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To catch the next wave of growth, patience is key

Sometimes moving too quickly will slow you down in the long run. Making the right decision, not the fast decision is critical when your goal is long-term, sustainable, profitable growth. The wrong fit customer, the big but unprofitable sale, the commitment without the ability to deliver… these are all moments when companies think they are moving fast, but often ultimately end up moving backwards. But when you feel a sense of urgency and opportunity, what is the alternative? Take a deep breath and remember: slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

One of our Six-Point project managers brought a mantra to our company that I love: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

He is a big believer that getting the details right up front, excercising patience, asking the right questions, and listening carefully to the answers will save time and rework down the road.

And he is right.

I’ve been taking that mantra to heart not just in the day-to-day of our projects at Six-Point, but to my own strategy for my business as we ease out of pandemic lock-down, and to my work as an advisor for our clients. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

In the spring of 2020, I felt like there was no time for inaction. Anyone who froze and didn’t act was in jeopardy. Since we couldn’t control the landscape shifting under our feet, just moving forward was the smartest way to go.

In the spring of 2021, I feel differently. I feel like there are major opportunities for growth, but particularly for smart growth, because all growth isn’t created equal. And being ready with the right solutions for the right people at the right time will be the difference between catching that wave and getting either overwhelmed or left behind.

So I have taken the past two months and gone into listening mode. Because slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

What am I doing during this intentional slow down?

I am reading a lot and I am listening to a lot of podcasts. There are a lot of smart people who are extremely generous with their expertise and insights. I am also connecting with the authors and podcast hosts that I find the most valuable on LinkedIn (and sometimes offline, too) to be able to stay connected and in tune with what they are seeing and talking about.

I am interviewing leaders of successful brands in industries where I feel like my team can create true value. I’ve been having conversations with CEOs, sales directors, and marketing directors, and I am learning a lot about what it feels like on the ground in companies right now.

Our team is collaborating with Bean Group Global to survey business leaders all over the globe to better understand the effects of this acceleration into a hybrid world of both virtual and in-person workforces.

I am speaking less and listening more. And I am becoming much clearer for it.

I know it is tempting to just jump at opportunities, especially after you have either experienced a drought last year, or to keep your head down if you were overwhelmed with unexpected demand. But resist that temptation.

I would invite you to figure out what slowing down looks like for your business and your opportunity. Sometimes, the brave thing to do is to move forward even when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But right now, I would argue that truly courageous leaders are practicing discipline.

What might this look like? You might:

  • Start “auditioning” new relationships instead of selling to them.

  • Survey your customers to better understand what has changed in their world.

  • Set up some virtual coffees with key customers and just listen to what their world is like.

  • Talk with the competition. (I know, I know… terrifying! But we have seen some amazing collaborations when small competitors take on the big guys together.)

  • Collaborate with someone else who serves your industry and share insights.

  • Scan the social feeds of your ideal customers and see what they are talking about and doing that is not related to your product or service.

  • Read a lot, and not just about your industry. Find macro trends that you should be aware of and incorporate into your planning.

  • Prioritize with your team. You can’t do everything well, so what are the 1-3 things that are most important to knock out of the park? Allow them to really focus on those.

Now is the time to slow down.

To pick your head up and look down the playing field. To listen closely to your current and future customers. Listen, learn, and pick your best opportunity, not just any opportunity.

And then you will really catch that growth wave at its peak and let it carry you swiftly and smoothly to what’s next.

What the heck is a second-stage company?

The definition of “second stage” in business is a company that has 10-99 employees or $1M to $50M in revenue. But the real hallmarks of second stage are the almost universal growing pains that these companies experience as they scale. We have identified the most common themes and pains that early second-stage and late second-stage companies face, especially when it comes to managing changes in focus, positioning, and branding.

I was first introduced to the term “second-stage” through the Edward Lowe Foundation. But it wasn’t the definition of companies with 10 to 99 employees or $1M to $50M in revenue that caught my attention.

It was the signs, symptoms, and stages they described.

As I read about what second-stage companies face, suddenly the pain I was feeling as a business leader made sense. Maybe I wasn’t just a terrible CEO. These were growing pains…a byproduct of success.

