The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Month: February 2010

“Personal Branding” Makes You Look Like a Jerk

Look at me, I even have my own logo on my hat!

Look at me, I even have
a T-Dub logo on my hat!

Personal branding is about marketing and marketing is about positioning and promotion. As someone who loves the art and science of marketing, I’ve seen how effective the right mix of tools can get people to buy. But, does marketing/branding work when you’re talking about people?

As Seth Godin says, all marketers are liars. And, while this type of approach might work for an athlete, it’s rare that a squeaky-clean branded image of a person is remotely close to who they really are. Branding a human being like you would a product or company is an inauthentic and an incredibly sad and cynical way of looking at how you approach people. It might be worth it when you’re a billionaire and making your living on a false impression of who you are, but for the rest of us normals it looks inauthentic.

The most obvious recent example is Tiger Woods. Pre-Thanksgiving ’09, Tiger Woods was the representation of mental toughness and success. Companies closely aligned with his personal brand and based their entire brands on this one man (see Accenture).  What happened? He wrecked his car, a harem of women came forward telling the world about their sexual exploits with the guy, his wife almost divorced him, Accenture treated him like kryptonite and he hasn’t played on the PGA Tour since.

When I was younger, my now hall-of-fame uncle pulled me aside and gave me some advice. He asked if I had ever heard him talk about his basketball career/talent. I thought about it for a bit and realized that I hadn’t. He said, “Exactly. Other people talk about it. Be good enough that other people talk about you. When you talk about how good you are, you sound like an asshole and people start rooting for your failure. Don’t be an asshole.”

My uncle was talking about reputation. What’s the difference between personal branding and reputation? Think of this vacuum from Hoover. Hoover has a well-known, positive brand. Yay marketing! But wait, the reviews (reputation) say that this vacuum [ahem] sucks. It doesn’t matter how much Hoover says about itself, those people who gave the vacuum a one or two are going to think their products are crap. The spin doesn’t matter.

Do you want people to respect you, see you as competent, know you for your integrity and develop the type of relationships that are going to help you further your career? Then worry about your reputation, not your brand. Do great work. Help people connect with each other unselfishly. If you’re involved in social media, provide genuine value to others in the best way you know how. Work hard for your clients. Let others talk about how good you are. Mostly, stop being a self-promotion machine. It makes you look like an asshole and it undermines your ultimate goal.

Budweiser = Innovation? You’re Kidding, Right?


Does this look like innovation to you?

The Business Insider published an article on February 11th entitled “What Budweiser Can Teach You About Innovation“. This was based on blog post from the Harvard Business Review entitled “Four Innovation Lessons from Anheuser-Busch“. Based upon a talk given by the global director of innovation at Anheuser-Busch Inbev, the two wrote about lessons that A-B can teach us about innovation. While the four bullet points were perfectly fine  (explain strategic objectives in simple terms, have defined types of innovation strategies, have a clear but robust innovation process and draw insight from non-obvious places), the suggestion that A-B is innovative in its product development is absolute bullshit.

A movie that was recently released called Beer Wars that exposed the battles fought in the beer industry (written, produced and directed by Anat Baron, former head of Mike’s Hard Lemonade), showing that A-B is both heavy-handed and rips off ideas from some of the true greats in beer (Dogfish Head, and Yuengling, for instance). In one scene, Sam, the owner of Dogfish Head, shows a bizarre and unsubstantiated cease and desist order from A-B for Dogfish’s use of “Punkin'” in the name of one of its brews. Since when did strong-arm litigation = innovation?

The following quote from the HBR article illustrates the ridiculousness of the contrast between the big brewers and those who are truly passionate about the craft:

Its strategic objectives are to increase SOB (share of beer) and SOT (share of throat). It can achieve these objectives by getting consumers to switch to its products, consume its products in new locations, or attract new consumers.

