Tech Prom, Time Management, and the Future of Marketing: Q&A with Dave Balter

9/7/11Follow @gthuang

The best way to get to know Dave Balter is over a beer. The founder and CEO of Boston-based marketing firm BzzAgent (now part of U.K.-based Dunnhumby/Tesco) is known for speaking his mind, but over a beer it’s even better. I’m not sure what he was drinking when he replied to my e-mail yesterday as he flew across the pond at 39,000 feet, but it appears to have loosened him up nicely.

I saw Balter speak at Angel Bootcamp in June, and his straight shooting impressed me then. Basically, he said that many entrepreneurs and execs have an inflated sense of themselves and their companies just because they’ve raised money and have had some success. Savvy investors should look for humble founders who are always learning, work harder than others, and have a fearless, grind-it-out mentality, he said. The following week, Balter came out with an article in Inc. Magazine in which he admitted his ego nearly destroyed BzzAgent; he implored entrepreneurs to stay humble, a process that he calls “the humility imperative.”

In addition to his CEO and angel investor duties, Balter is the author of two books on word-of-mouth marketing and the creator of numerous blogs, so he’s a bit of a polymath. He recently became a co-founder and executive chairman of Smarterer, another Boston tech startup. He’s also a newly minted Xconomist.

But his latest project (back to the beer now) is “DB Tech Prom,” a blow-out gala for the Boston tech community, to be held on October 20. There has been a lot of talk about creating a culture that celebrates entrepreneurship here in Boston, and this event seems to address that. At the same time, there’s no shortage of tech parties and gatherings these days, so I wondered what the real point was. Balter answered that, and much more, below.

Here are some highlights from our e-mail exchange:

Xconomy: Why is Tech Prom important for the Boston startup community, and what are its goals? If it’s about fostering a culture of celebrating entrepreneurship, how do we balance that with the humility imperative?

Dave Balter: After some very non-scientific poll-taking and survey-manipulating, we found that most individuals in Boston’s tech scene didn’t have the perfect prom experience. Some of this is of course due to intense, paralyzing high-school-nerdiness and less-than-impressive early-development social skills (see Sixteen Candles for widely referenced examples), but oh how things have changed. Now the techies have inherited celebrity status, and nerdiness…well, it’s in baby, it’s in.

This event should be a watershed moment that allows Boston to strut its stuff. And we’re not talking about flail-dancing during some Def Leppard song, but rather the celebration of how current and relevant the Boston tech scene is. In the past year, the spirit of this City has really evolved into a powerful and passionate scene, through a variety of exceptional individuals and companies.

In addition, this is a celebration of technology itself. Following on the heels of Ruby Riot and Boogie Down, it’s clear that the power of social and digital media is connective tissue that has greatly accelerated our path to innovation. We’re surrounded by tools—Twitter and Eventbrite and Square and Tumblr and Kik, the list is countless—that help us spread the message and create “conflagrations” on the fly. It used to take 6 months to plan a great event. Now it’s about the power of our voices and how we utilize technology to connect our community.

As for the humility imperative, we highly recommend humbleness in your attempts to get down, tear it up and jam it out. Word on the street is that the more humility you have, the easier it will be for you find a hot date. Just sayin’.

X: What was your own prom experience like? Can you share a formative moment from your life that influenced how you run BzzAgent today?

DB: I had a rather difficult prom. The head of the cheerleading squad asked me to the prom the same day as the women’s math club president asked if I wanted to go over some algorithms sometime. All this on top of realizing that the prom coincided with the harvest moon, which meant I’d probably have a pimple break out.

In the end, I chose to go with my girlfriend at the time, and properly made a jackass of myself in a white tux. The event culminated with a bra sighting, granted it was when one of the other attendees was straightening her dress, but still it felt like I’d accomplished something.

As for BzzAgent, probably the most influential experience for me was being pushed to join the swim team early in high school. My brother was already very accomplished and the coach was pressuring me to leave my inspirational convenience store clerk after-school job to join the team. In my first race, I couldn’t even finish. By the end of senior year, I was ranked 6th in the state in the breast stroke. That experience alone led me to realize that you can make the impossible possible if you swim and lift weights 4 hours every day and end up with little social life.

X: I’m interested in your perspective as an author, founder/CEO, and investor. First, what is the most important skill for each of these hats you wear?

DB: Founder/CEO: Well, there are two different elements at play here. As a founder, it’s all about vision. The ability to create a vision and the ability to shape and reshape it as you learn more about your market and customers. Without vision, there would never be a business.

As a CEO, vision is important, but not nearly as much as persistence. The CEO’s job—certainly in the startup phase—is to knock down every hurdle, wall and barrier in their way and to keep your feet shuffling at all times. There are a thousand reasons why companies fail, and it’s only with persistence that you don’t let a single one of them bring you down.

Author: Being an author to me is one of the hardest jobs ever. I happen to enjoy the craft of writing, but I’m not a “natural” and it takes an immense amount of work to deliver something that’s worth reading. I think the most important skill here is time management. I find the best writers create the space to write and block off the time necessary to both start and finish a piece (or a book).

As an aside, after having authored two books as a CEO, I do feel it’s very, very hard to balance the writing and publishing of a book while running a business. Publishing is a business into itself, and many CEOs fall prey to the vanity of publishing a book and seeing their name on the cover.

Investor: As an investor I think the most important skill is being realistic. This can be really hard when there are so many great companies and entrepreneurs to invest in. But this means being realistic about how many you can actually work with, both financially and time-wise. To me it also means investing in concepts you can understand and provide some input into the construct of the business. Hell, I’d love to invest in some biotech startups but, realistically, it would be a total crapshoot given I have no idea about the space. I’d rather win or lose with something I can understand.

X: From where you sit, what does the landscape of PR/marketing, journalism, and books look like in 5-10 years? Who wins: Twitter, Google, Apple, Amazon, or Arrington? (Please don’t say Arrington.)

DB: The future to me is more symphonic and orchestral than it is about one supreme soloist. There won’t be one single winner, but rather many companies will be providing tools and value that create success for writers, marketers and authors. The winners will actually be those who figure out how to utilize as many of the tools as possible most efficiently. Our “jobs” will be to know about all of the potential tools and paths to create exposure and value, and to understand how to use those tools as successfully as possible (see Smarterer…).

X: How has marketing changed, and how has it stayed the same, over the past 10 years? What is the most important trend entrepreneurs in the field should be thinking about for the future?

DB: The biggest change to me isn’t really about the type of marketing that we do, but how we use it. Yes, there are new social and digital tools, but there have always been marketing evolutions (print to TV, for example, is probably as big a change as TV to Social). Traditional media hasn’t been replaced by any stretch, as many marketers continue to see strong results from ads on TV to FSIs [free standing inserts] in newspapers.

What is different though is how we understand the intersection of these medias, when to use them and how to create the most value. In previous years, a company may have just used TV during one night of shows on one of the big three networks. Now they may want to run a series of different ads across TV and cable, with call-to-actions around visiting a Web presence or a Facebook page.

The most significant trend is accountability. Everything. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g can be and is being measured. If your marketing isn’t creating value that can be tracked, then it’s going to go away.

X: Lastly, what one question would you ask the God of marketing and social technology?

DB: Where’s the bar and is there a buffet nearby?

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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