TEDxKotor

On October 5th , TEDxKotor wll once again bring attention to the UNESCO site of Old Town Kotor in Montenegro. The organizing team will be bringing in speakers from across the globe to speak on a variety of ideas which they are passionate and want to share with others. The theme for this year’s event is “Reaching for the Stars”

What are TED talks? 

TED is an organization committed to spreading great ideas. It began in 1984 with a conference bringing together topics from technology, design, and entertainment. Today, it has grown to host a much wider variety of topics, yet still maintains its purpose of spreading great ideas. 

What began as one conference has morphed into a variety of venues in niche fields such as science, education, and locally organized talks known as TEDx events.  

How does TEDx fit in?

TEDx events are live, local gatherings to engage local communities with diverse ideas TED-like talks. These events are valuable for introducing diverse content which is also bias free. They are uniquely developed based on each local organizer, but share the same format. 

 These local events are not organized for religious or political purposes. They are not to be driven by commercial purposes to raise money even for charities. They are not marketing conferences. TEDx events are to be driven by diversity in content and bringing together a variety of ideas for building up the local community. 

Why TEDxKotor?

 I was not able to attend TEDxBudva last year. It was the first TEDx event on the coast of Montenegro. Of all TEDx events in Montenegro, I heard so many positive remarks about what happened in Budva. I am trusting the organizing team will double their efforts to make this one even more exciting and thought provoking. 

 The speaker list looks dynamic. The variety of topics coming to the stage has the potential to make this be a true TED event and get people talking about ideas. Here are the speakers I am looking forward to the most, but that’s not to say others will not deliver as well. 

 Piotor Prokopowicz

Piotor is an academic, speaker, and practicioner in the worlds of leadership and innovation. He’s been featured in publications such as Fast magazine and Harvard Business Review and has lead a variety of organizations including… a punk band. 

“As an internationally acclaimed speaker, he engages audiences by educating them about leadership myths, innovation, evidence-based management, and methods for building a smarter and happier workplace.” 

José Woldring

“José started her PR agency, The Media Nanny when she was 22 while studying at the university. Ten years later and The Media Nanny has become one of the biggest PR agencies in the world of entertainment, especially in EDM. José has been working closely with the biggest names in the EDM world such as Martin Garrix and David Guetta, taking care of their international magazine covers, online covers, radio, and TV appearances.” 

Ranier Hoess

Ranier uses the lessons of history and the mistakes of his family, including a grandfather who served as commandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp during World War II, to educate people on the outcomes of hatred. He is part of the Footsteps team who are “dedicated to challenging all forms of hatred and intolerance. 

I am also excited to hear from Fabian Dittich and Vladimir Vulic. Fabian’s experience as a nomad and living untied to place. Vladimir’s experience in leading organizations and discussing digital transformation has been vital internationally and locally in Montenegro.  

You can view the full agenda to decide how to plan your day, but I recommend making a day out of it.

Kaktus Festival - An environment for ideas

This is the first year I'll be attending  the Integrated Communications Festival also known as Kaktus Festival, but probably not the last. The reason why I decided to come this year, apart from an invitation, is the huge number of recommendations I got from friends and colleagues. In a time of tech centered communication and “reach”, word-of-mouth marketing may still hold the most powerful influence, today. Besides that, I was promised to get the best coffee during the breaks engaging with some brilliant minds in the marketing world while doing so. 

What is Kaktus Festival? 

This is Kaktus Festival’s 5thyear to explore topics in marketing that will raise industry standards. The name “Kaktus” (cactus) was chosen because of the harsh conditions that a cactus will endure, and with the smallest bit of water will survive and grow. The goal of the conference is to be that impetus for ideas of the attendees to grow and thrive as well. 

The theme for this year’s festival is “Make Room For A New Bloom” focusing on talent and innovation inside and outside of the advertising world. Emphasizing such a theme will help open new angles and generate new ideas that we can watch break through industry standards. This year the festival will focus on those campaigns that go beyond the obvious and inspire something new. 

 Kaktus Festival will take place on October 29-30 at the Madlenianum Opera and Theater in Belgrade, Serbia. 

 Who should attend #Kaktus2019? 

