The emergence of accelerators has been vital to spurring innovation and entrepreneurship over the last several years, and their continued expansion is essential to creating companies, jobs and market competitiveness. In evaluating the “success” of accelerators, it’s important to consider a range of variables and not focus solely on the number of exits or whether their graduates raise money.
As the capital markets have evolved in the last several years, accelerators have taken on an important role in attracting, qualifying and supporting innovative startups that may otherwise have a difficult time getting noticed by potential users, partners and investors. One can readily make the argument that the rapid expansion of these programs has been appropriate, as market disruptions caused by technology are creating real opportunities to better serve businesses and consumers.
Startup Exits Are Great, but There Are Other Positive Outcomes
Many ventures that work their way through accelerator programs create value in other ways. They can serve as a stepping stone to the next venture, they can lead to finding jobs at other organizations that can exploit the same product knowledge or expertise, or they can remain bootstrapped until they get the value proposition or business model right (what, no funding?). Furthermore, most accelerators have cropped up in the last couple of years, which makes exits a questionable metric, given that it takes four to six years for the average M&A exit, and eight to 10 years for the average IPO.
Is the “Quality Gap” of Accelerators Reality or Perception?
Top-tier accelerator programs such as YCombinator, TechStars and DreamIt (disclaimer: I’m a venture partner) have done an incredible job of building an impressive group of portfolio companies. They have been great role models for the industry at large, but a bit more perspective is required to fully appreciate how broadly value creation is, and will be, playing out. Older programs have the benefit of having more companies in their portfolio as well as greater maturation for these companies. Since the majority of programs have surfaced in the last 24 months, it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges. In addition, as accelerators build their brands and market themselves more effectively, they will be able to attract their share of the talent pool. How awesome is it that we’ve seen programs like the Ark Challenge pop up, where the focus is to retain the local talent and leverage competence in areas such as logistics and retail?
Given the Objectives of Accelerators, How Do We Measure ROI?
While achieving ROI is certainly an objective for accelerators and is important in assuring sustainability, there are other objectives that drive their formation as well. Typically, local entrepreneurs are catalysts in funding and operating a program, in large part because of their community ties, as well as their interest in “giving back.” So the ROI is not purely economic. That said, there’s increased interest on the part of institutions – including corporations, venture firms and hedge funds – to explore how they can get more involved with these startups on the ground floor.
The next several years will be very exciting for accelerator programs, and they are likely to be standard fare across many more geographies and industries. Like the gold rush of the 1800s, the early settlers have seen early returns. But make no mistake about it, there’s lots more gold in them hills.
A study on the usage of social media by the top MBA programs in the United States shows that while all are using Facebook for recruiting and marketing their programs, most of them don’t do any ROI assessment of the social media tools they employ to bring in prospective students. Nor do most tap the potentially best resource: Just a few schools are using downloadable mobile apps, even though these are rated among the most effective tools studied.
Last year, we wrote about how undergraduate colleges are using social media. The same group from University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research, led by Dr. Nora Barnes, has recently taken a look at graduate MBA programs.
In phone interviews, Barnes and her researchers spoke to 70 of the top B-school directors or deans in charge of their programs. Missing were some of the top 10 schools, but the sample was still statistically valid over the more than 400 MBA programs across the U.S. Here are some of the interesting results:
- All 70 schools are using Facebook, and most are also using Twitter and LinkedIn to market their programs. Three-quarters also maintain a blog. More than half of the schools use five or more social media tools. The Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona is a real social media butterfly: They are using 14 different social media tools!
- While only 16% of schools are using downloadable mobile apps, these are rated among the most effective tools studied. You can see the results in the chart above of the schools’ judgment on effectiveness of each social network. Interestingly, LinkedIn – which might be thought to have the closest ties to career aspirations of any of the social media tools – isn’t near the top.
- The majority (65%) of schools don’t track the number of perspective applicants who have found out about their programs through social media connections.
- And perhaps most surprisingly, 94% report recruitment is the No. 1 goal of their social media efforts, yet the top measures of effectiveness do not include tracking prospective applicants. Instead, they are looking at the numbers of fans or followers, or other metrics such as page views or the number of comments.
