Improvising Under the Volcano
Amanda Palmer, lead singer for the Dresden Dolls and punk rock cabaret solo artist, is active on Twitter (@amandapalmer  has over a half million followers), her blog, Facebook, and MySpace. She uses Twitter as a tool for instant communication with her fans, frequently answering fans' tweeted questions and comments. "There's something about Twitter that's so different, because you're so accessible and it still kinda feels like a clubhouse," Palmer told me. 'You're not just sending an anonymous transmission out to all of your fans ever who have signed your mailing list. Instead, it's almost like standing in a room with them and saying, 'Let's go over to this corner.' "
When she is on the road, Palmer uses Twitter and her blog to bring together groups of fans in real time. "I'll say, 'Last minute show at this bar. Everybody show up. It's free.' Or 'Here are the tickets; buy them now.' " She calls these instant performances "Ninja Gigs." Like the morning she tweeted word of a secret gig in Los Angeles: 350 folks showed up five hours later at a warehouse space where she played the piano.
Palmer has also done free Webcasts where she auctions off whatever she's got at hand: props from the videos she's just shot, handwritten song lyrics, even random stuff from her apartment, like an empty wine bottle. "People have bid hundreds of dollars on this stuff!" she laughs. "But a lot of it is not even really so much about the stuff itself as it is about their willingness to connect with me and support me," she says.
Palmer says that since early on in her music career, she's loved connecting directly with fans. "I've grown the fan base literally person by person," she says. "I've been saving money plus establishing huge connection with fans by 'twitchiking,' asking for rides to and from airports, etcetera, on Twitter. It works! But you must be fearless and have a fan base you trust. I also borrow practice keyboards from locals instead of renting for my hotel rooms, saving me almost $500 for every city I'm in. I've also been saving money on hotels, for example a $600-per-night hotel suite for a week in San Francisco for $150 by tweeting for suggestions and getting a tweet back from a fan who was a hotel manager. Fans love to help."
All of these ideas played out in real time for Palmer when she found herself in Reykjavik, Iceland, for what was supposed to be a 45-minute layover on an April 2010 journey from Boston to Glasgow where she was to perform.
That was the day Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, shooting millions of tons of ash into the air and shutting down air traffic across the Atlantic and Europe. Palmer's flight was cancelled and her European plans were instantly erased.
Facing similar news, with a hotel voucher from the airline in hand, I think most people would just get on the bus and go sulk in the hotel. Not Amanda Palmer.
Instead, stuck in Reykjavik, Palmer got on Twitter--and got instant advice from people all over the world. "Hera Hjartardottir (@herasings ), the Icelandic singer who'd just opened up for me in New Zealand, hooked me up with her childhood friend. And like magic I scored a ride from a stranger and didn't have to pack into the sardine bus to the hotel," she says. "We were friends within minutes." Palmer saw a few sights, had a refreshing soak in the Blue Lagoon (a natural geothermal spa), and ended up at the hotel in the early evening.
She then decided to do a Ninja Gig that night in Reykjavik. "An Icelandic comrade named Ben who had read my Twitter feed volunteered to find me a nightclub and equipment," she says. The gig was quickly confirmed, and Palmer tweeted the address of the bar and told people to get there at 9 P.M.
"We went and hung out on the streets of Reykjavik. I got a feel for the town and tried to encourage every lonely Icelander who was twittering 'am thinking about going to the @amandapalmer gig but it'll probably be too packed' that they were possibly the only six people that would be there," she says. "I played for about 2.5 hours, almost all requests. About 100 people came in the end. I drank six vodkas, and I did not pay for them. Afterward, behind the bar, I did an impromptu interview with Iceland's leading English-language paper while smoking a stolen cigarette, my first in months."
Can you believe this woman?! In the morning, she gets dumped at the airport of a strange city--Reykjavik, Iceland, of all places--by a bizarre natural disaster. How random and unexpected is that? Without missing a beat, by nighttime she's pulled off a gig that would take weeks of planning, even for locals.
Starting Up in Real Time
It takes huge effort to reset the clock of a humongous existing organization like GM to real-time speed. It's an altogether different challenge to get a startup going at real-time speed from Day 1.
