When & Why Content Marketing Matters

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Whether your business is a startup, a consultancy, or a corporation, a comprehensive but flexible content marketing strategy is key to staying competitive. Not only does quality content communicate brand values and perspective, but it also serves as a timely pull that supports customers making potentially costly purchases. However, many companies treat content marketing as a final touch once the product is complete, rather than a core component of the product itself. As such, they miss opportunities to build a memorable, unified voice and trust amongst their target demographic.

At minimum, keeping an active pipeline of fresh content relevant to your industry can help elevate brand recognition and encourage backlinking, which in the long-term improves your company’s SEO and visibility. On the other side of the spectrum, using content to build legitimacy and loyalty can allow for higher price points and more lucrative partnerships. So what are a few low-hanging fruits that any company can pick to kickstart their 2017?

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If Your Company is a Pre-Seed Startup

Your company’s relative lack of social DNA makes it easy to experiment with a variety of channels, mediums, and delivery methods to discover which resonates most deeply with the audience you’re aiming to convert. Give yourself strict deadlines and metrics to measure in order to evaluate each assets’ efficacy, and cycle through content types so you don’t inadvertently abandon nascent followers. A common problem with blog series and newsletters, for example, is the promise of “part 3” or “daily updates” – without follow-through, these tools can do more harm than good.

If you’re still building your product, document your development cycle rigorously. You don’t have to publish a press release for every commit, but these notes can give power users insight into your product’s future and can be easily expanded into user guides, manuals, and blog posts. If your company is enterprise-focused, identify which features are most important to the decision-maker and create case studies, white papers, and testimonials in which that feature is shown to make a quantifiable improvement in ROI, productivity, or conversion. If your product is more consumer-facing, highlight your users and reward those who’ve created great content with your technology.

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If Your Company is a Freelance Consultancy

When your brand is.. well, you, it can be tricky to separate your personal and professional lives, particularly if you yourself are in the marketing field. Here, it’s particularly useful to build content that highlights your process, passions, and examples of work. If you notice that your clients ask similar questions or that you find yourself providing the same resources over and over again, consider making gated content that you can drip either manually or in emails. Not only does this give your existing clients additional value, but it also allows you to scale your business when you’re ready.

Social media can also be a helpful tool for freelancers, though the extent to which you rely on it is defined by your outreach strategy. If you work primarily through referrals, you can use social media to show legitimacy and perspective, but should be careful about potentially alienating a sector that you might later need to expand into. If you’re more of a niche consultant, optimize your behavior for your intended audience and engage actively with them. For example, if you’re a web developer with a passion for interactive journalism, create an animation-rich article about an important topic and Tweet at related organizations in order to grab their attention – and drive them to your call-to-action – with relevant, thoughtful collateral.

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If Your Company is a Legacy Corporation

The larger and more established your company is, the more likely it is that there will be stringent branding rules regarding the proper tone, structure, and topic range. While this can be a tremendous benefit for companies whose branding guidelines are classic, enduring, and appropriate, corporations with dated material and an overreliance on traditional marketing tactics need to be particularly cognizant of how their brand might be perceived by new audiences. Of course, companies that have built their name through decades, even centuries, of craftsman-level production have other means of communicating their brand’s strengths, but in this globalized world, it’s never enough to assume that your reputation precedes you. Yahoo and Hotmail, for example, saw enormous success in developing markets, until Google localized their services and began producing siloed content that presented email as just one feature in an ever-expanding toolkit.

Focus not on reinventing the wheel – particularly if your content team is small – but rather on building content for uninitiated personas or industries. Developing skunkworks projects or leading new marketing initiatives is an excellent way to revitalize stagnant messaging. Keep track of how competitors are using their content engine, and find the angle that best presents your unique storyline while highlighting your company’s years of experience. Your company’s success came from somewhere – find that spark, define the audience that made that happen, and research what types of content and positioning best appeal to them.

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Kickstart Your Content Calendar in 2017

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to take stock of your existing tools, assets, and processes. What has worked from the past year, and where have you been hitting a wall? Take note of emerging trends and discuss them in reference to your business – i.e. how does your company plan to incorporate open-sourced machine-learning or provide customers an enhanced VR experience? Reach out to contributors both within your company and in the broader industry to provide a diverse perspective about your product and space, but most importantly, build content that values quality over quantity. 

2017 is just starting – don’t stall at the gate! With consistent, relevant, and ethical content, you can elevate your brand’s profile, build thought-leadership, create additional hooks for buyers, and connect with users on a variety of platforms.

If this was useful for you and/or you have specific questions regarding content marketing, please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful 2017!

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What’s Next After the Campaign?

Hillary Clinton Celebrates Puerto Rico Primary Victory

To put it mildly, this presidential election has been a nonstop migraine. But today, America has a doctor’s appointment to check if we have a brain tumor (Trump) or just severe light sensitivity (Clinton). Either way, we have a problem, but one’s a lot more manageable than the other. Of course, America is also dealing with the effects of a flesh-eating bacteria (climate change), but for some reason none of the doctors or patients are discussing it, and the one doctor who pointed it out (Sanders) was disbarred for making “impossible” diagnoses. As such, we’re slowly dying from the inside out.

