Question: Is the Harvard ALM a good fit for me?

I received an email from a prospective Harvard ALM student who had stumbled upon my Harvard Extension School blog posts describing the program. She lives overseas, and wanted some honest opinions about the ALM in History program, from which I graduated in 2008. Here is what I said:

The most important question to ask yourself: Why are you starting this program? It will take years and there are some drawbacks (described below). The reasons many students cite include low cost, interest in a particular field, interest in being challenged, interest in using an ALM as a stepping stone to a PhD program, etc. All are valid reasons … but note there are alternative programs that may be more convenient or superior (depending on the field of study).

I also think there are a lot of prospective students who focus on getting a Harvard degree and don’t really care so much about the academics. This is unfortunate, because I think that’s what makes the program so good!

Here are some other issues you should be aware of (note that this is based on my own experience and what I have heard/read in over the years, but it may have changed):

  • The ALM History program is good for certain fields (e.g. American history, some Asian-focused studies) but less so for others — there are not many courses available, and few potential thesis advisors. I would take a close look at the course offerings to make sure there are topics that really interest you.
  • HES has rapidly increased its online offerings, but not all have Harvard faculty members, and even for those online courses that do have Harvard faculty instructors, many are based on pre-recorded lectures which means there are few opportunities to interact with them or even ask questions (that is the responsibility of TAs).
  • I advise distance students to make an effort to take as many on-campus classes as possible, not only because I believe the quality is better but also it is chance to get to know other students and take advantage of other activities on campus.
  • I urge all students, whether they are on-campus or distance, to take as many classes with Harvard faculty as possible. The non-Harvard faculty are good, but if most of your credits are with non-Harvard faculty, what’s the point of coming to HES? For the same reason, I think the new professional ALM programs such as digital media are a step in the wrong direction — there are no Harvard faculty who teach digital media, which means that most instructors will have no Harvard academic affiliation.
  • Regardless of whether you are a distance or an on-campus student, HES does not make much of an effort to have a true cohort experience. For instance, at [redacted] you had an opportunity to bond with the students starting at the same time, and everyone had to take certain core classes at the same time. This is not the way HES works. I had one close friend who happened to take some of the same classes that I did, but HES did not make any effort to have students feel like they are part of a group going through the program together. There was also no “departmental” feeling. What this means is students (especially distance students) tend to feel isolated, and you are really on your own when it comes to pushing yourself forward. It’s lonely!

I finished off my response with the message that I did not want to scare this prospective Harvard ALM student away from the Extension School program — I would do it again in a heartbeat. But there are some real drawbacks that prospective students should be aware of, particularly those taking distance courses.

The Startup Roller Coaster

In 2010, I heard a talk by angel investor and entrepreneur Howard Anderson about the emotional roller coaster that comes comes with launching a new technology venture. He explained how the highs are so high, while the lows feel really low.

For those of us in the room who had never been in the position of launching a company, it didn’t sound surprising. Of course the pressure will be intense, and incredibly risky. But how extreme could the highs and lows be?

Extremely extreme, as it turns out.

I worked in large organizations for more than a decade. A bad day at an established company might entail sharp-elbowed office politics, hurt feelings, and worry about career advancement or a raise. Worst cases involved the loss of a job. But in most situations at a large company, problems will eventually be worked out. Everyone knows the organization will endure.

Startup Roller CoasterNot so at a startup. Before you’re funded or generate revenue, the venture is fragile. Things move fast, there is too much to do, and the sense of responsibility is huge. Even minor problems feel big, and failure of the business can take many forms.

Conversely, the accomplishments feel huge. Hard work, a new product out the door, positive feedback from customers (or, in the case of my company, readers), and lucky breaks can really boost your spirits. When a bunch of things are working well at the same time, the feeling is spectacular.

Then the crash: reality checks, unforeseen problems, pushback, lack of alignment, and the flat-out “no” when you were hoping for a “yes.” These and other issues can really throw a wrench in the works.

