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The Perils of Kumbaya Marketing

February 3, 2011

Those crazy guys in the world of animal husbandry have a joke: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” If so, there is no industry that sports more examples of camel marketing than the world of technology.

There’s a reason for this—two actually. One has to do with a genuine but misguided sense of democracy in the startup world. The other has to do with who in this democracy actually exercises their right to vote. Let’s take each one in turn.

Democracy: Of all the disciplines involved in running a technology company, marketing is the only activity done by committee. Product design and coding isn’t democratic—far from it. Neither is balancing the books or setting sales quotas. Yet in startups, because ‘everyone has skin the game’, they’re all entitled to a vote on everything from naming and logo to positioning. It’s well-intentioned but wrong thinking: and it’s how we wind up being brought into relaunch a company a year later.

The Voters: The biggest problem with our startup democracy is that all of the voters, in the earliest stages at least, are engineers. And while they’re the best group to design the product that’s going to put you on Easy Street, they’re the last group you want creating your name and designing your logo. But because of the Kumbaya ethic, that’s exactly what they do. Which is how we wind up with companies called Zembex or Tektron and with logos that need to come with a letter of explanation.

Apple is the most admired brand in the world these days, its products lauded for their elegance and simplicity. Under Steve Jobs’ leadership it is also the least Kumbaya-oriented company on the planet. Keep that in mind the next time you post a ‘name that company’ list on the refrigerator in the ping-pong room.

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