How Hiring an Unscrupulous Reputation Management Company Can Make Your Crisis Worse

Reputation management, an industry built around the notion that you can erase the mistakes and criticisms of the past and promote an unblemished digital record, can help brands overcome disaster and reinvent themselves. Sometimes, reputation management is an essential tool in the marketing arsenal that can be the difference between sink and swim.

And other times, reputation management companies can make things even worse.

Plenty of these companies are perfectly above board, but some reputation management firms employ unethical or even illegal practices that can land their clients in even hotter water if they’re not careful. Here are some of the common schemes and underhanded tactics employed by the online reputation management industry, and red flags to look out for when partnering with a company.

Black Hat Reputation Management Tactics

Sometimes reputation management services will leverage black hat tactics to harm their clients’ competitors. These tactics are always unethical and, in some cases, illegal. Some black hat reputation management tactics include creating a slew of false accounts to report competitors, developing fake websites for review placements, and developing spam content.

One of the most directly dishonest, unethical, and legally risky practices reputation management companies engage in are the buying or generating of fake reviews to promote clients and support competitors. Misrepresenting clients in this way means those who use their services aren’t getting what they anticipate, and unfairly attacking competitors with fake reviews might even cross the legal boundaries of libel.

In some cases, reputation management companies even author fake reviews and comments against their own clients, then turn around and sue the commenter for defamation. Once sued, an agreement is put forth that the comment was based on a falsehood, and then unsuspecting judges tend to issue orders which require Google to de-index the website on which the invalid complaint was posted.

Not only can this remove the original negative comments from search engine results, but it also justifies the exorbitant sums reputation management companies charge for their services. This practice is so common that stories of ongoing lawsuits against reputation management companies are easy to find.

Review websites are great places for consumers to exercise their first amendment rights, but without proper measures this type can destroy a business. That is especially the case when there are deceptive reputation management companies willing to pen hit pieces for hire lurking in the shadows.

For many businesses, the allegations mean the end of the road. In addition, these complaint boards are often dedicated to aggregating, and at times aggravating, ratings and reviews, which not only destroy a business but are prominent in search engines.

What You Should Do

If you find yourself in need of an online reputation management service, whether to prevent any problems or to manage the fallout from a crisis, you should do your homework to make sure you aren’t partnering with an unscrupulous company that could end up further damaging your reputation or even dragging you into a protracted legal battle.

“It can be difficult to identify shady online reputation management companies,” said Sam Michelson, CEO and founder of digital reputation management firm Five Blocks. “A few telltale signs include the inability to find out who stands behind the company, tactics that include creating a lot of articles, and no clear explanation of the work being done behind the scenes.”

To find out about the behavior of a particular company, you should consider speaking with other clients that have used the company’s services before. If there is any hint that the company engaged in underhanded behavior, it is time to run in the other direction. You should also review a company’s services and question them about ethics and whether they employ black hat tactics. And to be safe, get all communications with the company in writing.

As the old adage goes, you’re better safe than sorry.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Going Into Business with Your Spouse

Would going into business with your spouse be a match made in heaven or a nightmare in the making? I have worked with my husband for over five years and being partners in business and life has brought us closer together and made our business more successful. Unfortunately, not everyone has a happy ending and having their spouse involved in business can create problems.

Before you ask your spouse to partner with you, be sure to answer these five questions.

1. Is your spouse qualified for the position?

Be clear on what role your spouse will play in the company and if they are experienced for the job. Don’t create a special role for them that isn’t necessary just to have them involved in the business. Sometimes the spouse is overqualified for a role, which will ultimately make them feel resentful. If they are under-qualified and overpaid, it could create problems with other members of your team who may be paid less and have to pick up the slack for an incompetent person.

Clearly define the position.You should draft employment agreements with job responsibilities so each partner knows their defined role.

2. Do you have good communication with your spouse right now?

If your marriage is not built upon trust and healthy communication, having them in your business will only make things worse. Marital issues played out in the work environment destroys morale and becomes a distraction to other employees. Team members may be forced to pick sides and everyone in the company could be pulled into the drama.

Keep it professional. Make an agreement not to talk about your personal life during business hours to keep it separate from the day-to-day of the business. Any personal issues such as childcare, in-law drama or house duties should be handled before or after work hours.

