The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Category: Storytelling

The Lesson of Second Place

When I was in kindergarten, I was fascinated by outer space. While other kids were into pro wrestling, cartoons, or dinosaurs, I was dragging my parents on near-weekly treks* to the local planetarium. I had a personally-autographed picture of Clyde W. Tombaugh (discoverer of Pluto) on the wall in my room. I was a weird kid.

Like every other elementary school student in America, I was required to participate in the science fair. Given my obsession with the planets, I wanted nothing more than to show off all of the things I knew about the solar system. I won’t get into embarrassing details about the process of constructing my display, but let’s just say that I was unusually proud of my cotton-foamcore-glue-glitter masterpiece.

The memory of the day is a little blurry, but I’ll never forget the feeling of running up to my project and seeing the second place ribbon on it. As a kindergarten kid competing against everyone up to the third grade, I was so proud to have won second place. What an accomplishment against the bigger kids! My first award! I could hardly contain my excitement.

My next memory is of finding the first-place winner, a third grader’s project that was also about the solar system. But, wait… Her colors weren’t right (Saturn isn’t blue-green!). Her Pluto was beyond Neptune (nope). She didn’t have an asteroid belt. I went from being very proud to being very confused – if she got these things wrong, and I got them right, then why did she win first place?

When my parents came to pick me up, I told them about how I won second (yay!) and how the girl who won first  got a lot of things wrong (boo!). In good Millennial-parent fashion,  they approached those in charge about the decision to ask about the disparity. The judges immediately dressed my parents down for doing the work for me. “What kind of lessons are you trying to teach your son?” they asked. “Is it so important for him to win a science fair that you have to do the work for him?” Despite my parents’ best attempts, the judges refused to believe that I did the work. Worse, they saw me as a cheater instead of a kindergarten kid who really, really, really loved the stars. I was devastated.

This James Harrison Facebook post, and the ensuing debate over participation trophies, sparked the memory.

Every time the “kids these days” subject comes up, a.k.a. Millennials in the workforce, the debate over trophies renews. Largely, there are two camps: the EARN IT crowd, that believes that participation trophies make kids soft and entitled to something that they didn’t necessarily deserve; and the ENJOY IT crowd, that believes that building confidence in kids is important to their ability to try new things and forge their own path, recognizing participation being part of that process. As with most public debates, there is no middle ground.

I recently went through the trophies and awards that my parents had packed away for me. Some of them were for participation (so much for the adage “80 percent of success is showing up”), others were well-earned first-place awards. It was great to go through them, of course, but I ultimately threw every one of them away. Well, except for that framed ribbon from the science fair. I kept it because it represented one of the most  challenging life lessons that I’ve learned; that sometimes, even if you do your best, and even if you get the results, you might not win. Further, in the vast majority of life, winning (whatever that means, anyway)  is based upon factors that are out of your control. Yes, work hard. Yes, do your best. And yes, if you’re failing, you either need to get better or do something else. Finally, it also taught me that losing is okay, too.

My verdict on trophies is this: they’re only as good as the meaning you give them. Teach kids to value the award over the effort, and they’ll grow into adults who value the appearance of success rather than the work it takes to get there. Ultimately, that meaning is a an infinitely-better reflection of your values than any piece of hardware you could ever earn, or get for just showing up.

* Pun alert – Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) was born in my home town of El Paso, Texas.

How Quaker Steak and Lube Hypes the Triple Atomic Wing

Punishing heat on a wing

Punishing heat on a wing

Quaker Steak and Lube (Twitter @TheOfficialQSL), for those not from Pittsburgh, is a restaurant known far and wide for their amazingly awesome wings. With more than 21 sauces that range from the tasty (ranch) to the ridiculously hot (Atomic), they’ve earned their reputation as “Best Wings USA”. The restaurant has even been featured on Man vs. Food, where the host ate the Atomic wings in its Pittsburgh episode (see link here).

Most recently, Quaker Steak and Lube added the Triple Atomic wing to its menu, a sauce that is more than three times hotter than its regular Atomic sauce (hence the name). How is this determined? The Scoville scale, which is widely accepted as the scale by which peppers are judged. To provide some context, the Triple Atomic wing is at the same level (5,000,000 Scoville Heat Units) as law enforcement-grade pepper spray.

Pain in an egg carton

Agony in an egg carton

A cousin was visiting from Philly and expressed some interest in tackling the Triple Atomic wings. He’s had a painfully hot Man vs. Food find before and decided that he would regret not achieving a second. Not only was it interesting to watch him eat the chicken wings of pain, but it turned out to be a great lesson in experiential marketing. Here’s how:

The Waiver
When you first order ’em, the waitstaff gives instructions and tells you all of the things they have to (your arms can blister?) “as required by law”. I’m absolutely sure that they’re trained to believe that there is some legal risk in selling these wings without some warning. In addition, the person eating the wings is required to sign a waiver. Reading reviews of other restaurants with similarly hot wings (many of which also require patrons to sign a waiver) seemed to indicate that the waiver was simply a publicity stunt. I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that it’s more for hype.

