The Startup Perspective

This interview was originally published by the Local Media Association. Interview of our own Jed Williams done by Deborah Shaw, pictured below. 


Q: I want to draw on the interesting perspective you have from your varied work experience so please, enlighten us about it. Tell us about your career path so far.

Well, to start, I’m a media lifer. In the early days I was a high school newspaper editor and aspiring broadcaster calling varsity basketball games in musty gyms! The first chapter of my career was spent on the content side, as a radio and TV broadcaster…which now seems like a galaxy far, far away.

But I’ve always been fascinated by media’s plight to transform, so I transitioned into business strategy. I began this chapter at BIA/Kelsey – a media/advertising research firm and consultancy –ultimately becoming a senior analyst and leading the firm’s strategic consulting practice. It was a great gig that enabled me to work on a variety of challenges with a wide array of companies (media, startups, agencies, etc.)

I’ve since led business development and partnerships for two startups: Main Street Hub, and now Vendasta. Funny thing is: I’ve never actually worked for a media company. But I’ve worked in and around so many of them in many ways different ways, which gives me a different perspective.

Q: What are your biggest takeaways from your time at Main Street Hub, a well-funded digital start up?

There are many. I think the biggest is: succeeding in local is hard. Selling digital solutions to small-medium businesses, efficiently and at scale, is a puzzle that no one has really solved. Tons have tried. But no one has really nailed it. And yet venture capital continues to pour into the space. Why? It’s a massive opportunity, and those that ultimately win in the space will be important, game-changing companies.

The challenges for SMBs are multiplying. More technologies, more people selling to them, more fJedleyragmentation of their customer base, and less time. This requires smarter sales forces than ever, but also a necessary level of hand-holding. Sure, some may self-serve, but most need help. Main Street Hub is all-in on the do-it-for-me service model and wants to be the firm that cracks the local sales code. But I ask, why can’t it be local media companies?

Q: Your work at Main Street Hub exposed you to many digital disruptors. What lessons/best practices are common at these companies? And can you talk about how these lessons can translate for use at local media companies?

My biggest takeaway: obsessive focus on the mission/vision and the specific problems you’re solving. Obviously there aren’t the same legacy dependencies and considerations that local media companies are saddled with. But generally, successful disruptors don’t confuse purpose with outcomes. Instead of saying “we want to diversify our revenue streams” or “double our top-line,” they ask “what core problems are we trying to solve?” “Why are those important?” “What is our unique opportunity?” And then, “what is the economic engine?” And then they tie this to very specific KPIs and hold themselves ruthlessly accountable to these.

That’s why it’s so important for local media to make prudent and grounded bets on digital growth. It’s neither about the sheer quantity of experiments, or setting a revenue goal and working backwards. It’s about solving problems that can only be identified by continuously listening to customers and using that as the engine for experimentation.

Q: Why do you think it is so hard for media companies to create cultures of disruption and innovation? 

First, obviously, because for the longest time they didn’t have to. It was never a core competency. In fact, if you read “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu, he’ll tell you in wasn’t in their best interests. But creative destruction has happened so dramatically that to survive, sustain, and grow, media companies weren’t left with any alternative. But it’s not a switch that suddenly gets flicked on.

And then, there’s this fixation with buzz words like “disruption” and “innovation” without a clear understanding of what these are. It’s sort of like what I was touching on above. Rather than trying to figure out how to disrupt ourselves – whatever that means – or innovate new stuff, why don’t we step back and develop processes for fingerprinting real problems that need solving.

Also, if you think about the literal definition of innovation, it’s very different than invention. Why did media companies not invent Craigslist or AutoTrader or Groupon? Because focusing on innovation means trying to devise incremental improvements to existing methods or models.

Q: At Vendasta your work involves, among other things, partnering with local media companies to help craft and implement digital marketing solutions. What are some of the biggest opportunities that you find are un-/under-tapped at local media clients?

Historically, we built a number of foundational digital marketing solutions that local media could resell to their customers, particularly through their digital agencies. Products like reputation management and social marketing. But the bigger opportunity isn’t just helping media companies sell more solutions; it’s helping them SELL, period.

There are so many aspects of the local sales model that need to be re-thought. Data-driven marketing, true consultative selling, smarter packaging, better training…a better mousetrap all-around. That’s the problem we’re laser-focused on solving today through big ideas like data-driven marketing automation and sales pipeline management tools that are built specifically for local media – not one-size-fits-all systems. Now it’s about bringing all of this together.

Q: “Build it or partner?” – a common question media companies ask, especially when looking at digital solutions. How should media companies evaluate partnership opportunities? When is good to partner? When is it not? Tips to help the assessment process?

I think this question ultimately comes down to honestly evaluating core competencies. Or, to borrow from Jim Collins, what can you be the best in the world at? And what is the economic engine tied to that? Everything else augments this vision, and if it lies outside of core competencies but pushes forward this mission, then a partnership path makes sense.

