow your company.

1. Build recurring revenue with monthly campaigns

Earning a recurring income is a pragmatic approach to build a secure base and financially thriving digital agency. In an article in 2015, Robin Leonard, co-founder of AllFamous Digital wrote, “Brands will realize that consistency is king and they will need a digital agency to run the social media and website functions all year round, with creative agencies that pitch for campaigns to overlay and enhance.”

Leonard posits that for any digital agency to thrive, recurring revenue is necessary. Here are some ways you can receive monthly revenue as a web agency.

Monthly maintenance and support retainers. Providing site maintenance and other digital marketing services such as Google AdWords, Facebook Ads and content marketing for your customers at a pre-negotiated monthly fee means that clients are retained and the chance of losing them to your competition is lower.

Web hosting services. Hosting websites for clients as well as providing extra value on backup services and software upgrades is another means by which recurring revenue may be generated.

Flexible payment plans. Rather than billing your client the total amount for the website at once, receiving the payment on monthly installments is a better alternative to generate recurring revenue

Consultancy services. Digital agencies can earn recurring revenue through a wide range of consultancy services spanning from content creation (blog posts, images, videos) to multi-channel marketing (email and social media marketing).

2. Invest in corporate training

In Ryan Deiss’ keynote address at the Traffic & Conversion Summit 2017, he stated that the companies who are willing to invest in their employees by training and educating them will be more successful. Here are a few reasons why corporate training is vital to improving the fortunes of your digital agency.

Abreast of trends. Digital marketing involves strategies and technologies that evolve regularly. Most businesses encourage employees to stay in the loop concerning the latest trends. Group training of your staff ensures that the same message is passed to them, enabling your agency to speak in one voice on a position when necessary.

Increased productivity. A group of employees equipped with the latest information and resources is guaranteed to produce better jobs than their counterparts relying on outdated tools. Better jobs equate to happier clients, which translates to more revenue for your organization.

Improved reputation. Producing quality jobs prompts more client recommendations and provides a stage for your company to get into the eye of prospective clients. A reputation for getting the job done better than your competitors is guaranteed to drive more customers to your digital agency.

3. Engage your audience

Create engaging content and webinars on your site, as this avails customers the opportunity of connecting with your brand and what you stand for. As the name entails, a webinar is a presentation or seminar of any kind that is transmitted to the web using video conferencing software (such as Skype, ooVoo, MegaMeeting).

Engaging your audience through your content and their feedback, responses, polls and surveys can go a long way in improving the growth of your company. You hear from them first-hand about their thoughts and suggestions in areas you need to improve as a company.

4. Optimize your landing page

Before you can successfully offer digital marketing services to your customers, the landing page of your website must be optimized. You cannot attract clients with a less than standard website, so it’s important that your landing page is regularly updated.

An optimized landing page will always yield a great conversion rate. Here are the major features needed to optimize your landing page:

Well-defined call to action. A well-defined call to action is very important for your landing page as it tells your audience what to do. Your contact form should be readily available on your landing page as well. To make it easy for users on your website, ensure that a call to action is always at the end of the landing page. This will make navigation through your website easier and in turn increase the conversion rate.

Ensure your landing page is mobile friendly. It is important that you optimize your landing page for mobile viewing as mobile users are dominating the internet traffic. This way, your mobile user clients can easily navigate through your website landing page.

Keep your landing page simple. Make sure your landing page provides all the necessary information for users to quickly decide. You have to ensure that you do not overpopulate your landing page with too much information as this will decrease its optimization which leads to decreased conversion rate. For a digital marketing agency, this isn’t good at all.

Finally, it is important that you do not neglect the objectives you set out for your agency. However, these guides, when properly applied, will ensure that your digital agency grows vastly.

Four Ways to Measure Employee Engagement During Open Enrollment

Benefit programs can be confusing for many employees, but they are a key factor in recruiting and retaining employees. Research shows only 19.3 percent of employees report a “somewhat high” or “very high” understanding of their benefits, while other research indicates employee attitudes toward benefits programs correlates with commitment and engagement.

