Meet Jake McKee, the Community Guy

I met Jake McKee, a.ka. “The Community Guy” at BlogOrlando this past year and I’ve been meaning to cover his ideas and concepts in more depth since. Briefly, Jake made a splash onto the blogging scene by dragging Lego Corporation, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century, by getting them to open up and connect with their existing community, all the while building the base of the community to include more and more different types of people.

Why is this important? Traditionally, companies tend to think of their community as “customers, clients, vendors, and partners”. Over time, the community becomes segregated, and companies began to become more closed. Their thinking behind this is as old as dirt: protecting trade secrets, classifying customers by their value to the company, upgrading some vendors to near-partner status, while keeping other vendors guessing as to what is really going on.

With the advent of the internet, it is almost impossible for a company to stay very closed for long. People value openness, transparency, and forthright behavior more and more every day. Companies that maintain a Soviet Bloc type of mentality are losing ground.

You would think companies (of all sizes) would embrace this openness more, well, openly. But the fear of change can be a powerful force for the status quo. Jake successfully got Lego to understand why it is so important for them to be open and accessible. His lessons apply aptly to many other types of organizations: local government (just look at Florida’s Sunshine Law which was cutting edge at the time), churches and other non-profits, professional groups, and even your local wireless cafe!

Key to this is blogging, of course. The free exchange of information, with the allowable commenting by those who may not always be fans. Ask any CEO to start a blog, and they’ll likely either a) cower in fear, b) write about only mundane personal stuff with no possibility of creating a stir, or c) regurgitate marketing’s press releases. Rarely do you see true openness about ideas that may never materialize, concerns for future sales, admissions of failures, or genuine interactions between the company and those interested in it (for whatever reason). And yet, whenever this has been done, the company only profits and gains from it.

Jake often mentions several key points. I don’t want to take away from what he has to say about many of these points. Hopefully, I can add a bit to the great conversation and encourage you to be more open in your own business interactions.

Jake often uses analogies to marriage and family. I think that many businesses don’t see their relationship with their employees, customers, or vendors as a “marriage” which requires both commitment, openness, transparency, and full communication for a progressive success.

Here are a few of the bullet points Jake used at BlogOrlando that I’d like to comment upon:

Open and Honest Relationships

I recently posted about how BestBuy offered a survey with a limit on the amount of feedback. Why was that? Hard to say. While I suppose there has to be some kind of limit, they basically sent me the message that only so much feedback of mine would be of value. While top guns of BestBuy probably sit around talking for days or weeks at a time just to cover one single tiny aspect of their business, along with multiple meetings and PowerPoint presentations, they couldn’t seem to believe that a customer, even a good customer, would have anything more than 600 words of useful advice.

That sets a bad tone. Maybe I didn’t have any really good advice (although I disagree), but shutting someone up isn’t being open.

Honesty would also dictate that companies, particularly in the area of employee hiring, start being forthright. The type of recruiters that some company allow to participate in their hiring process is downright disgraceful. Worse, many companies have practiced HR departments who are skilled liars. The internet is slowly turning on these types of companies as more people start speaking out about what it’s really like to work at these companies. But, it shouldn’t take a public “outing” for companies to elevate their behavior. The more responsible companies should start eliminating any hiring practices that put the new employee at a disadvantage. If you can’t tell the truth, then you need to fix the problems so that you can tell the truth about your company.

I was hired by HealthSouth in the midst of their serious legal transgressions. Not only did they not tell me upfront, they used CEO Richard Scrushy as a model example of a great leader. After a few weeks of working there, I heard about the legal issues (that later sent Scrushy to federal prison), but we were constantly hyped with how HealthSouth’s competitors were jealous. Slowly, I realized that each day I was being asked to inflate medicare charges, despite the very fact that Scrushy and others were being prosecuted for the very same thing. Employees would sometimes murmur quietly about the case, but no where near management. The company couldn’t be honest with us; we couldn’t be honest with them. In the end, the entire company suffered for the foolishness of this approach.

