The first copies of The Ad-Free Brand showed up at the house on Friday afternoon. So I guess that means, after nine months of work, it is finally out. Awesome.
This book is the work of many people. It is filled with the helpful edits and brilliant suggestions of Jonathan Opp, Rebecca Fernandez, and Rick Kughen, plus the insightful contributions of Kevin Keller, Greg DeKoenigsberg, Paul Frields, and many others. It is a product of the patience and support of my wonderful girlfriend Maggie and my New Kind friends David Burney, Matt Muñoz, Tom Rabon, and Elizabeth Hipps.
There are so many people who’ve helped me out over the past year, and I owe all of them a debt of gratitude.
I thought I’d share the acknowledgments from the back of the book here in the hopes of introducing you to the work of a few of the people who helped me make this book a reality. Please take a few minutes to click through the links and get to know some of these great folks and the very cool projects they are working on. I can only hope you learn as much from them as I have.
One day last September, I received an interesting email out of the blue from someone named Lisa who had stumbled across a blog post of mine. She asked me whether I had ever lived in Indiana as a child. I was born in West Lafayette, Indiana.
As it turns out, Lisa was my neighbor and childhood best friend. I moved to Kansas City, Missouri at age 5 and had lost touch with her until I received this email, almost 35 years later.
As Lisa and I caught up, we learned we each had book publishing in the blood. Lisa is a Senior Publicist at Pearson in Indianapolis. I spent the first five years of my career as a literary agent and editor. In one email to her, I mentioned that I had been thinking of going back to my publishing roots and actually writing a book of my own. Lisa introduced me to Rick Kuhgen, an Executive Editor at Pearson. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was writing.
So I’d like to thank my childhood friend and current publicist, Lisa Jacobsen-Brown, without whom this book would probably still be something I was thinking about doing… eventually. I’d also to thank Rick Kuhgen, a true writer’s editor—responsive, thoughtful, and with a hint of poetry to his own words.
I’ve benefitted from the wisdom and friendship of many wonderful people along the journey.
Thanks first to Maggie, my source of energy. This book would have never been possible without you.
Thanks to my mother and father, who I hope see parts of themselves in me and in this book.
Thanks to my sister, Erika, who has been a great friend and confidant ever since she quit telling on me.
To Matthew Szulik, my mentor and friend, for letting the best ideas win. To Jonathan Opp for helping me find a voice. To David Burney, for opening my eyes and making me a designer. To Matt Muñoz, for always bringing optimism and passion.
To Jeff Mackanic, for your friendship and for quietly, consistently making everything happen. To Rebecca Fernandez, for bringing value before words. To DeLisa Alexander, for your faith and friendship.
To all of my friends from the Red Hat nation, past and present, around the world. Special thanks to the Red Hat Brand Communications + Design team, a group of the most talented folks I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside.
To Kevin Keller, for your wise advice, guidance, and contributions.
To the rest of the Pearson team, especially Seth Kerney, Megan Wade, and Bill Camarda, for all of your hard work bringing this book to life.
And finally, thanks to my other friends who don’t give a crap about brands, ad-free or not. You know who you are, and I appreciate everything you do.
When I was at Red Hat, I sometimes got questions from folks who wanted to know the secret to Red Hat’s brand success. First off, I’d always say you don’t grow a $1 billion technology company on brand alone. We sold great products. We treated our customers and developers well. We had a revolutionary business model. Those kinds of things are the bedrock of a successful brand.
But if I was to point to one “secret” thing I think had a big impact on the brand it would be a very simple one:
We said the same thing. Over and over. For years.
For me personally, sometimes I said things so many times I was just as sick of hearing myself as others were.
When people would come to me and ask if they could make a tan hat to give away at tradeshows rather than a red one, I would always repeat: “But we are Red Hat.” We brand folks would always be the ones to bring up the company mission, values, and culture. We’d steer conversations back toward the open source way when they went astray. When my colleagues and I would speak about the culture and brand in orientation, we’d tell the same stories, show the same videos of Bob Young and Matthew Szulik to new employees year after year after year.
When it comes to brand positioning, the biggest mistake you can make is to invest your time, money, and energy in discovering your optimal brand position… and then give up on it before it has a chance to do its magic. Building a great brand has to be done over time and, to paraphrase Jeff Bezos of Amazon, there are no shortcuts.