3. Are you inviting your spouse into your business to save the marriage?

Being an entrepreneur pulls you away from your family and friends, especially in the start-up stages. Time away from someone you love can be hard on both parties. If you are feeling like you and your spouse are drifting apart because of work, the last thing you want to do is have them work with you to repair the damage. You may end up making the relationship worse and the business will suffer as well from the disruption this can cause.

Focus on your marriage first. Get support with your marriage before you enter into partnership. Seek a counselor or coach to help you work out your personal issues first. Then, if you can get on the right track with your relationship you can explore involving the business.

4. Do you enjoy being with each other all the time?

Some business partners rarely see each other so this may not apply to your business. In our business, we spend 24-7 together, except when we are working with clients independently. Fortunately for us, we enjoy each other and get along really well no matter how much time we spend together.

Run a pilot test. Before you make the leap into partnership, have your spouse do a small project. Some couples romanticize about working together until they actually do. By exploring a pilot run you can test it out, see how each of you feel, and then you can decide if you want to make it a longer commitment.

5. Do you have the same mindset of success?

Even if you don’t partner with your spouse, having a similar success mindset will be important for any marriage. If one person is working hard to succeed and the other person does not feel motivated about the vision, it will affect your revenue. If one person believes in investing in certain parts of the business, while the other is worried about every little expense, there will be conflicts.

Practice utilizing a success mindset together. One of the best investments we made in the beginning was to be on the same page with our success mindset. We read the same books, listened to the same lectures, and learned from the same mentors to help us with our success mindset. We also had very honest discussions to iron out the differences in opinion on how we define success.  When we made business decisions, we were both on board and focused with the same mindset to reach our goals.

Whether you want to bring on a spouse or any family member, think of your business as a living organism that is affected by any foreign intruder. Sometimes the intruder brings wonderful gifts, like in our case, and other times you may be inviting in a Trojan Horse that can take it all down.

3 Things Investors Are Getting Wrong About Women Entrepreneurs

A recent report from Pitch Book indicates that the investment outlook for women entrepreneurs is even more bleak than many imagined. Despite efforts to bring awareness to the issue as well as the formation of funds and groups dedicated to changing this ratio, the stark reality is that in 2017, startups founded by women only received about 2.2% of all venture capital invested in the United States – this, in spite of the number of women-owned businesses doubling over the past decade.

While myriad factors have been attributed to the gap in funding, part of the blame can be attributed to the lack of gender diversity within venture capital firms; only 7% of partners at top firms are women. 

But new research shows that women investors can sometimes be just as biased against female founders as their male counterparts. In one study, both male and female investors viewed women entrepreneurs as more likely to fail and asked female founders prevention-focused questions more often than men, who were asked more promotion-focused questions.

I know from my own personal experience while raising APPCityLife’s seed round that the questions I was asked were far different than the ones I wanted to answer. I was frequently asked how our GovTech startup could reach sustainability so that the company would never need more funding, when what I wanted to share was my vision for a global platform that could create cutting edge technology tools without needing to know how to code where solutions could be developed and shared by cities across the globe to quickly scale access to better tools for communities everywhere.

The vision – and goals – are very different when asked how one plans to merely survive versus how one plans to scale. It’s almost counterintuitive to even invest in something where the goal of the founder is to play it safe rather than push for scale.

And yet, according to research, it is a far more common question for female founders than for men.

It would be interesting to know whether that question was posed by early investors to any of the founding teams of companies who have become today’s top unicorns in the industry – who, by the way, are mostly male.

By failing to ask growth-related questions to women who are pitching, investors are failing to identify excellent opportunities where they could participate in the growth of tomorrow’s unicorn.

But women who are launching companies also experience bias when it comes to assessing whether a founder has the proper experience or mindset to be a successful founder. 

I recently hosted a fireside chat with Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital and an outspoken champion of underserved founders due to race, gender or sexual orientation. During our conversation, she shared her views on work experience that is often misinterpreted by conventional investors.

