There's an art to starting a conversation.
At the high end, a legendary practitioner like Duke Ellington, opened conversations with women by saying stuff like, "Well, my dear, you certainly make that dress look terrific."
At the low end, you get, "This might seem a little weird, but I like your posture."
If you're a small business owner, and you ask Wayne Gomes, the Co-Founder of startup Grapevine6 Labs, he'll tell you that a truly compelling way to open a business conversation might be:
"Did you have a chance to read that article I sent you?"
Something To Talk About
Grapevine6 is a breakthrough concept targeted at people who manage relationships: sales people, account managers, small business owners. And it's a product Gomes and his partners (Mike Orr, Jonathan Lee, Pankaj Saini, and Danko Desancic) have been working on, in a way, since 2001. "We hope Grapevine6 will help entrepreneurs, thought-leaders and relationship managers everywhere build awesome business relationships," Gomes declares.
2001 was the year Gomes and his partners created their first startup. "It was an advertising engine," Gomes explains, "that allowed somebody with rich media assets to manage real-time data over the course of an ad campaign. That was a big deal back then."
Starting a business at the beginning of the 21st century, one of the most difficult things Gomes and his partners had to contend with was selling themselves and their product. "It was really hard," he admits, "and we really sucked at it. They don't teach a lot about business relationships and relationship management in engineering school. It was hugely frustrating."
Eventually, though, Gomes and his associates were acquired by Cundari, Canada's largest independent advertising company, and they discovered how the big ad firms run a campaign. "They really knew how to connect with people," says Gomes. "There was a science to it. The research group did deep research on the audience, and came up with insights which they handed off to the creative group. Then the creative group would figure out how to leverage those insights to resonate with the audience--and they'd come up with a message. Eventually it would go to the media department who would deploy it. That's advertising in a nutshell."
Thinking back to their business challenges 13 years earlier, Gomes and his Grapevine6 co-founders realized that if they had deployed a similar process to build their own business relationships it would have been a door-opener. "I tried various CRM solutions," Gomes explains, "which were great at reminding me who to call, and when to call 'em, but not so good at 'How do I start?' and 'What do I say?' I needed something to talk about."
Starting a Business Conversation
Solution: Grapevine6. It allows you to look up a customer, a prospective customer, or just someone who's important to your business on LinkedIn or (coming soon) SalesForce.com, and pull up their profile. Grapevine6 distills that profile down to five or six key areas of interest--things the customer really cares about. Then it looks through a collection of articles in its proprietary business news index--a collection of 8.5 million high-quality business stories drawn from some 800 publications --searching for ones that the customer might be interested in reading, based on those five or six key areas of interest.
Finally Grapevine6 helps you share those articles with your customer, which lets her know you're thinking about her, and (most important) that you remembered what she's interested in. It helps you track whether she's read it, if she liked it, whether there might be other people in your contacts who would be interested in that article, and so on.
In other words it gives you something to talk about. It's a conversation starter.
Features I Couldn't Have Dreamt Up In My Wildest Dreams
If the concept is simple, the technology isn't. Working with a test group of several hundred users (many of whom were financial managers) Gomes and his associates ripped through 12 iterations, learning as they went, trying to make the interface "addictive."
"There were features we were so sure of," he laughs, "features that we put a lot of energy into, and none of the users cared about them. Then there were features we never thought of, features I couldn't have dreamt up in my wildest dreams, that users said, 'This is what you really need to add.'"
One of the core features they added profiled the customers users were sharing content with, and sniffed around for similar people in their "introducible" network, usually friends of friends. "Initially, we were aiming at users with a base of 200-300 clients," Gomes explains. "You log in, you pull up a bunch of your clients, Grapevine6 tells you these are the articles you should share with them. Then one of the younger guys in the test group said, 'I love your tool, but I don't have 300 clients. I only have ten clients, and 50 connections on my LinkedIn network. Deepening relationships isn't my root problem. I need a way to grow my network.'"
Gomes and the others listened. One thing that helped speed development was that Grapevine6 was entirely cloud-based. "In a cloud environment," says Gomes, "you can deploy a new version every Thursday night with the click of a finger, and then get a bunch of people signing in and just using it."
As of now, Grapevine6 is a working platform. In fact, you can check it out--for free--online.
As Gomes explains, "We've reached the go-to-market stage. We've figured out how to make it compelling and addictive. Now it's time to sell it. We haven't taken any investment capital, and we're probably not going to until we can solve all those commercial questions: How do we get this thing into the hands of small business owners? How do we charge for it? Is there a free version? Is there a pay version? Is there a preview version? What are the price points?"
In the meantime, Gomes and his partners are keeping their minds open. "We're looking at technology partnerships," he says. "We're looking at distribution partnerships. We're looking at various models that will help us get to market. Our goal at this stage is to provide it to small business owners, who need it, and probably don't have a lot of cash lying around. We've also had some signups from people with very large companies. For now we're keeping it wide open and letting everyone come in."
Where the Small Business Owner Lives
Initially Grapevine6 was built as a stand-alone platform, but reality has set in. There are already a lot of stand-alone platforms that everybody likes, says Gomes, "whether it's LinkedIn, SalesForce.com, small business accounting software, or the user's email client--and it's starting to look to us like we could be a great feature in any of those eco-systems. Maybe we won't be a stand-alone platform. That's why we decided to build our new SalesForce.com version. And we're thinking about a mail plug-in for Yahoo, gMail, and Outlook.
"We have to live where the small business owner lives."
Now that's a conversation starter.