question everything

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Hal Gregerson, of MIT’s Leadership Center, about his philosophy on life and business, and, more specifically, to ask what he is researching and writing about these days. I mentioned to Hal that I had been seeing him talk about ways leaders can avoid mistakes. He quickly corrected me that his ultimate point was not the avoidance of mistakes, but the ability to ask the right questions.

Ever since then, I think about questions, everywhere—“What one question…,” “These 6 questions will…,” and so on. Every other Inc article seems to be detailing the “how and what” leaders are asking. So, I’m going to get past the overwhelming advice that is out there to make way for my own.

Here is my advice—and it’s only “kinda” stolen from Rumsfeld—discover what are the “known unknowns” and explore how to find the right method to turn those known unknowns into “known knowns.” Speaking of Rumsfeld, you don’t need to ask about known knowns or unknown unknowns because those can’t ever be answered. The discovery of those answers are for the philosophers and religions to take on.

You can shine a bright light on a thing already known, which is a good thing to do, but the point of asking questions is to find new information or a different way of perceiving the world. It takes an incredible amount of skill to develop new perceptions, and to correctly identify what you don’t know and look for answers to those questions.

Relevant to the point, Hal had just been meeting with the top leadership at Amazon to find out what types of questions they asked themselves, their employees, and each other. The best story from that experience, Hal shared with me, is about current CEO, Jeff Bezos. Jeff will show up every few weeks with a poorly designed product to reverse engineer. The team would mentally think discover what questions the designers, marketers, developers, etc. asked and how they answered to make such a terrible product.

The point of the exercise is self examination of what they, as leaders of Amazon, are doing to ensure they are creating the right questions with a real chance of conjuring an answer, a known known, in their own work. The ability to understand the process beyond the end result in the work of others and reflexive question seeking has been invaluable to me.

don’t take our word for it

Growing up, I watched LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow, all the time. I loved him, and I loved books. Since then, none of that has really changed at all over the years, and, just to let you know, this self-promotion post is not about reading (although, if you ask me, it should be). No, this is about LeVar Burton’s catchphrase on Reading Rainbow—“You don’t have to take my word for it.”

Brands and companies have long known the power of “word-of-mouth marketing.” Next, in importance, is the value of the “testimonial,” which may be the longest running advertising idea since—basically—ever. In this day and age most people start and end with Amazon reviews to see if they are going to buy a product. Why? Because those reviews ensure that you are not going to get “ripped off.” They check that box, freeing you to buy.

It is why there is so much discussion about the best way to get customers to review your product on Amazon. Anything possible to get you to review afterwards. I am more likely to buy something with 4000 reviews and a four-star rating, versus a five-star rated product with less than 15 reviews. We outsource our trust to the online audience and user so we don’t only have the word of the producer. Also, marketers are savvy.

We here at modern8 have also jumped into the online review bonanza. There exists a site that collects reviews of marketing and advertising firms called Clutch. One thing that drew us to using Clutch, is their verification of all reviews. They even hold an interview with the reviewer to receive the best feedback possible. And, not to toot our own horn, but we are currently ranked within the top 12 firms(out of over 8000) nationwide for branding services ever since we started collecting reviews on Clutch a few months ago.

So, “you don’t have to take our word for it.”

A SaaS CMO, for whom we did a rebrand a few years ago, mentioned, “I can say for sure that we would not have had 10x growth if we hadn’t worked with modern8,” a local chocolatier stated, “our sales doubled within the first year of the redesign,” and so on, and so forth. You can read the numerous reviews—with more to come—on our Clutch page here, and don’t just take anybody’s word for it, because you and I both know that you listen to LeVar.

when rebranding boosts sales

The other day, we met with a potential client who wanted to look at rebranding a web product that he had developed. After talking to him for a minute, it became clear why he wanted to rebrand—he hadn’t added a new client in over a year. Now, it was a small company and he handled all the ownership duties, sales duties, marketing duties, onboarding duties, etc. Yet, still, there had been no ability to land a single client over the previous year.

At some point, when you have been in the lonely outfield of no clients over a certain time or the new client list is coming up a little short, would rebranding be the right answer for you and your company? Would a new “brand” help to pick up sales? I would postulate that the answer is, well, probably not. But, if you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, then a rebrand could very well be a solution. So, let’s dig into it.

