160. Elif Tanverdi of Cizenbayan on Being Yourself & Why Interaction Beats Analytics

Elif Tanverdi of CizenbayanOwner and blogger of cizenbayan, Elif Tanverdi has over 5 years experience dreaming, listening, creating, experiencing and sharing the moments that define her life.

What is the story behind cizenbayan? cizenbayan translates to “the lady who draws.” My inspiration came from Madame Tricote (“the lady who knits” translated from French; Orenbayan in Turkish) because at the beginning of cizenbayan in 2012 I was drawing all of my projects. I never could have imagined that it would become my life, my job. Thinking more long-term for this project I might have chosen a different name, but cizenbayan is catchy and at this point it’s impossible to change.

In 2010 I was staying up late drawing and tweeting funny links and thoughts under the twitter handle @cizenbayan as a fun break for me during my studies and interships. Later to my suprise the number of people following my work began growing very quickly!

I was loving this "thinking & sharing” thing, so a few months later I officially launched the cizenbayan blog about my travels, the music I loved, relationships, and my life in general. I also began uploading photos to Instagram and I was amazed that little by little I began getting invitations to galas, openings, parties and later on brands started approaching me about promoting their stuff.

I quit my job to focus on my final project for graduation, and when I graduated I had the summer ahead of me and I was faced with an important decision: Use my degree to find a job in architecture or focus full-time on cizenbayan and see what it could become.

After a few interviews and some live television shows, more and more brands began approaching me, I decided to dive in and turn my full attention to CizenBayan. Even today after nearly 4 years I am still not sure if it’s a sustainable business model but I still love the experience, all the possibilities that this project has brought me, all the places I have gone, all the people I have gotten to meet and most preciously not having to work “9 to 5.”

Elif Tanverdi of CizenBayan on Instagram

Do you manage CizenBayan by yourself? Yes. I manage it full-time and by myself and it’s a lot of work! I’m always busy going to clubs with my suitcase, catching a flight the next morning to some destination and catching up on my sleep during the flight. I can say that I work 24/7.

But I’m not like Essena O’Neall, the Australian girl who quit social media because she was miserable. I’m genuinely happy. I don’t live with photographers around me. I do not try to create scenes from a life that I’m not actually living. I never spend more than 2 mins on a photoshoot if I’m eating at a restaurant with a friend etc.

Yes I love taking pictures of my food if it’s served really nice and I really mock myself when I do that but I’m sure I’m not disturbing anyone because I’m not climbing up on my chair or letting my food get cold or anything. I try not to be antisocial, and I would feel really awkward and I’m really shy and honestly I don’t even like my photos being taken.

I’m living an amazing life! And whether I’m having lunch at a restaurant, watching a band perform, or travelling, I live by the same principle: When the moment hits me I stop to thank the universe for it by taking a moment to capture it in a photo, and later I find an adequate caption for it and post it. At the beginning of a live gig I snap a few photos with my mirrorless camera and then put it away and just enjoy the show and the moment.

I do not post or share something inspirational if I’m not enjoying it. What I have to do is to live. I live, try to capture the best memories of my life, and share them.

I see cizenbayan as a brand, So when I’m not travelling I:

  • Answer e-mails (I answer every email I receive)
  • Manage my agenda
  • Go to meetings
  • Send budget proposals
  • Go to my yoga classes
  • Write my blog
  • Write for magazines and platforms I work for, such as for Canim Istanbul and Yoga Journal Turkey
  • Take photographs and post some stuff on instagram / twitter / facebook / my blog etc.
  • Attend events, exhibitions, gallery openings, all kinds of launches, parties, festivals, gigs, dinner parties…
  • Dj and host events
  • Give speeches at universities

Who is your target demographic?Even though running CizenBayan is my full-time job I don’t really approach it like a traditional business; CizenBayan isn’t a mainstream portal aimed at giving EVERYONE what they want, it’s a niche boutique where image & quality content for a few.

I don’t track analytics so I cannot tell you precisely about my target demographic, traffic volume, click-through rates etc., Instead, I understand my audience through our interactions on social media. That is enough for me.

I receive emails, comments & likes from guys & girls alike, and I’m am often recognized by guys & girls on the street. But I do find that girls between the ages of 15-22 are writing me the most emails, asking me questions about my education, my travels, my life and expressing their adoration. I think those girls are the ones who are the more passionate/intense followers and so they get in touch with me. I also know that there are a lot of like-minded people who follow me.

I have lived in Berlin & Santiago de Chile, and currently I live in Istanbul, so I guess a lot of people who follow me are from Turkish, English, German & Spanish speaking countries. Most of my followers speak Turkish, which is most of my content is in Turkish, but I do post articles in English, German and Spanish. And when I travel I often get messages from local people who follow me and who offer to meet and hang out.

What are a few important Cizenbayan moments that made you so famous? One of them was being on live television: on a late night show hosted by one of the most influential men on television in Turkey. Other than that there are some projects I’m really proud of with some really important international brands, but I’m not sure that they brought me ‘the’ recognition.

It’s also worth mentioning that cizenbayan is in no way the most famous blog in Turkey. There is for example Buse Terim, a fashion blogger who’s father is a really famous guy in Turkey and this girl (and her team) have over a million followers on Instagram. I don’t compare myself to that. That’s more mainstream, whereas I’m more boutique.