There are ways out of the funk, though. Keep on executing. Work through or around the problems. Reach out to your partners or customers or mentors or anyone who might be able to help with a new approach or pivot. The wins begin to trickle back, and the cycle starts again.

A few years ago, I met an experienced startup founder at the Cambridge Innovation Center. She was very familiar with the entrepreneurial roller coaster, and offered some advice on how to handle it.

Highs and lows on the startup roller coaster

“For the highs and lows, be careful of what you do on those days,” she said. For instance, on a good day when you get a big win like recruiting a customer, call your investors and tell them about it.

She also alluded to things founders should not do on the bad days. She didn’t have enough time to explain what they were (it was at the end of a late-night meeting) but one of them I have been able to deduce from multiple sources (including Y Combinator founder Paul Graham), as well as Howard Anderson’s reminder at the end of his talk: “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” he said.

In other words, keep pressing ahead, even when the world seems to be working against you. And don’t give up.

The above image is a creative commons licensed image from Tanki on Flickr.

Positioning: A powerful marketing concept (with some limitations)

A few years ago, I picked up Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries (with Jack Trout). It’s a quick read, and an old book (it was written in the 1980s, and based on a series of articles for Advertising Age that date from the early ’70s) but it was recommended by Lean Startup practitioner Ash Maurya, author of Running Lean. When I began writing books, I used some of the ideas in Positioning to position Dropbox In 30 Minutes as well as a second guide that is like a Google Docs for Dummies alternative. But it wasn’t just the technical topics that appealed to people — I actually created a series of guidebooks that can be read in 30 minutes. I learned from customers that this “positioning” is very compelling. It’s worth digging into the concept to learn how it can be applied elsewhere, while keeping in mind that there are some limitations.

Positioning, by Jack Ries with Al Trout

Summary of Positioning by Ries and Trout

Positioning starts with several compelling premises. First, we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages. “We have become the world’s first overcommunicated society,” Ries writes. “Each year, we send more and receive less.” As a result of the huge volume of marketing messages, advertising is like a “very light fog that envelops your prospects.” Note this was written long before the advent of the World Wide Web and mobile phones!Beyond the challenge of getting noticed, is the issue of convincing people to believe in the messaging. According to Ries, this is where many companies make a big mistake — trying to change audiences’ minds that their products are better than the market leaders.

“Were the average consumer rational instead of emotional, there would be no need for advertising,” Ries says. The reasoning here: Customers would gravitate toward better-quality products, regardless of who produced them or how they were marketed.

Of course, that’s not what happens — people tend to gravitate toward the familiar brands and products at the “top of the ladder” for each product category. And knocking the market leader off that ladder with claims about quality is nearly impossible.

Therefore, according to Ries, it makes sense to work with what customers already know. Strategy should be built from the perspective of the “prospect”, rather than the perspective of the company (and the ego of company executives). Often, this involves finding the hole that the market leaders have neglected or don’t serve well.

These are the concepts that lie at the heart of Ries’ and Trout’s thesis, and they use many case studies and examples to illustrate the companies, brands, and products that have successfully positioned themselves in the mind of the consumer. Consider these examples from decades past, and the holes that they filled:

  • 7-Up: “Uncola”
  • VW Bug: “Think Small”

In the first example, 7-Up was introduced to a market which associated “soda” with “cola”. It filled a hole for people who wanted something other than cola, which was at the top of the sweetened carbonated beverage ladder. The original VW Bug couldn’t compete with what drivers saw in the size and power of cars from Detroit, so its marketers sidestepped those issues and concentrated on the hole that Detroit had neglected — small vehicles, which have their own advantages in the minds of the prospect: price, parking, fuel use, etc.

Other marketing strategies in Positioning

There are other strategies Ries mentions in Positioning. One involves invoking other successful products. One clever example involved positioning Jamaica as “The Hawaii of the Caribbean.” It’s a great line, but it apparently fell victim to micromanagement at the highest levels of Jamaica’s government.

