I want my mojo back.

For presentationI meet with start-ups all the time. I am always inspired by them; their energy, enthusiasm and dedication to what they believe in is contagious. I call it the “collective mojo:” when a group of entrepreneurs band together and work endlessly, with the belief that they can create something amazing, powerful, disruptive and additive to humanity. According to Merriam-Webster’s, “mojo” means “a power that may seem magical and that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc.” I want my mojo back.

But, the  question is: how do you maintain this drive and entrepreneurial spirit when you’re not a start-up any more? How do you keep your collective mojo?

iConstituent has been around for over ten years now. We have been through many ups and downs along the way. So, how do we get our collective mojo back? – the energy, enthusiasm, and passion to create something new, disruptive and amazing? How do we evolve beyond simple “profit and loss statements, balance sheets and statement of cash flows?”  Basic accounting is obviously important – but, how do we transcend simple dollars and cents, and focus on building great things that people will use and love? And, ultimately become wildly successful?

Regaining your collective mojo starts with the belief that your market (no mater what it is) WILL change. Someone is going to succeed. Why not YOU? Look at the hotel and taxi industry; I find myself using AirBnB and Uber these days – all the time. Twelve months ago, I was “old school,” and simply stayed at hotels or fought for cabs. The world is changing so quickly and so dramatically. These two companies have had such a profound impact on the world in such short periods of time. The government/public sector space will change, too. It has been slowly changing for years, and more rapidly so in recent months, thanks to forward thinking people like Vivek Kundra and many others.

So, how does a company get its collective mojo back? First, it starts with the belief that your  industry will rapidly change and that there remains an abundance of opportunity for those willing to take chances, think “out of the box.”  Who will be the next “Uber” in your space?  Next, you must invest in developing your staff and finding new talent. This is the most important step. By empowering and nurturing talent at iConstituent, and finding more talent to augment our already awesome team, our company will grow; the company’s collective mojo will only come through innovation, which is driven by talent.  Invest in talent, nurture talent, empower talent – and, you will get your mojo back. On this note, I am proud to announce that two of my staff  will take on more responsibility and be empowered to help drive growth at iConstituent: Greg Fickel was recently promoted to Chief Operating Officer and Derek Haller is our VP of Product.

 

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Everyone faces challenges. Everyone suffers set backs. Last week was one of those times for me. However, the experience has increased my determination to succeed – to push harder than ever before. Since last year, I have been working on some very big things at iConstituent – innovation that promises to change the game, give our customers even more power to reach their constituents and level the playing field. The saying “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” is very true. I will make some exciting announcements soon.  Join me on Twitter to hear them first (#bigviola).

It’s only a matter of time.

SalesForce

DreamForce Conference, 2013

On February 8, 2011, Vivek Kundra, then the U.S. Chief Information Officer, released a ground breaking report, “Federal Cloud Computing Strategy.” In it, he states, “Cloud computing offers the government an opportunity to be more efficient, agile, and innovative through more effective use of IT investments, and by applying innovations developed in the private sector.” Now, over three years later, his assessment was absolutely on target. But, the question is: how fast is the government moving in this direction? I believe that it’s only a matter of time before all branches of government adopt the Cloud for their technology needs. With companies like Microsoft , SalesForce and others pushing the Cloud into the public sector, our business is changing rapidly – and for the better. Companies like iConstituent grow and thrive by providing innovation to the government marketplace, but this is hard to do when companies are forced to provide their services from behind tightly held and highly regulated government firewalls. As we move ahead, this will change; public clouds, such as those provided by SalesForce for their public sector customers – now FISMA and FedRAMP compliant, will compel more government entities to switch. Early adopters of cloud technology such as the Dept. of Education and DOJ have set the stage for other government entities to follow suit. Who stands to benefit the most from increased government adoption of the Cloud? Ultimately, American citizens. Why? Because, the government will be in a better position to leverage private sector innovation to reach and service citizens in a more efficient and less expensive way.

Thoughts on Cyber Security

CSWe hear a lot about cyber security today. The recent breach of Target’s “Point of Sale” system for credit and debit card transactions is one big example that comes to mind. The fact is that cyber security is something that should concern everyone, from businesses, to government entities, to individual citizens. Small businesses, not just big companies, are at risk of being targeted. At iConstituent, we have learned important lessons about cyber security and how small companies can manage their cyber security risk. We have hired some of the best security experts we could find and made substantial upgrades in our security infrastructure to protect our company’s assets and our customers’ information. Most importantly, we have learned that nobody can guarantee they are absolutely secure, and even small companies need to invest in being as secure as possible.

What can I impart to others who run small companies? A lot. Here is some advice:

First, recognize that cyber security is not just an IT issue. For one thing, the consequences of a cyber attack can be so severe that they demand management’s attention: when the company’s finances, customers, or reputation might be on the line, management must own the problem and the risk.