Anyone desiring to build their business, learn about marketing, explore new skills, and/or grow their network. As I mentioned before, conferences are very valuable when it comes to expanding a carrier, but Kaktus Festival delivers a lot more. With the additional stage dedicated to startups and entrepreneurs, young people get the chance to present themselves and join the regional startup network.

Specifcally, here are three types of people who should attend and why.

The Creative - Creativity starts when fear fades.

We learn how to be creative, it's not something you're born with. There are many ways how to start, but I recommend reading books, exploring unrelated skills, travelling and meeting new people. Stepping out of your comfort zone means doing something you are afraid of every day. Most people are not comfortable going to conferences alone and being pushed to talk to strangers. Maybe it doesn't make sense to you, but creativity grows where fear disappears. 

The Learner - Talk about the right things in the right way.

Marketing and advertising trends change quickly and to stay relevant, you need to update yourself constantly. Festivals like Kaktus provide tremendous opportunities to connect with people, including industry-leading experts like Emanuelle Nenna, Giorgio Chiarmonte, Regan Warner. When attending conferences, you can listen to and engage with people one-on-one. You can hear about their current projects and challenges, and some may give you advice on how to enhance your work. You have the opportunity to ask speakers and coaches questions about their work and the basis behind it, which you can't do when reading blog posts or watching a video. 

If your passion is marketing and branding, or you want to run a startup, you can either attend the whole festival or apply for the educational program here. Both avenues provide the perfect opportunity for the learner.  

The Forward Thinker – See what’s coming next.

Marketing and advertising have always been focused on getting customer's attention using a creative or provocative approach. However, tactics and trends change because the audience will change. Habits and practices change. Today, more than ever, users are bombed with an endless (paid or not) promotions, and it's pretty hard to make them notice our message. The Forward Thinker needs to see what’s coming next and adapt. At Kaktus, we will all learn how to think differently and why it's so important for advertising. 

If you are interested in learning how to think differently, start with the book, Lateral Thinking.

For the fifth consecutive year, the Cactus Festival brings together speakers from the world of marketing and innovation, mentors from the former Yugoslavia and thousands of young and talented people, including future entrepreneurs, innovators, top marketers and enthusiasts who are determined to intent to change the world for the better through their call. The festival is held for two days and the program can be viewed here.

Why I Want To Attend Spark.me 2019

Spark.me is a yearly conference taking place on the rugged and beautiful coast of Montenegro. It has become one of the most carefully curated business and internet conferences in Southeast Europe. Over the years, it has attracted a growing following of attendees and industry leading speakers in the fields of branding, marketing, business development, innovation, and startup ecosystems.

The obvious reasons for attending Spark.me in 2019: 

Networking: Spark brings together professionals from across the spectrum from different industries. A conference this diverse in attendees and speakers allows you to meet new friends, possible new business partners or clients. It gives you as the attendee an opportunity to succeed in growing your business and network. 

Education: Spark provides a unique learning experience. Since the goal of the conference is not to be the biggest, the organizing team designs an experience geared toward learning and developing skills. 

Location: The location of the conference in the past has been amazing. Located just outside of Budva, the conference was held on the sunny coast of Montenegro. This year, the conference is receiving an upgrade by moving to the Bay of Kotor specifically Porto Montenegro in Tivat. The picturesque location serves as the perfect backdrop for a convergence of industry leading minds.

These are the oft repeated reasons for attending Spark.me, and they do factor heavily into why I attended in the past, and will do so this year again.

(You can still pick up tickets for Spark.me happening May 25-26.)

However, there are a few more reasons. These are usually what I tell people to really sell them on the experience. 

The real reasons to attend the Spark.me conference…

Spark.me is a carefully curated experience.

The time and energy that the organizing team puts into not merely running through a checklist to make sure the conference happens, but carefully crafts an experience is evident. The planning happens almost year round. The speakers who are chosen are particularly selected. The stage is thought through from an audience’s perspective. The ambiance is geared toward those attending. Spark.me is not only a conference, but a designed experience. 

Secret sauce of the organizers…. They care!

The event is put together by a community which cares about the larger community. The beauty of the Spark.me conference is in the details and attention paid to little things leading up to the conference, during it, and afterwards. 