Clearly, social media is in a state of transition for business schools. Many said they would increase their involvement or expand to additional social networks in the coming year, with a third planning to buy additional software and nearly as many investing in new training or new hires. Still, as the study states: “Being able to measure whether these prospects actually apply to the program is something schools may be looking to do, but have not yet mastered. Without this piece of information it is difficult to really assess the effectiveness of the social media plan and to know where future investments should be made.”
After funding a boom in sketchy startups targeting heavily hyped consumer categories such as social media and mobile, smart venture capitalists are returning to their senses and investing in companies that emphasize solid fundamentals, like paying customers and profits. That’s why enterprise software companies are finally getting the attention – and dollars – they deserve.
Venture capitalists are armed to the teeth with analytical tools. And they should be. Their careers depend on making intelligent investment decisions. And yet, against reason, VCs often behave like teenagers, throwing their money at companies simply because they’re in fashion.
Lately the trend has been toward consumer internet companies: “Hey, that venture firm has a social media play in its portfolio, we should have one, too.” For too long, that’s been the thinking at a lot of VC outfits.
Not any more.
Venture capitalists placed $2 billion with IT startups in the first quarter of this year, according to a survey by Dow Jones VentureSource, a 14% increase from the first quarter of 2011. Meanwhile, investors put 76% less investment in consumer internet companies. Software companies attracted the most funding, $1.3 billion, which is a 61% bump from 2011.
Social Is Overcapitalized
“I see some people looking at the enterprise space again, probably as a reaction to areas like social being overcapitalized,” says Bob Ackerman, managing director at Palo Alto-based Allegis Capital. “The logic in the venture herd seems to be, ‘If five companies in an area are gaining traction, let’s create 500.’ But at some point reason prevails and people say, ‘Hang on, that’s not going to work out. What are other areas that are not as excessively capitalized?’ There’s some of this phenomenon from a venture perspective as it relates to the enterprise.”
Allegis Capital has long invested in enterprise startups, whether they’re trendy or not, targeting companies aimed at business problems that require high-value, technology-based solutions. These companies may not be sexy but they pay the bills, because enterprises have problems and they will spend money for solutions.
Avoiding the Herd Mentality
“Part of the challenge in the venture world is that people want to hitch their wagon to the fastest-moving star,” Ackerman says. “The problem with that approach is that when you see the herd moving in a given direction, it’s probably too late. So we tend to be counter-cyclical at Allegis. We don’t want to be running with the herd because it tends to pull down returns.”
It’s not only VCs who travel in herds, he adds, but entrepreneurs as well. Ackerman has watched a lot of talented engineers shift their focus to social media and other consumer internet startups in the past few years. Enterprise software is hard, and a lot of entrepreneurs these days are impatient.
Fighting Immediate Gratification
“This is a change,” he says. “Go back 15 years – people were more studied about identifying an opportunity and building a company for the long term. But when you get into these boom-and-bust cycles, with people trying to capture the boom, it’s driven by a desire for immediate gratification. That has sucked some of the air out of the enterprise space.”
There is innovation going on in the enterprise arena. One of the most-talked-about business-software startups right now is Asana, which was founded by two guys from Facebook. The company makes task management for teams.
Building Real Businesses
Another reason Enterprise startups don’t get as much attention is because “they’re not flashy,” Ackerman says. “But they are building real businesses and what we’ll see at the end of day is that many of these enterprise companies that have been slowly building their companies and succeeding, you will see a tortoise-and-hare scenario. In many cases they will prove to be more sustainable.”
Look, for example, at the $60 billion IT security market. It’s a real problem with real customers looking for real solutions. And as they find solutions, ROI-driven startups are already grabbing a significant piece of company tech budgets.
The Laws of Physics Still Apply
As the investment data indicates, VCs are once again recognizing the fundamental strength of enterprise startups – and putting more money into them.
“Some investors left the enterprise for the promise of faster returns,” Ackerman says. “But you will see more people waking up to the realization that the streets aren’t paved with gold, the laws of physics still apply, and let’s go back to doing things the old-fashioned hard way.”