I’ve worked with a lot of creative types over the years, and most of them love to come up with new ideas. Heck we all do. But sometimes the thing that makes you stand out when everyone else is saying something new is to say something… well… old.
This week I was lucky enough to attend the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Desert, CA. As you may recall, last year Red Hat Chairman Matthew Szulik was the national Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and later this week, he’ll hand over his title to the next entrepreneur in waiting. One of the most exciting things about the Strategic Growth Forum is that it brings together some of the smartest entrepreneurial minds in the world in one place, and this morning, I had an opportunity to hear from one of the best.
Howard Schultz, Chairman, President, and CEO of Starbucks, who won an Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1993, spoke about his experience leading Starbucks through the economic crisis. As Starbucks began going through hard times, Schultz, who had given up the CEO role in 2001 (while remaining Chariman), decided it was time to take back the CEO responsibilities himself in early 2008.
Why? He was worried that the distinct culture, mission, and values that had brought the company great success were eroding.
According to Schultz, he came back into an operational role because he felt that the way out of crisis was not a simple change in business strategy, but instead– in his words– “love and nurturing.” His key to turning things around was revitalizing the investment in his people, recommitting to the core purpose of the organization and providing employees with hope and inspiration.
He says the transformation of Starbucks since this revitalization has been key to a tremendous amount of new innovation happening inside the company. People have even commented to him that it reminds them of what the early days at Starbucks must have been like.
Schultz took 10,000 of his best people and brought them together in New Orleans in late 2008 for a leadership conference where they spent 50,000 volunteer hours helping communities re-build after Hurricane Katrina. Below is a documentary that was filmed about this event.
The BBC conducted a great interview with Red Hat Chairman Matthew Szulik while he was attending the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year awards recently (representing the United States as our winner). You can listen to it here.
This interview is a wonderful reminder of the powerful impact of a corporate vision that extends beyond just making money. And a great reminder for me of how lucky I have been to learn about leadership, community, culture, and brand from the 2008 United States Entrepreneur of the Year.
If you are interested in learning more about Matthew Szulik, his vision, and how it evolved, here is a wonderful oral history of his life that was commissioned a few years ago.
Ten years ago today, I showed up for my first day of work at Red Hat.
The office was an ugly one-story building in the back of an office park in Durham, NC, a far cry from the monstrous IBM campus I had just left. No longer would I be walking 10 minutes through a parking lot to get to my car, instead we were only a few steps from the front door, which was kind of a big deal for me at the time.
I was 27 years old, and ready to change the world.
At the time, this building was both the only office and the global headquarters for Red Hat, although this would change quickly as we opened offices in Asia and Europe over the next few months. There were about 125 or so people working for the whole company. In the marketing group that I joined, I think there were eight of us, and my first boss was Red Hat employee #1, Lisa Sullivan, who now runs two independent bookstores in Vermont. She had started working for Bob Young in Connecticut, before he joined up with Marc Ewing and moved the company down to North Carolina.
At the time, Marc Ewing and Bob Young still roamed the halls, in fact, Marc sat just a few cubes over from me next to Bascha Harris, who still works with me at Red Hat today. Marc tended to leave his empty drink cans stacked on his desk for weeks, so sometime swarms of fruit flies would descend on my desk after gorging on his leftovers. I’m not sure Marc even knew who I was. To Red Hat folks, I was just another guy coming in from a big company, itching to ruin everything.
The interview process was tough. I distinctly remember being interviewed over the phone by Matthew Szulik. He was Red Hat’s president at the time, and had only been with the company about a year. I still remember him asking me one of his famous interview questions, something like “How will you know if your life has been successful?” I have no idea how I answered that, but I’d really like to hear my answer now.
A few weeks ago I finished the new Jim Collins book How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In. If you read this blog much, you’re probably sick of me prattling on about how much I love Jim Collins’ work (here, here, and here). Over the years at Red Hat, we’ve based many projects related to the values, mission, and other corporate-level structural thinking on ideas we got from him.
Well, it’s been almost eight years since Collins wrote his last full-length book, Good to Great (which ranked number one on my list of the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters). How the Mighty Fall is a short book, and in it, Collins is clearly a bit on the defensive about his previous work. The issue? In the economic meltdown last year, some of his Built to Last companies didn’t last, and some of his Good to Great companies are back to good… or gone.
