What If Hard Work Isn’t the Answer?

Hard work

By Tom Fedro

I’ve always loved the work of W. Edwards Deming.  I recall watching a brief clip of a video once where he relates his interactions with a group of middle managers.  He asks how they’ll accomplish the company goals, and Deming’s response is perhaps the best description of the problem with most management.  “Immediately, a hand shot up in the back. ‘By everyone doing his best.’ Sounds great!  But you know, that won’t work.  Everyone is already doing his best.”

In the startup world in particular, the response to difficulty is almost always a cry to work harder, and rarely do we interpret those difficulties as an indication of flaws in our procedures or our business plans.  I can understand that.  Our hearts are usually wrapped up in those plans, and our first inclination is to protect our hearts, right?  A problem has to lie in the effort we’re expending, right?

I don’t think so.  I don’t think the difference between a successful startup and a failed startup has much at all to do with the amount of effort put in to try to make the company work.  In fact, although I’m certain startups would fail without effort, I don’t know of any that didn’t make it for that reason.  In general, I believe people work hard and try their best.

Deming was pointing out that the success of a company is reliant on the direction given to the company by management.  He wasn’t discounting the role of a worker at all.  In fact, he said the workers already do the best they can.  Management is responsible for the success or failure of a venture, and that means we need to step back when things aren’t proceeding as planned and evaluate our business before we decide more long hours and whip-cracking is the solution.

I thought about this recently when I read a quote from Jeremey Liew.  His insight into startups is evidence by his success at Lightspeed Venture Partners.  He said, “Working harder is usually not the solution (actually working harder is usually the solution for when things are going well). Doing something differently (up to and including giving up and trying something else) is usually the right answer…”  It’s not what we want to hear, but it’s good advice.

You’re already doing your best.

Relationships and Buzzwords


by Tom Fedro

I believe I first heard about relationship marketing… Let me think.  Oh yeah.  The very first day I ever studied business.  So why is it that today, many years later (I’ve already explained I don’t intend to give away my age by telling you how many decades that is) we still get articles, posts, videos, and books by gurus explaining that the “new” way to do business is all about relationships?  Really, hasn’t all marketing and all sales been about relationships from day one?

Think about it.  When we were asked to join the Pepsi Generation, we were asked to form a relationship.  Even when we were learning to teach the world to sing with Coca Cola, there was an implied relationship.  The first vendor I ever hired had a relationship with me, and the first person who hired us had a relationship.  Some relationships are deeper and more personal, but how do you call the fact that a good portion of the country uses the word “Coke” to describe soda pop generically and a good portion of the country does the same with “Pepsi.”  Those companies built relationships with consumers that altered our vocabulary.

No!  That’s not what relationship marketing means!

Why not?  If you could efficiently market relationships to a million customers, wouldn’t you?  I’ve watched relationship marketing transform from branding to direct sales to face to face sales to some kind of touchy feely friendship thing to branding again and back to face to face sales.  The core has always been the same.  We want brand loyalty and we earn it by developing a relationship, sometimes with very interaction-based efforts and sometimes from a higher level.

The new flavor of relationship marketing is really discussing the sales process as involving marketing for a longer term prior to handing off a lead to sales.  In other words (and I wish people would just use those other words) the relationship building process begins well in advance of the customer acquisition.  I don’t know that it really represents a new concept at all, but I’m certain that it should be that way.  Perhaps what’s happening, really, is that the reality of the information age and the growing level of prospect education mean we have to focus consciously now.  We have to focus with effort where we always should have, on the relationship with our customers.

Into the Heart of the Jungle

Jungle eyes

By Tom Fedro

Jim Stengel is an author, business guru, and experienced global marketing executive.  His branding expertise surpasses most, and I’ve enjoyed wisdom I’ve garnered from his writing, especially his new book.  He focuses on consumer branding more than business to business, which is no surprise given he was the global marketing officer for Proctor and Gamble, a company legendary for its ability to brand consumer products.  He came to mind a few days ago as I caught up on my various feeds and found him quoted in a post about great marketing quotes.  Here’s his quote:

If you want to understand how a lion hunts don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.