So what’s next? 

Regardless of whichever diagnosis Dr. Democracy provides us tonight, we’re facing a serious global threat that needs to be addressed head-on and immediately. But how are we going to do that, when even traditional news sources have defaulted to providing “information” that sells, not educates? (Note: For those interested in the evolving role of the media, I’d highly recommend Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s ManualMindblowing.)

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Change The News

First, we have to accept that major news sources are capitalist endeavors, and as such have a vested interest in pursuing topicality (over quality) in order to stay attractive to advertisers. The media has focused myopically on personality cults during this campaign cycle, lifting heavily from social media’s playbook and emphasizing style over substance. But by giving credence to every ridiculous statement or potential scandal, the media has failed its role as the gatekeepers of knowledge, and have instead turned into active bettors in a vicious dogfight. Sure, there have been policy pieces on Clinton’s extensive experience and Trump’s… ideas, but many “think pieces” in this cycle have limited shelf lives – meaning, come this evening, most of the stuff we’ve read over the last few months is obsolete. Do we feel better or more informed for reading them, or simply more absorbed into a political game for which the buzzer has just run out?

Meanwhile, coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the rapid deforestation of Sumatra for the production of palm oil, and the unmanageable air quality in the world’s largest cities – i.e. pressing and ongoing problems – is relegated to niche publications with audiences who are already, for the most part, aware of these issues. One important way that we can flip the script on this practice is by speaking up about climate change, calling our representatives, marching on the streets, and using our voice to demand recognition of these eco-crises. If the media isn’t going to do it, it’s up to us. Eventually, when there’s enough public support and outcry, it’ll be impossible for major publications to push these stories to the back pages.

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Change the Politicians

Second, we have to push the politicians who have campaigned on a platform of environmental protections (on a municipal level; what a disappointment the national stage has been on this issue) to stick to a timetable on delivering those promises. One of the most commonly cited criticisms of Obama is his inability to close Gitmo, despite heavily campaigning on this point. While he has been an advocate for the green movement and the transition to clean energy, those who supported him because of his expected efficacy with Gitmo were sorely disappointed and frustrated, and aren’t as satisfied with his other achievements. That being said, neither of the current presidential candidates have said anything exciting regarding their stances on environmental protections, with Clinton refusing to comment on the #NoDAPL movement but privately emailing that protesters should “get a life” and Trump Tweeting that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” …Okay.

So it’s up to Senators, Representatives, the Attorney General, the Secretaries, and local politicians to take up the fight and stick with it. But, of course, it’s not going to be easy. After watching Before the Flood, I was shocked to learn that a third of Congress is composed of climate deniers. 182 delusional Congresspeople – 144 in the House and 38 in the Senate – hold legislative power over critical, long-lasting actions that will fundamentally affect how our country responds to what is essentially an impending apocalypse. Therefore, even though both chambers only require a majority vote to pass laws, it’s important to get the remaining 66% voting in unison – both as a message to the remainder that the only myth is climate denial, and as a coalition that will push through filibusters and horsetrading to enact the type of regulation and change we need. In order to mobilize this support, we as citizens must be pressuring our representatives to prioritize that fight. If not, we can’t be surprised when a lack of unified vision results in weak or incomplete environmental laws.

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Change the Political Process

Third, we have to rethink the campaign cycle itself. As a conservative estimate, presidential candidates spend about 500 days on the campaign trail, preparing for 1460 days in term. Congresspeople and local politicians spend closer to 4 – 6 months, a full-time operation that distracts from their other responsibilities. There’s a lot that has been said about this, so I won’t go into detail, but it’s irrefutable that our political system requires a fundamental change. Ironically, it’s the rise of new wave white supremacy in the form of Donald Trump and the revolutionary “socialist” tendencies of Bernie Sanders that has inspired the majority to embrace that view. So how do we refocus our attention on the issues, and not the candidates?

We can have stricter guidelines on who can become president. For example, climate deniers should not be allowed to run for office. Rapists and molesters should not be allowed to run for office. Advocates of violence, terror, and bigotry should not be allowed to run for office. (How is this not a requirement already?) We can also eliminate the primary system, which was originally created to prevent the “tyranny of the masses.” Considering that the primary process has not succeeded in protecting minority voices, and in the elimination of Sanders has actively repressed alternative viewpoints, I don’t see the primary as a net positive, though I’d be curious to learn your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Change the Medium

Fourth, we have to shorten the election cycle to reduce election-related waste as well. The length of current presidential campaigns makes them uniquely cultural events, with voters proudly displaying bumper stickers, signs, and banners of their favorite candidate. There’s just so much stuff to print on, and marketers are eager to get whatever they can into the hands of whoever will promote it as often as possible. But from a strictly intellectual perspective, shouldn’t the election be more focused on what those candidates will do, and less so on their brand?  Of course, that’s not how most of the country thinks. Today’s decision isn’t merely a vote for a candidate – it’s an expression of one’s identity, hopes, and dreams for the country. Therefore, outward signifiers, particularly if they’re free and/or culturally relevant, are highly utilized to communicate these larger ideas. If we had a shorter election cycle, those buttons, stickers, etc. would still be in use, but I predict in smaller quantities as we would be deemphasizing the election itself.

