On digital strategy consulting & problem solving

“What can you get for $5,000?”

The cost of strategy

On the road speaking last year, I was fond of asking people at lunch tables a lot of questions. For whatever reason, people would answer me and it was always informative.

One of my favorite questions was, “If you could apply $5,000 to solve one problem right now within your company’s website what would it be?”

The answers would vary. Sometimes, it was wishing they could change the entire site. Other times, it was simple things. Or least things that seem simple on the surface but are more complicated you drill down further:

  • How do we manage our content so it’s not outdated?
  • I wish our site could do __________.
  • We’re thinking of getting rid of CMS, but don’t know where to start. It’s all too complicated and I can’t wrap my head around all of it.
  • We need a tool to fix this [one off problem or recurring project.]
  • Should we be on Tumblr/Snapchat/Instagram/Ello/This.cm/Friendster/newmyspace?

The problem with consulting

Digital strategy consulting is the Wild West, because there’s no real way to have any idea if anybody knows what they’re talking about. Sure, you can see a portfolio and call a few references. But just because it worked for one company, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Other times, you outgrow consulting relationships like real ones. The relationships become more personal, you start to get attached and it’s hard to breakup even if it’s good for your company’s bottom line to see what else is out there.

You get up-charged, upsold and tethered to arrangements that seem never ending when all you really want is someone to level with you. Now for consultants, I realize time is money and it doesn’t really benefit anybody to have a person on the phone calling every ten minutes to nickel and dime you out of house and home.

The problem is, most companies don’t need consistent help. They just need the right advice at the right time and that’s a hard thing to find a provider for.

For years, I’ve been thinking about solving problems. Not clogged toilets or how to figure out your HVAC, but problems revolving around company websites. Site migrations, content problems and everything in-between. I’ve written thousands of pages of copy, trained many hundreds of content authors and have sat through more CMS implementations in the past eight years or so than I can count on two hands.

I’ve also worked with a lot of consultants.

Most of the time, we benefit a great deal from the relationship. But I’m finding more and more companies are simply struggling in the digital space because they don’t know where to go.

It’s a lot like being in the toilet paper aisle at a large supermarket.

How do you begin to determine which brand of toilet paper is the best? You know you need it. But by the time you get it home, it’s too late.

More importantly, who has that kind of time?

At the end of the day, you pick a brand. Consulting works the same way, eventually you pick a partner and you work with somebody. The work has to be done, after all. Usually, you bring people in to help with big problems because you can’t find anyone to help with the small problems. I understand this problem, because as we mentioned before time is money.

An experiment

I’ve spent over a decade in diverse companies and institutions like colleges & universities helping them solve large and small problems related to digital strategy in roles of increasing responsibility. My energy doesn’t abate really, but I have been beleaguered by how little you can get done being on the inside.

For years, I’ve thought to myself there had to be a better way. Talking to people over the past few years, I realize I’m not the only one who feels this way and it led me to a particular idea that’s been nagging at my head of late.

I just want to help.

I get a rush from helping people solve issues that have been on the docket for years. I’ve seen a lot of different ways of doing business and there aren’t too many scenarios I haven’t experienced. I love helping people come up with solutions that have vexed their organizations, because the web is exciting and I think we have a lot of opportunities that get squandered because there aren’t good metrics around the value of investing in digital — especially web properties.

Here’s my proposition: Call or write me with your problems.

No, I’m not asking for your money. A lot of your problems could use a second or third perspective, but you don’t have the resource to solve them, right? Or so you think. Are the issues structural? Political? Are the people (or you?) in charge afraid of what would happen if someone showed up tomorrow; poised to solve major problems that your company has been wrestling with for years with regard to your web properties?

Things like governance or strategy or whatever?

I’m pretty convinced a lot of these big issues could be solved in weeks rather than months or years.

“But we have processes.”

“My [insert senior leader here] would never go for that. We’re too set in our ways.”

“What about [insert person here?]”

I’m not convinced that anybody really want to solve any problem, because the job security involved in leaving things status quo is more comfortable. The beauty of disruptive startup cultures is recognizing you can’t afford to be staid and comfortable. I’m especially interested in startup projects.

Back to the proposition. You need advice about one of the above topics? About to drop five or six figures trying to make magic happen because you think you have to?

What kinds of problems?