It was a bit strange to see that quote right in the middle of a list of quotes that spoke of customer awareness, product development, advertising, and response ratios.  Each of the others was a somewhat pompous truism (and let’s face it,  a lot of the “experts” can make even the most basic marketing statement in a completely pompous way—myself included.)  I suppose that’s why it stuck with me, and I found myself realizing it had a lot of value in the world of B2B technology.
One of the problems with those of us in the tech sector—especially in tech startups—is that we tend to market our product as though our customers were caged.  In a zoo, the lion gets what’s thrown through the bars of its cage.  It’s docile.  It’s reactive and not proactive.  In short, it’s just waiting for the zookeeper to direct its behavior.  How often do we market to our customers with the same perspective?  We parcel our data and try to control the sale as though our targets lived in a cage and had no ability to see beyond the exhibit.
That’s not today’s customer for us.  Today’s executive isn’t locked in a cage.  We’re not zookeeper’s handing out controlled portions of information with which to make a buying decision. On the contrary, today’s executive is constantly on the hunt.  Access to information is almost completely without barrier today and it doesn’t come from zookeepers in call centers.  Our customers aren’t caged and we can’t control the sale.  So what do we do?  There’s a simple answer, though it’s by no means easy.  We start exploring the jungle.

Revolutionary Concepts


By Tom Fedro

Business gurus have to keep in business, right?  Sometimes I think that’s why we end up with a new management flavor of the month just about…well, just about every month, I suppose.  There are always new books in the business section of the local store or on Amazon or even at an office supplies store.  It’s amazing to me how often I see the words, “The Revolutionary New Way To” followed by something like Motivate Employees or Increase Profits or Boost Productivity.  For just twenty bucks or so, I can join the revolution.  I’ll admit it, there are times I can’t help myself.  I’m a businessman and an entrepreneur at heart, and that means I sometimes splurge on books with titles like these.

Let’s face it, though.  For the most part, everything revolutionary has already performed the coup.  When I read the typical two-hundred page book, I usually don’t.  What I mean is that I read with great interest the introduction which promises me brilliant insight throughout the book.  Then, I read the first chapter full of excitement.  Then, I read the second chapter with considerably less excitement.  Then, I end up skimming the book and trying to find something from it that’s valuable.  There’s always something useful, but almost nothing revolutionary.  Realistically, business just isn’t that complicated.  It all comes down to supply and demand and profit and loss in a macro sense and operational efficiency in a micro sense.  I’m reading looking for something life changing, but I end up with a tip or a trick or two.

Why is that?  Maybe I’m cynical, but I think it parallels news and information.  When I was younger, there were local newspapers, national magazines, and three networks for news.  Now, there are multiple 24 hour news channels, and an unlimited feed of news stories online.  None of that happened because more things became newsworthy.  Instead, the media became adept at creating news to fill the gaping maw of emptiness.  I think that’s what we see in business.  There’s a constant desire for the next brilliant business revolution, but let’s just face reality.  Most businesses who operated correctly ten years ago or even twenty are still operating correctly.  The real questions CEOs should be asking don’t have to do with how to do business but with how to respond to a changing marketplace.

To me, the revolution we really need is an approach to our changing customer that takes into account their new needs (real and perceived) and their new buying habits.  Remember that your customer base is subject to the same unending flow of information that we are, and this access to information means we’re no longer their primary method of education about our products.  Buying cycles are far longer in the initial stages and then blisteringly fast from a truly qualified lead to the close.  It’s time for the gurus out there to start finding ways to help companies with that, not a revolutionary new business process but a revolutionary new way to think of Sales and Marketing.  Let’s face it, I’m going to pick up the next business book I see, but I’m still holding out hope for the one I really need.