"The Internet fundamentally changes the time scales of business," says Brian Halligan , co-founder and CEO of HubSpot, an Internet marketing software company. (Halligan is my co-author on our book Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead .) "Because we started in the post-Internet age with people who live and breathe the Web, we run the business in a unique way. Instead of command and control, we empower people at the edges, and that changes the way you hire, promote, the hierarchy, and so on. We have a very different sense of trust and autonomy than most companies. And it has big importance for leadership."
Many companies tout their "open-door policies," but HubSpot has a "no door policy." There are no offices, even for the CEO. "It feels like there are fewer layers in the organization when anyone can just walk up to you with ideas. You can react to what's going on right away if you're not stuck behind a wall with a secretary guarding your door," Halligan says.
Since Halligan runs HubSpot as an always-on, real-time enterprise, the lines between "work" and "private time" blur to the point that the vacation policy was eliminated--people just take time off when they need it. "In my father's era, people worked 9-to-6 every day in an office," he says. "It was very structured, and he had to be in the office to get the work done. But our people have iPhones, and they are always online even on the weekends. It seemed very silly to us that people who sometimes worked for a few hours at home on a Sunday needed to formally request time off on a weekday. It just seems ludicrous to have this whole vacation policy so we said, 'Take whatever vacation you want; we trust you.' It's not command and control. Instead, it's very much about trusting and autonomy and pushing the decisions down so people can react in a real-time way."
The entire HubSpot organization is run on the Agile Scrum software development methodology. "The traditional way to develop software is called Waterfall," Halligan says. "That's where you develop very detailed product specifications and then you go away for a year to build off that spec. But what happens in business today is that in the year that you are building it, the requirements change quite a bit, so you deliver something that's just flat in the marketplace. Agile Scrum is the complete opposite. We never write detailed product specifications or plans. Instead we run monthly 'sprints' where we have four or five teams organized around a couple of developers, a product manager, and a designer, and they build to the product requirement backlog. When we make decisions on what to build, we change our minds like 10 times up to the very day before the sprint. It works extremely well because the competitive landscape changes in real time. As we get new input from customers, and we are able to react very, very quickly."
When Halligan told me about Agile Scrum software development I got excited. Here were the same principles I've been exploring in communication playing out in product development! Just as the traditional method of developing marketing programs takes tons of time, so also does the conventional method of software development. In both disciplines that added time means opportunities are missed.
Halligan says that working quickly is so essential to the HubSpot business that the Agile Scrum methodology has spread to other departments in the company. "Now marketing works the same way," he says. "So instead of a year-long marketing plan with all these lengthy campaigns, everything is on a monthly sprint cycle. We learn, we experiment as much as we can, and then we tweak it. We change our mind about what we are going to do a bunch of times between sprints, and then we typically lock it down the night before. The idea of working quickly is so essential to how we run our business."
The real-time management that Halligan has implemented at HubSpot is certainly paying off. "People want to work for an organization like this where they are empowered, where there is real-time decision making, and where things are not heavily planned in a command-and-control environment. So we have been able to attract very good people. We started three years ago with just two of us and now we have nearly 200 employees. We had no customers then and now we have almost 3,000 customers. We grew [by a factor of three] last year and we are forecasting a similar growth this year."
As I was finishing the manuscript to this book in June 2010, HubSpot was named by Boston Business Journal as the best company to work for in Boston (in the mid-sized company category). At the awards ceremony organizers said, "[HubSpot's] unique culture encourages innovative ideas in a fast-paced yet casual work environment . . . [that] fosters collaboration and integration between different team members. You'd be hard-pressed to find an unhappy employee."
Think about this! How can you move more quickly by empowering people to respond instantly to changes in the marketplace? You'll have happier employees, too!
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Real-Time Marketing & PR: How to Instantly Engage Your Market, Connect with Customers, and Create Products that Grow Your Business Now by David Meerman Scott. Copyright (c) 2011 by David Meerman Scott.
[Photo of Amanda palmer by Tracy Graham]