As of this interview you have 132k instagram, 11k facebook, and 69k twitter followers. Do you spend money in advertising or do you grow through word of mouth? I have grown almost exclusively through my content, retweets, likes, suggested pages, television and magazine interviews and features, and through the projects and works I’ve collaborated with. One example of this was during the anti-government protesting in Turkey in 2013 when one of my tweets was picked up by Mashable.

I did once try facebook ads out of curiosity, but I didn’t feel as though it connected me with the right audience. I have an official cizenbayan Facebook page, but I have found that my personal facebook profile gives me more sincere interactions. So other than that one time I’ve never spent a penny on advertising, neither for Instagram nor for Twitter.

Does each social media platforms attract a different ‘type’ of person? Do you create content unique for each social media platform? Absolutely! Each platform attracts different people and therefore I create totally different content for each platform.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Recall in my interview with Data Consultant Thomas Palugan that as soon as you have a facebook fan page, you have to handle important issues like:

  • “What is my community management style?”
  • “What is my conversation calendar?“
  • "What is the real value for the consumer of becoming a new fan?”
  • “How can I distinguish between fans who are merely fans and fans who are also buyers and owners of my product, service, or royalty program?”

Also, it’s really difficult to have a consolidated view of your market. If you’re a brand and you have 20 platforms, it’s not impossible, but it’s difficult to have a consumer-centric view. It’s also very important NOT to have a vertical strategy for each social media platform, but to link them all together. If you’re going to have that many platforms, you’re going to need an approach to help you organize all your data into one easy-to-read location so you can collect and analyse the data from the different social media platforms.]

What is the future for cizenbayan? I’m not really a planner; I’m a believer and a dreamer. Being able to make a living with cizenbayan wasn’t planned, and to be honest I couldn’t have imagined having a job like this. I still can’t believe it, it’s crazy!

So I guess I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing the best: living, sharing & inspiring.

I’m not sure how instagram, Twitter and blogs will evolve, and what new social media platforms will emerge, and I definitely don’t even know if I’ll stay popular, but I’m confident that I have good know-how, experience, taste, original ideas, creativity and inspiration, so I’m not worried about the future. I would like to write a book, which I’ll force myself to write in 2016, and maybe I’ll run a business or do consulting. Who knows. I’m open to all.

Another plan for 2016 is to spend a couple of months in New York City, perhaps even making NYC a second home. For me, New York is like two poles that I can both benefit from:

  1. Social life in a constantly changing environment, life, and unbound possiblities and inspirations with parties, events galleries, galas, converts and openings,etc.
  2. Seclusion to concentrate on my work because I’m literally nobody there, so I can isolate myself and concentrate on my work.

What advice do you have for inspiring bloggers, writers? The most important thing is to be sincere. People can immediately sense it; people can instinctively feel it.

142. Joseph Donyo of Canım Istanbul on Newsletters & The First 10,000 Subscribers

Joseph Donyo of Canim IstanbulFounder of Canım Istanbul (pronounced JAH-nim), Joseph Donyo has +11 years experience managing businesses and turning consumer insight into a competitive business advantage. (photo by Mine Kasapoğlu)

What is Canım Istanbul and why did you launch it? Canım Istanbul is the lifestyle companion for Istanbulites and visitors to Istanbul. We send out a newsletter, in English and in Turkish, twice a week to our subscribers with a new restaurant, an interesting event, a cool bar, a cute boutique, etc. Canım Istanbul translates to “Istanbul, my love.”

Out of curiosity one day, I started researching the digital media lifestyle market for women in Istanbul and found it was not a very crowded space. When I asked my female friends what online women’s magazine(s) they relied on, I was surprised to find they could not name a single website or blog. When further research found that there were in fact no strong players in the market and no equivalent to what I envisioned, I leaped at the opportunity.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For more great tips on identifying untapped market niches, watch the Ycombinator lectures:

Canım Istanbul went live in August 2014, and our first newsletter was sent out a month later. Just recently we celebrated our 1 year anniversary, which also coincided with our 10,000th newsletter subscriber and our brand new website launch.

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How did you identify your target audience? Canım Istanbul was launched with a mostly women audience in mind, but I didn’t want to openly position it as such to not exclude men from it. So we gave it a feminine twist with the tone of the writing, the illustrations and the general design.

Today, Canım’s principle newsletter subscribers are Turkish and English-speaking women between the ages of 25 and 44 years old with a college-degree or higher. But with the launch of the Canım Istanbul website, it will be interesting to see how our readers evolve.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his book Emotional Branding: The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People, Marc Gobé explains that “the rising influence of women extends far beyond their consumer power and evolving buying habits. Women are a veritable force to be reckoned with… and will continue to shape the economic landscape in ways we can only imagine.”

Conversely, recall in my interview with Hervé Godard, Owner of Blake Magazine saying that although Blake Magazine is geared for the modern man, a quick online questionaire found that “20% of my readers are actually women who browse for gift ideas for their men and because they like the models.”]

Why did you choose to start with a private email-only newsletter and not a full-on website? Personally, I have always been a heavy reader of newsletters; I love this medium. I just prefer the content coming to me rather than me having to go out and fish for it.

Having said that, my initial plan was to launch Canım Istanbul both as a newsletter and a website. But after several planning setbacks which risked pushing Canım Istanbul’s launch date further and further back. I decided not to postpone the launch but to start Canım Istanbul as a newsletter-only platform with a simple landing page inscription, knowing I could always launch the website version when I was better prepared.

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After 4 months, the newsletter took off so quickly that I preferred to stay focused on the landing page and newsletter rather than speading myself thin on a website. The signup landing page has converted at an average rate of 17% since it’s launch (with peaks of 30-40% on certain segments).

