Monday, May 4, 2009

Lessons from Glassblowing for High-Tech marketing

This past weekend I spent 6 hours learning the very basics of glassblowing. It's been on my "bucket list" for quite some time, and when a good friend suggested we try it, I jumped on the opportunity. But what I didn't realize was that there were lessons I got in the studio that are metaphors for my "day job" too.

BTW, the lesson was given at San Francisco's Public Glass studios - a fabulous resource near one of San Francisco's largest artists communities. Cool galleries but even cooler artisans at work. Glassblowing has been around since ancient Egypt, I think. And in
many ways it hasn't changed very much. The tools are still very simple, and the raw materials are still the same. And so begin my observations:

It's way harder than it looks: Nothing beats experience and experimentation, and no amount of watching beats actual doing. You notice this the second you take your first blob of glass from the furnace and simply try to keep it symmetrical and from falling to the floor. You have to develop an intuitive feel for temperature, malleability, and a muscle-memory for working with the material.
All the business books in the world only get you so far. You need to get your hands dirty. And frankly, nothing beats learning from a really good failure. Once you see a product cancelled (or for that matter, a company die) you finally gain a real appreciation for what to do, not just what not to do. Ya' can't get that from a book.
Heat is your friend (but be careful): You find that you only have a minute or two of work time before you need to re-heat a piece. But be wary - you're operating at temperatures above 2,000F (and as high as 2,500F sometimes) which means even standing in front of an oven - even 6 feet away - is something you can only tolerate for a few seconds. Going back-and-forth doesn't give you lots of time to cool-of and pat your forehead.
Hype, profile and momentum is what you strive for. But it can be fleeting. When you're "hot" you've got clout, but it dies-down quickly. Drumming-up conversations - or even controversy - in the social network realm is great. It keeps you in play. Just don't overdo it or you'll be toast. :)
From basic materials & tools can arise massively different implementations: Yes, there are a few different types of glass (some w/higher melting points, clarity, etc.) and a few different tools (basic steel pincers, scissors, wooden shaping cups, and yes - even wet newspaper to help shape). But that's it. Then the creativity begins. How you manipulate the glass viscosity, temperature gradients & selective cooling, layers of glass, color etc. is infinitely variable. The sky's the limit.

And even in tech, the basic marketing principles (the four P's, segmentation, etc.) haven't changed in a long time. But using them in clever/innovative ways is the trick. Making sure you stand-out in the crowd, above the noise-level, is still more of an art than a science. Play with the combinations, repeat them, think about re-combining in new ways. Be creative and brainstorm with others.
Keep things moving! Hot glass is essentially fluid, much like really think molasses. The second you stop spinning the glass, it'll start sagging. Plus, the really good artisans spin smoothly and transition back/forth smoothly too. Never stop.
And, never stop experimenting; never let-off on the accelerator with PR, AR, or marketing programs; keep the "buzz" going, keep the plates spinning. If you're complacent or don't have an agenda for next month or quarter, start now.
Cool slowly: Too much thermal change is bad. Big pieces experience internal thermal stresses, and will shatter if cooled too fast. Most pieces have to be cooled in a controlled manner over 24 hours.
And too much change is bad to any organization. Plan making your go-to-market changes slowly, over many quarters. I've seen organizations that want to radically change marketing themes and messages every quarter (or month!). Give the market at least 2-3 quarters to absorb new positioning/messaging. Unless you're consumer goods, customer buying cycles can be long... the changes will confuse them if too often.
Work as a team: Big pieces need at least two -- and sometimes as many as four -- people to help. Different pieces need to be prepped, warmed, blown, held, etc. It's choreographed in advance. Everyone knows their job. Running into someone holding a piece of glass at 2,000F can really spoil your day.
Ditto. In business, as in art, working as a team is critical -- Always good to have frequent status meetings, and over-communicate your actions/intentions. Just because a project looks like you can do it alone doesn't always mean you should. Socialize your efforts even as you're doing the project -- and even ask for input even if you may not need it -- getting early ownership from others means buy-in from them too.

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