To conclude, I’ll quickly touch upon the issue of mailers and event-related waste, which originally inspired me to write this post. While print media is quickly becoming obsolete, older voters still rely on physical collateral to inform them of local initiatives and politicians. As a result, single-use marketing assets are produced by the thousands, then oftentimes end up unread in trash bins or floors. Now compound that with all of the confetti, balloons, table clothes, and related event materials that each campaign stop involves, as well as the inundation of fliers, posters, and paraphernalia about the candidates, propositions, and measures that each voter receives. I alone received around 40 cardstock fliers (that I don’t plan to read), and combining my two American roommates plus mail sent erroneously to past residents, I estimate our household has received about 200 mailers. None of the marketing spend has impacted my vote, and now I bear the guilt of throwing them out. Campaign operations need to be more strategic with their outreach, ensuring at the very least that they don’t send duplicates to the same address, and should find tech solutions to transition from paper to digital for voters who are confirmed social media users. 

I’m nervous for tonight’s results, but am excited to know the outcome so we can best prepare for what comes next. If this election has shown us anything, it’s that a revolution is brewing, and neither of these candidates can stop it – now it’s up to us to make sure that environmentalism comes out on top when the dust settles.

The Boba Lobby is Anti-Environment

As anyone who knows me is aware, I’m a boba freak. As I write this post at 10:30 AM, I’m already craving a boba (a.k.a. “pearl tea”), and I know I am not strong enough to resist it – later this afternoon I will probably be drinking one, only the first of two or three I’ll have this week.

Aside from the extraordinary sugar levels and suspicious nature of the tapioca that constitute the “boba” balls, my obsession is concerning mostly for the following reason: it makes me culpable of something that I rarely considered prior to watching this video a few years back. With horror, I realized I have been inadvertently contributing to and promoting the harm of marine life via the increase in single-use plastics.

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I want to point this out because, despite writing this blog series, I can’t claim to be a model environmentalist. I certainly do try – outside of countries where bottled water is mandatory for avoiding water-borne illnesses, I estimate I’ve discarded fewer than 10 plastic water bottles in the past 8 years. Even when I treat myself with an Odwalla chai (another huge spike of sugar, but good for camping trips), I try to save the bottles and reuse them for smoothies. I’m able to do this because I almost never leave the house without my carabiner-equipped water bottle, which can clip onto even the tiniest of purses, and therefore never have to succumb to using these pieces of junk (ugh, screw Nestlé, right?).

But look, I understand that there’s a general resistance to adopting eco-friendly practices, either because the uninitiated are uninformed about the ease of incorporating simple modifications in their daily life (don’t worry – I got you!), or because of accusations of hypocrisy amongst high-profile environmentalists like Leonardo DiCaprio. Therefore, I wanted to highlight an instance of waste that I myself participate in, and suggest alternatives for reducing my (and maybe your) impact in this specific circumstance.it-boba-time-3-638

A Boba Fanatic’s Guide to Reducing Environmental Impact

  1. Reduce consumption of other single-use plastic containers. In an either/or situation, would you choose boba over, say, coffee? In that case, minimize your footprint in other ways by bringing a reusable mug to your local coffee shop. (Actually, just do this in general – I’ve been using a screw-top mug for the past two years and have found that it keeps my chai warmer for longer, prevents spills when I’m biking and/or carrying it in my bag, and saves me $0.50 each time since I’m charged for a small. And, you know, saves the planet.)
  2. Drink less boba. A companion to the previous point, this is one that can be pretty tough to accomplish these days with boba shops aggressively popping up in urban areas. For example, near San Francisco’s Union Square, you can find seven cafes in a two block radius, and all of them have crazy long lines! If the proximity is not a prohibiting factor for you, I’d recommend meditating on a hatred of lines.menuboba1
  3. Patronize cafes with glass bottles. Again, this relates to the first point of reducing waste. From a quick Yelp search, Plentea and Boba Delight seem to be the only two in SF that offer mason jars instead of the typical flimsy plastic cups, but I’ll be doing some research this week to determine whether it’s possible to bring your own. Stay tuned. (Shoutout: 500 Startups’ welcome package included these handled mason jars with lids and straws, which I now use for smoothies. Also could be a good alternative for boba!)
  4. Cut your straws lengthwise prior to disposing. My boyfriend recently gave me a super thoughtful gift: a serrated pocket knife. Not only am I more prepared to cut fruit in the woods, protect myself from a potential mugger, and open beer bottles, I can also now slice my boba straws on the go! While the plastic of the straws might still end up in the esophagus of a poor sea turtle, I hope this process will destroy the straws’ structural integrity and prevent it from jamming up an innocent windpipe.seaturtlestraw
  5. Eliminate single-use straws. If you watched that heart-breaking video above, you probably feel the same way I do about straws: they’re pretty evil. However, they’re also a necessity when drinking boba, so what can be done? According to Amazon, there are a ton of options for steel or glass extra-wide straws, complete with cleaning brushes. Though the idea of carrying around a sticky straw isn’t very appealing, this problem can be easily resolved by matching it with a recycled plastic sleeve – complete with cute anime characters or poop emojis, whatever is most popular at the moment.

