Monday, 1 March 2021

Living in uncertain times

We live in uncertain times, but maybe the world has always been like this? Maybe things are just as uncertain today as they've always been? Maybe uncertainty is a constant, not a variable? Fact is, we simply don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Uncertainty is constantly un-certain. But practically, what does this mean?

Maybe it means that, in reality, we all sit with questions and anxieties that is linked to uncertainty, yet uncertainty will never disappear - it's always there. Questions such as: should I change jobs, am I living in the right country, where should I send my kids to school, and will I have enough money are all just some of the common questions linked to uncertainty.

In truth, I believe no one knows the answers to these questions because it is simply uncertain.

Uncertainty is the same for everyone.

Although I believe the level of uncertainty we face hardly moves up or down, essentially making it a constant in our lives, I am intrigued by the question of whether someone like Bill Gates faces a different level of uncertainty than me? Does he fundamentally sit with lower levels of uncertainty because of his wealth? I don't think so.

At the end of the day, no one knows what's going to happen tomorrow, no matter their wealth. Money does not buy you more certainty in the bigger scheme of things.

Sure, Bill Gates worries about vastly different things than me, but remember, we are not talking about worry, which is simply an emotion. I am talking about the real levels of uncertainty in our lives. Bottom-line, no-one knows what's coming. Life is uncertain for everyone.

Perceived uncertainty fluctuates

Of course, how we perceive uncertainty fluctuates as we live our lives. We may feel less uncertain in a car than in a plane or with our money in property than in the stock market. I think perceived uncertainty is our greatest enemy because it fools us to think things are sometimes much better than what they really are and other times much worse.

We either live in a state of euphoria or anxiety. Perceived uncertainty dictates our emotions and isn't based on the facts. We either stress too much or too little.

Perceived uncertainty doesn't care who you are

It doesn't matter if you are stinking rich or dirt poor - your perception of uncertainty can be sky high or rock bottom. In fact, one could argue that the beggar on the side of the road feels much less exposed to uncertainty because, in his mind, he knows exactly what's going to happen tomorrow: he will be back here, begging. He has nothing to lose and quite a predictable life. This leads me to plot the possible perception of uncertainty between myself and Bill Gates like this:

On any given day, either Bill or I might have a higher sense of perceived uncertainty. We often hear Hollywood stars struggle with anxiety, and I believe some of this proves that uncertainty can feel overwhelming to you no matter who you are.

Don't let the news fool you.

It's easy to let the news "get to you", but I believe we should resist this. The news is hardly ever the full version of the truth, and secondly, whatever the news, it does not impact your amount of uncertainty, which is a constant - like gravity. Simply put, the news does not actually impact the real amount of uncertainty you face - it just makes you aware of (certain) parts of it by putting a spotlight on it. No matter how good or bad the news, your level of uncertainty stays unchanged. 

Make bold decisions to significantly reduce your risk.

Given that uncertainty is always there and always the same, no matter who you are, I believe we should stop trying to manage uncertainty and rather focus our energies elsewhere - on dealing with risk. 

To really reduce your risk and make us much more capable of dealing with uncertainty requires what I'd like to think of as bold "power moves". These moves are really, really difficult to make, but if you can, you take a quantum leap in the direction of reducing your risk. One such power move is living within your means and not incurring debt - especially consumer debt. By have no debt, you instantly boost your range of options and significantly drop your risk.

Another such power move is working for yourself. If you work for someone else, building up such a significant investment portfolio that you are, in effect, able to sustain yourself. Doing this, which takes significant sacrifice - whether to start your own business or put a large amount of your salary away into investments - will significantly reduce your risk. 

Other power moves include daily exercise, continuous personal development, maximising mobility through the acquisition of second passports or even as extreme as deciding not to have children or, in case you have them, limiting how many you have to maximise your ability to invest in each child's development. 

The bottom line, you don't make a dent in your risk by making small incremental moves but rather bold, principled decisions that require significant sacrifice. 

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Premium pricing as commercial muscle-flexing.

Charge more. That's the most un-sexy but best business advice you can give to almost anyone. Price is to a business, what altitude is to an aeroplane - the higher it goes, the safer you are. A plane at 30,000 feet has many more options than one at 500 feet. 

The higher your price goes, the more the rest falls into place (pun intended). Selling your offerings for more forces every part of the business to perform better. Suddenly quality must be higher, products more innovative, sharper service delivery, staff more motivated and sales less driven by those easy deals. Charging more is the ultimate performance metric for a business. It's a raw measure of strength. 

Investors often prefer companies with strong brands, but this is not because of the brands themselves, but what they allow the business to do - charge more. Brands command premiums which lead to profits which in turn fuels the business. Money creates money, and suddenly everything starts to make sense. 

Saturday, 23 January 2021

What does winning look like in your business?

What does winning look like in your business?

It's a serious question, and too few entrepreneurs know the answer.

The answer can't be "making money". That's like a runner saying he wants to run. Running isn't winning; it's participating. 

Like this book I'm reading says "Are you playing to play, or playing to win?" 

The ultimate definition of winning can't be an internal measure, of any kind—branch growth, employee count, revenue...even profit. These are all participatory numbers, like a speed dial, rev counter and fuel gauge in a car merely says it's moving. But is it ahead of the others? 

Winning is about serving customers brilliantly, and either you are doing it successfully, meaning you're winning, or you're not, meaning you survive for another day. 

But is making money not a reflection of customer satisfaction, I hear you say. I don't think so.

Revenue is a poor indicator of customer perception—it's simply a sign of what happened yesterday in your bank account. Making money today does not mean you're going to make more money tomorrow. Money does not tell you what happens at the front end of your business. 

Winning means you're crossing the finish line first, and in business that can't be anything other than a satisfied customer. It's not a number in your bank account.

Do you know if your customers are happy with you?

Winning is not a financial measure. It's a customer satisfaction measure. The only way a growing company stands a chance to mature is defining its offering in terms of what it aims to do for customers and whether it manages to execute on it. 

Firejuice aims to help entrepreneurial companies do better marketing and will only be successful if customers say that we've indeed done so, for them. It means they'll pay today, and come back tomorrow. 

Do you know what winning looks like for your business?

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Business confidence as a pillar to effective marketing

Small/medium companies often struggle with marketing because the business suffers from a lack of self-confidence.
"We don't really know who our customer is. We're not sure who we compete against. We don't know how the customer makes purchase decisions. We don't know if our pricing is right. We don't know if our products and services are optimally bundled. We have doubts about whether we're meeting expectations."

"We don't know, to be honest." 

This is often the true answer to many marketing strategy questions that underpin effective marketing. The result is ineffective marketing-activity and a waste of money. "Marketing" gets blamed as "not working" whereas the real problem is that the leadership suffers from a dire lack of confidence in what it is they are trying to promote. 

It's like saying the car can't drive properly; meanwhile, you haven't learned how to drive. 

As a business, gaining self-confidence in what you offer requires old fashioned market research, experimentation and testing. It is about deliberate interactions with customers and intentionally gaining feedback that then informs decisionmaking. It is about going beyond simply engaging customers for sales and turning it into a learning exercise.

Far too many companies don't run such customer experiments. They just keep bulldozing ahead and blame "marketing" when sales falter. Off course, it is easy to blame marketing! After all, it is the one function not completely under the owner's control because it inevitably involves a bit of magic in the form of creativity, communication and plain-old human behaviour.

Running a successful business requires constant fine-tuning. This fine-tuning is primarily the role of marketing (or market) strategy. It is about constantly evaluating customer needs, competing offerings and value propositions, refining one's own message to customers to punch through the noise and kickstart a series of actions that eventually lead to a sale. 

Effective marketing starts with a clear understanding of the customer and "their world" which then informs the development of marketing campaigns. Too much marketing activities fail because this is not in place. 

You first need to be confident in what you are selling before marketing activity can work. It's the pillar on which promotional success rests. 

Monday, 30 November 2020

Why I treat marketing problems as urgent

When a business brings a marketing problem to me, it usually presents as a big stinky commercial pooh. It's nasty. It's an emergency.

Let's face it; you don't call a strategic marketing consultant unless you have a gun against your business brain. 

Problems typically show-up in various ways, but it all comes down to sales. We want it now (and we're tired of trying). Understandably, I typically get these problems when its terminal. 

My approach dealing with these marketing emergencies have evolved over the years to tackle them more aggressively - more up-front - like the emergencies they are. Less general practitioner (come and sit on the bed; take a deep breath) and more paramedic (surgical gloves and cardiac massages). 

In short, I jump in and check vitals. 

Is there a clear value proposition - the equivalent of a marketing pulse? Are marketing materials attractive, or does it look bland - like a shallow, fading breath? What marketing tools are being used, and are they sharply aimed at a particular objective or spilling attention like a bleeding wound?

I don't treat marketing jobs with kid gloves, but with surgical gloves. 

Once the patient is stabilised, I move onto less urgent issues, like how often to post to social media. 

The reason many marketing agencies struggle to work with owner-managed companies is that they approach the job with too much care. To slow; too scared to challenge the owner; too focused on costs instead of adding value.

At my business, Firejuice, we act as a marketing ER room. We immediately jab you with a steroid of no-nonsense feedback. We quickly identify the key issues and rapidly sort them into not-urgent and critical categories. We aim our attention where the most significant short-term impact will be. We deliberately don't sweat the small stuff and intentionally stay away from pursuing perfection. 

It's partly why Firejuice is called Firejuice. We genuinely aim to make an outsized impact quickly.

When companies are small; in a high-growth phase, or up against strong competitors, there's no time to fiddle around. Every second counts!

Monday, 9 November 2020

Reach your customers by taking a razor sharp approach to the market

Speed, simplicity and focus are key ingredients to successful marketing activity by small/medium companies. 

  • Speed - get it done; make it happen - don't procrastinate. Perfection is the enemy!
  • Simplicity - if you can't explain it in a few PowerPoint slides (with large font), you are on the wrong track. Too much detail is the enemy!
  • Focus - if you have one dollar of marketing budget, how will you spend it in terms of the single message you promote, the one customer audience you target and specific objective you hope to achieve. Refusing to sacrifice is the enemy.

The reality is that "marketing" deals with the interaction between "a company" and "its market" and this dynamic is complex. 

The best way to approach the collective that is "the market" is to attack it. It is the enemy, even though it is largely made up of your best friends - the customers. The market is the hard shell of the coconut that needs to be penetrated to get to the soft juices inside - the customers. The best way to break through this hard shell is through speed, simplicity and focus. 

But if the approach is so straight forward, why is it so difficult to do? The answer lies in the so-called "fog of war", or in this case, "the fog of running a business". It is nearly impossible for those inside the business to formulate a simple strategy to target those on the outside, given how invested they are in the business. When inside the business, you are tempted to promote everything, to everyone, with the loudest noise. 

Many business owners don't know what the role of a senior marketer should be, but the simple answer is that it is their job to be part-outsider with their one foot in the market. The senior marketer, whether full time employed as a Marketing Director or "CMO" or temporary as a consultant, should help the business formulate a razor-sharp approach to effectively communicate with the outside.

An effective investment in marketing requires a back to basics approach which in turn requires you to step away from the business and view it from the perspective of the customer who sees many alternatives and reluctantly parts with their money. The only way to break through this hard shell is to take pinpoint aim. 

Too many SMEs spend on marketing like someone trying to squash a coconut with their bare hands—no wonder the rate of failure and frustration is so high!

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Strategic storytelling as a way to differentiate

Marketing is about storytelling. 

This is a well-understood concept, but surprisingly few companies use it to their benefit. Especially smaller businesses are rich with stories, yet owners hide these in an attempt to "look big". No photo of the owner(s) and why they started the business; no business philosophy; no pictures of the manufacturing process or people and testimonials from satisfied customers. These are all essential parts of the business story and are often absent. 

Telling the story of your business should be the focus of your early marketing efforts as it allows you to attract those valuable customers that believe in what you do instead of just fighting for the lowest price. 

The story of your business is nothing other than your value proposition - your core point of difference. Most businesses harp on about the products or service they sell but don't give any sneak peek into the behind the scenes stuff - the interesting stuff, even if it is a pure service being delivered. The passion, blood, sweat and tears that go into making it all happen. This is where the real essence of a business lies and should be a key focus of the marketing efforts. 

"This is who we are".

I'm currently working with a manufacturer of some of the largest aluminium window frames and doors in Africa. In my engagement with them, it has become a key focus to encourage them to show the manufacturing and installation process and not merely the beautiful buildings that use their fenestration.

Most businesses claim they do something special, but don't tell the story that really makes them special. The outcome is marketing that looks like everyone else's. 

Don't make the mistake of not infusing your marketing with your story. The "end result" is only a small part of what you should be talking about. Tell people who you are. Your brand.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Your marketing problem, is a management problem

The trick is to have a plan and a process in place—the boring stuff.

  • A plan - What is it that we want to do and by when?
  • A process - How will we do it, and whom?

I say it is the boring stuff because in itself it is not "doing the marketing", yet it is mostly why marketing fails.

Most businesses don't see ROI on marketing because they don't have a plan and a process. In short, they don't manage their marketing. 

To add fuel to the fire, "management" is often not an operational issue, but a culture issue. Things end up not getting done, not because there is no intention to do it, but because there is no organisational discipline to do it.

My work is to help companies of all sizes do better marketing, but I hardly get involved in doing any of the marketing itself. I spend my time fiddling in the background doing the boring stuff: helping you put a plan in place and helping you implement it through a process that almost always involves a change in attitude.

The basics of doing marketing right are straightforward: define your audience, then define your value proposition and then communicate it clearly using a basic set of tools aimed at each stage of the purchase funnel. The hard part is implementing it, and keeping it up, month after month.

Can I help you with your marketing?

Do I do the marketing?

So what do I do?
The boring stuff.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Quick thought on targeting

I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I market the services of Firejuice. We've been clear about who we want to help, namely business owners, entrepreneurs and CEO's of medium-sized companies, but not which service we want them to take note of!

It's made me realise, for marketing to be effective, it does require not only a target market but also a target product. That single offering that gives you the highest chance of becoming part of the customer's life.

  • Target market = that group of customers within the broader market where you have the greatest chance of success.
  • Target product = that one offering amongst everything you sell that gives you the greatest chance of an initial sale.
Once you've made the initial sale, you are in bed with the customer and the game changes. To achieve this initial sale requires focus, not only on who you want to sell to, but also what you want to sell. 

Reading marketing theory, one is always reminded of the 4P's of marketing: Product. Place. Price. Promotion. But somehow we all get stuck on the promotion "P". What I've been reminded of lately is the importance of choosing the right product to accompany the promotion.

Just think about how McDonald's do it - they promote an "R40 burger meal" in the hope that you spend R150 upgrading on size and adding to your order. What they promote, and what they hope to sell, is not the same thing. Intentionally!

Think carefully about what product you want to do marketing for. It's part of the marketing mix!

Sunday, 23 August 2020

How efficient is your revenue engine?

Every piece of equipment has a weak link, and in the case of small/medium companies, that link is the contact point between marketing and sales. It is right here where most breakdowns happen, and it hurts business performance. 

But why is this? 

It is underpinned by the fact that both sales and marketing are after the same thing - the actual sale. The two are supposedly in partnership, but more often in competition to win the ultimate prize. This one goal, split between two business functions, makes it easy for the finger-pointing to happen. Marketing takes a big picture, right-brain approach to sales, and the sales function takes a microscopic, left-brain approach. To ensure an efficient sale, both functions must work together, yet infighting often spoils the party. Together, these two functions form the revenue engine of the business.

An inefficient revenue engine is particularly common within medium-sized companies since separate marketing and sales departments have now been established but they have not yet found a happy equilibrium. A period of infighting is inevitable, however, this should be cut short since the business suffers in the process. A medium-sized business can't afford to slack since there is still plenty of growth to be had. Market share has not yet matured but the competition is warming up. The revenue engine needs to quickly find its purr.

To ensure an efficient sale, both marketing and sales must work together, yet infighting often spoils the party. 

Moving a prospect quickly and profitably through the purchase funnel, from awareness to interest to trial and finally, a sale requires teamwork between marketing and sales teams. Using both these approaches is a recipe proven over decades to be the most effective at unlocking profitable growth. You need both mass-market communication, and individual negotiation skills, to get the best deal. The one broadcasts a compelling value proposition; the other tailors it to individual customer needs. It is this one-two punch that beats the competition and wins the game.

An efficient sale is one where the effort to make a sale is as little as possible whilst the long-term value of the sale is maximized. I see this as different to a pure profit calculation but rather an indication of overall effort versus financial return, discounted over the lifetime of the customer relationship. The overall effort includes monetary cost but also time invested and even emotional energy. In short, the goal must be to maximise the overall ROI of a sale. 

The efficient sale

Making a sale is like fighting a battle. Whilst you can win the fight by merely pushing troops into the field, the body count will be high. This is the "sales only" approach most small businesses take. But then marketing joins once the business achieves mid-size status and acts like an airforce that weakens the enemy from above before the sales-troops get sent in for hand to hand combat. In combination, the two will win the battle, as long as their efforts are coordinated.

To achieve such coordination requires three critical steps. Firstly, it requires a business leader with an appreciation for both marketing and sales as the answer to revenue growth. Too many are still sceptical of the role that marketing can play and settle for a half baked effort that depends on a junior marketer to vigorously post to social media and hope for results. This type of marketing won't work.

A medium-sized business can't afford to slack since there is still growth to be had. Market share has not yet matured but the competition is warming up. The revenue engine needs to quickly find its purr.


Furthermore, the sales department, which is almost always established before the marketing department, must have seen the writing on the wall at achieving increasingly steeper targets as the competition creeps up and low-hanging sales fruits are already picked. When this happens a natural response will be "we need marketing!"

Finally, the rules of engagement between sales and marketing must be developed by a senior manager who understands the role both functions should play and who has authority over both. Admittedly, getting the initial structure arranged may sometimes require help from an outside consultant. Ultimately, the only way that marketing and sales will work together effectively is if they are attached at the hip, and know it. If the one stops swimming the other must also sink. Making this connection tangible inside the company is crucial. 

There's no doubt that marketing and sales are needed to optimise business performance, and yet the interaction between the two siblings are often fraught with tension. Yet, as companies navigate the turbulent waters of medium-size status they must strengthen the bond between marketing and sales to reach the promised land of full-blown corporate status, a listing on the stock market or a favourable merger/acquisition. 

At some level, a business is undeniably a money motor, and like any engine, it needs careful tuning to reach a steady purr and ensure a smooth ride. The rattle that is often the result of poor marketing/sales interaction must be sorted out quickly!

Is your business running as an efficient revenue engine?