What mistakes did you make that you would warn other entrepreneurs of? The only one I can think of would be to start with a mobile-first approach. I didn’t really account for this at the beginning, and after a few months I realized that over 50% of Canım’s newsletters were being opened on a mobile device.

Where do you go to for inspiration? At the moment my favorite newsletters are:

What are a few of your favorite ads?

10K subscribers in 1 year is impressive. What are the key decisions, marketing techniques, partnerships you made that made this possible? I think the most important thing here was focus. It sounds simple but it’s key. Once I decided to launch only as a newsletter, all my efforts and energy focused on two objectives :

  1. Consistently making the editorial content of the newsletter as relevant and high-quality as possible.
  2. Relentlessly reaching out to new people who would be interested in what Canım Istanbul had to offer.

The editorial part involves constantly exploring Istanbul’s new and up-and-coming places and brainstorming with the editors. You know you’ve gotten your content and target audience mix right when each newsletter email’s open rates are high and unsubscribe rate is very low.

The marketing part is more challenging and diverse, a typical challenge for every new venture. By far, our main source of subscribers for this year has been through Facebook. The first wave of people to sign up to the newsletter was my close friends, followed by my extended network (friends-of-friends).

Every new article was shared on our FB page so people who had liked our page but had not signed up to the newsletter could see the kind of stuff we talked about. I painstakingly posted every newsletter into every relevant group I could find, and with each newsletter publication the place/person/event we’d written about usually shared our newsletter with their loyal followers.

This organic social media groundwork led to a lot of word of mouth as well as our first press coverage in the Turkish media. Within four months we had our first 1,000 subscribers, and since then we’ve enjoyed a steady stream of press coverage, including Hürriyet Daily News, Turkey’s largest English-language newspaper. I also printed postcards which I put at cafes and stores, as well as little stickers that I gave to friends and asked them to stick them anywhere they went around town.

The real success came when I started experimenting with Facebook ads, which I discovered had amazing targeting capabilities. Needless to say, when you get your message in front of the right people, there’s a higher chance they’ll come to your site and when they do, the sign-up rate will be much higher than when people randomly find you. So I started running ads more frequently and trying out different audiences as well as more advanced Facebook features, and that’s worked very well.

Partnerships are good, too. Last December I partnered with French Oje, a beauty blogger for a one-off holiday beauty tips newsletter. I’ve also partnered with Cizenbayan, a well-known Turkish blogger for a monthly “live music picks” newletter edition available on the CanımIstanbul Soundcloud.

As her music tastes are very eclectic, this collaboration has had the benefit of both producing good content and reaching out to new people.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on how the online advertising industry works, check out the documentary Generation LIke by Douglas Rushkoff.

For more tips on how to identify your target audience, read my interview with Strategic Planner Ivan Pejcic.]

We are also very active on Instagram. Instagram is huge in Turkey but it’s really its own medium, so we give it its own content and don’t actually promote the newsleter very much. It doesn’t drive many sign-ups for now but it gets our name out there. Plus it’s growing steadily and it’s fun to play with.

Joseph Donyo of Canimistanbul.com on Instagram

72. William Channer on How to Build a Successful Podcast & Reconsidering Your Comments Section

imageDesigner, founder and journalist, William Channer has +10 years experience enabling and inspiring startups through apps, books and podcasts on advertising, business, design and technology.

How and why did you start Dorm Room Tycoons (DRT)? My co-founder and I started DRT while in university in order to get my hands on information we normally couldn’t find in text books and in class – hence the name Dorm Room Tycoons. We started by following and reading popular blogs such as Ryan Singer at Basecamp and The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, but after a while we thought “Instead of just reading these blogs, why don’t we actually interview the guys behind them: speak to them first hand and see what they have to share?”

But rather than asking your typical ‘generalist-generalist’ questions you see quite often, I asked questions that myself and, I assume, a lot of people specifically wanted to know more about.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In my interview, Hervé Godard of Blake Magazine likewise suggests meeting the owner(s) and the people in charge as often as possible because often times there’s an interesting story behind how the company or product came into existence. Perhaps two people who normally should never have crossed paths, but somehow did and it turned into the company they represent today.]

This is how I discovered advertising and was really inspired during my interview with John Hegarty, and decided that I wanted to work for somebody like him. So I used DRT to get my foot in the door and interview the top ad guys (Rory Sutherland, Dave Trott…) at the advertising agencies in London. I leveraged my interviews and was smart about it, and as a result of my interviews I did get a job as a copywriter for BBH London and creative for AKQA.

I’ve also written on technology for sites like The Guardian and Designmodo. My publications as a journalist established my credentials in the technology sector, which then gave me access to these thought leaders and innovators, and experience taught me ways of approaching them and getting them to sit down with me, answer my questions and honestly opening up to me. Once you’ve an interview with one big name, that further establishes your credibility and others are then more willing to make time for you.

It also comes down to the quality of the copy in your emails. Everybody wants something. I can invest hours researching and finding out exactly what the person I want to do an interview with wants, and then crafting the email the right way to cut through the thousands of interview requests they likely receive and get them to respond to mine. This all comes down to the quality of your copywriting.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The most thorough and well-written book I’ve read on copywriting so far is *Copywriting: Successful writing for design, advertising, and marketing by Mark Shaw.]

