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Observations from Level 39 office hours

One of the pleasures of what we do is being invited into accelerators like Level 39, Barclays Fintech and TravelTech to give time to the next generation of young startups.

Every time we wrap up one of these sessions, it strikes me how the themes progress between the different conversations and how I think it says something about the current state of the startup ecosystem.

I’m sharing some simple notes here, in the hope that they may be of interest and use to some of you.

Messaging is a new plateau, not winner takes all

Messaging is the new big trend. As a result many founders are turning their design principles toward this, just as the move to apps became very common in the last few years.

One reaction to this is to think: “won’t your messaging platform just get stomped by Apple, FB, Google and co?” But the interesting thing about messaging is that you don’t have to own the platform to design something valuable that speaks the language of that format.

Quartz new app shows how a messaging dynamic and design language can inform a useful new way of presenting things, whether you are literally running on a messaging platform or not. You get a head start working to this trend, you are immediately compatible with anyone that may think to acquire you and the language of successful messaging apps like Line and WeChat is to integrate a whole variety of third party services into the platform.

Messaging is an opportunity to join the new normal, not just a looming ecosystem war in the hands of a few giants.

Persuading institutions

Often, innovations must play into and function within the realm of more traditional markets or communities. As a result, it can be hard to get the buy in of established key figures and influencers.

One way to tackle this challenge is to think about how you create prestige and opportunity for a core few, that incentivises them to be part of the trend. How do you make disruption aspirational in the eyes of those wed to the old way of doing things?

You may start small — but gathering these first few advocates is like bringing together the first flakes of a snowball, a snowman, then an avalanche.

The entrepreneur is changing

If nothing else, the “Tech City” initiative has made one thing clear: if you want to found a business, London is ready for you.

The variety of founders I have me in the last year is far broader and more diverse than those present five or six years ago. For example, it feels like people who may have been more conservative in the past, who already have existing and growing businesses, are more eager to take the path less trod and disrupt themselves.

This previous experience can be an enormous asset. But, especially if disrupting an existing established biz, you don’t have to have watched every episode of Dragon’s Den to know that investors will quickly push for the old business to die and the focus to shift entirely to where their interests are.

I love indirect network builders

Some businesses produce a product, sell it to an audience and reap the rewards. Others provide a service, often nearly for free, that fulfils a need and disrupts an industry — but crucially, builds a valuable network of connections at the same time.

Tradeshift was such a business. Facebook did this with photos to establish social connections. Whenever I hear a similar mission, my eyes light up. It’s hard. But it’s valuable.

 

Augur kicks off 2016 with AVG Innovation Labs win. So what?

(For the full story, find today’s news at The Holmes Report and PR Week)

“Who cares when agencies win clients?” I hear you say. And you’re quite right.

Yes, of course we’re all glad to hear that Augur, a communications agency for unsexy tech companies, is working with AVG’s Innovation Labs to share projects like their now infamous “privacy glasses”.

But it’s also about what we are trying to build. Every project matters to Augur as much as its clients. The standard we set will drive this agency’s future, and great work cultivates more great work.

So for every project we kicked off in 2015, we passed on many more. Some too early in their story, some not techie enough, some too consumer.

We are building an agency that helps a very specific kind of “unsexy tech” company reach the customers they were made for. Because actually, we think those businesses have stories with serious and satisfying substance.

For example

Take Pusher, whose Data Delivery Network now serves over 100 BILLION realtime updates a month and has been able to fund its own growth since 2011. Or Notion Capital, a team of ex-entrepreneurs launching the biggest SaaS fund in Europe. Or BookingBug announcing 10x growth, as the biggest retailers in the world use it to bring life back to high street stores.

We don’t work with everyone. In fact, it should be clear that we think very carefully before we start working with anyone.

But we believe that this approach is what will develop a valuable specialism for our clients over the years to come. It’s more important to us to build something right on the foundations for the next decade than rush something to a ‘liquidation event’ as the doors close on an old operating model.

The Team

2015 also saw Sam Golden join the team as Augur’s first Strategist. Shipped from journalist training to London for a role with the BBC, he quickly moved on to a career at the UK’s leading PR agencies while building an award-winning music community on the side.

Meanwhile, I joined PR Week’s 30 to 30 list, managed the PRCA Technology group, hosted office hours at Level 39 and Barclays Fintech Accelerator and helped launch the #PRstack initiative.

We’re looking for the next person to join Augur and, if you’re reading this, maybe it’s you.

