The Path to Growth: Five Stages of Position-Product-People Alignment

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For nearly any business, growth happens when you know your market, and have your product and your people aligned to the needs of that market. For young companies, such as the technology startups with which I work, this alignment can make the difference between a future IPO and shutting down the business.

Exceptional growth requires expert navigation

As companies start and grow, they begin to discover not only their own expertise, but more importantly, their market, its niches and segments, as well as its quirks, needs and wants. I think of this as navigating the discovery of a new land, full of opportunity and fraught with danger. Finding the path to growth is challenging, but the closer you get to your particular path, the more rewarding it becomes.

The path to exceptional growth is the precise alignment of your product (and capabilities), your position (the needs and wants of the market) and your people (their execution of your processes.

Most businesses go through five stages of alignment:

Typical Revenue RangePosition-Product-People Alignment
>$50 millionAcceleration
$10 million–$50 millionNavigation
$5 million–$10 millionMap-Making
$1 million–$5 millionDiscovery
<$1 millionSuspicion

I’ve outlined this for a typical technology startup, but this can apply to any business or product line.


When a company is just starting out, the founding idea comes from some knowledge that a handful of potential customers may need something like the product being contemplated and a founder’s belief she can address that need differently from how it is being solved now.

The market is unknown territory. Whether there are more than a few potential customers is unknown. Any knowledge of a path to growth is nothing more than a suspicion. The product is brand new, so it is still trying to find the needs with which to align.


As the company starts to sell products and find customers, it has also found a wider range of ways its product meets the needs of a wider range of customers. There may be little consistency from one customer to the next, but they all find the company has something that meets some set of needs.

This stage of discovery is an important step for every company. The company learns some of what is possible and can start to consider which of the many types of customers will suit it best.

At this stage, there is still very little alignment among position, product and people, as the company is trying to do everything it can to meet the needs of any customer who shows up. The most common cause of failure at this stage is a product that is not growing to meet these diverse needs, meaning the company can’t deliver on its promises.


The company has now become more adept at finding customers, and finding ways to discover and meet their needs. While there may be little consistency as to these needs from customer to customer, some commonalities are beginning to appear.

These areas of commonality are the segments and niches in the company’s market. Knowledge of these shows the company what will work best for its own strategy and objectives, and will eventually help it better understand how to compete with direct and indirect competitors.

This is where alignment becomes critical. As the company learns where it can be most successful, understanding the needs of that segment and how the company can meet them differently from what has come before becomes critical to continued growth and advancing to the next stage.

The most common causes of failure at this stage are either not seeing the emerging segments making it hard to focus, or not continuing to build product that meets the needs of the coalescing segments, again causing the company to miss keeping its promises.


The company has seen success in one or more segments and must now choose to focus on one at a time. Exceptional growth requires thinking smaller. Let me repeat, as this is not always intuitive:

Exceptional growth requires thinking smaller.

Focusing on one position in the market — one set of needs, met in a differentiated way, in one segment — allows the company to build a product, train its people and develop processes to focus on demonstrated success — and start to repeat that success. This repeatability is the key to scale.

The most common cause of failure at this stage is not aligning product and people with the chosen position — the needs of the customers in the company’s market segment. This is lack of focus, one of the critical elements of exceptional growth.


With product and people aligned to position (market needs), the company is seeing an increasing number of customers, as well as a decrease in the effort it takes to find a customer. The repeatability inherent in focusing on a chosen position allows the company to scale its operations and delivery in a very precise way.

This same repeatability allows the company to define segment after segment and pursue them in the same way that it pursued the initial segment, creating another layer of scale and accelerating growth.

The most common cause of not being able to achieve this scale is not getting the people and processes in the company aligned to delivering the needs of the chosen segment(s), causing the company to stumble in execution.

Understanding your market and how you can meet the needs of the customers in that market in a different and differentiated way is the foundation of creating exceptional growth for your budding business. Once you get your position right, precisely align your product and your people to that position, and you can find your unique path to exceptional growth.