It finally brought into focus that I was applying the same skills and tools that made me successful when we were smaller, without realizing that the size and maturity of my company meant that I needed different skills and different tools in order to have the same success at this new level of complexity.

Over the years working with second stage companies, we have identified two kinds of second-stage companies, early second-stage and late second-stage, both with some unique pain points.

Early Second Stage: A New Emphasis on Scalability

Early second-stage companies are usually owner/founder-led, with between 10-50 employees. In early second stage, there are three areas where major pain abounds.

Delegation

Most early second-stage leaders experience delegation pain on two ends of the spectrum: the stuff they love and the stuff they hate.

For the things they love doing and excel at in the business, they will find it difficult to articulate exactly what is in their heads. In brand and marketing, this often happens when branding comes very naturally to the business owner/founder. They automatically infuse branding best practices and a unique voice or design aesthetic into everything they do. When they delegate it, it all of the sudden “doesn’t look right” or “doesn’t sound right” and fundamentally isn’t as effective, because it isn’t them.

For the things they hate doing and don’t have expertise in, the owner/founder will delegate it too quickly, often to the first person who shows interest and/or aptitude, and with very little direction or oversight. In brand and marketing, the first person who shows interest in managing the website or the social media accounts will get tasked with marketing, and will be given no plan to follow or framework to work within. They are often allowed to do or try whatever they want, and then when it doesn’t work, the owner’s response is: “See, I told you marketing just doesn’t work in our industry.”
The fundamental issue is that, whether it is trying to delegate the things they want to keep or the things they want to avoid, the delegation is not being done clearly and effectively. There is no shared vision of success and no clear understanding of what is off-limits and why.

Engaging Expertise

In early second stage, leaders begin to realize that the company has gotten more complex, and needs specialized expertise in order to solve some of the challenges they are facing.

One of the pains they face in this is that they often won’t exactly know what they are asking for experts to do, or they might ask for the wrong kind of expertise.

One recent experience I had with an early second-stage business owner captured both of these pains simultaneously. This business owner was convinced that she needed a marketing strategy and plan developed to accelerate the companies growth. She was talking to several different providers of these services, and getting a wide range of costs that was confusing. I was trying to help her compare apples-to-apples and discern what might be the right fit mix of services and deliverables for her goals.

After about 20 minutes of conversation, though, I learned that the “expert” she had contracted with to manage her Amazon account was doing a terrible job, and that her sales and brand share on Amazon were in rapid decline. It was clear that even if she invested in marketing, it would be wasted time and money until the Amazon problem was solved. Once we had identified this core issue, I redirected her to a trusted friend at an Amazon brand accelerator.

This business owner was doing everything right in theory, but she simply didn’t know what she should be asking for, how much it should cost, or how she should judge success. And it makes sense. She was an expert in her product, not Amazon or marketing.

At its worst, this pain point hits home when an early second-stage company gets taken in by a great sales team that can’t deliver on its promises. It can be a costly mistake, and also one that then makes the company twice-shy about engaging outside experts in the future.

Advice and recommendations from trusted advisors and peer groups becomes the easiest way to manage this leap from working with generalists to working with experts.

Consistency

Consistency is absolutely essential to building trust, both internally with employees and externally with customers. It is also one of the areas in which early second-stage companies struggle the most.

Early second-stagers are still working on creating and fine-tuning processes. They often don’t have the right people completely in the right seats. The owner/founder is still pulled into the day-to-day even while they are trying to spend more time as visionary and coach for their team.

The result of all of this is a lack of consistency. Internally, employees grow frustrated with the lack of clarity, boundaries, and what might feel to them like “moving targets” as they try to focus their own efforts and perform well. Externally, customers might hear and see mixed messages about what the company’s focus is, or might experience major swings in product or service quality.

Internally, the inconsistencies can be especially difficult to navigate because owner/founders are likely the source of many of them as they navigate the transition from “teammate” to “coach.” It becomes difficult for employees to point out the inconsistencies that they are hearing or observing, either because they are fearful of embarrassing their boss, or because they think that the leader is more aware about it than they are. Inconsistencies can be read as intentional, which further undermines the lack of trust, and can lead to a toxic internal environment.