I dream of a future in which we buy only bulk items, use cloth grocery bags and glass jars, and prepare everything with purely organic, sustainably-harvested materials. However, considering I can’t even kick my boba habit (and the fact that we’ve exceeded 400ppm), I know there’s a lot of work to still do. Hopefully this article showcases some of the small ways we can begin to dial back our reliance on limited resources and foster a more eco-friendly mindset, both personally and socially.

Now excuse me, I’m about to bike to the boba shop with my mason jar and reusable straw to suck on that sweet, sweet poison: boba.

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About A26Z: Good by Design

A26Z: Good by Design is a year-long project promoting actionable sustainability practices in various industries. I started this personal “capstone project” to commemorate turning 26, and will release 26 new “exhibits” until the series concludes one day prior to my 27th birthday.

If you liked this post, please make it official by clicking the “like” button below! Of course, comments are welcome – I’d love to learn more about what companies and individuals are doing to address this problem, and am open to suggestions on future topics. To stay updated on upcoming topics in the A26Z: Good By Design series, please subscribe. Thanks for reading!

The Case Against Schwag Schwag

schwag (US informal)

  1. noun. products given away free, typically for promotional purposes
  2. adj. term to describe anything that is low grade.

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Tell me if this has happened to you.

You go to a conference and return with, let’s say, three types of bag clips, seven pens, a plastic piggie bank, and an umbrella. It never rains in California anymore, everything’s online, and you typically wear a backpack – but it was free, so now it’s yours.

I’ll be honest; that list isn’t random. It’s just a few of the things I walked away with when participating in a Women in Business conference a few years ago. In addition to the things I did want – or thought I could use somehow – I also ended up with a stack of papers: some advertisements for some services targeted for an older demographic, some promotions for office supplies, and nothing I’d ever looked at again.

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Also spelled “swag.” Jane the Virgin agreesalmost everyone views these bags as generally useless.

What’s the problem?

What I described above is the experience of just one person at one conference. Compound that by the reportedly millions of conference-goers annually, and you end up with a lot of wasted material. As this Bartizan article notes, “When it comes to printing materials for trade shows and conferences, think about whether having a physical copy will benefit the potential customer and your brand. Will anyone read the material you’re providing? Is there a better way to present it?” To be fair, the marketing industry has come a long way in embracing and experimenting with new media, but the old standard of print-based advertising and cheap knick-knacks has deep roots – and for reasons that are pretty easy to understand.

A small gardening service, for example, might prefer to print fliers to stick on homeowners’ doors, a direct marketing tactic that allows the business to evaluate a potential customer’s need quickly by just looking at their yard. Referrals need to start somewhere, and outside of Yelp, Angie’s List, and local neighborhood message boards, it can be difficult to get visibility otherwise. However, these services are typically on a much smaller scale than, say, a well-funded startup that allocates marketing spend on glossy cardstock fliers to stick under wiper blades and branded T-shirts to hand out at hackathons. What happens to the 90% of fliers that end up on the ground or in the trash? What was the ROI on the 10% that survived?

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Does size matter?

I think I speak for everyone when I say yes, size matters. Conferences, marathons, graduations, and concerts – fertile ground for useless junk – are dangerous because of their scale. Make an error in one date, and you have to throw out thousands of brochures. Spell a name wrong, and you have to reprint hundreds of commemorative T-shirts. Think about those championship T-shirts for losing teams – I doubt there are enough ironic hipsters to buy up all of the 2016 NBA Champs paraphernalia that flooded the underground market after the Warriors (tragically) lost the Finals.

Conservation Tip #1: Follow Toyota’s example of lean manufacturing by only producing what you need at the moment. Not only will you catch mistakes faster due to smaller batch processing, but you can get iterative feedback on what works and create a continuously improved product. For printed material, that can mean keeping only one or two copies on hand and providing a link to an online version, or creating a virtual “folder” that pools all selected collateral into one set of files that’s emailed after the event. For physical material, that can mean reducing the number of schwag that’s given out and making products more generic so that they can be re-used in other circumstances. Tl;dr: Reduce, reuse.

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Who’s the audience?

