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A Product is Not a Company

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, March 26, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I’ve worked with a lot of JP startups and smaller companies and have noticed a fairly common misconception. There’s often a belief among entrepreneurs that all you need to be successful in business is a product with a competitive advantage. But in reality, a product does not a company make. Yes, you need at least one great product. But that’s only a start. There’s a vast difference between creating a product and creating a business. They do, however, have one thing in common—they are both design exercises.

Unfortunately, instead of taking the approach of designing the entire business concept at the outset, it’s more likely that a startup will approach issues in an incremental, 3 steps forward—2 steps back fashion. What’s my product? Now that I have a product, how much should I sell it for? Okay I think that price will work so how will I get it manufactured? All right I’ve got a subcontractor and got my first delivery but whoops given what I wants per piece, I can’t sell it and make a profit. Oh well, while I’m looking for a new manufacturer, I need to get some sales reps to get rid of the inventory in my garage. Hmmm, the reps aren’t that interested and want a big commission. Yikes people I’ve shown it to don’t seem to understand the product from the packaging—might need to redo that. Great I’ve got the product in some stores and it seems to be selling but how do I grow the business? And so on and so forth. This approach to creating a business can be very costly and painful and take an unnecessarily long time.

There’s a better, less stressful way. Either before (preferably) or just after you’ve come up with your first product idea, take a step back and design the entire business—or at least what you think the overall business should look like based on what you know at the time. All business designs, a.k.a. business models, are made up of six components—Value Proposition, Culture, Channels, Processes, Resources, and Financial Formula. If you want to see what they are in some detail, take a look at my post from last year “Is Your Business Model Obsolete” (insert link).

Designing a new business is much like sculpting or wood-carving. A business model is something that evolves as you whittle away at it over the life of the company based on ongoing learning. But it’s something you must always work on with “a sense of the whole”—just like a sculpture. That’s because all six business model components need to integrate and support each other or the system just won’t work. Systems thinking Guru Russell Ackoff used to illustrate this point by talking about designing the ultimate automobile. One seemingly logical approach would be to find the best version in the marketplace of each car component and then put them all together. For example use a Ferrari engine, BMW transmission, Mercedes suspension, etc. But the result would be a car that doesn’t work because the components are not designed to work together.   

Another reason it’s important to think about the entire business model and not just your product(s) is that your competitive advantage may come from business model components other than product. Take Dell for example. Their success came from creating a new way to deliver computers to customers rather than the computers themselves. Every business model component is an opportunity for innovation.

Just like product design, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to make business design mistakes on paper at an early stage than trying to correct mistakes after you or others have invested a lot of money. Certainly your business model 1.0 will evolve over time as your company grows and becomes more complex. But even in the very early stages of your company’s life, it pays to be a total business model thinker.

Next Steps

On a white board or piece of paper draw six columns representing each of the business model components. With your other key staff members, brainstorm the design of each component in sequence making sure the components will integrate and support each other. Keep working on this until you’ve created a business model that you think can be successful. Then put the proposed model in front of some outside people you trust for further critique and improvement. Then make it happen.   

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Time Marches On

Another year passes by in your life in the juvenile industry. Interesting that the transition to a new year seems to be a trigger for getting out from amongst the “trees” of day to day business detail and going up to 40,000 feet to survey the whole “forest”. Moving to a new year is also always a reminder of how quickly time passes. What a great opportunity to stop the world and assess whether you are spending your precious time on the things that will truly enrich your life and create a life history with few if any regrets.

Here’s an exercise that I think can get you off to a good start in the new year. Get a pad of paper and pen or pencil and write down your answers to these twenty questions. Most likely your response to each question will influence the answers to the later questions. So please answer the questions in sequence. When you’ve finished, you just may feel more in control of your destiny.

Looking Back to Last Year 

1.       Do you feel you maintained a healthy balance between your personal and business life? If not, what prevented that?

2.      What were your most satisfying personal accomplishments?

3.      What were your most satisfying business accomplishments?

4.      How do you feel about last year on the whole (happy, satisfied, frustrated, stressed out, bored, etc.)?

5.       What were the primary contributors to your overall feeling?

6.      What percent of the time last year did you truly enjoy running your business?

7.       Are there decisions or choices you wish you made last year but didn’t?

8.      Do you feel you’re a better leader/manager now versus at the beginning of the year?

9.      Were you able to stay aware of “current reality” inside and outside your company during the year or were you often blind-sided?