Externally, the inconsistency is unlikely to cause the kind of turmoil that it does internally. Instead, the symptoms will more likely be stagnant growth, difficult sales, and an ineffective marketing budget. If potential customers aren’t clear about how the brand relates to them and what its value is, they won’t buy.

Takeaways for Early Second Stage

For early second-stage companies, the focus needs to be on:

  • Getting clarity on what success looks like for all stakeholders.
  • Finding trusted advisors to connect you to the right experts at the right time.
  • Identifying and quickly mitigating inconsistency, both internally and externally.

Late Second Stage: Tension between the Past and the Future

Late second-stage companies are usually led by a CEO brought in as a change agent, or a next-generation in a family business, with between 50-100 employees. In late second stage, pain arises from two major areas.

Fear of loss

Whether we are talking about family business or simply an enduring privately held company, the stakes of failure are higher the larger the company gets and the longer it is around. Nobody wants to be the one who puts a long-standing business or brand out of business. Plus at this level, the company is likely a visible and important part of the community or its industry. More people depend on the company as an employer, supplier, or customer. It is firmly part of an ecosystem in a way that a younger company is not.

Also, it is likely that there are stakeholders in the company who have a strong fear of loss around certain elements of the company, the brand, or the customer base. Often, these companies were established for a specific purpose, market, or customer that has shifted over the years. In order to make sure that the company endures for the decades to come, some amount of repositioning and reorganization is needed. This can come in the form of strategic mergers or acquisitions, rebranding, product innovation, or simply new leadership with a new strategic vision for the future.

One of our clients is a family business that was founded with a bookkeeping and record-keeping focus, which gradually and organically evolved over the years into printing capabilities, and then evolved again into developing priority technology that can be used in the fast-growing security market, which was where all of their new customers and opportunities were coming from.

Even though the business case was clear, it became a difficult decision to change the original name of the company and to clearly state this new focus. There were still legacy customers who used some of the original products and services, and who had been with the company since the beginning. The fear of looking ungrateful, or abandoning the past is a real factor for late second-stage companies.

This same fear of loss can show up internally as well, as these companies probably also have employees who have been with the company, sometimes for decades. These loyal employees are often the ones that often resist change, or can lack the skills needed to propel the company forward.

It is also important to understand that late second-stage companies live in a place of constant tension between the past and the future. Even though certain elements of the company or the brand need to change, there are also elements that have made the company successful and that need to be preserved.

Change agents in late second stage companies need to walk into the company humbly and looking for what needs to be preserved as much as what needs to be changed. If you can identify the “DNA” (Do Not Alter”) of a company, it can go a long way to mitigate the fear of loss, and also to make the new growth much more efficient and effective because it is building on a firm foundation of success instead of starting from scratch.

Lack of alignment and communication

Since late second-stage companies are honing in on a clear focus for how the company will scale and compete profitably in its “next generation,” they are becoming more and more strategic and visionary. Late second-stage leaders need to make bold strategic moves, like geographic expansion, vertical integration, opening new markets, acquiring new companies or brands, and forming strategic partnerships.

This kind of visionary leadership coupled with the fear of loss described above can lead to a fundamental lack of alignment. To make matters worse, late second-stage leadership teams find themselves misaligned on two fronts, with a board of directors or ownership group and with the employees they are leading.

The cost of this misalignment is huge. Most often, it means that the visionary leadership that the company needs to survive and thrive in its next stage will be thwarted either from “above” by the board or “below” by the employees. But in both cases, it is both predictable and avoidable.

When we do brand strategy and execution work with late-second stage companies, we know that the process and the communication of that work is even more important than the work itself. We carefully engage all stakeholders (internal and external) in the work from the very beginning and have mapped out clear milestones when more communication and engagement are critical for success.

At the end of the day, leading a late second-stage company is a fundamental exercise in change management. For legacy customers, legacy employees, or a board of directors, the solution is always the same: Create a clear sense of urgency for why change is needed, and then clearly and consistently communicate how and why the change will happen. It is also important to celebrate the successes that the company while the change is in process, which will help to keep the momentum going and reinforce the benefits. We build in these moments as part of the process because we know how critical they are for success.

