How to fail at reference selling (and how not to)

Back when I was a sales engineer, I’d occasionally re-read Rich Casselberry’s post entitled, “So you want to meet with me.” Rich was a customer of mine, and he had great advice for vendors who wanted time on his calendar.

Since September, I’ve been running marketing for Infinio, and in doing so I’ve gone from only thinking as a “seller” to also thinking as a “buyer.” My entire career has been in sales and marketing, but now I’m also a purchaser of marketing software and services. I have a new appreciation for Rich’s pain and preferences. And I have some of my own.

Today’s rant is on reference selling. Reference selling is, theoretically, a great idea. Rather than telling me about your product, tell me about someone who succeeded with your product. Instant third-party validation. It’s why when we’re selling we focus so much on customer stories, and why when we’re marketing we seek to publish case studies.

Reference selling can also be very useful in cold calling and cold emailing. But it can also be completely useless.

Exhibit 1: Ineffective reference selling

Today I received an email touting assistance this company had provided “…companies like Microsoft, Tinder, Reddit, and SurveyMonkey…”


It’s hard to fathom a list of companies that my company has less in common with. Sure, they are all well-respected technology companies (in Tinder’s sake, well-respected modifies technology). But not one of them is at the scale or size of Infinio, or in the same technology space as us. Sure, we aspire to be Microsoft (who doesn’t?) but it’s not apparent from a cold email that the fact this company helped Microsoft means anything to me.

Admission time.

The truth is, I’m a grump when it comes to cold calls and cold emails. I should be nicer, really. I work with salesguys all day and then I go home and my husband is in professional sales as well. But I can’t help it.

So there has been just a single cold email I’ve responded to this year. And it was this one.

Exhibit 2: Effective reference selling

A few months ago, I received an email from a conference exhibits company. They used the name of my industry’s biggest tradeshow in their subject line, and their short email included names of eight companies whose booths they had produced last year.

Of these eight companies, all were in our general space, two were roughly the same stage as us, four were bigger, and two were well-known large companies. I knew people who worked at two of the companies.

Of course I was interested. I immediately emailed Infinio’s Events Manager, and said, “Can you also take a look at this company?  The other booths they have done are relevant to us.” She met with them, and it was a great fit, and now we’re very interested in working with them.


Here’s the thing. I don’t have any idea if the first company had something I’d want. I have no idea because I don’t have time to follow up on every cold email I get (I’ve gotten nine, just today.) And that company didn’t take the time to learn enough about me to approach me in a way that would catch my interest

It’s a good lesson. And as a marketing leader, I have an extra arrow in my quiver – the experience of being a customer.

Where are the female tech evangelists?

A few weeks ago, Todd Mace posted the following on Twitter, about his blog post on tech evangelists:

Those are great examples of people contribute a lot to our community – and the rest of this post is in no way a slight to them.


One of Todd’s asks was for other evangelists he may have left off the list.  Twitter provided some more.

Again, those are great examples, and I follow most of those people, have hired some of them on a contract basis, and always enjoy seeing them in person.


In the ensuing discussion, which was a mix of “what do you mean by evangelist” and “thank you for including me,” as well as some more additional names, and not one woman’s name was added to the list.

Not one.

Is it actually possible, that there are NO women evangelists?  I get it, there are fewer of us. When you go to a tech conference, there’s never a line for the restroom (and when is there never a line for the restroom?)  But I don’t think that there aren’t women evangelists, I just don’t think we call them that.

There is a (post-feminist?) trope I’ve heard that says, women who work are balancing so much with work, family, home, elderly parents, that we don’t have time for work-related extra-curriculars.  We go out for beers after work less often, we attend fewer conferences, and we don’t have the time to collaborate on outside-of-work professional projects.

The thing is, I don’t think that’s true.  I am part of a professional networking group that meets monthly.  Two of our community’s podcasts (Speaking in Tech and Geek Whisperers) each have a female host.  And based on anecdotal evidence, I will make an educated guess that tech conferences have a male/female ratio of attendees that mirrors that of the industry.  Speakers, not so much.