Management must also lead because the solution to cyber risk is not just an IT solution: managing risk requires the whole company to work together. Management must make decisions about how to allocate resources and must set policies for the company. Human Resources needs to train employees, and employees need to act in a secure way on the company’s network. Legal has to make sure the company has the right insurance and protections in place. Communications supports sending important information to customers and other third parties. The company’s cyber security efforts are only as good as the weakest link, and the solution requires a team effort, so management has to lead and make sure the whole company is committed to cyber security. As CEO of iConstituent, I am ultimately the person accountable for our cyber security and for making strategic decisions about how we manage our risk. It’s the only way this works. So, where to begin?

The second piece of advice is to set priorities. Cyber security can become a big, tangled, never-ending problem if you let it. If you try to protect everything, you will protect everything inadequately, and you may soak up endless budget doing it. This is especially challenging for small companies. Instead, decide what matters most: what information and assets are most critical to protect, and how are we going to protect them? Convene your management team to talk about this, and solicit input from employees across the company, too; these questions may seem like they have obvious answers, but you will be surprised by the different answers you might get, many of which may be different and more accurate than you first thought.

Third, to keep focused on those priorities, it is important to have a plan. For a small company, a 12-month plan helps you plan your budget and set goals that are achievable in a reasonable timeframe. While planning is important, flexibility is, too: cyber security is dynamic, is never “finished,” and requires constant change and effort; so, as you measure progress against the plan each month, be prepared to adjust course as circumstances demand.

As a small company, a helping hand can be important, which brings me to my fourth suggestion: smart outsourcing can be an effective way to cover the basics of technology and staff support to monitor and protect your networks, without the expense of building your own complete, in-house security program. One useful element is a Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP), which can help prevent or mitigate a breach. Other third parties can help you limit your risk if an incident happens. Cyber risk insurance is one example. Of course, the devil is in the details, and you have to be careful about the specifics when outsourcing to reduce risk, for example checking the insurance policy for the right coverage and reasonable premiums. Outsourcing has many benefits for small companies that do not have the size or budget to build their own, in-house cyber security program. But, it is critical to keep in mind that while you can outsource many functions, you cannot outsource ultimate responsibility for your company’s cyber security: the management team needs to oversee the whole program and tie the various pieces together.

Fifth and finally, it is essential to prepare for the worst-case scenario: a successful breach that puts your company’s customers, finances, or reputation on the line. Even the best laid security plans can succumb to an attack, so make sure you have an incident response plan, and practice it together as a management team: do a drill to test the key elements of the plan and make sure each person knows their responsibilities and what to do in a crisis.

Cyber security is a dynamic, challenging problem. Staying secure is especially hard for small companies that have fewer resources and less time to prevent and prepare for attacks. But, it is essential to do your best to keep your company’s network and customers’ information secure.  I hope these tips, learned through our small company’s own experiences with cyber security, are helpful to you and help you start down the road of improving your company’s cyber security. Remember: just like running a small business, cyber security is a never-finished job, and the journey is as important as the destination. Good luck!

It’s been a long road.

It feels like yesterday when we formed iConstituent in a small garage. But, its been nearly 12 years now. Fortunately for us, two of the founders of iConstituent had an empty garage in Anaheim, California. So, we used it until their parents kicked us out. After that, we moved to an industrial garage near Disneyland. The new garage space had no heating or air conditioning.

Those garage days have long since gone and we have had plenty of ups and downs since that time, but we persevered because we believed that government would look for efficient ways to connect with people – and we were excited about the tremendous opportunities that lay ahead.

Our first paying customer took us many months to obtain. After dozens of meetings and countless drives to Los Angeles City Hall, we finally signed former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn. He used our product (an eNewsletter that tracked basic results and that provided some essential metrics) to help promote Los Angeles area restaurants after 9/11, and the results were outstanding. It worked and thousands of people received and read his message. How much did it cost the City of Los Angeles? $250. Inexplicably, he never used the service again. According to his staff, it was too expensive.

Disappointment never stopped us. We continued to forge ahead, believing that it was not a question of “if” government would adopt newer technologies  to communicate with constituents, but “when.” We were right.  In 2004, our little company began to grow.

Today, iConstituent is at the forefront of citizen engagement. What made us great nearly 12 years ago is still in our DNA today: we are, first and foremost, entrepreneurs and innovators. These two elements have been key to our overall growth. It’s true that some of our ideas flopped along the way (remember Virtual Town Halls, BuzzMetrics and MyCongress?), but we had the courage to try.

