AvenueVERVE Steps Into the Light.
By Wendy McHale
I've found that one of the things people can do during inclement economic weather is to stick together and try to help each other wherever possible. In many respects it's a secret of success and the reason I wanted to check in with Komra Moriko to see what she is up to. Komra has been a big reason why the MadAve Journal has enjoyed 500% growth in the last 3 years.
A little background: I first heard about Komra Moriko and her company, Design4Results.com from Tig Tillinghast of Watershed Publishing in late 2004. Tig referred to Komra warmly as his "secret weapon."
By then, Komra and Tig had been working together 3 years or so. In 2002, Komra helped Tig launch Watershed Publishing, a profitable company that publishes MarketingVOX, MediaBuyerPlanner and MarketingCharts. Komra single-handedly designed, developed and maintained these successful ad-supported sites during their early growth years.
About the same time, Tig also introduced Komra to Steve Hall. They hit is off and together had a blast redesigning AdRants, which the Wall Street Journal has called a "must-read blog for marketing insiders."
Since 2005, Komra and I have worked on numerous projects together. We also refer to her as our secret weapon. However, the simple fact of the matter in 2008 is that Komra and her company are no longer a secret!
Earlier this year Komra and her husband, management consultant and business partner, Otan Logi, established "AvenueVERVE," a new company that was built on Design4Results' success. As evidenced by her expanded list of clients, many more companies now consider Komra's new company their own secret weapon.
We asked ourselves recently how we could help you, our readers stick together and do whatever we could to help where possible. The answer was obvious. It was to share with you one of the secrets of our success, to help you weather the storm during these particularly rocky economic times.
Wendy: How's it going?
Komra: It's going extremely well!
Wendy: Before we get into industry trends and discuss your reasons for creating AvenueVerve, give me little background about yourself and the paths you chose which has led you here.
Komra: In 1997, I became the lead designer with USWeb in Phoenix at the beginning of the internet bubble. The office that I worked for had a dozen people when I arrived. By 1999 it had 60 or 70.
Komra: One of the most valuable things I learned from that time was to not over-build web infrastructure.
Wendy: That's interesting. There was a lot of funny money floating around, though no one really knew how to use the net effectively, yet.
Komra: Exactly, It was a time when we didn't know what the Internet was. You could say to some degree that the industry was making it up! People are a lot smarter now.
Wendy: What was your design background? Did you go to art school?
Komra: Yes, but I dropped out.
Wendy: Why was that?
Komra: At the time I thought that art school could not make you an artist. Probably no school can teach that. It has to be in your soul. Once I left I set out into the real world and began my professional career by going to work in the newspaper medium on advertising side.
Wendy: How was that?
Komra: I liked the ink and the presses and the daily rush of activity. But I initially had an uncomfortable idea about advertising: I thought advertising was used to sell products to people that didn't want them (laughs).
Komra: Later on I saw that advertising was a necessary element in publishing and I began to see how it was actually helping people build their business and support their families.
Wendy: I started out in publishing as well and over time came to realize the same things. What made you go to into digital?
Komra: I was attracted to it based on the idea that it would enable me to use all my capabilities.
Wendy: What was that?
Komra: I was interested in design but I also like the technology of how a web site worked. In 2000 I made the decision to learn to code, which enabled me to combine my creative skills with a deep understanding of the technical side. Later on this was a big reason I've been successful as an entrepreneur.
Wendy: Why is that?
Komra: I saw firsthand how inefficient bigger web shops could be. They were structured with separate design and programming departments. Then there was the account group who was providing the marketing direction and project management. The process was anything but smooth. Each group had a different agenda, such that it would sometimes create friction between them which would slow the process down and jack up the cost of building a website.
Wendy: I remember those days.
Komra: It made perfect sense to me that there would be a place for a company where the design and programming would be produced by one person. At the time, there was nobody I knew that could do that.
Wendy: All except for you.
Komra: LOL! Right.
Wendy: So in other word you speak both the design and programming languages.
Komra: Yes, still none of that really matters unless you understand a company's business goals and the audience they want to communicate with.
Wendy: So you have to speak the language of marketing too. You know, you've been speaking three languages all this time without even knowing it.
Komra: I never looked at it that way.
Wendy: From our working together I know you spend a great deal of time getting to the essence of the marketers objective before you do anything else. I've always thought you have an intuitive understanding of the consumer for each site.
Komra: The consumer is the most important person in the equation.
Wendy: Why do you think that having all three skills is so rare?
Komra: It's hard to put into words. I would say that a lot of people on the technology side are geeky. On the other hand, on the marketing and design side you have to be comfortable working with people. I guess you could say that I'm a geek with social skills!
