Interview with Reena Kapoor

kapoor-webReena Kapoor is the principal of Conifer Consulting, a marketing consulting firm based in Silicon Valley. A native of India, Ms. Kapoor came to the United States in 1988 to attend graduate school, received her Master’s degree from Northwestern University, and went on to work at Procter & Gamble and Kraft Foods before starting several businesses of her own. We met with Ms. Kapoor in Los Altos, California to explore her thoughts on culture and entrepreneurship and marketing strategy for entrepreneurs.

Kaizen: It is a long way from India to Silicon Valley. Where in India did you grow up?

Kapoor: Yes, it definitely is a long way. I actually grew up all over India. My father was a doctor in the army, so I had the typical nomadic army life growing up. So when I think about India—I’m from India, but sometimes it’s hard for me to pinpoint an exact region, because some of my formative years are not from my hometown, which is New Delhi, because I didn’t spend a lot of time there.

Kaizen: What was different about your education there, compared with standard education in the U.S.?

Kapoor: For most of my schooling I went to private schools in India, which is the thing that all middle class parents aspire to for their children. And it was a very traditional, regimented education, often in schools that are run by convents—run by missionaries who came a long time ago into India. It’s just a very traditional, regimented, British education, where there’s a real focus on drilling the basics into children. So that’s what I had.

I think the biggest difference is that with private education in the United States there’s a real variety of content and education methodology available. You can go to a Montessori school, you can go to a traditional school, you can go to a Catholic school, etc. In India, for the most part, a private education is geared towards the middle class culture, which focuses very much on acquiring solid skills in math and science. That’s the path that children are prepared for. So it’s fairly uniform, it’s more regimented, there’s not a lot of creativity encouraged in education in India; but they are very good at making sure the basics are drilled into the children and are solid. So I would say that’s the big difference.

The other big difference I’ve noticed is that private education in the United States is very, very expensive and people really have to spend a lot of money to get good private education (I mean as a percent of income). Some of it is that public schools are so ubiquitous and accessible for everyone and offer a somewhat reasonable option. In India most of the public education is so poor that the middle class—and now even the lower middle class and the poorer classes—do not consider it a desirable option. Besides, getting an education in an “English-medium” school is considered crucial to upward mobility and most private schools offer that. In contrast, private education is not accessible to a lot of people here.

What has happened in India is that public education has failed on such a grand scale that private schools have emerged, and I believe there’s a lot less regulation around opening a private school versus the West in some ways. But that has benefited the poorer people too because private schools are available to virtually every segment of the population. For example, even my mother’s help at home, who are quite poor, and really destitute by American standards, send their children to a private school which is a little two-room place around the corner; but this school if you will makes sure that it drills the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic into the children very well. For three children I think she pays about five dollars a month, which is a princely sum for her, but a steal considering the education her children are actually getting. So there’s a huge segmentation of private schools. You can send your child to a really expensive school where you’re paying $1000 a month or you can start at a paltry sum of money. There’s a huge range and private education is available to many people. I want to note also that my comments are focused on urban India, which is my life-experience.

Kaizen: So there is a large price range, but the content of the education is still quite regimented and focused on basics?

Kapoor: Yes, focused on basics. And in India there is a great recognition of the need to learn English if you want to get anywhere in life, and that has always been the case. The British drilled that into us the 200 years that they spent there. And that legacy hasn’t gone away, and globalization has only provided more support for that point of view.

Kaizen: So you feel that by the time you were graduated from high school, or the equivalent there, that you had a good education?

Kapoor: Absolutely. I think the urban middle class in India gets a very solid education. They get very good value—great ROI—for the money they pay, from a basic standpoint. I think when it comes to creativity and encouraging children to go into the arts or any subjects that don’t have an immediate return on investment, so to speak, I don’t think it does a good job. But when it comes to basics of English, and science, and mathematics, it really does deliver.

Kaizen: For college you attended the well-known Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi?

Kapoor: Yes. The joke that used to go around, especially in my generation, and things have changed, fortunately, in India, is that when you grow up you could be a doctor or an engineer or a loser. It really was true. So if you did well academically, you set your sights on being a doctor or an engineer. I was always good at math and I didn’t want to be a doctor—I just wasn’t interested in biology and doing dissections of various animals and bugs—and so I headed for engineering. I got there by default and less so for the love of engineering. I really did love mathematics, but not in the way that I would go into engineering. But that was a great option.  And there was always this subconscious drumbeat of “You have to be financially independent and you have to have a better life.” And so you always looked for professions that could get you that.

Well, a lot of people thought that and IIT was pretty competitive to get into. In 1984 when I took the entrance exam there were five IITs and I think a hundred thousand high schoolers took the entrance exam and the top 1,500 were selected purely based on how we did on the exam. So it was quite competitive and for women it was a terrible ratio, and again, I’m very happy to say that things have gotten a lot better. But I think in my entering class at IIT Delhi of about 270 odd entrants, we were two women. It was one of those very crazy, skewed situations. But you took it and said, “Hey, this is fine because I’m going to have a better life at the end of it,” and went for it.

Kaizen: Things have changed significantly in the last few decades?

Kapoor: They have. I’ve been told that in 2006 the entering class had 60 women and everybody that I’ve talked to from our generation is absolutely thrilled that that is the case. Because that’s a huge jump, and that’s wonderful. It’s still pretty low but it’s significantly better than where we were.

Kaizen: What about the career options? Setting aside the loser option, you mentioned engineering and being a physician. Are there more options available?

Kapoor: Yes. With the opening up of the economy, the deregulation and globalization, you read about India so much more in the press. But, besides the IT sector, which has just absolutely exploded, which has become a significant career option for many people, a lot of other things have opened up as well. Even options in the entertainment industry, even Bollywood for example has become, actually, a little more realistic as a career option than it used to be. It used to be a very closed, even unsavory industry, and one where ventures (mostly movies) could not be financed through banks and legitimate institutions. That has changed because of changes in regulation, and that alone has caused an explosion in that industry. There’s a general recognition that there are a lot of other avenues for pursuing a career for a better life. It’s still limited—getting into IIT is still an obsession—but people have other examples to look at.  As people’s discretionary incomes have gone up, their willingness to spend on luxury goods, entertainment, say a dance show or go to a restaurant and eat out, have too. The power of consumption has gone up. As a result there are more jobs and more options for people. And this is not to mention all the call centers that you read about very commonly.

Kaizen: By the time you had graduated, you had decided to leave India? Why?

Kapoor: Some of it was this very strong cultural value system, which says “pursue a better life.” In that sense, the culture at that time in India—and continues to be—is this idea that you are going to better your life through education and pursuit of better options. And in IIT that was very, very strong. I would say probably 70 percent of my class migrated to the United States. I think that number is probably quite accurate. When I went into IIT it was like there was a machinery in place: when you were in your junior year, you were getting ready and studying for the GRE, and everybody knew all about the GRE. People had lists of universities by department, so if you were a chemical engineer, here were the top ten or probably the top fifty universities —yes, they had them ranked. If you were an electrical engineer, here were the top fifty. They knew the cities those colleges were in. We had maps of the United States, and we would say, “Okay, if you were going to University of Nebraska, it’s in Lincoln, and here it is on the map, and if you’re going to the University of Santa Barbara this is where it is.” We had no idea what we were talking about but we knew where they were on the map. It really was a machinery where you went through the system, you knew to talk to your seniors and get all the information, take the exam, go to the … in Delhi there was a little organization USEFI that encouraged education in the U.S. and you could go there and get all kinds of information. You took your GRE, you got decent scores, you sent in your application and then you waited for a full scholarship because most of us could not afford to pay. That’s what I did.

I had never traveled outside India. I had very little idea of the U.S. except from photographs of relatives who had been here and movies, and Hollywood was the only export at the time—of course there was no Internet. And you just had this “faith” I guess in some ways that it’s a better life. I think also pretty early in my undergrad years I had read an author that I was very impressed by and she eulogized the United States quite a bit—her name was Ayn Rand. And so I was somewhat inspired by that as well and decided I’m going to make my life here.

