Monday, December 16, 2013

Quiet day at the office?

Workplace cycles vary, of course, but it is certain that in offices and plants across the US and beyond, the impending holidays impact the pace one way or another.

If by chance you inhabit one of the many workplaces in which the phone rings less and less in the days surrounding Christmas and New Year's Day, and your email yields mostly retail shopping offers and spam, do not become disheartened! (If  you were feeling disheartened, that is.) A faster pace will resume soon enough.

Instead, if you are a part of one of the quiet-for-Christmas offices, take a moment to breathe. Then ponder all the things you wish you had time to do during the year. If you are like many of us, those things may completely escape your mind when you actually have time to do them. (Energy begets energy; slow times can dull the brain.) If business gets quiet in the next couple of weeks, and you are in the office anyway, consider...

-Thinking the big thoughts. Visioning (here's Inc's nice summary of the process). Start by asking yourself about your goals for next year or for the next five years, then listing the steps you may need to take to achieve them.

-Reading. Some of my favorite recent books that are either about business or relevant to business include:

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work – Chip Heath, Dan Heath
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard – Chip Heath, Dan Heath
Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success – Adam M. Grant
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others – Daniel H. Pink
Leading Change – John P. Kotter

-Getting unstuck. One business consultant whom I admire employs Einstein's quote, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." Could you benefit from some fresh perspective or support? Consider a business or life coach, CPA, advisory board, or friends who are in business or who understand your goals. You deserve this, even if it costs money or involves seeking a type of support you've never before used. Now may be a good time to start the process, while you have the time and space to think clearly.

-Taking a break. It's too easy to forget to take sufficient time with family or friends, or just to get away from it all.

All of us at vSA wish you refreshing, rejuvenating holidays.


Monday, November 11, 2013

A Test of My Emergency Broadcast System

This blog is only a test. No, that's not true. In fact, this blog is a joyous attempt to put to use some of the many stories, untrue and a-little-bit true, that jump up and down in my head.

In my real life, in addition to fishing lost objects from between the seat and the center console of the car and scraping old pizza off the living room carpet, I run a successful business. The business, while challenging in the conventional sense, is a breeze compared to the personal water-treading that seems to be the heart of life.

Intellectual, analytical and financial matters - for me, at least, that's the easy stuff. Relationships, love, aging, bikinis - that is where challenges and emotional ravines await. Not to mention diets and exercise programs.

Too, this blog is written in tribute to all the women of generations past who had big ideas, including both my paternal and maternal grandmothers.

My paternal grandmother, who, with ten or more children in the house at any given time and no formal art training whatsoever, would sit and paint beautiful, primitive watercolors for hours while the water boiled dry in the potato pot. "When you smelled that burning odor," my father told me, "You knew dinner was ready."

My maternal grandmother was widowed young and raised her three children on her own. When I asked her why she had never accepted any of the half-dozen marriage proposals she had received post-widowhood, she said, "I wasn't going to have anybody else bossing me around." One entire wall of her living room illustrated a terrible storm at sea, a mural she painted (again, no formal art training) after talking with my parents about sailing.

Here's to all of us with ideas, passion and potatoes. Including Grace Paley.

©2013 Michelle van Schouwen, Longmeadow, MA
All rights reserved.

Cranky Season

Middle age

Photo copyright 2006 van Schouwen Associates, LLC
It's really only middle age if you are going to live to twice your current number of years, am I correct? I'm up to 110 now; that is, I will need to get that far if I am to avoid contemplating (right now, at 55) being what-comes-next, that thing after middle age.

Maybe that is part of what makes me cranky this summer. After all, summer is supposed to be my favorite season, and the things that are bothering me have the ring of being just a little too similar to the things that bother, shall we say, a person just BEYOND middle age, a person who is just sick and tired of… whatever.


Children at the pool, putting their legs in the water during the Adult Swim ("I'm not swimming, am I?") or smartly shouting to one another, "I'm going to bang your mother!" 

These are kids whose heads are not even full-grown. As you may have guessed, they are also boys.

Auto exhaust

I mean REALLY. Can't they see what is coming out of the back of their cars?


I could go on. Dust. Green beans that go liquid. Having to pee.

But it's not about the green beans, is it? Cranky Season is about the blindingly fast pace of days wasted, days squandered on being grumpy, on working, on driving vast miles in the car. 

It's a season I can flip the page on, and maybe I will. Maybe. 

Just don't push me.

©2013 Michelle van Schouwen, Longmeadow, MA
All rights reserved.


