Creative Best Practices

Two Things I learned at the Inc. 5000 Conference

Posted by Adam Kleinberg on September 29th, 2009 at 12:00 am

I'm leaving the Inc. 500 | 5000 Conference in Washington D.C. feeling inspired. The Inc. 5000 is their list of the fastest growing companies in the United States over the past 4 years. This year, Traction was ranked #1399.

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I go to a lot of industry events for advertising and digital media, so it was a refreshingly optimistic opportunity to be in the presence of an "industry" of entrepreneurs. To be honest, before I went, I wasn't too enthused. But I left feeling really humbled to be among this proud group of people who are making the American Dream happen for themselves every day.

Sound sappy? Maybe, but it's how I feel this morning.

Last night, they gave the Entrepreneur of the Year award to a woman who, despite being severely handicapped in a car accident when she was 23 years old, invented an "invisible bib" for people in wheelchairs to protect their clothes—and turned her idea into one of the 5000 fastest growing companies in America. I've never felt so genuinely humble.

The conference brought in one of the best lists of speakers I've ever seen. Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great, tore the house down. Tony Hsieh from Zappos spoke. Randall Graham from (Traction's former client) Bonny Doon Vineyards. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue. Eric Ryan from Method Products. BET founder, Robert Johnson. ZipCar CEO, Scott Griffith. And so on.

I even got to have a one-on-one conversation with Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke (see video below). I'm hoping he'll consider me to be part of the advisory council to the new Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We talked about Twitter and how Traction's healthcare premiums (they went up 40% between 2007-2008).

So, what did I learn?

Two things:
• Truly great brands don't define themselves by their products, but by the experiences they provide to their customers
• What you do on the inside is as important as what you portray outside in creating a real brand

Just two weeks ago, I was in Hangzhou, China as a guest of my client, Alibaba.com to attend their 10th anniversary celebration and the APEC SME (Small Medium Enterprise) Summit. Great speakers there too, including Bill Clinton and Nobel prize winner Mohammed Yunnis.

Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, also gave a great speech at APEC.

And, here's something telling: The advice he gave was almost a carbon copy of the advice I heard over and over again at Inc. 5000.

• Zappos does not define itself as a great online shoe store. It's their goal to provide the greatest customer service in the world.

• JetBlue does not define itself as the great airline. It's their goal to provide the greatest customer service in the world.

• Starbucks does not define itself as a coffee company. It's their goal to provide the greatest customer experience in the world.

And all of these leaders had the same thing to say about how to get there. Exceeding customer expectations was not the most important thing in the world for their companies. What was?

Exceeding employee expectations.

It all starts with providing the greatest employee experience in the world. It was striking that again and again, the thing that made all of these companies so great was their people and their people were great because they loved their jobs, understood the vision of the company and their role in it.

Zappos employees are offered $2,000 to quit anytime during their training period to weed out anyone who doesn't truly believe in the vision. One JetBlue employee told David that she was famous because she worked there—people would call out to her in church and at the supermarket. Woo hoo, JetBlue. Stuff like that.

As a branding professional, these are two insights that are critical to understand. The world's greatest companies don't position themselves around product attributes or holes in the competitive landscape. They define themselves by the experience they deliver.

That experience is not window dressing. It starts at those companies' very core—their people.
Traction has defined our mission as being a respected creative agency where the experience getting there is as great as the work itself. Since, we started our company in 2001, we've had three people quit ever.

The Inc 5000 made me feel like we're on the right track.

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