Wait, what? They have metrics like “share of throat”, a term that entertains my inner 12-year-old? They don’t simply look at ways to deliver better beer to the customer? No, they don’t. They make boring, bland beers and acquire brands that have strength in the market and a loyal following (see how they destroyed the Rolling Rock brand, a particular insult as a former resident of Latrobe, PA). That’s not innovation, that’s a recipe for market domination that is focused on shareholder value. As a business, it’s a fantastic strategy, but it should not be confused with innovation.

I’m a homebrewer and enjoy a lot of different types of beer. I’m a fan of microbrews and strange and innovative beers. I frequent local microbreweries (East End Brewing Company is a great example of innovation in beer-making) and enjoy great beer-focused Pittsburgh establishments such as Sharp Edge, Bocktown Beer & Grill and Fat Head’s. I’ve had some pretty amazing, innovative beers from brewers who are willing to take risks. A-B isn’t remotely on this list. It’s insulting to beer drinkers to suggest that A-B is innovative. It’s not innovative — it bullies its suppliers, spends amazing amounts of money keeping a regulatory system in place that does not benefit the customer and actually reduces innovation, and pursues a strategy whereby it steals innovative ideas from the market and pushes out the competition.

HBR, you’re better than this. You’re better than to swallow the propaganda of the largest brewing company in the world. Keep talking innovation, but find the right players. In beer parlance, A-B is all foam, no beer.

Good Bartenders Teach the Art of Building Rapport

Learn from This Guy. He's better than you at it.

Learn from This Guy.
He understands people
better than you do.

Steve Blank is a damn good entrepreneur. He writes a very interesting blog and seems to be a great guy. He also points out a common entrepreneurial challenge in a recent post that I’ll paraphrase — a lot of engineers start companies, and those founders often really suck at the relationship part of building a business.

I’m a salesman at heart (you build these skills when the Cub Scouts force you to sell popcorn door-to-door when you’re 9 years old), but early on in my career, I sucked at the relationship part too. I’d try to impress people with whiz-bang knowledge, not realizing that I had to build rapport before I could get someone to be interested in my ideas. It’s actually a classic marketing mistake — If they like you, they’ll likely buy from you.

Then I hit drinking age.

I was so impressed by bartenders who could control a room and engage people they didn’t know, especially the folks who weren’t regulars. I realized they had something about them, some sort of skill that I just didn’t have. Maybe because there was alcohol involved, or maybe it was because a lot of people just wanted to have a good time and not worry about whatever crappy stuff they were dealing with in their own lives. Regardless, a good bartender could get anyone going.

So, I watched how they worked and figured a few things out. For those of us where the rapport stuff doesn’t come naturally, here’s the overused bulleted list in a blog:

  • It’s all about the customer — Bartenders make the customer the center of attention. They ask where you live, what you do, how your day was. They greet you with some generic-but-informal name (buddy, chief, whatever). You’re the most important person to them at that moment, and it feels awesome.
  • They’re warm — There’s nothing like being in the presence of someone who’s genuinely warm and welcoming. EVERYONE wants to be Norm from Cheers, because it feels good to be known. The masters make you feel like that, even if you’ve never been there.
  • They give valuable freebies — There’s nothing that can make you feel special like a beer on the house. To add a little drama, a great bartender will use a glass or some other token as a reminder that you’re due when you finished your last drink. It’s like there’s a little unspoken communication between you two, and that builds a hell of a lot of goodwill.
  • They bring people together — They can’t be in two places at once and there are a lot of other people that have to be served. A great bartender makes connections between people so that the attention isn’t always on them. It’s a little bit of sleight of hand, and you never know the difference. Plus, you never know who you’re going to meet.
  • They know how to have fun — It’s all about feeling good, and great bartenders focus on having fun. They’re not talking about the technical aspects of making a perfect margarita or the new electronic system that only lets them pour exactly 16oz pints. They just make you feel relaxed and at ease.
  • They remember the details — If you’re there more than once, they remember your name and what you do. They bring it up the next time they see you. They ask about the kids or what the daily grind is as a (enter your title here). You know that they paid attention.
  • They know how to get your money — Maybe it’s just some great conversation or the extra beer, but you feel compelled to leave a few bucks more for the great bartender. You feel like they deserve it. And you do it voluntarily.