10.   Do you feel that your company’s business model[1] and its components have evolved in a positive way during the year?

a.       Has your competitive advantage increased?

b.      Is your culture clear and enforced when necessary?

c.       Are you in the right distribution channels? Communication to customer channels?

d.      Are your critical processes (e.g. business model improvement, product development, production, sales, etc.) well-designed, documented (even if just in checklist form), and followed?

e.       Do you have the right people? The right facilities?

f.        Are you well-financed and making an adequate profit?

Entering the New Year

1.       Are you going into the new year with a positive, can-do attitude? Is your staff?

2.      Do you have a clear picture of what your role as leader/manager should be this year (e.g. coach on the sidelines, player-manager, teacher, Walton-esque evangelist)?

3.      Does your staff share your vision for what your company will look like at the end of the year?

4.      Are you psychologically ready to make the tough decisions?

5.       Are you willing to test new ideas and directions knowing that many will not meet expectations? Is your staff willing?

6.      Are there critical business model deficiencies that need to be fixed now?

7.       Do you have mechanisms in place to give you the visibility you need to know how well your business model components are working all the time?

8.      Are there things (products, processes, programs, etc.) that need to be eliminated to provide resources for what’s important?

9.      What are the top three things that you absolutely, positively, have to get done by the end of the year no matter what?

10.   Are you so excited about what this year can bring that you can’t wait to get started?

I hope answering these questions caused you to think about your life and your business from a new perspective. Please let me know if it did. As always, JPMA's CEO Mentor Program stands ready to help you when you need it. A happy, healthy, less stressful, and prosperous New Year to all!


[1] Your company’s entire system for providing value to your customers while making a profit

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New Product Development 101

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

At the ABC Expo, one of the most common requests from members whose booths I visited was for advice on how to create or improve their new product development process. Having a well-designed NPD process can be a powerful source of competitive advantage. You might be surprised to find that even some of the larger companies in the industry have far less than optimum product development methodologies.

But before I talk about the latest and greatest best practices in NPD, it’s important that I remind you of one of the universal principals of management excellence—holistic thinking. Don’t create/fix the parts, create/fix the whole business. Improving product development involves more than just the product development process itself.

Your Business Model

In a recent post (“Is Your Business Model Obsolete?”), I outlined the six components of all business models--Value Proposition, Culture, Channels, Processes, Resources, and Financial Formula.

A properly drafted Value Proposition will dictate what type of product development you need. It defines who your target customers are, what products/categories you will produce, and where your superior value versus competition will come from. For example, you might decide that your competitive advantage will be superior in-use performance. Or, conversely it might be comparable performance at a lower price. You can’t really start to put in place an effective NPD process until you’ve determined these things—in writing.

With respect to Resources, you will need process “performers” who have the appropriate skills for each process step. For example, no matter how good your development process is, if you don’t have people involved who are creative enough to come up with great ideas or access to engineers who can convert the ideas into reality, you’re dead in the water.

And, you better make sure your company’s Culture attracts and retains the right kind of people and supports the behaviors you’ll need. For example, if you want to be an innovator, you’ll want your culture to encourage and reward creative thinking and intelligent risk-taking. 

A Proposed NPD Process Framework   

What follows is an outline of a basic, flexible, 6 stage framework that I believe could be customized to work for the majority of companies in the juvenile industry.

General NPD Process Principles

Of all the common business processes, new product development has probably seen more innovation in best practices over the past 20 years than any other. No doubt this is due to the impact it can have on the bottom line. Here are some generally accepted current principles to help you better understand and use this framework to design your company’s complete process:

·         Dividing the process into stages separated by critical checkpoints for CEO or senior team approval before proceeding to the next step.

·         Performing functions concurrently where possible to save time.

·         Understanding that consumers will generally not tell you what they need but they can recognize a good idea when they see it.

·         Recognition that you need to sift through a large quantity of possible ideas in the “Idea Generation” stage to find one great idea—i.e. you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.

·         The use of observation of consumer behavior as a source of new product ideas—e.g. watching parents putting their baby to bed to gain insights into possible product features.

·         Getting general market and competition input from trade customers (buyers) in the “Design Strategy” stage but not showing concepts to trade customers until you have a final working model at the end of the “Development” stage.

·         Thinking of the “Development” stage as a series of relatively rapid and cost-minimized design—test (with consumers)—learn—redesign iterations where the concept evolves over time rather than being totally defined and financially justified upfront. The idea is to get feedback from consumers early, often, and at as low a cost as possible.

·         Not having an itchy trigger finger but killing projects that are clearly not viable as early as possible.