The best way I can describe the way we try to work is unstifled. If you think you could do a better job, could handle being more in control of your time and your destiny, then get in touch for a chat.

We’ll be glad to help however we can.

What If The Press Release Exists For A Reason?

The process of releasing your story to relevant audiences will always be a part of building positive understanding around what you’re doing. But, in this respect, the press release is a verb frozen in noun’s clothing. It has become a clumsy part of antique furniture in the life of a modern PR professional.

For this reason, I’ve been pretty hard on it recently. But today, it struck me that below the seemingly benign, stagnant surface of this old template, there lies a potentially more interesting conceit.

The press release format wraps a story in a natural game, designed to tempt a journalist to free it for their readers.

Thinking social

When trying to foster a community, it’s common to create social objects that get them involved. These can be all sorts of material from writing to pictures to posts to questions or competitions.

The best ones take advantage of something called the Zeigarnik Effect. This is the theory that “people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks” — and will experience a natural desire to ‘close the loop’.

In the case of social objects, this means a piece of material that leaves a clear and simple action unperformed will invite the passive observer to become an active participant.

The aspiration

For a while, I’ve advocated replacing the traditional press release with more specific and modern pieces of material: for (a slightly stuffy) example, an announcement bylined to your leadership and supporting key facts as bullet points.

But the issue here is, by creating a more efficient and immediately interesting way to read the story, you have added a full stop. And the better a job you do at making that an interesting read, the more potent the effect of closing the circle becomes.

On some deeper level, you have made the journalist gently redundant and passive, instead of potentially provoking them to add value and feel empowered.

My point here is not that PRs are some kind of Machiavellian masterminds, swirling potions of datelines and quotes about excited CEOs. It’s that perhaps a fit has organically emerged between the mindset and goals of professional media and this common format.

I discussed an early draft of this piece with Chris Lake, who spent many years on the other side of the fence at Econsultancy, and now runs Empirical Proof. From his perspective, some of the beauty of the game is in this familiarity:

“Digestibility is a big deal. Games that have difficult to comprehend instructions are often abandoned before they are played, no matter how good they may be.”

When you see a press release, you know what you’re getting and you know what game you’re playing.

This is one of the challenges with innovation in the PR business. If the output is too unfamiliar to other stakeholders, you may have shot yourself in the foot.

I’ll be honest, I still hate it.

You’ll notice that I’m not saying the press release is a desirable thing or the best way to share a story. I still don’t believe it is, especially for anything beyond building media relations. And, of course it still relies on a story worth saving under the surface.

But I’ll give you this: if there’s one thing the press release does well, it’s creating that feeling of “how on earth did they do such a bad job of telling the real story here?”

For me at least, I can make peace with the release in that sentence by worrying less about the how and more about the why.

I originally published this piece over at The Holmes Report.

Augur on Qz

We wrote a piece about technology and culture in Qz.com.

Future technologies must be designed to free us from our screen addiction

Looking back at technology over the years, it’s funny how quaint the older stuff seems: From simple telephones to basic games, innovation used to focus on functionality, task and purpose.

Since then, tech has gone from Space Invaders to literal space invaders, with software eating the world and devices crawling their way up from our pockets and onto our bodies. But the real change has come from how they now hook into our minds.

Every digital experience is self-aware, tweaking and customizing itself to be better, more enticing—to suck users further in and increase its all important “active users” metric. But that begs the question: in this time of ruthlessly efficient entertainment design systems, are we still having fun?

Read the full article here

5 workflows that make Augur run

We work with plenty of companies who find (or invent) ways to do things faster and better – therefore, it’s quite natural that we do the same. Augur is an engineering operation as much as anything, constantly looking for better ways to work.

That means we’re nearly email free via Asana + Slack, we hack together improved intel and deliver it to ourselves and clients, the acronyms that matter to us are OKRs and KPIs, not AVE.

We work differently.

Here are five small examples of how we do that – all easy to set up and try out today.

1. IFTTT + Slack: The ‘travel’ button

IFTTT Do

IFTTT has long held promise to streamline the way you work. Set up a simple formula of IF x THEN y. So, IF I tweet a link, THEN save it to an Evernote note. Or, IF it’s going to rain today, THEN email me at 9am.

The catch is, until now it has been pretty hard to find many ways for it to make your day to day better. Until they released an iOS app: “Do Note”.

Using Do, we’ve set up a trigger so you can press a button and it sends an automated message to your team Comms platform (in our case, Slack) with your current location, saying “Max is on the move.”

