Evangelism lessons, from my Grandmother

Here are a few things I learned from my Obaachan (Grandmother in Japanese) who sadly passed last year at the age of, 110.  No, that’s not a typo.  One hundred and ten.  No condolences please, she lived a long and happy life.  So, a few life/Evangelism lessons I learned following this nearly five foot tall woman around all my life.

Get out – we spend a bunch of our lives behind the keyboard or at meetings sitting in rooms or in the car heading to… another meeting.  She’d be up puttering around in the garden or doing folk dancing.  It didn’t matter who the “folks” were, you name the culture, she’d try it. The only time I ever saw her sitting down was eating or playing cards with her card circle.  Yeah, I didn’t learn this lesson very well myself…. but get out, meet face to face and do your thing.

Be up, with people –  As Evangelists we deal with people, really not technology.  My grandmother was relentlessly positive and always collecting people.  Malcolm Gladwell calls these people “connectors” and by his standard she was a mega connector.  I swear she invented the concept of “meetups” in her kitchen, she could pick up the phone and make things happen that were fascinating and amazing.  Evangelists do this everyday online, on conference calls on webcasts…

Own it – We all try to make our work interesting to others, well, make it interesting to you first.  She’d take something ordinary and turn it into something of her own with surprising results.  A flowering cherry tree she had me plant as a kid in her garden I noticed while in college had fruit!  Apples, cherries, I can’t remember what else.  She grafted so many shoots on it that she couldn’t remember it originally was a cherry blossom tree, it was now in essence an “Obaachan Tree”.  Are your demos just the SDK sample code, if so, you really should make them your own.

That’s it, file this in the “are Evangelists born or is it something learned” chapter.

How’s it going? Better than we ever admitted.

Up until this week, we’ve reported that our BlackBerry 10 App Ecosystem was the fastest growing for a new smartphone OS launch, namely 70K apps at our announcement, and 100K a month later by the time actual phone hardware shipped.  This week, we announced our growth rate continues, we’re up to 120K Z10 apps available in our BlackBerry World catalog today.  Impressive work by our great Ecosystem, 50K apps added since BlackBerry 10 announce!

This however is only part of the story.  Yesterday my boss Alec Saunders disclosed the other half, when you combine all the apps the team acquired last year, it’s over 250K apps for BlackBerry 10, BlackBerry OS (our old OS) and PlayBookOS!  This is in one year, with the same team, both launching a new platform and continuing to work with existing app developers.

What did we learn during this last year?  I’ve already covered many of the lessons here on my blog, but in this case much of the credit for BlackBerry OS goes to our great worldwide BlackBerry Developer Community, who’s commitment to share their BlackBerry OS expertise with others was truly outstanding.  Many of these Community members are part of our BlackBerry Elite, recognizing the top BlackBerry App Developers around the globe.  So, without working closely with our Developer Community, this last year would never have been possible.

Investing in your community pays multiple dividends.  They are your best advocates and Evangelists, and by investing in them, they will reward you with strong support like we saw at BlackBerry.  Do you have a Community recognition program?  If so, do you talk to them every week?  And more importantly, are you listening, they’ll tell you how things are really going out in your Ecosystem.

Technical Evangelists: Forces of Nature or Products of Nurturing?

I’ve been having a fun on again, off again background discussion with a few super experienced Technical Evangelists (TE) about whether it’s possible to train someone to become a successful TE, or are they really born with the skills in the first place?  Truth be told, I think we all agree it’s a little of both, but, there’s not a simple “it’s nature” or “nurture” answer.

When I think back over my own experience, each Evangelism or Ecosystem org I’ve been in has required a different mix of skills based on the type and release stage of the product, maturity of the ecosystem and whether the team itself is new or existing.   Because of this, it’s hard to describe an exact profile of the TE you need to hire and what to look for in the wild, or even what skills to help them polish up.  I also realize, this is probably a multi-part post, today I’ll describe a general background profile that I commonly see in my most successful evangelists.