  • CMS migrations & implementation questions
  • Web redesign questions (WHERE DO WE F-ING START?)
  • Social media (i.e. We want to mastr Tumblr….)
  • Team & leadership questions (e.g. Our web & marketing folks don’t play nice. Is there a song we can play?)
  • I want to create an app/startup/blah for x. Poke holes in my ridiculousness please.
  • Grab bag.

Call me 718.618.6906 or email me at ron [a] ronbronson.com.

I’m truly curious about the challenges you’re facing. The research will help me test theories and refine my own processes and you get to run something past a source before you pay buckets of money and head down a potentially bad path.

Win win.

I know I can charge for this. I already do in many cases and will continue to do so. But I’m really interested right now in solving problems and helping people think through the issues that vex them professionally. I do this for friends all of the time, but I’m really wanting to cast a wider net and the only way I thought to do it, was to offer it up publicly.

Any takers?

What I learned in the shoe business

I once started an athletic shoe line.

Trust me, this is just as weird for me as it is for you. I almost never put it on my resume and since I don’t carry around samples anymore, it’s not even a conversation that comes up when people stop into my office.

The story of Omnivore went something like this. A Chinese firm was looking for a U.S. partner to market shoes after a major brand left their factory. I was not looking for a shoe deal, because that doesn’t make any sense. I was instead looking for a company to manufacturer Tennis Polo racquets, since in those days that was my big thing. The sport was only about a year old and I thought it’d be cool to see if that were possible. After a few negotiations and the timing of a kind investor, we had ourselves a shoe company and nary a toccer racquet.

Can’t win ‘em all.

I poured myself into the business. I learned more about supply chains, pricing and the marketing of athletic shoes to fill a MBA student case study. Not surprising, the exercise was doomed from the start because there’s a reason startup shoe brands don’t crop up very often and it comes down to capital and the fact that most brands here spend billions on marketing. We even signed up for shoe exhibitions with major brands and people from shoe stores were actually really good at giving advice. Any aversions I had to cold calling were exorcised that year.

Failure is a tough thing to talk about. I don’t shy away from it, it’s just feels less relevant in a world where everybody likes talking about their wins. Part of why I’m dredging this story up, is precisely because I think people need to tell their paths even when it resulted in them not winning.

The hardest part of talking about failure is figuring out where it fits in the grand scheme of your course. So for years, I just left Omnivore off my resume and rarely talked about it. It felt weird to talk about “co-founder of an athletic shoe startup,” because here I was working in a completely different market doing entirely different work. It was before the time when everyone was building an app, so I wasn’t as comfortable trying to explain it to people. Plus, I just felt weird because I’ve always tried to divorce my athletic pursuits from my professional ones so people don’t see me as a “former athlete,” which as a young black guy made me uncomfortable.

What helped me get some perspective were coworkers in these jobs. In the first few years of my career, I’d bring a few pairs of the shoes to decorate my office which led people to ask me about them, but save for those conversations it never came up.


Omnivore 5G (2005)

For a long time, I just didn’t think people would take me seriously.

The thing about so-called imposter syndrome isn’t this feeling that you aren’t good enough. It’s that other people are better. That your path to where you’ve landed isn’t as good as other people’s path and therefore, it gives me the platform to judge you as lesser than.

What’s funny about this — and what got me past this idea — is realizing that by diminishing myself, it gave people the chance to just take what I wasn’t saying as canon. In other words, by cutting out full parts of my professional experience, people would simply take stock of what they knew and make the assumption that I didn’t know as much. I’ve always viewed variety as a strength.

I watched Eddie Huang’s talk from #bigomaha in 2012 and he really doubles down on this idea of having lots of different hustles. I appreciated it, because even the people in the audience seemed to struggle with his narrative of having success being multifaceted in a world that tells you to pick a lane, stick with it and never ever deviate.

Your path belongs uniquely to you. Trying to fit your pathway into the way others have done it, will likely yield very different results. More importantly, I’ve learned that you just have to own the wealth of your experiences.

Rather than diminish what you’ve accomplished, figure out how to make sense of it and make it important within the context of where you want to be. The extra legwork can seem like a hassle or a distraction sometimes, so it can be a lot easier to just do what I’ve done in the past and just don’t talk about it. The greatest contributor to impostor syndrome is failing to give ourselves the license to thrive. In an effort to protect others from our bright light, we do everything we can to hide and diminish it.