If you pay attention to social media, you will notice different members of the team connecting with potential attendees and answering questions. During the event, the organizing team give recognition for special days (including birthdays) of attendees and create an experience even for the speakers. They notice the small things because they care. 

The opportunities to meet the right people. 

While we all know that a major reason to go to any conference is for the opportunity to network. However, the Spark.me offers the opportunity to make sure you are meeting the right people. With a conference planned so closely around the experience it provides, it easily attracts like minded people not only from the immediate Balkan region but from across the globe. In 2018, Spark drew 580 people from 28 countries. This type of diversity in a close setting brings the right people together to make change happen, encourage new ideas, and perfect existing initiatives. 

Lastly…

For Startups, Spark.me brings the opportunity to pitch and learn from investor coupled with the opportunity to win a trip to be seen in the TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 Startup Alley, on October 2-4, 2019.

I’m looking forward to Spark.me and seeing a community that has welcomed me over the last 5 years. Watching this conference grow from relatively early stages in 2015 until today has been exciting. I look forward to seeing what speakers, the conference will bring to the stage. I can’t wait to see friends that make yearly pilgrimage. And I look forward to making new connections that will undoubtedly last through the coming years. 

If you do visit Spark.me in May, check out some of these tips on what to do during this time of year.

Boat Milica: A family's Story

On a cooler than normal day last spring with a bit of overcast and wind, my family along with a visiting friend decided to do something that we had not done in the two years of living in Montenegro, take a boat tour around Skadar Lake National Park. After asking our friends from Undiscovered Montenegro, Ben and Emma, they recommended Boat Milica. Within a few hours, we were off for our 3 hour tour around the largest lake on the Balkan Peninsula.

We arrived in Virpazar about 30 minutes outside of Podgorica to begin the tour around the lake which included seeing the local wildlife and monasteries. It is easy to tell from the pictures that the tour itself was amazing. The vibrant greens signaling the newness of the season created the perfect backdrops for the old, stone monasteries being restored. As we went around, our guide, Ksenija, was exceptional at pointing out the intricacies of the lake, its history, and wildlife. After a quick dip in the lake by our friend, we returned from our tour with a new appreciation for Montenegro’s wild beauty which happens to be only a short drive from us.

While the tour was memorable and the service provided is highly recommended, it is the story of the Boat Milica which really draws me in, and causes an even greater appreciation for their business. The family Dabanovic is from Virpazar knowing the lake intimately. During the economic downturn around 2011, the Jelena guided her family to do something different to survive. They started Boat Milica.

As a family, they divided responsibilities and took to creating their business building it slowly. The daughters learned new languages to specifically help with foreign tourists, they built their wooden boat in the shop of an old master in Podgorica, and Andrija began guiding tours. Andrija grew up on the lake and is familiar with al the ins and outs. The stories, legends, history, and diversity all get proper treatment during the tour. And Jelena became the only woman in Virpazar to own and operate a boat tour showing off Skadar Lake

The family worked together and have been successful together. Even in the face of some struggles, they have proven resilient and creative to help one another and their town by attracting tourists to this natural resource hidden in the interior of Montenegro.

The Dabanovic story is one of resilience in the face of difficulty. It is exemplary of what it takes to be resourceful and succeed. The family found support among themselves continually encouraging each other to do better and achieve their goals.

Tips for Today's Leader

While doing a bit of reflecting, I began thinking on the different areas of leadership that I have held. And how fulfilling these roles brought responsibility for the success of myself, my family, co-workers, a organization, or maybe a group of friends. In most cases, all or some of these were bound together. Here are three lessons/principles that I feel summarize not only my experience, but some of the greatest successes and failures of leaders that I have admired, or at least gleaned understanding.

BE

At the moment, I am a bit consumed with this little, yet significant word. In any case, a leader must “BE.” A leader must BE himself. A leader must BE present in the situation, organization, crisis, etc. A leader must simply “BE.”