You can get a drink anywhere and great bartenders know this. So, they make up the difference in service and it works. You go back to that place. You have conversations that make you feel good at the end of the night. You tip enough to be surprised by what you left the next morning. In short, you do exactly what you’d love your customers to do. You want them to like you, to refer you, to give you their money voluntarily. You want them to love your level of service and tell people about it. You want them to realize that, even if there might be other solutions out there, you’re bringing a level of game that no one else can match. Perhaps most importantly for any start-up, you want them to like you enough so that when there’s the inevitable hiccup, they’re more forgiving and understanding.

If you really want to understand how to build the relationships you need to succeed, skip the Dale Carnegie books and spend $20 at your local bar. You’ll learn more and have a lot more fun doing it.

Heinz Proves That it is Good to be the King

Heinz Packet

New Heinz Ketchup Packet

After years of watching people fumble with the little packets tossed in fast food to-go, Heinz announced yesterday that it has invented a new packet with three times more ketchup that can be opened for dunking or squeezed onto a hot dog bun. Really? After more than 50 years (the original patent for the ketchup packet was issued in 1955) and years of customers cursing the design, the company FINALLY came up with something better. It made me realize that, while there might be start-up companies that can supplant technologies, there are still industries that have market leaders with legit competition.

This reminded me of the story of Alcoa, the multinational aluminum conglomerate, and the Fridge Pack. As one of the largest providers of aluminum to the world, it obviously sees the soft drink market as important to it’s success. In 1999, the company saw that cans were sort of hard to keep in your refrigerator, as evidenced by all of the “can storage” as-seen-on-TV items in the early 90’s. So, the company decided to rethink the way cans were sold and stored, and invented the 12-can fridge pack. Stacked 6×2 (as opposed to 3×4 or in 6-packs with the soft plastic carriers), people learned to just throw the box in the fridge and forget about it.

I think the Heinz example is reinforced by a Malcom Gladwell article about ketchup. In the article, he talks about how there are a gazillion different mustards, but really only one (Heinz) ketchup. Despite many attempts to make the “Grey Poupon” of ketchup, none of them have succeeded. People like Heinz and, according to taste tests, pretty much consider it perfect.

So, what does this mean? First, it’s pretty awesome to be considered an irreplaceable product. Heinz has no legitimate threat and, as a result, no need to push the envelope too hard with respect to ketchup innovation (purple ketchup, anyone??). Second, you have to be able to anticipate your weaknesses/threats and gauge whether or not to do something about it. In the Heinz case, there might have been a consumer demand for a new packet, but the threat wasn’t such that it made a change a top priority. For Alcoa, not making an adjustment could mean a shift of consumer behavior to other soft drink containers (could prove disastrous for the company).

Companies always need to be on the lookout and figure out if they’re in a Heinz position or an Alcoa position. If the former, it’s really not worth spending the money on R&D when you could be dedicating resources to other, more profitable projects (Heinz’s restaurant squeeze bottles are a good example). If you’re Alcoa, you have to be able to recognize if there’s a threat to your business and, if so, you might need to innovate on the margins of your core offering to shore up your relevance in the market. In the end, you have to listen to the customer and do the strategic math. If your customers are willing to put up with your inadequacies, good for you! If not, get working on a solution before it’s too late.


I was thinking about all of this personal branding stuff that seems to be the rage at the moment, and while I agree that it is important to have people perceive you a certain way, doing so in an overly self-promotional, inauthentic way is a quick road to having your personal brand = jackass. I have a few examples of this (I won’t mention names for fear of starting an online battle), but I think we all can identify at least one person who’s way too into networking/trying to present themselves in the exact right way.  You hate them, I hate them.