Kaizen: So you decided to emigrate as opposed to going to graduate school and possibly coming back to India?

Kapoor: You know there was always that—that maybe I’ll go to grad school and India’s always an option to come back to. But I think deep down many of us had an inkling that it wasn’t going to be that easy. And part of it was when I graduated I applied for all of these scholarships and I also applied for local jobs, just like many of my classmates. And I had a job offer in India from a very good and prestigious company. It was one of the really good job offers one could get. And I think at the time they were willing to pay me the equivalent of maybe $50 a month, and my scholarship at Northwestern was $1000 a month in 1988. And when you looked at that you went, “There isn’t a choice here and this really makes you wonder what you can come back to.” And I have to say that India has changed a lot and it’s a well-known fact that graduates from IIT are not emigrating in those hordes anymore. Many of them are just staying and have very, very good job offers and very good options to make a good life in India, but it wasn’t the case when I emigrated.

Kaizen: Why did you choose the USA instead of other countries?

Kapoor: Other countries were an option, but they were definitely secondary options if you couldn’t get into the U.S., get a good scholarship or get into a good program, where you also thought that the program was decent and that you liked it. The other problem was that getting even a student visa in those days was pretty hard. So I knew people who had scholarships but were denied visas, because the U.S. had strangely been issuing very low numbers of visas for students. It was a real problem. I had friends who were refused visas two or three times, and the rule used to be that if you were refused three times, that was it, you couldn’t apply anymore. So then they would look at other options like Australia. Australia had just begun their program of encouraging skilled students, workers. They had a very strong program going and so some people went there.

Kaizen: Which seems odd, because you’d think that the U.S. would want to get as many highly-educated graduates of IIT as it could.

Kapoor: Yes. You would think so, but I think that’s still a problem. I think they’re missing out a lot. And now, since some of these countries, like India, have become so much better in terms of what they offer their skilled workers, there might be a reverse brain drain of some sort.

Kaizen: Immigrants tend to be self-starters and risk-takers—it takes guts and initiative to pick up and move to another country to pursue opportunities. The Economist (10.11.2006) notes that “half the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. More than half the people with Ph.D.s working in America are immigrants. A quarter of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. Intel, Sun Microsystems and Google were all founded or co-founded by immigrants.” Does that fit with your experience?

Kapoor: It certainly does. I see a lot of startups in my work experience and my own consulting business now, and I really do see a lot of immigrants doing that. It does take guts and initiative, but it also takes desperation. Because if you’re one of those people who is born with that drive and you want to build things and you want to do things and you’re held back … People think it’s about money, and it is about money and having a better life, but it’s more than that. It’s about having this drive that you just need a place where people will leave you alone so you can build things and do things and not be restricted by money, status, hierarchies, regulation, etc.

I read a great saying recently that said “The problem with being poor is that it takes up all your time.” And it really is. You just want to be in a place where you can produce and do things that you want to and better your life. But the drive to be an entrepreneur, to have an idea and take it to fruition, is about more than just the material benefits that it brings. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a psyche, it’s that feeling that you just want to be free because you have this need to fulfill. There are some self-actualization elements there. But you need a place that will just let you do it.

Kaizen: Do you think that’s why immigrants are on average more successful as entrepreneurs?

Kapoor: I think so, that’s my theory. America is one of the most entrepreneurial and innovative countries in the world and it was built by immigrants. There have always been forces countering that, but America was built that way. It’s part of the culture, it’s something that’s very hard to beat down and suppress no matter how hard you try, and I think it continues to attract people like that for that reason. No matter what Americans talk about and how much they try to keep out those kinds of people, this culture is so rewarding of those traits that they’re always going to attract that type of psyche.

Kaizen: Yet even among immigrant groups, Indians are on average more successful. The Washington Times (July 2006) noted that “Indian-American entrepreneurs own nearly 20 percent of all Silicon Valley high-tech startups, and an estimated 55 percent of all U.S. motels are owned by Americans of South Asian ancestry. In 2000, a staggering one of out every nine Indian-Americans was a millionaire and almost 60 percent of Indian-Americans over 25 have graduated from college.” What about Indian culture do you think explains this?

Kapoor: There are so many reasons that explain this phenomenon, but I also want to point out that there is some self-selection going on here. Because you are seeing the people who studied hard, got scholarships, were highly skilled in India and came here. So you are seeing a cross-section of the population that’s pretty narrow. You’re not seeing the whole cross-section of the population that exists in India. So there is some selection bias that you’re seeing here.

Kaizen: Would you say that we are getting a broader cross-section of people who emigrate from other countries?

Kapoor: No, I think that you probably are seeing some of the same factors in those other countries, but there are a couple of advantages that Indians have, which speak to the culture too, but also some of the factors which I’m going to point out. I run into people who say, “Indians are so smart.” That’s probably true of that person’s experience of the Indians they’ve met, but India has a billion people and they’re not all smart! So there’s some of that stereotype. It’s a nice stereotype, but it is one, nevertheless.

One of the other factors is an advantage of history that India has, and that is the English language. I don’t consider English truly a second language, even though that’s what I say because that’s the only characterization that people understand. If I said to them, “English is my first language,” they wouldn’t understand. They’d say, “Isn’t Hindi your first language?” They both are, actually, because when I started preschool, we started learning English. English was taught right from day one. My parents speak English, my entire extended family speaks English, and they are all fluent, and they’ve always read and written in English. So English is a big factor, in particular in urban India. Now that’s only thirty-some percent of the population in India, but that’s mostly the population you’re seeing here in America, and that’s a big advantage to have.

The cultural factors are definitely important too, and I spoke to this in terms of the education and this drive for a better life, going into professions that have a high return on investment, focusing on getting a solid education and applying for scholarships or looking for good jobs, and constantly trying to better your lot in life. And that’s very much a part of the culture, especially the middle class urban culture in India, that Indians have going for them.

As for the motels and that statistic, there’s actually a community from India that runs most of the motels here. And they are one of the most enterprising peoples in the world. Even in India they run a lot of the businesses and are a very well regarded community when it comes to running small businesses. They have been written up in various magazines for all the different entrepreneurial activities they have been doing for generations in India, even in that very controlled economy. And they’ve translated those skills and that culture into the motel industry here.

Kaizen: At the same time, the U.S. is still the world’s innovation and entrepreneurship leader. What do you think makes the U.S. so hospitable to innovation and entrepreneurship?

Kapoor: There are cultural traits in the U.S. that are very hospitable. America is one of those countries where they have always worshipped the pioneer—the man or woman who did it first, who started off small and made it big. There are movies and books and historical events that are celebrated, and a lot of the American heroes epitomize that aspect. I think that culture has come from its having been a country of immigrants and people who broke away from the mother ship and established their own life and their own country. So there is that which makes the culture such.

But this country was consciously designed—lucky for me and for many of us—in a way that encourages that and rewards that. What I mean is that these cultural strengths were institutionalized into the political/economic systems in this country. That does not always happen and in most countries the system punishes some of the best strengths of its own people. But in America, the economic system of free enterprise rewards that. If you’re a person with an idea and you start a business and you deliver value and you make your customer happy, then you deserve all the profits you can make. As long as you’re delivering value and being successful, kudos to you! By and large in the culture it has been such that the culture rewards that and looks up to that and says that’s a very legitimate life to have and legitimate pursuit to have. And I’m not sure that’s always the case in many cultures.

I think a lot of cultures now, with globalization, are trying to emulate that about America. I go back to India and I’m shocked to hear people say, “There’s nothing wrong with making money and being rich.” When I was growing up, if you were rich you worried about envy that you would invoke from people around you. You always talked about “This is God-given” and “We had nothing to do with it.” There was always that back-pedaling; you back-pedaled your success, so to speak.

