I got a little enthusiastic with this week’s topics, so we’ve got to jump right into it. It’s a bit long today. I think it’s worth it. I hope that you agree.
But before we do, we must pause to celebrate Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré who this week became the first African to win architecture’s highest international honour, the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize. You can read more about his work here.
Over the last three weeks, our strategy section has been exploring the nuts and bolts of organisational effectiveness. Two weeks ago, we looked at what it takes to build excellent execution. Last week, we examined strategic cost management. This week, we look to how we can build traction in connecting with customers. Together, these three topics constitute the framework for running a business. Connect with customers, get the sales, execute with excellence on the promise that you’ve made to your client (yep, that’s what a sale truly is – it’s a promise) and ensure that how you’re choosing to spend your money (costs) and time (also a cost) strengthens what you’re good at.
We often paralyse ourselves by looking at benchmark companies through the wrong end of the telescope. We look at a twenty-year-old business with sophisticated sales operations and then impose that on our baby business or new product line.
There’s another approach, one more intuitive and indeed more effective. It is to, in the words of Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, Do Things That Don’t Scale. Although Graham’s piece focuses on tech start-ups the principles apply to any business, just replace ‘user’ with ‘client’.
He notes that any business in its early stages is fragile and clunky. The first 50 Apple computers were built by hand (it’s worth reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs for just that story). The founders of Pebble did the same thing, assembling the first few hundred watches themselves, by hand. When Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were building AirBnB they took photographs of the apartments themselves. When Lisa Price founded Carol’s Daughter she made her products in her kitchen and sold them at markets. Allen Ambor would chase after customers in the rain persuading them to come into his first Spur Steak Ranch.
The fragility can be intimidating. Bill Gates went back to Harvard after starting Microsoft. He only stayed for one semester, but it says a lot about the doubts he was having about Microsoft. So, if you’re feeling anxious in the early days of your business, you’re in some pretty good company. Equally, each of these people kept acting methodically and consistently to build traction with their customers.
Graham puts delighting your customers at the top of your to-do list. He says “You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy…Your first users should feel that signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made. And you in turn should be racking your brains to think of new ways to delight them.”
Take note of his phrasing “extraordinary measures”, building that initial momentum requires taking extraordinary measures. You might not be able to do them forever, certainly Apple couldn’t hand-build computers forever, but to get going, push for extraordinary, reach out of your every day, do more. And I love the word ‘delight’, throw ‘value proposition’ out the window – are you delighting your customers?
He goes on to say “It’s not the product that should be insanely great, but the experience of being your user. The product is just one component of that. For a big company it’s necessarily the dominant one. But you can and should give users an insanely great experience with an early, incomplete, buggy product, if you make up the difference with attentiveness.” Delight need not be fireworks; it is giving your customers intentional attention and care.
Of course, if you’ve grown beyond yourself, you want your whole company to delight your customers. Then, your role as founder and CEO, or department manager, becomes to give your colleagues an insanely great experience. They need to feel what you want your customers to experience.
Graham’s piece is great for early-stage businesses, companies of one (like me), or when you’re an intrapreneur looking to launch a new product in an established business. Moving beyond that, you want to build momentum and scale. For that, Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares’ Traction is useful. Don’t expect a fun, breezy read, this is a super-practical exploration of how to use different channels to connect with customers.
As a first principle, “look for evidence of real product engagement, even if it is only a few dedicated customers…You should examine these bright spots to see how they might be expanded. Why do these customers take to your product so well? Is there some thread that unites them? Are they early adopters in a huge market or are they outliers?”
We often give up because we don’t see instant large growth, but those dedicated customers are a sign that you’ve got something and perhaps you need to be investing in connecting with more customers. Of course, if there are no bright spots, perhaps you haven’t got a business.
If you’ve got the bright spots, you want to be able to find the best ways to reach more of them. Weinberg and Mares identify nineteen different channels that you can use to connect with your customers. They are targeting blogs; publicity; unconventional PR; search engine marketing; social and display ads; offline ads; search engine optimisation; content marketing; email marketing; viral marketing; engineering as marketing; business development; sales; affiliate programs; existing platforms, trade shows; offline events; speaking engagements and community building. Perhaps just reading those nineteen channels has sparked some new ideas for your business. Jot them down – they’re part of the outer ring of your ‘bullseye’ (see below).