Three Ways to Find Your Marketing Creativity Again

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It would be hard to find a marketer who would not agree that marketing has become much less creative and much more process-focused.  We tend to idealize the 1960s world, stereotyped by the television show Mad Men, where the creative team ruled the business and the great idea was the best product marketers had to offer their client or employer.  At the same time, we lament the rise of technology, complaining that marketing and sales automation has forced us into a never-ending loop of justifying our value based on whatever numbers our client or bosses choose to watch.

What Happened to Marketing Creativity?

It’s easy to blame the shift to more process-focused marketing on the rise of marketing technology and the associated capabilities of measurement.  But it’s also true that we have used technology as a crutch, a substitute for our own creativity, in order to get things done faster, or, at times, with less hard work.

Don’t get me wrong:  Automation and measurement are important to a functioning marketing team.  Without it, you can’t scale and you just don’t know what’s working and what’s not. You need automation to deliver just the right message to just the right person at just the right time and to know whether you succeeded and whether the person took the action for which you were hoping.  As marketing gets more and more personal, the need for technology to handle more tasks at a higher level of functionality will only increase.

Is marketing creativity getting lost in automation?  I don’t think so.

Creativity, though, marketing creativity is the role―and the greatest contribution―of humans in marketing (and beyond).  You can’t delegate that to an automation system.  I think it’s time for us, as marketers, to remember it is still human creativity that drives our work; our automation systems cannot be the source of our creativity but rather the tools we use to automate and scale that creativity.

Is your marketing really as creative as it could be?  Here’s an example of using technology as a substitute for marketing creativity.  See if this scenario sounds familiar:

Your digital marketing team is about to launch another email campaign (the last one worked pretty well, right?).  They decide on the new target audience.  They then look at the last campaign in your marketing automation system and copy it.  They edit the content to more closely match the new idea.  They swap out the calls-to-action with new ones (which look surprisingly similar to the old ones―with apologies to Pete Townshend).  They check it over and hit send.

This is how the vast majority of marketing is being done today.  Email campaigns are being copied.  Ads are being tweaked.  Even paid search parameters don’t really change much. It’s comfortable.  It’s easy to understand. It’s low-risk―both from an investment perspective and in how you have to explain the lower results (it was just like the last one―we thought it would work!).  We accept incremental change and incremental results, because we can understand it.  And because our marketing automation systems, which were designed to automate tasks, are being used as a substitute for creativity.

Nobody ever made a difference in any market by doing something just like what they had done before.  You can insert the Apple branding story of your choice here, because the ways they changed thinking and changed consumer preferences is exactly the point (My personal favorite story about how ads changed minds and the market is the “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign.).

How do we put the marketing creativity back into marketing?  It’s not easy, but it’s critical if you want to make a difference in your market, to your clients, and to your company.

Three Ideas for Putting Creativity into Your Marketing

Here are three ideas I use to get my creativity back into my marketing efforts:

1)  Kairos

Morgan McLintic, managing director for the U.S. for Lewis Global Communications wrote an interesting piece for LinkedIn, titled Why You Aren’t Creative Anymore.  He discusses the ancient Greek culture’s two different expressions for time:

Chronos, he explains, is the concept we understand as the ticking of the clock as time passes.  It’s the way time gets measured and how time passes.  It’s how we synchronize (notice the root word, chronos) to get a common understanding of when things happen.

Kairos, on the other hand, is a qualitative passage of time, similar to Csiksgentmihalyi’s concept of flow.  It’s the place where we take the time to focus and create.

McLintic argues that the endless distractions and demands prevent us from creating the space for creativity.  We are not just endlessly busy; we are distracted.  We might be with our families, but we are thinking about work.  We might be meeting with a colleague but really worried about the meeting with our CEO tomorrow.  Focus―a key element of flow―is hard to come by.  Plus, we live in a culture that values busy-ness.  We are always under pressure to appear busy, even if we are not.  That ends up creating more stress as we force busy-work on ourselves to meet the expectation we think our surroundings―especially our work environments―force upon us.