Kaizen: To come back to your journey to the USA, why did you choose Chicago in particular?

Kapoor: Northwestern University was high up on my list. Because we had all those rankings, and we’d look at them and say, “Okay, I’m applying to schools number five through fifteen, because fifteen is my safety school and I’m sure to get a scholarship there, but five is my aspirational choice.” And Northwestern was in there somewhere; a very good school and I wanted to get in. But also I had met my future husband in undergrad and we were both applying to the United States from different parts of the world. And so the maps were very useful. We were trying to find schools that were within one hundred miles of each other, and Chicago ended up meeting that criterion. So Northwestern was a great school—and we were going to be reasonably close to each other.

Kaizen: You then got your Master’s degree in engineering and went to work for Procter & Gamble. Where in the U.S. was your P&G facility?

Kapoor: I went to work in Cincinnati in 1990 and worked for Procter & Gamble for about six years. I started there as an engineer and spent a few years there as an engineer working on a number of new products. My claim to fame used to be that at one point all the Tide detergent boxes had the formula I helped develop in them. So I would go into my friends’ houses and go into their pantry and check what they were using, and if they were not using Tide they were in big trouble!

After a few years at Procter doing engineering I was very exposed to developing and launching new products and working with the business groups and the marketing teams to launch them into the U.S. and global markets. I became very interested in the business side of things: the brand management, how do you work with sales, how do you develop advertising and marketing plans, etc. And I decided to apply to business school because Procter & Gamble at the time would take people into their brand management function after they’d been to business school. At least in Cincinnati that’s how they operated.

So I decided to go to business school and brought that up with Procter, and they said, “If you want to just transfer to Brand Management and take a crack at it, we’d be happy to do that. And you don’t have to go to business school because you’ve been at the company for a few years and we know you. You can try Brand Management and if you like it you can continue there or if you don’t like it you can always come back to product development and engineering.” I thought that was a pretty good deal and I took them up on it. The six years I spent at Procter, the second half I spent in Brand Management. I credit Procter with teaching me most of my marketing skills.

Kaizen: What were the advantages of learning marketing from such a large and successful corporation as P&G?

Kapoor: I think the advantage had to do with Procter itself. Procter & Gamble is considered one of the really great companies, which it is, but it’s also very good at training people. And they are very conscious of that. They really believe in people development. And the reason is that Procter has been and continues to be a promote-from-within company, so they always have a very long-term career path charted out. Which came as a shock to me because I had no idea how long-term their thinking was until this whole transfer thing came up, and they said, “We have plans for you.” And I was like, “Oh, really?” My own plans only ranged out to the next two years when I was going to go to business school so their plans were much more long-range than that. They are particularly good at that.

I think they still have this concept of P&G College, where basically they send their new hires into training: How do you innovate, conceive of, develop, test, launch new products? How do you do market research? How do you come up with a great marketing plan? How do you do good sampling of products? How do you develop advertising? How do you judge good and bad advertising? How do you conduct a concept test? How do you conduct focus groups? They send you to school on all these things, so the advantage is you learn with real-life examples. You are working on a brand and you’re applying the training right away. The other advantage was: I didn’t pay for business school; I got the training. The disadvantage was that I learned the Procter way and in business school you have that much broader exposure to people coming from different companies and different points of view and different industries. So I missed out on some of that.

Kaizen: You also did brand management for Kraft Foods?

Kapoor: Yes, I did. That came about mainly because at the time my husband and I had been in Cincinnati for six years and we felt like we either needed to move to a different city or move international with Procter & Gamble. We were tired of being in Cincinnati, to be really honest, and wanted a little more international and cosmopolitan community. So we chose Chicago; we knew Chicago. I interviewed with several companies and I think that interview process brought home two things. One was how great Procter & Gamble actually was, because I interviewed at companies, which I considered really top-notch companies and I didn’t find them so great, even in the interview process. But Kraft was a solid company, had good practices, was based in Chicago—that was a big plus—and had very, very smart people working there. And they had a great international presence. At that time I also thought about potentially going international at some point, so that was a factor. So I decided to take that job with Kraft Foods and move to Chicago.

Kaizen: After Kraft, you went to work for several entrepreneurial firms, mostly doing marketing. What were the key differences between the much smaller start-ups and the large corporations?

Kapoor: By then I had spent about eight years in big companies and was going through a number of questions in my own head as to where I wanted to be long-term. I certainly saw a very clear path in companies like Procter and Kraft, where I would go if I stayed. And I wasn’t sure I wanted that increasing responsibility in the way it’s structured in larger companies. I was looking for more entrepreneurial, smaller company type of responsibility where you make decisions and they have immediate business impact. There was a lot of people management that was very important in large companies and I had a number of direct reports, which was fine. It’s very important to have that structure in larger companies. And you have to do that in smaller companies too but it occupies a much lower percentage of your time, versus business issues. That trade-off was becoming obvious to me—what I enjoyed and what I didn’t. That was not obvious to me at the beginning of my career—how much of each of those I’d want. So I wasn’t quite sure, to be honest, when I left Kraft.

So I started just dabbling around, helping a number of smaller companies. They were very happy to have someone with the business and marketing background help them sort through their business issues. I just literally was dabbling at that point to see what would be a good fit for me. Also the whole technology arena, the Internet and all of that, had really heated up by then—we’re talking about 1997. Having been an engineer, I still had a lot of friends from IIT, many who were in Silicon Valley. Talking to them, I was trying to figure out if that was something that would be of interest—to take my marketing and business skills into this very entrepreneurial world. That actually became a really good path to have pursued and tried out.

Kaizen: In the startups you’ve been involved with, what has been the biggest challenge, in your experience?

Kapoor: One of the stereotypical challenges they have is that they don’t have a lot of resources. But I think the bigger challenge they have is that they often don’t have the disciplined thinking. It’s somebody with a lot of passion and a good idea often who starts something off. But they don’t always think through the implications: Who is their target market? What is it that they are selling? What benefits are they providing? How much do they think they can expect the market to pay for it? What’s their business model? They don’t always have the discipline in asking all the questions they ought to, to satisfy themselves that this is a viable business, or that it’s a business that has long-term potential.

So that becomes a big challenge for small businesses. They get so caught up in the tactical day-to-day that they are always firefighting, and they forget the big picture of where they are going, where they want to take the company. Sometimes I advise my clients to say “No” to certain customers, because that is just not the customer segment they want to go after; they really need to focus on a specific segment. And they always ask, “What’s the harm? We can sell a few to them.” And the harm is the loss of focus and discipline—it’s an opportunity cost.

Kaizen: And what has been the most enjoyable feature of being entrepreneurial?

Kapoor: What I really liked about it is that I spent a lot of my time on business issues, on solving business problems, and seeing the impact of those decisions. The ability to try something quickly and experiment. If it failed, you try something else. Being able to do that quickly. And that’s something that you can do in a small entrepreneurial environment.

It’s funny, but I learned some of these skills at Procter & Gamble, where they had a saying, “Make a little, sell a little.” So you make a little bit, you sell a little bit, see if it sticks. If it does, you go forward. If it doesn’t, try something else. It’s much harder to implement, though, in a larger company. In an entrepreneurial environment now, with the Internet and so much of transactions and marketing and all that happening online, it’s even easier. And you can measure much better, too. So I’ve really enjoyed that a lot. I love building business and value. I just love that instant feedback; that loop is very, very satisfying as a businessperson.

Kaizen: As an entrepreneurial firm you can be a lot more experimental, a lot more flexible and nimble?

Kapoor: Yes, that stereotype is true.

Kaizen: You are now Conifer Consulting, based in Silicon Valley. Are most of your clients in the computer industry?

