Where do you draw the line?

do not crossYesterday we had an interesting conversation at Workible about where you draw the line in marketing – and what’s fair game.

As a growing business, we’re always looking at unique ways to get to the market and a recently published tech success story was at the centre of our “how did they do it” discussion.

Some googling soon uncovered some interesting forum and blog posts about some tactics startups had been using (but not admitting to) and that instigated a discussion about where a company draws the line.

Let me be frank, the tactics used by some of these companies were certainly not straight up – but nor were they illegal or fraudulent.  They were, however, very clever and resulted in a huge traffic windfalls to their site (and possibly away from a competitor’s) and, ultimately, was a major part of the huge success they are now enjoying.

Others we came across were arguably even more dodgy, giving the company a windfall in users but giving the users a terrible user experience – and therefore possibly not gaining many true active users – and making us wonder whether they had really thought it all through or whether or not it was simply a “grab for analytics” to make the company look better to a financier or acquirer.

So where’s the line in business?  What is healthy competition and what is just not right?

The more time we spend in the start up world, the more we realize that all is not what it seems.   What appears to be random luck is seldom that.  It’s much more often smoke and mirrors  or edgy marketing than it is “right place, right time” and it’s all covered up by the term “growth hacking”.  And then there are outright lies about traffic, users and growth – something that puzzles us because, let’s be frank, it’s not too hard to check.

Talk to real growth hackers and they’ll tell you that growth hacking is really about looking at metrics then working out ways to do small incremental improvements everywhere that, put together, give you increased growth in users and/or traffic and not that one big idea that changes everything.

Very few growth hackers will admit to sneaky tactics that mine other sites to get users, or re-direct traffic or piggy back – these seem to be more the domain of the early startup teams – who use “desperate measures in desperate times” – the early days that can make or break a startup.

I’m not sure that we came to an actual conclusion about what was fair game and what wasn’t but our discussion did lead to marketing in general. In the offline world, if salespeople go out every day to try to poach business from their competitors, doesn’t that make these online tactics also fair game?

As an entrepreneur, the whatever it takes attitude is what you need to succeed.  Start ups are hard so you sometimes need to step off the moral high ground and just do what it takes to survive.  It all depends on where you, as an individual, draw the line on what is simply smart marketing versus what is down and dirty behavior.  At the end of the day, that’s up to the individual.

At Workible, we prefer to err on the side of caution.  We don’t lie about our users or our traction.  We don’t need to.  Our technology speaks for itself.  We’re not trying to be the biggest kid in the playground – we don’t need hundreds of thousands of users because we are a Saas platform.  We’ve specifically chosen not to play where everyone else does, there’s no point.  The biggest players have the general market sewn up, so why go head to head with them?

We’ve taken the disruptive path – picking a niche market and solving their problem with innovative technology and a new way of doing things.  Have a look at the big disruptors in the market – they’re not taking on the big guys, they’re doing things very differently and reinventing the way things are being done.  For us, we’re reinventing recruitment in our niche.

Does that mean we don’t take clients from others?  Absolutely not.  That’s just healthy competition.  Do we use growth hacking to grow?  Totally.  But that’s just smart marketing.

As for where you draw the line, well, that’s up to the Founders.

Where do you draw the line?

A Cautionary Tale Serves as a Reminder to Always Tread Strategically

Source: Vanity Fair; Pat Fili-Krushel, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Andy Lack, Deborah Turness, and Steve Burke. Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photographs by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images (Logo), Natan Dvir/Polaris (Background), Jennifer Graylock/SIPA USA (Fili-Krushel), Gary He/Insider Images/Polaris (Burke), Matt Rourke/A.P. Images (Brokaw), David Sandison/The Independent/Rex USA (Turness), Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images (Lack), Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage (Williams).

Catching up on my Flipboard “10 for Today” emails this morning, a Vanity Fair headline caught my attention, “The Inside Story of the Civil War for the Soul of NBC News“.  The ex-journalist in me was grabbed by the headline and behind why I started reading, but I soon found that it was the entrepreneur that became engrossed.

In brief, the article centres around the public discovery of US anchorman Brian Williams’ inexcusable fabrication about coming under fire in a U.S. Army helicopter during the Iraq war in 2003.

In a day when true investigative journalism is scarce and it’s never been harder to compete for viewers/ readers due to the sheer volume of content available, to have a well-respected anchorman for one of the biggest media outlets in the US admit to lying — it’s a serious blow to the credibility of an already-shaky industry, not to mention society in general as it is the access to verifiable information gathered by independent media sources that empowers citizens to meaningfully participate in the political process.  But I digress…

The Vanity Fair article goes on to demonstrate that the Williams’ scandal is just the latest catastrophe in a series that have plagued NBC News since NBCUniversal was bought by Comcast in 2011 – and this is where the entrepreneur perked up.

You see, Fiona and I are facing some big decisions at the moment regarding the direction of Workible.  In our four years of business, we’ve never been in a stronger position and that is evident by the number of interested parties that have started to come calling — private and institutional investors, global partnerships, licensing deals, joint ventures and the like.

Reading the NBC story, you can see how key decisions began to destabilise the media company – long-regarded as one of the gold standards of television news in the US.  Inappropriate hires, poor management, civil war amongst staff and the biggest blow being the sale of NBCUniversal to Comcast, the Philadelphia cable/phone/Internet giant who applied cable utility company business logic to a broadcasting company where talent management is key.  And, actually, a very similar situation occurred when NBCUniversal was taken over by General Electric in the ’80s which was also followed by a period of instability and scandal.

Fiona and I have always been aware that the decisions we make from new hires to partnerships to investors have the potential to make or break the future of Workible.  On several occasions we’ve rejected offers of investment – even purchase – because the fit or timing just wasn’t right for one reason or another — not an easy thing to do as a up-and-coming tech company where cash is king and competition is never far behind.

I can’t help but feel that we’re at a juncture that we’ll look back on and point to as a significant landmark along the Workible journey.

So, as we navigate the opportunities we’re so fortunate to have, it’s cautionary stories like that of NBCUniversal/ Comcast that remind us to tread strategically and keep the long-term vision at the forefront of our minds at all times.

Watch this space!

A Cautionary Tale Serves as a Reminder to Always Tread Strategically