In the beginning, DRT was a weekly publication and required a ton of work. Nowadays I can’t post interviews on a regular calendar anymore because it’s quite difficult working around the schedules of such high-level and busy people and securing a big name every week. Additionally, I’m now juggling a few startups and apps myself:

  • Panda is a free newsfeed dashboard for designers, developers, and entrepreneurs
  • Podcast Gift is a weekly curation of the best podcasts in business, design, and technology
  • Ways to Connect is a book I co-authored with Ryan Singer of Basecamp

So to summarize:

  1. Establish your credentials
  2. Get your foot in the door by contacting people who already know and trust you
  3. Perfect your mission, product/service, and quality of your copywriting
  4. Use the people you already know as a springboard to contacting more difficult to reach people who don’t yet know and trust you
  5. As you expand your network, be open to and actively seek out collaborative projects and business ventures that further establish your credentials and let you do what you enjoy doing

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In a presentation at UC Dublin, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York dissects his personal step-by-step method for convincing complete strangers to not only let him photograph them, but also to open up and share deep personal insights into their lives:

Tell me more about how you designed the copy for your emails. It is really all about your approach and positioning. If you approach them as a fan, I think that generally turns them off. They may respond to you and thank you for following their work and emailing them, but they probably won’t take your request too seriously.

But if you come on the level with them and approach them objectively and professionally, like:

“Hey, I interview the world’s influential innovators in the _______ sector. I’ve interviewed a few of your peers, and I’m interested in what you have to say. What do you think?”

Then you’re much more likely to get a ‘yes, it would be a pleasure’ or at least a ‘Sounds interesting, tell me more about it.’

Your podcasts sound as though they are done in one take, no editing. How do you manage that behind-the-scenes so that both you and your interviewee sound so unrehearsed – lacking grammar errors, perfect clarity and flowing logic of thought…? That is all down to the editing in post-production. People want and expect a certain level of quality; therefore it’s very important for creating a useful high quality product that

  1. Your listeners want to continually follow, listen to and download
  2. The people you’re asking to interview trust and want to be a part of

On some of my interviews on skype I’ve even had to reschedule interviews so I could mail them one of my own personal mics so that the best quality recording possible. The content you’re putting out there is going to be there forever – as a signature of your credibility and competence, and also for the person you’re interviewing; and you want to get it right the first time.

Personally, I use Logic Pro – a software specifically designed for music. I’m more into seamless sound and fluidity that lets you cut out the ‘ums’ and ‘uhhs…’ and blanks in our conversation. Also, some interviewees record their answers on their iPhone headphones, where the sound quality isn’t that great and so I must boost certain sounds while suppressing other sounds. I’ve found that Logic Pro lets me add a little extra finish that listeners don’t realize while their listening and in the end creates a more well-rounded interview.

Why doesn’t DRT have a comments section? Most comments tend to be noise – they don’t really add anything to the quality of the initial content. When you’re sitting in front of someone really wise, you tend to prefer to shut up and listen to what they have to say. Therefore DRT is designed to have the attention fully focused on the person I’m interviewing.

How do you monetize DRT? When I started DRT, it wasn’t monetized. Today I do earn a little income though advertising while my podcasts continue to be free to listen to and download. I do this because I think this sort of information that is already readily available in some form or another and should be free. Charging for that information isn’t something I want to be known for. Even today, DRT has limited advertising on its site, and each podcast is sponsored by a company, but again the focus is on the person I’m interviewing.

Even today, DRT itself isn’t a significant source of income, nor is it meant to be. It is instead a way for me to find paying jobs and entrepreneurial projects with people. I am sometimes approached by brands and companies to do consulting work for them, but that isn’t my main focus right now.

That being said, if you’re providing specialized knowledge and solutions that is not easily found and readily available, and requires extensive research and a unique solution to each individual problem, then it’s understandable that you charge for it, and consumers would understand this and be willing to pay for it.

Have you found Ad Blocking software cuts into your revenue to the point where you’re working for free? Not yet.

After +108 interviews, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned? You have to have a name. People put a lot of emphasis on the product. Your product is important, but it is absolutely insane the amount of products that are created every day!

Therefore what’s more important than the quality of your product is the reputation and credentials of the person behind the product.  Consumers will buy a product if they are convinced it will help them or make their lives easier, but consumers will also readily buy or invest in a product – sight unseen – simply because a person they know, trust and respect created it or is publically investing  in it.

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Consider for example the Paypal mafia – The group of guys who co-founded Paypal and then went on to use their name and reputation to start and utterly dominate many other industries. They created a network exosystem for themselves. Now when these guys speak, people listen.

What are a few of your favorite advertising campaigns?

I have a small advertising budget, any advice?

1. How does your target demographic want content to be available to them? In a printable pdf document? A blog post? A podcast? Or do they want the option of all three? Create your content and then transfer it into the format that your target audience wants.

2. Self-publishing on Amazon is almost as easy as launching a blog, plus you have Amazon’s algorithm and sheer visitor volume working for you. You might not get rich on it, but it’s one way of earning money and a great way of gaining exposure and building credibility for future projects.

3. Invest in networking and creating a high-quality social ecosystem. Get on a plane and go to San Francisco – or wherever the financially backed and well-connected industry leaders and innovators are. But don’t just go, organize your trip dates, then spend the next few months emailing and packing your schedule so full of meetings that by the time your plane lands at the airport you’re already 15 minutes late to your first meeting, and then EVERY meeting after that!

Apply  to Y combinator, a site that provides seed funding for promising startups. If you can become y-combinator alumni, you’re well on your way to building your reputation and network.

I’m a startup, what are your top 4 DRT interviews I must listen to?