·         Getting to market quickly—proceeding to “Deployment” and launch with an acceptable but maybe not perfect product and then refining it in later versions (see stage no. 6 “Product Improvement”).

·         Keeping the process simple and bureaucracy at a minimum.

 

Next Steps

In preparation for introducing a new or improved NPD process in your company, get all those in your company who will be involved in product development, as well as any appropriate outside resources, to talk about and clarify/revise if necessary your Value Proposition, needed Resources, and desired Culture. Once those components are set, you could begin to document your process by simply creating a checklist for each of the 6 stages in the framework. Getting even a basic process in place is far better than having no process at all. You can always get more detailed later.  

If you’d like some guidance or suggestions, you can set up one or more Skype sessions or telephone conferences with me under JPMA’s CEO Mentor Program that benefits K.I.D.S. Contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org.

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Breaking Out of Mind Prison

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In my last blog post, I outlined how every organization’s business model has the same six components—(1) Value Proposition, (2) Culture, (3) Channels, (4) Operating Processes, (5) Resources, and (6) Pricing. I also talked about the need for continuous evolutionary business model improvement. In other words, these components need to change over time as you learn better ways and as the world around you changes.

But why is it that so many CEO’s in both small and large companies—including many in our industry—are reluctant to embrace business model change in a systematic way? Staying in your mental comfort zone can be a way to avoid stress. If something worked for you in the past, making fundamental changes can feel like jumping into the abyss. How many juvenile product companies have simply modeled themselves after what their competitors are doing or what used to work 10 years ago but is no longer appropriate for the times?

We all have mental models that structure how we see the world and drive our actions. You could define a mental model as a set of assumptions about reality. Just think Republicans versus Democrats or pro-life versus pro-choice. In business too, we all develop mindsets about what works and doesn’t work based on our nature and our experiences. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge talked about the importance of “. . . the discipline of managing mental models—surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works . . .” While the easy thing is to keep on doing what you’ve been doing, it’s more crucial for business survival than ever to not only be open to alternatives but to force yourself to routinely consider them.

Unfortunately, most managers never adopt this discipline. They may not even be consciously aware of the set of assumptions that is guiding their actions so they are unable to change it when change is necessary. Their mindset has become a mind prison. In my consulting work, as an outsider, I can often immediately see business model changes in client companies that would have rapid beneficial effects. But to get the client CEO to adopt the change is often a struggle simply because their mental model is blocking their view of current reality. The first step towards breaking out of jail is to recognize you’re incarcerated.

Managing your mental model is not a one-time thing. It needs to be done regularly. CEO’s not only need to manage their own mental models, but those of their employees as well if they expect to succeed. By “manage” in this case I don’t mean coerce. You need to work together with your senior team to jointly evolve first your mental model and then your business model.

This is why kids in garages can out-innovate giant corporations. The kids aren’t in mind prison yet. They’re open to new ideas and driven by optimism that is untainted by painful life experiences. They’re also willing to put in the time and effort required. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a wet behind the ears twenty-something in a garage to manage your mental model rather than be blinded by it.

What you need to do is institutionalize regular (at least annual—maybe even quarterly) review of your mental model and then your business model and its components. This is the new “strategic planning”. It’s not a planning exercise, it’s a design exercise and as such it starts with a clean slate every time. Once you know what business model components you want to change, then you plan the implementation. But, you first start with an open-minded design process. And, if you commit to doing it on a regular basis and with a “flexible mind”, it’s guaranteed to break your mind out of prison and keep you out.

If you’d like help creating the right business model development process for your company, sign up for a series of Skype mentoring sessions.

Action Suggestion for This Month: Meet with your key managers and list on a flip chart all your “mental model” assumptions and beliefs about the industry, target consumers, competitors, employees, channels of distribution, product opportunities, pricing, etc. Consolidate the list to the most important and then see if you can reach consensus and validate the accuracy. That exercise alone would be very beneficial. Then, based on these “shared assumptions”, discuss what your business model might look like if you were creating it today. You might be surprised and energized by the results.   

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Is Your Business Model Obsolete?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, May 29, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

If you weren’t able to attend my presentation at the recent ABC Spring Educational Conference in Orlando, here’s a summary of what I talked about. Hope you find it interesting.

Everyone seems to agree that the world is changing more rapidly than ever. I started The First Years, Inc. in 1972 and ran it for 32 years until it was sold in 2004. At the time of the sale, our sales were over $140 million and growing, we had $28 million in cash, and we had a solid business model in place. However, if I were starting a company today, the model would be quite different. Too much has changed.