Too many times, leaders can become sidetracked by their position or title and fail at any of the above examples or countless others. Many times, I have witnessed leaders who fail at the first because they do not know who they are. Therefore they fail at being themselves which is usually why the position of leader was acquired. The reality remains that if a leader fails at being who they have been made to be, it is only a matter of time before other stressors are evident: unrealistic expectations, taking on tasks that are not a good fit, poor vision, etc. All of which can be curbed to a great degree when a leader knows their own person, and chooses to BE that person.

BUILD

Leaders must be able to build around themselves. This means understanding personal weaknesses, and building a team that will meet those weaknesses. This also requires a leader to be secure enough to admit faults and recognize that others excel in these areas. Too many times, leaders try to cover their failures and weaknesses at the fear of being “exposed” as a fraud. A true leader will understand these faults and recognize them as strengths within others looking to build the best possible team.

Not only does a leader build a team, but they also build an environment in which the team functions. The trustworthy leader facilitates and orchestrates the environment in which the team will flourish. This is not unchecked freedom, but accountability balanced with room for errors which can bring growth. Significant growth if the right environment has been built. LEaders bear this weight. It is tough, but that is why they are leaders.

EMPOWER

Leaders empower those around them. Plain and simple. If someone is not exercising empowerment, they are more of a manager or authoritarian rather than a leader. Leaders set people free to excel and create in ways and areas in which the leader may not be able to do. This is tied into the security of the one leading. In my experiences, those who are most insecure are the ones most controlling and authoritarian. The adverse has been true as well. Those who I have found to be most inspiring as leaders were the ones empowering me to be who I was made to be, and even helping me get there.

A leader who encourages their team member(s) to grow can be empowering. The leader who says, “Yes. Now let me help you get there,” is truly empowering and moving not only the individual forward, but the team is moving forward. It is not enough to “inspire” people to do what we want them to do. This can easily become manipulation. But leaders must inspire and empower people to become what they are passionate about and driven toward.

A leader who can be, build, and empower is a leader worth following. He is also a leader who is usually willing to follow when it is necessary.

What lessons or principles on leadership could you share?

Moving Abroad: Tips for success

The thought of moving abroad has always been a part of my dreams. Living life in what was the “normal” context was not appealing. The feeling was so strong that even when I was dating, I would ask their feelings to adventure through life outside of the U.S. However, living abroad does not come without challenges, and a mental struggle that will force many people back to the U.S. (or their country of origin). The expat life is not for the weak heart.

As I reflect on 4 years of living abroad, and doing business in a foreign country, here are some suggestions that I wish someone had given me.

Make connections before arrival.

This was the single most important advice that no one ever gave me. As you settle on where you will move and the business that you will conduct, begin making connections with others working the same or similar fields. Local groups exist which will be a valuable support network, and offer a way for one to begin automatically giving back to their host culture. Too many times, this gets overlooked, or people think they will grow their network upon arrival. However, this can be a slow process depending on the culture. Research and find out who the influencers and more interactive people in the community where you will move, and reach out to meet as soon as you arrive. Making connections before arrival will speed up trust building a relationship prior to setting foot in a country.

Social media is your friend.

 

Before leaving the U.S., I was warned of the “dangers” of being too active on social media when trying to adjust to a new life and culture. It would cause me to be too homesick, worsen culture shock, etc. For me, this was not the case. Social media can be and should be your friend for building your network, meeting new people outside of your normal context, and keeping up with current events that are not available because of language barriers. A majority of the people I meet come via FacebookLinkedIn, and Instagram. I have been able to meet government officials because of one tweet. Relationships for me have started long before meeting someone for the first coffee or business meeting because of the interaction through social channels. Active and genuine engagement are important for social media and the personality that is put out there, but this is a later post.

Begin learning the language before departure.

Another valuable insight that did not get mentioned. Learning the language is important, and usually gets emphasized upon arriving in a new country. However, one can start prior to arrival. For most, hearing the language is a struggle. Before leaving for your new home, take time each day to listen to music, radio, or stories in the host culture’s language. This will begin tuning the ear to the new sounds. Most linguists say it can take up to 6 months of just listening before one truly hears the unique sounds. This is an easy task to complete each day while driving, working, cooking, etc. that will pay off in the long run. Also, learning simple phrases and introductory conversations is easily accessible online. There is no reason to wait. Start the learning process before departure.