Another issue at large events is a lack of understanding of what the average attendee actually needs (and doesn’t already have). For example, it’s safe to assume that basketball fans would enjoy a free door-mounted hoop, enough to ignore a little corporate branding splashed across the backboard. It’s not safe to assume that they’ll appreciate your HR company’s logo across the chest of a low-quality T-shirt, even if you give it to them for free. Why? Because they came to the game for a sports-related experience, and your shirt doesn’t fit into that narrative. Of course, many people will take whatever freebies they’re given even if they never plan to use them (I’ve been guilty of this myself), so it’s the responsibility of the ethical marketer to control the brand image and spend by ensuring that the right products end up in the right hands.

Conservation Tip #2: Do some market research to understand what products or information your target demographic would rep the most enthusiastically. Produce only high-quality material, whether it’s a well-designed interactive pamphlet or a creative customizable magnet. This must-read Brafton article summarizes it well: “Content marketing is not, as a colleague put it, an all-you-can eat buffet. But some companies treat it that way. The more-is-more mentality only works when there are enough resources and time to invest in each individual piece.”
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: you should be proud of your work. Anticipate what other vendors might be distributing, and try to make your offering unique and most importantly useful. (For instance, I’d be much more likely to use one nice ballpoint pen than ten rollerball pens, and would use that ball-point way more often. Bigger ROI for the company, more enjoyment for me, less junk for the environment.) Your company and your career will thank you.

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Who’s really in charge?

Without a steady hand on a company’s marketing budget, paid advertising can quickly balloon out of control. There are three ways of circumventing this problem: slow or stop paid campaigns, default to cheaper materials or methods, and/or find a sponsor or partner to cross-promote.

In the vein of the third option, I recently received a package of branded magnets as part of a StickerMule promotion. The magnets were of high quality, exactly as I have come to expect from StickerMule products, but I don’t have any use for them. Why would I put up a Chrome orb or a MailChimp monkey on my fridge, mailbox, or anywhere else? What am I supposed to do with these useless magnets? Most importantly, how do I recycle them?

It’s easy to understand StickerMule’s strategy – hit up existing clients with diversified brand offerings and offer goodies to both test quality and make consumers feel like they owe the company something – but there must be a way to improve it. What happens before, during, and after the user experience of engaging with these materials, and how can companies and individuals reduce their carbon footprint by eliminating or recycling these attempts? Here are a few suggestions.

Conservation Tips #3 – 5:

  • Reduce: Send one customizable magnet that users could color in or otherwise decorate themselves.
    However, if Facebook, Google, and Dribbble had indeed paid StickerMule for the promotion, there’s less financial incentive to limit the number of magnets given away for free. This is a tricky situation because StickerMule doesn’t have its own branding on these magnets (good for consumers, bad for marketing), so they only benefit when they distribute the goods themselves. Even so, sending just one or two, rather than six, would extend their available stock and expand their audience. 
  • Reuse: Provide a return envelope for any unused magnets.
    Admittedly, this would increase the amount of waste if the envelope is pre-printed, but would be a net positive for the company who could reclaim precious marketing assets. 
  • Reinvent: Include sticky sheets so recipients could tape over magnets they don’t plan to use.
    The downside of this is that cross-promoters wouldn’t be happy about consumers modifying their magnets, but users already have the ability to do much worse, so it’s literally out of the marketing manager’s hands.

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How do you change the channel?

Technology might hasten the human race’s ultimate demise, but eschewing it in favor of exploiting limited resources will have the same result. The big question is, how do we use technology to reduce the burden on the environment, and how can we rethink traditional models of communication to be more sustainable?

Most people are familiar with eco-friendly materials, like recycled paper or soy-ink printer cartridges that you can send back to the manufacturer. These are great initiatives, but in order to flip the script and combat growing deforestation and pollution, there are still several other shifts in perspective needed. Outside of reducing resource waste on products or assets that no one needs, the marketing industry needs to hold itself to higher standards, rallying mom-and-pop shops and multinational corporations alike to establish basic green guidelines.

This might take the form of agencies taking on more ethical work (or refusing to work with companies who have a proven track record of human rights violations or environmental abuse). ACT Responsible, whose vision is to “inspire, promote and federate communication on social and environmental responsibility,” is a comprehensive resource. It could result in industry leaders establishing sustainable development goals – UFI (the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry) has provided an excellent model for the conference space. Perhaps companies have to limit the types of resources used, or curtail excess when a production reaches a certain size. Maybe it’s as simple as creating a CSR department which audits and measures campaigns’ ROI and impact, so that teams are forced to think more closely about their strategies.

Clearly, there are no simple solutions, and no assurance that companies will even follow these rules. But it’s a start, and we can’t get anywhere without starting. As anyone who’s interacted with a teenager knows, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The marketing industry is well aware of this adage – now it’s time to start living by it.


Exhibit A (Schwag) Image

About A26Z: Good by Design

A26Z: Good by Design is a year-long project promoting actionable sustainability practices in various industries. I started this personal “capstone project” to commemorate turning 26, and will release a new “exhibit” every other Thursday until the 26-part series concludes the day prior to my 27th birthday.