Developing an effective benefits communications strategy can create a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining employees, but it’s easier said than done. It’s often challenging getting employees to read internal communications about benefits programs and filling out the correct forms.

Although benefits communications is difficult, developing the right programs is worth it. According to SHRM’s 2018 Employee Benefits Survey, “How benefits are communicated to talent may be the difference in whether a program is successful in impacting recruitment and retention, has no effect, or is even detrimental.” In a candidate-driven job market, companies need to strategically design and effectively promote their competitive benefits packages. 

Why employee engagement matters during open enrollment

If you help write benefits copy for your company, you’re probably familiar with open enrollment, a window of time when employees can add, drop or make changes to their coverage. For calendar-year plans that start on January 1, open enrollment usually begins in November.

When you reflect on previous open enrollment communications strategies, do you know which strategies worked and which ones didn’t? If you didn’t record what worked and what didn’t, it can be difficult to make the improvements necessary to increase employee engagement and participation. Worse yet, given that many benefits programs remain the same year to year, you may arbitrarily deploy the same strategies and send the same messages each year, even if they’re not particularly successful.

Since benefits work to retain top talent, gathering open enrollment engagement data is critical. This engagement data can help your team better meet employee needs. For example, when your HR and communications departments work together to segment employee audiences and explain healthcare options and retirement programs in an easy-to-understand way, more employees identify the plan that meets their needs.

Since 78 percent of employees say employer-provided health insurance impacts their choice to stay at their current job, helping employees understand their health plan options can positively impact retention. In addition to influencing retention, when you engage employees with more effective benefits communications, you accomplish some important objectives:

  • Minimize the number of employees who miss open enrollment
  • Simplify the benefits selection process and help prevent employees from feeling overwhelmed
  • Move beyond enrollment logistics to strengthen comprehension and influence attitudes
  • Prevent top talent from being lured away by competitors with flashy benefits – benefits that you might actually offer to some degree but fail to communicate

To increase employee participation, enrollment and engagement, you have to communicate. You can use communication measurement data to inform what you need to communicate and how often. Here are four key ways to measure employee engagement during open enrollment:

1. Create messages for targeted audiences and set objectives. Some employees are brand new to your benefits and enrollment process, while others may have been active participants for years. These groups need different forms and styles of communication. Often, employees participate in some benefits and not others. Knowing these groups – and acquiring segmented lists from your HR system – you can design targeted communications, provide the right level of education, and increase participation.

2. Track communications activity. Email opens, page-views, read-times and click-through rates are important benchmarks during open enrollment. Email is an integral part of any benefits communications program, because you can directly target your lists and follow-up based on recipient behavior. By tracking open, read, and click rates, you can gain insight on preferred content, cadence and quantity, and understand which messages drive actions.

3. Survey during and after the open enrollment process. As part of your campaign, ask employees, “Was this helpful to you?” In addition to email metrics, a simple survey can be a good way to determine which communications were effective and which ones fell flat. You may ask employees to rank the resources and presentations they received on a scale of 1 to 5, least helpful to most helpful.

4. Conduct post-enrollment analysis.  As in the beginning, the HR and communications teams should collaborate to pull lists and measure participation. Combining communication timelines with enrollment completion dates (or form abandonments) will highlight which communications programs are most effective. Counts of participation, before and after, will tell you if you hit your outcome targets.

When possible, use actual employee stories and their own words to explain how your benefits work and why employees participate at the level they do. Given enrollment deadlines, many communications are reminders to take action, but also take time to explain things in a different way. Some people may understand the details and simply put off taking action; others may need more information before they make a decision.

And rather than sending out the typical email deadline reminder, you might ask a series of three questions to assess employee understanding of a benefit program. Use those results to provide links for more information or encourage them to complete a process. By measuring which content was viewed as most helpful and which wasn’t, you can adjust your content for next year.

Measure engagement: Your data-informed strategy depends on it

Employers spend significant time and money to make sure employees have the best benefits, because they want their employees to be happy and healthy. During open enrollment season  – and throughout the year – it’s crucial to communicate with employees and measure engagement. By measuring employee engagement, you can understand what drives participation and make better data-informed decisions about benefits communications.