There’s a belief (which, for some, has metastasized into a desperate hope) that how you say something online, not so much what you say, directly translates to whether you’ll read it. Today, a corporation that’s notorious for never changing the way it says anything, announced it’s acquiring a company whose business is message adjustment for brands in the social media space.
Prior to Facebook’s IPO last week, there was considerable talk about whether its main value proposition – that companies can realize value by approaching their customers as people – would, coupled with six bucks, buy you a cup of coffee. For the last six years, a company called Vitrue has built a business around social relationship management for consumer-facing companies. Not really CRM in the strict sense, its service has evolved around utilizing social media to craft marketing messages that better reach customers through social media. Which seems sensible enough: testing the river before sticking your boat in it.
This morning, for an undisclosed sum of cash, Oracle announced it is purchasing Vitrue and integrating it into its broadening portfolio of cloud-based services, which last February absorbed workforce talent management powerhouse Taleo. With Vitrue comes some unique and sometimes controversial tools, including one that estimates the ROI of your Facebook branding campaign in dollars.
Vitrue made its first public splash in 2007 with a promotion that urged consumers everywhere to produce their own Pringles potato chip commercials, as mashups mixing their own homemade tapes with a stockpile of snack food-related content. At that time, the company was marketing itself as “YouTube for brands.” (Vitrue’s founder and CEO, Reggie Bradford, has a background in television.) Since that time, the rise of Facebook prompted Vitrue to become an early supporter and advocate of its platform.
In its now widely known September 2010 white paper, “Anatomy of a Facebook Post” (PDF available here), Vitrue makes a compelling case that Facebook users expect a different attitude from what they read there, not just from people but from companies as well.
“As a general rule of thumb, marketers adapt their messages and content to different marketing communication channels,” the white paper reads. “The content and format used in direct mail will not necessarily be effective for a direct e-mail. Also, within each marketing tactic, a marketer must determine the best format for that specific channel, i.e. e-mail with HTML or text or variations of subject lines, which results in an extensive ‘test and learn’ iterative approach to marketing effectiveness for a particular marketing tactic.”
That paragraph seemed to imply that as people’s attitudes vary with the use of different channels, certain attitudes with social channels will be more colored by individual personalities than by a collective, herd mentality. It’s that implication which seemed in stark contrast to the production of its ROI calculator tool, which Google Analytics product marketing manager Adam Singer called out in April 2010, on his blog TheFutureBuzz.com, for cattle-prodding not only individuals but also entire vertical market segments into the same corral, and assuming each unit in that corral is worth the same dollar value.
“The power of Web analytics and data isn’t about coming up with normalized numbers to apply blandly across hordes of consumers, but about segmentation, detailed analysis and accountability,” Singer wrote at the time. “It’s about understanding and activating your true fans, and not even treating them all the same. They are not all created equal, after all. These unscientific data points are why companies are blindly chasing bigger numbers for numbers sake – when in reality they are increasing KPI [key performance indicator] metrics and not necessarily objectives.”
Vitrue’s Bradford appeared to address Singer’s argument in an interview with blogger Rob Birgfeld the following month. Said the CEO, “Nothing is an exact science, especially with social media. We developed the Evaluator to help provide a marketer directional and quantifiable information. But increasingly marketers can and should derive their strategies based on solid data, which is what we do here at Vitrue.”
One immediately wonders how all that valuable data will be put to use at Oracle, a company notorious for rarely, if ever, modifying the tone or even color (red) of its customer-facing message over the last quarter-century. In early 2010, Oracle explained the motivation behind its acquisition of Sun Microsystems as centering around the creation of a “seamless experience for developers.” Later that year, in its acquisition of e-commerce and cell-center platform maker Art Technology Group, Oracle XVP Thomas Kurian stated it was in response to customers needing “a unified commerce and CRM platform to provide a seamless experience across all commerce channels.” And earlier this year, after acquiring customer service platform maker RightNow, Oracle assessed the RightNow platform as “help[ing] companies power great customer experiences in a seamless, personalized way across all channels and customer touchpoints: including on the web, in a store, over the phone or via mobile devices.”