Getting that space is hard, probably harder than it’s ever been.  But it works.  Here’s how I saw that happen recently.

I was leading a messaging project for my company.  We needed to not just revise our messaging but simplify it and communicate it in a clear, simple, concise way that anyone―in our market or elsewhere―could understand.  Even if you do every day, you know this is no easy task.  I took the usual steps, interviewing lots of people, consolidating feedback, looking for common threads and so on.  When I looked at my output, I had four PowerPoint slides with messaging statements and explanations― anything but simple.

I threw it out. I found a quiet place and put on the music that, for me, tends to inspire but not distract me (Mozart’s Symphonies No. 40 and 41).  I thought.  I recalled everything every customer and prospect had said.  I wondered why they bought from us.  More importantly, I wondered what they were trying to achieve when they bought from us.  As I sat there, the image came into my head of what must be in their heads.  Then the word showed up that described it.  Then I used the word in just the right sentence.  And that was it.  I had my answer.

Now, I stop just like that for every campaign I launch.  I encourage my team to do the same.  The result is I am starting my work with creativity―the critical element of marketing success.  I’m not letting my marketing automation system be my crutch for marketing creativity; I’m doing the creative work and letting the marketing automation system do its job of automating what I created.

2)  Finding Our Inner Four-year-old

Sir Ken Robinson discusses how our schools kill creativity.  It’s worth the nearly 20 minutes to watch.

He tells this story (slightly edited for readability):

When my son, James, was four in England―actually, he was four everywhere, to be honest.  If we’re being strict about it, wherever he went, he was four that year.  He was in the Nativity play.  Do you remember the story?  No, it was big, it was a big story. Mel Gibson did the sequel; you may have seen it: “Nativity II.”

But James got the part of Joseph, which we were thrilled about.  We considered this to be one of the lead parts.   We had the place crammed full of agents in T-shirts: “James Robinson IS Joseph!”  He didn’t have to speak, but you know the bit where the three kings come in?  They come in bearing gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This really happened.  We were sitting there, and I think they just went out of sequence, because we talked to the little boy afterward and we said, “You OK with that?”  And he said, “Yeah, why? Was that wrong?”  They just switched.  The three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, “I bring you gold.” And the second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.” And the third boy said, “Frank sent this.”

Kids will take a chance.  If they don’t know, they’ll have a go.  They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative.  What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original―if you’re not prepared to be wrong.  And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.  They have become frightened of being wrong.  And we run our companies like this.  We stigmatize mistakes.  And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.  And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

Trust me, it’s much funnier when he says it.  But he’s right.  He tells the story―now pretty much folklore in the education business:  when you ask a class of kindergartners who is an artist, pretty much everyone raises their hand.  When you ask a class of sixth-graders the same question, only one or two raise their hands.

You probably can’t go to work and act like a four-year-old.  But you can take the time and focus to let yourself play with your thoughts and ideas like you did when you were four, then take what you come up with, and put it into grown-up terms your colleagues will understand.

I can pretty much guarantee you show more marketing creativity than anyone―including you―ever expected.

3) Avoid Groupthink

This should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to make a decision in a meeting. You know the pattern all-too-well:  Everyone speaks, carefully avoiding stating an opinion, until the boss chimes in, then everyone suddenly agrees with the boss, showing how what they already said supports their agreement.  This is not just a business phenomenon.

Brainstorming sessions are a really good way to avoid this.  But most brainstorming sessions fall prey to the exact same malady.  We are afraid to offer ideas that might seem too far away from the norm―or worse, too stupid.  We want to be seen as part of the team, and we want to be seen as intelligent.

