[quote style=”boxed”]One of the core guidelines in our company is the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from employees, customers, partners, or even spouses.[/quote]
Holly Hamann is co-founder of BlogFrog, a leading influencer marketing platform for brands. She has spent her career launching start-ups in the internet, multimedia, entertainment, video, and other high-tech industries. She is a public speaker, a contributing writer on the topics of technology and marketing for various publications, an American Marketing Association “Marketer of the Year” recipient, and a guest blogger for The Huffington Post. She holds a degree in mathematics and computer science, is an active triathlete, and blogs about technology, entrepreneurship and leadership at LoveandMath.com.
What are you working on right now?
This quarter, we are focusing on an expansion of our team to help us take advantage of the marketing opportunity. BlogFrog closed a $3.2 million round of venture capital in March, and we are using those funds to expand sales, marketing and engineering. We’re also adding some exciting functions to our influencer marketing platform and hope to announce those soon.
Where did the idea for BlogFrog come from?
The original idea came from my business partner (and BlogFrog CEO), Rustin Banks. He was recruited by the aerospace industry back in the early 2000s and moved his family to Colorado. His wife started a blog to keep their friends and family up-to-date on their lives, and Rustin noticed that there was a huge opportunity in the social space for better community-building tools for bloggers and brands. He began to program the early version of BlogFrog during nights and weekends, and then began looking for a business partner. I had years of experience helping to launch tech start-ups and was already working on technology in the blogging and social space. We partnered and launched BlogFrog in early 2009.
What does your typical day look like?
I usually try to spend some time each morning getting industry news, seeing what our competitors are up to, and connecting with customers (both brands and bloggers). In about 30 minutes I get a scan on what is happening in the world for users, brand clients, and the space. We have some big marketing initiatives going on this month, so I’m spending a lot of time on communications–in every aspect. I am articulating our vision to brand clients, channel partners, bloggers, and internal people to our growing team of employees. I ensure brand campaigns are on track, employees have what they need to get their jobs completed successfully, and that we are giving the product team what they need to build amazing features.
How do you bring ideas to life?
One of the core guidelines in our company is the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from employees, customers, partners, or even spouses. We try to create an empowering environment that makes individuals feel powerful and in charge of their own success. We encourage them to “be the CEO of [their] job.” In fact, we even say that if they come up with an idea that has the potential to have a big enough impact on the company, they can quit their current role and work on their idea full-time. It’s even on our website (see #10) . This lets people nurture ideas instead of being afraid to be wrong.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
One trend that excites me is the shift away from banner advertising. Since its inception, the success of banner advertising has always been based on the idea of distracting a visitor away from the content they came to digest (think YouTube or a blog). This was necessary when brands and content creators operated on opposite ends of the online eco-system. The industry is realizing that you can have authentic partnerships between brands and content creators to give readers more of what they came to a site to get, as opposed to pulling them away.
Another trend I like is fitness tracking technology. I love all the metrics we can get about our own health and activity just with simple smartphone apps, GPS technology, and bio analytics.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I once sold phone systems to car dealerships in the Washington DC area. The neighborhoods were dangerous, dealer owners didn’t take me seriously because I was right out of college, and they were better at negotiating because they sold cars! I learned to be creative and to find ways to get them to listen to me. Instead of meeting in their offices, I would pick the nicest car on the lot and convince them to do the meeting during a test drive. It was more fun, the clients lightened up a bit, and I was able to form better relationships with the owners, which got me more business.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Do you mean if I were to start BlogFrog over again? To be honest, there is not much I would do differently when it comes to the company. We hired great people, had some amazing advisors and mentors, and have executed on our vision pretty much the way we intended. I could not have picked a better business partner in Rustin, and we picked the right time in the market to launch our product.
If I had to do my career over again, I might change something. I desperately wanted to be a pilot when I was in college and have always thought that being a chef would be awesome. If I had a do-over, I’d be one of those.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
One thing I recommend doing is to never stop talking to your customers. In a company’s early stage, there is already lots of pressure and many reasons to talk to your customers because you’re trying to figure out your market, how well your product works, and how much people will pay for it. Most of the time, there are only a handful of people in your company, and everyone interacts with your customers on some level. As you grow, it’s easy for senior management to become mostly focused on high-level activities like building partnerships, cultivating investor relationships and managing people. But it’s critical to always be talking to customers. There is no shortcut for picking up the phone and talking to customers about how happy they are and what they wish your product did better. We talk to brand clients and bloggers every day. We have more than 150,000 members in our network, and it’s easy to assume that someone else in the company is keeping up with them. I learn something new every time I go to a conference and talk to bloggers and content creators.
