As you may have noticed on Twitter early yesterday morning, I posted a tweet saying I was heading to downtown St. Paul to an all-day event sponsored by my friends at Visi.com (the best darn ISP and managed services firm in Minnesota). It was called Vision2008, and I was looking forward to tweeting live from the event. There aren't many things that can make me get up so early, after getting home at 10:00 the night before from yet another hot event (Minnedemo) -- but the early keynoter at this one was enough to do it. That was Robert Stephens, the founder of Geek Squad and now a Best Buy VP. (As he always says, his firm "acquired Best Buy" in 2002.)
I've heard Robert speak at least three times before, and have blogged about it, but I find I just can't miss another opportunity to hear him spin his stories, which get better each time. The man is good -- entertaining, insightful, and just plain funny. The audience never goes away unsatisfied.
So, I fight traffic early to get there by 8:15, grab a seat in the eighth row or so in the very nice theater room, and open the MacBook expecting to find a wifi network for the attendees -- whoops, my friends at Visi don't seem to realize that people want to live-blog or tweet at events these days. No wi-fi -- zip! No problem, I think, I'll just plug in my trusty AT&T broadband card. But, crap, no signal in this hugely fortified data center fortress. At this point, I have no choice but to go to my failsafe backup, which is luckily on board... you got it: pen and paper!
So, instead of tweeting this thing in real-time in one-at-a-time sound-bites, I tweeted later that I'd blog it. And that's what I'll do now: give you the continuous play-by-play, right here in one long blog post, as Robert delivered it. Just realize that he tends to jump around, often throwing in a random thought here and there. So, I can't say this will always track and make sense in a logical sequence -- but then, it wouldn't have if I'd have tweeted it, either... :-)
Here we go (tweet style), including a few blurbs from the intro, to set things up:
in April 1994, after about four years at the U of MN, Robert started Geek Squad with $200... jump forward to 2002, he "acquired" Best Buy, and now has 17,000 "agents" and recently expanded Geek Squad into Shanghai and Europe...
Robert started talking about how he was dealing with Best Buy for years before the company knew it... hiring people who'd worked there, buying lots of stuff in their stores in the process of making house calls...
"Minnesota is like the Russia of America," says Robert.. "Russia has long led the world in literature and physics. Why? Because there's not much else to do during those long winters." (huge laughs) ...he likes Minnesota as a center of innovation for the same reason... "It makes us tougher competitors"
he talked about how Geek Squad is all about "world domination"... "but every company wants to dominate the world, really"... then he goes off on a tangent about Apple, "which has taught us that design is as much as what you don't do, as what you do" (less buttons, for example)
"the best thing that ever happened to me," said Stephens, "was starting my company with no money"... he then shows a slide that's a photo of a package of Ramen Noodles, which he said is "the universal food of college students" (big laughs again)
how poor was he in college? he recalls that, in September 1990, after nine months at the U, he experienced "the low point in my life: I bounced a check for 41 cents for a microwave burrito"
so, then he raises the question about the economy we're in now... he's not worried: "You never get the taste of Ramen Noodles out of you"
his first computer was a Commodore 64... his friends used to get beat up by the football players, but he was always treated well by them, because he'd let them play games on the machine (his first experience realizing that being a geek wasn't such a bad deal)
he started college by going to art school (in Chicago, on a scholarship), but quickly realized he didn't want to be a starving artist... soon, he was on his way to Minnesota to go to the U -- a friend had moved here and encouraged him to come... "to get away from the family and concentrate on studies"
he enrolled in the computer science program, and soon had a job in one of the labs... where he first saw an Internet browser (the original one, developed at the U, called "Gopher"), and said he was "totally blown away"... and soon came Mosaic, developed by then-college student Marc Andreessen and his team at the U of Illinois... he said he quickly started to realize "what it must have felt like in the times of Gutenberg"
which was a perfect segue into his definition of a geek... "Geeks today are nothing more than modern-day monks"... "they first existed in the wild in university labs"... basically, he said of his days at the U, "geeks would do anything to have a broadband connection"... to keep his low-paying job at the U, and that broadband connection, he realized he also had to do something else to make money -- "so I decided to fix things"