One technique I have seen used is to let everyone do their brainstorming alone, while in a group.  In this approach, you might hand everyone slips of paper or post-it notes.  Ask everyone to write down everything they can think of, one idea per slip or post-it.  When everyone is done, collect the notes so they are not associated with any individual.  Let the group get together and look at the ideas, then start sorting them out and prioritizing.

Groupthink is a very dangerous and insidious bias that can kill any attempt to offer anything creative before it is even stated.  You probably know this intuitively.  Avoiding the fear of groupthink will let you find a way to offer your marketing creativity and maybe make a big difference in your next project.

These three suggestions are far from the only ways to reestablish marketing creativity.  I’m pretty sure you have a few other ideas (please offer them in the comments below!).

Reestablishing the role of creativity is critical to the success of your marketing efforts and to the success of your organization as a whole.  It’s time to stop letting automation drive all our thinking and let it do its job―automating the creativity humans bring to the work.


Building a Career after 50: The Chopped-Liver Effect

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I was once heir to a chopped-liver dynasty.  Really.  When you get to the inevitable part of any team development activity where you are asked to go around the room and tell everyone something about you they may not already know, I say that.  And there’s a good story behind it with some excellent career lessons.  I’ll come back to that.

How I Got Here

When I turned 50, I had a good job with a large, fairly stable company.  My career, up to that point, had been a series of similar jobs.  Most were in marketing or related areas, and there was what HR folks call a good progression of responsibilities.  I was not the most successful 50-year-old in the business, but I was happy with my progress to that point.

I also knew on the day I turned 50 that everything was about to change.  I learned a lot along the way, about both my chosen profession and how I am happiest contributing.  I also learned a bit about myself (see this piece I wrote for Psychology Today).  All this led me to the conclusion that I did not want to go where my trajectory was taking me.

This, I soon discovered, is the hardest kind of change to make for oneself.  It required not only stepping out of the traditional roles and work to which I’d become accustomed, but also two of the hardest personal projects I’ve undertaken:  defining what the new trajectory of a career after 50 would look like and redirecting nearly 30 years of career momentum.

Defining a new trajectory sounds pretty simple:  take those things you like to do and figure out how to get people to pay you to do them.  But, most career coaches will tell you what I also learned:  it’s much more than that.  You have to find the way in which you like to contribute, then figure out what kind of work that means you have to do—which might also mean finding or creating work you have never seen—then figuring out how to get people to pay you to do that work.  Plus, as a marketer, I had to explore in greater depth what value I would be bringing to the market and whom my customer would be.

I landed on a goal of building my own business:  consulting, writing, and maybe speaking. That was just the way in which I wanted to contribute.  If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I talk largely about business relationships, specifically those between a company and its customers.  This is the path I have chosen.  After all those years in marketing—the past decade or so in businesses where customer relationships were the drivers of success—I realized this was not only something about which I cared deeply but also something that was incredibly valuable to many companies and where there was a substantial market needing help.

After four years of trying to make this a success, I have found a few things about building a career after 50:

  • It’s never linear. I have been lucky enough to have some interesting consulting engagements.  Some of those are exactly what I expected.  Others, not so much. The theme of customer relationships did run through everything I’ve done so far but hardly in the way I expected, in many cases.
  • It’s hard. There is such strong interest in this area and so many companies in need, I figured this would be just a matter of finding the right buyer for my services—and I’d be too busy for my own good.  Not exactly. After three years of struggling with the fact that the industry didn’t even have the right buyer (which changed, thankfully), I now find myself doing what every one of you who runs a consulting firm is doing:  selling hard and often and in ways I never expected.
  • It’s discouraging. I’m 54 now and am not the wildly successful, world-famous, notable consultant and author I expected to be.  The reality does not yet match, but the expectation remains.

One way I keep myself going is to remember my own inspiration.

The Chopped-Liver Dynasty

I’ve studied business and marketing extensively and worked in the field for more than 30 years.  Yet I attribute much of what I know, including my instincts, to my grandparents, who started and ran their own successful business.

