Professional Cycling House of Cards?

I love cycling.  I love riding my road bike and I love watching the pros, especially on the Grand Tours (France, Italy, Spain).  I’ve seen every moment of every Tour de France since 2002, and Lance Armstrong for me has been a true inspiration, an almost freak of nature in his ability to suffer more than others and dominate his sport – and doing so before and after recovering from near-fatal testicular cancer.  Truly amazing.

So, I couldn’t help being completely mesmerized, despite writhing in pain, at watching Tyler Hamilton’s interview on 60 Minutes this past Sunday.  Tyler, in the most believable exposition of the dirty side of pro cycling yet, proceeded to explain how he and many of his teammates on the 1999, 2000 and 2001 USPS team, including Lance Armstrong, used a systematic performance enhancing drug (PED) doping system including injections of EPO and blood transfusions in training and during major races.  This interview occurred after Tyler testified, under subpoena, for the Grand Jury investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs where Lance Armstrong is the focus of the investigation.

There have been others who have told stories of systematic doping on Lance’s teams, including Floyd Landis, a teammate of both Lance and Tyler on the USPS team.  Floyd’s allegations for me seemed at the time to be easier to dismiss, in part I think because he raised significant sums of money from thousands of people for his legal defense, denying his guilt for nearly four years and when he finally did admit to doping, then allegedly started sending letters and emails to Lance’s camp and cycling officials that “felt” like a desperate attempt to take others down with him.  And that’s exactly how Lance and his legal team dealt with these and other accusations – these guys are cheats and liars and are simply not credible, we have testing and the facts on our side.

Yes, Tyler is also an admitted cheat in pro cycling having served an 8-year ban from the sport due to doping.  And he’s denied using PEDs and implicating others, keeping his mouth shut until the moment he was forced by subpoena to testify under oath.  And, he’s writing a book so the 60 Minutes piece certainly serves his interest for generating book awareness.

Despite these facts, what makes his situation different and far more believable for me?  A perfect storm of 3 things in my mind:

  1. Timing and Momentum.  With a Grand Jury investigation going in the background, it brings focus, attention and credibility to the PED problem in professional cycling, especially with Jeff Novitzky, the investigator that uncovered the BALCO scandal that ultimately exposed Marion Jones and Barry Bonds.  And its not just Lance under investigation, its entire teams, coaches and the governing body of professional cycling itself (UCI)
  2. Terms of Tyler’s Deposition.  Tyler’s deal with investigators during his deposition – immunity from prosecution, but if he is found lying about anything related to his testimony, he goes to prison.  It’s important to understand that Tyler didn’t just do the 60 Minutes interview, but he also told the same story under oath and under the threat of going to prison for lying.
  3. Hincapie’s Nail in the Coffin.  Simultaneous to Tyler’s Grand Jury testimony, it was reported by CBS News that George Hincapie, Lance’s closest teammate for every one of his 7 Tour de France wins and who Lance has described as “like a brother to me”, told Federal authorities under oath that both he and Lance used PEDs during their time together.  Here’s a guy who’s never been implicated in PED scandal, has never been tested positive for PEDs and has absolutely no reason to admit to such a thing – except that he was under oath in a federal investigation.  Just like Tyler.

It’s easy to come to Lance’s rescue given he’s the most tested athlete in history.  Over 20 years and 500 tests with not one positive test, although Tyler alleges Lance did test positive in 2001 and the governing body in cycling (UCI) “made it go away”.  It’s easy to come to Lance’s rescue, that is, until you hear Tyler talk about the ease with which testing for PEDs can be beaten.  According to Tyler, there’s a manageable difference between doping enough for performance enhancement and doping too much for detection.

So what does all of this mean for pro cycling and for Lance?  For cycling, I believe it can only bring about positive results, albeit painful in the short term, provided the investigation is thorough and the truth is rooted out sufficiently to result in real reform within the sport.  The success of the code of silence over so many years in cycling is astonishing.  Perhaps exposing the truth and reform also sends a vivid message to our children about right, wrong and consequences about illegal doping in sports.

For Lance, I fear a far worse outcome.  Lance has done not only miraculous things for cycling, but as a philanthropist he has inspired millions worldwide – both through his personal story and by his ability to leverage his brand to raise incredible sums of money for cancer research.  If his story is a lie and his brand is predicated on cheating his way to the top, won’t that have repercussions among those affected by him now if not certainly in the future?

I also fear that despite how strong the prosecution’s case, that Lance will forever deny any wrongdoing.  There is simply too much at stake for him to admit guilt.  And this will result in a long and difficult-to-watch fall from grace the likes my generation has never seen, certainly in sports.  I would argue that if its true, its in Lance’s interest to get in front of it now, take a massive painful hit and at least attempt to put it in the rear view mirror.  A slow, defiant march to the bottom, potentially ending in prison for obstruction and fraud, eliminates any hope of rear view mirror.

I still hope the investigation turns up facts and data that proves innocence, as much innocence as possible.  But I believe in my gut, based on the facts revealed to date, that we are way beyond the fantasy of innocence.