It’s the benefits of presence without the invasiveness. It’s 2x taps away on mobile. It’s communication distilled into a status update so people know who they can contact and when.

2. Followup.cc

Having tried Boomerang, Signals, Yesware, I love the features of being able to see when people open your emails, click links and remind you to follow up messages that go unanswered. However, I don’t love the fact it’s pretty invasive, unreliable, and may affect your deliverability.

Followup.cc lets you receive a reminder on any email simply by CC-ing the time period you want. So you can CC “3hours@followup.cc” or “nextweek@followup.cc”. Because of how it’s built, you can use it on any platform, in any browser and with intuitive flexibility.

Never let an email become a dead end again.

3. Asana eats email

Expect this one to be controversial. If any client or important contact emails us, it immediately creates a new task in our management platform Asana, and archives the original message. If email ends up often being an informal to do list, created by someone else, this makes that formal.

So if a client emails, we’ll reply in the comments thread on the Asana task. For internal conversation, we simply don’t use email – or might, to literally delegate a task into someone’s to do list.

This requires discipline to kill any emails you are subscribed to that don’t come with clear tasks (which may be better simply aimed into a shared Slack channel anyway). But in another way, it turns them into tasks, so reading a newsletter becomes something you decide to do and schedule – or delete.

Communicate via calendar (or Calendly)

When they arrive at the pearly gates and St.Peter asks them if they have any regrets, there isn’t a single person that is likely to say they wish they spent more time scheduling meetings.

Calendar invites are simply a form of email. If you’re arranging a meeting, recommend a couple of specific times and send a placeholder calendar invite, which can then be juggled around. 80%+ of the time, that appointment will fit and they other person can simply accept it.

The rest of the time, you can simply alter the invite based on feedback and get the job done. Half of you will be shocked at how obvious this is and are already doing it — for the other half, you’re about to make everyone you arrange a schedule with a lot lot happier.

Alternatively, if you don’t feel weird about referring people to a kind of robot assistant, tools like Calendly let you ID potential meeting times and share a link for people to book their own time with you. It will only show times you don’t have a clashing appointment and is great for things like coffees.

Alfred for launching

How do you find a document, contact details or launch an app? For me, the answer is the same simple keyboard shortcut: CMD+ spacebar.

This launches Alfred, an app like OS X’s default Spotlight but on steroids. The vanilla functionality helps you find anything on your mac and can quicklaunch URLs. But it’s the extensions that make it simple.

  • The Google Drive extensions turns it into a real time instant search of your files
Alfred screen 1
  • Timezone immediately displays clocks from around the world
Alfred shot 2
  • Spotifious lets you find or control Spotify
Alfred screen 3

There are many many more for everything from currency conversion to creating Asana tasks to Fantastical calendar entries to adding reminders to writing emails. The sky’s the limit.

What’s next?

Even since I started drafting this piece, the number of little tools and finds we have moved onto is expanding. And we’re always looking for new toys.

If you find any of these useful or have tips of your own, let us know…

Techstars Fintech Demo Day: Challenges of the startup story

Having spent time in the thriving, frothing, exhilarating, exhausting, terrifying, illuminating world of tech startups myself at Tradeshift, I think Augur is lucky to have insight and a perspective that many agencies don’t.

Because it’s a world full of people doing the next wave of interesting, important work, Augur proudly dedicates time to mentor programmes for both TechStars Barclays Accelerator and the Canary Wharf based Level 39. It sometimes feels about as close as you can get to being a VC without being a millionaire.

Today’s Techstars demo day demonstrated a complex side to this world that particularly leaps out at us: the difficulty of telling a distinct and compelling story.

Here’s what we noticed from the ten presentations.

1. Where’s the depth to your story?

My guilty habit is trying to find the thing a founder doesn’t want to tell you. In real life, it can make me seem like a cold bastard — but as a mentor, I think that’s one of the most valuable things we can provide.

In practice, what this also means is if you don’t tell me the very serious things, I’ll suspect there’s a reason you aren’t. God knows, your story and communications are going to be scrutinised from every angle at this stage of the company. We can help plug those holes (even if it’s possibly by bashing at chinks in the armour.)

This also extends to how you construct that story. It’s all too easy to fall into the generic — size of market, challenge being solved, team and experience. Sitting ten presentations back to back really reveals the underlying genre. Naturally, fitting a model helps and often works. But maybe there’s an opportunity to lay the icing on the cake and gain a memorable advantage. Don’t miss it.