They were immigrants from Eastern Europe.  They came to the United States with very little.  They worked and saved and got help from family and, eventually, started a luncheonette (today, we’d call it a diner).  My grandmother made chopped liver from her own recipe for sandwiches (in the New York Jewish community of the 1930s to 1950s, this was very popular).  Eventually, people started asking her to send them home with some extra chopped liver for their dinner, and she started selling it.  It became popular enough that my grandparents eventually closed the luncheonette and opened a business making and selling chopped liver.  By the early 1970s it had become the largest selling brand of kosher frozen chopped liver in the United States.

There were lots of lessons I learned as a kid and young adult listening to my grandmother telling me how they got the business started, how they sold the chopped liver, how they created distribution and sales channels, and so much more.

I’ve always admired the story, and by the time I was a teenager, I knew that my goal was —and still it today—to grow up to be just like my grandmother.

Am I There Yet?

A few weeks ago, I was considering how to adjust my own path to make my goal of consulting, writing, and speaking work better for me.  I was starting to think about how I am getting older, how businesses are less and less likely to seek out older people to meet their needs (see this rather discouraging piece from CNN), and how I was starting to feel more and more rushed to reach some as-yet-undefined milestone of success for my own efforts.

Then I thought about my grandparents’ business and what I could learn from it, and I did some math.  I realized my grandmother was in her mid-50s when they launched the chopped-liver business (my grandfather was about 60).  When I was old enough to be aware of their success, it felt to me like they had been successful forever, but it had only been 10 or 15 years.

Here I am in my mid-50s, relaunching my own business effort, a career after 50.  Suddenly, I know it’s not too late.  I know this is a good time to be in my own business.  I know I have just learned one more thing from my grandparents:  it’s not too late to get started.  But you do have to get started.

I’ll keep you posted on where this takes me.  I hope my story will help if you’re feeling a bit washed up and unsure of your next step.  Just go.  And in fewer years than you imagine, you’ll have stories to tell and lessons to pass on, and everyone will just assume you’ve always been successful.  At least I hope it works that way for me, too.


Change of Control

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It’s often the simplest things that make all the difference.

This article by Gary Hamel describes the seemingly incredible effects of allowing local and front-line employees to make decisions on how best to serve the customers with whom they interacted every day, rather than listening to a standard coming from the central corporate office, which had the effect of not quite serving any customer particularly well.

It has a very powerful story which illustrates three important points:

One: It’s an excellent lesson in experimentation, focusing on what the customer really needs and wants and, what I think was Professor Hamel’s point, how to run a better business by changing the way you treat your people.

Two:It reinforces the fact that your brand is not what you define it to be, but rather it exists in the mind of those who know you and are your customers. In this case, looking at the definition of “reliability” from the perspective of the customer completely changed the practices that helped support the reputation.

Here’s what intrigued me:

Three: It’s the second underlying theme in the story that makes it so compelling: The changes, the innovation, the tremendous increase in customer service and profitability all happened because someone (according to this, a few people at a time) made the decision to give up centralized control and trust employees to use their judgement and do what is best for the business on their own volition – and most importantly to use their own intelligence and motivation to improve the business at every opportunity.

This was a shift for this particular company, and might well be for yours, in the relationship between the company (and its management) and its employees.

What would happen if we made the same shift in our relationship with the people in our market (customers and everyone else)?

What might happen if we stopped telling our market what to think about our companies and how they should relate to us?

As marketers, we are trained to do market research, find market positions with large opportunity, and spend time, money and resources making sure everyone think of us what we want them to.

One side effect of this is that we may not serve any of our customers particularly well (to reference a common example, I’d prefer a car that is safe, forward-thinking and “hot” but brand-reputation at least, I get to pick one).

This story is one from which we can learn.

Please read it.

