Creating Your Own Business Playbook: How Networking Equates to Opportunity

People often ask me what my favorite part of my job is.  My answer is always quick and consistent:  it’s that I am lucky enough to meet so many brilliant, driven individuals who are continually disrupting and positively changing the world. Many of these encounters come through meetings that I take with Chris Dessi. Chris and I are similar in that smart people fascinate us. We ask a lot of questions, we get excited, and sometimes we get scared that people are functioning on such a level. Mostly, though, we get inspired.  

One of these individuals is David S. Kidder. Before I met David, Chris described him as “the smartest guy in the room in nearly all rooms.” I think Chris is brilliant, and Chris thinks David is brilliant; Chain Rule –  I knew David was brilliant.

David is the author of the Start Up Playbook. Naturally, my next move, after Chris had lunch with him, was to read it. I couldn’t put it down. It’s described as “Secrets of the Fastest-Growing Startups.” It’s a compilation of stories from over 40 CEO’s. It tells about their success but articulates the full story and not just the end result. There were bumps in the road, moments of fear and panic and valuable lessons that came out of them. The way it’s broken up allows the reader to pick it up, read an excerpt, attain valuable insight, put it down, and rinse and repeat. It’s one of the few books that I go back and re-read portions regularly. When I first started at Silverback Social, this book was literally my bible. As we experienced growing pains, I realized we were going through the same things so many others had already gone through. It became common for Chris and I to tell each other “we are doing all the right things, stay the course”.  That course was outlined in the Start Up Playbook.

John's Tweet I had the pleasure of meeting David at the Westchester Digital Summit where he gave the opening keynote (*worth noting, he was my mom’s favorite presenter. Sorry, Gary V., you won WDS1). The day was a blur for me, and I neglected to ask David one of the questions that I really wanted to – “How did you get such in depth access to so many brilliant/successful CEO’s?” Luckily Chris and I are on the same wavelength, and he had already asked it. David’s response was simple: he “met them over the years through networking, leaned on them as advisors and resources, and offered value to them when he could.” Simple, made a ton of sense, and I didn’t think too much of it.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago, Chris and I were in Downtown Vegas for Catalyst Week, in conjunction with the Downtown Project. For those not familiar, Chris does an excellent job describing it here.  For someone who likes to meet smart innovative people, this is equivalent to an 8-year-old at Disney World.  After four days of inspiration and a ton of valuable knowledge, our minds were racing on the flight back to New York. That’s when Chris mentioned to me what David had said, and the puzzle finally came together for me.

A lot of times, we get caught up in the day to day. We flow from meeting to meeting, project to project, and don’t have a minute to pull back. Last night, I was with a friend who recently started for CommonBond. When he was making the move from big corporate finance to a start-up, he asked for my opinion. I told him to do it immediately. I told him to follow David’s advice: network, ask for advice, bring value to the table, and build relationships. One day, we will both be on our second, third, fourth, or fifth project, and we will have relationships with some of the smartest entrepreneurs/CEO’s in the world. With that will come tons of opportunities, good, bad, ugly and life changing.

Whether you work for a start-up, corporation, you’re a singer or athlete, David’s message rings true. Make the time to create these relationships.

I am fortunate. The list of smart and successful people I meet could go on for days. Here are a few that will one day make my start-up playbook whom I have met in the last month. They are doing and will continue to do amazing things for a long time to come:

Michael LaiMinerva Project

Amanda Slavin and the entire Catalyst Creative Team (Danielle, Katie, Mike, etc.)

Shilpi KumarProgression Labs, Qualifyor, Venture for America

John FazzolariRevivn

Robyn Allen – Energy Entrepreneur

Idia Ogala* – NBA and hopefully back to Silverback Social one day

John GuydonThe Lassy Project

*I didn’t meet Idia in the last month but he’s impressed me too much not to mention.

Follow me on Twitter @johnzanzarella 




4 Lessons on Event Management from Dad

Growing up, I thought I knew everything. Seriously, just ask my friends or family. Parents nodding in agreement about their own kids can breathe a sigh of relief. Somewhere during, or shortly after college, I realized how little I really knew. I also realized that the things my father taught me growing up make a lot of sense.