So it becomes uniquely interesting not just how Singer announced this morning’s news on Vitrue’s corporate blog, but how he said it. “As you know, marketers have largely led their businesses into social and they are now looking to develop strategies that can help them deliver more meaningful customer engagement. Increasingly, other groups within the enterprise are also utilizing social media to build relationships with today’s socially connected consumer. Enterprises need a more comprehensive social relationship management platform that connects marketing, sales, commerce and customer service together, for a seamless brand experience. Together, Oracle and Vitrue’s comprehensive social relationship management platform will improve companies’ return on investment for social by integrating sales and marketing across paid, owned and earned media; and enhancing customer service through seamless, real-time responsiveness and high touch engagement.”
I suppose corporate statements have one way of reaching an audience, and Facebook pages another. Who knows, really? It’s not an exact science.
You may have been confused if you read this morning’s Facebook headlines. The Wall Street Journal says some big ad buyers are questioning how effective their Facebook ads are, while CNET is reporting that Facebook won’t take some advertisers calls when they try to buy ads.
Which report is right? Or are they both right? And does it matter? Probably not, if you’re thinking about buying shares of Facebook after it goes public later this month. What matters for potential investors is that Facebook once again appears to be having trouble demonstrating that it can sustain growth from advertising which, to date, has accounted for about 85% of Facebook’s $4 billion in annual revenue.
But appearances, according to experts interviewed by ReadWriteWeb Wednesday, can be deceiving.
“As you can read many places these days, brands and agencies are griping privately and publicly about a lack of service, but to be fair, Facebook has never said it was a media company. In fact, it seemed as though the strategy in the beginning was less about supporting advertising, as much as maybe enabling it,” said Michael Nicholas, chief strategy officer at Roundarch Isobar.
Nicholas noted that Facebook didn’t seem interested in supporting self-service ads in the way that Google or, more recently, Twitter did. That would distract Facebook from what it sees as its “social mission,” so instead, Facebook published APIs that third parties could build huge tools on top of.
“This is a great strategy if your goal is to remove the burden of directly supporting brands and agencies so you can stay focused on the task at hand,” Nicholas said.
One of those third parties building API ad platforms is Spruce Media. COO Lucy Jacobs said one of the problems is that brands don’t bake social into the brand’s core. Facebook recently held a conference in New York to help brands better understand Facebook’s advertising.
“Agencies are used to conversions and clicks, not social sharing or PTAT – people talking about things – as metrics of success. Facebook continues to hold the line that brands can’t think of Facebook as a channel you can add on to your ad spend,” Jacobs said. “To be truly successful, businesses need to embrace Facebook and make their business ‘Social by Design,’ and the strategy needs to be focused around a marketing platform focused around word-of-mouth marketing at scale.”
Jacobs’s rationale and thinking is classic Facebook, using its scale to dictate terms. The question is, will advertisers give in and essentially reorganize the way they have done marketing in the past? And how long will investors wait for advertisers to embrace the Facebook way before they dump their shares?
“Facebook’s upcoming IPO may certainly reinforce the importance of brand advertising, as the company will now have to answer to public shareholders. Facebook has been focused on creating ads that keep traffic on site, as well as developing page metrics to help brands evaluate fan engagement,” said Megan Halscheid of Performics, a Chicago-based marketing firm. “Given the IPO, Facebook needs to demonstrate ROI increases to advertisers; as Facebook continues to beef up ad sales, it needs to provide improved measurement to help brands prove their return.
Still, Halscheid said Facebook ultimately needs to keep its 900 million+ users happy, or keeping advertisers happy won’t matter.
Nicholas said many advertisers are pleased with Facebook spending, and the company will likely address the concerns being raised in both the Journal and CNET articles.
“Although some large brands and agencies may be grumbling, not everyone is unhappy. Brands whose business is more performance-oriented and predominantly ecommerce-based, are seeing quality results and good service from third-party companies,” Nicholas said. “In my mind, thinking about it from an ad spend point of view, it’s this ‘vocal majority’ that’s what’s fueling all the headlines about ‘large brands and agencies question Facebook’s ad model’.”