  1. Patrick Collison of Stripe on what makes Silicon Valley special
  2. David Karp of tumblr on the importance of startup mentorship
  3. Sam Altman of Y-combinator on funding the next visionaries
  4. Jason Fried of 37Signals on why copy is more important than design

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56. Karen Rudel, Owner of Sight Seeker’s Delight

Karen Rudel, owner of Sight Seeker’s Delight and contributor to the book My Paris Stories: Living, Loving, Leaping without a net in the city of Lights., one of the top guided walking tour companies in Paris, has +9 years’ experience designing and orchestrating walking tours.

A few Sight Seeker’s Delight facts:

  • I’m an Jewish/American Francophile living in France on and off for over 16 years and a permanent residence since marrying a French man in 2008.
  1. I’ve read well over 100 books on Paris and its history.
  2. We’ve had over 1,000 holocaust survivors/family members go through our Jewish walking tour.
  3. We have 10 tour guides for 7 different walking tours and give at 3-4 tours daily.
  4. We book nearly 50 tours a month
  5. We’ve been Trip Advisor’s top 10 paid-for walking tours in Paris for 4 years.
  6. As of this interview, we have over 1,000 5-star reviews.
  7. Most recently, Sight Seeker’s Delight won the 2014 Award of Excellence.

Tell me about Sight Seeker’s Delight’s origins. It all began as a fluke, really. In 2005 my mom and dad were visiting me during one of my stays in Paris and I took them on a little tourist-train ride around Montmartre. While sitting on some stupid tourist train we approached the Sacré-Coeur Cathedral and, knowing nothing about French history at the time, I said “Hey look mom, there’s a church!” With a sparkle in her eye she told me I should become a tour guide. Having studied theatre and wanting to become an actress, Paris was the perfect stage and giving walking tours was the perfect place to hone my skill.

I was working at a youth hostel when I started giving walking tours, and backpackers are the perfect audience so I started offering tours for fun and additional pocket money. It was by doing this for several years that helped me get a sense of what people were interested in and develop the content I needed for when I finally decided to turn it into a viable business.

Most backpackers tend to be both short on time and attention span and are on vacation because they want to have a good time and learn about culture while not being bored. Therefore my tour guides needed a few essential elements:

  • Theater and entertainment with a sparkling personality
  • Beautiful landmarks
  • Short, digestible stories full of interesting anecdotes, cocktail party trivia, that last no longer than five minutes each

In 2008 I got married and in 2009 we decided to turn it into a full-time company. So I started creating more and more tours. At first it was me running the business, handling all the emails and orders, building the website and running the walking tours all by myself.  I pretty quickly began getting requests for people asking me to plan their entire vacation stay in Paris. Today Sight Seeker’s Delight organizes at least 50 vacations per year. The response was overwhelming!

As soon as I could I began handling all my payments through Paypal because:

  1. Sometimes I was showing up for walking tours and the clients weren’t
  2. Allowing people to pre-pay a deposit adds credibility to your business
  3. Most travelers don’t like to carry around too much cash in their pockets
  4. When you have a very basic and elementary website, customers just assume you’re a scam

Then, slowly, it got to the point where I had to pay somebody to do all my administrative work while I was out in Paris touring. Then, slowly, I added a guide, then another guide… In fact, I’ve added a new guide every year since I’ve been open.

How did such a small startup walking tour manage to rank so highly on such a large travel site? I’ve never done any paid advertising. Yet! I will eventually spend money on paid advertising, however so far I haven’t needed to. When we ask or clients both in our order confirmation and at the beginning of each walking tour how they heard about us, without fail they give us one of three answers: Trip advisor, a friend, and ‘I found you on Google.’

1.) My exposure on Trip Advisor. Trip advisor is travelers trusting travelers. You list your business for free and then travelers and visitors rate the quality of their experience with you.

Sight Seeker’s Delight really started really taking off once it was listed on Trip Advisor as a ‘Top 25’ paid-for walking tours in Paris, then climbed to ‘top 15,’ and finally hitting the ‘#1’ position which we held for over a year!

I’m lucky to say that of the 1,198 people who have been on one of my tours AND logged into Trip Advisor to rate it, I’ve only managed to “just meet the average needs of” only 10 people.

2.) Word-of-mouth. This is especially important in large cities such as Paris – the most heavily visited city in the world; it’s a no brainer! Anybody who posts on their Facebook page: “I’m going to Paris, what should I do while I’m there?” Right away one of my friends and/or satisfied customers who find the post is going to say: “You’ve got to do this walking tour in Paris!”

It happened a couple months ago one woman asked her friends what to do while in Paris, and she was referred to our walking tour. That woman has now sent me over 30 clients in the past three months!

When I was first starting out, I was giving the tours out of a youth hostel, and those customers would then spend the next few months traveling around Europe and telling the hundreds of other backpackers they meet to 1) stay at this particular youth hostel, and 2) Go on their walking tour. It was good business for both the hostel and myself.

Today, the internet has made it possible for small entrepreneurs like me to gain massive exposure whereas 20 years ago you had to be listed in Lonely Planet and Frommers.

Sight Seeker’s Delight is currently listed with Lonely Planet and Frommers, but the magical thing about those guys are that they have ‘secret shoppers’ once every couple of years to evaluate your business and you never know who or when. Additionally, they don’t even contact you to let you know you’ve been referenced.

How did you differentiate Sight Seeker’s Delight from your competitors? There are plenty of tours all over Paris. Some hold you hostage on a boat for a couple of hours, over-charge you for food and drinks and force you to listen to a pre-recorded script listing of facts about Paris in 6 different languages.

