Part 3: Marketing (and Selling) Uniqueness

The first part of this series described the three steps in the process of marketing uniqueness: understanding, promoting, and developing key unique attributes of your business. Part 1 demonstrated the first step, understanding, through the example of a company called “Nest” who has created a unique $250 thermostat that learns your schedule, programs itself, and can be controlled from your phone. It pays for itself by lowering heating and cooling bills up to 20%. Nest is a company that understands and markets its uniqueness.

Part 2 demonstrated the second step, promoting, through the examples of Amazon.com and the niche technology company, Keith Yates Design Group. Since customers’ expectations are being set by their experiences with companies like Amazon, it pays to take a look at how they promote their unique attributes. Keith Yates was an example that showed how a unique personality and reputation can be leveraged directly to create a successful niche business.

In creating part 3, it was difficult to get enough history on niche businesses to demonstrate the third step, developing key unique attributes. For example, while Keith Yates is extremely unique, innovative, and successful, his website has not changed in over 10 years! In that time, he has hosted a major event each year demonstrating new high end audio and video technology developments, completed many “home theaters” costing well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and consistently updated the services he provides. He relies on a more traditional form of social media called word-of-mouth to market his constantly developing uniqueness.

One ultimate example of a company that is constantly developing their uniqueness is Apple. Obviously, they are not a niche technology company, but their homepage is a masterpiece of minimalism and gives an idea of the theoretical ideal.

Apple

You can see immediately that Apple has developed the idea of the iPad into a theme “two sizes do all.” The iPad was unique before, but that uniqueness developed and still stayed simple. While competitors have a wide variety of sizes, types, operating systems, Apple has two sizes, big and small, to do everything, period. The same minimalist idea applies to Google’s homepage, but for very different reasons.

Google

Google tends to be more of an engineering driven company so their minimalism is more utilitarian. If you use Google’s services, Google assumes you know what you want to do, no explanation more than a single word is needed. They are developing their uniqueness “behind the scenes” for a more tech savvy audience. Yahoo, by comparison, throws the world at you right away, literally.

Yahoo

Wow, are you dizzy yet? I took this homepage screenshot after I closed the huge Netflix ad that had probably 15 movie titles on it. Marissa Mayer, the CEO, has her work cut out for her. This is what many niche technology websites look like, even the ones I said were good examples of webstores (see the post on May 20th). If a little information is good, more is better. In many companies, this philosophy extends to developing uniqueness since engineers get so excited about their developments, they have to tell the entire world (and often do).

In developing your key unique attributes, try to find a middle path. Apple and Google can be minimalists because they have the attention of their markets. Niche technology companies are the opposite. You might be struggling to get any attention from your customers. One technique is to use simple social media tools to make your customers aware of developments in your niche market, then link these developments to your unique attributes. You can also focus on major technology trends on your website, providing webinars delivered by your experts. If you do this, make sure you record the webinars so they can be viewed later and become part of a knowledge base. You can even require registration for these downloads. Customers do not like providing personal information, but for media like webinars, datasheets, white papers, etc., it is not unreasonable to ask for a minimum of information so your sales team can follow-up later. This also helps you expand your marketing reach for future activities. There are many other ways unique attributes can be developed, so this is just a starting point. In a future post, the idea of “simple social media tools” for niche technology companies will be explored.

Part 1: Entrepreneurs, Macroeconomics, Transaction Costs, and eBay

A couple years ago, I finally made the switch and moved from a big desktop computer to a shiny new MacBook Pro. Apple sold a powerful model with a 17″ screen so I thought “Great, almost the size of my old screen, fast, great battery life, what’s not to love?” After a couple dozen trips taken over the next year, love faded: 6.6 pounds felt like 36.6 pounds. So I decided to sell it on eBay and boom, it sold for more than 80% of the purchase price. Other pieces of electronics have sold for similar prices. Most electronics, even if returned within 30 days, have a 15% restocking fee, so how can eBay perform so well?

Since I am very familiar with microphones, here’s an example of a “commodity” microphone, the Shure SM57. Rockers for the past few decades have relied on this model consistently and Shure, true to their name, has made sure that it always sells for $99 new so it is a good example. So what are people willing to buy this for on eBay? One lucky seller (me) got $81.