Microsoft used Social Media Week to launch a new advertising platform aimed at incorporating user reviews and comments into social media sites.
The company said People Powered Stories will be the first of several social advertising products Microsoft plans to launch in the coming months. The product’s release comes at a time when there is growing evidence that people are more likely to purchase a product recommended by a friend but while people are simultaneously showing a reluctance to purchase products directly marketed through social networks.
The announcement did not, however, make clear how exactly Microsoft will differentiate itself from similar services, outside of culling ratings posted on sites by Microsoft users. A pilot program targeted Windows 7 advertising at back-to-school shoppers, with Microsoft claiming PPS increased purchase intent by 6.3%, as well as helping boost “believability” and brand awareness.
In a blog post and at a presentation in New York, Jenn Creegan, GM for Display Advertising Experiences at Microsoft Advertising, said the company was partnering with Bazaarvoice to offered People Powered Stories. The platform will give advertisers access to “tap into Microsoft’s highly social and engaged audiences across multiple screens and deliver relevant ads in a way that is targeted and more measurable than is available for social advertising on the web today.”
The announcement was coupled with the release of a study Microsoft commissioned of 713 social media marketers. According to Creegan’s blog post:
- The top two reasons advertisers invest in social media is to drive word of mouth and brand awareness (27% and 26% respectively).
- 72% of advertisers said measuring ROI on social media campaigns is too difficult.
- Advertisers believe 65% of word of mouth misses the intended audience.
- 73% of those advertisers surveyed said they want to make sure the ratings and reviews they curate online reach their target audience (which is more than Likes, Tweets and any other source the survey asked about).
“While we are still in the early stages of unlocking the potential of social advertising, I am confident that we are moving into a world where the impact of social advertising will move beyond a ‘Like’ to a world where you can create and measure the value of social ads,” Creegan said. “We believe that the People Powered Stories ad format is critical to continuing this movement and helping brands gain credibility and relevance with their target consumers.”
Today is the 3rd Annual Community Manager Appreciation day. Originally founded back in 2010 by Jeremiah Owyang, the 4th Monday of January has since become a day to both thank Community Managers and to enjoy some great community-themed content.
Community Managers are, on the whole, good people. They are slow to anger, and quick to give second (and tenth) chances. They cheer-lead awesome folks and great ideas, while quietly, but firmly, discouraging bad behavior. They’re passionate about their product, protective of their site and fervently supportive of their community. And, despite working long and varied hours, they still will tell you that they have the coolest job in the world. Keep reading to hear my decidedly biased view of community managers, colored by my almost 16 years of managing communities.
What defines a community manager is up in the air, with some calling a purely social media role a community position and other balking if forums, blogs or some other more distinctly siloed community is not a part of the job description. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle in my own definition, drawing the line on a case by case basis, rather than pushing all folks who report to marketing out of our happy little group.
By my definition, the role is a healthy mix of support and marketing. It’s letting folks know what is going on in your community while also listening to understand what they want from your community as well. Some community managers may be 90% support, but they’ll also do some messaging that promotes their brand’s message or upcoming sales/events. Others will spend most of their day promoting, but will also arrange meetups, host a Google Hangout, attend a Twitter chat and write a few blog posts spotlighting interesting community generated content.
Characteristics of a Community Manager
- A well rounded community manager makes everyone feel welcome.
- He doesn’t judge a user based on his ability to communicate (or to type).
- She always gives warnings and second chances, because her goal is a happy community, not vengeance.
- He may not be an extrovert in real life, but online he’s the life of the party, bringing a great deal of charisma, wit and wisdom to every encounter.
- May start her career as an unpaid volunteer. Often brags that it’s the best ROI of any career decision she’s ever made.
- She knows every meme and can work that knowledge into most conversations.
- Doesn’t mind long hours, because he knows that the work he is doing makes a difference in the lives of so many people across the world.
- Smiles in real life every time she types a smiley emoticon.
