Background: About Michael
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Grabham with my ClearHome teammate, Sarah Abramowitz. Michael is a start-up veteran. He has founded five “real” businesses (his words), as well as many, many others. Currently he is Seattle director of Startup Grind, the U.S. General Manager of Send in Blue, and created the non-profit Survive the Streets: an organization that provides cold weather essentials to homeless and low-income Seattleites. Because Michael’s experience is so vast, he chose to respond to our questions by citing his experiences from both past and current business ventures. Many of his answers came from his very first company, Executive Wireless, founded in 2002. Executive Wireless created a mobile application for real estate agents called Wireless Realty, which changed the way that real estate agents do business.
When first launching his Wireless Realty mobile app, Michael’s marketing strategy was targeted towards Vancouver real estate firms. He quickly realized that his ideal clients were actually individual real estate agents, not agencies. Michael was quick to pivot, and changed his plan to provide maximum value to these individual agents- who he saw as “solo entrepreneurs”. In 2002, as entrepreneurially minded as the real estate agents may have been, they were not particularly tech savvy. Michael determined that the best way to provide maximum value to this client base was to sell them smartphones with the Wireless Realty software already preloaded. Michael relied on his local real estate contacts to serve as advocates on behalf of Executive Wireless. His phone/app sales were met with great success in the Vancouver market.
Next Michael expanded into Calgary, Toronto, Las Vegas, Seattle and Buffalo- each time relying on a local, pre-existing contact to advocate on behalf of the company. The regional advocate helped alleviate anxiety surrounding using MLS data in a mobile setting (uncommon in 2002), and also to increase the likelihood of converting a reputed ‘Luddite’ industry of professional into the 21st century.
Executive Wireless’ app completely changed the way that real estate agents could do their job. Previously they had needed to be at work in order access MLS data. Wireless Realty made this completely unnecessary, enabling agents to access real estate data wherever they were. Thus, Wireless Realty was a new, disruptive product.
Positioning and Channels
There was no product like the Wireless Realtor app on the market at the time it launched. It was an innovator, and its activity in multiple markets helped it to build its reputation as an authority in the real estate mobile app space. Michael leveraged his pre-existing relationships with realtor technologists, who advocated on behalf of the Wireless Realtor app. This was the case in Vancouver, and each of the subsequent market cities, and proved to be a highly successful strategy. Michael views relationships and the ability to communicate effectively as essential to getting any busy off the ground.
Recently I saw a colleague wearing a black, perfectly shrunken t-shirt with white lettering that read, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. It was one part Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one part history, and of course a little sarcasm. I liked it enough to want to have one to wear around the house or in very casual settings, so I looked it up online. I found the company that manufactures it and, despite the relatively low cost, decided that I didn’t really need it. Then it popped up on my Facebook feed, the right column on the New York Times’ website, and again when I was checking my email. That last time- when I was checking my email a new piece of text flashed across it, “Today, 30% off”. It had been a cheap t-shirt to start with, so this extra incentive was enough to make me buy. Last night I ordered one.
Clearly in this case the additional advertising (and the sale) led me to buy the t-shirt. What I find that this form of advertising does most effectively on a consistent basis, is keep products on my mind for longer than they otherwise would be. When it comes to consumer goods, I have a very short attention span. In a physical location, I can like something and forget about it very quickly. The online reminder that I like something does probably make me more likely to buy products, or at least help those products make it to a “want” list hidden somewhere on my laptop.
Connect Mentors is a start-up based out of London that offers to connect students and professionals of all levels with tech mentors in their field (or desired field). The company uses your LinkedIn profile as a starting point for the mentor connection. Though currently only offering its services in London area, the Connect Mentors website requests permission to use your basic LinkedIn profile information, requires that you select one or more fields of interest, and your experience level (student, junior, senior, etc.). It then generates three potential mentors and allows you to submit a request for mentorship from one of them. I went through the process up until the point of requesting one of my three proposed mentors. Each seems to be mid-level and very credible within their fields. If I were based in London, I would have chosen “Tom Marsden”: a tech professional who promises to “advise anyone wanting to move into a product role”.