Kapoor: Yes. Most of my clients tend to be technology clients. I am actually trying to branch out my business a little more, back into non-high-tech consumer products. It’s funny because I ran into somebody from Procter & Gamble a few years ago and he had a really good insight and said, “Procter was a technology company that also knew how to do marketing.” The standard joke is if you are doing technology you don’t need marketing or don’t know how to do marketing. So we were laughing about that. So I’m trying also to expand my business back into some of those non-high-tech businesses as well.

Kaizen: You believe that marketing is the soul of a well-run business. I like the philosophical sound of that—in what way is the soul of business marketing?

Kapoor: That’s one of my favorite topics to talk about. I think what happens with marketing is marketing gets confused with the tactical promotional activities businesses engage in. And that is a part of marketing, but it’s a very, very small piece. When I say it’s the soul of a well-run business what I mean is that every business should be asking some basic, fundamental questions, like: Who are we? What is the value that we’re creating and for whom? Who is the target audience? How do we deliver this value? Where do we deliver it? How do we exchange value with our customers? And all of those questions. And that defines the soul of the business. That defines what the business is, what are they doing, what their play is, etc. What products they should be selling and what new products they should be inventing.

What ends up happening, though, is these questions either don’t get asked, or they get asked in an undisciplined fashion, and products get produced, some customers get identified, and people think, “That’s all we need to do, we are now going to sell, and now let’s bring in the marketing person to do some promotions.” And that’s often a recipe for disaster.

The reason I call it the soul is it’s something that should begin from day one—from the business’s inception. It doesn’t mean you have to hire a marketing person to do it. But even the founder, who may be the inventor, should be asking these questions. And whoever is asking these questions is doing marketing, and they’re doing marketing right. This often gets classified as strategic marketing, which is what it is—it’s defining your strategy. Later come the tactical aspects of marketing.

I did invent the saying that “marketing is the soul of a well-run business”—I should probably trademark it—but I came to this by learning marketing from a company like Procter, where, if you were a brand manager on a brand, you were considered the general manager. You were answerable for pricing, sales strategy, target markets … It wasn’t just about how you were going to promote it. You were responsible for the whole business, the revenue and the P and L i.e., profit-loss.

Kaizen: You also believe that marketing is business strategy. Why so?

Kapoor: Just in the ways that I was talking about. There’s a lot of elements to business strategy, but when I go in to a client and say, “We do strategic marketing,” the kinds of questions we end up answering for them are questions to which they often say, “That’s business strategy,” which is why I make that statement. Things that you call business strategy, in a well-run company, marketing should be held responsible for, or marketing should be at least deeply involved in answering those questions. At a company like Procter & Gamble, which has been a traditional marketer for 150 years or more, the marketing people are the business people; they are the ones running the businesses. That’s not the case very often in technology. Marketing doesn’t run it; it’s product development or sales, or a combination of all three. It gets divided up in those buckets.

But when you go in as a consultant you’re typically trying to solve a problem for a business manager. Their problems are: Are we in the right market? Are we selling the right products? Are we meeting customers’ needs? Are we positioning it correctly? Are we pricing it right? All questions that marketing should have been involved in from day one, and either wasn’t, or didn’t do it right, or some other malfunction.

Kaizen: So marketing is the synthesis: its fingers are in every aspect of the business and it’s the one that brings the coherence to the business?

Kapoor: Yes. It becomes the integrating function, I would say. Looking at product development to identify, “What are the products we should be bringing to the market?” Marketing should be the voice of the customers, saying, “These are the products that customers want or need or aspire to have. These are the requirements that our products should be fulfilling. Working with sales, this is how we should be positioning our products because this is what our customers need. Here are the customers you should go after. These are the criteria for qualifying customers. This is how we should be pricing it and selling it.”

Of course, it’s not telling these functions how or what to do this. You’re working collaboratively, because obviously product development and sales bring a very important and integral input into all of this, and that needs to be part of it.

But I think marketing gets under-leveraged very often in technology companies in how important a role it ought to play. So what happens often is sales ends up doing some part of the marketing because no one else is doing it, or product development ends up doing it, or the founder ends up doing it, but that disciplined, integrative approach to it is sometimes missed, and I think a lot of opportunity is missed because of that.

Kaizen: You are strongly opposed to the “lipstick on a pig” approach to marketing. What does the metaphor mean?

Kapoor: I guess you could call it an approach, but I see that as the cynical view of marketing, that there are people who say, “Oh yeah, we have the product now, let’s bring in somebody to put lipstick on a pig.” That’s the view of, “We know the product—and it’s fabulous and it’s going to sell itself or it sucks but we need to make tall claims about it—now can somebody just make up some pretty brochures to get this out?”

I don’t agree with that and I actually do turn down clients who have that view because I don’t think that’s valid. If you have this view that we’re all selling pigs and we’re just putting lipstick on them, my judgment of that—and it’s a little harsh—is that’s a cheat’s view. You know yourself that you have limited value to sell but you think you can just pretty it up, make false claims and put it out there and some fool is going to buy it.

I have the view that you should have high integrity in business, even in the way you position your products and in the way you sell them and market them; it should be done in an authentic way. And actually that is the lucrative and important and profitable way of doing business; I’ve learned that from very successful companies.

Kaizen: Are there two variants then? One is the view that we have a good product but all that marketing really amounts to is making pretty brochures, and so it’s a trivializing view of marketing but it’s not necessarily cynical. Whereas the other one is the lack of integrity, where you have a pig that stinks and you are trying to fool people. And marketing then is a matter of conning people into buying something that’s not very good. You’re opposed to both of those?

Kapoor: Yes that’s exactly right. Those are the two I would identify. The trivialized view actually leaves a lot of opportunity on the table because you are under-leveraging. The other view is of course an unethical view that you think you can fool all the people all the time by just doing clever marketing.

I don’t believe that every product is going to be fabulous, adding value versus competition, and the most innovative thing on the market. There is a place for commodities, after all, in this market. I think what you have to understand clearly is what you are selling, which is the right target market for the product that you have, and how does it create value for them? Maybe your service or the overall customer experience you deliver is phenomenal. Maybe yours is a me-too product, but you can do it really cheap; there is a segment of the market that will buy it because they don’t want the latest thing on the market, they want a me-too, which is priced right for them. So you are creating value and you need to position it as such. But to take a product like that and say “We are the leaders in this space, and that’s how we’re going to market it, and go after the most innovation-driven segment of consumers, and we’re going to sell it at a high price,” you’re fooling yourself. You’re not going to meet with much success and you’re not being truthful about what it is you’re selling.

So I don’t see a contradiction in terms of having integrity and being a good marketer. I’ve been in situations where I worked on strategic repositionings for products and companies, and companies will say, “We want to tell our customers that we’ll give them peace of mind.” And that’s nice and noble, but you then have to go through the benefits that you provide and ask how they match with the needs that your customers have, and ask whether you really think you can promise at this level. The interesting thing about it is that you don’t want to overpromise because you can’t deliver, and your customers aren’t going to believe you. They might believe you the first time, but it’s like a boastful person at a party. The first time you might say, “Oh wow, this person has a lot of accomplishments.” And the second time around you’re like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that before.” So I think it’s in your best interest to identify what you can deliver.

That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be aspirational. I’ve been in situations where companies are going through a lot of change, they’re restructuring themselves to become better at serving their customers, and it’s perfectly okay to position themselves in a way that is aspirational because they believe they’re going to be able to deliver those benefits. But to know that you don’t have assets to deliver on what you’re promising is not the recipe for success and I don’t advise my clients to do that. There is enough value to be created with what you have, as long as you identify your target audience and your market right, and identify your positioning and the value you can create with it correctly.

Kaizen: Is there one more variant on this lipstick-on-a-pig idea: a general cynicism among consumers that marketing is hype? Even if it’s a good product, it’s often hyped a little beyond what it actually is. In that case the people who are doing the marketing might believe in their product but they still feel awkward or uneasy about marketing. They think it has to be hyped or they’re a little awkward about selling in general. Is there much unease about marketing in general?