See, growing up, my father never forced his wisdom on me. This is evident by my rooting for the perennial loser Mets and Jets and him popping champagne with the Yankees and NY Giants. What Dad did was lead by example. This is highlighted by the way he has run events for the better part of my life. Here are some of the lessons he has taught me. Lessons that have helped me through countless events, and the many twists and turns that comes with them.   Zanzarella Men

1) Do Your Homework– I know, the last thing you want to hear as a kid. Most of the events my dad produces now he has been doing for 10+ years. As a child, I distinctly remember my dad in preparation for a new event. He would bring me to various similar events, local and further. As a child with infinite energy, I was all over the place. Dad was focused – he would methodically take into account the set up, flow, types of vendors/sponsors and attendees. He would network, see where the value was and incorporate this knowledge into planning his own event. I rarely attend an event now, of any subject, without coming away with a minimum of 2-3 pieces that impressed me.  Many of these I incorporate into events I plan today.

Example: While working at Jackson Lewis PC I was in charge of managing their Employment Law Conference and Golf Invitational. Between caddying and assisting in the running of golf events for years before, I was able to bring a lot of best practices to the three-day event.

2) Stop Selling Sponsorships – Dad is the sales guy who was great at his job because it never felt like he was selling. Dad is a relationship guy who puts an emphasis on value. When he started his own business, with zero clients, he leveraged the relationships he had built during his time as Managing Partner of WZFM to get things off the ground. When it came to events, he would add value around those relationships. He was meticulous in reaching out to, working with, and following up with sponsors to see where he could add value for them. Often times he would go above and beyond because with my father, it was never about one event. It was about building relationships so that sponsors would come back year after year.

Example: My father has been running a Kid’s fair for nearly 20 years. After the event he goes to vendors and speaks with them individually while handing them a survey to fill out. Most of those vendors sign on 365 days in advance of the next years show. They know the product is good and they have trust built on the relationship. There is no selling going on.

3) Shit Happens – Stay Calm and Act Natural – Anyone who knows my dad knows that he is about as calm as it gets (golf course excluded). With events, something always goes wrong. It can be something as small as an AV problem or something as large as two presenters having to go to the hospital at the same event (true story). Whatever it is, you have to roll with the punches. The more prepared you are, the easier this is to do. Be up front with your crowd,

Example: At the inaugural Westchester Digital Summit event, we called one of our presenters about 15 mins in advance of his presentation since he had not checked in yet. When he answered, Silverback Social CEO Chris Dessi asked him if he was on his way or if he needed us to send a car for him. Turns out he was in Chicago and had the dates mixed up. In those ten mins we moved a presenter from a breakout room to the main stage, made an honest announcement to our attendees and the show continued on schedule. Our speaker was flexible, our attendees understood, and we had the team in place to act appropriately when the news was delivered.

4) There is No “I” in Event  – Having the proper team and staff in place are the difference between a good and a great event.  My dad had my mom and they were an unstoppable duo. However, this doesn’t just mean the team you work with to produce the event. This means AV, security, food and beverage, photographers etc. The support these people provide behind the scenes goes a long way to the success of the event and the marketing of future events.

Example: Thankfully I have never had a bad experience with an in house hotel AV team. I have had some truly great experiences when I have outsourced AV to pros like Corporate AV. AV is not my strong suit so to have a team in place that is prepared, attentive, and able to provide this service for digital based conferences has been a big weight off my shoulders and allows me to focus my attention elsewhere.

Other Lessons from Dad:

Learn to love to read

Place an importance on health and wellness

Listen to your mother

How you do anything is how you do everything

You learn more when you listen

What lessons have you learned from your Dad? Add in the comments below.

4 Reasons Why Traditional Agencies Are Dying

John Zanzarella

John Zanzarella

In “To Sell is Human” by author Daniel H. Pink, he describes how individuals are becoming more elastic in their job responsibilities. Whether they know it or not, part of what they do is selling. The same kind of elasticity has been happening to agencies for years. Clients want a one stop shop for everything, and why wouldn’t they? It’s the easiest solution, one point of contact, one check to write, one Christmas card to send out. 

On the flip side, specialization has been around since the beginning of time. There is proven value for businesses to operate with a singular focus. Nearly all agencies that offer a myriad of services started with one that they excelled at.

This is not to say that there isn’t room for both to succeed, but when it comes to digital and social specialization offers more room to succeed and here is why:


  1. Community Management and Real Time Execution – The digital advertising darling of the modern day happened early last year. By now you have all heard how Oreo (powered by Mondelez) turned a Super Bowl anomaly into a marketing case study with their “You can still dunk in the dark” campaign. The idea was designed, created and approved within mins and has had a lasting effect that extends well past the most recent Super Bowl. This type of foresight and quick thinking is excellent but it wouldn’t be as effective without a team in place to manage and engage. Multiple community managers should be assigned to brands to devote the time to properly post and engage.
  2. Custom Creative– Content is king, that’s universal in all verticals of marketing. Incorporating custom creative is a must for social and digital marketing. Real-time, unique content generated on behalf of a brand. While this is important, the context around the custom creative is where you add value that resonates with the consumer.
  3. Analytics – Marketing budgets are scrutinized time and again for ROI. Traditionally, analytics for social media have been scoffed at as not possible or positioned with “how much money is a ‘like’ worth”. Agencies that specialize in social know how to find the appropriate numbers but more importantly how to use them to adjust a brands social ecosystem accordingly. Analytics companies like Sprout Social, Socialbakers, and Topsy help your reporting. This combined with strategy around a defined ‘point of conversion’ will allow for tangible ROI.
  4. Managing Expectations – Traditional agencies like to operate in the black and white. Number driven proposals bring in business. The truth is results don’t happen over night. Agencies that guarantee you x amount of likes or revenue are likely wasting your time. The truth is, building an engaged and tangible social presence takes time. That time goes to a carefully planned set up, implementation and execution to create a successful campaign.

Business is cyclical. There are places for both full service agencies and specialization. Silverback social is an agency that specializes in social.  Maybe I am biased. With that being said here are three social specific agencies whose work we love:

  • VaynerMedia – Led by CEO Gary Vaynerchuk, VaynerMedia has experienced explosive growth in the last four years and helps Fortune 500 companies like GE, PepsiCo, Green Mountain Coffee, the NY Jets, and the Brooklyn Nets find their social voices and build their digital brands through micro content and other story telling actions.
  • Deep-Focus – A digital agency for the social age, Deep-Focus creates a plethora of content around social insights that come from their community management. Content – check, Community management– check, Context – check.
  • 360i – At 360i, the learning never stops, literally. Their agency focuses on education of both individual employees as well as brands. They have a long list of accolades and an impressive client roster to boot.

So what do you think? Are traditional agencies on the ropes?

The Curious Case of Richie Incognito – A Social Spin

There is no doubt the NFL adopts a “Band of Brothers” mentality. It makes perfect sense; only these players understand the physical and emotional stress endured on a weekly basis. This stress helps form a nearly unbreakable bond amongst teammates competing for the same cause.

This is why it was curious to see a news story about NFL player Jonathan Martin leaving his team due to bullying from other players. Certainly rookie hazing happens in the NFL. However, all would agree that it used to be very rare for a story like this to end up in the mainstream media. I say this because bullying and other “behind closed doors” practices are becoming more transparent thanks in part to social and digital media.

Content is king in today’s media and when Sunday came this story quickly made headlines as ESPN, NFL Network and countless blogs used it to help fill 5-10 hours of coverage leading up to the day’s NFL games. What was once a Miami Dolphin internal matter that would likely have resulted in a suspension for Incognito, quickly became a Social firestorm that will more than likely end his career and call for a much deeper investigation of NFL teams and their policies.

Social Spin

Incognito took Twitter by storm Sunday morning to defend himself against accusations made by ESPN, particularly Adam Schefter. Schefter, known for his breaking news, tweeted a link to an ESPN article-mentioning Incognito as the cause of Joseph Martins team departure. Today, Schefter has followed up by sending out 5 separate tweets to his nearly 2.6 million followers detailing the exact content of a voice mail from Incognito to Martin. Part of this voice mail discusses Incognito’s angry reaction to seeing information on Martin’s twitter account.

Adam Schefter is highly regarded as one of, if not the most informed NFL reporter. He consistently uses Twitter as his medium of choice for breaking news. His tweets make waves not just with his followers but also with the tens of millions who see his message retweeted. Incognito on the other hand, did himself no favors with his barrage of angry tweets. He would have been better off simply pointing those curious to the Miami Dolphins team statement, which he ended up doing after he deleted the multiple tweets in his rant. Unfortunately, this was after mainstream media outlets saw the tweets and created content around them.

Take Away

Hazing in the NFL is a common practice, one often shrugged off by casual observers. Richie Incognito had an opportunity to use his digital brand to help diffuse a bad and embarrassing situation. Instead, he ended up fast-forwarding his own free fall by taking an aggressive and defensive stance on the topic. With the spotlight on him, Richie could have used Twitter as a platform for a heartfelt apology or a standard response keeping the matter within control of the Dolphins. While his 40k plus followers pale in comparison to Schefter, the media spotlight would have had his message distributed to all of the right channels. Incognito may have even received more followers for the act. Instead his response to Schefter was ill conceived, curt and came off as more bullying.

Social Media outlets are an extension of your own personal brand. In times of crisis management they can be your biggest asset or an accelerant to your downfall. It is important to be educated on the difference because once your response hits the Internet; there is no turning back.