I hope I’m wrong.

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Building a Consumer Brand, For (Nearly) Free

Three years ago when we were just starting TrueCar, one of the biggest challenges we faced once the beta version of the product was built was how would we generate consumer awareness, credibility and ultimately drive traffic to the website?  It’s the challenge any consumer-facing web property has to overcome – inexpensive customer acquisition – unless you are one of the lucky few (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) that has an exponential viral coefficient.

And it’s not just about driving traffic to your website, but also converting that traffic to do what you want them to do – buy something, view something, tell their friends, etc.  Building credibility into the brand is critical to not only attracting who you want to your property, but converting them to action.

During our first few years, we spent no money on advertising and yet had become the #1 share-of-media over our top two competitors combined, were receiving over 1,200 monthly media mentions, were performing nearly 100 monthly media interviews and had been featured multiple times in publications and web properties such as Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Automotive News, CNN, Consumer Reports, NY Times, USA Today and others.  We grew our web traffic from zero to nearly 1M UV’s with no advertising spend.  For more content around our media attention, click here.

So how did we generate brand awareness, credibility and consumer traffic to TrueCar in the early days where cash was scarce?  Initially, it was through a comprehensive industry and consumer public relations effort until we had a credible reputation and the ability to convert and monetize traffic, then we migrated to a paid marketing strategy once we could guarantee a positive ROI.  It’s the first, initial effort of public relations to develop credibility and awareness that I’d like to address in this post.  Why PR first before advertising?  2 primary reasons:  Credibility and Cost.

Credibility.  Advertising by its nature is about self-promotion.  It’s a pitch no matter how you slice it.  Effective media coverage through PR however is about positioning your company as the expert in its field so that the media “filterers” (journalists, editors) are the one’s communicating directly to their readership.  There’s a level of separation that makes the company’s message more credible.

Cost.  Advertising is expensive.  Just ask General Motors who spends in excess of $2B per year on advertising.  A well-executed PR program’s most significant costs are the people that execute the strategy.  There is no comparison between the two on cost alone.

With that as the backdrop, what did we do at TrueCar to develop and execute a successful and low cost PR capability?

1. Determine What Credibility Means in the Context of the Brand Strategy.  For us, it was convincing the auto industry, through data analytics and unique insights, that TrueCar was the “go to” company for what’s happening in Auto for all things pricing.  Tough to do in a world where 80-year old brands have a foothold already in pricing.

2. Formulate a PR strategy that Focuses on Attaining this Credibility.  Our industry strategy for TrueCar was to become the most transparent, trusted and credible source of auto pricing data and auto industry trends, so we targeted publications, social media and influencers in the industry where the topic of vehicle pricing was at the forefront.  And, our consumer strategy was closely aligned on transparency, accuracy and (hopefully) boosted by the industry credibility that we were after.

3. Find the single most influential, credible industry analyst or personality and hire them.  This is the most important takeaway and I don’t know why more startups don’t persist here, especially in cases where industry credibility is correlated to successfully penetrating the consumer market, as is the case with Automotive.  There’s a fallacy that this person, given their stature, is “out of reach” or too expensive to engage.  While that might be true for some, you’d be surprised how energizing it can be for someone who has “done it all” in their industry to have the opportunity to do it again, to leverage their skills and relationships to have a massive impact on a new and emerging brand.   We wanted to first build our Industry credibility, then expand into our consumer strategy, so that’s where we started.  The right candidates have deep media relationships, are performing high volumes of media interviews, have an online social media presence and are viewed as credible industry ambassadors, not spin doctors.  Those folks are out there for every industry, and we hired the best in Automotive.  Jesse Toprak has been the leading Automotive Analyst for 15 years and has performed over 10,000 media interviews during that period.  He was on auto-pilot at his previous role, and was motivated by the challenge of starting from scratch to build our brand around credibility.  No shortage of risk for him personally, but the aspirational fit was there for both of us.

4. Rally the organization around the PR strategy and commit people resources.  Executing a successful PR strategy, one that will be compelling to your target media, requires unique insights that others in the industry are not providing.  That requires lots of data, analysis and product and technology support.  Additionally, because your PR team is externally facing and presumably are experts on trends, they can be important in actually driving product strategy and features.  All of this requires a commitment across the organization to dedicate resources to enable PR – online, offline, social media, daily blogging, outreach, interviews – the list goes on.  Let me be clear, this is hard to do during the early stages where seemingly every person in the company is over-worked and focused exclusively on developing core features and functionality, not crunching data that the PR team can go talk to reporters about.

5. Determine and Track Key Metrics, Measure Results and Adjust.  Some of our key metrics for PR activity include #interviews, #media mentions, #press releases, total consumer reach, unique visitors by media publication, social media followers, UV conversion (to sale) and Revenue.  Key metrics must be tracked!  Which implies there is an ability to actually attribute performance to PR versus some other activity such as viral, marketing, SEO, etc.  We set up unique campaign URL’s in our business intelligence software to track each media campaign separately.

What techniques have you used to build your brand in the early days?

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