In The Devil Wears Prada there's this wonderful scene in which Meryl Streep tries to decide on a belt. Anne Hathaway, as her assistant snickers at the prospect of deciding between two belts that look very similar. What she receives next is a smack-down.
"You think this has nothing to do with you," Streep's Miranda Priestly says. She then launches into an evenly-delivered soliloquy that points out how the "blue" sweater Hathaway casually chose that morning is actually "cerulean," which had started at the height of fashion then trickled down through the fashion ecosystem representing "millions of dollars and countless jobs," until it landed in a discount bin and, eventually, this assistant's closet. "It sort of comical how you think you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that's been selected for you..." she says.
Here in Boston engineers love to think that they make all the best stuff. That their technology is so great it doesn't need marketing. Because marketing doesn't make people take action. No, they say, it's the work that makes all the difference. Make a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.
Someone call Meryl Streep.
Often we dismiss this attitude as "well, they're just engineers" and we let it go. The issues trickle down even to those companies that do spend time and money on marketing. They resist messaging, insist they know how to tell a better story or refuse changes that could make a huge difference in their bottom line. It's all an effort to put technology first.
Ideally, they need to invest in marketing and PR. It needs to be factored into the funding rounds as a necessary part of the budget, even in small rounds.
Then there is the "celebrity" factor. Boston tends to shy away from that, but as a number of entrepreneurs point out in the Sunday Boston Globe, that's just what Boston needs. Says Ben Jabbawy, CEO of Privy:
Chances are if you’re not part of the tech community here, you’ve never heard of Wayfair or Gemvara. And that’s the problem. The Boston area needs to do a better job championing its little guys. We don’t have many giant anchor companies here, and oftentimes that’s understood to be a bad thing. Instead of collectively pining for Mark Zuckerberg to return to the Hub, we should focus on, promote, and celebrate the assets we do have: smaller companies and start-ups.
This shift in emphasis would help start-ups recruit and retain local graduates, and perhaps inspire graduating talent to take the risk of joining a start-up instead of taking lucrative corporate jobs.
So what does Boston need? We need to think more about marketing. We need to make our voices louder. In a way, we need our own "Mike Arrington" to lead the way.
Whenever I say this to people their response is "oh, we need a loud, arrogant, obnoxious guy that makes everyone fear his power?" No, I'm not saying that. But what we need is someone with the voice, skills and savvy to tell the world what Boston is all about. To hold up the great technology, ideas and companies that grow from the Boston ecosystem every day and tell the world why they need to pay attention. If this means that voice needs to be brash and obnoxious in order to cut through the clutter, then so be it.
Recently I spent some time hanging around with the guys at Evernote. This is a fascinating company made up of leadership that spent time running startups in Boston and then moved to the Valley. The company is growing like crazy and poised to make a leap from the technology world to the general populous. This is no small task.
Josh Kopelman recently spent some time in jury duty and used that as a way to get a focus group of non-tech folks:
Jury duty is a great way to do a focus group - out of my panel of 50 people, no one has heard of Pinterest, Foursquare,Uber or Square...
— Josh Kopelman (@joshk) February 7, 2012
Facebook is a great example of a company that made the leap, same with Apple (which doesn't consider itself a tech company) and Google. But what makes Evernote interesting is how marketing is so much a part of its DNA. Yes, Andrew Sinkov does a great job of marketing the company. He's an incredibly smart guy a lot of great ideas. But it's also a company churning out apps like Evernote Food and releasing Skitch for free as a way to extend its base.
If you listen to CEO Phil Libin speak, he doesn't tell you about the technology behind Evernote, he talks about bigger ideas of human memory and ways that technology can make our lives different. Sure, he spends time thinking about the technology itself, but the average person doesn't care about the technology. They just want it to do what you asked. They want a product.
But to get it in their hands, you need marketing. And so do we.