Learn new skills. Adopt new hobbies.

I am an advocate for life long learning. Many people will pigeonhole themselves based on their degree or background. Never stop learning. Moving abroad is the perfect context to take up a new hobby or learn a new skill that has been sitting in the back of the mind. We are never truly defined by our past, and should look to move forward in our careers and activities. The internet makes acquiring new skills such as coding, marketing, along with other the skills highly accessible. Again, social media, will open opportunities to learn about local clubs and hobbies that peak our interest. For me, it was cycling, blogging, and photography. These have been two things that have introduced me to new people, and given me another creative outlet. Do not be afraid to try something new and stretch yourself.

Humility goes a long way.

a lesson continually learned: humility. Sometimes approaching a new culture can bring a sense of pride as if the one entering has something to teach their host. The opposite is actually more accurate. The one entering has much to learn from their host. Enter the new culture with humility willing to ask those you meet for help. A space of humility creates trust and builds friendships faster and stronger than acting in the reverse. Maybe this one was told to me, but I was not humble enough to receive it. 

These are some suggestions for moving abroad. Some things can be done to help the transition process. Those mentioned have been what has impacted me the most. If you live abroad, where do you live? And What lessons have you learned?

Realigning Your Focus for the New Year

It is the year’s end, and we are facing the next. Ads and messaging bombard us to think about New Year’s goals and resolutions which, undoubtedly, will be abandoned by mid-February, and forgotten by April.

The challenge?

FOCUS.

Focus on goals and aspirations held deep within one’s heart and mind.

Reassess and refocus on the goals you had set, but did not achieve.

This is how the New Year should begin: with a realignment of focus for this coming year. Everyone becomes distracted, waivers off course, or completely derails from their original objectives (which can be good or bad). However, for those few things that are worthy enough of our time and effort, what is needed to see them take shape?

Here are 5 ways to realign your focus for the New Year.

Reflect honestly on the past year.

Every year is a fresh start for something new to happen or a restart to complete a journey previously started. Going into a a new year provides the perfect opportunity to reflect honestly and openly on the past year. Question yourself, and allow others to ask questions. This process of honest reflection opens the space to see if a goal went unmet because it was unrealistic or resulted from a lack of passion.

Reflection helps to know if we need to  realign our focus on the goal, or completely change possibly abandon the goal altogether. It reveals our passions and aspirations getting the new year started with proper focus.

Evaluate your purpose statement.

Simon Sinek spearheads the “Know Your Why” movement that has swept the business community. Read more from him here. The new year provides the perfect place to evaluate your purpose, your “Why” and how it is being lived out in daily life, especially work.

If and when the things we are doing do not lead to this purpose and passion, then we are forced with a decision. Do I leave this position? Do I quit this project? How can I refocus? Ultimately, how does my current profession, start-up, or project fit my purpose? Creating a purpose statement and evaluating it quarterly or annually creates focus heading into the new year.

Create goals and processes that lead to your purpose.

Goals and processes are the pathways to operating in your purpose and passions. Once getting a clear focus on what these are, set goals that will serve as clear benchmarks to show progress along the way. Goals challenge and push toward that vision and purpose statement for one’s life. Goals should be clear and concise to eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty. Here is good resource for several different perspectives and types of goals.

Pro tip: Share your goals with those you trust. It is easier to take steps with others supporting and helping to clarify your goals along the way. 

The other side of achieving your purpose statement is mapping the necessary processes. Create a strategic plan for hitting milestones. Carefully, consider not only the benchmarks, but the steps and challenges you will face. Identify new skills that need to be learned, and how you will acquire them. Once your processes have been set, stick to them for 3-4 months and evaluate. Are the processes moving you toward the goals and purpose laid out? Can they be improved?

Reassess your schedule.

Schedules are necessary. Some will cry reading this, but they are. They guide a day, week, month, or the year. A schedule sets the tone for productivity and creation. It provides structure that many of us need, even when we do not like to admit it.

They can also be a hazard to achieving goals. Poorly done schedules give the sense of busyness without considering direction. At the end of working day or week, it is easy to feel a lack off accomplishment despite the long hours. This is a result of a poor schedule.

