I have not talked about a book I was reading for a while, but today that changes. I recently finished Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, months after all of the initial reviews appeared. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not receive a review copy or a free copy, I bought this myself, and yes, the above link is an Amazon affiliate link.

First, let me say that if you are interested in the internet, using the internet for your business, run a business that generally has nothing to do with the internet or just want to be more successful in business, you should buy this book. Yep, the book is actually that good. Interestingly enough, Chris and Julien sell this book as “Using the web to build influence, improve reputation and earn trust”, but much of the advice is applicable to any business. So, like most of the books that I talk about, let’s see what advice can we take that can be applied to a startup (besides just reading the whole book of course).

First, you have to know the reasons why the book is needed. Trust Agents sets this up nicely in three short nuggets:

Although the general public’s level of mistrust is at an all-time high, there are individuals and companies who do successfully use the Internet to establish levels of trust in the communities where they operate.

Does your startup have a level of trust with your customers or even the technical press? Why should your customers trust you is a very common theme, but one that tends to be forgotten quite often.

As a society, we no longer have confidence in advertising. We are hostile to those who appear to have ulterior motives, even if they’re just selling themselves. The result is our tendency to join together into loose networks, or tribes, that gather based on common interest.

Customers have been sold to for years. Given the nature of traditional media, gaining attention may have been difficult, but once attention was gained, the “hard sell” would begin. Now, when customers see the hard sell, they join together and rebel. That type of approach does not end well.

We view online social networks as media, not because they help us communicate, but because they extend human relationships. This is something that neither television nor radio ever could have done, because they were all one-way.

This is an extension of the previous point. In TV and radio, customers really could not give feedback directly. Sometimes companies would create a focus group, but those were typically fairly small, maybe even only 10 people. With social networks, you can get immediate feedback from thousands of people.

This is all fairly basic information, but definitely useful. However, the book does list the 6 characteristics of Trust Agents. Again, these points are good advice for anyone in business and I have added some of my own thoughts as well:

  1. Make Your Own Game: How can you stand out from the crowd? If your startup is in a fairly crowded segment, what can you do differently or significantly better than your competitors. If you have the same features, are you significantly cheaper?
  2. One of Us: Talk with us, not at us. Have a conversation, do not sell all the time. This is a core idea that must be actively practiced all the time.
  3. The Archimedes Effect: How can you leverage what you already know? This becomes more interesting if you decide that you need to change your product direction. How can you leverage what you have already done into a new product or even changing your product’s core features?
  4. Agent Zero: Building relationships is a priority because it is a human thing to do, long before actual business requires transacting. If you are releasing your product on Wednesday, when is the first time you contacted various bloggers or journalists? Was it an email blast on Monday? If so, you are doing it wrong. You should have started talking to people months ago.
  5. Human Artist: Learn how to work well with people, recognize strengths and weaknesses, when to improve relationships and when to step away. In some cases, this could be as simple as managing your team. In a startup, you need to make quick decisions even on people. If someone is not fitting with the team, then you may need to move on. The same thing can be said for your customers. Do you have a customer that requires a lot of time to support but is not a top revenue-generating customer? You need to fire that customer.
  6. Build an Army: You can’t do it all alone. As a startup, it is near impossible to hire a large sales team. But, what if you had various bloggers or even your customers talking about your product? This relates back to #4, you need to build this network of people and keep the relationships going in order to have an army working for you.

Another excellent point from the book is about reliability:

Reliability is a scarce resource. When people do not have a boss hovering over them, they tend to relax a little bit too much. If you are paying attention, this means that reliability is one of the easiest ways to differentiate yourself.

I find this so important, that I would list this as the 7th characteristic of a Trust Agent. We have seen the discussions about the reliability of Twitter and every other social service. If the service goes down, people start trusting the service less. There are some other very important pieces of advice that need to be discussed as well. The list above is a high level overview, but as we all know, “the devil is in the details”. In particular, there is a post by Douglas Rushkoff that is quoted in the book. The post is about the three methods that kids use to play games, playing, cheating and programming. It is an interesting read and parallels Trust Agents very well.

Making your work a game is a common theme throughout Trust Agents. Part of this is that people tend to enjoy games more than work. The book also highlights games because “people get better at games faster than they get better at life is because there is better feedback given inside the game system.” This is very important in the startup world, because you want constant feedback to continuously improve your product. If you lack quality feedback, you will likely fail. Thankfully, the book includes a wonderful money quote on failure:

Understand that failure is an inevitable part of the game, but that the chance of success is much greater the more often you roll the dice. You shouldn’t fear it, you should embrace it.

If you follow startups, you have probably heard the mantra “Fail fast”. If you fail fast, you can quickly move onto the next possibility. If you are failing, what do you do next? Change the rules or change the game. Trust Agents uses the term “gatejumping” for part of this. Specifically, gatejumping is termed as “what happens when you find a better way to do things while everyone else is too busy to notice.” If your startup is failing, sometimes gatejumping is the quickest way to find a new product. You just take an existing product or process that sucks and make it better. Google’s search engine is the perfect example of gatejumping. Yahoo had a directory and basic search capabilities, but nobody seemed to think that search was that important. Google “gatejumped” with their search product and changed the way we use the internet. Granted this is a rare example, but even smaller shifts can be important.

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