2. Differentiator difficulty

Is it enough to be so close to existing, great companies but be on mobile or on the blockchain? In the latter case especially, there’s a weird chasm where what you’re describing can be so so simple (a marketplace for Bitcoin) that it seems both a bit meek — and curiously impossible. I.e. If such basic things haven’t been done yet, what’s the big looming challenge I don’t know about?

One of the most interesting companies that spoke today let its advantage via blockchain remain almost entirely implicit. This is because there was a match between the concept of the company and blockchain as the tool to solve it. That makes a big difference vs saying you’re simply building a tool/ service for that platform.

3. Is technology the solution?

When you have to set up a challenge and solution for slides, you can easily set up a straw man and knock it down. In the real world, resistance to technology is an everyday and sometimes near insurmountable nightmare.

There’s no doubt buyers are more advanced than they were in years gone by but this journey still feels work in progress. There’s also something intriguing in how technology can become a panacea for those with a mildly entrepreneurial mindset, sitting in their job and wondering “why is this harder to use than Facebook”?

Having just the right balance of understanding how technology businesses are different and also having spent years in a particular vertical where you see a specific and non-obvious problem is rare.

Both today and from speaking with her previously, Everledger co-founder Leanne Kemp was a remarkable demonstration of this. Market specific experience advantage in her background, already working to the bone to get the work done, already working with the right kind of people, history of previous companies. A definite one to watch.

In a world where you hear confident setup slides, market value etc you start to rely on these kinds of things as indicators of the real ones to watch.

The Game of B2B

Despite all these challenges,the companies really demonstrate why unsexy B2B tech, including fintech, retail tech and more, is thriving right now.

Even with the potentially weakest of these concepts, they are speaking an ultra clear language. It’s not about getting 100m consumers to download an app or buy a fizzy drink, it’s about targeting a clear and specific group of valuable companies and helping them make or save 100s of millions of dollars.

That’s a game of value we’re really delighted to see continue to thrive and play our own small part in.

Augur founder voted PR Week 30 Under 30

When you’re trying to do something new, you don’t always automatically get the establishment on your side. We’ve worked hard to balance the ways we are innovating in PR with the responsibility to ground it in responsible processes — that’s why, even early on, we pushed hard to achieve ISO 9001 compliance via the PRCA’s industry standard audit.

But even so, we’re delighted to have out innovation endorsed with the selection of Augur’s founder as PR Week’s 30 under 30. Read the interview, watch the video and see photos here — or see our answers to the interview below.

1) What has been your proudest achievement in PR?

I’m pleased my achievements have come from doing what I believed was right. But I’m most proud of developing my ability to learn from when I was wrong. The former opened lots of doors but I think it’s the latter that rescued me from being just another frustrated, precocious AE.

2) How do you expect PR to change over the next 10-15 years?

I think there’s a common dishonour in old PR. Insincerity, insecurity, ineptitude.

We need to refocus agencies on what they once were and can be again: smaller teams of unusually talented individuals delivering really focused strategy. Personal chefs instead of McDonalds lackies.

Great PR will help companies create value by communicating their true strengths accurately. Meanwhile, a subclass of opportunistic bottom feeders will continue to see their value erode as everyone from SEOs to ‘social media gurus’ bid their price down.

3) Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

I hope to have made progress offering great PRs a better way to spend their time, doing great work for great clients. If Augur continues to thrive, I play with the idea of handing it to one of the team to refound and reforge.

After all, they say life begins at 40, right?

Augur’s #PRstack

You might expect that we spend every day thinking about Augur’s future and how to build something better than the old model of PR agencies. But it’s every bit as important to us to share what we learn and raise the standards across this industry. I’ve written a little about the importance of PR’s stakeholders to its evolution before.

Having helped launch #PRstack with Prezly and Stephen Waddington earlier this year, it was natural to contribute to the upcoming book and give away some of what we’ve learned so far.

In our chapter, we talk about how Asana gives us a real advantage working with clients that allows us to concentrate on the work that really matters. Check out our original intro below or download the full book for free.

Nobody really built the way we work in PR. And for a long time, it probably didn’t even matter. But we don’t live in that time.

Anyone creating a business today should be looking for every opportunity to build something more fit for purpose as a distinct advantage over the last generation.

At Augur, we believe that starts right at the top of the stack. Communication is the oil that removes friction from any successful project — but most tools in use in the agency world today just don’t suit modern workflows.

It’s for that reason that almost every single thing a client sees from a project with Augur runs through Asana.

cover

The Right to a Good Story

A small visit to the Economist’s Big Rethink event got me… thinking.

I never fail to be amazed by the way some marketers talk of the time before I arrived in this industry.