This made me think about macroeconomics. I had a wonderful economics professor while doing my MBA who is an entrepreneur at heart, but was slumming it for awhile between startups as a professor. We definitely lucked out with her. During one session, she gave a great lecture on transaction costs using eBay as an example. It turns out that transaction costs are one of the factors that can have a huge impact on entrepreneurial projects, marketing, sales channels, and major strategic decisions. More to come in the next post.

Creating Your Own IOS or Android App

About a year ago somebody said to me, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there were an iPhone app to do XYZ?” I thought this sounded interesting, so I downloaded Apple’s free IOS app creation software and started reading Apple’s very good documentation. Apple made it clear that I needed to learn Objective C, the app programming language, but that wasn’t too hard. I then started programming and the documentation began to describe the details of IOS app programming: the model / view / controller design pattern, instance variables, methods, message objects, inheritance, encapsulation, ugh. It was about then I realized my brains were pushing my eyeballs out of my head, so I stopped. What was my problem? This was Apple’s “easy” programming environment and tons of people were creating apps. Why couldn’t I?

The answer was that “the easy way” is easy from a programmer’s perspective since writing a program for a modern computer with a multitasking, multithreaded graphical operating system is hard. I researched this. It is hard like rocket science is hard.

Enter the genius programmers over at Buzztouch who decided to make a website to help the rest of us create apps. There are still design challenges, but no messy code. You create each screen of your iPhone app on their website using their “plugins” and then their website creates the complicated code for you. It is pure genius!

They didn’t stop there. The website contains hours of video tutorials, a forum where users can help others users, and a very clever point system that allows “power users” to gain credibility as they help others. More points = more credibility so everybody knows who the real experts are. The experts get exposure for their skills and I’m sure some of them get paid jobs this way. They even have a showcase for great apps and help people promote their apps on the Apple AppStore.

Below is a screenshot of their tutorial app built for a harbor in Monterey, CA. In five minutes, they demonstrated how to create an app that can either provide a map with driving directions to the harbor or send an email to the Harbor Master with a single tap. In all fairness, you do need to watch a couple hours of tutorials to create anything more than the simplest app, but Buzztouch is still a breakthrough. If you need more help, their forums contain thousands and thousands of questions and answers. People are definitely using their product. So if you have a burning desire to create the custom app you have always dreamed about, this is your chance, and you don’t even need to know the difference between a method and a message, whatever those are…

Buzztouch – Buzztouch.com

IMG_0275

Getting Personal with Apple Versus Samsung 2 – The Hangover

I woke up this morning with a technology hangover. I might have overdone it a bit yesterday getting the Samsung Galaxy S4 into a usable state. With the iPhone, it was a very different experience, starting slowly with an iPhone 3G, then a 3GS, then a 4, then a 5. The iPhone relationship was built on time and trust. This doesn’t include the years of bliss with an iPod over 10 years ago that started when I was ready to throw an Archos MP3 player and Musicmatch Jukebox out the window! Here is a link to that blast from the past: The Archos Jukebox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archos_Jukebox_series). With almost 40 GB of lectures and movies, iTunes was the only media software that could handle the load at that time, so that led to an iPod, then a MacBook, then an iPhone, an iPad (cue sinister laugh), sharing IOS Apps on a single iTunes account, and we were firmly in Apple’s digital ecosystem.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not an Apple “fanboi” and am mostly platform agnostic. I am comfortable in front of a Mac, a PC, and even have a passable fluency in Linux, but some tools are better for some tasks and Apple arguably has the best experience in the digital media world. So what do I like better about the Samsung Android experience? First, the bigger screen is fantastic. If you love your iPhone, do not, I repeat, do not spend any time with a phone with a larger screen, the iPhone will never look the same again. Next, the widgets are a breakthrough. These  are small programs that run right on the screen of the phone alongside the App icons (see picture below). This is handy for information that is glanced at briefly like weather or a calendar. Why open a weather app when you just want to see quick forecast information? Have a moment and want to see if there is anything interesting new on Flipboard, the widget is perfect for this. There are dozens of other widgets that can be added to the various screens that eliminate steps when doing common tasks like Google searches, reviewing calendar items, memos, traffic status, etc. The widgets come in various sizes also and can be put on any of five “screens.” These screens are like the iPhone’s screens of icons, but on the iPhone only app icons and folders of app icons can go on the screens. This type of customization is what Android is great at.