  • Development skills – this is a given, all my TE’s are first and foremost experienced developers, maybe not just of mobile apps or services, but are highly technical.
  • Connectors – ala Gladwell’s Tipping Point book, they participate in people oriented things, meetups, groups etc.  Usually they lead one or more of these group activities and are known in their locale for doing so.
  • Entrepreneurs – my most successful TE’s have either been a founder of or have run a startup, which makes them well suited to talk to other startup devs or startup wannabes.
  • Social media – they constantly use these tools for info sharing and ideas are the principal currency of exchange in their  interactions via social media.

You probably noticed I don’t look for individual skills like “public speaking”, “great PowerPoint” ability or “sales” skills, these are skills that can be polished.  Sure, the candidate needs to be able to do stand up talks, but, if they are “connectors” they’re already doing this, albeit maybe to smaller crowds than my team typically addresses.

So back to my conjecture, are they born this way or is this learned?  I think from the profile it’s clear that it is both, learned skills and experience and a predisposition to work well with others.

When you’re looking at the resumes in front of you, have a framework in mind to quickly assess whether this person is a great developer, a great networker and a business builder.   If you check off all three, my guess is you’ve found a great candidate for your next TE.

Customer, Customer, Customer

This week I traveled down in Palo Alto to attend Relay Ventures Strictly Mobile event thank you to John Occhipinti for inviting us to attend.  The event featured CEO speakers and panelists from Education, Healthcare, Connected Home and Enterprise mobile startups, I noted that one common theme kept being discussed throughout, focus on delighting your customer first & the business model will sort itself out.   In essence customer focus is paramount, without them there is no product or service.

The speakers ranged  from Sal Kahn, founder of Khan Academny, to Ken Gullickson, COO of Evernote.  Sal talked about how even today he is recording new lessons, one or two a day that are requested by email and comments from Kahn Academy students.  Sal described how he just focused on lessons and rudimentary tools before  he had figured out how to run Kahn Academy as a financially sustainable entity.  By keeping focused on what his “customers” ask for, his team of only 40  have acquired a base of  nearly 50 million students/learners.

Ken Gullickson talked about how Evernote keeps improving the basic “free” product and in doing so have reduced customer acquisition costs.  This is  because they see strong evidence that a sizeable percentage of customers who stopped using their free version takes a second look at Evernote.  By the time they do so, Evernote has added even more customer requested features and improved ease of use, hence, they’re  likely to cause the customer to stick, and their data supports this insight.  Ken literally made the point “worry about getting the product right first, it will naturally lead you to the right business model”.

Update: As I’ve been reminded by some old MS buddies, another key lesson from Ken’s talk is what we used to call “shipping is a feature” i.e. knowing when to release the product when it’s good enough and having the discipline to do so is a key skill for any product/service team.  Thanks for the reminder guys!

Too often we get caught up gaming the business model, monetization strategy etc. and forget the basic premise that a happy customer is the overarching goal, we all know what happens in social media in the hands of a not so happy customer.

So, my take away as an evangelist is to always remember that if your startup is wondering about what the right thing to do with your API, your newest program or feature in your tools, as an evangelist you’ve got the best feedback loop in town, your customer, i.e. your developer ecosystem.  Ask them and listen to what they say you should do.  It’s always easier to “sell” something that your customer helped you design be it your product, your platform API or programs, your results will speak for themselves.  Focus on *your* customers.

When is the last time you harvested your forum feedback?  When’s the last time you asked a question on your own forum?

Who’s responsible for…. Evangelism?

Today I read a tweet, that lead me to read a great blog post, that lead me to think once again about a subject that I’ve discussed once before.  Although the subject of the blog post is “Who’s responsible for sales?”, when you read this just do a mental cut and paste and substitute the word “Evangelism” for “Sales”.