Kapoor: I haven’t come across much unease. I’ve come across a lot of ignorance—just not knowing how to do it. Marketing is not a discipline where the skills are disseminated very well and I don’t think it’s understood very well. I think there is amongst consumers some cynicism. Some of it has to do with the media telling them that all advertising is false, which it’s not. I have worked with one of the largest advertisers and you’d be amazed at how many hours we spent with the legal department making sure that every word of every claim that was made in the ad was completely provable three different ways—with three solid pieces of evidence. You’d be surprised at how much work goes into doing that. Despite that there is some cynicism, no doubt.

But there are going to be cultural issues like that that you’re always dealing with. It’s still in your own best interest to make sure that you’re asking all of the right questions for being successful in your business, and acquiring customers and keeping them for the long run. And it’s not just a matter of integrity; it’s a matter of wanting to be in the business for the long haul, versus just being a fly-by-night.

Kaizen: Entrepreneurs have an all-consuming commitment to getting their business up and running—product development, financing, management and division of labor issues, and so on. How much raw time should be dedicated to marketing? Are there rules of thumb here?

Kapoor: Two things. I probably have some bias just because of where I was trained, where I went to school—with Procter and their philosophy. I’m definitely coming from that school. But I think I don’t want to separate this out into marketing versus other functions. The advice I give to entrepreneurs is: Don’t think about marketing because then you start thinking about how much time you should spend on tactical promotions, which is the first thing people start thinking about when they think of marketing. When I say “marketing” I’m talking about the strategic marketing aspects.

So what I would say to entrepreneurs is, don’t dodge the most important questions: Who is your target market? What is the value that you’re creating for them? Etc. Strategic marketing should be baked into all of it. It’s not like you have a choice about these questions. It’s like people will say, “I don’t have a philosophy of life.” Well that’s a philosophy where you’re just living day to day, taking what comes and dealing with it. It’s called a fire-fighting philosophy of life, but you have one. So if you don’t answer these strategic questions, you’re in for a lot of trouble.

It doesn’t mean you have to take out two hours every day to say, “Okay, today let me try and answer ‘Who is my target market?’” Well, the fact that you’ve been working on a product means you should have been thinking about who you’re making the product for, what their needs are, and how that fits with the requirements the product fulfills.

Kaizen: And what percentage of a monetary budget should be devoted to marketing?

Kapoor: That’s very hard to prescribe because that really depends on many factors, e.g., the industry. It also really depends on the business model, competitive pressure, the stage of the company, etc. It could be anywhere from ten to fifty percent. For example, a lot of new tech companies will spend vast amounts of money on acquiring customers, because they want to establish leadership in a space. And then they go into a more stable mode where they can reduce the percentage of money they spend. Consumer packaged goods—it could be twenty percent. It varies a lot and it completely depends on which industry you’re in, what business model you have, and what you’re trying to accomplish in your competitive space.

Kaizen: That’s useful information, because many entrepreneurs starting out small think the biggest costs are going to be product development, and marketing is going to be much less. So entrepreneurs need to plan more substantially?

Kapoor: Yes. And I think you should look at the space you’re in, and related spaces—the meta-space—and how quickly you want to establish yourself. How quickly do you want to acquire customers? What does it take to then keep them buying from you?

Kaizen: Suppose I’m a new entrepreneur and I know I have a good product, but I’ve never done market research before. Where do I begin?

Kapoor: I would start with the basics. Sometimes you have a product and you don’t even know who the right target audience is. But you have to start somewhere, so start with a couple of different hypotheses on who this product, or this application, or this service would appeal to.

Nowadays it’s actually gotten a lot easier. You can set up focus groups; you can even do it online. You can do online surveys pretty easily. There are all kinds of survey tools available, some of them for free. And test those hypotheses. Recruit a panel of end customers and talk to them. If you have people amongst your friends and family, and friends of friends and family, recruit people there who might potentially fall into your target audience. If you don’t have a lot of money, just get them on the phone and chat with them for half an hour. Say, “This is the product or service I’m planning and I’m thinking a person with your profile would be interested in buying. What do you think?” Get their feedback. There are a lot of formal and informal ways in which you can gather the initial market research data without spending a lot of money. But you need good hypotheses and you need to be willing to test through them. And sometimes you might test through one and you don’t get the answers you were looking for and you say, “Okay, here are a few things I need to tweak,” and then go back to it.

Kaizen: So finding some way to figure out who your customers might be and get some sort of initial feedback from them?

Kapoor: Yes, but you need to start with some hypotheses.

Kaizen: For ongoing market research, how much time should I spend on general cultural reading to spot trends and changing demographics, and how much on specific research targeting my niche?

Kapoor: You need to do it all. I say that half-jokingly because that’s probably the big burden of being an entrepreneur is that you need to keep on top of everything.

But I would say I don’t have a prescriptive answer for that, but you do need to keep track of your industry, and specifically the area that you’re in, and broader cultural trends if you’re in a market that’s changing rapidly and is affected by the broader cultural trends.

One of the things that sometimes gets missed is people define their competition very narrowly. Let’s say I’m a manufacturer of portable CD players, and I think all the other manufacturers of CD players are my competition. Well, they are, but I forgot that MP3 players are also my competition. So you have to keep an eye on the broader cultural trends for that reason. Your competition is not just other companies doing what you do, but other substitutable categories that your end customer could use that would take you out of the picture.

To give you a very non-tech and boring example of this, when I worked on Duncan-Hines at Procter & Gamble—this is kind of funny—we would look at the cookie segment and the brownie segment and define our competition that way. One fine day we had the insight that that makes no sense at all because they both are often used for the same occasions. So what we really had to look at was occasion-based segmentation and competitive sets. For example, a kid’s birthday party or a snacking occasion, something that satisfies that need on that occasion. And suddenly the marketplace made a lot more sense to us.

What I’m trying to get at is that you need to think about the need. Again it’s that very customer-oriented view of your business. What is the need from a customer’s point of view that you’re satisfying? What else would satisfy it? It may be something that doesn’t look anything like you but could come in and replace you. You need to have this very broad view.

Kaizen: A bewildering thing about marketing is that there are so many marketing choices. There are media choices—newspapers, television, Internet, and so on. There is direct mail, phone calls, word-of-mouth, going to conventions, and so on. There are timing issues. How does one decide strategically?

Kapoor: We are definitely in an era of embarrassment of riches, in terms of reaching your customers. But I think you have to always go back to the basics. Always start with the customer. Who is your customer, who is your target audience, and how are they best reached?

And then once you’ve identified who they are, are they online all the time? Do they have a lot of discretionary time? Are they on their mobile phones a lot? Do they watch a lot of TV? Are they radio people? Do they commute a lot? There are many different ways of identifying that.

Once you identify, the next question you start to ask is what is the most efficient and effective way to reach these people. Because that answer will help you define the different media that you choose and the mix of media. Because TV is fabulous—it reaches a lot of people at once, so you have huge reach, but it is also very expensive—and young people are skipping most ads. So it may not be the most efficient way of reaching your audience. But you have to do the efficiency calculation and the effectiveness. TV might be the most convincing way because, by the nature of your product and the nature of the benefits you wish to demonstrate, it really has to be a visual. Talking about it isn’t working. So should you do virtual demos online? Or live ones with your retail partners?

And I think ultimately what I would say is: test, test, test. So now you’ve come up with a mix of four ways that can reach your audience and are efficient and somewhat effective but you’re not sure of that efficiency and effectiveness equation? Do a little bit of testing and see what works. This is the era of Internet marketing, which is so much easier to measure and tweak and optimize. I would really take advantage of that.

Kaizen: Even in Internet marketing there is still a large number of options.