Reassess your schedule. Make sure it guides toward your purpose and the individual goals set. Be flexible only when understanding personal processes for achieving your goals. Stick to it. Be unapologetic about it.

Reassess relationships.

The new year and a realigned focus also provides the perfect opportunity to reassess relationships. Those who surround us and serve as sounding boards for ideas, projects, and pursuits may not be the best to help achieve our passions and purpose. While it may not be necessary to completely cutoff relationships, it is good to evaluate where our time is spent. Do others help us achieve our goals or distract from them? Are they positive forces in our lives giving motivation and encouragement, or do they take energy and time?

Everyone needs to evaluate the people around them. Create circles where ideas can be challenged, informed, and progressed. Consider taking on a mentor to help you stay on track, or overcome challenges.

In a few days, we will kick off a new year. It is time for a fresh start. It is a time to adjust. It is a time to realign your focus for this year.

Let us know how we can  help. Drop us an email. Tell us about your purpose, passion, and ideas that you are working toward.

Branding with Matt Desmier

By the time this is written, I sat with brand strategy expert, Matt Desmier discussing possibilities for developing digital strategies for a city. However, the conversation did not start there…

Walking in and going through the usual greetings, the first thing that Matt said to me was to bring up my excluding him from the list of brand building lessons from the Spark.me conference. While this was not intentional, this post somewhat is because I’ll be seeing him again… soon. And I want to draw attention to Matt’s style (see video below for personal and professional style).

The reality is that when you look at Matt’s list of approach, style, and achievements, he really does stand alone. He can seem loud and outspoken, yet proves to be thoughtful and methodical in conversation always breaking down trends and possibilities. These are a few reasons, I enjoy listening and speaking to him. 

With that being said, Here are some guidelines that I have applied in my own processes as well as when working with others. 

Brands are built by what others are saying about you.

Brands, good or bad, are the summation of what others are saying about your business or products. Despite what many think, a business cannot dictate what others think simply by creating good content and strategies. Potential customers read what you say, but they believe what others say more. 

A good brand understands this, and makes their interactions with customers central knowing a good brand is being built by these actions. The same is true for the brand’s actions toward employees. Good brands develop good culture internally, and mobilize their greatest asset in the process. 

Brands are living things. 

Brands grow and mature. They shift. They evolve. 

As business leaders we need to expect this and guide our brands along how we desire them to go. They need to become something bigger and stretch. There may be times when the business becomes a bit uncomfortable in order to accomplish something new. This all part of the growth cycle. 

Much like in life, if a business is not growing and finding new ways forward, they quickly stagnate and die. 

Brand is the center of everything you do.

Every business, organization, even individuals need a center point to anchor it. This is the brand itself. A stated and active list of brand values and practices shape and define this center point. Values and practices form the foundation for the brand to be built on in the day to day. 

Keeping the brand at the center provides a guiding line when difficult decisions need to be made. Today, brands are forced to ask themselves if they will take a stand on political and social issues. Some choose to do so, and others do not. At the end of the day, when we know what our brand is about and what it values, we have a reason for making the decision. 

Brands that are successful have integrity.

Brands that people love have principles and act on those principles. They are honest. They have integrity. When brands lose a sense of their purpose or principles, they lose sight of who they are and create a PR crisis for themselves. 

This goes back to the need to understand the values of a brand. Founders and the early employees create the values, and act on them to solidify the culture of a brand. By their actions, they bring integrity to the brand. Brands that lose their integrity take a long road to recovery and few ever do recover. Integrity must be an operating part of a brand. 

These are a few guideposts on branding from Matt Desmier. I first heard him at the 2017 Spark.me Conference in Budva, Montenegro. His talk in 2018 (video below) was more pointed the topic of branding. It deserves a thorough listen. And it is certain to provide a framework to begin assessing your own business, organization, or personal brand.

Brand Building Lessons from Spark.ME

On my birthday in 2015, I found myself walking on stage at the Spark.me Conference in Budva, Montenegro. A few months prior, I had applied to be an official blogger (I also had purchased a ticket because I didn’t expect to be accepted as a blogger) at a conference I had never attended and only learned about the prior year. I had met some of the organizers over the preceding months, yet there I was receiving a cake and being wished “Happy Birthday!” in spectacular fashion.