On one hand, there’s all this chat about data. As if marketers used to operate by a kind of soothsaying intuition, divining the thoughts of audiences like oracles to the Gods. Maybe it was this way. But I doubt it.

On the other hand, there’s discussion of some heady, halcyon days when audiences had no way to avoid marketing messages. When you could just pump cash into channels and guarantee your target had it rubbed in their face.

By contrast, they seem to bemoan the fact that, today, you have to actually create material people want to pay attention to. They speak with a mottled nostalgia for the power and influence over opinion that money once bequeathed them. Can that be for real?

But (and without using the increasingly over-employed term ‘democratisation’) I think there’s something even more important in all this. And it gets to the root of why the PR and communications function is so important today.

And maybe it’s something that was always true in the background somewhere.

Control

There was a time when control — of the media, of audiences’ attention etc was a matter of buying space in the right place at the right time. PR relationships were ultimately just another way to buy media attention to complement your adverts. They’d force stories into the media simply because a journalist owed them a favour.

All of this created a warped and broken feedback loop. A great, effective story needs an engaged, interested audience. That’s how you know you’re onto something. One of a brand’s key missions, especially up front should be finding a sort of message/market fit, as one facet of their product/market fit.

If you cut out a key feedback signal i.e. “your story is boring/ this isn’t news/ I don’t want to watch this advert and stupid patronising message”, then you eliminate a key, valuable signal that tells you your story isn’t good enough. That you don’t have the right fit yet. And so, you never get better.

The right to better

If it sounds like I’m talking about some form of reputational justice here — where those doing something good and finding a story that matters are rewarded — that’s no coincidence.

In a time where this is so important, I believe there’s something to be said for the idea every company deserves the best possible shot at declaring and communicating what makes them great. Today’s brutal brand transparency should be empowering those organisations who are genuinely doing a good job. But that is only true if they can communicate what makes them great with clarity and power.

Just as lawyers must represent their client in court, agencies should look at their responsibility as identifying companies’ singular, core strengths and help them express that to thrive. Of course, noise alone won’t get them far, so the measurement, the strategy tied tightly to real business objectives — all these pragmatic elements are essential too.

But at its heart, the right to a good story is something I think even the worst and most incompetent companies should be able to enjoy. Because then, once you have given them every chance, if you still find them wanting, it’s because they are genuinely inferior or flawed.

#PRstack and PRgeeks.co give PRs the tools they need

Just recently, Danny Whatmough and I were discussing the future of PR tech on our semi-regular podcast “Digital Wake”. I’ve embedded it below (so now’s a good time to catch up…)

Toward the end of our discussion, we agreed there’s a long sprawling tail of agency-shaped businesses that know they could be adapting and upgrading their offering — but just don’t know how.

We must acknowledge that outdated techniques are not just suboptimal for those who deliver them — but bad for us all (not to mention the poor bloody clients.)

It’s with that in mind, that we’ve taken great pleasure working with Prezly and Stephen Waddington to launch a couple of initiatives next week — designed precisely to narrow this divide. In PR, there will be no such thing as the digital haves and have nots. Anyone will be able to find the tools they need — and implement them with smart strategy and advice.

#PRstack

#PRstack is the initiative that started it all — a creation of the indomitable Stephen Waddington, fresh off his year-long CIPR presidential stint. What began as a crowdsourced Google Doc, has quickly grown to over 150 tools for PRs in areas from measurement to management.

Prezly has stepped up to build a simple interface that makes it easy for any PR to find tools fit for purpose and get a short description of key characteristics. The new #PRstack front end is, quite simply, made for you.

PRgeeks.co

But if it was a matter of just finding the tools, this problem would have been solved long ago. In tandem, Prezly has created PRgeeks.co, a resource that guides everyone from novices to masters on putting #PRstack tools straight into practice.

And, just for good measure, it has a ton of useful top 5s as well, including everything from who to follow on Twitter to which regular PRchats will help unlock your inner PR Geek. Check it out.

We’ve got the PRCA on board (since I help run the technology group.) We’ve got the CIPR on board (through @GemGriff) and Stephen Waddington), we’ve got the infamous TechJPR group (formerly UKTJPR) involved. And we’re working on the rest.

This industry will only change if we take action. The breadth of tools and skills needed to understand great communications strategy today is greater than ever. But the ways in which they actually simplify our focus are often underestimated.

These tools and techniques are key to everyone doing a great job in PR. I hope you’ll all support and promote them as much as we plan to at Augur.