When customers took to social media, calling a start-up's product ugly, the company went with it--inadvertently fueling a meteoric ascent.
Alejandro Velez discovered that ugly mushrooms made great social media fodder.
Twitter and LinkedIn "are the two greatest management tools that have come along since the invention of e-mail," declared Gregory Shove, the founder and CEO of SocialChorus, speaking to a packed session entitled "Leadership in a Digital Age" at this year’s Inc. Leadership Forum.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To do it right, social media cultivation requires nearly-constant monitoring, transparency, and an unsctructured, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ideology that can be tough on some company founders and CEOs.
"You and everyone who works for you need to walk around with your phone and constantly monitor what people are saying. It returns marketing to what it used to be: hard, manual labor. But you have to do it. If your competitors do it and you don’t, you’ll pay."
Shove was joined in the session by Alejandro Velez, the 25-year-old co-founder of Back to the Roots, perhaps best known for the mushroom growing kits that it sells through major retailers like Whole Foods Market and Home Depot. The company has grown from zero to $4.1 million in sales in just four years, a meteoric rise that owes much to social media, which was not what Velez and his partner, Nikhil Arora, were expecting.
"For us, it just happened," said Velez. "It wasn’t planned. People bought our mushroom kits, and the mushrooms they grew were really funky and ugly. They began posting the photos online. We decided to embrace it. We said, 'Yes, they look ugly, but they’re good for you.' And we started a mushroom naming contest, which people really got into."
Shove said he uses Twitter to keep track of what’s going on with customers, competitors, and prospects. "If one of our prospects tweets about being at a great conference, we get on a plane and go there immediately." He looks at LinkedIn for changes in people’s titles and to see who’s been promoted and who’s moved on to something else.
Shove and Velez agreed that the key to success in social media is being totally transparent. "That’s a tremendous advantage for entrepreneurs over their big, well-funded competitors, who hate transparency," said Shove. "They think the less the customer knows about them, the better--because they’re set up to have their sales reps control the customer relationship. But that doesn’t work in the world of social media."
"It’s about authenticity," said Velez. "Social media is an authentic way of marketing. Customers watch you fail, and then watch you pick yourself up." That type of interaction helps to cement the relationship, he suggested.
"That’s right," said Shove, agreeing. "As soon as I find myself censoring what I tweet, I know that I’m becoming less effective."
BO BURLINGHAM: Burlingham joined Inc. in 1983. An editor at large, he is the author of Small Giants. Burlingham is also the co-author with Norm Brodsky of The Knack; and the co-author with Jack Stack of The Great Game of Business. @boburlingham