If you’re not getting the financial results you’d like, it may well be that your business model has not kept up with the times. But even if you are doing well, it’s wise to have a mindset of continuous evolutionary business model improvement.

What do I mean by a business model? It’s your company’s entire system for delivering value to your customers while making a profit. It includes the products you sell of course but it’s not just about products. For example, the IPod would have been nothing without ITunes and the ITunes store concept. For the purpose of creating or improving a business model, it’s helpful to understand its components. Every company whether it’s a juvenile product manufacturer, retailer, restaurant, or airline has the same six components.

Your Value Proposition is who your customers are, what you provide them—your products or services, and why they will prefer you to the alternatives—specifically what unique benefits you provide. How you make their lives better?

Your company’s Culture is the critical “soft” stuff that holds everything together. Culture includes your core values, your shared vision of what your company can become, your brand identity, and even your compensation and rewards policy because of how that impacts core values like teamwork. Companies with long-term success typically have strong cultures that are vigorously enforced—like Walmart, Apple, Disney, and Southwest Airlines.

You need a way to get your products or services as well as your all important “why we’re better” message to your customers. You do that through Channels. You may sell through specialty retailers, mass retailers, etailers, your own web site, mall kiosks, drones? Some combination? Your “why we’re better” message may get delivered via the same routes for example packaging, store personnel or signage at retail or information on a web site or through other media?

Your Operating Processes are all the ongoing routine functions your company performs. Like developing products, managing your human resources, maintaining relationships with retailers and consumers, producing products, etc. This is a component that should be improved continuously no matter what.

Resources are the people, skill sets, facilities, equipment, and financial strength required to perform your processes. This is another component that should continuously improve—especially the quality and skills of your people.

And, finally Pricing is the financial formula of your business. What are your revenue streams? Just product sales or also fees for services? What’s your pricing structure? What margins do you and any intermediaries make? What are your costs? Will all these components work together to make a profit?

So that’s all there is to it. These components are the dials you can turn, so to speak, to create and improve your business and there are an infinite number of potential variations limited only by your imagination.

I recommend to my clients that at least twice a year they update their understanding of internal and external current reality and gather their key staff members to review the current business model and identify possible improvements. The question to be asked is, “If we were starting the business today, how would we design our business model?” This “business model evolution” process is replacing the old annual strategic planning exercise we’ve all used in the past. It takes a holistic view of the entire company rather than a piecemeal approach that can produce unintended consequences. It’s more likely to generate breakthrough versus incremental improvements. And implementation is more straightforward. I’ll get into the detail of the process in a future post.

At The First Years, our original business model was changed somewhat dramatically over the years as new competitors appeared, retailers changed their strategies, new technologies came along, or opportunities presented themselves. The result was that we kept what started as a family company in 1952 going for 52 years before a successful sale and created a brand which is now 42 years old and still in existence. It’s all about staying up with the times.   

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Getting High on Management

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, January 17, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

It’s a new year and a good time to focus on the positive side of your job as the manager of your business. In this post, I’d like to consider the question of what makes management fun and rewarding and what you can do to increase that pleasure. Here are four potential sources of management joy.

1.       DEVELOPING YOUR EMPLOYEES
It can be very gratifying to watch your staff grow under your leadership. Impacting the life of another person in a positive way can be an enormous source of pride and can do wonders for your organization.

To do more of it, think of your role as enabling your employees to be successful. As much as possible, you should be the coach on the sidelines helping them succeed. Make sure the work they are doing is designed properly, listen to them and act on what you hear, provide training opportunities so they can keep improving, and let them know when they’re doing a good job.

2.      CREATING INSIGHTS
An insight is an “aha moment”. It’s when you finally understand the true nature of a situation. It’s when a business or product opportunity suddenly comes into focus. It’s when you discover an elegant solution to a stubborn problem. And it can be a real high!

To create more insights, create processes that allow both you and your staff to do just that. You can systematically create business design insights, product insights, customer insights, and employee insights. All these processes usually involve gathering information (including through first-hand observation), collaborating with people who can add value, brainstorming, and testing to confirm your beliefs. Insight creation can be baked into your culture if you really think it’s important. If you do, you’ll be smiling all day long.       

3.      GETTING POSITIVE CUSTOMER FEEDBACK
Since your business’s purpose is to somehow make the lives of parents and their children better, there’s not much in business more satisfying than getting product or service compliments from them. It makes all that hard work pay off. Similarly, a compliment from a major retailer goes a long way towards making you feel more secure.