Widget Screenshot
Widget Screenshot

Maybe to summarize it would be good to explain that the differences in the Samsung Google Android experience versus the iPhone Apple IOS experience are very linked to the company cultures. I know many Google engineers and they are amazing, but there seems to be less layers between their genius ideas and implementation in an Android phone like the Samsung Galaxy S4. I also know many Apple engineers and they are just as amazing, but their ideas get filtered through a couple extra layers of experts on “the user experience” for lack of a better term. Google, to their credit, has done an incredible clean up job in the most recent version of Android. Google Maps are MUCH better on Android than the iPhone version, but in general Google is more of a group of engineers making products for the more technologically savvy who value customization and flexibility over the glossy smooth polish of the iPhone. For people who want a phone to be a phone and use Google products such as Gmail, you will love the most recent version of Android in phones like the Galaxy S4. You can still have music, videos, and games, but contacts, calendars, maps, and the notification system is superior to Apple in many ways. For people who are more “media centric,” who have large music / video / photo libraries, or who already have a significant invest in IOS Apps because of an iPod Touch or iPad, the iPhone is probably for you. For those of you in between, take advantage of the 14 day “trial period” most carriers offer (check those terms and conditions first and don’t believe the sales person 100%). The investment in time will be worth it to find the device that fits your professional and / or personal interests best.

Getting Personal with Apple Versus Samsung 1

There has been so much talk about Apple’s lack of innovation and how Samsung is “eating their lunch” that it seemed like a good idea to get first hand experience on where Samsung / Android is today versus Apple’s “aging” iPhone IOS. So I bought the latest / greatest Samsung Galaxy S4. First, the Sprint store experience in Santa Fe was amazing. The sales person was smart, incredibly experienced, and interesting in his own right. He has been in the Telecom industry for almost 20 years starting at places like MCI and Nextel, selling in a corporate telecom environment, and ending up in Santa Fe now for family reasons. In a word, he was overqualified. This was great for me because I wanted to hear first hand what the general public is hearing when they go into a retail store that sells both the iPhone and Android devices. He said all the right things and he was right on many levels by pointing out the facts that the iPhone is a closed environment, Android works better with Google products (Gmail, Calendar, etc.), and that Android is a better value for the money. He also suggested an LG phone because it gave a more “Google” experience and was less expensive than the Samsung. This turned out to be true, but I still went with the Samsung phone because it could accept a 64 GB memory card. Apple sells the iPhone with zero “junk” on it, just the stock apps like Mail, Safari, Calendar, Weather, etc. The Samsung phone came with “Samsung Apps,” “Samsung Hub,” “Samsung Link,” “Sprint Zone,” “Sprint Worldwide,” two email clients (Gmail and Email), two browsers (Chrome and Internet), and a bunch more. There is a learning curve here. The price was right though, the phone was only $150 after the deals. An iPhone 5 is $300. This is a bit deceiving since the Samsung only comes with 16 GB, but you can add 64 GB of memory for $50, still a much lower price. The contract was also much less expensive with 450 minutes, laptop tethering, unlimited data / messaging for $120/month. It remains to be seen how good Sprint’s coverage is around the Western US. As for my initial impression of Samsung versus Apple, Apple is still the higher quality product, even with its age and smaller screen. The build quality is better, the user interface is more elegant, and so many things “just work” right out of the box. I spent a couple hours just getting all the weird Samsung sounds to stop, the phone to lock and unlock logically, and a dozen other small details that made the Samsung unlivable right from the start. More to come tomorrow, but my absolute favorite feature of the Samsung, you’ll never guess, an on-screen keyboard with a row of numbers at the top! Funny how the little things can be so meaningful.