What’s Your Kink?

Jake is fond of using this to talk about how some Lego employees viewed their biggest customers, adults who spent over $1000/year on ‘toys’, as pond scum. They were creeped out by them and thought of them as nutjobs. Instead of fostering that community, Lego used to consider them, and their opinions, anathema. Even though the average child consumer spent around $12/year on average, they still didn’t like being associated with adults who, in the minds of some Lego personnel, should “get a life” and stop playing with toys.

Jake would kindly point out to them that although maybe they weren’t the type to play with legos at the age of 40+, they didn’t have much trouble spending money on other “kinks” in their lives: BMW’s, Blackberry devices, model airplanes, vast DVD collections, etc. In other words, the subtle message was to be careful about judging your clients interest in your company. They have their own kinks, sure, just as you do. If they have an interest in your company, for whatever reason, then let it be. Foster it. Help build a community around them. Don’t question it - and definitely don’t judge it.

My thought on this goes to two things in my life: Music and the Internet. I have friends who think the internet is a waste of time, particularly blogging, web design, and using web applications. I also have a lot of friends whose passion for music extends to Top 40, or maybe an oldie classic once a year. They hardly “enjoy” music. And that’s okay. Personally, I think they are missing out. But, what I find odd is that while they take a sort of moral high ground (equivalent to a Dr. Suess “Harumph!”), they have their own quirks and kinks. They have their $100,000 motorhome. Or the 3 dogs in the backyard. Or the constant drive to spend every Saturday in the backyard. Or dragging their kids to every imaginable fair, carnival, movie, sporting event in the entire county. I’m not saying those are bad things: I’m just saying, “To each his own”.

This is mostly important when dealing with clients. As a web developer I hear crazy ideas all the time. The real crazy ideas I’m upfront about - trying to save the potential client from themself. However, sometimes, a little crazy idea is doable and the client is fully vested and interested in the project. Maybe I just don’t “get it”. That’s okay. You have to learn to work with different types of businesses and ideas in order to be successful in this business. Not every idea may work out in the long run. But I have my kinks, too, so who am I to judge? Out of 20+ internet ideas, only a handful have been successful thus far. I’ve learned. They’ll learn, too.

Success by 1,000 Papercuts

This is probably my favorite Jake McKee quote. Basically, expect criticism, open and honest advice (that you may not agree with), and even some completely outlandish idiocy. None of it can really hurt you. You can learn from it, too. But you have to put your head out on the chopping block. You have to make mistakes, sometimes publicly. You have to realize that you can’t always control other’s opinions of you. Some people will like you for your candor; some will hate you for it. As I’m fond of saying, “It is what it is”. Don’t read more into it than that.

Conversely, if you are covering up, controlling, hiding, shifting, or just avoiding altogether the communities and communications that you should be involved in, you are not getting the big picture. In other words, if you aren’t getting papercuts, you are probably being ineffective, and as a result, just occupying space.

In the Christian faith, it is common to refer to several verses regarding persecution that points out how, if you aren’t being persecuted, you might not be fully living your faith out, and as a result, not being very effective. There are thousands of sermons on the subject, but briefly, the verses aren’t asking you to go out of your way to be a jerk to people and then cry “I’m being persecuted for my faith”. But they are a good way to measure if you are being effective. 2 Timothy 3:12 is probably the best example of this, but you can also refer to John 15:18-20, and 2 Corinthians 12:10.

Likewise, if your attempts at community building are done behind a wall, without candor, without accepting all comments and criticism, or by avoiding attempts at all, then you are hurting your own organization, yourself, and those you serve.

For those who want to learn more about building communities, bridging social gaps, especially as it pertains to business and the internet, I’d encourage you to read Jake’s blog on a regular basis. You’ll definitely learn something.

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We love Jake! Great post and well deserved, Jake!

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