Kapoor: Yes, there’s email, there’s search engine marketing, there’s banner ads, social-networking, there’s all kinds of things. Internet marketing is here to stay but it’s still pretty small compared to all the media spending that goes on. And people are experimenting their way through it. The good news about it is you can spend a small amount of money, test, and if it doesn’t work try something else or change it and optimize. Measurement and optimization is so much easier and better. It’s great for that.

Kaizen: Most entrepreneurship starts with a single person with an idea. That person has the commitment and knows the idea best, but may not have marketing knowledge or skills. What goes into deciding whether to learn marketing yourself, or to take on a partner with marketing expertise, or to hire a consultant?

Kapoor: I think you should know a little bit at least.  I don’t think you have to go to school for any of this but you should know enough that you are able to ask sensible questions.

Even in my own business, I won’t do search optimization for my own website myself. I’ll hire somebody who’s really good at that and really specialized at that. But what I have to be able to answer for them is: Who am I trying to reach? What are the kinds of messages I’m trying to communicate? What is my budget? Overall, what am I trying to accomplish with my business and my website?

So I think the business owner ought to be able to ask all the right questions and make sure the focus doesn’t go away from their target audience and the message they want to communicate and the positioning they want to have in the market. But then for actually implementing the very tactical tools it’s a better use of time to get somebody who’s an expert in that area than trying to do it all yourself.

Whether to partner, hire or bring in a consultant I think depends on the stage of the company and what you want to spend. I find sometimes early on, entrepreneurs—at least in Silicon Valley where they have some funding from VC’s—they will bring in a strategic person at the VP marketing level, often it’s a consultant like myself, or they might even hire somebody at the strategic level. And then that VP marketing might bring in a bunch of consultants doing very specific things. My firm has helped such VP marketing people in strategic projects, but then there are some instances where it’s more efficient for them to do the strategy work and then farm out the very specific tactical pieces to smaller consultants who can implement the tactics. So it just depends on how much money you’re willing to spend and what stage of the company you’re at, where it makes sense to do that.

Kaizen: How does the consulting process go?

Kapoor: The way we like to do it is we come in and first we really want to sit down and understand your business. I try to tell business owners that we know that you want something from us and we want to hear what it is that you’re looking for, but we want to really hear about your business and what are all the business challenges you face; we do this because sometimes the problem that they articulate is actually different than what they’re trying to solve. They may think, “We need somebody to come in and implement this promotion for us,” but really what they’re trying to do is reach their audience in a differentiated way, and the problem is not reaching them, the problem is their message isn’t very differentiated. So the message needs to be fixed first before they get it out and we’ll help them with that.

It’s a learning process. We sit down and we ask them all the strategic marketing questions: Who is your target audience? What is it that you’re selling? How do you create value? What are the needs that you’re meeting? Then we ask them a lot of questions about the business challenges they face. Is it a reach problem—you’re not able to reach your target audience? Is it the pricing—there’s a value equation problem?

As a big part of the project often I personally will spend interviewing some of the key members of their management team—the founder, the product head, the Chief Technology Officer, the head of sales—about the issues they face. And that gives us a lot of quick insight into their market and what it is that they’re trying to accomplish.

So that’s the first step: the discovery. And then we will develop a plan. We’ll define for them the things we found and where we think there are gaps, and then define for them the plan to go about implementing a solution.

Kaizen: At Conifer’s website, you outline eight elements of marketing. Can we talk through each of them?

Kapoor: Yes, the eight elements of marketing. It’s all the strategic elements that a business founder or entrepreneur ought to think about, and if she or he doesn’t have time to think about it, they should bring in a consultant or hire a smart marketing person to think through those. But those are the eight elements that I talk about.

Kaizen: The first is “Define your Play.”

Kapoor: I can talk to each of these very briefly. They’re also on my website—if you mouse over them you see what they’re all about. “Define your Play” is really about, “What business are you in?” What is it that you are doing? Are you a manufacturer of high-end chocolates for that special occasion, or chocoholics? Are you a solution (an online application) that enhances the productivity of a company’s sales force? What are you? What is it that defines you? Which business are you in?

Kaizen: Then: “Know your Customers.”

Kapoor: Knowing your customers; what is your target audience? What are their needs? They can be needs that are articulated, or they can be unarticulated, aspirational needs. People couldn’t have articulated the need for some of the modern gadgetry that we see, but once they’re in your life you’re like, “Wow, how could I have lived without this?”

Kaizen: Then: “Develop Your Positioning.”

Kapoor: What is it that you stand for? Are you the ultimate timesaving gadget or are you the cheapest way to get from point A to point B? So you have to identify very clearly what it is that you stand for. That becomes very important. One of the clients we helped, we developed a positioning that “We are easy to do business with,” and that had huge implications for the whole company because “easy to do business with” isn’t just about selling a nice product. Customers have to feel that when we talk to your (the company’s) lawyers you’re easy, when we talk to your customer service you’re easy to get service from, when we use your products they’re easy to use; it becomes about all of those things.

Kaizen: And then: “Define Your Products/Services.”

Kapoor: And positioning of course has to deliver, which comes to defining your products and services. Your products and services better match up to the promise you’re making. Positioning is the promise and products and services are the delivery of that promise.

Kaizen: Next is “Understand you Competition.”

Kapoor: You have to make sure you’re competing with your immediate industry, but also the other substitutable categories of products and services that are out there which your customers could start using and you’d suddenly be redundant.

Kaizen: “Set your pricing.”

Kapoor: That is hard. And it’s also probably one of the most powerful levers—again an underleveraged lever—in marketing. You could underprice yourself and leave a lot of money on the table, or you could overprice yourself and not create enough value. So testing is something that you should do with pricing.

The key becomes: how do you create value for your customers, and how do they perceive the value? Now you might also be in a situation where you create a lot of value but the industry is such that no one’s willing to pay a penny for it, because a lot of free offerings are out there. So then how do you create value in your business? Are there attendant services that you can offer that you can charge for? Is there the ubiquitous advertising model, where you’ve got so many end customers that some advertiser somewhere is trying to reach that same target audience and will pay? That has to do with your business model then—how do you create value there?

Kaizen: Then: “Place Your Offering.”

Kapoor: How do you reach your end customer with your product or service? If it’s an online application, that’s pretty easy, but even there you can have partners who are part of your channel, through whom you can get your product or service out to your customers. So you need to think through that. Where are you customers? What is the best way to reach them? Can your product reach them through all those different ways and channels?

Kaizen: And finally: “Promote Your Product.”

Kapoor: Getting your product into the hands of customers, with the limited attention span we all have and continue to have. You need to make some noise in the market and promote it. Initially you might have to provide incentives for your customers to try a product. So companies will sometimes give away products for free. At Procter & Gamble we would do a lot of sampling of new products, which we would put out there. In the tech industry you can have offers. I subscribe to various online services of a small business, and some of them I signed up because they had three months free—try it out and if you like it stay with us—and that was a big incentive for me to try it out, because I didn’t want to spend a lot of money initially.

Kaizen: Suppose we’ve implemented our marketing plan—there’s an old advertisers’ joke: “I know I’m wasting half my money. The problem is that I don’t know which half.” Are there good tools for measuring the effectiveness of one’s marketing?

Kapoor: I think that joke is probably accurate—and it’s not a joke, it was said by John Wanamaker. Some of it has to do with the difficulty of measuring advertising. TV advertising is difficult to measure and sometimes is quite unpredictable. I think it still behooves you to try to measure it and have some sense for what elements work and don’t work. Talk to consumers and find out what they like and don’t like.

At Procter we were sent to school on all of this so we had quantitative measures for how TV advertising drove purchase intent, and we used some of that. How does it compel consumers to actually go to the store next time and buy? I think it’s actually gotten a lot easier though.

Direct marketing, direct mail has been measuring results and optimizing tactics for decades now—they’re very good at it. And online tactics are very measurable, so it’s only getting better. Definitely we are coming from an era where a lot of it was not measurable, and even when measurable was sort of iffy. But a lot of it now is measurable and should be measured.