Illustration copyright 2006 van Schouwen Associates, LLC

My husband looks forward to having his kids at the house. Fresh from their mother’s, his ex-wife’s, arms and passionate goodbyes, they arrive. The youngest, a boy, age nine, is particularly revved up.

“Why don’t you have air conditioning?” he begins.

“We do.”

Central air, which we have, apparently doesn’t qualify.

“You need a BOX. Window air conditioning is better. You can cool one room,” he sniffs.

The same goes for the food (too healthy) the club pool (nothing to do but swim) and the house (not a mansion).

“Has my mother been to your house?”

“No,” I say uncertainly. Has she? Have the bigger kids let her in when she last sailed through town?

“Hmmm,” says the child.

It has been five years now and I haven’t made a dent, haven’t left a trace of myself or my step-motherly value in their sturdy little hearts. Reports of no-ice-cream-five-minutes-before-dinner are texted home to Mom to become fodder for a protracted tween-rant about unsated appetite, and their school-assigned summer reading becomes a suggestion so vile that it could have come only from, well, me. The volume on the video game system creeps up as August approaches.

Finally, I begin to claim the territory of scorn. So now there will be only whole wheat bread. Educational movies. Does anyone recognize that I have planted my flag in the quinoa?

©2013 Michelle van Schouwen, Longmeadow, MA
All rights reserved.

You Like Sailing

"You said you liked sailing," he reminded me. 

The boat was in fact not sailing, but moored, if you could call it that. We were going around in circles at the mooring, with occasional variations in movement just to keep it fresh.

North wind in Vermont during what the rest of the country calls "early September" feels as though it could carry Santa effortlessly with it, frost gleaming from his beard. I wished I had a beard, which would be warmer than my bare skin. I wished I had fur.

The New Wife generally tries to be pleasant and amiable, so as not to appear too much like the Old Wife. I was having trouble doing so today. I was very cold and the boat lacked toilet paper. Since I was the only woman on board, this appeared to matter more to me than to anyone else. I tried eating for comfort, but a diet of corn chips and cheese does not agree with me. Still morning, it seemed a little early for wine and I was dizzy anyway. 

I had indeed stated that I liked sailing. But I should have been more specific, numerically speaking. I like sailing when the wind blows no more than eight (8) miles per hour, when the temperature is between 75 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I like to sail for as little as one and as much as four hours, and to be off the sailboat by 8 pm. If necessary to stay on the boat for an extended period of time (24-plus hours), I like there to be no less than one (1) roll of toilet tissue available. 1/8 roll is not acceptable.

Accuracy and precision are important tools in communication. As a New Wife, I will take that under advisement in future declarations about Things I Like.

©2013 Michelle van Schouwen, Longmeadow, MA
All rights reserved.


"I'd like to wear a bikini. I mean, I wish I could," I say. That was my first mistake.

George glanced at the passing parade of pinks and yellows and impossible suntans and navel rings three feet in front of our sensible camp chairs. It was as crowded as Coney Island. It was as crowded as Mumbai.

Finally he said, “You could go to Yugoslavia.” Then, because this seemed unclear, he added, “They don’t care what they look like there. You should see…”

He trailed off. Perhaps because another floral tattoo on Amazonian hips has sashayed by on its woman, the woman dipping her silver-ringed toes into the foamy water near shore. Her toes missed the floating Kleenex by inches. In any case, George seemed distracted.

“I could wear a bikini,” I resumed stubbornly. “But I think you should look great in it if you’re going to wear it,” and here I sucked my stomach in discreetly, “not just okay.”

Then, slowly, I realized. “Fine,” I said nastily, “I’ll go to Yugoslavia.”

“That’s not what I meant. Is there another sandwich?”

My point is, it is nice to be a man. Generally speaking, a man does not shave his legs. His bathing suit does not send squashed wads of flesh blopping out from its armholes or crotch.

He looks great. He is certain of it.

He does not consider going to Yugoslavia.

©2013 Michelle van Schouwen, Longmeadow, MA
All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Quick mix for B2B social media - taking first, important steps

Social media has become increasingly important in business development and communications. This includes business-to-business, where the trend toward communicating through social channels has arguably been slower than in more broadly recognized consumer products and services.

Now, B2B has clearly entered the fray. If your company is just beginning to get involved in social media, consider becoming active on the following four sites right away: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Here's a quick rationale for each:

LinkedIn: LinkedIn IS business, and having and actively using a company page provides you with ready access to the people, groups, discussions, and community that are your "conversational backyard". We predict that LinkedIn will continue to grow in influence.