Wendy: That's great. Tell me about AvenueVERVE. What is your business model and how is it different from Design 4 Results?
Komra: Good question. For the last few years, my clients have wanted me to expand the volume of service I could offer. I decided to expand partly because web building platforms have matured, but also because of the ability to price our work much more competitively.
Wendy: Price is important
Komra: Especially in this economy. A smaller company like AvenueVERVE can do amazing work our clients without making the cost prohibitive. I've been delivering blogs and commerce projects since 2000. A lot has changed. Businesses can have so much more power over their own sites.
Wendy: Let's say one of your clients is an agency. Do you provide a "white label" service? A lot of shops still don't have any web capability, yet they need to if they are going to stay competitive.
Komra: We can help them there. We work with a number of agencies who can now offer web design and development resources without having to bring it in-house. One of the problems they face is where do they get competent partners?
Wendy: You're right. It would cost a small fortune today to staff a team. Every company and their clients have to be on the same page. Chemistry is also critical. How does the process work? How do you know if it's a good fit?
Komra: We really like working with the agencies. As much as we focus on the consumer, the key is also being sensitive to an agency's culture and their requirements. This is where being a people person comes into play. We work in all different ways.
Wendy: How have you attracted new business?
Komra: Our business has grown through referrals which is how you and I got to know each other. However now we're beginning to get traction with natural search. It has taken a long time and is not something I have cultivated because this industry sector is so saturated. But people are finding us out of the blue.
Wendy: When you begin a dialogue with a prospective client, how do you go about it? Do you show them your work? How does the whole new business process work?
Komra: People look at our website to get an idea of what we do and find out whether or not it fits their expectations. Usually that's fine. After that I like to talk with them much like how you and I are talking now. I like to find out what they need, answer anything that they want to know. I don't do hard sell. I don't like it when people try to hard sell me. I just like to provide information; get to know the individual and their business. This allows them to get to know me and find out whether there is a fit. It helps if they feel they receive something useful out of the information I gave them.
Wendy: Some agencies get nervous though that if they bring another vendor, that company is going to develop a direct relationship with the agency's client and so on and so forth. That's a primary fear when you outsource a client's digital marketing needs. In the business relationships that you have with agencies, do some of them involve direct client contact or are they entirely behind the scenes?
Komra: It just depends upon what that agency is comfortable with... We work around their needs and have the ability to be flexible versus other shops that are structured as a bureaucracy.
Wendy: Tell me about your technology capabilities.
Komra: Software platforms that enable us to build websites have matured. This goes across the board, be it a content management system, commerce system or ad delivery system, people who are buying web design and development services may not be aware of how much they can get now and how high the bar has been raised on what they should accept as a delivered product.
Wendy: Do you train your customers if they need that?
Komra: Absolutely. I want them to feel comfortable with the systems we deliver so that they go right ahead and operate their site. We build digital solutions so that clients don't have to come back to us for small changes.
Wendy: Let's talk about metrics!
Komra: Metrics are where the rubber meets the road. You know whether you did it or you didn't do it. There's no guessing. And if you didn't do it, you've got to fix it.
Wendy: Let's say you have a situation where you're primary objective is to convert leads versus a branding-based requirement. The first situation is more click or direct response-oriented versus the branding campaign which is more qualitative, where the focus is on the visitor engagement.
Wendy: How do you establish the ROI with a client? Do you have an agreement on how you are going to measure the success? How do you resolve it so that everyone is on the same page upfront so you get don't get thrown for a loop mid-way through the project?
Komra: Part of it is because we're not stuck into doing one type of solution. We are equally capable of doing acquisition and branding solutions. It boils down to having a pragmatic agreement ahead of time, especially when measuring soft elements like engagement. During the project we investigate and understand how people are responding to the site, through statistics, comments and whether or not visitors are telling others about the site. We look at the character of the things people are saying to see if they are having a positive brand-congruent experience.
Komra: Metrics are a fun game. I like setting targets for things like CPC efficiency or participation rates. Let's say the desired action that one of our clients had was to get people to submit videos to a site for a contest they were running. Initially the response wasn't as high as we were expecting. The great thing was that we were able to change tactics in real time and get it back on track very soon.
Wendy: What was the turnaround time?
Komra: A couple of hours.
Komra: By the end of the contest everyone was happy; we got really creative videos uploaded. People had strong opinions about which video was the best and due to the involvement the site took on a life of its own. Like any UGC contest, some of the comments people were making were pretty crabby. However, the community actually began to defend the brand from the few crabby commenters on the site.
Wendy: What's your interest in terms of attracting certain categories of clients? Would you like to work with an entertainment company or let's say financial company? There are so many others as well, politics, automotive, or health? Are any of them particularly interesting just because of the kind of business or industry that they represent?