Often late second-stage leaders know who the champions of change will be and they know who the nay-sayers will be. Usually, the impulse is to engage the champions and avoid or steamroll the naysayers, but all it takes is one or two disgruntled employees or board members who feel like they have been left out of the loop to undermine the brand from the inside out. Instead, we advise working with these factions to find out what is important to them, what they are fearful of, and how we can be respectful of that in the process, even if it doesn’t alter the ultimate vision or outcome.

Takeaways for Late Second Stage

For late second-stage companies, the focus needs to be on:

  • Acknowledge fear of loss and fear of failure as strong barriers to change that must be directly addressed for established and/or family businesses.
  • Identify the “DNA” (Do Not Alter) of the company and brand and use it as a foundation for growth and change.
  • Engage all stakeholders in a change effort early and often, especially if they don’t agree with the change being made.

Wrap up: The Strength of Second Stage

While the pains of second stage are familiar, predictable, and real, so are the strength and resilience of these companies.

Second-stage companies make up 17% of the companies in the U.S., but create 36% of U.S. jobs. They are often dedicated to the local communities where they were founded and are likely to bring growth and economic opportunity to these areas that would not come from enterprise-level organizations.

Second-stage companies are tenacious. They have likely survived more than one economic downturn. They have evolved their products and services as the market has evolved. They are often family businesses with a fierce dedication to their employees.

A client once told me that the definition of second-stage success is better problems. If you are the leader of a second-stage business, yes, you should take a moment to realize that you are not alone in your pain. But you should also realize that these new, “better” problems are also a marker of your success, your hard work, and your growth, not just as a company, but as a leader.

So here’s to better problems!

The Founder Effect

How does a brand transcend a founder while still keeping their value, perspective, and influence? This is a uniquely “second stage” dilemma. Whether you are talking about the next generation of a family business, a new company that emerges after a merger, or installing a new CEO, the question is essentially the same.

This is a bittersweet article for me to write. At the end of this month, Six-Point’s “founding father,” David Wicks, will be retiring.

We have been preparing for this moment for years, but it still somehow feels like walking off a precipice.

Since we began transition discussions, one of the main questions in my mind wasn’t “how will we replace David” (impossible!). Instead, it has been “how will we keep David’s influence intact?”

Before becoming Six-Point’s chief creative officer, David’s background was an art director and creative director. He has worked for large retail grocery store brands, technical manufacturing brands, as well as international consumer product brands like Guinness. He learned how to design “the hard way” — in the time before desktop publishing — painstakingly pasting-up layouts and hand-illustrating concepts to present to clients. The skill, patience, and creativity that went into his work over his career has made him into the multi-faceted, multi-talented creative thinker he is today.

Marsha Montori (who retired in 2019), David, and I started Six-Point back in 2007, and while Marsha strongly influenced the brand and its personality, David was the one who was most emphatic about what we would be… and what we wouldn’t.

  • We would be irreverent. If there is one thing that David can’t stand, it’s people who take themselves too seriously. For David, the work was important. We weren’t. Any time any of us started getting heated, or cocky, or focused on peripheral issues, David is there with a quiet but pointed remark to bring things back into perspective. 

  • We would be communicators, not artists.. A lot of creative folks think of themselves as artists. The beauty of the work is paramount. For David, all writing and design for an agency should be in service to the message and the strategy. Is this element moving us forward toward our goal? Or is it making things less clear? Or worse, is it doing nothing at all? “Because it looks cool” is never a justification at Six-Point. 

  • We would make the work interesting. Never tell David that a client is boring, or that a project isn’t meaningful. As far as he is concerned, we are the only ones who can make something boring or exciting. Our passion, our curiosity, our creativity…That is what makes great work.

For all enduring brands, there comes a time when a founder needs to step back.

It’s always a precarious time in a brand’s lifecycle. Founders are the creators of the vision and the culture of their company. The brand is often very much in their image. The question of how to keep the success of a brand intact without this driving, central force is one that makes transition fraught with both opportunity and danger.