he soon had come to the realization that "everybody wanted to sell stuff, but nobody wanted to make house calls"... so, he sensed an opening... and that led to him to launch Geek Squad in his still-struggling college days in 1994, with the aforementioned huge sum of $200... he said he rode his bike to the Secretary of State's office to file the papers
Robert said he loves geeks... but not to let any of us in the audience feel short-changed, he said "everyone's a geek at something -- the thing that they focus on"... he later alluded to his three college roommates, who are now bigtime execs at Oracle and two other big IT firms I didn't catch
which was a segue into another observation of Robert's: "the paradox in business of small vs. large"... "small companies are nimble, and highly integrated, but lack leverage, like Best Buy has"... whereas "large companies' employees go home at night having more access to collaborative possibilities in their Facebook accounts than they do at work"
which launched Stephens into a discussion of logo design... and here, friends, is the part that starts to pay off the title of this post:
Enter 'Branding 101 for Geeks'
[So, let me now leave the "tweeting my notes" style for a minute to insert some observation and opinion. This is one of the most fascinating things I find about Robert -- that he started college as an art student and then switched to computer science. This is an extremely uncommon set of circumstances! But it helps explain what an amazing combination of right brain/left brain talent this guy really is. This background was obviously a powerful mix -- and I have no hesitation whatsoever in describing Robert as a "branding genius." Now, back to my tweet/notes style -- and listen up, would-be geek entrepreneurs, for some lessons from the master...]
in trying to decide on a logo for Geek Squad, he said he looked for inspiration at classic logos from the past, going back to the 1930s and even earlier... he put up a slide showing the logos of Tide, Texaco, and STP... he noted that designers of that day didn't have anywhere near the design tools we have today: "the absence of technologies forced people to create really good logos"
you may wonder which was the one that most inspired the logo he eventually created for Geek Squad? this may surprise you... it was STP's! the oval shape and the simplicity of the lettering can indeed be seen in his logo
he said this design fit his needs... "I have a low-tech audience -- I don't want to be in Wired magazine! I'd rather be in Good Housekeeping"
then he snuck in a funny marketing tactic he used early-on... "I couldn't afford brochures, so I asked a cruise company if they could send me 100 brochures to hand out -- they said sure -- so, I mailed them with my business card attached to IT and network admins at local companies and said, 'you need a vacation'!" :-)
then right back to branding: "the more unglamorous your business, the more opportunity you have for a great brand," he said... this, to me, resonated huge throughout the room, full of execs, IT managers, and entrepreneurs from mostly B2B companies, including many undifferentiated and unglamorous software and services companies... "think about your brand -- do something to create your own language"
by focusing so much on branding, Robert could bring up one of his favorite points: his distaste for advertising (which I'd heard before): "advertising is a tax you pay for being unremarkable"... and here's a translation for those who might not get this point: if you have the right brand and the right message, then buzz, publicity, and word-of-mouth will follow -- and that costs a fraction of advertising! [Robert is a master of this practice, and thus a huge inspiration to entrepreneurs -- not to speak of startup marketing consultants like me -- this is music to my ears, people! I'm preaching this gospel all the time... but it's especially successful when the entrepreneur, the leader, understands and believes]
he continues: "there are no rules for the title of your movie -- your name, your brand"... and, remember, you must hire people, so this (your brand) is how you inspire them... in this respect, he says, "everything you do is really 'advertising' "
Robert takes a couple of tangents here... he talks about two very notable geeks, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (yes, he classifies the latter as a geek, too), and finds their friendship interesting... "Buffet is now outsourcing his giving to Gates -- only a geek would do that!"
then back to Best Buy... "this company forgets they were a startup in 1966"... and this is something I know he's continually trying to re-instill at his employer... "companies can lose their imagination"... he's doing a lot to make sure that doesn't happen at Best Buy [some more opinion here: Robert is like a little kid, a kid who never loses his imagination, his fascination with new things, with what could be... how many big, huge companies do you know that have a guy like that in such a position of influence? one who has the CEO's ear? and I must say that I can see it coming out in so many ways at that company...]