In a post that she has since retired, Shanley Kane writes that men and women get different titles for doing the same job.  “When women do it, it’s community management.  When men do it, it’s technical evangelism…When women do it, it’s marketing. When men do it, it’s growth hacking.”  She’s exactly right.  I think there are many, many women in our community who are influencing and impacting and contributing, and I think we just don’t call them “evangelists.”

And since being an “evangelist” is sexy while being a “community manager” (or whatever the title is) isn’t, women aren’t getting as much attention for their contributions.

Do you remember when Mitt Romney referred to a “binder full of women” when explaining how he tried to bring more women into his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts?  Well, I got out my binder full of women…women evangelists that is:

And Gina helped me out:

The point I made to Todd was simple:

And that’s the thing.  There’s a revolution going on around how people learn and communicate. Temple Grandin keynoted at SXSW about learning styles, and Susan Cain’s research on intro/extraversion is being considered groundbreaking in how people communicate at work. Isn’t it possible that evangelism can be a broader practice than was initially defined?

Here’s the other thing.  A lot of recent surveys and papers have pointed out that the single most important factor in job satisfaction is the feeling of appreciation and contribution.  I’ll posit that is true not just for job satisfaction, but for community satisfaction, too.  If we continue not to recognize the women in our community, they (we) will stop wanting to contribute.  And that will be a major loss.

Todd’s not a bad guy – he was happy to add these women to his list. It’s a failure by our community, I believe, to properly recognize everyone’s contributions. And it doesn’t escape me that I added women, but there is a lack of other kinds of diversity in this list as well.

Let’s see how we can get better at this, shall we?

Here’s something else Amazon could sell me

Amazon sells me a lot of stuff.  I read somewhere that you can pull a report of everything you have bought from Amazon, so I did, but I’m afraid to look at it.  In a given week, I probably place 4-6 orders, not counting my standing monthly “Subscribe and Save” orders, or the ones mrDiva places. Now we also have an Amazon Echo so we can just ask “Alexa” to order things for us from Amazon.

Here’s a list of what I’ve ordered from Amazon in the past week, and here’s where I would have bought it pre-Amazon:

  • Sneakers for my daughter (Stride Rite)
  • Water shoes for my daughter (Target)
  • Duplo (Lego) set (Toys R Us)
  • Measuring cup (Target)
  • Humidifier cleaner (Supermarket)
  • Book (Barnes and Noble)
  • Diapers for my daughter (Target)
  • Diapers for my son (Target)
  • Wipes (Target)
  • Birthday gift for friend (Toys R Us)

Needless to say, Amazon has captured a huge share of wallet in our household.

We know that Amazon plays games with prices – and that “list price” is a construct whose time may be over.  Of course Amazon offers me products they think I’ll like and follows me around the internet offering me items I’ve looked at.

But I think Amazon could be even smarter with their Big Data.

One way is with Amazon Pantry.  Pantry is for household and supermarket items, and you basically fill a box of a certain size, then pay flat rate shipping.

The thing is, I’m a great candidate for Pantry.  In fact, I make a monthly grocery store run to the “big” grocery store to get cereal, granola bars, microwave popcorn, cookies, chips, and all the things my local market charges through the nose for, and that my organic market doesn’t carry.  (I mean, it would kill them to stock Oreos?)  I’ve bought some of these items from Amazon in the past.

So I’ve looked at Pantry a few times.  I’ve even loaded up a box to see what it would cost.  But I feel like it’s hard to compare prices with what I typically pay, so I haven’t pulled the trigger.

And Amazon knows all this.  They know that I’ve put things in a Pantry box, that I’ve tried to search for the same items on both Pantry and non-Pantry pricing, and that I’ve given up with a half-full box several times.  So you know what would be compelling? Something like this:

“Hey Sheryl, we noticed you were looking at Pantry.  We combed through your orders in the past, and noticed that if you had bought these things in a Pantry box instead of a la carte, you would have saved $20!”