“I wouldn’t see any alarm bells at all in a founder who was a stay at home mom working from home. What I would see is someone capable of coping within solitary, stressful situations and managing their own time. And if they were also doing work from home, I would see that as someone who was creative and capable of multitasking to pursue their passions. Those would all be positives for me.” 

When investors focus on work experience instead of character traits, they often fail to identify women who have the potential to become visionary, powerful leaders capable of growing a startup to a successful exit. 

 Because the majority of founders that venture capitalists work with are male, simply by default since men receive 98% of all investment, it can also skew the way investors view leadership skills. One study of 3,000 managers concluded that women are better managers than men and better suited for leadership, yet their leadership style can often be misinterpreted as more passive or less knowledgeable. As a gender, women are better at communicating, innovating, supporting and goal-setting. But the very traits that allow women to excel at leadership and their teams to thrive can also result in women being perceived as less qualified or capable.

When investors are evaluating women founders by comparing them to successful male founders, they are likely to miss the signs of strong leadership skills. 

Women are quite capable of imagining, launching, and growing successful startups, but it will take investors who are willing to set aside their own conventional wisdom to adequately fund bold women founders who can help create the next generation of global, game-changing unicorn companies. 

Music Service Spotify Just Filed for a ‘Direct IPO’

  • Spotify filed the paperwork to list shares on the New York Stock Exchange.
  • The company is planning to do a “Direct IPO” which bypasses the typical Wall Street process.
  • Spotify is the largest music streaming service with 71 million paid suscribers.

Spotify has filed paperwork for a direct public offering, a risky and unusual process to quickly list its shares as it races with Apple to become the de-facto standard in the fast growing music streaming business.

The 10-year-old Swedish company filed an F-1 prospectus with the SEC on Wednesday for the offering. Spotify plans to list shares on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker “SPOT.”

Spotify pioneered the music streaming business, which has overtaken digital downloads, as well as the ravaged CD business, to become the largest segment of the music industry in the US.

With 71 million paid subscribers, Spotify is currently the world leader, but it is facing stiff competition from Apple, whose three-year old Apple Music service has already racked up 36 million subscribers. Google and Amazon are also pushing their own streaming music services.

That competition has forced Spotify to spend heavily on music licensing, to maintain a broad catalog of music, as well as on marketing and R&D. The spending has resulted in hefty and growing losses. In 2017, Spotify said it had a net loss of €1.2 billion ($1.5 billion USD), compared to a net loss of €539 million the year before.

The company’s revenue increased 39% year-on-year in 2017, totaling roughly €4.1 billion, or $5 billion.

Spotify is offering its shares directly to investors, bypassing the typical Wall Street process where banks are hired to find buyers for the shares. Its F-1 filing listed a valuation of $1 billion, though that figure is likely a placeholder number that could change as the offering gets closer.

The direct IPO means that Spotify will sell shares without a set price, without a set level of supply of shares, and without a lock-up on existing investors. And the lack of the so-called “bookbuilding” process typically handled by underwriters means that Spotify’s stock won’t have a safety net if investors turn sour on the company.

“The public price of our ordinary shares may be more volatile than in an underwritten initial public offering and could, upon listing on the NYSE, decline significantly and rapidly,” Spotify warned in its prospectus.

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Building a Product for the Enterprise? This GE Executive Tells You Exactly What You Should Focus On

I love getting tips from other entrepreneurs on how to build disruptive businesses. One of my favorite interviews was my interview with Peter Rahal on how he bootstrapped his protein bar company, RXBar to a $600 million acquisition. 

However, we don’t get much information from innovative executives of companies who have a unique vantage point/insight into startups, because they can potentially utilize or acquire technology from startups for their own company.

I sat down with Sanjeev Addala, Chief Digital officer of GE Renewable Energy and we talked about the future of digital innovation and how entrepreneurs can create disruptive companies in 2018.

A big part of Sanjeev’s job is to ensure GE Renewable Energy is setting the long-term digital and innovation strategy. From IoT enabled wind farms to how to connect renewables with next-generation electrical grids, to the future of energy, Sanjeev has a pulse on what it takes to build something great in 2018 and in the near future.

Here are three things I heard from Sanjeev on how to think like a disruptor in 2018.