Six-Point Creative is no different. We have had to be intentional to build these founding principles into the daily rhythm of life at the agency. We infuse them in our onboarding. We tell stories to reinforce them. They also affect our selection of employees, partners, and clients. When you are clear on your values and your promises, you have the opportunity to attract like-minded people and create a virtuous cycle.

Preparing for this transition has allowed us to practice what we preach. Our work is all about making brands less dependent on individuals, clearer, more consistent, and more scalable. We are with companies during once-in-a-lifetime transition points when they need to orchestrate the careful balance between honoring the value of “what got us here” and also step bravely out into unchartered territory without dependence on any single person to bring about the future vision.

And now we are at a transition point ourselves. As we move into a new year, I am confident that David will still be with us in everything we do, just as I am confident that we will take that foundation to new heights.

I think David would agree that Mott the Hoople said it best:

Rejoyce for the king ain’t lost his throne, oh no
He’s still here, you’re not alone.

How To Plan With So Much Uncertainty

Highly detailed 12-month marketing plans are a thing of the past. You need a more agile way to plan your marketing activity that still allows you to think ahead, but also is built to be responsive to changes in your business and the market.

Enter the marketing road map. This version of agile planning can be accelerated or decelerated as needed. It can help you evaluate new opportunities, as well as the effectiveness of past activity. The only failure with it would be to execute it exactly the way it was planned.

Remember all of that time and effort you spent planning last November? If you were like us and our clients, you were probably feeling excited about the potential of your spreadsheets and calendars. This is going to be a big year! It seems laughable now to think about it.

Whether 2020 has meant opportunity or heartache for you, you didn’t plan it.

As we stare down 2021 with all of its uncertainty, how the heck do we plan? But if we don’t plan, how will we capture opportunity quickly enough to compete?

At Six-Point, we’ve been developing some techniques that hit that sweet spot between agility and planning. Lately, we find that a “map” feels more appropriate than a “plan.” After all, we know that in plotting any kind of route, there are always variables. You can speed up or slow down. You can take a side trip to check out something else of interest. You can plot a detour if there is a roadblock of some kind. 

But you don’t have to give up on the destination. When you are building out a marketing road map, there are a few critical features that make it different from a traditional marketing plan.

  • Old rule: You set a budget/plan and track variances to it throughout the year.

New rule: You build in the ability to handle frequent and substantial changes. Our road maps assume that the leadership team is revisiting and revising planned activity and expenditures at least quarterly, and doing so in the context of the market and the company’s performance. These conversations are held with the expectation of change… scanning for it, and embracing it, instead of seeing it as a failure. The biggest fail in the mapping mindset would be to execute everything exactly as it was laid out, as it probably means there was a missed opportunity along the way.

  • Old rule: You make annual, predictable commitments to vendors, media, and internal stakeholders.

New rule: You allocate resources in a flexible way to respond to emerging opportunities. This flows naturally out of the quarterly revisions, but it needs to be stressed. You need to keep plenty of “dry powder” (as one of my clients likes to say) in 2021. This doesn’t mean that you are thinking about a marketing budget as a potential resource to fund operations (obviously, it happens, but you don’t want that mindset). It means that you aren’t earmarking every dollar of the budget, or locking it all down with contracts that can carry penalties. Instead, you are thinking about your marketing budget as a combination of “infrastructure” spends (the basics you need to make your strategy successful), and “opportunity” spends (resources that you will use to propel the company forward).

  • Old rule: You spend a lot of time and energy having stakeholders review and revise budget line items and timing spreadsheets.

New rule: You invest quality time in conversations that develop and internalize strategy. Again, this is a natural outflow of the other two. In order to be able to execute on a marketing road map effectively, your team needs to know three things:

1. where you are now

2. where you are going

3. what you can’t or won’t do

You don’t spend time on spreadsheets and line items. You spend time making the destination crystal clear for your team (including a conversation about how you will know when you get there…what you will see, what you will hear, what you will feel). You also need to make sure that people clearly know where the guardrails are. Your company’s strategy will determine any DO NOTS for your team, and if those are clearly shared alongside a clear goal, then spotting opportunities, responding quickly, and allocating resources efficiently will be infinitely easier. I have been pleasantly surprised with the number of “feasibility studies” our team has been called on to perform over the past two months. This means that people are valuing a “no” answer as much as they value a “yes” answer, which is the most critical part of any strategy. You need to know what not to do. It’s not as fun as a yes, perhaps, but it is also much more valuable.