But that’s not my real idea for Amazon.  My real idea is around budgeting.  Personal finance is a huge online business.  Mint, Wave, and numerous others all have healthy businesses helping people budget. The thing is this: a HUGE portion of my budget is spent through Amazon.  They have a ton of data about my spending habits in different categories and my purchasing patterns.

There are also some things I don’t buy on Amazon.  But Amazon Payments could cover that. Theoretically, any online purchase I make could be tracked by Amazon.  And I would love to get that info – to know, where was I spending money, and what were the trends.  Were diapers really costing me as much as I thought?  How much did I spend on clothing last summer?

Not only that, but once Amazon started offering me financial information, I might be inclined to see what Amazon recommended for things like car insurance, or mortgage rates.  And they wouldn’t have to even sell that to me, but they could offer it as a referral.  I can already buy a cell phone plan, magazine subscription, and software contract from Amazon.  Why not insurance?  Why not my kid’s 529?

The point being, as I said earlier: Amazon has a huge share of our household wallet.  Their ability to provide information to me about my own spending habits would be valuable – valuable enough that I could turn to them for other purchases as well.  At this point, if Amazon doesn’t sell it, I probably don’t buy it.

How we (don’t) talk about maternity leave in the tech industry

This morning, Business Insider pointed me to a Medium post by Peretz Partensky, whose co-founder Na’ama Moran is pregnant while raising another round of VC funding for their startup.

It’s a great post, and if you’re interested in this topic at all – by which I mean, if you work in tech you should be – it’s an important read.  It also links to several other thoughtful pieces by women reflecting on pregnancy and work in high tech.

When talking about venture capitalists, Patensky says,

“But just because they aren’t asking, it doesn’t mean the pregnancy isn’t foremost in their minds. It is almost worse left unaddressed.”

This is an incredibly important point, and one that is relevant in general, not just in the venture world.  Somehow, the anti-discrimination laws introduced to protect women during pregnancy have instead created an environment where people are afraid to talk about pregnancy.

I’m lucky, and I know it – during both of my pregnancies and subsequent maternity leaves I worked for people who were open and invested in my successful departure and return.  Most recently, at my current company Infinio, where we’re very direct and everything is discussed openly, and before that at Dell, where I had great management who were somewhat stifled by corporate guidelines.  And that put me in a situation where I find the anti-discrimination laws, at least as they were enforced, a hindrance to figuring out exactly how I would manage being out.

I get it – first and foremost there should be laws that protect women from discrimination while they are pregnant and when they have children.  But right now this is coming at a cost of better – actually, any – dialogue about pregnancy and children in the workplace. People are afraid to say the word “pregnant.”  Afraid to ask about a woman’s plans. Trained not to push a woman to commit to plans after maternity leave.  And thus relegated to making assumptions about women’s preferences and choices that may be completely incorrect.

Like I said, I was lucky.  Before I went on my first maternity leave, my Director asked me if I thought I wanted to come back to the same level of responsibility or something that was less taxing.  (Legally, they had to hold my role at my level for 12 weeks, but he was asking something subtler than that.)   Knowing I wanted my old job back but being open to the idea that once I had the baby I’d feel different, I said, “I think full force, but I won’t know until it happens.”  I will always remember what he said, “No, if you think you want to come back full force, you probably will.”

It was great advice, and he was right.  It is also a great example of the kind of direct conversation that is usually missing in planning for maternity leave.

I’ve written about this before.  Here are my comments on maternity leave, and here are my thoughts on Marissa Meyer.  I also found this post on someone else’s experience being the first pregnant woman at her startup very helpful.

Twitter’s impact on public and private

I’ve been reading a lot about Twitter today, being its 10 year anniversary.  I joined Twitter just tweetover 5 years ago – so halfway through, although I’d argue it’s not the more interesting half.