Then think about what you are doing that is stopping your people from having the freedom to build a new customer relationship.And what you need to do to make that job easier for them. (can you provide templates to print opening hours instead of dictating them?)

Then go one step further: how can you enable your customers to build the relationship they want with you and get the service from you that suits them best?

I am fairly certain that even simple steps will dramatically improve your customer relationships and put you miles ahead of your competition in your relationship with the rest of the market.

Take a step now.

Discuss it here. I’d love to hear what you’ve tried and how it worked.


Dropping the 80

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Earlier this week, my friend @morganm pointed me to this post from TechCrunch that talked about a hypothetical future for the New York Times. Essentially, they propose that the top 20% of the New York Times reporters should walk out and form their own journalism outlet.

I agree – we’d all subscribe (though we’d have to wonder if it would be free), No offense to the other 80% likely-very-competent people, but these 20% are the ones who give the Times that edge that makes it different, better and to many the gold standard of American journalism. The Times might well be just another local paper without them.

So? The same is true of most companies, organizations, or any other entity. And just to be clear, I mean the top 20% of contributors, creators, innovators, performers, not the 20% with the highest ranks.

I felt compelled to ask: What would happen if you (and your fellow “top 20%” colleagues) did just that – walked out and made a more nimble, leaner, focused organization to compete with your now-former organization?

My guess is you’d run circles around your now-former organization and all of its other competitors. You’d be small, fast and expert. You’d have none of the weight of the organization to hold you back. You’d be creative, drive innovation and help your customers – by whatever definition you have them – succeed.

This begs some really difficult organizational questions, like do the top 20% of performers rely on the day-to-day work of the other 80% to allow them to do the things that make them top 20%? The more that’s true, the less likely this idea is to succeed.

Morgan asked me if I thought this applied as well to manufacturing companies as to media. I don’t know, but I suspect not. I suspect this small nimble entity might be really good at sales, marketing and design, but probably needs to other 80% to actually build something (you could outsource to them, but you still need them).

I subscribe to the theory that companies and work units are getting smaller and more nimble and must do so just to continue to survive in the developing new economy.

So I spent the past few days thinking about what it would look like if I took my favorite 20% of people from my organization and went and created something really cool centered around a new kind of relationship with our customers. And I realized we’d do some amazing things.

Then I thought, why can’t I just do that now? Take those same people, recruit them into a project team (this would look very different in a different size or type of organization) and make the same really cool things happen. (I’m proud to say I’ve actually done this more than a few times).

The answer: I can. More importantly, so can you.

I believe that if this becomes the norm, it is part of what will create the new, sustainable economy.

So now I’ll ask: What if you were to take your best 20% of the people you know, work with, etc. What could you do? And how can you make that happen right now?


October 10, 2008

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It’s a new year, and that probably means that you’ve made a bunch of resolutions and now you’re thinking about how you’re going to make all of those resolutions happen. There’s no shortage of resolutions to be made, and I’ve made more than a few of my own (breaking a long tradition of refusing to focus on the new year as a useful time to incite change).

But over the past year, I’ve begun to see something of a disconnect between the resolutions we’ve made in our work as marketers and the challenges we face as marketers.

In my conversations with marketing leaders, mostly in the business-to-business world, I’ve heard lists of resolutions that include: getting better at measuring campaign results, using the latest technology to run campaigns or to reach prospects, doing a better job of generating quality leads for the sales team, building award-winning branding and advertising, quantifying the results of our new-media efforts, and creating a “green” effort for our brand. There are many more, but the ones that fell into these categories were the most popular.

But then I look at the same conversations and I read the marketing press (and lots of other well-respected blogs that are too numerous to link here) and I conclude that marketing leaders, executives in particular are facing some key challenges: short marketing executive tenure (particularly CMOs), marketing needs more of a seat at the leadership/strategy table, the value of marketing is not well-recognized or accepted (with some even calling for the elimination of the marketing executive role completely).