1. Focus on every customer touchpoint.

“Some of the most disruptive startups and companies I’ve come across are not just because the product itself is innovative, but the company utilized digital and analytics to create a seamless customer experience at every touchpoint for the consumer and innovated their journeys,” says Addala

Toys R Us didn’t close multiple stores because their toys were bad quality or they were more expensive than competitors. That’s the farthest from the truth.

The reality is that Toys R Us never focused on the customer experience. The app was barely usable; there were no ways to rent or borrow toys and also no place to throw a birthday party.

Toys R’ Us made the mistake of thinking they were in the toy business. They’re in the kid’s fun business. To Addala’s point, it’s not just about the product. It’s about the experience.

Entrepreneurs who are building brands should start with a customer journey map and document how every touchpoint your customer has with your brand.

2. Disrupt yourself. Take a short-term loss if you believe your investment will pay off in the long-term.

“If you’re comfortable with what you’re working on, chances are, it isn’t innovative enough and may not work in the future. You sometimes have to embrace potential risks to your current revenue stream for the sake of the long-term prospects and longevity,” says Addala.

“A ‘disrupt yourself’ mindset is critical for success, before someone else does it to you.  This is true for enterprise companies and even one person startups.”

As an entrepreneur, I had several opportunities to pivot the services I provided that would guarantee I would make more money in the short term, but I made the conscious choice of declining those offers because I knew that I needed to build a strong foundation for long-term revenue growth.

Uber and Facebook are also great examples of this quote in action.

Facebook de-prioritized “viral pages” and then lost a significant portion of their ad revenue and stock price almost immediately. Mark Zuckerberg is sacrificing the short term for the long term.

Uber is also making a large investment in driverless cars which is a recognition that their current system of on-demand employees, will soon be a thing of the past. They are making investments even though they know it will eventually cannibalize their primary revenue stream.

Just because you’re making money now, doesn’t mean the money will always be there. Startups have an opportunity to disrupt larger companies who aren’t taking risks with their revenue streams.

3. Provide value to the community

When I took coffee meetings to build my network in Chicago, the first thing I noticed is that there were a lot of representatives from bigger companies who were interested in what’s happening in the community. If you’re an entrepreneur, use this chance to network with people that can give you insights from a different perspective and may even be a contact that can acquire your company in the future.

“I think there are some great companies working on some amazing things. I like to meet and advise founders who are building next-generation technology,” says Addala. Even if my company can’t utilize the tech, it is great to hear the perspective of founders and investors on how they see their companies changing the landscape and the world.”

Sanjeev closed our conversation with a great quote that resonated with me: “Never be comfortable. You should always be learning and looking for breakthrough ideas. Just because you’re on top, it doesn’t mean you’ll always be there. The entrepreneurs who focus on what technology can do for their community will always be ahead of the game. Help the community first and they’ll help you back.”

Secrets of the Most Mentally Tough Olympian of the 2018 Games

In my opinion, Jessie Diggins has been the greatest representation of mental toughness through the entire Olympic games. Considering no American has ever won a gold medal in cross country skiing, both Diggins and her teammate, Kikkan Randall deserve major applause.

In her first race, the announcer commented that Diggins works very hard to have the ability to push herself through pain more than her competition. After hearing this comment, I must admit that I watched the Diggins events with an increased level of interest.

To be able to push through pain as Diggins did requires serious mental toughness. The human body is designed in a way that when we experience physical pain, our brains become highly aware of the discomfort. The mind then focuses on the pain. Once we focus on something, we then expand it. 

Normal people begin to experience exhaustion during physical activity. They feel that their legs and lungs hurt. The mind fixates on the pain, and before long, the pain is screaming to discontinue the exertion. We actually create more pain by focusing on it. This normal process causes people to avoid pain. This serves to protect the organism and increase survival.

Now, think about what Diggins has trained herself to do. When she begins to experience pain, she pushes her thoughts to focus on her inner strength. While her pain tries incessantly to gain her attention, she wages a mental war of controlled thought. Instead of allowing thoughts of pain and suffering, she directs her thoughts to emphasize her skill and toughness, eventually choking out the weakness– and she does this for extended periods of time.      

Diggins embodies mental toughness, but this is not something she learned in a pep talk. She has trained for it. Mental toughness is abnormal, but it can be learned. 