I fell in love with a brand because I realized quickly, the people behind it CARE.

What is the Spark.me Conference?

The conference describes itself as “one of the most carefully curated business/internet conferences in Southeast Europe.”

Spark.me has been organized each year since 2013 as part of the Corporate Social Responsibility program of Domain.ME

While it may not be the biggest conference, I am certain it is one of the most intimate conferences allowing the participants close access and networking opportunities with leaders, pioneers, and top thinkers in the realms of marketing, tech, startups, and entrepreneurship.

(You may also find an astronaut or cyborg roaming around…)

Since I love this brand(-ed event), here are a few brand building lessons I learned over the 4 years of attending the conference. 

Be personable.

“We can’t love a logo. We love a person.” Mark Schaefer

Brand building is founded on connection and relationships with our audience. We tell stories that allow people to love and trust our brands. Mark Schaefer, a globally recognized top marketing strategist and speaker, spoke in 2018 about the need for brands to become more personable to succeed in their marketing. Mark spoke about the decline of mass marketing content centered around the digital identity of a company. 

Instead, brands must focus on the community that they are building. Brands must give their customers and audience a story to tell and an experience to share. User generated content and community shared content are some of the best brand building resources out there. It is up to businesses and companies to activate the potential of their audience.

Set yourself apart.

“What are you known for?” Mark Schaefer

During Mark’s talk in 2018, he spoke a bit on personal branding, but hit points that I believe can extend into our businesses. In fact, it is an age old branding lesson. The need to be known for something. The need to differentiate. 

Whether it is a personal brand we are building or our business brand, we need to carefully consider what we want to be known for. Is it already saturated with content, or is there a market to saturate? We find our niche, and focus there with persistence to make our brand known. 

Look Inside.

“It’s a lot easier to change what you say about yourself than changing yourself.” Denise Lee Yohn

Self assessment can be difficult for anyone especially businesses and organizations that see something going wrong, but not sure what it is. Denise Lee Yohn, a brand building expert, recognized that strong, healthy brands are strong and healthy internally first

“Good brands start from within.”  Denise Lee Yohn

The priority of businesses in developing the far reaching brand must be building something special and strong within their own ranks prior to looking outward. Creating hero stories for the employees creates a greater opportunity for hero stories for the customers. In fact, brands have a strong reach because they have strong employee engagement with their brand.

Start at the core.

“Brand values = meaning” Peter Kim

In 2017, Peter Kim, VP of Digital Consumer Engagement at The LEGO Group, spoke about the story and essence of the LEGO brand, and more importantly how great brands make things awesome. They do this by pursuing brand values which bring meaning into the lives of the employee and consumer. 

Much like Denise’s reminder that amazing brands begin from within, Peter emphasized that amazing brands are so because of their values and the meaning those values bring. “In the case of the LEGO Group, their mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. Everything they do goes back to children and how to support the children.” 

Collaborate with your community. 

Timo Vuorensola, a Finnish filmmaker well known for films such as Iron Sky and Iron Sky: The Coming Race, has also become known for his achievements in crowdsourcing and crowdfunding his work. During his talk, he discussed both areas heavily and how he was able to leverage the help of the community that bought into his ideas to create something special. 

For brands, the ability to not only engage them as an audience, but then go deeper by collaborating with them moves them into actually being a community. Communities much like families are not necessarily born but forged over time.

As a brand how do you collaborate with your community to create greater success and draw them deeper into your brand story?

Be mindful of the process.

“Show up! Follow up! Close!” Steli Efti

To say Steli Efti is high energy is an understatement, but with that energy he can deliver so much value in such a short time. He has been launching companies and building brands since the age of 17. He is currently the CEO of Close.io

In 2015, Steli forced his audience to think about the basics. He challenged those around him by acknowledging the solutions to their problems are known, but not convenient. In the end, solutions are left undone. 

One challenge brands face is consistency and follow through. Steli points out that when startups and brands show up, follow up, and deliver, they will win. It’s a day to day process, but it forces consistency by the brand. In today’s media savvy world that disseminates information quickly, being inconsistent once can kill the brand. 