To promote this product, I would reach out to the following three people:
1. Mike Butter, Editor of TechCrunch Europe
2. Zee M. Kane, CEO and Tech Editor at The Next Web
3. Elizabeth Varley, CEO and Tech Blogger at TechHub London
La Crosse Technology offers remote technology monitoring systems that help its customers track the temperature and humidity fluctuations in their homes. Its website showcases various temperature and humidity monitoring devices and includes a special scroll-down option for its smartphone app (which is also available for iPad and computer use through its web sign-in feature). This company is similar to our venture idea, ClearHome in that it offers a home monitoring service with a smartphone application for on-the-go households. The La Crosse Technology website does not include a user story or an individual value proposition for any of its featured products. It does however brand itself as “a multinational company with a small-town philosophy of servicing our customers to the highest level.” Despite offering high-tech products, the website doesn’t utilize the visual and performance appeals of its inventions. In fact, it has all of the excitement of a generic, online flower service. It feels neglected, crusty…not sexy.
Where La Crosse Technology really shines is on its YouTube channel. Here it becomes clear who its ideal customer is: a tech-savvy homeowner who enjoys an active lifestyle and appreciates aesthetic design. This is easily demonstrated in the promotional video for the “New 2014 Wireless Color Weather Station”. The YouTube channel not only highlights the beauty and functionality of La Crosse Technology’s products, but it expands my understanding of its wares’ capabilities. On the YouTube channel, I finally found the value propositions for individual products. For the 2014 Wireless Color Weather Station the value proposition is: “La Crosse Technology’s Wirleless Color Weather Station gives you the flexibility to choose how its used.” Not a particularly strong value proposition, but the video medium makes this forgivable because the overall story is so effective. So impressive is the YouTube channel, that I’m left wondering, “Why the dated website?”
It is on La Crosse Technology’s YouTube channel that ClearHome finds inspiration. On YouTube, La Crosse Technology presents itself as a technologically forward-thinking company with a highly selective user base who expect nothing but the best from both product performance and design standpoints. This is the message that we want our customers to immediately receive when they make contact through any and all of our product channels. We want our customers to instantly associate our product with the active lifestyle, technological know-how and discriminating tastes of La Crosse Technology’s YouTube user base. Where we will differentiate ourselves from La Crosse is with our prominent “made in America” branding, clearly displayed user stories and uniform experience across platforms. The brilliance of La Crosse’s YouTube channel comes from its product videos. Therefore, we will promote our product promotional videos through all of our web-based channels.
I chose #146 – Koru on the GeekWire 200 list of Pacific Northwest Start-ups (http://www.joinkoru.com/). Koru is an education start-up with locations in Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Its 4-week programs offer supplementary business education and assist soon-to-be college graduates to develop the connections that they need to gain the attention of prominent business and tech companies. The program is open to students who are within six months of graduating from college.
Koru’s target audience is college seniors and others who are exiting university programs who seek to break into full-time jobs. Koru offers these students the connections within their local job markets and promises to provide them with the business and real-world problem solving skills to help make them enter into successful careers in the Seattle, San Francisco and Boston tech sectors.
Within the local (Seattle area) market, I cannot find another venture that is doing precisely what Koru is doing. However, other networking/job training ventures nationally with postings within the Pacific Northwest include the National Association of Professional Women (NAPW), job websites such as Internship.com and to a lesser extent Indeed.com, and short-term university, college and professional development programs (courses, certificates, etc.).
What makes Koru particularly impressive is its placement rates. According to its website, 85% of Koru graduates land full-time jobs within two months of graduation. Additionally, if exiting students have not landed full-time employment within six months, their program is free of charge. These statistics, combined with a line-up of highly impressive companies and organizations (Amazon, Nordstrom, Harvard Innovation Lab) make the investment in a Koru program very attractive to prospective graduates.
With its high profile partners and physical locations in tech-friendly cities that demand large numbers of qualified employees, Koru’s position to steal market share from other competitors looks promising. As a potential customer, one thing Koru could do to convince me that they are confident in their programs is to display their pricing more prominently. If they are priced correctly and if their programs deliver as claimed, I should not have to search for pricing. Additionally, I hope that Koru takes the time to be selective in its candidate admissions to ensure a high caliber set of exiting potential employees. In this regard, Koru may seek the graduates who do not really “need” extra assistance with their job searches, but are risk-averse and enjoy the assurance of hand-holding through their college-to-workforce transition.