Kaizen: How do you think differently about marketing at different stages—comparing, say, the entrepreneurial stage when one has a brand new product with an established product?

Kapoor: Yes, there is a difference. Again at the entrepreneurial stage, first of all, you should be more strategic at that point, making sure you’re answering all the correct questions: doing a lot of testing, so you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket and running through your marketing budget but actually testing a lot of different tactics. Also, trying to find ways where you can get data more effectively that you can use to tweak your products and your offerings—versus trying to get the perfect product in place and then having this huge launch. I think there’s a lot to be said for that tweaking, testing, optimizing, trying it out again approach at the entrepreneurial stage. Versus established firms: you understand the market, it’s mature, and you have a pretty good idea of the competitive response, so you can estimate fairly well how much you need to spend in the market to have an impact.

Kaizen: Do marketing strategies vary significantly with different products?

Kapoor: Yes. Again you have to go back to the basics of who is your end customer and how are they buying and why are they buying and what are their needs.

So if you’re buying a car, first you need to identify which segment you fall into: a high-end luxury car, or just a reliable little Mazda 323 that gets you to school and back? Which segment do you fall into?

The other dimension that you need to think about is, in my business I help clients who are “B to C,” which is Businesses selling to Consumers, as well as “B to B,” which is Business to Business. Many clients tend to be software companies who are selling to other businesses or enterprises. So they might actually be selling to the business managers and/or the IT departments. So it’s an enterprise-level application, and that is very different marketing because you’re now selling to managers within large companies an application that can make their lives more efficient and allows them to do their jobs more effectively, and that’s a very different kind of marketing. You ask the same sort of questions, but then the way you reach them, doing focus groups with them is very different, recruiting them is harder in some ways but you get a lot of value for that, pricing is established based on other applications in the market or how much value you can create for them, how much money you can save them.

So there’s a lot of return-on-investment-type of calculations you need to do for them to justify the price of these high-priced applications. You need to develop a lot of relevant content. You might have white papers on the industry you’re in, as you’re selling to them. So you say to them, we have this white paper on how to make a Chief Information Officer’s job easier in this one specific way. You generate a lot of content that’s meaningful to them, but that also helps you sell your application and also delivers a lot of value to them. You influence industry thought leader and analysts so you can influence your end customers through them. So it’s a very different mindset from a marketing perspective versus selling to consumers, which I talked about earlier. Our B to C clients need every different tactics but the principles are the same

Kaizen: Branding is one aspect of marketing. What does it focus on?

Kapoor: The essence of branding is really about, “What is it that your company (or product) stands for over and above all the functional benefits in the equation?”

For established brands it’s a lot easier. Let’s say that Tide detergent stood for trust and reliability, for example (I am grossly simplifying for this example). They’ve been around and people have come to trust such brands and rely on them for meeting their needs. It’s called the brand equity—the elements that your customers value about you, over and above the functional benefits that you provide. Some if it has to do with the experience that customers have had with your products over a long period of time and what they’ve come to expect of you and rely on you for.

Branding is very important, it’s also very hard to measure, and it’s not something that can be built up overnight. I think people think if you have a cool logo and a cool-sounding name, you’ve built a brand. But brand is more than just that—it’s how the customer experiences your offering time and time and time again, and, as a result, what you come to stand for. If you come to stand for this innovative brand, I can rely on to always keep me on the cutting edge of how I experience my music and my media or you come to stand for the brand that I can go online and get the best deal on any book that I’m looking for and will always find the broadest selection and the most reliable reviews, which is Amazon’s brand. But it takes a while to build a brand. The best way to think about it is it becomes the sum total of how your customers experience your brand.

Kaizen: One branding choice is the company name. What marketing considerations go into that choice?

Kapoor: It’s one of those things that actually I don’t spend a lot of time on because—and this is possibly antithetical to what most marketers will say—I think your logo and your name needs to meet fewer criteria than people think. You just need to make sure that the logo and the name don’t have negative connotations but have positive connotations in people’s minds—and you can do this through testing and focus groups—and for your target audience they’re pleasing.

But beyond that it’s not a good idea to place too much importance on those because, as I said before, your brand is a value that builds over time. It’s how your customers experience your product and your offering. That is a lot more than the logo they see or the name that they experience.
When Amazon was first launched, that name was like, “Oh yeah, the Amazon River.” And now I don’t think about Amazon as anything but the place where I buy 99 percent of my books. It’s come to stand for a great shopping experience, easy …

Kaizen: For me Amazon just meant “big.”

Kapoor: In the beginning; so that’s the thing. And it didn’t have a negative connotation; it had a positive connotation. It’s the place that will have any book that I want.

You want to avoid making mistakes like naming a car “Nova” and trying to sell it in Latin America, because “no va” in Spanish means “no go”—it’s not going anywhere. So you want to avoid those things, but I think much more time gets spent on naming and logo than I think is necessary. It becomes a useless political exercise often.

You need to meet some basic criteria: make sure it will have positive connotations with your consumer, that it connects with your brand, is not confusing, no trademark issues, and then move ahead and focus on building a great customer experience. That’s where you really get the bang for your buck.

Kaizen: Does it depend much on the product or service—e.g., if the company’s service is more personalized in contrast to one that is larger-institutional? E.g., most plumbers use their name—“Dave’s Plumbing”—while most banks use an abstract concept or made up word—e.g., “Citibank.”

Kapoor: There are those industry issues; that’s absolutely right. I think Dave’s Plumbing is really about people saying, “I want to deal with a family-run business, because I have this one guy I can call and say, ‘Hey Dave you did a great job,’ or ‘You didn’t do a great job.’” That’s definitely the case when you want more ability to trust. So again that comes back to the positive and negative connotations of the name, but at the end of the day, whether it’s “WesternBank” or “Bank of the West,” a lot of time and money gets spent on debating that, and I don’t think it’s productive.

Kaizen: In your case, you are “Conifer Consulting” rather than “Reena Kapoor Consulting.” How did you decide?

Kapoor: I just didn’t want to associate it with my name, although I am mostly the business and people do hire based on my skills and the experience they have with me, so there’s definitely that element. But I just didn’t want my name, per se, that just didn’t feel right to me.

On the one hand it was the business reason, because I wanted it to be bigger than me at some point. I do have a team of other consultants I work with and other consulting firms I partner with and so in that sense there was a business reason. I just didn’t really care about “Reena Kapoor Consulting” or something, mainly because most of the companies I deal with are professionally managed companies.

And I felt that it would make more sense for them to deal with a vendor that is a firm—with some of them it’s a legal issue; they do want to deal with a firm rather than an independent contractor for various legal reasons. But I just felt it would have more credibility as a consulting firm versus one person. It was an issue of personal comfort as well as positioning.

Kaizen: Is your own market different—i.e., you market yourself as a marketing consultant? Any special challenges there?

Kapoor: It has the same issues but it’s much more difficult. It’s like they say about the shoemaker’s children not having shoes. You have to be a marketer, and you can be strategic about it and you can think through all the issues, and then you have to go out and sell yourself and your services. Any number of marketing consultants I meet say it’s hard; it’s just hard stuff. So you try to be in situations where you’re going to meet potential clients and talk to them about your business issues—and yet you don’t want to be pushy and say “You need my services,” because sometimes they don’t. Often they are very smart people and don’t need extra services, and yet you have to always be looking for opportunities to grow your business. So it can be challenging.

And you also just want to be authentic. You don’t always want to have your thirty-second elevator pitch, which goes off at the touch of a button. That has a very inauthentic feel to it. So you have to balance that out. There are good ways and authentic ways of doing that and certainly people do it and do a good job of it and you just have to know that.

Kaizen: What are the specific challenges with international marketing?