Collins explains it this way:
…the principles in Good to Great were derived primarily from studying specific periods in history when the good-to-great companies showed a substantial transformation into an era of superior performance that lasted fifteen years. The research did not attempt to predict which companies would remain great after their fifteen-year run. Indeed, as this work shows, even the mightiest of companies can self-destruct.
…I’ve come to see institutional decline like a staged disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the earlier stages, easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages. An institution can look strong on the outside but already be sick in the inside, dangerously on the cusp of a precipitous fall.
So this book is Collins’ attempt to discover why exactly some very good companies went oh so very bad. If Good to Great was Star Wars, this book is The Empire Strikes Back— a long, hard look into the dark side (even the cover is black).
Collins did extensive research using an interesting approach. He studied these companies, not as history has judged them, but based on what the company was saying, what the press was saying, what financial analysts were saying during the time period being studied– before we knew the outcome. And all of the research was done in historical order, almost like he was following the companies through time.
The results of the research play out like a Greek tragedy. He identified 5 stages of decline in the companies that had gone from great to… not so great:
Books are important to me. Growing up, almost every free wall in my parents’ house was lined with bookshelves, some of them stacked two deep. I spent most of my pre- Red Hat career in book publishing, first working during college at The University of North Carolina Press. After college, I went to work for a literary agent named Rafe Sagalyn in Washington DC. Working for Rafe was a great experience because he built his reputation on big think/idea books and business books.
His first big book was the huge bestseller Megatrends by John Naisbitt back in the early 80s. When I was there, I personally got to work with, among others, Bill Strauss and Neil Howe on their great books about generational patterns in society (check out The Fourth Turning… very prophetic these days) and Don Peppers, author of some books back in the 90s like The 1:1 Future about relationship marketing that were the grandparents of today’s books on social media marketing.
I also got to play agent and author myself too. As an agent, I represented some of Tom Bodett’s work (yes, he is the Motel 6 guy, but was also a commentator on NPR) and sold a wonderful novel called The Frequency of Souls to FSG. As author, I helped Rafe write two “cutting edge” books about getting free and open access to government information (they have not aged well, I’m afraid).
After I left book publishing, reading became fun again. I read novels and travel literature for a while, nothing that made me think too much. But when I got to Red Hat, I relapsed and started reading the big think books like the ones I used to work on with Rafe. I thought it might be worth taking a few minutes to try to remember the books that have been the biggest influences on my thinking, and get them all down in one place, so here goes:
Without these ten books, Dark Matter might not even matter to me.
Was watching Rahm Emanuel on Meet the Nation this morning. No matter where you fall politically, you’ve got to be amazed at what a master of positioning he is. Republicans have been winning the positioning war for years, with Democrats not even understanding the game, let alone playing it well.
So what is positioning? According to Wikipedia, positioning is:
the process by which marketers try to create an image or identity in the minds of their target market for their product, brand, or organization.
The name “positioning” was coined by Jack Trout and Al Ries and introduced in their book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, but the concepts they called positioning have been used to influence people throughout history.
Matthew Szulik gave me a copy of a positioning book by Jack Trout about 2 years after I joined Red Hat, and it was my first real exposure to the idea. Now, the art of positioning rules everything I do at work.
One day in 2003, Matthew Szulik came to us and said he wanted to create a video to show before his keynote at Linuxworld. Now no one in our group had ever done a video before, but we figured we’d take a shot. My good friend David Burney had just hired a guy right out of college into his design firm (his name was Tim Kiernan, one of the most talented guys I have ever worked with) who specialized in video/film, so we got to work. If I remember correctly, we produced the entire thing from beginning to end in about a month. Originally, we only planned to show the video once, at the keynote.
I’m a dreamer.
I am inspired by ideas.
In Myers-Briggs language, I am an INFP. It’s a pretty rare Myers-Briggs type, but some other famous INFPs are Shakespeare, Yeats, Helen Keller, Princess Diana, Tom Brokaw, JFK Jr., Julia Roberts, and Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson). We share a lot in common with ENFPs, the only difference being that they are extroverts (the E) vs. introverts (the I). The most famous ENFP of the moment is none other than President Barack Obama.
As it turns out even though INFPs (1%) and ENFPs (5%) together make up only a very small percentage of the general population, I’ve found in my time at Red Hat that I’ve run into more than my share of dreamers (INFP) and visionaries (ENFP). Continue reading