There are two very important steps involved:

1. PREPARATION: No matter how mentally tough you are, if you are not prepared, you will not be mentally tough for long. Confidence is a major ingredient, and if you have not prepared, you will not succeed at elevated levels of competition.

2. THOUGHT CONTROL: During performance and preparation, you must work on controlling your thoughts. The rule is that anytime an unproductive thought enters your mind (i.e., any thought that emphasizes weakness or negativity), you must replace that thought quickly with a productive thought (i.e., any thought focused on strength or success). 

Unproductive thoughts weigh you down like wearing sandbags throughout the day. It’s no wonder Diggins felt like a coil ready to spring at the end of her gold medal race. While the other competitors had been allowing the pain to wear them down, Diggins felt an abundance of energy. Every Olympian works on preparation and thought control. Those special athletes like Jessie Diggins simply invest more into mastering them.

In the end, here is what Jessie Diggins has taught me: even if you or your team has never won a gold medal, it doesn’t mean you can’t. Every one of us has gold medal potential, no matter what the event. You just have to invest more than your competition into your success. 

Your Company Needs a Big Vision. Here’s How to Design One

It’s never too late to design a vision for your business.  While it may be ideal to do this at inception, many companies stop at the mission statement, business model or business plan when launching.  Visions are different: they are about dreaming.  Due to the aspirational nature of visions, they keep you stretching and evolving.  Here are six steps to design a vision for your company.

1. Give Permission to Dream

This may seem obvious, but if leadership is not explicit in asking people to engage in the envisioning process, people will not participate in wholehearted ways  You can incentivize this by setting aside paid time for people to devote to this process.  You may even add a little joy by adding in fun competitions for the most far out ideas.  Start big and dreamy.  There will always be time and ways to cut back because of constraints in time, budget, talent or policy.

2. Backcast In Order to Forecast

You need clarity on where you have been in order to identify where you might go.  Take stock and map the journey – dare I say, the “hero’s journey”- you have been on as an organization.  Plot the characters, environmental context, tensions, cliff-hangers, conflicts, successes and resolutions to date.  Do this for your particular organization as well as for your sector.  Once you have an honest sense of historical perspective, create multiple possible scenarios- not just a singular one- of where your company might go.

3. Ask Frontline Staff

Your frontline staff are the best data gatherers. The receptionists, call center operators, and point of sale folks are the ones who are regularly interacting with end consumers.  Begin asking their opinions and observations on a regular basis so that when it comes time for your envisioning lab, you have considered a range of data points about are aware of what is on the pulse of consumers and their actual needs.  Making frontline staff more central to this process also gives you an honest understanding of what’s motivating your organization to adapt and evolve.  

4. Stop Benchmarking   

That’s right- stop looking only to what competitors in your sector are doing well or poorly. Instead, investigate other sectors and industries that are totally unrelated to your industry.  In design thinking we call this “lateral thinking”: cultivating the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate areas.  This is where you can gather the best inspiration.  For example, consider that the W Hotel was one of the first hotels to create the position of a Global Fashion Director.  They realized there was a lot for hospitality to learn from the fashion industry in terms of anticipating change, aesthetics and merchandising hotel properties.    Don’t keep drawing from the same well.  

5. Be Prepared to Get Messy

Creating a vision can be fun and energizing.  And it will also feel messy and ambiguous.  Don’t shy away from the moments when it gets confusing.  Factoring in diverse stakeholders or shaking up pre-established roles and legacy is hard work.  This is why it may make sense to bring in an external facilitator who can lend more objectivity to the process.   This will not be a linear process; there will be shades of grey.

6. Assign Actionable Tasks

Goals are dreams with deadlines.  Ultimately, to make the vision a reality you must have an actionable plan in place.  Break up what could seem like an insurmountable goal into baby steps: reverse engineer the process.  Create deadlines and budgets.  Identify people who may be emergent leaders to take on some of the tasks.  Regular check-ins are essential so that you are prepared to pivot and redefine stages.  With these steps in place you may also need to identify new job positions that don’t currently exist.  This is a good thing!  

With these steps in place you are on your way to creatively disrupting yourself and your company.