One thing I read this morning was Om Malik‘s original critique of “twittr” from GigaOm.  Most notable was this comment: “The annoying SMS messages from nocturnal friends is not the only thing which bothers me about this service, but also the fact, that the texting a message(reply) to twttr ends up on their website.”

How far we have come that we don’t even think about that any more – or we do, and we want it to be on the website.

The thing I’ve noticed is this: we’re being really careless – liberal maybe? – about what’s public and what’s private online these days.  I started to notice this on Facebook first.  I’d comment on someone’s post, and someone would reply to my comment, but really be starting a 1:1 conversation with me.  Say the original post was about common core math.  I’d write something like “I don’t think it’s that bad – that’s how we make change from a $20.”  Then suddenly someone is saying to me, “Sheryl, hey, how’s your baby doing?”

At first I avoided these conversations, feeling like out in public on Facebook was like talking (too) loudly in a cafe. But over time it’s become somewhat a new norm and I have to admit to participating in it.

Another example is group text messaging.  I’m in several group chats for text messaging.  And eventually they all evolve into 1:1 conversations that everyone else is just a part of.

Another example is that I’m part of a ListServe (yes I live in 1992) for moms in the Boston area. Over 10,000 people are members.  The freedom with which we casually post questions and advice to an audience of 10,000 is stunning.

None of these is a bad thing, but I’m noticing that this blurring between what’s a private conversation and what’s a public conversation is getting greater.  It’s not public/private like people divulging secrets (although social media seems to be ripe for that too).  More what I’m getting at is that everything has become, by default, public, rather than by default things being private.

And I see that as Twitter’s influence.  The “Twitter Effect” if you will.  None of this is news, but think about it in the context of public and private.  Facebook is based on reciprocal relationships – you decide who is in your circle, and when you share, it is with those people. Twitter, conversely, is about showing up and talking, and anyone who is interested can listen to what you have to say. (OK, face it, they are both about selling your information and preferences, but this is about how you interact with the other users, not the advertisers.)

There are benefits to this – the impact of transparency on businesses, for example, is often positive.  And many people have cited social media as a simple and inexpensive way to alleviate loneliness, to connect people, and to provide access to resources not otherwise available in a traditional network.  But there are drawbacks, too – like oversharing, information overload, and a loss of the intimacy that comes from 1:1 sharing between friends.

The world we live in gets stranger by the day.  And it’s good to take a minute to reflect on where we are with social media – and where we’re going.

An idea for Uber

I’m an Uber fan.  And I’ve enjoyed following them from the start – from taxi hailing to private car service, surge pricing, the transition to delivery, and now to pooled rides.  I’m fascinated that a huge percentage of their fundraising goes towards legal battles.

And I’m also a customer.  As such, I talk to my drivers incessantly and ask them a lot of questions.  I sometimes take Lyft (if Uber is in surge and Lyft isn’t) but usually I use Uber.

Recently, I had a thought.  Sometimes I look at Uber and if it is in surge I take the T instead. Getting from work to home costs about $13 for UberX, $7 for UberPool, and is effectively free with a monthly T pass that’s already paid for.

I started to wonder – isn’t the market symmetric?  That is, just like putting Uber into surge is supposed to attract more drivers, wouldn’t there be an equivalent “under-surge” that would attract more passengers?

A lot has been written about whether Uber drivers really make the kind of money Uber claims they do.  It’s hard to determine whether it’s true or not.  But most of the drivers I talk to would rather have a fare than not, even if it’s a short one, or one that gives them an empty car back to the city.  It would seem to me that they wouldn’t mind fares where they just broke even, if it put more riders on the road.

The thing is, if there were an “under-surge” that enticed more riders to take Uber when there were a lot of empty cars driving around, it might create new rider habits.  If I took Uber home from work more often because I could take advantage of under-surge, perhaps I’d get used to taking Uber home and do it even when there wasn’t an under-surge.

Habits are powerful.  And the economics of Uber provide fascinating examples of all kids of market dynamics.