I work at a product company. We’re proud geeks! We LOVE to build stuff. It’s in our DNA. But as we’ve grown bigger, and grown up, we’ve had some hard learnings – namely, we can’t building everything. But we want to solve huge problems – our appetite has never been bigger. How do we reconcile this? We make honest assessments about what we can build that’s world class, and if it directly aligns with our mission. When considering an opportunity, if the answer is no to the first and yes to the second, then we’ll look for great partners to extend our mission.

To me, the single most important quality in a partner is customer obsession. I don’t use that term flippantly. They should obsess over how to help you grow. They should be proactive. You should feel confident enough in them that you pick up the phone to bounce ideas off them that may have nothing to do with their product because you trust them.

Q: Media companies often have to choose where they want to funnel revenue development energies and resources, especially as the pace of digital evolution whirs faster and faster. How can media companies get more prudent about choosing the right bets to make? And ensure that these bets have a higher outcome of success?

First, listen to customers – obsessively! Both readers and advertisers. Let’s stop pushing them what we think they want or what we want them to want, and start observing their behaviors and assessing their attitudes. From there, we can identify key themes that fuel ideation, story mapping, and prototypes to test.  It’s the truest way to achieve product-market fit; i.e. build products and services that directly solve problems that users have identified.

I think I already mentioned this, but also understand how digital bets can build on core competencies. Local media orgs are market leaders in several areas: content creation, brand awareness, community engagement, and more. To make disparate resource commitments to wildly different areas that don’t tie back to your foundational advantages is inefficient. We’re not VCs; we’re not incubators. Let’s find smart ways to take advantage of the things we do best.

Q: Turning to sales productivity. Tips for recruiting/training and incenting sales forces? Thoughts on how local media companies can boost sales efficiencies?

Well, aside from leveraging data and technology to make a more efficient machine, there’s the people dilemma. I believe digital sales success requires an entirely different mode of thinking.

For instance, hire reps that may have never sold traditional media. Give them tools like advertiser audit reports and top-notch reporting systems to allow them to focus on selling, not process. Train them like crazy, and then train some more! At the end of the day, you have to invest to get return, so paying and incentivizing competitively against the digital pure plays that have been land grabbing both market share and top sales reps are critical.

I realize that wholesale overhauls are difficult, and in many cases unrealistic. But I also know that building telesales centers, verticializing sales forces, and marketing full-spectrum digital offerings requires a different breed of seller.

Q: What can local media companies do to build and strengthen relations with their advertising clients?

I think as an industry we have to stop just relying on our brands. Yes, those brands are important. Let’s not minimize that. But advertisers have more challenges that ever – they need partners who consistently deliver results, regardless of any history with them. I think this comes back to listening…really, genuinely listening. We kick around the term “consultative selling” a lot, but are we really doing that in earnest? Or do we bring preconceived notions and rhetorical questions to sales conversations? Are we authentically trying to solve their specific problems, or trying to protect our margins and hang on to existing budgets?

I’m not naïve. I know the harsh industry realities we face. But until we truly deliver the solutions that our advertisers are pining for, we’ll lose market share. This doesn’t mean selling more things – the sales bag is already plenty full! It means selling smarter, and more thoughtfully.

Q: Where do you see the biggest opportunities for local media companies in 2016? 

It’s a tough environment out there – there isn’t money to burn, so smart bets are essential. I think we also know that there isn’t a single silver bullet. You’re going to need to make several bets then find a few that really pay off.

  • Live events are one that local media companies can take advantage of right away, with their established brands and access to content and newsmakers.
  • I think you’ll see sales forces become more data-driven this year, which should make them more efficient and consultative.
  • Speaking of data, publishers will protect, collect, organize and utilize more data than ever to produce more relevant content and deliver more meaningful advertising.
  • And leading technologies that have really only been accessible at enterprise level will start to become much more relevant to local advertisers. Programmatic display and video top that list.

Q: What industry thought leaders do you follow on a regular basis?

I wrote my Master’s thesis on the principle of creative destruction, which is rooted in elements of “the innovator’s dilemma,” so I follow and admire practitioners of these ideas. Clayton Christensen, Tim Wu, Chris Anderson, Penny Abernathy (my mentor in graduate school). Also, my background isn’t in product, but I’ve grown to admire smart product builders with perspectives on how to systematize iterative, successful product development. Paul Graham and Ben Horowitz come to mind.

Q: Finally, what are some of your best business maxims?

“Don’t be competitor obsessed; be customer obsessed.”

“Always have a bias toward action. There’s value in calculated risk-taking.”

“Find the right balance between working IN the business and working ON the business.”

“Hire good people, and get out of their way (but don’t leave them alone!)”

Finally, one from my CEO (I’m biased, I admit): “10x, not 10%.” Think about exponential opportunities instead of incremental improvements.

About the Author

Nykea is the Director of Brand + Experience at Vendasta, where she leads the charge on brand storytelling and data driven marketing.

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