How rapid Innovation got me into a castle @ MLOVE Forum

This post aims to demonstrate how you can test assumptions on a personal and business level. You may know that Recommend.to helps marketers to acquire new customers by rewarding existing customers for recommendations. But to find the best incentive for each individual we test assumptions constantly. I already ask myself a lot why people do things. After years of studying psychology, I can assure you that I am not much closer to finding out THE answer. However, I’ve found that certain techniques produce temporary answers, enabling you to overcome many obstacles.

Obstacles are often our brain’s simulations of the world and should always be tested against reality. For example, when I imagine people who live different lives and who appear to accomplish more and have an abundance of options available to them, I often imagine that they must BE different. The same applies to companies. Are profitable businesses fundamentally different at their core, or do they apply more agile mechanisms to deal with a changing world? Luckily, I was able to test both assumptions in the last couple of days. I learned more about what makes agile people tick and what recommend.to can do to deliver results in an environment of extreme uncertainty.

The place of action was the Weissenhaus castle, bought and renovated by Jan Henric Buettner, a person who is so successful that he does not need a LinkedIn profile (at least I could not find it). Harald Neidhardt, the founder of MLOVE, has made it a tradition to invite a small group of people to Weissenhaus for the MLOVE Forum, to talk about the one unifying quality that made most of them quite rich.

M — The MLOVE Forum 2015 — Time out for the next big ideas from MLOVE.com on Vimeo.

But let’s back up for a second

Last week, I met for coffee with May-Lena at the Betahaus. Meeting with interesting people who seem nice to talk to has become quite of a habit. We talked about her goal to connect established businesses to startups and she encouraged me to apply for the MLOVE Forum. This opportunity was made possible by NextMedia.Hamburg, the city‘s initiative for the digital and media industry and May-Lena (director of nextMedia StartHub) coordinated the collaboration. With only 2 hours left before the deadline, Christian and I immediately started working on the 600 character description of “Recommend.to” and came up with this (translated from the original):

Ads are threatening to bury us and many only trust recommendations from friends. That’s why successful businesses use the Recommend.to social sharing widget on their website. The widget enables your customers to easily share your products within their social network. Thanks to our Big-data driven automatic reward optimization and customer tracking, businesses can present target specific brand messages (MLOVE theme: AdTech) and Brands can reach conscious and authentic growth with their biggest fans (MLOVE theme: Accelerated Brands).

As a young company (by this writing we are officially 12 days old), we are still figuring out how “Recommend.to” can best deliver value. So in the 600 character pitch, I tried to ensure that people would get a sense of the problem, our solution and the relevance of “Recommend.to” for the MLOVE audience (AdTech & Accelerated Brands). Certainly not perfect, but those three sentences took one hour and fifty minutes to write and re-write. Exhausted from trying to find the perfect balance between mass appeal and special interests, I pressed send.

Waking up the next morning, I immediately checked my phone for emails (bad habit, I know). When I read: “Dear Jonathan, you have won…” my arms flew to the sky. Up till now, whenever we won a ticket to anything the announcement was always followed by “now please buy a discount ticket to our event”. But this time, it seemed like “Recommend.to” had finally won something of actual value.

The following days our new team, now including David Richter as our CTO (yes, the search was fruitful), worked on the FastBill Showcase of “Recommend.to”. The new design went up, and we are now running more tests of the smart reward system.

Since I am just an ok programmer, two days before the presentation Christian and I started working on our marketing strategy and the pitch. Luckily, I was already scheduled for the next day to speak about why people share and recommend things at the Betahaus Breakfast. There was a lot to talk about, based on our studies and continuous optimization of the smart sharing widget. But rather than talking about Recommend.to’s nerdy side (Big-Data and Micro-Experiments), the aim was to make our insights accessible to a broader audience. Nevertheless, I kept it a bit shorter this time and added the pitch to the end to receive some feedback.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUZw-TL5cPY

The trial pitch @Betahaus Hamburg.

Well, the pitch was too long and some people were not sure what we do (provide a smart sharing widget). Thus, the 3-minute pitch appeared to require many more hours of refinement and practice. But there was little time because after receiving that feedback, I went straight to the MLOVE Forum at Weissenhaus. During the ride in a car, which had an outlet for my laptop, I tried to fix the issues of the pitch. Who was this pitch meant for, what should they feel and remember afterward. Having only three minutes meant that every single word counted. Thus I wrote up the whole presentation word by word, tried to paint pictures and make sure that the main point was delivered. The main point, of course, was to let possible customers and investors know we exist and are building something of value. Rewriting the last sentence for the n-th time, we arrived at the Weissenhaus, and when it’s gates opened, a new world was revealed.

Prep time with (from left to right) , Anne (Pasary), Jonathan (Recommend.to), Jonathan (Appinio), Christoph (Audioguide.Me) and Hannes Fehr

Behind the gates was a beautiful compound, full of inviting buildings and people. It felt like being invited into someone’s living room as the guest of honor. Yes, there was fantastic food and enough good wine to drown David Hasselhoff, but what surprised me most was the relaxed openness of everyone attending. The attendees were people who usually are truly busy, but during the event it almost felt like being around friends you have known for a while. Well, If all your friends never sleep, are smart and / or eccentric and have been working hard for decades. But I wasn’t alone, the other MLOVE Ticket winners, Anne (Pasary), Jonathan (Appinio), Christoph (Audioguide.Me) and Patrick (Wundercar) were great comrades-in-arms. They were also given the opportunity to pitch and they were all focused on getting the most out of their time here. Additionally, we were responsible for reducing the attendees mean age a little

The MLOVE Crowd

The speaker line-up was filled with many memorable moments. Here are some of the people that made an impression:

A woman (Sophie Kleber) who talked about the full integration of interfaces. E.g, when you need more laundry detergent, you press a button on your washing machine (duh).