An untapped resource for the new on-demand economy

I love the on-demand economy.  Among my favorite apps are Favor, Uber, and Amazon Prime.  I was an early adopter of the ill-fated  And I eagerly follow the market.  There’s Washio for dry cleaning, Instacart for groceries, and even VetPronto for a veterinarian!

When Amazon started to offer “same-day shipping” I was really interested to understand how they were able to offer that.  Then came Google Express and Prime Now.

If you were to set up a new on-demand economy company, what would you want?  Perhaps a network of people who knew different neighborhoods really well; small, local warehouses for products; a fleet of transportation vessels to transport people and things around; and an incentive to succeed.

You know, like the U.S. Postal Service.

It’s amazing really, how much infrastructure the government already has that could compete with or fuel this new economy.  Let’s say you wanted to start a company that delivered freshly ground coffee beans, or fresh produce.  Wouldn’t it be convenient to have local warehouses that are uniformly distributed throughout neighborhoods?

The post office is in trouble if they don’t come up with something.  Their taking over Amazon’s Sunday deliveries indicates that they’re eager for new opportunities, but I think they should be thinking bigger.


Reliability of finding a taxi vs Uber

It used to be hard to get a taxi.

No, seriously.  I’ve lived in Boston for over 15 years now, and I have memories of calling cabs who never came, waiting on corners for the sight of one to flag down, calling the dispatcher back to ask where they are, and generally hating the whole process.  It always seemed like no matter which taxi number you called, you got the same harried dispatcher who was not thrilled that you were calling to request a cab.

When Uber came along, it was relieving.  I could use my app to request a taxi, I could at least know for sure that one was assigned to me, and see its progress towards me.  It might still take some time to reach me, but I felt like I had more control.

Now with Uber-X I can request someone to arrive at my door within minutes, even on off-hours. (Like today, at 4:30am.)  There are usually plenty of drivers on the road.  My entire routine of getting to the airport has changed, because I can rely on a car arriving when I want it, rather than factoring in time for wrangling a cab.

What’s most interesting to me (and this is where that PhD my mother wanted me to get in math would come in handy) is that in a pretty random system, this can be true.  That is, some number of people got up this morning, decided, “I’ll drive for Uber today” and enough of them ended up in my neighborhood at the right time so that when I needed a car, I could get one quickly.

Mass transit isn’t that efficient.  The taxi system isn’t that efficient.

I know that Uber does some amount of controlling the number of cars on the road with their surge pricing.  But Uber doesn’t assign territories or control whether cars are moving around or sitting still, or where they are.  Plus, there was no surge this morning.

It makes me wonder what other kinds of systems can be efficient in a purely random way.  I’m reading Who Gets What and Why about market design, and it’s got me thinking a lot about this.  But the experience I had this morning is more than just market design, I think.  It’s also about “randomness in a densely populated system”?

Stay tuned.


A lesson in content marketing from the boxed-meal industry

Like most families with two working parents and multiple little kids, dinner is a nightmare at our house.  Before kids, and then again before miniDivo, we did enjoy subscribing to those dinner boxes, like Plated and Blue Apron.  Sometimes it felt like there was a lot of prep/chopping, but the food was pretty good.  And I liked not having half a bulb of ginger left over and nothing to do with it.

The other day I idly checked their websites out to see what was new.  I was hoping that maybe they had a new service where for $8/plate, someone showed up at my house with a hot dinner that was already cooked.  Just kidding.  But I wanted to see what was new, and I thought maybe I’d get a few kits for some weekend cooking.

What I found was a near-perfect lesson in content marketing.

Content marketing is closely related to “inbound” marketing; the idea that you put good content out there to attract an audience that is looking for those things.  Since you provide valuable information to that audience, they respect you as an expert and look to you when they are ready to purchase.

Let’s take a look at what each company tells me about the food.

First up, Plated.

Plated wants me to sign up right away.  I don’t have a lot of choices on their website and it seems like to get any information I need to “join” or at least enter my info.