The Presentation
The six wings come in an egg carton presented by an employee dressed in a mock hazmat suit complete with a hood and blinking head lamp. Not only does it ratchet up the stress, it also alerts nearly everyone in the restaurant to the fact that you’re going to be giving ’em a shot. The waitstaff then runs down the dangers/suggestions once again. A few glasses of water come to your table, then you’re on your own.

Eating the Wings
Everyone seems to be staring and a few are cheering on. There’s a lot of eye-watering and sweating involved. My cousin gave a GREAT play-by-play. In short, they hurt really, really bad.

The Trophy
My uncle taught me that every achievement should come with a trophy and these wings are no different. Polishing off the six Triple Atomic wings (without getting up to go to the restroom or any other cheating) nets a nicely-designed black t-shirt and a special place on the Atomic Wall of Fame. As insignificant as it might seem, it seems to be a satisfying conclusion to a painful process.

So, why is this great marketing? Because it creates a story for all participants. For those daring enough to take on the gastronomic challenge, it’s an experience that is told and retold, which helps to build a ton of brand equity at no cost. This has a direct impact on the bottom line by way of both top-line revenue growth and marketing expenditures — our server mentioned unprompted that the owners spend very little on advertising and the restaurant is still full almost every night. It even got the place on a popular food show, which is essentially a free commercial for the restaurant. This is a great example of how customer experience, storytelling and myths can build strong brand equity at negligible cost compared to more traditional interruption marketing channels.

Blogging is Really Hard

News flash to those thinking about or currently writing a blog — it is really, really hard.

Don’t get me wrong, I think blogging is one of the most important ways that an individual or company can show how they’re different/better than their competitors. A company’s business philosophy and technical competence shows through in the words they write. Plus, there’s something to be said for being forced to challenge current perceptions and having to articulate a vision. It’s a great mental workout and shows current and potential customers a window into how strong a company really is.

However, the reasons to write a blog are also the ones that make it a challenge. First, we’re not all first-class writers (if you’ve flipped through mine, I’m sure you’d find plenty of mistakes). Second, it’s tough to find a voice that balances a professional tone and the openness that the social media world requires. Third, there is a time and mental resource challenge associated with a blog and can sometimes let weeks go by before we have the chance to sit down and write. Finally, if you don’t get the readership you want, it’s easy to get discouraged and allow a blog to become a graveyard.

Confession: I have a particularly difficult time writing my blog. Should I be funny at the risk of being offensive? Should I be brief but short on details? Should I come off as an expert or open-minded learner? Who should I be writing for? Should I write for only myself, or should I try to build an audience? Is there anything I’m going to say that might come back to haunt me or get me fired? And what the heck do I write about, anyway?

I’ve been working on figuring out the best way to solve these problems. As a proud BlackBerry owner, I’ve downloaded and used the WordPress app, which lets me get some thoughts down that I can either publish immediately or develop more fully when I get time. I’ve been attempting to schedule time to think about certain topics and decide what might make sense to write about. However, these are just process solutions; they don’t get to the bottom of my main issue, i.e. what is it that I should be saying and how do I say it?

I’ve recently engaged an editor and PR veteran to do some analysis on this blog. One of his areas of expertise is in co-authoring and ghostwriting, and he has mastered the art of identifying a “voice” and applying it to developing copy. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say, even if it’s going to be tough to hear.

Have you done an audit of your blog? Have you gotten feedback on whether or not you’re saying the right thing, being brief enough, or speaking to the right audience? Do you think you’d benefit from a professional blog audit? I’d love to hear from others who might be suffering from this challenge.

Reactions to AlphaLab Demo Day


AlphaLab Logo

Instead of a summary of each company (Alan Veeck (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @aveeck ) at Meakem Becker Venture Capital and author of Pittsburgh Ventures blog did a fantastic live blog roundup of the companies here), I’d like to toss out some gut reactions to the companies, presentations and the feel of the environment overall.