Facebook: First, it's just so big and so popular... and so clearly making it big with business. Plus, Facebook is a great and (somewhat) easy way to communicate with your individual customers and to humanize your company and its activities. Remember that being involved in Facebook is much like attending a social gathering. Show interest in others, do not talk solely about yourself and talk about matters that may be of broad or deep interest to others. And did we mention, respond to the conversation-starters promulgated by the other attendees? Oh, and have some appetizers and a drink while you're here.

Twitter: Social media sophisticates, including editors and influentials, like it and use it often. It's brief, informative and to the point. Your company should be here, and should let these influentials know "what's news", from marketing launches to management changes. Again, good communication "manners" dictate that showing interest in what others have to say behooves you.

Google+: Because it's Google, because your active presence positively impacts your SEO and because it is slowly making a play for business involvement, with venues such as hangouts, allowing meaningful discussions. That's why. Some people argue that Google+ can be ignored. We disagree.

There is much more to discuss about best practices, benefits, venues, and tactics for B2B social media, and we will do so in future posts. In the meantime, go forth and socialize!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Too late to launch? Not necessarily.

More often than you might imagine, customers ask our vSALaunch team if it is too late to launch (or relaunch) a product or service that has been on the market for a year or more - albeit languishing or not reaching its full potential.

Also more often than you might imagine, the answer is a resounding "NO, it is not too late". Here are a few basic questions that will aid in deciding if your offering merits a "the-right-time-is-now" launch:

-Have you promoted the product or service through advertising, media relations, trade show exposure or other broad outreach? For how long, how heavily, and with what reach?

-Is your offering unique, or is it in fact a "me too" product or service?

-Do you believe there is significant upside potential for sales growth?

-Have you reached out to every major market segment you can realistically expect to serve?

If there is untapped potential, consider your "the-right-time-is-now" launch. Your product or service launch can be as broad or as focused as needed, can address the sales messages that haven't yet reached your prospects and can capitalize on whatever degree of success you have built with your offering to date.

Nice to know that for once, time is on your side. Happy launch.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Launch your new product, don't torpedo it.

Since you asked (and even if you didn't) our vSALaunch team wanted to share its top four observations about marketing for product launches.

1. Early marketing planning is good. Please don't wait until the 11th hour to start planning for your marketing launch. If the product is important, its marketing is, too, whether your budget is $10,000 or $1,000,000. While social media and interactive marketing offer great opportunities for on-the-spot announcements, many aspects of your launch, from product naming to trade shows and distributor relationship management, take longer.

2. Early (premature) announcement is not so good. Hey, what could go wrong in letting your key audiences know you have - or will have - an innovative new offering? Product engineering, testing or manufacturing problems often cause delays in product availability. The early product sometimes performs less perfectly than envisioned. You may have trouble meeting initial demand. Cats are notoriously hard to put back in the bag. Make sure you are ready before you make the big announcement.

3. The choice between a big splash and a soft launch deserves careful consideration. The big splash has the advantage of taking the market by storm, creating an impression of leadership and making it harder for competitors to say they got there first (unless, of course, they did). The soft launch lets you tread carefully, adjust your messaging as you get early feedback and gradually secure a market foothold as you gain confidence that the product is indeed performing as planned and getting positive reception as hoped and anticipated.

4. Do not invest, invent and then sit on your product. Timely, targeted marketing is critical to making the most of any important new product. No matter what your budget, get the word out and keep on doing so as long as there are new prospects to court.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Should your prospects and customers trust you?

“Well, of course they should trust us,” you may respond with some annoyance.

Let us rephrase the question. DO they trust you, and have you given them ample reason to do so?

We work in an era in which it is more than a little hard to trust. Our email is rife with phishing schemes and spam. Our online accounts get hacked. Companies with whom we work may make promises they can’t keep.

And yet, trust is extremely important in business relationships. People prefer to work with companies they trust… companies they like.

So, how to build trust among people who (let's face it!) may hardly know your company?

Communication is key.

And since you probably cannot meet with or even talk with all your prospects and customers as often as you like, it’s important to use the best communication strategies and tactics available to support your trust-building efforts. Here are just a few:

Content development: You hear about it all the time. Good content development is simply talking about the things you know and believe in, the ways you help, the resources and insights you can share, and more. Blog, use social media, write articles, speak at a meeting… and keep it coming. Consistency and frequency are key, as is relevance. Finding the balance between “getting out there” enough and running out of new things to say is important!

Editorial endorsement: Public relations, specifically media relations, in which you get your news and stories in the press, brings with it the benefit of implied editorial endorsement (and thus believability).

Connecting your leader(s) with the brand: In all of your outreach, it helps to take a “top down” approach. An admirable, accomplished or charismatic leader can speak for your brand, your commitments and the ways in which your company stands out from others. Select a thought leader to speak for your brand.