A guy (Robert Böhme), who build a Moon Rover and hacked into Chancellor Merkel’s “secure” phone multiple times.

A woman (Charlotte Jarvis), who made sure that everyone in the room had bubbles of DNA solution on them. The DNA encoded an Mp3 of violin music which was inspired by the noise of a data center.

A guy (Tim Leberecht), who advocated romance in business (check out his book). He also built beautiful offices that force people to bump into each other .

The Unifying Force at MLOVE

After listening to the talks and speaking with participants, I learned two things; (1) people are people, and even those who think amazing thoughts and do amazing things are just people you can talk to. They always smile back and you can talk to them about either business models, abstract algebra or surfing (the self-driving version of course).

(2) The one thing that appears to unite the attendees of this forum is living innovation, possessing the willingness to leap forward and either fall flat on your face or start flying. It seems that once you have eaten the carrot that got you far, the drive to create is what remains. People test visions against reality, because its fun to just do things and learn.

The one thing that appears to unite the attendees of this Forum, is living innovation

It’s not a vacation.

While this insight felt kind of nice, it also pushed me to re-evaluate how we could truly make rapid innovation a core “recommend.to” value. For now, I put the word “core” at a prominent place in the pitch, and did a final rewrite of the last few words to read:

The right Rewards lead to social Recommendations. Trust equals bucks! So join our journey as a customer or investor.

Then it was time to pitch, I had used a new motivation method (one minutes of victory posing, push ups until failure and five minutes of meditation) so when I stood on stage, I felt my heart beating from the push ups, but was calm on the outside. I rehearsed the complete pitch at least 30 times, wrote it out, rehearsed it in the shower and dreamed of it. Even though my focus was on trying not to shake while holding the mic and making sure my voice would not fail me, the pitch just happened. Honestly, I don’t know how it went. Afterwards, some people gave great feedback on how to improve, some didn’t quite get what we do (for which I blame solely myself) and others thought it was good. I guess it was ok.

The Workshops

As part of the agenda, we picked groups of people and a theme to talk about. I picked AdTech, which was hosted by Peter Hamilton (@peterhamilton). During the session we threw around ideas about data gathering, KPI definition and data driven decision making. One key learning was the probable over reliance on past data to drive decisions. One may be better off learning from past experiences and use them as the starting point for a new sets of small experiments. In other words, rolling out campaigns optimized by up to date micro-experiments. Guess what, that is exactly what “Recommend.to” does.

People’s Business

Coming back to the people, The MLOVE Forum gave me a glimpse into a world of rapid innovation and creation. A drive shared by like-minded and approachable people. This even extended to a noteworthy encounter with one of the Innovator’s daughters. It was noteworthy, because growing up in an environment of abundance may have a negative impact on a person’s development. For example, getting used to success without having earned it and becoming like that sweet sixteen girl who gets an amazing car, but freaks out because its the wrong color (kind of missing the point of the gift).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JvtlB_NzI8

But what I have encountered, both by growing up and by attending the forum, are down to earth people with an open and unpretentious personality. No one can choose what kind of environment they are born in, but everyone can make the best of it and create their own future. Thus, what I first described as seeing people who appear to BE different may also be a reflection of my own prejudices and anxieties about (maybe one day) becoming affluent. In which case, experiencing the last days demonstrated that no path is set in stone.

About that path…

Rapid Innovation: Changing the pitch, changing the product, constantly testing your customer’s reaction to your content. The MLOVE has shown a possible future in which innovation drives the business. Maybe this is the only way to succeed in environments of extreme uncertainty. So when the sun started setting, I reminisced about everything I learned so far, drank sweet cocktails and started feeling pretty good about myself. While standing in a group, a cheery fellow, Michael Kent, joins our conversation and takes me aside to tell me that “Recommend.to” was an awesome idea. Although he had bad experience with competing products, he truly believed in the power of recommendations. He points out, that if we do this right, “Recommend.to” will make a lot of money quickly. Emboldened by his support and one or two cocktails, I say in, my somewhat drunken excitement, that “we’ll be amazingly rich and successful in a minimum of 2 years”. Michael slowly tilts his head and his smile disappears. I feel his arm on my shoulder and hear: “Look at your confidence. No Jonathan, if you are lucky, it will take 5 years”. He continuous with a more detailed explanation and we talk about internationalization strategies and necessary support structures. Later that evening, I think about the first words he said — 5 years.

Before the gates to the Weissenhaus opened, I was a lot more aware that our business plan did not include an “exit-date” and that the path ahead was full of virtually unsurmountable obstacles. I’m convinced that our team of seasoned entrepreneurs (Christian Häfner, René Maudrich and David Richter) combines the experience and expertise to pull this off, but there is still a long road ahead of us. In other words, an evening with successful people doesn’t substitute for years of hard work. Thanks to Michael and the other Mentors (Anton, Hannes & Kay) for sharing their learnings and to the whole MLOVE Forum for providing a glimpse into a world dominated by the drive to innovate. Now back to work.

Special Thanks to Dan Tyler (www.heisenbergmedia.com) for making some of these pictures.


Originally published at blog.recommend.to on May 12, 2015.