I’ve become stronger and more empowered when I’ve taken stock of my contributions and share them with the people who are interested.

On ants & web leadership

Who would you call if you had an ant infestation in your house? A plumber? Your doctor? A nationally recognized entomologist who is only available a few times a year and has only researched ants and not actually ever deal with infestations?

If your replace “ant infestation” with “university website” for many higher ed marketers, the answer would not be the obvious one — an exterminator.

The reasons for this are varied, but if we continue further with the analogy, in higher education marketing the conversation would probably involve a committee of twenty people, (none of whom are trained in insect biology, because we wouldn’t invite any of them to the meeting) and the conversations would probably go something like this:

  • “An exterminator wouldn’t understand the complexities of our household.”
  • “What if there is a value to having ants crawling all over the kids toys or our furniture?”
  • “Is there research someplace that indicates that we should let the ants stay? Should we conduct a study?”
  • “We need to have an outside consultant who only does research on ants to come in and present this to the board of directors before we hire the exterminator and when we do hire an exterminator, it should be someone external to the organization and not our own in-house solutions.”

This is an extreme example and a bit facetious, but the point remains. We have a problem that boils down to inability to trust our experts. Web problems are local, because websites and the content contained therein is made up of people.

So many of our web decisions are made incorporating lots of people who have no idea what they’re looking at. The problem isn’t always the doers, it’s the fact that people who lead the web don’t always do a great job of explaining the processes, standardizing our internal frameworks and helping the people who work on the non-technical (mostly business & marketing side) side of things to understand where they begin and where we end.

After my AMA Higher Ed talk, I asked the audience how many of them had put the web in marketing and almost everyone had. When I asked how many had implemented governance, no hands went up. Our problems are complex and require an understanding not just of technology, but a grasp of how websites work and the complexities contained therein.

We’re all using the same tools, but we use them differently.

I don’t get notifications for text messages. Like when I have a text on my work iPhone, I turned off any notifications and so the only way I know if I have a text is if I hear the little vibration on the phone or I check independently. (Note: I don’t like phone ringers, either.) There are so many ways to use the same kinds of tools that we don’t think about how people are interacting with the same tools. We talk a lot about user experience, but don’t recognize the inherent differences of our individual experiences. We trust these tools to communicate, but imagine sending a letter to someone and assuming they’ve not only received it but read it.

Governance isn’t a panacea to solving the problems that affect our websites and the experiences we have with them, but it’s a start to the conversation.

The Approval Bubble

Bureaucracy lives inside a bubble. Things hit the approval layer and can’t break through towards progress where we actually ship and get things done.

That’s where the tools come in.

ARTISANS: The people who do the work. They care about their craft and just want to see it reach the people who need it.

BIRDS: Birds want to sing. The key is making sure that you can get on the same song as the birds. These are your stakeholders, but they can be anyone who you need consensus from.

CHAMELEONS: They can be whatever they need to be in order to get through the process. Sometimes, they are artisans because the work required needs them to be. Other times, they are birds because they have a stake in the process that requires them to speak up. Chameleons can break through small bubbles, but not big ones and that’s where they need help. They do have the skills to convince hammers.

HAMMERS: Hammers can break through anything. The problem is, what they leave behind isn’t always elegant or usable. The key is to find a hammer that can apply the right kind of pressure without being too much.

The thing about the approval bubble is many companies have layers of approval bubbles. Sometimes, you can break through smaller bubbles easy, only to find that harder ones never break.

Is it ideal to have an company with fewer approval bubbles? Or is it just ideal to know how to break through the ones that exist? Who creates bubbles?

All of us.

Your job descriptions are terrible

Can we talk about job descriptions for a second? If there’s anything the internet age hasn’t gotten rid of, it’s terribly written, nondescript job descriptions that fail to really drill down what you’re looking for or what you want out of a person.

People don’t do a great job of asking the right questions when they apply for a job, but part of that is not knowing whether after weeks of waiting for a reply whether they’ll get a callback or not for even the most pedestrian of offerings. There are two sides to this discussion, but I’m just talking about it from the perspective of a startup denizen who has had to actually hire people and has managed success doing so.

I ran a consultancy called Synonym and we posted an ad on Authentic Jobs that yielded an impressive list of candidates. So much so that after we dissolved — economic crash was not our friend — a few of my team members suggested I’d be a great recruiter. I do think I’m pretty good at bringing people together, but in this case it was simply one ad on one site that wasn’t even as big at the time as it is now.