Brand building with demonstrated expertise or problem solving: Tell your story everywhere from your website to your webinars to your online videos, calculators and apps: “We solve a problem. Here is the problem we solve. Here is why you may care.”

Show that you are “good”: We have become advocates of cause marketing and active sponsorships, in which your company partners with a non-profit whose mission is aligned with your values. What a way to build trust while doing good!

Finally, be patient. Neither Rome nor Reputation, nor the trust that goes with it, is built in a day. Start now!

Friday, April 19, 2013

The nimble product launch

Make a plan and work the plan. We'Sailingve all heard that guidance. Turns out that for today's product launches, what used to be smart is not so wise anymore, or at least not so simple.

Try instead: Learn from experience. Keep your eyes and mind open. Chart a course, then adjust as needed.

Today's best launches are conducted not by know-it-alls, but by savvy marketing advisors who have the wisdom to sail when and where the winds are fair, nudging the wheel where advantageous.

First may be the pre-launch phase in which the team builds a business case for the new product or service. Research, planning, validating that the product accomplishes the necessary goals, and making plans for sales and marketing all happen now.

Next, the soft launch: It's time to take the first steps. The team creates media relations/social media plans and starter materials, ads may be developed, a website readied and perhaps launched quietly, and sales force training and education conducted. The team agrees on how and when success will be measured, and on ways to chart the course once the launch becomes public.

And the main launch begins! Often, public relations leads the way, potentially with publicity, events, speakers, media relations, and more. The website must be up and running to serve as proof of concept and a point of reference. Support materials are available for the sales team. Advertising follows.

And it continues... Smart marketers continue the launch longer than they might emotionally feel is necessary. Remember, the fact that your team has been working on this launch for months or a year does not mean the public has been overexposed. The news is still news to them. Don't make the mistake of getting bored. Keep delivering.

And about nimble? Listen and learn from the response to your public relations, sales efforts and other outreach. Maybe there is an exciting product highlight you have underplayed. Perhaps there are objections you need to counter. Perhaps there are elements of the product that need to change. (Calling Phase 2!)

Through our vSALaunch service, our team has learned that a measured, smart, flexible approach to launch is a strong predictor for success. While we speak about your product or service, we continue to listen and watch for opportunities as well, whether for additional market segments, features that catch on more than anyone expected... and next-phase opportunities to stay steps ahead of the pack of competitors watching your every move.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Go wide, go deep

Global marketing demands deep expertise.

What's the most frequently asked question we've had this month from prospects and clients?

"Are you strong in global marketing?"

How has our client mix changed in the last five years?

vSA has more of its clients in several key areas of concentration than ever before: industrial, commercial/residential building systems and products, green products, aerospace, financial services, non-profit... and they are geographically more disparate than they were five years ago.

What common threads are there between the two insights above?

1-In an admittedly fragile economic recovery, we find renewed opportunity, but it is often farther away, geographically, than in years past. Remember Billy Joel's Downeaster Alexa: "Tell my wife I am trawling Atlantis and I still have my hands on the wheel."

2-More important, our clients' prospects (and vSA's prospects) demand deeper-than-ever expertise in their partners. They care much less than they once did about having immediate physical access. (See The new face of face time.) Therefore, the company that wants to market a new, green building system wants a marketing firm that knows new, green building systems and knows how to launch a new product successfully.

Our take-away:

van Schouwen Associates will continue to hone and enhance its strengths not only in the types of clients and verticals we know best, but also in global marketing. We've successfully managed both "incoming" marketing by European companies to the U.S. and "outgoing" by U.S. companies to Europe, South/Latin America, BRIC and lately, to the Middle East.

We'll anticipate working with a more and more geographically diverse client base, and always having good reading ready for those plane trips that will happen when real face time is timely.

It is, all in all, a great adventure. Business can continually broaden the mind, can it not?


Photo with thanks to NOAA Photo Library.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Entrepreneur article about van Schouwen Associates

It hasn't been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon (or at van Schouwen Associates) and so I nearly forgot that our marketing firm was to be featured in an Entrepreneur article discussing how our company (and I) got through some of our darkest days.

Six Tips To Keep Your Business Going After Losing Your Partner takes us back to the days and months in 2006 following the unexpected and heartbreaking cardiac arrest death of my then-husband and business partner Steve van Schouwen. The author, Gwen Moran, told me she focuses on topics relating to business and personal crisis because so many of the business owners to whom Entrepreneur is directed are currently tired, discouraged or feeling beaten down after years of economic instability and business bumps. Her running theme is that entrepreneurs can and do survive more than we expect.