It all starts with thoroughly understanding your customers including what they want and how they really feel about your products and services. You can’t make them happy if you don’t know what makes them happy. And you can’t keep them satisfied without having an outstanding ongoing feedback system that is both accurate and timely. 
 

4.      ACHIEVING FINANCIAL SUCCESS
You are running a business after all so while all the preceding management functions can be pleasurable, there’ll be no joy if you’re not also growing your top line and making money.

I would argue that if you do a good job of items 1 to 3 above, you’ll enhance your ability to succeed financially. But you can increase your chances even more while making your own job more enjoyable by hiring a business-savvy CFO who thinks of their role not as the company’s financial chief of police but rather as the “chief efficiency enabler”—helping everyone in the company reduce waste and improve productivity year after year.    

Happy Managing!

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The Leadership Your Employees Deserve

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, August 23, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In his speech at his recent induction into the NFL Hall of Fame, Bill Parcells referenced a quote that he said was at the heart of his coaching and leadership philosophy.

"The players deserve a chance to win, and you as an organization, a university and a head coach have an obligatory responsibility to give it to them."

What struck me is how much that also applies to managing a business and what a great perspective that is for any leader to have. Your employees absolutely deserve a chance to succeed and it is your job to enable them to succeed.

That’s a lot different mindset from the “hire the right people and get out of their way” approach that I’ve heard espoused far too often and which I firmly believe is really abdication of leadership responsibility. The “hire the right people” part is obviously crucial. But, any great coach knows that throwing a bunch of star players on a court or field does not produce a winning combination. I’m not advocating micro-management but I am suggesting that you as leader need to provide your staff with a framework within which they can flourish.

Business is a team sport and it’s the collaboration of the players towards a common goal that creates success. The players play the game, but the leader needs to do three things to enable them to be successful:

1.       Design (and redesign periodically as necessary) an effective operating system that defines how the players (employees) will interact to achieve the overall corporate mission.

2.      Deploy that system by recruiting the right types of players (knowledge, skills, and attitude), providing needed training and guidance, creating the appropriate culture and compensation/rewards, and supplying the necessary equipment and facilities.

3.      Direct the day to day activities monitoring how well the system is working, facilitating ongoing communication, and implementing corrective action when appropriate.

These are three very different types of top management activities that require different leadership and management skills. In some companies, one person plays all three roles but in other companies, the “Design” role is played by someone with more visionary talent while the “Deploy” and “Direct” roles are played by someone with more operational skill and experience.

Ask yourself these questions. When things go wrong in your company, before you place blame, have you and the other managers in your firm made sure you have designed the work flow such that people can do their jobs successfully? If your departments are not working together smoothly and collaboratively, have you checked whether you might have inadvertently exacerbated the problem by establishing a compensation system that rewards department performance at the expense of corporate performance? Are you providing employees with sufficient process training so that you are giving them “a chance to win” or are you throwing them into the fray and expecting them to figure it out for themselves?

For a limited time, JPMA is offering a special CEO Mentor Skype consulting program called “The Business Checkup”. It’s designed to help you answer these questions and implement a leadership system tailored to your organization at this stage of its growth. It consists of a 45 minute Skype sessions with me designed to help you make sure you are optimizing your opportunities for business success. The CEO Mentoring Program is available to any member willing to make a $150 contribution to Kids in Distressed Situations (K.I.D.S.). If you’re interested, you can contact Kyle Schaller at 856-642-4416 or by email at kschaller@jpma.org.  You’ll be asked to fill out a totally confidential questionnaire in advance of the Skype sessions which by itself will cause you to think about your business in some new and revealing ways. If you’d like to take a look at the questionnaire click here.

Of course, you can always sign up for individual CEO Mentor Skype sessions as well. Just contact Kyle and he will take care of the details. I’m looking forward to meeting with you.

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5 Tips for Developing Blogger Relationships by Guest Blogger Cindy Meltzer

Posted By Cindy Meltzer, Friday, July 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Blogs have a powerful influence on consumer behavior. Technorati’s 2013 Digital Influence Report found that blogs are now the third most influential digital resource (31%) when making overall purchases, behind retail sites (56%) and brand sites (34%). Smart brand marketers (and in many cases, PR firms) develop relationships with influential bloggers and create formal marketing campaigns and partnerships. These partnerships leverage the blogger’s influence with their readership, their web traffic and social media reach to increase brand awareness, boost SEO and drive sales.