If you liked this post, please make it official by clicking the “like” button below! Of course, comments are welcome – I’d love to learn more about what companies and individuals are doing to address this problem, and am open to suggestions on future topics. To stay updated on upcoming topics in the A26Z: Good By Design series, please subscribe. Thanks for reading!

FYI: LinkedIn Is Not a Dating Service

Ahh, don’t make that face. You’re too beautiful to not smile,” said the man intently watching me in the Autodesk gallery photobooth.

After awkwardly looking around for a (nonexistent) curtain, I retook the photo, uncomfortably smiling as a CGI dinosaur loomed over my shoulder. As the photo printed, the man peered over my shoulder and signaled his approval. “My boyfriend will like this,” I hinted, before following up with, “My bag is really heavy. I should find a seat before the talk starts.” He asked for my LinkedIn, and being that I was at a professional networking event, I hesitantly gave it to him. In total, we spoke for about five minutes. The next day, this happened.

Crazy LinkedIn Message


Some Context

A few months ago, I attended Tech in Motion’s Data+Design panel discussion. The topic – exploring the interplay of data and design in determining split decisions regarding UX, project management, and product delivery – is particularly relevant to my career, so I was especially excited to learn from the experiences of the panelists and mingle with relevant industry folk. Since I was alone, I wanted to maximize my time by meeting fellow design-driven business wonks and debating the merits of rapid prototyping and A/B testing (or if not that, literally anything else that related to the topic of the night).

Instead, I met several men who would verbally corner me, step far into my comfort zone, compliment my looks, ask me where I’m from*, and then tell me how beautiful they think Indian women are. I of course appreciate a well-intentioned compliment, but in these instances I can’t help but recall a famous Demetri Martin punchline: “Location, location, location.”

If you don’t already understand how this behavior is problematic, here’s a summary. The aforementioned men – and I want to emphasize that I don’t think all men are like this – probably think that they’re being friendly and forward, “networking” as the event encourages. But when the basis of their small talk is not “What’s your experience in this field?” but more “What are you doing later tonight?” it can feel predatory and disrespectful.

Think I’m being overly sensitive? Believe me, this is not an isolated event. When I handled programming and events at a coworking space, I was constantly approached by inebriated middle-aged men, leering and making suggestive comments referencing their interest in a Bollywood queen. The fact that I don’t even watch Bollywood movies wasn’t relevant to them – they would just find another track to stop me from circulating the room (in that case, doing my job).

This attitude minimizes the legitimacy of professional women at tech events. It takes away from our power as contributors to the discourse, reducing us to meaningless banter about our personal lives. It creates “an undercurrent of condescension that leads to a feeling of isolation,” as noted in a recent TechCrunch article “Women in tech: What’s the real problem?”

It presupposes that we should be so glad to hear such comments about our appearance, instead of meeting the type of people who could actually give us a leg up in our careers. Not that it’s important, but I should note that I was wearing a wool crew neck sweater, jeans, and a scarf – hardly the magnet for horny tech bachelors (or worse, married men).

How Does This Fit Into the Overall Narrative?

Women have a hard enough time advancing in the tech world, as the Harvard Business Review illustrates. “Our research findings show that on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders, fully 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists are women. But the dropout rates are huge: Over time 52% of these talented women quit their jobs.” While the standard explanations might surface – women begin to have children and lose momentum due to maternity leave and enhanced need for work/family balance – anyone who has been following the Lean In movement knows that the challenges to advancement are far more insidious than the biological clock.

Take the example of startup incubators. Though there are plenty of women in prestigious accelerator programs – an accomplishment that Y Combinator and 500 Startups both tout – men still primarily seek kinship and support from their male counterparts. That’s not to say that they don’t treat their female batchmates with respect; in my experience, they do. But when you’re a young bachelor in a new town, which is the case for at least half of the batch, you’re not likely to hit up your new female friends to join your night of debauchery and drunken hookups.

The exclusion isn’t intentional, but it happens. Male/female relationships** are mostly limited to the office, or if not are the subject of gossip. For budding entrepreneurs, that’s drama that can derail their attention during a high-pressure period for their companies. But as anyone who has developed an insta-friendship over a bottle knows, sometimes all it takes is a memorable night to build a lifelong bond – and while women are included in some of those nights, the number of non-sexualized invites are far fewer. Plus, the discomfort (for a woman) and disappointment (for a man) of a perceived/real rejection can disintegrate what otherwise would be a healthy friendship and a source for future support, connections, and opportunities. Limited chances to build social capital can have significant ramifications, especially in the Valley where “who you know” seems to take precedence over “what you know.”