They note that often we default to the channels that are familiar to us, ignoring others. In their work, they found that often success was built when companies identified channels that their competitors weren’t using, and they then used those. There was less noise and so they stood out more easily.
They suggest you approach building a channel strategy by researching ‘how past and present companies in your space and adjacent spaces succeeded or failed at getting tractions’ and then, constructing a ‘bullseye’.
In the outer ring of the bullseye, you think through a strategy that might work for your business for every one of the nineteen channels. The discipline of doing this helps you to counter any pre-existing biases that you may have and forces you to think in a disciplined fashion about scaling your customer contact points.
Then, in your middle ring chose a number of strategies that seem probable to generate the most success for your business. Run a cheap test experimenting with each strategy. The experiments should be designed to give you rough answers to these questions:
- “How much will cost to acquire customers through this channel?
- How many customers are available through this channel?
- Are the customers that you are getting through this channel the kind of customers that you want right now?”
If none of them generate results, go back to the outer ring, and start again. If you’re in the unlucky position where you go through the process several times and you don’t seem to get traction, then your offering probably requires work.
However, if you’ve got some positive results, then chose the single channel that you gave you your best results and focus your attention there. You’ve got your bullseye. Dedicate your time, effort, and resources there. By focusing on the channel that’s giving you the best results, you’re able to strengthen your skill in using that channel, enabling you to build momentum. Keep pushing until that channel starts to wane and then start all over again.
Creating operational effectiveness, redirecting expenditure strategically, and building traction all require intention, focus, and energy. Those come from you, so caring for yourself is the basic building block of any organisational success.
In January of this year, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nnat Hanh passed on. If you don’t know him, it may help to know that Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the course of his life, he wrote multiple books, including The Miracle of Mindfulness which was a guide for young monks and nuns facing the onslaught of the Vietnam war.
This week I returned to this 2003 On Being podcast with him. It’s 50 minutes long and worth the time in this moment.
Hanh defines mindfulness as meaning that “your mind fully present in the here and the now” and reflect that “with mindfulness, you’ll be concentrated. And mindfulness and concentration help you to see things and to touch things more deeply, so that you might understand the true nature of what is there.” That sounds like a reasonable reward.
He says that “when you are mindful, you are fully alive; you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you. And you are stronger, you are more solid in order to handle the suffering inside of you and around you. When you are mindful, you can recognize, embrace, and handle the pain, the sorrow in you and around you, to bring you relief. And if you continue with concentration and insight, you’ll be able to transform the suffering inside and help transform the suffering around you.”
If you only have a few minutes go to the 16-minute mark and listen to police officer Cheri Maples explaining how Hanh’s teaching transformed her work.
Her story is incredibly powerful. She reflects that she’d become mechanical doing her job, but that Hanh’s teaching helped her connect to herself and then to others, finding more creative solutions that saw deeper than the moment, ultimately transforming lives.
In summary, that business-building journey begins with us being stronger and more capable. Building ourselves means being present in our experience. Being present in our experience enables us to connect with others and the world. Being connected means that we build businesses that make a difference.
Today’s soul is a sprinkling of beauty and optimism for your week.
If you are wondering whether you should visit Cape Town (or move here), this photograph of a caracal on Chapman’s Peak may help you decide. Seeing that made me grateful that my lamb delivery from the Food Club Hub (my favourite way of buying food) had come with this note.
Thanks to fifty years of conversation and protection, Seychelles’ Green Turtles, after being hunted to the brink of extinction, are thriving. With intention, we can indeed change the world. Click here to learn more.
And then I discovered the fascinating work of Doyne Farmer (who has the cool job title of Director of Complexity Economics) in this New Yorker essay written by Bill McKibben. Farmer’s team “found that the price trajectories of fossil fuels and renewables are already crossing. Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel and becoming more so. So, a “decisive transition” to renewable energy, they reported, would save the world twenty-six trillion dollars in energy costs in the coming decades.”
As McKibben notes “This is precisely the opposite of how we have viewed energy transition.” It’s amazing how some solid analysis reveals new possibilities.
So, you got to this point, I hope it was worth it. Next week will be briefer.
Have a happy week.