As a blogger and brand manager-turned-consultant, I’ve sat on both sides of the table – developing blogger relationships on behalf of a brand or client as well as being pitched to by brands and PR firms who seek to access my audience. (I blog about social media, but after speaking at several blogger conferences I’ve landed on hundreds of “mom blogger” lists and get daily communications from consumer brands hoping I’ll blog about their products.) This year I conductedindependent research highlighting best practices for brands and PR firms who wish to work with bloggers for mutual benefit.

But the fundamental first step in any blogger outreach program is developing relationships. And it takes time and effort to do this well.

Whether you’re just starting to do blogger outreach or want to re-evaluate your existing program, here are my top 5 tips for building blogger relationships:

Tip #1: Research and identify the top influencers with whom you’d like to establish relationships.

This kind of research is essential and is too often overlooked by enthusiastic brands who simply google the list of the top 100 mom bloggers on Babble and email them all at once. 40% of bloggers get ten or more emails per day from brands, according to my research, and bloggers say the #1 thing that makes a brand pitch stand out is if the product is a good fit for their blog. So the more targeting you do, the better. Take the time to determine what bloggers are right for your product. A Google search is a good way to start. You can search for top bloggers in your product category (for example, search for “babywearing bloggers”). Technorati is another resource for finding blogs by keyword, however not all bloggers are listed on the site. For a more granular search, try Google Blog Search to dig into blog content. Look for bloggers who have written about products in your category—or even those who have written about your competitors.

Be sure to identify bloggers at a range of influence. While it would be great to have your product featured on Dooce or Girl’s Gone Child or even Cool Mom Picks, it’s a waste of time to put all of your eggs into one (big) basket. (We’d all love to be on the Today Show and in the New York Times too.) Be realistic with your choices. Identify a few top bloggers who seem to be a good fit, but fill the majority of your list with mid-size and even small bloggers. A good, yet not terribly accurate way to view blog’s traffic stats is Alexa.

Once you’ve identified a list of bloggers in your category, take time to read their blogs. Consider the following questions as you evaluate bloggers. Do they write about products at all? Are their children the right age, or does their blog target the right age group? Do they have any existing policies or guidelines on their blog that describes how to communicate with them? Look for a press kit or product review information. Most bloggers are very clear about how they prefer to be contacted.

Tip #2: Use social listening tools to see who is already talking about your product.

One of the best ways to develop a relationship with a blogger is to reach out to someone already talking about your product. Set up a free monitoring tool to crawl the web searching for product mentions. Google Alerts was formerly the standard, but Google seems to be discontinuing that service. A better option is Mention. Along with setting up web alerts, you should monitor your social media channels for when your product or company is tagged or mentioned.

Tip #3: Start interacting with bloggers on social channels, especially Twitter.

Bloggers are very active on Twitter and it’s a great way to interact with them. If you’re monitoring your social channels like I described above, you may pick up someone mentioning your product. Seize that opportunity to interact. Retweet and thank them for using the product.

Don’t just look for “official” @mentions of your company name. Dig deeper to find casual mentions of your product. (i.e. Just took the baby out for a walk in her new XYZ stroller. Love it!). Do periodic searches for your brand name using the Twitter search function, or better yet, set up a permanent column in TweetDeck or HootSuite with your brand name or product name that can pick up these casual mentions in real time. 

Keep your interactions casual and personable. Don’t spam by pinging a whole group of bloggers on Twitter with the same message or set up auto-direct messages (for example, “thanks for the follow” with a link to your website). Bloggers can see right through mass-messaging, and however will-intentioned, it appears insincere. 

Tip #4: Showcase blog content on your social channels, via your email newsletter or on your own blog. 

If a blogger publishes a post about your product, share it on your brand’s social channels or give it a mention in your next email newsletter. You can even link to it from your own blog. For example, PicMonkey (a small software company) recently published a postshowcasing bloggers who had written PicMonkey tutorials on their blogs. When you share content about your product that was written by someone else, it helps build your authenticity. Also, the blogger will most definitely appreciate the promotion.

Tip #5: Meet bloggers in person by attending blogging conferences or holding blogger events. 

Don’t discount the power of face-to-face interaction. Attendingblogging conferences either as a sponsor or an attendee can be an excellent networking opportunity for your brand. There are blogging conferences for just about every niche all over the U.S. and Canada. A few are starting to pop up in Europe as well. If you do attend blogger conferences as a marketer, read these tips for making the most of your experience. 

You can also hold blogger events at or near your headquarters or in target cities to get to know bloggers in person and introduce them to your products. During these events, brands benefit not only from the face time with bloggers, but also the social media exposure that inevitably occurs during the event as bloggers live tweet, Facebook and Instagram their experience. 

