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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!

Five signs you might have a second-stage business

Five signs you might have a second-stage business

The term “second-stage business” is rarely recognized by entrepreneurs, yet your company might be one. If so, it’s likely time to invest in brand strategy, adjusting your positioning in the marketplace so that you can continue to grow and scale.

When you think about the lifecycle of your business, you probably break it into 1) those treacherous start-up years and then, assuming you survive, 2) everything after. But this perspective ignores a critical stage of your business’s development that is chock-full of risk — and reward — particularly if you don’t know that you’re in it. I’m talking about second stage.

The Edward Lowe Foundation defines second-stage businesses as privately owned, growth-oriented companies between $1M and $50M in annual revenue and 10-99 employees. The challenges companies of this size face are staggeringly predictable, as is the path toward becoming a scaled enterprise.

So why haven’t you ever heard of a second-stage business before?

Well, because of one of the common symptoms. Second-stage owners are typically working so hard in the business, they can’t pick their heads up long enough to see these patterns. The challenges all feel unique, new, and frustratingly personal. To be perfectly blunt (from my own experience), second stage can feel a lot like failure.

Before we get into five critical signs that you are in second stage, let’s take age off the table: there is no hard-and-fast timeline for second stage. I’ve met companies who are at second stage within a few years of starting up. Many didn’t reach this milestone until  10-15 years in business. A surprising amount of companies that hit second-stage at 50+ years when they experienced a change in the market, or a renewed appetite for growth at the C-level.

At Six-Point Creative, we specialize in brand development and brand strategy, so we look at the signs and symptoms of second stage — and the solutions for second-stage businesses — through that lens.

Here are five signs that your business is probably in second stage:

  • #1: What you used to do to get big sales lifts doesn’t work anymore. We hear it all the time: “I’ve never had to spend much on marketing.” Exactly. Start-up (or first-stage) companies rely on their networks, word-of-mouth, and a very core customer base. And it’s true — if you have a strong value proposition, you can get pretty far with that approach; BUT, it can give the business owner a false sense that a build-it-and-they-will-come approach will last indefinitely. It won’t. You’ll eventually reach the end of your network, and with it, the end of your effortless lead gen and sales. Luckily, there is a solution (even though you don’t want to hear it). Start spending on marketing and investing in your brand. This shift doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It isn’t a sign of failure. In fact, it’s a sign of success.
  • #2: You’ve been debating whether to hire a CMO. Many second-stage companies have been spending money on marketing, and might have a marketing coordinator position or similar, but they aren’t running integrated marketing campaigns with strategy and confidence. They’re getting more and more strategic and sophisticated in other areas of their business. They probably have a CFO and have invested a lot of time and attention in their operations through consultants and internal staffing. Then they will be ready to tackle marketing. Of course, with strategy comes the need to execute, so the timing becomes difficult: It feels like we need a CMO to optimize our marketing. But if we hire a high-priced CMO, how will we have the budget to hire individual contributors to execute the strategy? Maybe we should keep things as is until we get a little bigger. But how will we grow until we get more strategic in our marketing? It becomes a frustrating cycle.
  • #3: Your elevator pitch no longer describes what you do. Yes, at one point you totally had it down, and so did everyone in your company. The concept of an elevator pitch isn’t new to you. But now it comes with hesitation, or caveats, and varies widely based on who you’re talking to (or who is doing the talking). This can be damaging externally, but it’s also probably causing friction internally. Key employees are frustrated because it’s unclear about whether or not the company is committed to the vision in your strategic plan. Your elevator pitch has one foot in the past and one foot in the future, and it feels like the company is hedging its bets.
  • #4: You are considering (or already have) shortened a once meaningful name to an acronym. The company was founded with a clear vision and in response to a market opportunity. That has shifted over time. No one was willing or able to speak up at the exact moment when the tide turned, but at some point a shared sense emerged that the old name isn’t as relevant anymore, so you should probably just use the acronym. “It’s easier than a real name change, and our customers call us that anyway.” I know, I know … it works for IBM and UPS, so why shouldn’t it work for you? Here’s the hard medicine on acronyms: they only work if you’re truly able and willing to invest big dollars in the brand development and marketing to make them meaningful. And this just isn’t a possibility for most privately held, second-stage companies. (See #1 & #2 above.)
  • #5: You feel imposter syndrome when it comes to staking a claim to your ultimate vision for the company. You have a 10-year BHAG in notes from a planning session somewhere, but you aren’t willing to look and act like that now. You feel like there is a lot more groundwork to do before you could ever be that bold. But did you ever stop to think that if you openly claimed that vision in your current brand, you could make that 10-year vision come true even faster? That you could attract the team that you need to make it a reality, motivate your existing team to truly get it, and allow your ideal future customer to identify you now?

If any of this feels like you’re looking in a mirror, you might want to check out the Edward Lowe Foundation’s “Second Stage Road Map.” Usually, we recommend that companies tackle core marketing and branding issues when they are in the second or third phase of second stage. That timing allows your marketing dollars to impact (and be impacted by) your scaling strategy. But, it’s not so early that you create more issues for yourself because you don’t have the right infrastructure in place to accommodate growth.