Women have a number of hurdles to overcome in getting ahead in their careers, including the attitude that they should settle for less while men consistently overstate their abilities, or the notion that they should fill in as secretaries or notetakers while men are allowed to dominate the conversation. How we dress, how we talk, and even extremely personal decisions like how long is the appropriate time to stay home after the birth of a child are up for discussion. It’s frustrating, and it’s endemic of a larger sociopolitical climate, one that both men and women might not even know they’re exacerbating.

But there is one simple thing that men can do: when you meet a woman in a professional context, please treat her like a professional, not a potential Tinder match. After all, there’s an app for that.

* (“Where are you from?” “I’m from the South Bay.” “…Where is your family from?”) is a conversation I have almost every time I meet a new person. I’m happy that culture is important, but not so happy that it seems to take precedent even in scenarios where my professional accomplishments are the only things we should be discussing.

** Speaking only about heterosexual relationships, since I am straight. Would love to hear from a lesbian about their experiences with startup accelerators though!

*** Update: Just a week after I published this post, a woman posted a similar screenshare on LinkedIn that garnered over 25,000 likes and a Huffington Post article. Those who say that women are being “overly sensitive” to point out such instances of harassment clearly don’t understand how sexism works.

Coworking Spaces: It’s Your Responsibility to Go Green

Earth

Happy Earth Day! Click the photo to access my free Green Guide! (by Vidya Kaipa)

Happy Earth Day! Today, I decided to finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to address something that has been bothering me for years: the blatant disregard for immense waste within office spaces. I’ll be focusing on Prestigious Bay Area Startup Accelerator (PBASA)* here, but the message extends: if you manage a coworking space and haven’t made any effort to green up your office, you’re not only incredibly behind the times, but you will also soon find that your lack of foresight represents your Achilles heel in other aspects of business. (And let’s be honest: if society can build hover boards, augmented reality glasses, and self-driving cars, we should be able to find a solution to ensure that recycling goes in the recycle bin.)


For five months, I worked out of PBASA’s Mountain View headquarters. And for five months, I asked these same questions:

  • “Why are there no washcloths?”
  • “Why are these bins unmarked?”
  • “Why aren’t people using mugs instead of disposable cups?”
  • “Why are people using three paper towels to dry their hands?”

And most importantly:

  • “What is PBASA as a company doing to reduce their carbon footprint?”

I never got a satisfactory response. My one victory, forcing the space to buy a dishrack so we could at least eliminate the daily ream of paper towels used to dry dishes, was only achieved after speaking to at least three separate people on staff, the first two who acted like I was a radical hippie for even suggesting it. (Thanks, Chandini, for taking this issue seriously and making it happen!)

Take it from Clif Bar’s “corporate ecologist” Elysa Hammond, who helped the company become the first certified organic energy bar as well as shed 90,000 pounds of shrink wrap every year by a smart redesign of their packaging.

“Any time an office creates waste, it is not using resources as efficiently as possible. ..It makes good business sense to reduce waste.” – Elysa Hammond

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Photo courtesy of Pexels

Having helped run a coworking space myself, I know that it’s not easy to manage the various demands on your time, capabilities, and resources. But if you’re only doing what’s minimally permissible to call yourself a space and aren’t willing to put in the extra mile to apply startup best practices to your own facilities, you need to stop what you’re doing immediately and return to the basics.

I can already hear it. “But the basics of our business is investment! Our primary goal is to get our financial goals met; everything else is secondary!”

On one hand: Fair enough. Stop running a space, and focus on your investment firm. There’s no need to do both, and believe me, the companies involved would appreciate their $25K in “program fees” back.

But on the other hand: Forty companies are paying $25K each to participate in a quarterly accelerator program, meaning the organization is making $1M per batch, or $4M per year. With this investment, they should at least be able to:

  • Buy a power dryer (so bathroom paper towel use is reduced).
  • Hire a laundry service (so they can cycle washclothes daily).
  • Print a sign that indicates which bins are for what purpose (so that all bins don’t automatically become trash).
  • Call a plumber the minute a leak is discovered (so water isn’t leaking for days, causing a hazard).
Startup Stock Photos

Photo courtesy of Pexels

The Nature Conservancy reports that “Over 16 billion paper cups are used for coffee every year. This translates to over 6.5 million trees cut down, 4 billion gallons of water wasted, and enough energy used to power nearly 54,000 homes for a year.” The point of the article is to encourage readers to bring their own mug to the coffee shop, and it’s assumed that within an office environment, employees would default to using mugs naturally. What does it say about a space when members are disposing two or three cups a day, and the staff hasn’t done anything to curb that behavior?

The startup mantra is to “move fast and break things” – or in other words, experiment frequently and question the status quo. But where’s that same attitude towards encouraging reducing, reusing, and recycling in the real world? When the status quo is to dismiss the concerns of the physical in exchange for the acceleration of the virtual, it’s the responsibility of connectors – the spaces that bridge the offline and online – to remind residents of their earthly impact.