Does better measurement mean that the value of marketing can be demonstrated better. Well, yes and no. I’d argue that it can demonstrate the value of marketing programs and campaigns. But does measuring lead quantity, lead quality, relationship value, conversational metrics, and all the other traditional and new media metrics we put in place show how the CMO contributes to the overall strategy of the organization?

I’ve seen only one measurement in an organization that demonstrates that anyone (or everyone) is making a valuable contribution: revenue. But I am left asking this question: does measuring the revenue result of marketing programs place a value on the CMO’s contribution?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Yet. But I look at another key executive, the CFO as a point of comparison. Why? Like the CMO, the CFO has measurement responsibility, fiduciary responsibility (for financial position as opposed to brand and market position), and no direct responsibility for revenue creation. What can we learn from the fact that the CFO has such a strong strategic role in nearly every company?

And here’s where we get back to that new year’s resolution thing. My one resolution for this year, as it relates to improving my effectiveness as a marketing leader, is to be able to make new year’s resolutions next year that are consistent with the challenges I face and help me move my effectiveness and my contribution to my company forward.

This means I have to understand the key question I’ve raised here: What underlies the apparent disconnect between marketing leadership and the expectations of corporate leadership? It seems that whatever this disconnect is, is the underlying cause of short CMO tenure, perceived lack of a strategic role “at the table” for marketing, and so many of the other issues I’ve seen raised in the past year (or two, or three, or ten).

And as with so much of what we learn, this will be a conversation. I know I’ll be having this conversation with many people in this field, and I’ll issue my usual and truly sincere invitation to you to participate. I still believe the larger the crowd the better the wisdom.

And as with any resolution, if I want to accomplish it this year, I have to be well on my way by the time we’re three-quarters of the way through the year. So I’ve picked a date that’s meaningful to me (no, it’s not my birthday) by which I hope to have moved much closer to some conclusions and answers.

Care to engage in the conversation?


Rethinking the Bus

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Sometimes those of us in the tech business can get fooled into thinking we’re the only business where any real experimentation and innovation can happen. Of course, we’d be wrong, but here’s a great example of how the most seemingly mundane and bureaucratic organization can innovate, and (we hope) improve life for their community (aka customers).

Yesterday, AC Transit (a bus company that serves Contra Costa and Alameda Counties east of San Francisco) announced some significant changes to their schedule. Among these were such unusual routes as a “senior citizen route” which (according to the news report I heard) stops at shopping malls, hospitals and nursing homes.

But the most interesting idea is the “Flex Bus.” This bus picks up riders at one of three locations in the city of Newark, and takes them to any (yes, any) bus stop they want anywhere in the city. According to an AC Transit spokesperson:

If you’re the only one on the bus when you board, the bus will drive off and take you straight to whereever you want to go with no stops.

I’m reasonably sure that this whole idea violates all of the traditional notions of efficiency in public transit. I’m also reasonable sure there was lots of opposition to the plan.

All of that because it’s innovative. It’s an attempt to bring a level of service and convenience to the community (riders, customers) that has never even been conceived in public transit. It gives everyone a whole new experience on the bus.

I don’t know nearly enough about public transit to tell if this might work. But I give AC Transit lots of credit for trying.

We in the tech industry love to experiment with new products, services and technologies to deliver better experiences to our customers. This reminds us that anyone, anywhere and in any business (agency, organization) can be just as innovative and can deliver just as unique a customer experience.

How innovative is your customer experience?


Disrupting Because of…

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Doc Searls defines what he calls the because effect

This is what you get when your new business isn’t just about inventing and controlling technologies and standards, but about taking advantage of the new opportunities opened up by fresh new technologies and standards. For example, making money because of blogging, or RSS, or desktop Linux, or whatever — rather than just with those things

In the technology business, we tend to be very obsessed with the technology itself. So many companies claim that what differentiates them is the technology (often only certain features of the technology) and sometimes it’s true, but not often.