Others are “free.” Their proposition is: “come on our free tour and pay us what you want!” However it isn’t really as black and white as that. A lot of these companies pay for all the advertising to market their free walking tour, and make their money by charging the tour guides per-head and the tour guide is not allowed to tell the customers that – which is a bit deceptive.

So as an example, a ‘free guided-tour’ might have 30 people sign up, and while it’s free for the customer, the tour guide might have to pay the tour guide company 90€ for signing the 30 people. So if the tour guide is unfortunate enough to land a bunch of lousy tippers, those customers who do tip are actually paying for those who don’t, and the tour guide could actually finish his or her tour actually owing their company money – a cruel practice and a bit exploitative.

That’s why I choose to pay my guides per hour and per head, and any tips they get is all for them. Additionally, if the tour guide gives a tour and their customers then sign up for additional tours, I pay the tour guide for that. This gives my tour guides incentive to provide my clients a superior experience, and I think that shows through my word-of-mouth referrals and the comments on Trip Advisor. Additionally, our tour guides aren’t your typical tour guide repeating pre-scripted text; they are actors and actresses and who have the information and are able to add their own personality and flair into their performances.

Another way we differentiate our tours is by building our tours on flexible starting hours based on the first customer’s booking. When your travel itinerary provides you with a limited tour guide window from 13:00-16:00 before your flight leaves, and all the other guided tours begin at 12:00 or at 15:00, we cater to you.

Tell me about your pricing structure. I compared what we offer with our competitors and looked at their pricing structure, and for any business you really have to charge a certain amount if you want to attract a certain type of customer. Because our offer is so unique we are among the higher-end guided tours in Paris. But we balance this with a lean business model; our pricing structure allows us to break even with just two clients, so our hours are flexible and we minimize the risk of unhappy customers having to cancel their tour at the last minute because ‘not enough people signed up.’

Our prices fluctuate based on season and on tour. Our foodie tour is the same price because it includes the food you sample. Our Jewish tour is also the same price because the tour guide is Jewish and a portion of proceeds from each tour is donated back to the Jewish community because over the years I’ve built up a level of trust with them. This is in part one of the reasons why Sight Seeker’s Delight has access to the Jewish community in ways NO other guided tour company could ever hope to have.

Secondly, I don’t consider free tours a competition.  If you want to go on a free tour make sure you leave a tip, but I no longer market to penny-pinching backpackers. We do offer student discounts and group tours if you ask.

How have your walking tours improved since you first started? Like I mentioned, I’ve personally read over a hundred different books to cross check facts. Additionally, my research has been supplemented by facts and stories from our clients who attend our walking tour and give us new bits of information and facts. Like I said, we’ve had over 1,000 holocaust survivors and family members go through our Jewish walking tour alone. Every one of their stories folds into future walking tours.

So it’s about combining solid research and experience with customer service. Our walking tours are always a work in progress, and will only get better. Over time you find out which jokes work and which don’t, which stories and themes receive the most questions and ‘Aha!’ moments and other stories where you can literally watch the audience’s faces glaze over. If you talk about Napoleon for 15 minutes, people will fall asleep. If you summarize only the best of Napoleon in seven minutes, people are going to capture it. Old stories that clients were visibly bored with get thrown out and new and better told stories get added.

How do you handle the difficult, arrogant, angry, rude, disappointed and complaining customers, especially in a business where they can ruin an entire walking tour? Take it in stride. The moment I begin my tour and I notice the husband, I notice the face he’s making, and it’s obvious that the ONLY reason why he’s there is because his wife is dragging him along; that is the client you want to love you the most. That is the guy you want to break.

The 80/20 principle says 20% of your clients provide 80% of your problems. Why not just refund his money and let him go? In certain industries I can understand this principle. But in this case everybody else has chosen to be there; everybody else already likes you. In this case where you’re stuck with him over the next three hours, it’s the most difficult ones that you want to like you the most.

Regardless of whether the customer is right or not, bend over backwards and kill them with kindness, be fair and empathetic and offer to make any wrongs right. If your business is based on word of mouth and referrals, for every one customer that complains, a hundred others will stand up for you.

You’re an expat living and working in a foreign country, how did you adjust? I realized that my French was never, and may never be good enough to hold a ‘professional’ position in a corporate company, and so I know that I would teach English, babysit, or become an entrepreneur. This is a common problem expatriates and immigrants have, no matter what country you’re coming from or where you’re going.

As an expat entrepreneur living in a digital world, I’m not bound to only French clients just because I live in France. I was able to come in, take advantage of my location and position, and build a business for a niche market. Paris is the most visited city in the world. At any given time there are 600,000 people from the UK living in France. There’s 112,000 Americans living and/or studying in France; 35,000 in Paris. Paris is the obsession for almost every traveler and tourist. As an entrepreneur, you must uncover what is the obsession for your target audience and then take it, develop it and then give it to them in a way that will help your business grow.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Derek Banas, owner of NewThinkTank states that “as a website owner, you’re no longer tied to the fluxuating local economy.” For Derek, “only about 40% of his traffic comes from the his home country.”]

