Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Build a bonfire

We went camping this past weekend in Gualala. Perfect weather, extraordinary setting – the kind that makes you ignorantly question why anyone would want to live outside Northern California – and terrific company. And, of course, a camp fire, much to the delight of our boys. “Daddy, add a match … we need more sticks … it’s going out … when do we get to roast the marshmallows?” After two successful, smore-filled nights and one painfully grabbed hot rock (an unfortunate lesson for my seven-year-old), bonfire thoughts were rekindled.

What is a bonfire? Well, there are bonfires, and then there are bonfires. The obvious:

\Bon"fire`\, n. A large fire built in the open air, as an expression of public joy and exultation, or for amusement.

The less obvious: Bonfire is a terrific, catalytic metaphor for businesses, particularly nascent ventures. The visual (a fire that expands with obvious incremental effort), social (an ever-growing – as the bonfire expands – flock of people drawn to the fire), and sensual (the intensity, warmth and power of fire) cues are relevant and useful. Here’s how it works:

Who participates: Your customers, suppliers, analysts, complementors, etc. -- anyone who cares (or should care) about your company.

Where does it occur: The marketplace of your industry, specifically in the minds of your participants.

The bonfire effect: With each endorsement (sale, partnership, testimonial, news article), the bonfire grows. So too does the collection of perceptions, awareness, and connectivity of your participants. As more people participate in the bonfire, the brighter you shine and the more likely people are to see you (a bonfire that’s happening) and get involved.

Caution: Bonfires can die; you must always add wood (create activity in meaningful and valuable ways) to keep it going.

Contemporary analogs and complements include viral marketing, peer-to-peer networks, and the network effect. My latest company, Crescendo, has built – and continues to stoke – a vibrant bonfire.

Keep it burning.

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Post-script (27 Feb 08): Great metaphor from Silicon Valley angel investor Mike Maples r.e. investing in early-stage companies: Angel investors use a single match (that is a small investment) to light a forest fire (get a big return). Cool.

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