“Strategy is not what you’re going to do. That’s Planning. Strategy is what you’re not going to do.”


– Patty McCord, Former Chief Talent Officer, Netflix

  • Old rule: Marketing is a department with a siloed budget and siloed success metrics.

New rule: Building a marketing road map is a collaborative, engaging, and energizing process for the whole organization. The annual planning and budgeting process is a soul-sucking one. But planning a trip? That is exciting! I love looking at maps, plotting routes, seeing potential stops along the way, and anticipating the experiences we’ll have along the way. What if your 2021 marketing plan had that kind of energy around it? It can.

Want help to apply these new rules of marketing planning to your team? Check out our new workshop in which I’ll work alongside your team to build out your 2021 marketing road map.

Or contact us and we can do the heavy lifting for you. Our strategists can do intake and research and deliver you a strategy and a road map in a few weeks so your team can focus on keeping things running.

There have been no easy or painless lessons in this pandemic, but I do believe that small and mid-sized businesses are capable of embracing the sweet spot between uncertainty and data, between agility and planning. And if we do, we can turn it into an incredible competitive advantage.

Moments When Brand Strategy Becomes Mission Critical

Moments When Brand Strategy Becomes Mission Critical

As companies grow and scale, there are points in the business lifecycle when clearly articulating a brand strategy is critical to success. Brand strategy provides clarity and consistency to customers and employees. When companies prepare for a merger, a new market entry, or building out a marketing department for the first time, this clarity and consistency is an indispensable tool.

I’m a brand strategist, so in my book, brand is always a critical component of a business. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

That said, I also specialize in advising “second-stage” businesses. These are companies who have had significant periods of organic growth. They often have flourished for years without ever paying much attention to their brand and marketing strategy. 

However, when they come to us, something has changed. What got them to where they are will not get them to their next level. A strategic approach to brand and marketing is no longer a nice-to-have. 

Below are the common scenarios when a clearly articulated brand strategy becomes mission critical for second-stage businesses:

  • A pivot or growth opportunity in a new market. Brand strategy is critical here because established companies have something to lose. They have current customers who need to be served and often dozens of employees who need to stay busy. Chasing opportunities without a clear and consistent way to communicate what is going on, both internally and externally, is a recipe for disaster.
  • A merger or acquisition. This is a point when companies can waste tremendous resources, either by not respecting the equity in existing brands or overestimating brand equity. Do you keep the old brands? Combine them? Ditch them? Making these decisions emotionally can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted activity and squandered opportunity.
  • A new CEO. In second-stage companies, a new CEO often means the transition from owner/founder to a seasoned industry leader. This is usually done to reinvigorate an organization’s potential. The new CEO will often have an evolved vision for the company, and will need to be able to translate how the company’s past connects to this new future. The clarity and consistency that a strong brand strategy provides will answer internal and external questions, quell fears, and create next-level opportunities.
  • Building out a marketing department for the first time. It’s very beneficial to already have a clearly articulated brand strategy, brand language, and some brand standards before you build out a substantial internal team. Doing this work first means that the leadership team will better understand the skillsets they need to bring in house. They will also be able to attract more seasoned and expert talent that can drive the organization forward. If potential employees can see and feel the vision for the brand, they can better understand how they fit into the future picture.

If you are facing any one of these pivotal moments in your company, brand strategy can bring clarity, confidence, and efficiency to your next move. 

Lastly, if you need expert guidance to walk you through the basics of crafting a brand strategy, check out our new custom workshop, Build Your Brand Strategy. Over two sessions, we will work with your leadership team to achieve three goals. Evaluate your opportunities. Demystify branding best practices with some simple tools, and let you benefit from our years of experience working with companies who have faced the same questions, challenges, and turning points.