I can see pictures of the weekly options.

Weekly menu






I can see what ingredients are in the weekly recipes.








I can get nutritional info (although that’s in the help section.)

Nutrition Info







But I can’t get an actual recipe.  Unless I am a subscriber.

Lost recipe card




Blue Apron is the opposite of this.  When I get to the site, I am educated about the system and the food.






I can see the menu for the week.

Weekly Menu




And choose a specific dish to learn more about.






But here’s where their online strategies diverge.  Blue Apron is an open book.  Not only can I see the ingredients,


but I can also get the entire recipe – the instructions, help on my technique, advice on how to execute it, and what tools I need in my kitchen.







In short, Blue Apron is making all their recipe information public – I don’t have to sign up for their service or even give them my information to get access to it.  Not only are they going to give me the recipe, but they’re also going to offer me help in how to cook, show me videos on technique, and let me read other users’ comments about how to make each dish.  In contrast, Plated has a completely opposite strategy – I can’t get much information at all without signing up.  I need to be a paying customer to see their recipes.

It’s hard to say if this difference is based on a difference in marketing strategy or a difference in actual company strategy.  That is, do Plated and Blue Apron each think that they have the best way to acquire customers for a similar product?  Or do they each perceive their unique value proposition as something different: For Plated, do they see it as the recipes, while Blue Apron sees it as (for example) their supply chain.

I’m not sure I can answer that as an outsider.

As a customer, it’s a vastly different experience to browse their websites.  Plated (which I have ordered from in the past) feels less friendly.  And there’s more mystery around their product – the recipe itself and the ingredients are the product.  They’re betting that the images of their food, and how they position it (they have gourmet “chef’s table” choices, for example) will make it appealing enough to purchase.

By contrast, Blue Apron feels more accessible – it feels more like they’re there to let me browse a lot more about their products, even what it would be like to use them.  They’re betting, of course, that I eventually decide the recipes, tips, techniques, and suggestions are good enough that I will want to make them at home.  And that I’ll find their delivery of the ingredients appealing.

It’s an interesting twist not just on content marketing, but also on a freemium model.  You could look at it as the recipes being free, but you pay if you want the actual food delivered.

Either way, it’s an great look at content marketing – and the power it can have in customer acquisition.



Experimenting with my “to-do” list

I’m still a fan of the handwritten to-do list.

I know people really like many of the electronic alternatives, like using Google Tasks, or Trello, but I really like handwriting my to-do list.  Somewhat it’s habit, and somewhat it’s because years ago mrDiva took a Franklin Covey class and part of the system is to re-write, by hand, your to-do list each morning.  I don’t do that but I appreciate why it’s advised, so I stick with the handwritten list.

Also, as I go through the week and attend meetings, I take handwritten notes, and then put a circle in the margin next to anything that is a “to-do” for later.  Then when I have downtime, I either do those things, or transfer them to a central task list.

Starting this week, I’m trying two new things.

The first is something that I’ve been thinking is a good idea for a long time, but recently got re-affirmed when I attended Carson Tate’s session at the Mass Conference for Women.  Everything I put on my to-do list is going to start with verb.

No more “2016 budget.”  Now it will be “Draft 2016 budget.”  No more “Blogger strategy,” now it will be “Analyze blogger strategy.”

The reason for this is two fold. One – it’s more obvious how big a task it is if I write it as a verb. Analyzing a strategy is different from creating a strategy which is different from executing a strategy. They take different amounts of effort.  Two – another piece of advice from Tate is to group similar types of tasks together; as such, it is hard to do that if you don’t know what the task actually is.

The other new thing I’m trying with my task list is to keep a yellow post-it on my computer with the tasks that absolutely must get done that day.  I know a lot of people think that it’s a bad idea to keep different to-do lists, but I have had too many time-sensitive things fall through the cracks lately.  I’m hoping this is a good solution to that. Kind of like HSM for tasks.

I’ll let you know how everything goes.