  • In monitoring local media, it seems like there has been a lot of funding activity in the region recently, from early stage angel investments to larger acquisitions of Pittsburgh-based startups. That feeling of optimism was present at the event today as well, and from the folks I was able to speak with, there might be more good news coming down the pike.
  • It was great to hear about some of the success stories coming out of AlphaLab. One of my personal favorites is a company called The Resumator, led by Don Charlton (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @TheResumator). They’ve gotten some serious press and some seed funding post-AlphaLab, which is helping them to expand their feature set.
  • Social is everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. It’s hard not to get sick of hearing about it, but it really doesn’t make it any less important. I’m reminded of when everyone was talking about the internet being game-changer in the late 90’s-to-early-’00s — while it was so annoying to hear, the folks saying it were absolutely right.
  • The actual design of the various PowerPoint presentations was pretty good. I know it sounds superficial, but a stylish presentation makes a company look much more “together”. Great job, everyone.
  • Loved the presentation by Nick Pinkston, CEO of CloudFab (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @cloudfab). I continue to believe that storytelling and metaphor are the best way to connect with an audience, and I think Nick did a very good job of doing just that. Speaking with him afterward (both about his company and about using his technology to develop some components for a project on which I’m working), it was evident that he sees this as a product customization revolution rather than simply a sourcing opportunity. I love the vision.
  • Fooala has developed a site called CollegeBite (twitter-feed-icon-12x12 @collegebite), a very cool open ordering platform that enables restaurants to create/expand an online presence using mobile and the web. One of the things I loved about it is that I’ve already used the site! While the presentation was a bit difficult to follow at times, I did find the team to be very, very strong. Finally, they’re classic Gen Yers —  smart, mobile, experienced, passionate, hungry and making a difference. Two of the guys are from Duke, one of whom met one of the CMU founders while in Sydney, Australia. What a story.
  • Brian at NavPrescience has a compelling pitch — a software package that is integrated into GPS functionality that learns your driving habits and adjusts routing and point-of-interest suggestions accordingly. One of my favorite lines of the day was Brian’s deadpan delivery of “[GPS] devices are pretty stupid”, referring to the dictionary definition of  “slow to learn and understand”. As a recent owner of a BlackBerry Tour with GPS capability, I’ve found how dead wrong TeleNav can be with even the simplest of directions (he cited that only 35% of GPS routes are actually ‘fastest’, confirming my experience). Brian’s use of a scenario in his presentation (there’s that storytelling again) was very engaging. Things that I disliked are mostly brand-oriented — I’m not a fan of the name (I keep wanting to say NavPresence and the word ‘prescience’ is a bit SATish) and the logo is a rough (use of Verdana, complicated design and the invocation of magic when the system is built on three years of solid R&D at CMU). I know that the company isn’t looking to sell to consumers, but it’s still something that could be improved.

While it’s a tough time for everyone in this economy, I’m really optimistic about the entrepreneurial community here in Pittsburgh. Being named the second-best place to start a small business in the U.S. doesn’t hurt, either. All-in-all, I have to commend AlphaLab Class #3 on a job well done.

Start-ups Need to Tell a Story

A few months ago, Paul Furiga, CEO of WordWrite Communications, launched a new web site for his Pittsburgh-based Public Relations firm. His message was very simple — “What’s your story? We’d like to tell it”. I fell in love with the idea, and not just because I’m known for my long-winded storytelling.

Storytelling is, at the most fundamental level, the way we humans have communicated for as long as we’ve been able to speak. It is absolutely critical to our ability to exchange information, establish social norms, build rapport and make an impression. As social creatures with limited time and attention, a story can easily summarize information in an understandable, digestible way.

This particularly hit home with me when attending the recent Three Rivers Venture Fair Boot Camp, a tune-up of sorts for entrepreneurs that will be making nine-minute pitches to venture capitalists and angel investors. I was fortunate to be able to watch four different presenters go through their slide decks, and, as a panelist, help to provide feedback. Each company targeted completely different markets (i.e. social media, security, manufacturing and space exploration) but presented in very different ways.

The first three presenters were able to articulate, more or less, the value proposition of their product or service. They could describe features and functionality, identify their key team members, explain their marketing and sales plan and demonstrate the depth of knowledge needed to lead a start-up company. However, while each company had an interesting product, the presenters had challenges being able to spark the “aha!” moment that investors need to take the next step.

I found myself suggesting adding a story to each presentation. I kept saying, “if you can put someone in the shoes of a purchaser, they will more easily see the value proposition of the product.” My fellow panelists seemed to agree.

The final presenter nailed it. He as able to articulate in about 45 seconds how his security product would be used in the marketplace. He very quickly was able to speak to the challenges faced in this market niche and how his product would make people safer. It was storytelling at its finest.

When pulling together a presentation to potential investors, educate them by telling a story of the average user. Put a human face on the product or service you offer and use that story to demonstrate that there’s a large enough market for you to earn the type of returns necessary for an investor to be interested. While a particular technology might be interesting, cutting-edge, innovative or game-changing, it won’t matter if you can’t make someone feel the pain that will compel a prospect to become a customer.