Any plans to eventually automate your business so you no longer ‘have to’ work? The fortunate thing about guided tours is that I work 2.5-3 hours of work a day maximum. So I’m never working more than three hours unless I’m double-booked. Also, with 10 qualified guides I book them first before I do any tours. I’m quite happy with that, and the moment I find myself ‘not having to work,’ I would probably look to expand Sight Seeker’s Delight into another major city. Why? Because that’s what the customers are asking for.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

  1. Create what your audience is asking for. Every tour I offer is because clients constantly asked for them. If you don’t, then you’re losing money. Or worse, you’re leaving money on the table for your competitors to steal.
  2. People will always find a reason to complain; so go with your heart. There are surely plenty of people who don’t like certain things about our walking tours, but at the end of the day it’s your creation and you have to trust in your gut. Trust that you know your target audience and that you know what is best for your business.
  3. You have so much more to offer than the mere products and services you sell. Explore every niche and aspect at your disposition and research every angle you have to build a business.
  4. Know your market and your competitors. How can you really distinguish yourself as a superior product if you have no idea what your competitors are offering?
  5. Join meet up groups and do social networking. Co-publish a book. Don’t JUST do things only in your niche; contribute to projects complimentary to what you offer that broaden your exposure and build your credibility and trust. I joined into a ‘Successful Women of Paris’ Meetup group and 22 of us ended up contributing a chapter each to a recent book called My Paris Stories: Living, Loving, Leaping without a net in the city of Lights.
  6. Finally, nobody’s perfect. Until you have a bad review, people don’t take what you do or claim too seriously. Once people start saying you aren’t perfect, that’s when people start taking notice of you.
  7. When things don’t go as planned, make sure you do an even better job. Customers don’t care about ‘how you feel’ or ‘circumstances beyond your control.’ On days where a walking tour must be cancelled at the last minute because it’s raining so hard that you’re all stuck in a bar hoping the rain stops soon, you want to be at your best at that moment because otherwise you’ll have a handful of unsatisfied customers feeding off of each other.

55. Peter Spear on Brand Listening vs. Consumer Research & How To Develop A Brand Strategy

imageBrand Listener and Strategist, Peter Spear has over 18 years experience researching consumer insight to help brands see and plan more clearly and strategically.

How does your job fit into the marketing process? All of my work is qualitative consumer research – face to face. It’s either conversation, which can happen anywhere – one on one interviews, group discussions – or it’s observation, which happens out in the world where decisions get made and products get used – in people’s homes, stores, etc.

My clients are usually the brands themselves, sometimes with their creative agencies, but mostly not. My work happens either in the beginning or at the end of a strategic or creative development process.

Sometimes I think of it in two ways – you listen when you need inspiration or if you need to refine.

At the early stages of any development, the goal is to explore the category through the eyes of the consumer in order to inspire ways of thinking about the opportunity. The goal is to inform development through deeper understanding of the consumer experience.

At the end of development the goal is to share what’s been created  – be it a new product, communications, logo, packaging, etc. – to learn and refine. It’s about “taking out” what has been created to determine in what ways it works towards the strategy or brief.

I talk about it as brand listening because it was important for me to distance myself from standard qualitative. I wanted to describe a way of doing research that was sensitive to context, psychology and strategy. Too much qualitative is extremely unreliable and unuseful because it is insensitive to these limitations (and borders on the inhumane).

There are, quite frankly, serious limitations about how much you can learn through qualitative research – but what you can learn can be immensely powerful.

For a planner’s perspective on the appropriate use of research, do check out Martin Weigel’s “The Use and Abuse of Research”:

In it he states: “Most creative development is strategy development done too late.” This means, to me, that there are great efficiencies in keeping research very close to development throughout the process, and keeping it strategic.

A lot of well-known online entrepreneurs suggest ‘validation’ by browsing message boards and consumer reviews about what people are complaining about and then creating a product that meets their needs, and then procure X # of sales ASAP to ensure you have an idea that people are willing to pay. I think there are a couple of things that make me nervous about this. Remember, I have spent my entire career in that space between ideas and real people, so this makes me really sensitive to noble ambitions and the harsh reality of everyday life. The failure rate is astonishing.

I think it’s important to remember that this kind of advice coincides with the single biggest increase in the availability of product-making tools in recent history. So it’s extremely fashionable to align oneself with making things – as opposed to, god forbid, thinking about them or doing some basic exploration of the opportunity.

So I would be careful about who’s advice you take – even mine. But if you haven’t thought about strategy (where are we going?) or about identity (who are we?) then, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t have a full proposition. Consumers know this. You may not need a guy like me to answer these questions, but the questions remain.

Ultimately the question is, “How well do I understand the opportunity I see from the perspective of my prospect?” If you can get that from browsing the internet, that’s great.

The main goal is a satisfied customer. Successful brands hold people in a way that is reassuring – we all feel this in the brands we choose to allow into our lives. This is a combination of brand and product working together. The more you know about who you are, where you’re headed and how you fit into the world BEFORE, the greater your ability to deliver satisfying experiences. 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: As of this interview publication, Kickstarter has 67,633 successfully-funded projects and Indiegogo has an unknown number of successfully-funded projects. (As a private company, Indiegogo doesn’t disclose this specific information)  Of these projects, how many appear to have actually listened to consumers about what they actually want before launching their project? Of the projects that have failed, how many of them might have been successful if they had first invested some money ensuring that that were crowdfunding a product for which there was actually a need and that they were communicating in the correct way?] 

Most of the time, what consumers say they want and what they actually want are completely different things (and they are often not aware of this). How do you account for this problem as you listen to consumers? One of the first things I was taught was that we do not have answers. We have experiences, and these experiences are embodied. Yet most research approaches people as if they were a source of reliable answers to our questions, and we keep them in our heads. This is a disastrous misunderstanding.

