Category Archives: Technology

Trade associations are in big trouble

In a world of Web 2.0 communities where anyone can reach out and interact with anyone else, why would you seek out membership in a trade association?

Up until last year, my company was a member of 12 trade associations from coffee to soccer to event planning to wedding planners. I have since cancelled all my memberships except one and my business has not shrunk one bit. I have not ceased to know about the industries I am in and I spend more time networking using Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and our blogs more than I ever did as a member of the trade associations.

In truth, I can’t point to one piece of business I secured as a result of being a member of a trade association nor any network contact that I did not actively seek out myself. Nor can I recall any piece of industry knowledge and research that I couldn’t find on Google.

But, I can tell you I have more money in the bank now that I am not paying association dues and advertising in the trade press at “reduced rates.” I am not going to trade association conferences as an exhibitor any more, but I still attend trade shows and conferences, either by buying a day pass, getting media credentials or volunteering to lead a workshop.

The railroad companies should own the airlines, but they don’t. Why? Because they thought they were in the railroad industry, not in the people and stuff transporting industry. Trade associations are acting the same way. For the most part, they are not using Web 2.0 tools because they believe they are in the “people networking” and conference industry, not in the tech world. They are confusing the tools with the industry they are in.

Trade associations are in the networking industry. Words like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Delicious, Digg, Alltop and blogs should roll off their tongues as easily as networking and sponsorship. But they don’t

Through their short-sightedness, trade associations have allowed an entire industry of “social networking experts” to crop up, leaving them wondering, “Why do we need trade shows? Why do we need a networking middle-man?”

Young college graduates have always been on Facebook, MySpace and now are joining LinkedIn as they think more about their careers than their social lives. They are reaching as to professionals on LinkedIn for mentorship and each other for career advice through sites like BranzenCareerist.com, bypassing the traditional trade groups such as SHRM, and AMA

For trade associations to survive and grow, they need to be the glue that connects people together. They need to be able to provide an answer to the question, “What does my trade association provide that I can’t find using Google?” And they need to do it quicker than I can type 140 characters into my Twitter.

Trade associations need to embrace and push tools like RSS, blogs, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace. They need to push out content that is authoritative and readily available. They need to be there to recruit young college graduates where they communicate; on Facebook and blogs.

Without Web 2.0 tools, trade associations have no voice on the Internet, even if they have Web sites. Without a voice on the Internet, you are essentially silenced.

I wanna get on Oprah

I know that Oprah is off the air, but work with me a bit on the metaphor.

If you are a writer, you want to get on Oprah and your book will sell. If you are a CPG manufacturer, you need to get into Walmart or your product will have lackluster sales. Facebook hopes to be the next “Walmart” or “Oprah” platform. And in the process, the writer, the brand and now the marketer will lose autonomy over their product and service. They now serve at the pleasure of Oprah, Walmart or Facebook.

Oprah is now off the air. What venue do writers now aspire to be on? I don’t know. But I do know that Oprah probably does not much care. She needed to move on for herself. The writers need to figure out their own path.

Walmart will eventually slow down or stumble, taking the business model of a lot of CPG companies with it. The CPG companies will be stuck with a production system they can’t scale back easily and debt they can’t service. They will implode themselves out of business*. Walmart — like Oprah — will not care. It has to do what is best for Walmart.

And now Facebook is looking to “own” all the marketers’ funnel into their customers. Will the marketers march blindly and rabidly toward that cliff? Yes they will. And they will find themselves existing at the pleasure of Facebook. Oops.

But nobody saw that coming, right? Hmmmm.

Scale is everything in America. How many units are you shipping? What is your annual revenue? How many twitter followers do you have? How many copies of your book did you sell?

Nobody asks how good you are. They just want to know you make a lot of “X”

In our quest for chasing big we gladly and blithely hand over the wheel to someone who drives the car to their own destination, not ours.

*This has happened many times to many smaller companies. In order to supply Walmart, they need to ramp up production by leaps and bounds and their product better test well in the 90 days or Walmart pulls it and ships it back unpaid. One day you’ve got a contract for millions; the next you are on the streets and saddled with debt. Or rich. It can go either way quickly.