Naturally, developing blogger relationships is more nuanced than I can describe in a single article.  However, establishing these relationships is a necessary precursor to any successful blogger campaign or partnership. The blogger-brand relationship continues to evolve with more than a few bumps in the road.  The most successful brands will be those who understand that there are no short-cuts in the process.

Cindy Meltzer is a digital marketing consultant and founder The Social Craft. She specializes in assisting parenting brands, manufacturers and retailers with social media marketing strategy and blogger outreach. In 2013 she conducted independent researchon the brand-blogger relationship. Cindy is the former Director of Community & Social Media at Isis Parenting, where she established and managed their digital marketing program. She also formed external blogger relationships to collaborate on digital marketing campaigns. Cindy has been featured in the Boston Business Journal, The Boston Globe, Social Media Today and The BrainYard and she has spoken at national marketing and business conferences including the All Baby & Child Spring Educational Conference, Mom 2.0 Summit, BlogHer, Enterprise 2.0 and the PRSA Boston Social Media Summit. 

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Is it Time to Rethink Your Channel Strategy?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

One constant in business is that the business environment is never constant. In recent years, this has been particularly true with respect to the way consumers select and purchase juvenile products. The question you might want to consider is whether your channel strategy—the process you use to get your products into consumer hands—is still optimal given the new reality?

When I first started in the industry in the late 60’s, the road from manufacturer to consumer went first through wholesale distributors and then retailers. However, a major channel transformation that would be the death knell of many distributors was in its early stages. The pioneering "discount department stores" were changing the retail financial model to a low margin high volume formula that was attracting consumers in droves. As these chains got big enough, they no longer needed the services or economies of scale that their distributors had provided. Any distributor that did not see this coming went the way of the wooly mammoth. Fortunately, we changed our company’s business model from distributor to manufacturer (not an easy task) and prospered as a result. 

So what’s happened recently in the marketplace that might require you to change some of your channel assumptions to avoid the possibility of extinction? 

·         Consumers have many more ways to get unbiased product preference information than they’ve had in the past. There are almost too many sources to mention—consumer magazines, consumer guidebooks, social media, independent web sites, bloggers, government web sites, etc. This arguably enables them to make more objective buying decisions and to be less influenced by traditional advertising and PR. The days of dazzling the consumer with b.s. are over. 

·         Price comparisons are available at everyone’s fingertips. Consumers can readily compare prices for your products from one outlet to another and can easily compare the price of your product to competitive offerings. We’ve all done this to check online prices but now apps like Red Laser and others are even allowing consumers to easily check online and local store prices while in store by scanning bar codes with their smart phones.    

·         Resistance to online purchasing of products in just about every category has decreased. Consumers not just in the US but globally are becoming more comfortable buying online—even for so-called "touch and feel" categories. Also, shipping costs have come down making total pricing more attractive. In their October 2011 article, Harvard Business School professors Rajiv Lal and Jose B. Alvarez mention baby products as one of the categories moving to online retailers most rapidly.         

·         Brick and mortar retailers are at a tipping point that is changing the dynamics of the traditional retailer-manufacturer relationship. Largely because of the preceding bullet points, conventional retailers are under increased stress that is in many cases translating into increased pressure put on their suppliers, including JPMA manufacturers. The previously mentioned HBS article outlined what they need to do to survive which includes moving even further towards unique merchandise not available online and providing the kind of personalized selling or customer educating that web sites can’t do effectively. 

Here are some interesting questions to ponder as you do a "situation analysis" of your current channel strategy:

1.       What buying process are consumers now using to buy your products and similar competitive products? Are you talking to new parents and gift-givers about exactly how and where they are making up their minds? Given that understanding, are you getting your product information and products to them at the right time and in the right place?

2.      What would be an improvement to that consumer purchasing process that would make it easier for them to buy, reduce their cost, decrease their risk, etc.? What if you mapped your consumers’ current buying process for your products and then applied process improvement thinking to come up with a better way for them to obtain them? In other words, are you being as innovative about the process you’re using to deliver your products to consumers as you are about the products themselves? Should you have a multi-channel or hybrid strategy to accommodate all consumer preferences? Are you taking full advantage of what the online revolution has to offer? Have you discussed possible new delivery options with your target consumer customers?