In a company with a core platform offering, the same “we’re all in this together” mentality is required to build, evangelize, sell and support your API to developers much earlier in the cycle than putting your  product in the hands of your first customer.  In many ways, if you don’t think about the developer community as customer number one, you’re probably going to have a hard time offering customer number two, the consumer, any sustained differentiation.

I’ve touched on this once before in a previous post, bottom line, if a platform orientation is critical to your product or business success, then everyone on your team, better yet, your whole company, is an Evangelist.  While I’m an Evangelist all day, everyday, your whole firm needs to view developers as strategic partners, and your most important early audience and hence, treat each interaction with them as an opportunity to Evangelize.  Who knows, they may like what they see and turn into the best Evangelists of your platform.  This approach worked for us at BlackBerry, and I know if you’re committed, will also work for you.

What a difference a year makes!

Thanks for all the kind email today from industry friends around the world both old and new, yes, BlackBerry’s back in the fight as evidenced by today’s quarterly earnings report.  I for one am glad our BlackBerry CEO Thorstein Heins could actually say the word “profits” in a sentence today.

That said, reflecting back on a year ago and the situation at hand through the lens of an Evangelist, what did we accomplish in an open letter:

1) Built a world class Evangelism team.  This includes our HQ technical team, marketing and operations, as well as my WW team of Technical Evangelists.  As I’ve stated before, the team must be strong, and ours is built of achievers.

2) Imbued in ourselves and our community a shared sense of purpose.  Yes, it started with the Team BlackBerry Developers, but, we worked together with this strong core to “grow the bubble” of “those in the know” about BlackBerry 10.  One piece of evidence, over 55% of our sales are to folks moving off one of our competitors platforms.  We also saw that the developers on these other platforms began targeting BlackBerry 10 months ago, it’s true, developers are the early indicator of platform health.

3) Continue to invest and innovate.  We don’t plan to let up on the gas pedal, I’ve discussed the team innovating rapidly, this next year will not be any different, we’ve merely entered the next phase of our plan and will continue to drive innovative approaches.

4) Shipping is a feature.  My final big thank you is to our colleagues in Product Engineering for working the late nights & weekends, hope we did you guys proud.  Thanks for all the SDK releases, this was key for all the early developer engagement.

Thanks again, it’s been a great and at times unbelieveable year for the Developer Relations Group at BlackBerry and we look forward to seeing you out in the Ecosystem.

Don’t stop believing

Not to worry, I’m not going to launch into Journey’s power ballad….

It appears that the negative coverage is now increasing on my old friends in Windows Phone.  I joined the BlackBerry team just over a year ago, and in that time one skill I’ve “exercised” is to read the recent coverage of BlackBerry, process that information and to simply continue executing on the path we’d already charted.  This is something that a good Evangelist needs to do, believe in your own technology.  In the face of such constant, negative and well, sometimes actually quite amusing coverage, how do you keep the team moving forward?

Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t control.

It’s easy to get caught up and react to negativity.   So, early last year we learned that we had to carry our message out to developers ourselves.  This lead us to launch our now infamous 44 city BlackBerry Jam World Tour.  We could control our own messaging only if we could deliver it directly to developers without someone else’s spin or agenda.  We counted on this core of developers to carry our unfiltered message out to their community.  It seemed like a good idea and really was the best option available.  So we did, simple as that.

Another example was fighting the “vaporware” problem.  Being a former Microsoft Technical Evangelist, having to manage an Ecosystem to a new set of target dates was something I, er, was used to doing?  Anyways, we couldn’t control the speculation about “if BlackBerry 10 would ever ship” but what we decided to do is let developers experience it first hand.  We launched the biggest seeding program of it’s type in the industry.  Developers could monitor our progress build to build, SDK release to SDK release and see that BlackBerry 10 was real.

When you’re facing a situation like we’ve faced at BlackBerry, set realistic expectations with your team and management &  know it always takes longer than you think for your message to carry.   But the most important thing is to actively go out into the Ecosystem, tell your story and watch something great happen.