- Often is ‘discovered’ based on his passionate voice within an exiting community.
- Innately understands marketing, customer support, product strategy and user experience.
- Enjoys learning new things, from honing a new skill to becoming fluent in a new language.
- Devours analytics because it’s the best way to truly understand his community.
- Knows that first and foremost, she’s the user’s advocate, because in any meeting, everyone else is the company’s advocate.
- Defends his company fiercely, but is not afraid to admit when a mistake has been made.
- Fights tooth and nail for the right outcome in a situation, even when it’s not the easiest or most popular solution.
- Enjoys the spotlight externally, but tends to be quietly efficient internally.
- He doesn’t toot his own horn, but it often gets tooted for him.
- Is fascinated by how people think. He reads psychology texts and stats reports for fun.
- Truly enjoys helping others.
- Is empathetic to a fault.
Community Management is the hardest job you’ll ever love. If you’re at all interested in a career in community or social media, all you have to do is look up someone in a similar role and they’ll almost always go out of their way to help you join their ranks. Over the years I’ve mentored dozens of budding community managers, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. Most of my community manager friends have done the same.
Many of us would love to be trained to have more social skills in everyday life, whether at work or at home. Or perhaps we wish other people we know would recieve that kind of training. But is socializing online something that people need to be trained how to do? It might have sounded silly a few years ago, but social technology has now clearly become an important part of workplace activity and productivity.
Tech giant IBM believes that the socialization of business presents a big opportunity to train people to do it really well. The company announced this week a major new services initiative in social business. This kind of news makes me think it’s time to put the whole question of whether engaging with social technology at all has a potential for meaningful ROI to bed.
“Social business” is a trend and term that’s been emerging for some time now. More than two years ago, enterprise analyst Esteban Kolsky wrote: “Businesses are becoming social because society (led mostly by Generation Y citizens becoming customers and workers) is demanding it.”
If doubts about the ROI of social technology began sometime recently, we might as well pick 2006 as the date, when that silly distraction turned mega-platform Twitter was founded.
In 2012, things have now come far enough that it makes sense for one of the world’s leading technology services companies to jump into that market. Discoure about social and business used to be dominated by doubt of the Return on Investment. IBM may be resolving those doubts with its new campaign.
The web’s leading enterprise news blogger Larry Dignan summarized the initiative last night on ZDNet as follows:
IBM is planning to offer services to help customers develop skills and technical support for social networking. Naturally, there’s a heavy services angle here. IBM will offer live support, online courses and meetings with social business experts.
Among the key social enterprise items from IBM:
- Consulting services to develop internal and external processes and figure out social businesses.
- Education and mentor programs for business partners.
- Technical certification programs to cultivate skills and assess resources.
- Workshops that will revolve around becoming a social business. Some workshops will be conducted in partnership with The Dachis Group, which is a boutique consulting firm focused on social business.
Four-year old Austin-based Dachis Group has between 200 and 500 employees according to LinkedIn and has acquired a number of other hot social business startups. That company unveiled a new Social Performance Monitor yesterday, a web application Dachis says “combines big data and social analytics to meaningfully measure performance of social marketing.”
Is all of this really an effective subject of measurement and optimization? Cynics may disagree, but the socialization of business, specifically with regard to collaboration and marketing, seems of sufficient sophistication that optimization is a clear competitive opportunity. The new offering from Dachis appears to be a big effort to quantitatively resolve the question of social media ROI once and for all.
That which can be measured can be improved, too. IBM says that “the world now spends more than 110 billion minutes on social networks and blog sites per month.”
When that time spent being social is spent while at work, failure to measure and optimize it would be a big lost opportunity and potentially a competitive mistake.
The IBM initiative page reports, “McKinsey & Company observed that 9 out of every 10 businesses using Web 2.0 technology are seeing measurable business benefits from its use.”
Social business opens whole new worlds of efficiency,collaboration, productivity and innovation.
It also challenges top-down, command-and-control systems of working. Those aren’t worth saving on principle, so their adherents will have to compete in the marketplace to see whether they can really beat social businesses or not.
Now, let’s get down to business, together online.