All of that being said, if you want to stand out from the crowd in a job search, or you simply want to protect your good name, it’s a good idea to buy For many folks, this isn’t easy — most common names are long gone, but there are enough other top-level domains (the thing that comes after the last “dot”, like .com, .net, .org, .name or .me) at this point that you just might be able to snag SOMETHING. Obviously, the .com is preferable, but you might not have a choice.

A recent, prominent example of name hijacking is the Pete Hoekstra case. For those who don’t closely follow politics, he is a U.S. Congressman who, shockingly, didn’t register his name, As a result, an individual who opposes his agenda purchased the name and set up a site that carefully details opposition to Mr. Hoekstra’s views.  Not exactly a confidence-builder for his  constituents and certainly embarrassing if he wants to suggest that he’s technologically savvy.

There are some other advantages to buying a your name as a domain name. For instance, I purchased my last name as a domain name several years ago (it wasn’t all that surprising that was available), and I’ve used for years. I’ve been told that using this email address demonstrated an understanding of technology, which was a considerable positive in a few situations.  I would also contend that posting your resume online (and giving that domain name in your cover letters) helps you to stand out from your competition.

At this point, there’s not much of an excuse. Setting up an account at is free and easy (my preferred registrar despite their irritating commercials) and with coupon codes easily found if you search for “godaddy coupons”, you can get your domain name for under $8/year (cjc749fat is valid through the end of February).

You don’t have to be insane about your personal brand to justify buying your name.  However, if you want a competitive edge in a tough climate, or just want the novelty of seeing your name as a .com, I’d suggest you make the slight investment to do it.

Money vs. Quality Deals

I’ve noticed that there are two schools of thought in Pittsburgh about the availability of risk capital and the lack of funds going into local start-ups.  The first is that there are some very good deals in Pittsburgh, and there is precious little lower-level risk capital ($500k-$2M), and blame generally falls on the nearly impossible standards set by the local VCs/Angels. The second is that there is plenty of money out there and that money and finds great deals no matter what, inferring that the issue isn’t money, it’s the companies coming out of the region.

As someone who has worked on a project that got an Angel round (and some subsequent cash infusions), I can understand the difficulty in finding that money and, as a result, I’m a bit biased. Looking at the landscape, I believe that there are some very intriguing companies/technologies coming out of our colleges, universities and innovative entrepreneurs, and that should be supported. Obviously, I’m not alone — the Pennsylvania government and local foundations infuse local organizations with capital that is then extended to these companies. However, when those companies have grown out of the alpha stage and to a point where they’re ready to start beta testing in real-world environments, are they the quality deals that attract VC investment? Is Pittsburgh’s risk tolerance unusually low?

My guess is that our VC community isn’t much unlike others around the country. I’d also guess that Pittsburgh has similar state-level resources to other areas and, perhaps a little more. What I don’t think we have is an ecosystem — a critical mass of successful entrepreneurs that have cashed out for several million and immediately feel the responsibility to return the favor to other hungry entrepreneurs.  The cities most often cited as models for the ecosystem — Silicon Valley, Boston, etc. — have earned that reputation honestly, but have taken decades to build that ecosystem. As one local VC said to me, “they weren’t built overnight, and we won’t be either.”

But, I think we’re getting there. There is a lot of energy in this community and, I suspect, additional resources will be devoted to not only supporting these companies, but helping to create that ecosystem that is critically important. I also believe that we need to do a little marketing to the outside world, showing off some of the companies that are making a difference. Would engaging other cities’ communities help facilitate some cash inflow by introducing their financiers to our companies? Would connecting with the diaspora help us to bring some of that money back to Pittsburgh? I think it would.

In the end, almost any money is good money, no matter where it comes from. Would I like to see more low-level risk capital? Of course. But, until we have a critical mass that can support some of these good-to-very-good deals (as opposed to great deals), we’re going to struggle to fund these companies. Should the state take a more active role? How do we get this done in a down economy? And, what are the best way to keep these companies fed in the meantime?