Spark.me 2019

This year the organizing team has already made some exciting announcements! 2018 saw the conference surpass new heights in participants and interest. This year the conference will move to a larger venue in Porto Montenegro in Tivat!

The Spark.me conference is not only about the keynotes and speakers. It also includes being a part of a transformative and engaging community. Tickets have gone on sale. I recommend grabbing your friends, team, or business partners and become a part of the community in 2019! 

Experience Spark.me and experience Montenegro!

(For tips about what to explore in Montenegro in May check out my post here. And let me know you’re coming.)

Designing Employee Experience

I remember starting a new job when I was fresh out of college. I worked for an insurance firm. The application process was long and interviews even longer. However, by the end of the process, I felt as I had achieved something simply by being hired. Training lasted six months. Then I was released to my desk. But wait. Where is my desk?

The walk from the training area, which was a direct route into a bright open room, became a maze of hallways and crowded sections of tall cubicles. Openness was transformed into a dark, closed space. The design of each area stood in stark contrast, and left two different feelings on the employees who would spend eight hours a day in an already high stress work environment.

Companies talk about the importance of human centric design when it comes to products, but are they asking the same questions about human centric design for employees?

I look back and think about that job. Overall, the company was good. It had excellent benefits and bonus structures. I had two direct supervisors that I enjoyed, one of which transformed my thinking of leaders and the employees that work under their charge. However, the impact of the poor design of workspace and processes negatively affected my thinking. I believe this does not have to be the case, and using the design process in how personnel are hired and the creating spaces can greatly improve the mental effects felt by employees.

Here are 4 areas intentional, human-centric design can help companies and their employees:

Hiring 

Hiring processes range from simplistic one form and interview hires to multi-page, levels of interviews, offers before a candidate is accepted. Throw in a probation period or lengthy onboarding process, and the steps become quite confusing.

Research shows that employees begin to make their first impressions about a company during the interview process. These impressions can last even after a job is accepted as an employee evaluates products and services of the companies or internal procedures.

While companies form products, services, and procedures around the general operation of the organization, more thought should go to the employees that are to champion these. This begins with the application and interview process to hire. Designing a well communicated, streamlined process demonstrates transparency, buy in, and a better user experience for the new candidate. It impacts the long term view of the organization.

Space 

One of the biggest drawbacks in the personal story above was the space design. I spent six months in a space that created high interaction and activity with enough boundaries to keep people focused. The reality of the long term workspace was much different. It decreased collaboration and communication among teams especially between supervisor and team member. The high cubicle walls darkened the space and created a maze effect.

In companies that require high employee to employee engagement, workspaces must be designed to fit the needs of the employee as well as the company. Design of the workspace creates a positive mental and emotional feel that motivates the employee to be present going beyond the general goal of efficiency. One way to utilize design of the workspace, is involving the employees in the layout, decoration, and creation of the space itself.

Education

Employee education and growth are two major ways to keep employees engaged and retained with the company. However, many times employee development plans fail even when couched as “personal” plans. Why?

Writing for Forbes’, Joe Folkman suggests that these development plans are not driven by the employee, but another program created broadly. The problem: “the one size fits all” ends up helping few and fails at the intended purpose. Design thinking forces us to look back at the employee, and create something geared to the needs of the “user” rather than the company. 

Organizational Structure

The structure of a business can play a large part in the employee’s experience. A major shift is taking place even among established companies from a hierarchical approach to a flatter organizational structure. A major reason for this is creating a more agile structure to address constantly changing patterns in tech and how is business is conducted.

Realigning an organization to improve communication and address changes at a faster rate will improve the company’s ability to be proactive and react when necessary to morphing trends. A flat organization also improves employee experience by removing layers of a process and empowering the employee to form creative solutions that receive more direct and clear feedback. The experience is enhanced, and employees feel more able to achieve creating a more motivating work environment.

To be fair, design thinking will not address all issues that human resources or a company will face. Not every employee will be satisfied in their new roles. However, adapting a more employee centric approach to running a business helps to identify a more proper fit for new hires.