Kapoor: I used to do that a lot more in my consumer packaged goods background. I sometimes do that when some of my clients in the tech industry will have localization challenges. Most of the work that I’ve done, in terms of international marketing, has to do with localizing some of the offerings, such as finding good translation services. And that’s really important. You want to find native speakers of languages doing that for you. Some of the other challenges with international marketing have to do with cultural challenges: practices, what you can communicate, the connotation of words. And so you really want to make sure you’re in touch with local native speakers. You don’t want to assume anything on that front.

Kaizen: You also have a busy life outside of your consulting career. Do you find it challenging to juggle family and career time commitments?

Kapoor: Yes, I do. My mantra is that every day is a balancing act. I’ve stopped trying to balance my life; I just balance day to day. I have a young daughter who’s growing up much too fast. I wake up every day and say, “How do I spend more time with her?” And at the same time I want to work, and I really do enjoy my work a lot. I want it all and I want it all at the same time, so that makes it challenging.

Kaizen: Was an entrepreneurial career attractive to you in part because of the flextime it gives you?

Kapoor: Absolutely. I actually came upon consulting by accident. The last job I was in while my daughter was young was part-time, and we got to a point where I had done a lot of the work that was required in that position—I was leading product management at a small startup—and we’d developed the product.

Now as a good product management person, my role was to travel out to customers and help our salespeople sell it and discover more requirements and come back and further develop the product. It meant more travel, and it was going in the opposite direction of what I needed, or wanted, from a lifestyle perspective. So I helped that company hire a replacement and left. It was right for the company to want what they needed; it just wasn’t aligned with what I needed at the time. And I got out and I really wasn’t sure if I was going to look for a part time job, or what I was going to do.

I got a couple of consulting projects because somebody said, “Hey, while you’re looking do you want to work on helping us with these companies who have these business challenges?” I signed on and I really enjoyed the work, and I loved the fact that I could say to them, “Okay, I can’t be here Friday.” I said to myself, “This is a pretty good life, and I could deal with this flexibility,” and that’s how I got into it.

Kaizen: In addition to career and family, you have run a marathon, raised funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and you’re on the board of an educational organization, the Reason, Individualism, and Freedom Institute. How do you manage your schedule so that you can do the many things you want and not overload and stress yourself? Or is that unavoidable?

Kapoor: The best strategy I’ve found so far for managing stress is to stop judging yourself quite so harshly. Because I think one of the things that we all end up doing—and I’ve heard that women do it more, but I don’t know, probably men do it too and just don’t talk about it—is that we’re constantly telling ourselves we’re not doing enough. That becomes a barrier. I’m trying to get myself to do less of that.

The marathon was just something I wanted to do at least once in my lifetime. At some point I just decided, I want to do a marathon. I came across Team In Training, which is the training arm of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and they raise money for cancer. I’ve had personal tragedies in the family: my mother-in-law passed away from cancer, my mother is a survivor. So lots of personal reasons for wanting to raise money, and I thought this was just the perfect opportunity. Both Team In Training and LLS are just fabulous organizations and do a great job of training and motivating people, and raising a lot of money for this great cause. So I signed on and did it in 2007.

Kaizen: Those who work with you describe you as “passionate,” “creative,” “goal-oriented,” and “highly professional.” Where does all your positive energy come from?

Kapoor: Some of it is I really enjoy what I do. I love the world of business, and there’s some part of me that loves giving advice, and so that helps as a consultant. So I enjoy the whole notion of creating value in business, and there is so much value to be created. I’m a big believer that business contributes fundamentally to improving people’s lives, and I enjoy seeing the result of that. I think it comes from there.

Kaizen: You career has been quite varied, both geographically and in terms of the kinds of businesses you’ve been involved with. Given your wide-ranging experience, what recommendations would you give to young people who are just starting out on their career paths?

Kapoor: I think that people who know from the beginning what they want to do and have always known are blessed—they get on a career path, they stick with it. But it’s also rare.

I think the advice I would give to people is: be internally driven. Be driven by what you feel passionately about, by what you really think you can enjoy. Because you’re going to be working for a very long time. When I started out I had this notion that, “I’m going to do this because this is well-defined, and I know where this is going, and it has the best ROI.” But you forget that you’re going to be working for 30, 40, 50 years and it’s a very long road—you better enjoy it.

My favorite saying is that life is not a dress rehearsal. You better have fun on this path because you’re not going to be able to do it again. So I think being internally driven is very important (and of course not counting on reincarnation!).

I think the other thing that I have learned is finding out early on what is the essence of the job. If you want to be a lawyer, do you know on a day-to-day basis what you’re going to be doing? If you have this view of being a lawyer from TV, it can really lead you down the wrong path. There’s a lot of very boring brief-reading, research work that goes into being a good and successful lawyer. Are you willing to do that? So I think what advice I’d give is: If you are thinking about two or three professions, talk to people in those professions and find out what they do on a day-to-day basis and what aspects they enjoy. Is that you?

The other thing I would say is there are a lot of counseling services, psychological testing, that help you identify your preferences, your style, what you enjoy most. Do you enjoy interaction with people? Do you enjoy being an individual contributor? Do you like being off by yourself in a lab experimenting and playing around? I think knowing yourself helps a lot and there are tools to do that. Where I was growing up and when I was growing up, we didn’t have access to any of that.

Kaizen: So the key thing is to find the career that you can be passionate about?

Kapoor: Yes. I once heard Colin Powell speak and he said he felt very lucky because he’d found a profession that he loved and he was very good at. He said he found it pretty early in his life and he felt very blessed. And I completely understood what he meant because that is truly a blessing. But sometimes it’s not obvious early on in your life, but if you’re willing to experiment I think you can find yourself in a good place. But I think we all have friends who are in professions where they’re in it for the money, the glamour, or some external criterion, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it. After ten or twenty years it becomes an unbearable drudgery and impacts even other parts of your life.

Kaizen: Many high-energy people find themselves in unexciting careers, and many people find themselves unexpectedly energized by their careers. How difficult do you think is it for most people to get the self-knowledge about what career will do it for them?

Kapoor: That’s a very tough one because once you have obligations, you have responsibilities, you can’t just get up and leave. But I’ve also come to believe over the years that we don’t need to have an either/or approach. I think you can be meeting your family obligations and try to carve out a little time to explore what else you could be doing. Start off in a small way and maybe that’s going to take you a much longer time than it would otherwise.

I know people who have a consulting business and then they have this e-commerce website where they’re selling knick-knacks for children and things like that, and they’re just doing it. It’s not big enough to support them, but at some point they feel they can get it to a point where it will be big enough that they can do that full-time. I know people who make films on the side. I know people who act in plays. Because that’s their real passion but it doesn’t pay the bills. So there are ways.

People often get caught up in, “Oh, I have a family to feed, I can’t do this.” I know people who say, “I would go work for the Gates Foundation but I have a real job.” But there are a million other charities you could be helping in your free time, if that’s what drives you. You don’t have to wait for the time you can quit your job because that may not happen for another thirty years.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks. To learn more about Reena Kapoor and Conifer Consulting, please visit

© 2013 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to “Interview with Reena Kapoor”

  1. Peggy Ruse Says:


    Really enjoyed reading your interview. I learned and practiced marketing at HP – one of the “best companies” and “built to last”. I was a product marketing manager there so many of the marketing experiences and ideas resonated. I also made a successful career change at HP and the combination of OJT and their training helped make the transition smooth. I really enjoyed the entrepreneurial/creative aspects of consulting and am looking for full time work now. Best, Peggy

  2. Faisal Siddiqui Says:

    I am not very sure that you are the same Reena Kapoor that I studied with at KVAMC Lko. Just was searching for some of old school friends and remembered you. Anyway was very impressed with your interview and you have given a very real picture about India and the times during 80’s.

  3. Reena Kapoor Says:

    Hi Peggy:
    Thanks for your comment — i really appreciate it. I am in Silicon Valley too and we should connect sometime.

    Hi Faisal:
    Thanks for your comments and appreciation. Of course I remember you!! Let’s get back in touch.


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