But many of the real opportunities exist in taking advantage of all of the technology we’ve invented to do things (anything from business processes to making new friends) differently – and better than ever. Or what can be done because of the technology.

Think about the people making money by running businesses in Second Life. They are not in the technology business, but they are in the design or fun or entertainment (or whatever) business. And their business is able to have the reach is does because of Second Life. You can even say the same for the large corporations who have established a presence in this virtual world. They are able to better interact with partners, customers, etc., because of the technology.

There are two things I ask myself everyday:

1) How am I making use of all of the technology and capabilities available to me to engage my market? to attract new prospective customers? to start an interesting conversation? You might say, what am I doing different/better because of the technology I have at my disposal?

2) I market technology. What are my customers doing different/better because of the technology I market? We marketers like to think in terms of benefits (many of which are not really benefits at all). But if you pose the question this way, the benefit becomes very clear.

What are you making possible for your customers that was not possible before?


Second Stage Boosters…Ready

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Let me state this as a hypothesis:

new product <> disruption

Or in words, having a new product is neither necessary nor sufficient to create market disruption.

I recently had an interesting exchange with Judi Sohn at Web Worker Daily (a new favorite of mine) about GrandCentral, which gives you a single number that can reach you anywhere you want. GrandCentral is getting quite a bit of attention and generating lots of buzz.

I had to ask: Why? Everything GrandCentral offers, I’ve had from VoicePulse (my VoIP provider) for years. Other than the obvious price (GrandCentral is free, VoicePulse is not), I can’t find anything that GrandCentral can do that VoicePulse can’t. So why is GrandCentral holding the position of “it’s YOUR number – it’s attached to you, not your phone/device/location” which in today’s highly mobile multi-device world is important?

Pretty simple, actually. When VoIP started (VoicePulse, Vonage, 8×8, etc.) the selling point (key message in marketing-speak) was “this works just like your phone”. You got a little box and connected it to your home network. It had a standard phone jack and you connected your phone to that just like plugging it into the wall. You picked up the phone a dialed just like a regular land-line POTS phone.

Sure, you could do all this other cool stuff that got me and my geeky friends all excited, but the mass-market sell was “it’s simple – it’s just like what you do today, only cheaper and cooler”

This is a classic way to sell new technology: First, make it fit the existing model; second, show how it changes the model. GrandCentral is making the move to the second stage of technology adoption.

GrandCentral has taken advantage of the general awareness of VoIP capabilities and the fact that people in the market (mostly early adopters) no longer need to make it work just like their old POTS phone, they want all the capabilities that a network-based service can offer. So GrandCentral has gone to market with the selling point that “you own your own number.” It’s a powerful message, and it appeals to the people who were eager to move to internet telephony and wanted the capabilities to move forward.

Their service isn’t really new or innovative (OK, their exact brand is, but I bought the same exact service 4 years ago), but GrandCentral has turned on the second stage ‘boosters’ and is now moving the market forward – I expect pretty far forward. While for now it’s only the early adopters who will sign up, someone will figure out how to move this to the broader market pretty quickly.

And it is changing that market. Completely.

My question is: will the traditional VoIP providers take advantage of the opportunity to re-take their lead? Or will they, as so many technology companies before them, stand there complaining “but we’ve had those features for years!” – and go nowhere fast while their market escapes them?

What would your company do?


Staying Creative

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In order to be disruptive, you have to stay creative – constantly creating new ideas – disruptive ideas. What inspires you is very personal, but for me, there is nothing that inspires that creativity in my work quite like a Tom Peters book (or article or whatever).

So my advice (FWIW): (re-)Read something by Tom Peters (post-McKinsey!!) or something Tom-Peters-like (apologies to both Tom and my mother) every 3-6 months. It will keep you from becoming complacent.

Then go create something disruptive.

[My position: I disrupt. I create extraordinary opportunity. (6 words)]

BTW: my BHAG: I want Tom Peters to be my mentor.