Stephens then launched into a discussion and slides about branding as relates company-vehicle design... he said, "You've got to look like a billion-dollar company if you want to be one"... and proceeded to show us a whole series of images on the evolution of the Geek Squad vehicle (now a black-and-white Beetle in the U.S., and some other funky small British car in the UK)
which led him to another key point: "Do not look for ideas in your own industry -- it's like swimming in your own bath water"... then a reminder of a great Picasso quote: "Good artists copy, great artists steal"... look for ideas outside your own industry that you can use, he said
Stephens told us he's always thinking and dreaming... "Geek Squad is a movie playing out in my head, and it never ends"
back to branding the vehicle: what was his inspiration there? (are you ready?) the Batmobile! he says he still strives towards that... it's the ultimate in his mind
but what about the rest of the brand, the other brand assets, if you will? ... "I stole our fashion sense from the government!" ...meaning in part the black-and-white police car (which brought a story: he said people have asked him in Britain about his vehicle colors, because cop cars aren't black and white there... Stephens comeback? "Well, not yet")
on the subject of vehicles, Robert was hardly done: he showed a slide of some really, really badly designed company vans and vehicles -- totally crowded with all kinds of graphics and copy... "Who can possibly read all that crap?" ... the point, he said, is "don't look like you're advertising" ... and he cited FedEx vehicles as very powerful icons....as well as UPS and their saying, "What can brown do for you?" he said that they've virtually trademarked a color -- you can't, really, but you can a tagline...and they essentially own "brown" in the consumer's mind
in regard to bad vehicle design, and perhaps in other ways as well, he said "You have to restrain yourself from promoting yourself"
what about the Geek Squad "uniform"? this is very, very serious stuff to Robert, and he never shows up anywhere, where I've ever seen him, wearing anything but... when he first started planning it, he decided, "I did not want to bring another polo shirt into the world"
so, how did he come up with his uniform concept? "Steal ideas from another industry!" he boldly stated... he then put up a slide of Mission Control: "I borrowed the culture of NASA!" ...everyone in white shirts and black ties... to show you how important the uniform is at Geek Squad, Robert said some agents have actually taken to having their uniforms on when they get their drivers license photos taken! (on their own, without ever being asked to)... he reminded us again: "The most important 'advertising' you will ever do is to your own employees"
moving back to the larger picture -- Best Buy -- Stephens had this to say, as he moved toward the conclusion of his talk... he definitely seems to be focused on trying to help them get back their startup mojo (my words, not his)... "They really do want to be good"... and I'm convinced he's helping elevate their brand with his own in many respects, not to speak of the positive effects of his company's culture and brand philosophy
he talked about the subject of "serious gaming" (look it up, it has a Wikipedia page)... and says "one day I'd like to have a Geek Squad game"
what are the things he hires for? "Curiosity, ethics, and drive -- these are the things you can't train for"
where's Geek Squad going? "We follow the screen, follow the network"... these are the things consumers are focused on, and I sense this is the internal lingo, the mantra, right now at Best Buy -- to keep everyone on task
"Android and mobile apps" in general have him all juiced up... "These are exciting times -- it feels like 1990 all over again"
wrapping up, he challenged the audience: "Your goal is this: to inspire your talent"... and, lest people think his mantra doesn't apply to them: "No matter what, ALL of you are in the services business"
and, going for a final laugh, he says, "Really, what is a company but a for-profit cult?"
as a final footnote, he said he wants us all to know that we can always email him, "If there are ever any disturbances in the force" ... rstephens (at) geeksquad (dot) com
[Whew, this was one of the longest, and most enjoyable, blog posts I think I've ever done... :-) What say you? What's your take on Robert's story? If you're an entrepreneur, or thinking about making the jump, how does Robert's message speak to you? ]