My latest post for the Harvard Business Review was inspired by a trip I made to Romania earlier this spring. I visited Bucharest and Cluj as part of the School for Startups, a highly successful UK-based entrepreneurship program created by Doug Richard. S4S is running in two different Romanian cities this year, with about a hundred entrepreneurs in each, thanks to the support of the Post-Privatization Foundation. Doug invited me to Romania to lead day-long social media workshops in each of the cities where S4S is now underway.

“Are you hoping they can catch up to North American entrepreneurs in their use of social media?” I asked, when we first discussed what a workshop might cover.

“No!” Doug responded definitively. “I want them to leapfrog.”

That ambitious mandate was a function of one of Doug’s core insights about how S4S can help catalyze both individual businesses and a broader entrepreneurial culture in post-Communist Romania. Romanian entrepreneurs don’t have to be stuck playing catch-up: they can leap ahead in certain fields and in specific business practices, precisely because they aren’t encumbered with legacy approaches, expectations and institutions.

Social media is one frontier where that strategy seems especially promising. I’ve seen company after company, non-profit after non-profit and agency after agency struggle with social media because it doesn’t map onto existing org charts or ways of doing business. But that struggle translates into opportunities for new companies who can invent themselves, their business processes and their internal culture so that they’re engineered for a world of always-on, real-time customer engagement.

Fundamentally, that means transcending the message-push paradigm that has defined decades of business marketing, and instead embracing a conversational model of marketing that is mirrored by an internal culture of collaboration. In more specific terms, that involves:

  • listening to your customers’ and would-be customers’ priorities and evolving your products, services and marketing in response to their priorities, needs and input
  • asking how your online presence can create tangible valuable for customers and influencers
  • convening a customer community rather than pushing single customer message out to your customers
  • seeing your brand and products as something you co-create with your customers and employees rather than as something you own

If there is one thing I know from my own life as an entrepreneur, however, it’s that high-level principles like these are not where your head is at when you are getting a business off the ground. You’re thinking about how to find the next customer, expand your market, make the next critical hire or solve your cashflow crunch. With concerns like these, how can you think about the changing business paradigm enabled by social media?

The genius of social media is that you don’t have to. These principles are so deeply embedded in social media tools that if you focus on simply getting the tools in place that you need to do business — and if, unlike a big established company, you bake them into your business model as you build it from the ground up — your business will naturally evolve in a way that reflects this emergent social and interactive paradigm. Grow your company in a social media-flavored petri dish and you will end up with a company that thrives in a social media environment.

So while the S4S workshops touched on the big picture significance of social media, our conversations focused primarily on how to put specific tools to work in small companies in order to accomplish key marketing and business goals. Joy of joys, many of these tools happen to be free (which sure helps on the cashflow front). And since adopting these tools gets companies used to working in a real-time, responsive and conversational way, they do double duty: they solve immediate business problems while shaping a sustainable long-terms strategy. Here are the tools I recommended to put companies on that path:

Monitoring tools
Immediate impact: Track your customers and the competition so you know where to focus your growth potential…and where to protect yourself from potential thread.
Strategic impact: Create a culture of listening in which customer and influencer feedback is treated as a core form of business intelligence.

  1. Google Reader: For tracking a wide range of news sources, blogs and online searches.
  2. iGoogle: For monitoring the most crucial, can’t-afford-to-miss-this news (like blog posts and news stories about your company).
  3. Google blog search & news search: For tracking content specific to your industry, both as a source of business intelligence and as the basis for your own blogging or tweeting.

Storytelling tools
Immediate impact: Get your core message and brand to a larger audience without spending a fortune on advertising and PR.
Strategic impact: Build a committed customer community through your habit of communicating in a personal voice and through real-time conversation.

  1. WordPress: An easy and inexpensive way to set up a robust website or blog that can scale along with your company.
  2. Twitter: Maintain a Twitter presence that tells your story to a larger audience and engages them in conversation.

Networking tools
Immediate impact: Find potential customers, influencers and employees.
Strategic impact: Create a company in which your team sees itself not as an island but as one part of a larger business, economic and social ecosystem.

  1. Facebook: Bring your stories, offers and conversation to your customers by finding them in the online context they visit most.
  2. LinkedIn: Pinpoint your sales targets by searching for business people in the industries and locations you are focused on serving.

Collaboration tools
Immediate impact: Save time and money on internal communications and software by working together online.
Strategic impact: Develop a business culture in which your employees are used to working transparently, trusting one another, and supporting one another’s work.

  1. Evernote: A note-taking tool that helps each individual employee keep better track of all their meeting notes, document drafts and files…while making it easy for project teams to share files.
  2. Delicious: A social bookmarking tool that replaces your browser’s favorites and instead makes all your employees’ online discoveries available to the broader team.
  3. Basecamp: A project management tool that makes it easy to track tasks, deadlines and dependencies.
  4. Google Docs: Online spreadsheets, documents and slide decks that let your team collaborate on a single draft rather than circulating files by email and coping with version control

The list above links to references on this site but you can find great guides and tips for using all of these tools (and more!) on sites like Mashable and LifeHacker. You can find more resources for learning about these social media tools by reading this summary of my presentation at a Harvard Business School conference earlier this spring.

And remember, if the job of social media seems daunting: you’re not investing in software. You’re investing in creating a company with the processes, team and culture to become another one of School for Startups’ marvellous success stories.