For example, a common problem coworking spaces face is getting residents to do their dishes. But without the tools necessary – sponges, dish racks, handtowels – busy entrepreneurs will either leave their dirty mug in the sink or opt for a plastic cup if available. It’s up to the space to address these issues organically, not to consider the issue done when the cups are thrown in the trash. Not only is this behavior cheap, tacky, and disrespectful, it’s ultimately unsustainable – both as a business and environmental practice.

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Photo courtesy of Pexels

Successful entrepreneurs become successful by being super focused on their business. PBASA – you know this! Give them the tools they need and the quality of service that they’re paying for so that everyone can be sustainable without losing sight of business goals.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to improve or build out your coworking space, please contact me using the form below. I also recommend you download my free Green Guide, which provides helpful pointers on quickly and efficiently greening your coworking space.

Why Every Cafe Should Schmear Your Bagel

Have you ever ordered a bagel and schmear and been handed a flimsy plastic spoon and a tiny plastic tub? Have you then had a burning desire to throw the un-schmeared bagel back at your bored, bespectacled barista and yell “FINISH THE JOB?!” If so, you might identify with this story.

(Spoiler Alert: This story is not about bagels.)


My anger has nothing to do with bagels (nor baristas), and everything to do with the concepts of waste and corporate social responsibility. 

Compare these two scenarios.

Scenario 1: You order a bagel. The bagelier slices and toasts the bagel, then uses a dedicated knife to apply cream cheese from a large vat. The knife is then replaced in the vat, and you’re handed the warm, cut, and schmeared bagel wrapped in a paper sleeve and a single napkin.

Scenario 2: You order a bagel. The bagelier asks you, “for here or to go” and you confirm that it’s “for here.” The bagelier slices and toasts the bagel, then puts it on a paper plate along with a plastic tub of schmear and a plastic knife. By the time that he’s called you, the bagel has begun to cool, and between the time you pick up the bagel, pop open the top of the tub, and apply the cream cheese, your bagel is nearly room temperature. You then throw away the knife, tub, and plate all within eyesight of your bagelier.

Not only is the first example more efficient time-wise (note that the bagelier treats every order as a to-go, increasing the speed of delivery), but it also makes more sense environmentally, economically, and experientially. Let’s break that down.

Environmentally: Imagine 100 people ordered a bagel with cream cheese. At the first cafe, the byproduct would be 100 paper sleeves – not a big waste considering the necessity of the sleeve in preventing a mid-meal schmear smear, and actually saving water by serving the dual role of plate. At the second cafe, the byproduct would be 100 plastic tubs (which have to be cleaned before recycled), 100 plastic knives (same as above), and 100 paper plates (which are usually completely untouched but are by and large thrown out). Even compostable utensils are useless compared to the first scenario, as reduction is always more sustainable and less resource-intensive than recycling. Also, despite decades of recycling, people still don’t know how to separate, so compostable and recyclable items oftentimes join the journey to the landfill.

Economically: The true pain point for effecting change is the low price of resources. Based on a quick scan of WebstaurantStore.com, we can roughly estimate that restaurants spend only $0.02 per knife, around $0.04 for the lid and tub, and $0.05 per plate. For $0.11 a customer, it seems unlikely that any cafe will change its policy based on price, especially with the considerable markup of the food items covering the excess. However, the restaurant business already operates on very thin margins, and $11 lost per day on 100 inefficient bagels can stack up over the year. If a cafe operates 350 days out of the year, that’s $3,850 lost revenue – maybe that’s enough of an incentive for a small business to consider alternatives.

Experientially: When do you buy a bagel in a cafe? If you’re like me, it’s when you’re already on your way to somewhere else and want a quick bite to eat in transit. Operative word: quick. If I wanted to schmear my own bagel, I would buy all of the materials at home, and it would take me the exact same amount of time as waiting for the bagel maker to toast it in store. The immediate experience of buying a bagel is diminished by the work that I now have to do to complete the transaction, and that makes me not want to return to the cafe. UX (user experience) design is not limited to tech – it’s critical that every establishment evaluate what outcome they’d consider optimal and what steps are necessary to achieve that ideal objective. (Jeff Axup’s blog, aptly named Restaurant UX, provides more examples.) If I’m turned off by this wasteful practice and blasé attitude towards customers, I’m not going to eat at that cafe again, which costs the cafe future profits.

As consumers, we have incredible power to affect supply-chain economics, through boycotts, product recalls, and simple behavioral changes. However, for the most part, we default to a price-comparison when choosing everyday goods. This is a normal function of being a cost-conscious consumer, particularly in a society of widening inequality.

Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the business – of all of those in the supply chain, really – to think deeply about what resources they offer and how often they’re made available. There’s a big difference between handing someone a bagel with a knife, for instance, and pointing them in the direction of the accoutrement kiosk. When companies take a deeper look at the lifecycle of their products and identify even one area of improvement, they are taking a step towards reducing society’s so-called “dependence” on finite resources and reimagining a process in which human-centered design reigns supreme.

As a human, that’s a future I’d like to see. Now schmear my damn bagel.

 

Sustainability Series - Bagel #2