1. Is there a competitor who has been picking up steam in your market and picking off some of your clients?

2. Do both you and your competitor have the exact same message, value proposition, and/or position? Do you feel like you are twins?

3. Has your direct web traffic decreased over the last year or two because people aren’t as interested in finding you by name?

4. Do you feel that what you have are offering is boring, stale or tired?

5. Has your cost of acquiring a customer gone up exponentially?

6. Is there confusion surrounding the voice your company uses to teach, sell, and discuss your product?

Why would saying “yes” to these mean you need a new brand? Remember, your logo isn’t your brand. Your brand is what your employees are saying about you. Or sometimes, what your potential customers are saying about you. And if what the internal folks, such as employees, say about your brand isn’t unique enough, then you don’t have a brand voice strong enough to sell at a high rate. The marketplace is a lot like the basketball. There is elbowing, position changing, and defensive boxing. If a rebound comes down, there is very little you can do against someone who has effectively positioned themselves better than you. The customer is theirs.

So, what is the point of all those questions? If your positioning isn’t smart and strategic enough to get you ready to land clients, who are ready for your services, they will go somewhere else.

does company narrative matter?

Your company narrative matters—it matters a lot. It defines the way your employees interact with each other. It defines the way those employees interact with customers, vendors, etc. It defines the way that you as a leader at this company see your future. And most importantly, it defines the way the public views you. And, the best part is, your narrative can be crafted.

Think about what you know about Apple, the young, rebellious upstart that was founded in a garage. Except, that story is only kinda true. Apple was not founded in a garage at all, but the founders crafted the narrative because they were hell-bent on being viewed as the rebel as they prepared to take on Microsoft.

Now, David and Goliath is a legendary story of titan versus underdog, but Apple’s chance to compete with Microsoft was far from legendary. In fact, Apple almost failed. Steve Jobs hoped to sell the iMac as a direct competitor to the Windows machines that were common in everyday workplaces. The Apple narrative of disruptor and different didn’t fit into that market. After six months, when sales remained sluggish in the conservative business market, Apple’s marketing team recognized a bright opportunity in a completely alternate industry. Designers and marketers, who loved their products. Immediately, they slipped in the doors of the “cool kid” designers at businesses. The do-it-yourself, garage-made, startup company storyline fit in with the designer mentality.

So where does that leave you? It should give you hope that one of the world’s most valuable companies almost screwed up. All is not lost if you screw up in the beginning. The one aspect Apple did not screw up—they didn’t screw up the narrative. They screwed up by marketing their narrative to the wrong people.

This story should leave you with a clear resolve about your narrative. In all honesty, it is simple to make this work for anyone. Seek out out your real narrative. The one that feels authentic, because it is authentic. Because your story reinforces how you were founded and how you will pivot, change or rebrand. Because as Mitt is widely known for saying, “Corporations are people,” and if you’ve ever met a person, who had no story to tell, you would quickly go find someone else who you can actually connect with.

on positioning

When I coached lacrosse, I spent untold hours focused on positioning. Where to put your feet, your butt, your hands. How to make sure that when the other team attacked, we were prepared to expel that offensive outburst with a team focused on doing the little things right. Which means, not only does the person in direct contact with the ball have to have the feet, hands, and head in the right place but the entire team has to have that as well. And the communication to each other has to be loud, succinct and clear. You didn’t have seconds to let your teammates know about changes to your position + plan. You had fractions of seconds.

I feel there are some parallels with the positioning of companies that makes a lot of sense when you think about it in sports terms. There is reason to believe that the practice of positioning will allow you to be ready to repel the offense that will attack your business. And with time spent crafting your most advantageous position, you can limit the amount of damage even a good attack can bring.

If the company that you are building, or the company that you have built is any good, people are going to copy, bump and bristle around you. This is where active positioning and active communication comes in to play. Do you have in place the capabilities to pivot on a threat from any side? How long does it take to make decisions in the executive boardroom? And are the people in that boardroom hearing what the rest of the team are saying?

I recently read the book The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. This thing was delightful, as he talked about the pivot from Loudcloud to Opsware and the decision-making process.  The positioning of what he felt was a company that he didn’t think would last another three weeks to one that sold a little while later for $1.6b. It wasn’t easy. But the key to that success was the ability to position the product quickly and confidently. Because he had open communication with everyone from the boardroom on down. And constant adjustment from a positioning standpoint,  to meet the demands of the dot com bursting bubble to become  one of the most successful companies of that era.