The last buggy whip maker

I plopped down on the well-worn couch he had in his office on one of my regular hang-out visits. He was a local business guy I’ve been friends with for over a decade. It was always a good way to kill a lunch hour with some good conversation and some local fare.

“I’m telling you,” he started. “This business is not what is used to be. Registrations are down a bit from last year.”

“Do you really want to be the last buggy whip maker?” I asked him point blank.

He’d been grousing about the business going down slowly for the past five years or so. I usually empathized, but just let it go. I wasn’t about to tell him what he should be doing.

But today, it was just too much.

“What do you mean?” he asked a bit shocked that I asked him such a stupid question out of nowhere.

The truth is the question did not really come out of nowhere. He was in an industry that was booming ten years ago, before the market started to consolidate a bit. Over the past several years, many of his competitors had closed up shop due to a lack of demand for his kind of services. His company bumped up a bit every time one of them closed, but slowly went down as the demographic moved on and automated. Eventually, he will be the only game in town and his long-term client base will shrink below what he needs to sustain his company at the level of profitability he needs.

“The way I see it — from the outside looking it,” I started, “is you have really one of two choices; assuming you don’t want to be the last buggy-whip maker. If you do, just keep doing what you’re doing.”

He did not want to be the last buggy whip maker. I don’t know anyone who wants to be the last buggy whip maker.

“You could quit investing in growing your business, suck in all the expenses and start hoarding cash. Your company will eventually die an expected, painless death. You then invest that cash into something else that you really want to be doing but your current clients won’t let you.”

“Or?” he asked.

“You could sell the place for as much as you can get to someone who does not believe you are making buggy whips,” I said. “Choose, but choose quickly before the marketplace figures out you are making buggy whips.”

Markets change. Technology changes. Client needs change.

Change is the reward for successfully solving a problem. Recognize that early and move on.

Nobody really wants to be the last buggy whip maker.

Repairing typewriters

Last week, I received emails from two former clients who needed some help with some legacy work. One needed some tweaks done on a print ad that was at least three years old. The other had moved his web site to a cheaper hosting solution, but the cgi no longer worked. He wanted me to help him fix it as his current hosting provider did not edit scripts.

In each case, the client did not know where else to turn to get the work done. They had — metaphorically speaking — old typewriters they still needed but could no longer find repairmen to fix. All of the cool kids were making drag ‘n’ drop jQuery websites with blackbox OAuth Twitter and Facebook login screens they really didn’t understand.

Neither former client knew anyone who could repair an old typewriter except me. Would I do this really quick fix for them?

No.

I could have done the work in just as much time as it would have taken to say no. But then, how do I charge? Hourly? Fix-rate for three seconds worth of work? How much is that really worth?

I know what it is worth to me, but clients see things in units of work and charging $400,000.00 to apply a set of skills everyone else has either abandoned, forgotten or never bothered to learn would have seemed excessive. Yet, that was what the work was worth to me.

Here’s why.

When I spend my time repairing typewriters. it takes away from me learning and growing the new skills that I need to remain competitive with the kids who are younger, faster and don’t appear to need sleep.

When I spend my time repairing typewriters, my clients will see me as the “typewriter repairman” instead of the forward-leaning visionary I need them to see. When it comes time for a new project in the “new space,” they would never trust their future to an old geezerly typewriter repairman.

Nobody trusts an old dog to do new tricks.

Change is hard but choosing the wrong service is harder

I was listening to the news on the local Cincinnati NPR station this morning and heard a story about the City of Cincinnati moving from its self-hosted email service to either Google or Microsoft. In the analysis portion of the segment, the reporter said;

City officials are arguing for Microsoft because the city employees are already familiar with Microsoft products and it would make the transition easier.

Huh. Read that again and let that sink in a bit.

The rationale for choosing a company to manage what could be lots and lots of sensitive information about the government of a city and about 300,000 of its residents is based on how easy it is to change? I would hope the criteria for choosing an email service is a lot deeper than “easy to change.”

I’m not making an argument for or against Google or Microsoft. They both probably have fine products that will do the job. But the pain of change is temporary. The pain of choosing the wrong product, service or provider lasts a whole lot longer.