Craig Thomler – Social Media Planner

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Craig is one of Australia’s leading digital media strategists and practitioners, with over 20 years experience in the digital industry.

He has over 15 years experience in the online sector as an entrepreneur, founding and holding senior roles at early-stage technology and resources companies.

Craig has also spent five years in the Australian Commonwealth Public Service, focused on improving public governance through the strategic use of digital technologies.

In 2009 Craig was awarded the inaugural Government 2.0 Individual Innovator Award by the Australian Government’s Government 2.0 Taskforce and in 2010 was named one of ‘The Top 10 Who are Changing the World of Internet and Politics’ by PoliticsOnline and the World eDemocracy Forum in France.

Craig returned to the private sector in 2012 to lead Delib Australia, the Asia-Pacific subsidiary of Delib, a global digital democracy company, that develops online applications and services to support public and private sector organisations to effectively employ new media to engage stakeholders, customers and citizens.

He now leads Social Media Planner, supporting businesses to maximise the value of digital engagement from a strategic perspective and consulting to senior executives seeking to design effective digital strategies, build mature and sustainable digital infrastructure and supporting crowdsourcing and social media initiatives.

Recognised internationally as a digital, social media and Government 2.0 leader, Craig presents regularly around the world on digital media strategy and practice and blogs on government digital practices at eGovAU.

Having ideas is the easy part … The harder, and most fulfilling, part is to take an idea and realise it as an end product.

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

I’ve worked in the digital space for twenty years, and during that time have trained thousands of people across the corporate, public and not-for-profit sectors on digital strategy and application. This has ranged from teaching people the basics of how to use the internet and create websites, using and managing social media and mobile channels and through to more advanced digital topics around open data, APIs, crisis and reputation management.

I’ve always found it difficult to find useful physical tools that can be used in training workshops or in workplaces to help people to understand and apply digital strategies.

It’s always been possible to show digital services on a screen, and have a class work on laptops, or to use butcher’s paper and post-it-notes to sketch out a strategy or digital ecosystem. However actual custom-designed tools that assist teams to develop a digital strategy on a table are extremely hard to find.

I have always been a fan of tabletop and board gaming and worked with many people who have learned and thought best when they could physically manipulate a strategy while they discussed the implications, so I was always drawn to the idea of creating a tabletop system for designing digital strategies.

In the early 2000s I’d seen a few one-off tools used internationally for specific purpose digital design, and in 2009 I developed my own prototype card-based system for teaching and developing digital strategy. I used this widely in training sessions and with the organisations I worked for and, over five years, gradually refined it into a reusable system that could adapt to address most digital strategy needs.

By 2013 I was being regularly asked by people at conferences if they could get a copy of my system for their own use, so I starting thinking about commercialising it as a retail product.

I was running another company at the time, and spent another year tossing over how to do this without splitting my focus. Finally, at a point where the other business was on a sound footing, I decided to take the plunge and launched a Kickstarter campaign in February 2014 to fund commercial design and production of the product, which I’d named ‘Social Media Planner’.

Now I went and spoke to a number of people who’d run successful and unsuccessful crowdfunding campaigns to get prepared for this, but I still made several major mistakes which led to the campaign being unsuccessful.

Firstly, it was still early days for Kickstarter in Australia and it didn’t yet have the reach or presence that it has built today. I set the amount I needed at $20,000, based on similar US campaigns, and it turned out I overestimated what I could reasonably raise through the service in Australia.

I also had work commitments throughout the campaign, which split my focus. In fact, I spent about a week of the campaign overseas seeing clients, and had to make time outside of work through the rest of the four-week Kickstarter campaign. This, combined with difficulty in finding a good PR person to help (few PRs in Australia understood crowdfunding at that time), meant I didn’t get a good run-up before launching and didn’t attract media attention when and where I needed it. Despite that I managed to raise about half the funds, and attracted a lot of interest from people who wanted to buy the product but were still uncomfortable using crowdfunding platforms.

After the Kickstarter I put the project on the backburner for about 12 months while focusing on my primary business. I needed the time to rethink and reassess the approach to bringing the product to market.

Then, after exiting my primary business in 2015, I decided to re-invigorate Social Media Planner, self-funding the product to market. I started this process in July and, due to an opportunity to audition for Shark Tank, launched the product a little earlier than I intended in late September 2015 with the first two versions – a business deck and a government deck.

Can you please explain your business model?

Social Media Planner decks are sold online directly through the site and via affiliate sites. Thus far I’ve had orders from over 20 countries. I’m also exploring bundling the decks with training and services.

The sales have been decent and I’m already close to breakeven without having ramped up the marketing or relationship sales.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

Right now I’m finalising both an expansion pack with new social media tools and a Not-for-profit version of the cards, which will directly support organisations in the not-for-profit sector to design effective digital and social media strategies.

I’m also working with partners on a Music Industry version and on two similar card-based products on the topics of Sponsorship and Sustainability.

Behind that, I have the technology platform that supports and expands Social Media Planner moving forward slowly. This is the really exciting part of the mix, as the digital product will help organisations leap forward rapidly in implementing effective digital strategies.