As the "survivor" subject of this latest article, I should know this. However, it never hurts to be reminded that all things change and continue changing. Often, the people who do best in life also cope best with change.

Reading the article, funnily enough, also reminds me of my own strengths, including a propensity to prepare for the unexpected, being more or less willing to "keep on going" and knowing – except when I forget! –  that it's often little things that allow us to exist a state of reasonable stability or contentment. I'll never minimize the sorrow of losing a loved one, nor the long road to feeling good again. I will not minimize the commitment it took, from the staff and me, to assure that van Schouwen Associates continued to provide great value to its clients no matter what.

It certainly makes me appreciate the smallness of everyday travails by comparison.

I hope you enjoy the article. Thanks again, Gwen Moran. I imagine your work helps a lot of readers.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

If this works, I am beyond disappointed.

I can't help it, I have to add my voice to the chorus of dismay responding to the NRA's utterly cynical new TV ad condemning President Obama as a hypocrite because his children get Secret Service protection.

As a citizen: While I have my opinions, I understand that the gun control debate has some good arguments on both sides, and I know that as a country we take both the safety of our children (and adults) and our Second Amendment rights seriously. I sincerely believe we can find middle ground that works. One article I thought expressed this well came from a small newspaper in Vermont, where hunting and thus guns are a way of life.

The NRA has a voice in this debate, like 'em or not. Which they have misused and - I hope - squandered.

As a marketing business owner: I want our profession to have some honor. Don't laugh. Many of us bring our ethics to work, and care about the messages we send out into the airwaves, cyberspace and print.

With this ad, the NRA has:

• Broken the unspoken rule that the President's children should be pretty much off-limits for this sort of publicity - and especially for such a smear.

• Feigned ignorance in an ugly way. Anyone with half a brain knows that the President's children are in a much different position than Joey and Janie Average. (Our children, by and large, are not specific targets for terrorists and anti-government activists. Nor are we. Threats are a terrible downside of being president, so it is not elitist to benefit from the Secret Service protection every President and his family get.)

• Made some nasty insinuations that the President is thus misusing his power.

• Exposed the Obama girls to dangers in addition to the ones they already face, by spotlighting them in this way for every deranged person in the country.

I would much rather that the NRA simply make its arguments for Second Amendment rights using the platform on which they stand. I hope that, by and large, Americans are repulsed by this ad. No matter where they stand on gun control.

I fear that I will be disappointed.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Reality 2013: Face up to fast change

Party favorThis morning I heard a news clip about politicians in Vermont seeking a moratorium on the building of new larger scale wind turbines.

I am still shaking my head. All the talk we hear about renewable energy and... we don't want to look at it? Have it near us? I found that story (from a purportedly environmentally progressive state, no less) disappointing and another example of politicians more concerned about re-election than making positive change.

Later in the morning clients were talking with us about their business prospects for 2013, which we realize are positively influenced by the bad news that severe weather trends and increasingly powerful storms are probably going to continue. The clients were not gloating in the least, just looking at reality and incorporating it into their planning.

My takeaway? This world is changing faster and faster and those who face reality, and then make positive change or provide value, are the people I admire most.

A firm grip on reality is one of the most important tools one can have in dealing effectively with life and work challenges.

You and I certainly may not like some of the changes taking place - or the ones the world needs to make - whether change involves building big wind turbines that we (or our constituents) can see from home or highway, or facing the likelihood that rising temperatures and seas and high-impact storms are becoming more common - but we need to deal with these situations.

There is a lot to think about in 2013. Are American students still the best educated and hardest working in the world? Have we waited too long to effectively stem the climate change that even the conservative World Bank predicts? Will our political leaders have the courage to reduce the U.S. deficit? And/or provide social programs that will help build a stronger country? Can we regulate Wall Street before the next big implosion? Do we know how to cope with the technologies and processes we are developing, from drones to clones, artificial intelligence to factory farms? What should we do about guns and the public?

In 2013, external change comes faster than ever before, and that change is more global.

For businesses, government and non-profit organizations, new problems of course provide ample opportunity to provide better solutions. For businesses, there is opportunity to make money as well. Let's be decent and optimistic and look at ways to have a positive impact. From roofing products that stand up to hurricane winds and water to less violent video games that worried parents can give their children, from technologies to support roads with self-driving cars to flexible careers for seniors who still have energy and need income, and to a myriad of other ideas, our changing world offers ripe opportunity for good, useful and even revolutionary innovation.

A resolution worth making... eyes open, avoidance reflex turned off. Imagination and resolve in gear. Happy new year.