3.      How can you streamline the flow of goods through the pipeline to reduce your costs and/or prices? Can you eliminate any intermediaries or steps? Or, as my company was in the late 60’s, are you the intermediary in danger of being eliminated? Is there a shorter route to the consumer?  Should you consider more direct-to consumer selling? Are you leveraging the best shipping options? Do you have better or more flexible production options? Are there any applications of technology that could reduce channel costs?

4.      Should you proactively find ways to provide unique products to your major retail customers? How will you respond to your retail customers’ need for unique merchandise? Can you afford to produce multiple versions of the same product? Should you become a private label supplier? Or, can you make your products so important to your retail customers that they can’t do without them? 

There’s a lot to ponder. What’s important is to be ahead of the curve. Start to make the necessary changes in your business model when it’s first clear in what direction things are going rather than wait until your financial performance is already suffering. It takes time, often years, to make significant business model changes.

If you’d like to discuss any of this with me, you can do it through JPMA’s CEO Mentor Program. Just contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org to set up an appointment for a Skype or Face Time session.

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Avoiding "The Pain of Regret"

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, December 7, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

My personal quote of the month is from the late self-help guru Jim Rohn:

We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.

I think this is great advice—for experienced business managers, for new college graduates entering the job market, for EVERYONE who wants to live a fulfilling, happy, life. If I may be so bold, I think it would be an even better quote if it was amended to read, “. . . the rigors ofself-discipline or the agony of regret or disappointment”. Certainly, the second pain is much more severe than the first. In fact, that’s the point. And, it’s really disciplining yourself and instilling self-discipline in your staff that we’re talking about.  

Surprisingly, even though self-discipline is a core teaching of virtually every religion, the moral of countless fables, and a core tenet of numerous self-help books and articles, many of us are unable or unwilling to embrace it. Lack of self-discipline is arguably why many people are overweight and out of shape even though they know that this will almost certainly adversely affect their health and happiness. It’s lack of self-discipline that prevents many athletes or sports teams from ever reaching their full potential because they don’t adhere to their training protocol or make careless errors on the playing field. It’s why many seniors reach retirement age without having a sufficient nest egg to support themselves. And, it’s what causes business managers to make costly impulsive or short-sighted decisions or operate their businesses inefficiently.

Why is it so difficult for us to better control our own behavior? For one thing, it doesn’t come naturally. It’s a habit that has to be learned and practiced. Also, unless you wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of self-discipline, you won’t have the staying power required to stick with it. Some actually resist it because they think it inhibits creativity and work enjoyment. In fact the opposite is true. For example, only within a disciplined product development process can you foster the kind of creativity, spontaneity, and teamwork that produces safe, saleable products as opposed to chaos. 

The choice is yours. If you’re ready to choose the lesser pain of self-discipline versus the excruciating and eternal pain of regret, here are a few ideas to get you started:

·         Create a life plan. Another Rohn quote I like is, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”  A life plan enables you to look at your life as a totality and confront the big questions about what you really enjoy doing and want to accomplish now and in the future both in your personal and business life. It’s bound to change over time, but it provides you with the framework that defines what you need to be disciplined about. If not a full-fledged plan, at least set some measurable life goals. I used to carry around in my wallet a card on which I wrote my goals for each aspect of my life—e.g. family, business, personal health, and even my golf game (haven’t achieved that one yet).  

·         Establish and stick to a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual routine. You need your own “personal process”. This was certainly true when I was running my company, but it’s just as true now in my “2nd career”. I don’t know about you, but when I let my personal routine slip, I not only become much less effective but my stress level increases. Your life plan goals should be integrated into your personal process so that you stay on track. I use Microsoft Outlook as the backbone of my organization system and have found a related book very useful—Total Workday Control by Michael Linenberger.

·         Make major life and business decisions based on data and facts not speculation. It takes self-discipline to resist jumping to conclusions when things go wrong or apparent opportunities appear. It’s easy to make some big and sometimes hard to reverse mistakes this way. You should always be asking and answering the right probing questions. How do we know what really was the root cause of the problem? How can we tell if our customers are really happy with our products? How will our employees know when they are doing a good job? Is this really the right person to hire? And of course, are we staying true to our mission and goals? Your answers should be based as much as possible on hard data and careful analysis and not just personal opinion.

·         Recognize that organizational self-discipline must be led from the top. Self-discipline (or self-management) should be part of every organization’s culture and it’s the CEO and only the CEO that creates and enforces the culture. You can do it by example, through documentation of core values, via training, and most importantly through your actions when discipline is lacking.

If you’d like some help with specific ways for you and your company to avoid the “pain of regret”, contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org to sign up for one of my CEO Mentor Skype sessions. They’re “painless”.    

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