How do you make ideas happen?

Having ideas is the easy part – in fact I have a list of ideas on the backburner for future exploration via the lean startup Validation Board. The harder, and most fulfilling, part is to take an idea and realise it as an end product.

I have a standard approach I follow to achieve this involving brainstorming the steps on a whiteboard, mapping it into a timeline and identifying blockers and chokepoints. I often record these brainstorming sessions and have them transcribed to capture every detail.

Then I take the steps and information and outsource what I can, then knock off the tasks based on priority and timing. This is simply the slog part of the process, and as I’m a burst worker I tend to work in small bursts at various times day or night.

Whenever relevant I draw pictures and develop physical prototypes to help me understand and test products kinetically and iterate the product rapidly to reach a design that can be tested more broadly.

Then I start trialling the product while other setup work goes on in the background through my outsourced team.

What role have mentors played in your business life?

I know people swear by mentors, and I’ve done quite a bit of mentoring throughout my career, however I’ve only had a few mentors, and they tend to have been very focused on specific issues or topics.

I’d love to have a longer-term mentor who could work with me throughout my business development cycle, but have yet to find one that matches.

What does your typical day look like?

When I am working from our office, I generally wake-up around 5am, scan the news and get some writing and thinking done, then get the kids off to school and work. I then take the 2min commute to the office besides our house and deal with my big rocks for the day.

Alongside Social Media Planner, I’m working on several profit-based projects with my partner, as well as philanthropic initiatives to help improve digital use across Australian governments, so any of these can be the big rocks on a particular day.

Lunch is an opportunity to catch up with my partner & check the day’s news and social trends, then I get onto lower order priorities.

I normally break at 3pm to deal with kids and because it’s my low energy point in the day, then do a limited amount of lower priority work before dinner. In the evenings I often do some more work, debrief with my partner, attend events, deal with kids and catch up on shows and social media.

I’m normally in bed by 11 and finish the day with a few games and thinking.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

Setting up a new business is relatively easy in Australia – and it has become a lot easier in the last twenty years to deal with the regulation involved.

My largest challenges have been in accessing funding, and I’ve often gone overseas for seed capital to countries where they’re more open to new ideas and willing to take a measured risk.

The capital markets have improved in Australia, however I still see a lot of fad and trend investing in me-too concepts and there’s a need to be connected to the right people and have the right relationships, rather than necessarily have a great idea or business.

I’ve never found the government very consistent or easy to deal with from a start-up sense and there’s a lot more that could be done to shift mindsets at both political and public service levels to understand what startups actually need. Mind you, until recently startups haven’t had much of a voice in Australia nor expertise in dealing with government, so there have been challenges on both sides.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

Drone rubbish bins. As our population ages, but many people continue to live in their own homes, there’s an increasing need to create products and services that make it easier for Australians to remain at home as long as possible. This also affects disabled people who may live independently, but struggle with tasks such as dragging a heavy bin up a long drive.

A product I’ve always wanted to create, but haven’t found an engineering partner to make it with, is autonomous garbage and recycling bins that take themselves out every week on bin night and wheel themselves back in (to a recharging dock) after being emptied.

It solves three problems – people forgetting to take out their bins, and disabled and older people who cannot manage their bins no longer have to rely on the kindness of their neighbours or carers.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?

There’s so much good work going on. I’m particularly a big fan of the work SponServe is doing to help organisations manage sponsorships and SignOnSite, who are making building sites safer.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

Business is part of society and has an important role fostering and supporting social change. Just by existing and delivering great products they are influencing society and potentially changing it, so it would be great if more businesses thought about the social changes they wish to be part of.

Existing businesses can often have most impact by supporting people working in the social change space, while startups and other young businesses should be thinking about how they design their businesses to best create social value while also delivering great products and experiences in a profitable manner.

My business, Social Media Planner, was designed around the poor digital engagement I saw coming from many businesses and government agencies and the products were developed to help them to improve how they engage – thereby providing better experiences for customers and citizens.

Speaking of affecting social change, Is there a particular charity you support? 

I primarily support Kiva – they provide small interest-free loans to entrepreneurs around the world to create employment and empower women. When loans are repaid, the money can be re-lent. I’ve made over a hundred loans through the service, recycling the money for public good.

Can you name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers? (great news on Australia’s startup scene) (fantastic charity) (my egovernment blog) 

Can you name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter?

Rosie Williamsan awesome open data warrior: @Info_Aus (PS our interview with Rosie here)

Steve Baxtertop entrepreneur and VC: @sbxr

Aaron LePoidevinPwC partner, Entrepreneur and mentor: @aaronlepoidevin 

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea?

I’m interested in bringing on a technical or funding partner to support the development of the digital Social Media Planner product, and happy to talk to people about this.

I’m also always looking for channels to market to help Social Media Planner get into more peoples’ hands. 

We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be?

The most effective techniques for building a lead generation system. 

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Cream cafe in the Canberra Centre in Civic


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