Komra: I enjoy working on every category. The artist side in me likes working with the arts. We do especially well for companies like Fabulous Stationery or the Lyric Stage in Boston or PhotoBook Press. But the bottom line is we like working with companies that we can believe in. Of the two categories you mentioned, we work with a company in the financial category and in the health space as well.
Wendy: When we worked together on Golf Green Media, what made it such an exciting project was that all of us were involved and contributed to the all aspects of the end product. It wasn't just like AvenueVERVE managed the design and MadAveCon did the messaging and marketing end. We came to it as a team. There were no turfs to protect.
Komra: I think the work showed. I don't have the expertise that you have with messaging and media strategy, so to work as a team was great.
Wendy: In your mind what makes the difference between a project that's an A-plus, versus a project that's a B-minus?
Komra: I find that the more involved a client or agency can be and the more we can integrate feedback and ideas that come in from others, the better the work gets. I don't believe that I know it all. My job is to be able to pull in what the client knows about their business and use what I understand about people and technology to get their message across to their audience as effectively as possible.
Wendy: Do you foresee your business growing more by working with traditional agencies?
Komra: Sure, we work with traditional media agencies like Impax Marketing Group so that they can offer full service without the staffing overhead.
Wendy: How did you meet?
Komra: By networking and referrals. We understand the people side of the business and have worked to maintain these relationships over time because we really like working together. Jay Arnold, Bruce Campbell and Trish DeMasi of IMPAX are extremely talented and understand how to create opportunities for their clients.
Wendy: Have you learned anything about traditional media from working with traditional agencies?
Komra: Well, I came from a print background: newspapers, magazines and corporate communications. And then I switched over to the web in '97 so I was fairly comfortable in understanding how print and corporate media work with the net. I have learned a lot by working with talented people who understand television and radio, and as a result we know how to make it easy for our clients to integrate audio and video into their sites.
Wendy: I think that print is probably the closest thing to the web in terms of the content and engagement.
Komra: Yes, it's probably the closest. But pieces of television and radio are on the web. The fundamental difference between other mediums and the web is interactivity. What does the audience want to do?
Wendy: Yeah. Do you have any favorite websites? Consumer websites or B2B websites that you just think are really well done and you enjoy navigating through them?
Komra: Wow! It is odd, but I've not thought about it that way.
Wendy: I know. I hate it when people put me on the spot like that! Well, let's put it this way. When you are not working, what kind of content or what kind of things for entertainment do you do on the web?
Komra: I was obsessed with political blogs during the election. I read all of the Atlantic blogs. I watch YouTube for fun, and listen to podcasts while I work: Leo Laporte and Amber MaCarther of Net@Nite, PRI, The Best of Our Knowledge, Terry Gross Fresh Air, Slate Political Gabfest. I could not do my job without Google. Google is essential like water. Google helps me solve problems.
Wendy: It is so weird, but I don't even remember a time without Google.
Komra: I thought I remembered where I was when I first heard about Google but then I Googled it and realized that my recollection was off.
Wendy: When I was in ad sales for years it was extremely difficult to get important information about a prospective client that you would reach out to. Today researching the businesses of your clients is an automatic reflex.
Wendy: Okay, so I want to get your opinions on certain things about the web. You have a Facebook page obviously.
Komra: I do. My dog is on Facebook, too! I am surprised how amused I can get over Facebook.
Wendy: (Laughs) What do you think about social media. Are you a heavy user?
Komra: I'm too busy to be a heavy user. I don't get anything done if I get distracted onto the Twitter.
Wendy: I know exactly what you feel. I think a lot of people feel that way.
Komra: Even though I don't participate much, social media is important because it changes the expectation of what we as web agencies are expected to deliver to the visitor. Not that every single website is going to be a social media membership site, but visitors expect that the people behind a site will be responsive to them and that a site can and will change because of their interaction.
Wendy: Absolutely. Sites like J&J BabyCenter.com come to mind, even if you don't have kids. They're adding a social networking platform which will reach out to Gen Y Moms who are coming of age and having kids.
Wendy: Next question, widgets! Do you like widgets? Do you have widgets on your desktop or your Facebook page?
Komra: I have some. I haven't found them that compelling. As far as integrating widgets into other people's sites, so far the most that is done is content from other sites. So I haven't found the killer app if you will for my clients yet.
Wendy: Right. Do you envision how they could be useful? For example, advertisers are starting to look at them as another form of eye ball and starting to brand some of these widgets, which I think is pretty smart.
Komra: Yeah. I think as a content provider you should be looking at how to widgetize your content.
Wendy: I like that (Laughs) Widgetize! Twitterize!