Not the garage anymore, but a real office (circa 2005)

Not the garage anymore, but a real office. (iConstituent, circa 2005)

After our acquisition of InterAmerica Technologies  in 2010, our business changed overnight; we went from a small company with a few employees to a much more substantial company with over 50 employees. Four years later, we are still a small business, composed of 50 hard-working people, dedicated to bringing change to citizen engagement, though technology and innovation.

As we move ahead in 2014, iConstituent will continue to refine and focus its business strategy. So far, 2014 has gotten off to a great start: we released a new version of our core product, Signal CRM and our Constituent Gateway eNewsletter PLUS is one of the most widely used digital communications tools for elected officials in Congress and throughout the country.

One of our early offices with no furniture.

One of our early offices with no furniture.

An old musician friend of mine once told me many years ago that “my head is in the sky, but my feet are on the ground.” This basically sums up iConstituent – we dream big things, but work endlessly to bring incremental, but substantive change, to the way government and people connect.

To My Competitors: Time to Step it Up

This week,  some of our competitors had a wake-up call. They learned that less than strict adherence to industry best practices when sending bulk email will result in getting blacklisted by major worldwide anti-spam organizations. The ones who suffer the most: their government customers and the constituents who receive information through bulk email. Our industry can do better and really needs to step up their game. iConstituent has been following industry best practices for years now – since we entered this market well over 10 years ago. Since our inception, we have successfully sent billions of messages throughout our years of dedicated service to government.

But, there are many vendors in our market who need to step it up.

Some government entities are experiencing serious bulk email delivery woes right now. Today. Why? Because, the basic principals of sending bulk email have been ignored by a few who don’t see or understand the importance of maintaining high standards for their customers when it comes to sending bulk email. There are industry standards that must be adhered to when sending bulk email or they risk their customers critical communication getting trapped in spam filters. Because some federal and state government entities purchase email lists, the challenge of sending bulk email is even greater; anti spam organizations, like Spamhaus, make it tougher for email to get past their barriers. Hidden spam traps are everywhere. One wrong step or best practice ignored will result in poor email delivery or even worse, no email delivery. So, what can be done to improve delivery of bulk email sent from government entities to their constituents? A lot, actually.

If you are a staff  member in a government office using a bulk email vendor, there is much that is not within your control. You must rely on your vendor to manage your IP reputation and list hygiene (and hope that they adhere to a myriad of other industry best practices). However, you should also be aware of some basic reporting that most reputable vendors provide. Without these key statistics, you will be in the dark as to the success rate of your bulk email delivery and overall emailing reputation.

There are three basic statistics that you may need to consider when sending your bulk email; “Open” and “Click Through” rates only tell you part of the story. It’s the Delivery Rate that is key.

  1. Delivery Rate: The Delivery Rate is different from “open and click through” rates. The Delivery Rate gives you the total percentage of your messages delivered. It follows a basic formula: Total number of emails sent LESS (Total Soft Bounces + Total Hard Bounces) = Total Delivered (Delivery Rate). Seeing this rate will indicate (at a glance) the success of your mailing. A low Delivery Rate indicates that there is a problem with your message delivery (i.e, blocked by a spam filter, etc). Incidentally, there can be no such thing as a perfect delivery rate; every mailing will have hard bounces and soft bounces. It’s unavoidable.
  2. Hard Bounces: These are emails that are invalid (for some reason or another). They simply cannot be used any more. Industry best practice is to remove these addresses from your list every time you mail. That’s correct: Hard Bounces should be removed from your list with each bulk mailing effort. Over time, your email list will shrink; there is a natural attrition of email addresses in every list. Email lists are always dynamic and never static, so list hygiene is a constant effort. Continuous mailing to Hard Bounced emails will result in poor IP reputation and thus, being blocked by spam filters.
  3. Soft Bounces: These are emails that were not delivered due to an unexplained reason. However, looking at this list will give you a lot of information. For example, if you see a lot of emails with the Yahoo.com domain, this would indicate that Yahoo has blocked your email. Knowing this will help you correct the problem and fix this issue for the next mailing. Not knowing, worsens your issue and drives your Delivery Rate down.

You should note that there are many other industry best practices that I am not touching upon in this post related to content creation, feedback loops, IP reputation and so on. But, the above three points are what I consider to be a basic starting point in understanding the effectiveness of your emailing TODAY. Poor delivery rates, high numbers of hard and soft bounces should give you cause for concern – and, the ability to make changes.

I have been talking about good bulk emailing practices for years now. It’s something that iConstituent is great at doing – sending bulk email. It’s important that constituent mail is sent responsibly and correctly; ignoring industry best practices is not an option any more. Vendors who sell services to the Members of Congress and other branches of government (other than iConstituent), need to improve their game and better adhere to industry best practices. Gone are the days of “email blasting,” and hoping for the best. In fact, those days were gone many years ago. We encourage our competition to step it up.