So I design projects from the body out. That means I do men and women’s groups separately, partly because all categories are gendered, and partly because men and women communicate differently when they’re in the company of the other.

I recruit and re-recruit to make sure that I am talking to people with real category or brand experiences. I do not have anyone introduce themselves at the beginning of groups, to avoid the creation of a social hierarchy that arrives as soon as you know what neighborhood someone lives in, or job they have.

The mind thinks in images first, so I do a lot of free association and projective questions to get at the imagery and emotions and work backwards. All the exercises are written down, to give people the opportunity to free associate within themselves and to protect against social influence.

I recently backed out of a project because my client, an innovation agency, said the CEO was going to be there, so there needed to be more talking, less writing. Never mind that the talking would be unreliable nonsense. I refused. I have only recently found the courage to hold onto these principles for myself.

Ideally, though, brand listening needs both conversation and observation. In conversation, all listening is oriented towards the embodied experience through indirect questioning, deep metaphor exploration, and projective exercises to get at motivations, mindsets, values and imagery. And observation is about shared experiences out in the category to understand the context.

None of this is revolutionary or perfect, of course. I learned all this 18 years ago, but for clients, agencies, and marketers, these tools often seem to feel like indulgences, when in fact, I believe they’re requirements.

What’s the best way to develop my brand strategy? When I work with startups, I help them develop what is essentially a minimum viable brand, which becomes a kind of template for telling your brand and product story. This process is essentially a collaborative process of coming to clarity around six components which can then be turned into a strategic creative brief.

Who are you serving and who is your ideal prospect? How do you define the activities people are already doing that make them most likely to see the benefits you are offering? Actual experience in a category of behavior is better predictor of future behavior than any demographic information.  Check out Michael Schrage’s “Who do you want your customers to become?”

What are you building? What category are you in? Being clear about the category you are in helps you know who you’re serving, focuses your learning on real needs, and helps shape how you describe what it actually is. Language matters.

My model is a Venn diagram and where who and what intersect is what I call drivers. Design calls them “Jobs to be Done.” Marketing calls them “benefits.” Psychology calls them “motivations.” This is where all listening happens – with individuals active in a behavior, in order to understand how we can be uniquely helpful.

Why do you exist? I call this a passionate provocative purpose.  If design is the rendering of intent, then the Why is the intent of your organization that needs to be present in every interaction. A successful Why statement articulates the transformational intent of an organization – how are you going to transform the category, the consumer?

With these in place, teams can begin to think about brand identity (where Why & Who intersect) and brand behavior (where Why & What intersect) – which are the activities most commonly associated with branding. Jeremy Bullmore describes it as the “body language” of the proposition. But these come after getting the other pieces in place.

How would you recommend an entrepreneur do their own research to gain reliable insights? The first thing I would say is to be clear that it is not the job of your customer or prospect to answer our marketing questions. Hence the need for creative listening. Ask them about them, not you or your product. This is the most common mistake made.

  1. Who you talk to matters. Don’t talk to friends and family. Recruit your interviews according to the behaviors of the category that matters for your business.
  2. I would probably recommend staying away from doing groups. Do one on one interviews. If you do not know how to manage a group, you will be overwhelmed.
  3. Listen widely. Give them space and time to describe their own experiences and stories they have had in the space.
  4. Be patient. Don’t interrupt. This will be harder than you think.
  5. Give full attention. Eye contact, body language matter immensely.
  6. Either give them a full experience or don’t. You can’t take back a bad or incomplete experience. Have either a functioning prototype or a minimum viable story.
  7. Stay away from the future. Asking people what they might do in the future is unreliable.
  8. Stay away from money. Paying money hurts. Avoid causing pain.
  9. Ask open-ended and indirect questions. Practice starting every question with What or How. What’s interesting? How does this feel different? What is this like? What does this remind you of? How would you describe that?
  10. Avoid asking Why questions. This puts people on the defensive and assumes there’s a rational explanation.
  11. Do not introduce your own language. What you call something and what they call something could be totally different. It is this difference that creates insights.
  12. Ask follow up questions. The first response is never a complete response.
  13. Ask about their language. Listen for emotional or descriptive words. Follow up by simply saying that word back to them.
  14. If you find someone explaining something vs. describing something, it’s probably not the whole truth. Focus on getting descriptions.

There’s a great book by Steve Portigal called Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights  that outlines guidelines for preparing for an interview and what it’s like to be a consumer research interviewer.

Also, check out:

  1. “Peak Listening” on Farnam Street
  2. John Winsor on Learning to Listen Again
  3. Tim Brown of IDEO on creative listening

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from experience? The only relationship that matters is the relationship between brands and their customers and prospects.  By extension that means my relationship with the people I interview is paramount. 

If I am honoring the experiences of the individuals who share their time and their energy with me, and I focus on attempting to orient brands towards being more helpful to them, I can sleep at night. 

Advice for someone who wants to do your job? I guess I would say get in front of people as often as possible: asking questions and following up as often as possible. Get really comfortable at being in the presence of other people and ask them to describe their experiences. 

Listening is extremely hard. Until you understand your category through the perspective of your consumer, you have very little understanding about your brand or product. 

The challenge is to give them space to communicate and to believe what they’re saying – not what they’re telling you, but what they mean. There’s a great quote from Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson: “The person you are listening to is right. Always. Your wife, your husband, your employee, your customers. They’re right.”

Any last comments? If you’re interested in knowing more about brand listening, I would recommend these two videos: 

This music video never fails to make me smile: