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Sell Your Heart, Not Your Product

44th of 2nd 365: Me playing the violin outside the Churchill College Music Centre at the University of Cambridge
Photo by Tim Regan via Flickr

The first thing people forget when starting a business is that people flock to brands, while only reluctantly do they buy products.

Instead they sell products and forget about the brand.

For example I have a friend who is starting a line of branded clothing. The line comes from her heart. It evokes a certain time in history, it brings up a piece of her heritage. And a lot of people understand this slice of time - it's much bigger and broader than any one piece of cotton.

But the first thing she said when I asked what she was selling was "T-shirts."

Another person started what seemed like a straightforward commodity business. The business is not about supplies, although on the surface it seems like it is. When you look more closely it becomes clear that it's about a certain mindset toward life. About living an alternative lifestyle, off the grid, and putting together esoteric products all by yourself that normally others would need to build for you.

It is not about "plant-growing equipment" at all.

A third person is going into the food business, specifically a restaurant, more specifically ethnic food. There are a thousand ethnic restaurants in a five-mile range. Why open this one?

I have no idea. But if you limit yourself to the thing you are selling you are shortchanging your ability to make both current and future income.

Why do people buy things? Beyond survival, it's often about connecting with a place in the heart. You can't access or satisfy a certain emotional need directly, but you sense that a certain brand can offer you this ability. And you patronize it.

What's all the hype about The Hunger Games? The New York Times credits an incredible marketing machine.

Not at all.

My daughter was obsessed with this book before the movie ever got made. She yearns to be the character Jennifer Lawrence symbolizes: A girl who loves her family and has her values intact, but can survive in a very cruel world where protection is not at all guaranteed. (If you see her in Winter's Bone the connection becomes crystal clear.)

How about Starbucks' acquisition of Evolution Fresh?

This is a company that sells juice for $7.99 per 16 ounce cup. It's an unbelievably smart move for Starbucks to acquire this brand because it keys into exactly the core yearnings that the average person can neither have insight into nor satisfy on their own: elite status + good for the environment + taking care of yourself + relaxation, all at the same time.

Just pick up a cup and you've got a shortcut to all of that.

What about if you're not a business owner but a regular employee? How can you use this concept in a regular office setting?

The basic idea is to look beyond your technical skills (you better have them of course) and your emotional skills (this is also a given) to hone your personality as part of the team. The question is, what do you bring to the table that is both unique and wanted by the organization - what sets you apart in a way that nobody else can match?

Essentially you must isolate and celebrate the essence of your personality. Understand it and capture it and bring it forward to your employer in a consistent, repeatable way.

In the "olden days" it was enough to bring your hands to the farm or the factory. In the "knowledge economy days" you could progress to having computer literacy. But now we are in the "collaboration age," and so you must bring, every day, your heart to the table.

Anything less makes you vulnerable - to automation, demotion, and eventually downsizing.

Think about what you, and/or your business, bring to the table that is not repeatable by anybody else. Then, start milking it. The day you stop being valuable to the customer, take it upon yourself - as the CEO of your own life - to either find a different way to be essential, or move on somewhere else where they "get" you.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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Communication, Marketing, Branding: The Difference?

This may seem pretty basic but it's always worthwhile to define basic terms. Otherwise they get murky fast:

1. Communication

This is the capacity to convey accurately an idea, argument, concept, fact, opinion, belief, etc.

It is accomplished through language (words), tone of voice, body language, and symbols (pictures).

It can take place face-to-face or remotely, one-on-one or in groups.

Communication can be direct or indirect, reality-based or mediated through culture.

It varies based on your gender, culture, ethnicity, geography, occupation, and more.

Communication varies so much it is sometimes amazing we understand each other at all.

2. Marketing

Marketing is the art and science of creating a customer. It is the same thing as owning and running a business.

Whenever you are creating demand, you are marketing. There are tons of tools with which to do this.

3. Branding

Branding is the art and science of keeping a customer, and getting them to prefer (and pay more for) your offering vs. equally good competition.

Just as in marketing, brand professionals have tons of tools. The difference is that whereas marketing tools emphasize loudness and reach (the microphone effect), branding tools emphasize loyalty, inclusivity, community, and even exclusivity and insularity.

Sometimes you can have both...look at the Red Bull display they had at a local Exxon gas station. Cute!

Communication, marketing and branding all matter. But at the end of the day it all comes down to communication. If you can't do that well you won't be much good at the rest.

One other thing...even though we live in a digital world, all of the above depend on people. For the system to work you've got to be able to connect human beings to one another.

Good luck!

Ignorance vs. Incompetence: Mastering The Leadership Learning Curve

Photo by Adan Garcia via Flickr

It takes about 10 weeks for my students to develop a marketing plan. And 1 second for industry news to make it nearly worthless, unless they respond in time.

It takes 9 months to bring a child into the world. And 1 second for you to realize, you haven't a clue as to how to raise it.

You keep on graduating from grade school to high school and hopefully college and beyond. Every successive phase is new. What came before isn't enough to prepare you for now.

Where did we get the idea that great leaders are like G-d - that they magically know it all?

One need only look at the news to see that leaders (of any kind) can be the smartest, most experienced people in the world. But every situation presents its own unique challenges. To pretend that we walk in with the answers is foolish.

Not knowing is actually the perpetual state of a leader. What distinguishes the competent from the incompetent is what they do with that ignorance.

Great leaders start with admitting they don't know. Then they go into action.

1. Drawing on parallels between the current (new) problem and their existing knowledge and experience, they quickly size up a situation unknown to them.

2. Next they ask good questions, to find out the limits of what their past experience can bring to the table. They bring in expert knowledge until they reasonably understand the goal and the risks.

3. Leaders don't stop at defining the problem well. They create a community passionately dedicated to solving it. They do this by building a network of relationships one at a time, communities of interest, ongoing conversations.

4. Leaders move forward despite knowing they only have partial information. Their moves take into account partial support, meager resources, partly accurate strategy. They focus on building process and forward momentum.

5. Always knowing that they don't know, leaders constantly course-correct. They seek more information, stronger networks, and greater visibility into the external and internal strategic environment and its dynamics. They focus on how the whole ecosystem fits together, and they look microscopically at its intricate moving parts as well.

Have you noticed that few leaders admit they don't know things until after their tenure is over? Nowadays this is an outmoded approach - there is simply too much to know for anyone to credibly assert mastery.

Therefore, by and large, stakeholders are forgiving of a leader who means well, sets forth the vision, and engages them in fixing problems. These include the ones that existed to begin with and the ones brought about invariably by any strategy.

Incompetence is not the same thing as not knowing. It is insane to pretend that you "know it all," or "have it all under control." And yet leaders do this all the time.

There is a terrible fear of being revealed as incompetent. But incompetence is displayed only by pretending omnipotence.

The key to credibility - thinking of all the humble, kind, intelligent leaders I've seen on the one end of the spectrum, and the arrogant asses on the other - is the admission that you are nothing before the only One who knows all. If you don't believe in G-d call it "universal intelligence."

It is G-d who puts the thoughts in our heads and the words in our mouths, either to achieve a mighty victory or a humiliating defeat.

When G-d told Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moses resisted because he thought he wasn't qualified. He was self-conscious that he had a speech defect, which seemingly made his imperfections all the more obvious.

G-d insisted he do it anyway.

There is a Jewish saying to the effect that broken vessels are all the more beautiful, because they let the light shine in.

To be an effective leader you don't need to be a perfect glass vase, nor should you be. G-d desires the human, the imperfect striving to be better.

Learn to be okay with a perpetual state of not knowing, and perpetually dissatisfied unless you're moving forward toward results.

Incompetence is pretending you're impossibly sure of yourself; leadership is humbly moving forward despite never knowing exactly what's waiting on the other side of your efforts.

As Albert Einstein put it, "If we knew what we were doing it wouldn't be called research, would it?"

No matter who you are, you are the leader of your own life. Approach every challenge as if it were research.

Good luck!