Whenever we catch ourselves in a room discussing marketing, product features or sales, and we find ourselves disagreeing about what we think they want, we stop. That’s when we know it’s time to reach out and ask a customer instead of guessing.
I love this quote by Scott Olsen (MindLink): “Customers are like high paid consultants with specialized knowledge and connections in the industry you sell into, deep familiarity with your own and likely your competitor’s products, and hands on experience with the problem you are trying to solve. To top it all off, they won’t charge you anything to help you make your product better. Why wouldn’t you talk to them?”
I also highly recommend that entrepreneurs form a personal team of advisors and mentors. I have people I talk to about marketing, hiring, raising money, and even dealing with sensitive employee issues. No single person knows everything, and being too proud to ask for advice will kill your brilliant idea.
What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One problem I have experienced in previous start-ups is that after we hired amazing employees with lots of potential, we then lost them later when they didn’t get the opportunity to stretch and grow. Just because you’ve hired people who are already rockstars doesn’t mean you don’t need to pay attention to them. I hired this great marketing person once, but didn’t give her enough direction or feedback to do well. I got busy and swamped with other priorities and assumed she was figuring things out on her own. One day she surprised me by quitting. It left marketing in a bind, but it was my own fault. Thankfully, she was nice enough to give me candid feedback about why she was leaving, and I took it to heart. Most employees have a genuine desire to achieve and help the company succeed.
I learned from that and now try to spend one-on-one time with all the employees who report to me to find out how they are doing. I ask if they like the work they’re doing and if they see things we could be doing better. I ask them what they want to be doing in five years and how the company can help them get there. Asking employees for their opinions about company issues that aren’t related to their specific roles makes them feel valuable strategically and a part of something bigger, as opposed to just a pigeon-holed contributor.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
The world needs a sunblock you don’t have to re-apply throughout the day and that doesn’t have chemicals in it. Maybe it could be a harmless additive to water (like fluoride). Or it could come in a fruit-flavored drink or pill form.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
Most people don’t learn the fundamentals of managing money until they are well into adulthood. I would love to see more school and community programs that teach kids how to earn, manage and do good things with money early in their lives. Just like Ann Cooper is revolutionizing our kids’ relationship with food, I’d rally champions to help teach kids about managing money.
Tell us a secret.
I played trumpet in a jazz band in high school.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
- MapMyFitness (iphone app). I can track a run or bike ride and see my distance, elevation gain, calories burned and average speed, and then upload the data into other fitness or training apps.
- iTunes U. My favorite is the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, a series of free podcasts (both audio and video) of guest lectures at Stanford University. You can hear well-known thought leaders talk about all kinds of business topics.
- MobileDay is a one-touch conference calling app that synchs with your calendar. Instead of having to remember dial-in numbers and passwords, it stores them and you just have to click a button to join.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I know you said one, but I have two. The Lean Startup by Eric Reis and Do More Faster by Brad Feld and David Cohen. Both are must-reads for entrepreneurs.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
- @mamakatslosinit is a hilarious and creative mom blogger and social influencer.
- @DanielleLaPorte for personal wisdom.
- @msuster for start-up wisdom.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I laughed out loud tonight when my son tried to land his remote control helicopter on my head (no lie).
Who is your hero?
Ann Cooper, the nationally recognized “renegade lunch lady.” Ann revolutionized California’s Berkley school lunch program and gained notoriety for her mission to transform how kids are fed in our schools. We are lucky to have her in charge of Boulder Valley’s school lunch program, and I am inspired by her dedication to make a difference by starting with the health of our children.
What competitive advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
Innovation is what fuels every industry. As long as there are smart people coming up with better, faster, smaller, cheaper, or more fun ways to do things, people will pay for them. So even if you think a market is oversaturated and there isn’t room for another product, just remember, there is always room for innovation!
How do you know when to stay at or leave a company?
There is a point when your imagination and energy are drawn so much towards something else that it isn’t fair for you (or the company) to stay where you are. That’s when you know it’s time to move on. If you love the people you work with, don’t mind a few unknown variables, have faith in your leadership and product, and are confident you can help move the needle, then stay and fight for the opportunity.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.