So what did we do right?

  • We   made sure it was short.
  • Didn’t ask for a resume (it was optional. Some folks sent them anyway.)
  • Specific about our needs.
  • Made the process relatively painless for the person replying.
  • Included a link so they can find out more about your company or at least, an email where they can reach out.

A lot of what worked for us, would be a lot harder for a larger company. You only get a few words to give people insight into who you are, what you’re looking for and why they’d want to come join your team. The other thing I learned is, you’ll usually get your best candidates in the first 10% of the emails you receive in response to your job ad. This isn’t a scientific study, but it’s happened enough time that I tend to believe it. I’m not sure why this happens and sure, I’ve seen good people come through a few days after seeing the ad.

The most important tenet is getting rid of the superfluous noise that proliferate most ads. Heck, you can even dispense with the stuff you’ll never pay attention to. Resumes? In 2015? They’re still needed in a lot of cases, but given how little people read them, it’s a wonder we’re still asking for them as anything more than an exercise.

I’ve been in interviews where people are actively reading the resume during the interview trying to glean things from it. Worse, I’ve been hired for jobs only to have bosses later come back and ask me critical things that made it clear they’d paid no attention at all to my background.

Know what your organization is looking for before you start, so when the search process begins you’re not just posting a job, but filling for a position on a team.

Confronting the secret menu

For over a decade, I’ve been ordering a blended strawberry lemonade off the menu at Starbucks. As a bonafide tea snob, I don’t drink much coffee. I graduated from it after my teen years drinking it with my grandparents, so when I go to a Starbucks because it’s close or in a new town, I have a standby drink and it’s that one.

One problem. The blended strawberry lemonade isn’t on the menu. It’s a non-dairy substitute for the Strawberries & Cream drink they have. How did I find out about it if it’s not on the menu? An employee at a Starbucks in Connecticut 11 years ago told me about it and ever since, I’ve been ordering it.

Within our companies, we have our own versions of the hidden menu. Unlocking these special words can open up an array of possibilities up for the people who actually know them. Where are the secret menus hidden within our organizations?

1. Longtime employees

Some people master the politics of their organizations well. Where you have problems, they seem able to deftly navigate the waters no matter how rough. These people are the ones to watch from and learn when they’re working. You’re not going to extract from these wise souls the keycodes to the company, but you can learn how to position yourself to master the political waters in your own ways.

2. Asking questions

There is a desire sometimes within companies to seem like you have it figured out. I know early in my career, I had to learn that asking questions wasn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, some managers demanded you have questions to be sure that you were paying attention. It’s through this process of asking questions — maybe not the ones you’re expecting — that will help you better understand where you fit within the hierarchy.

3. Solving problems

My MVP Starbucks employee told me about the blended strawberry lemonade when I was asking for a different, discontinued cold drink. He could’ve apologized, said sorry and I could’ve driven down the road and picked up a Slurpee from 7/11. But he took it upon himself to provide insight that has benefited the company’s bottom line. Not in a significant enough way to impact the balance sheet, but I’m simply a customer who would not be a customer without this customized solution that meets my needs.

Last year, I was initially frustrated by the layers of bureaucracy that impeded the kinds of progress I’d been convinced we’d achieve when I took over a new role. After spending some time working with my team and honing our processes internally, it became pretty clear there were lots of issues within our organization that we could solve without having to break the upper layers of the process bubble.

In less than six months, we found a major systemwide project that’d been out of compliance for five years. If we’d been audited, it would’ve cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars per day for being out of compliance. After an initial meeting with stakeholders, we scheduled a smaller meeting with the project lead and developed a custom solution within a few weeks. We went from out of compliance to receiving calls from around the country wondering how we built it and how they can replicate the tool.

Learn the process. Repeat. 

In the early years, I’d go places and they didn’t know how to make it. I remember being at a rest stop Starbucks on a road trip across the country in Iowa and teaching the woman working there how to make it. Years of getting the same drink and watching them make it will do that for you.

These days, I have no problem finding a place to get one, as it seems the drink is popular enough that most places have at least one person who know 1) how to make it and 2) how to find it on the cash register to charge for it.