However, I had to question other parts of Positioning. For instance, Ries spent a lot of time discussing the importance of of having the right name. Some of this makes sense, such as the example he used of “Hog Island” being a poor choice for a tropical resort until it was renamed “Paradise Island.”

But should companies completely avoid “coined names” like Coca-Cola? I think the jury is still out on this one. Ries states that it’s “dangerous” to have “mean-nothing” names, and it only seems to work when the product is first-to-market, like Xerox. But in the digital age, we have seen a slew of successful companies and products that have obscure or semi-relevant names (Google and Google Docs, Apple and the iPod, Nintendo and the Wii, etc.) None were first-to-market in their respective categories, yet all have been runaway successes.

On the other hand, some people in the digital realm are still firm believers in using easy-to-remember and easy-to-spell names. At a conference a few years ago, I heard Mint cofounder Aaron Patzer talk about spending a lot of time on finding (and paying for) the right name. The personal finance tracking site had to be easy to understand, spell, and enter into a browser address bar. He also thought his competitors were crazy for choosing names that were hard to spell or pronounce — he specifically mentioned Geezeo.com and Wesabe.com.

Ries also struggles with disentangling positioning problems from other business problems. For instance, he suggests that Eastern Airlines was failing at the time of the book’s writing because of its name (“when prospects are given the choice, they are going to prefer the national airline”). No mention was made of deregulation, new competition, Eastern’s fleet, or the titanic management/labor struggles Eastern was dealing with at the time.

Positioning a big company vs. positioning a startup

It must be noted that the ideas in Positioning are often best suited to major national brands and multinational corporations. Startups may find some lessons here — I certainly derived value in the hole and ladder concepts described above. But other theory and examples will resonate best with people who work for Google, G&E, and other giants of the corporate world, in which big-budget advertising campaigns and months-long market research studies are possible. Ries is clear that it takes time and money to follow his advice (e.g., “If you don’t spend enough to get above the noise level, you allow the Procters & Gambles of this world to take your concept away from you”). Of course, time and money are two things that most startups don’t have.

Lastly, Positioning is a book from another era — the golden age of one-way mass media. It was written long before the Web, social networks, and mobility had a chance to impact the way people communicated and formed opinions. Technology-driven trends such as the Web or mobile phones as well as game-changers such as Google search results must be considered in any discussion about marketing, but these developments came too late for Positioning. On the other hand, it leaves a few holes that I am hoping other authors, bloggers, or experts will try to fill.

Incorporated my publishing business

January was a big month for my book venture. I finally incorporated. The company is called i30 Media Corporation. For now, the official website is in30minutes.com, which contains links to all of the book websites in the In 30 Minutes® guides.

Dropbox The venture began operations long before January. I published my first book ebook — a Dropbox for Dummies alternative — in July 2012. For the remainder of 2012 I operated the business as a “doing business as” entity. I used a DBA name for the publisher, but it was not a company in the sense of having liability protection, shares issued, or a distinct tax ID for revenue and banking. Even though I could have incorporated in 2012, I waited for several reasons:

  1. The venture needed to be profitable and on a growth trajectory (profitability in the second month of operations, strong growth soon after)
  2. I wanted to wind down operations of my previous venture before officially launching the new one (old company ceased operations in October, dissolved in November)
  3. I did not want to launch at the end of 2012 and deal with corporate tax returns for just a few months, as well as and other formation costs
  4. Company revenue had to be enough to cover formation costs and some other necessary post-launch fees

All of these conditions were met on January 1. I incorporated, using the very helpful guides at the Citizen’s Media Law Legal Guide (a project of the Harvard Berkman Center, which also hosts this blog!) as well as my own experience incorporating an earlier venture.

What the future holds for my publishing business

Will the venture be successful? That depends on a number of factors. But for the time being, I have created something that readers want and are willing to pay for. Now I have to deal with scaling the series while running it as a real business.

More news about the venture will be published in the coming months. Stay tuned …