Wendy: How about pod casting?
Komra: In my mind, the key benefit of podcasting and video casting is the ability for the listener/viewer to time shift programming. I think it is better than having to deal with a stream that locks you into participation at pre-specified point in time.
Wendy: Do you watch television on your computer?
Komra: I watch YouTube and movies which I either download from iTunes or get on discs from Netflix.
Wendy: Let's see. How do you feel about mobile advertising? How do you feel about branding and all those kind of campaigns that are rumored to be coming soon to you on your smartphone?
Komra: I think it is necessary to the advertisers and it is going to happen. I think that the companies that do it need to do it so that it is the least intrusive to the recipient. Ideally advertisers should provide a branded service that is valuable to the user.
Wendy: Do you have an idea what kind of format you think could work effectively, text messaging or display advertising? I see them as completely different from what works on the web. Just like re-purposing a television commercial doesn't work on the Internet, re-purposing an Internet commercial probably won't work on mobile.
Komra: I think the exciting thing for marketers will be their ability to know your location and be able to track the events that interest you most. When you're out with your mobile, your question is "What can I do from here?" If you give permission for a marketer to help you in this type of case, you could say "Notify me when _____ happens." The best way to use mobile strategically will be for marketers to deliver specific information requested by consumers which will affect a consumer's next action. And don't muddy the waters with other information that they have no interest in.
Wendy: How about taking the content with you? Do you envision yourself with the smartphone on the road and watching YouTube?
Komra: I have favorite clips on my phone. I say to my poor friends, "You've got to look at this!" It's like the dreaded vacation pictures.
Wendy: LOL! Let's change gears. How did you come up with the name AvenueVERVE and what does it mean?
Komra: I came up with some pretty silly ideas like "Komra and her Goons" which my team got a kick out of. Or like the name Design 4 Results we brainstormed literal "Here-is-what-we-do-and-here-is-the-benefit-of-our-service" type names, but that didn't work either.
Komra: The I woke up one morning with AvenueVERVE in my mind. According to the dictionary "avenue" means: a way of approaching a problem or making progress toward, and "verve" means: vigor and spirit or enthusiasm. It worked for me. I asked colleagues for their gut responses. No negative connotations. The dot com domain was available. So that's how it came about.
Wendy: I had to ask the question but that was my immediate reaction when I first heard it initially as well. It's a great connotation.
Komra: Prospective clients respond well to it. I think it helps us generate business. The name AvenueVERVE is working the way I hoped it would work.
Wendy: It's very hip. I think it embodies the personality of you as the primary business owner of the company. That's a very, very cool way to think about your business and concepting names.
Komra: It is fun to imagine a future, then go out and make it happen.
Wendy: Do you have a specific sort of competitor out there?
Komra: We compete with a pretty wide range of other companies. Sometimes our competitors are quite a bit larger. We mostly work with small to medium businesses, and we get tapped to do special projects for large companies. I think we are actually the small fish in the pond in relation to other companies that get considered.
Wendy: That's a compliment. Let's talk about what keeps you up at night? What do you worry about that you need to crack the code on?
Komra: Happily I don't worry much!
Wendy: Is there anything in particular that makes you a little anxious, or is everything just rosy right now?
Komra: There are definitely challenges in life. I'll be building websites in my sleep sometimes... kind of working out life's problems by moving pixels or looping through arrays in my dreams.
Wendy: LOL! I can totally relate. So many times with entrepreneurs, it seems like we eat, sleep and breathe our business. It's hard sometimes to get away from it. Do you have sort of personal passions and hobbies that allow you have some creative freedom.
Komra: Yeah, I like do two things. I love to do photography and make art pieces with it. And the other thing is I have a fabulous husband. We like to go out on dates, go to the movies, hold hands and stuff.
Wendy: Dates are good! And do you make a concerted effort to take business talk out of your date, for example?
Komra: Yes, for sure. We just have a date, nothing else.
Wendy: In a creative business, I imagine that you get creative ideas from a lot of different things that you see.
Komra: I am fascinated by how well-used places are shaped by the activity in them. It is the inverse of my normal concern, form derived from usage, rather than form devised for usage. I apply what I observe in those well-used places to the designs I create.
Wendy: That's very interesting. Are either of your parents in the creative business?
Komra: My mom decorates and does cross-stitching and my dad was interested in computers and photography.
Wendy: Ah, there you go. So we finally get to the bottom of why you've been able to do both design creative and technology.
Komra: You're right. It's in my DNA!
Wendy: This was great. Thanks Komra and best of luck!
Komra: You're welcome. It was my pleasure, Wendy!
To reach Komra and Otan directly, please contact them or call them directly at 877-826-7728.