In the same ways, my team have managed to replicate our process across the system. I reached out to senior leaders from different departments to find out what their unique challenges are and those of their direct reports.

What we uncovered were dozens of “wants” that were simply not being tended to. A lack of personnel is a big part of it, but we’ve since managed to include some of these projects in our workflow and tackle a number of them months after discovering they were a problem.

For organizations, it’s important to make sure that transparency is our first order of business to prevent secret menus from cropping up. While it’s inevitable that processes develop from years of doing business a certain way, we have a responsibility to ensure that our procedures can be replicated to impact the bottom line positively.

The best meetings…

My team knows this about me, but you dear internet user might not be as aware. So let’s just get it out of the way now.

I hate meetings.
Let me clarify. I like productivity. Meetings are often necessary and I’d prefer one long meeting to get everyone on the same page than seven or eight short meetings that sets a project backward.
In large organizations, I learned quickly there was no such thing as a meeting that went on too long. Whether it was the highest ranking person or the lowest person on the totem pole, it was pretty clear to me that people were not experienced in the art of running meetings.
I’ve been running meetings for a long time. I learned Robert’s Rules of Order in high school as a debater and have been everyone’s favorite meeting organizer since those days. Here’s the biggest reason I don’t like meetings and why I make sure I keep them short.
I respect people & their time.
If anyone ever asked me what’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned in professional life, I’d say hands down it’s respect people’s time. I used to really enjoy meetings with mentors and folks of that ilk, because the joy of picking their brains can be really invigorating for someone just starting out. (Or any phase of your career, really.)
Except, I learned pretty fast that you can’t monopolize the time of people at the top because there is always a more pressing issue than the one you’re bringing to them. The military is good about teaching this lesson, but it has not translated well to the corporate world where leadership can often be too distant from the front lines.
One of the best team building tools I’ve exercised as a leader is the art of the short meeting. For whatever reason, telling people that I respect their time and that we won’t go more than 30 minutes always seems to build a kind of engagement that I’ve not seen other leaders get out of people.
Especially in cross-functional team meetings, it’s important to recognize that not everything on your agenda matters to everyone in the room and there are lots of ways to ensure communication to get people the information they need.  I’m obviously not talking about big issues and let’s face it — meetings are part of work. But there are volumes of books devoted to making meetings more productive, so this isn’t a topic out of left field.
1. Have an agenda
Nothing is worse than going to a meeting where we spend forty minutes talking about what everyone had for dinner, what shows they watched and so on.
2. Cover the relevant stuff and only the relevant stuff.
Yes, it’d be fun to talk about every random topic under the sun in the hopes that you’ll cover all of it. But unless you’re going away for a long time, it’s better to schedule a short meeting and cover the topics at hand first. People only have so much capacity, so get out of them what’s most critical.
3. If it’s gonna be long, be sure to schedule breaks. Otherwise, let everyone know ahead of time.
Nothing worse than the stand up meeting that turns into a 90 minute meeting. I let folks know ahead of time if we’re going to go the full hour. In the off-chance that it’s an all-day affair, I ensure there are ample breaks in the schedule.
These few ideas are standbys no matter where I go and lead to more engaged meetings and it starts with a simple word.

Well-Designed: How To Use Empathy To Create Products People Love (2014)

What I loved about this book really had nothing to do with the technical parts, though I loved those too. What Jon Kolko does extremely well in Well-designed is craft a jargon-free business book that would introduce people who know nothing about product management or design into a space where they’d begin to get it.

Like so many books I read, you just want to carve them up and put them onto the desk of company leaders. Not the entire book, mind you, just parts where people spewing adages from thirty or more years ago realize that there’s great thinking coming today and that the world has changed dramatically in the past two decades and the only way your company will keep up is by adapting to the rapidly changing world and bringing your people on board for the ride.

So what is product management, anyway? Kolko defines product management as ensuring a good fit between a person, a product & the market.

The models & first-person interviews in the book were also well worth the price of admission. So much of what happens between interaction design & the web are considered by so many people to be a kind of technical black magic. While we’re trying really hard it seems to expose more and more people to code, precisely so the exercise feels less like magic, the fact is, most people at a certain age recognize how much they need the expertise of digital practitioners but don’t really want to pay for it, because nobody really understands how any of this computer stuff is really a job at all.

More than anything, Well designed is a book about design leadership and it’s a welcomed addition to the bookshelf.