Second stagers often feel that their situations are more unique than they are.

But, as a second-stager myself and an observer of many other business owners in this life stage of business, I can typically spot the patterns of symptoms — and solutions — a mile away. And there are solutions. In fact, the good news is that though your business may be special, your problems aren’t unique — and becoming familiar with the challenges of second stage is nearly half the battle.

In fact, knowing where you’re at is why I made this article less than 1,200 words long. Glad you made it to the end; now go put out that fire.

Why Businesses Fail

According to the Small Business Administration, 70 percent of businesses cease to exist within 10 years of launch. Why do businesses fail? Misuse of resources.

Branding and marketing are often disciplines in which companies misuse their resources. Six-Point has tips for growth-minded companies looking to optimize branding and marketing resources.

I was sitting at a full day workshop…in a session on sales, I believe…and my mind was wandering a bit (as it is apt to do in sessions on sales). All of a sudden, the speaker snapped me back to attention with a simple question: “Why do businesses fail?”

These days, especially with this weird (IMHO) zeitgeist that is the “cult of the entrepreneur,” we rarely talk about businesses failing. We talk about unicorns and angels. We talk about IPOs and VC. But why businesses fail? That is not a question I hear asked much, even though it is much more common than those rare successes. 

After many guesses from the room (cash flow, profitability, revenue, wrong people wrong seats), the speaker said, simply: Misuse of resources.

The answer hit me in the gut. Because there is never enough for everything that we want to accomplish. Never enough money. Never enough people. Certainly never enough time. If we just had a little more — oh the things we could achieve! 

But the truth is, all businesses, all people, have limited resources. And stewardship of those resources needs to be paramount.

Since hearing that statement, I have been making decisions differently about my own business — not out of a sense of scarcity — but out of a sense of stewardship. Our resources are limited. Our ideas and needs and potential for impact are myriad. Waste is not an option.

Of course, I’m not an operations or HR consultant, so I’ll bring this back to what I know.

Here are a few tips to help eliminate waste in your branding and marketing budget:

  • Develop a budget with a 60/40 split between branding and lead generation over a 3-5 year span. The IPA, an international trade association dedicated to marketing effectiveness, has done studies over the past two decades that continue to reinforce that this is the ideal mix for long-term return on investment. Too much in branding, and you can’t generate enough short-term sales to feed operations. Too much in lead generation and you are on a treadmill that you can never get off — with no equity being built in your customers’ minds, and no weapon to battle against the pressure to lower prices.
  • Concentrate investment in high impact customer touchpoints. Brand experiences that are highly personal and either very frequent or long-lasting have the strongest neurological imprint on your customers. For example, customer service calls, in-person sales presentations, and the packaging of products ordered online are all opportunities to make a high impact brand impression. Therefore, ensure that anything which involves another human being and takes place more than 12x per year or for more than 10 minutes gets extra attention to the impression it is making. Is it doing everything it can to generate the right conversations about your company? How could you make it more impactful?
  • Question the “must-haves.” Chances are, the way the business got to where it is now is not what is going to get you to the next level. Whether in staffing your marketing team, or the “must-go” trade show, or the critical brochure your sales team says they can’t live without — now is the time to question absolutes. What ineffective expenditures are you tolerating because it would cause too much emotional pain or staff blowback to cut them? Challenge your team and your agency to come up with a more effective solution within the existing budget. How can they do more with the same resources?
  • A note of inspiration: There is a common business school exercise where teams are given $5 (or $100, or any given amount) and asked to maximize return within a certain time. The teams that do the best are most often the ones who don’t even use the money. Instead, they think up creative ways to avoid limitations of time and money. Here is one story of this exercise.

Sure, more resources might help you grow, but waste can kill your business. Let’s concentrate on maximizing what we have before we spend time wishing for more.

Your Customers Can’t Read Your Mind

Your Customers Can’t Read Your Mind

Pivoting your company or making significant changes to your brand strategy or your offerings? In this article, Six-Point Creative outlines its communication strategy tips for leaders preparing to execute a change initiative.

I was meeting with a client and had a familiar conversation: Our organization is going through major changes, so we hunkered down to execute, and now that we’re done, we need to start to control communication flow.

I work exclusively with second stage companies, and the very nature of these companies is that they’re in operational upheaval. They are trying to do big things with limited resources. Many of them are making a major business pivot in operations, market, product, or sales channels, and are doing so with legacy systems and structures.

As almost all my clients say, I’m trying to build the car while I’m driving it.

Usually by the time they are talking to me, it’s a little late, but if I could give the leadership team of second stage companies some advice, it would be: Create a communication strategy at the same time you create your change strategy.

Everyone asks: How are we going to do this?

Few ask: How and when are we going to explain this to people?

Unfortunately, poor communication can kill a change strategy. This includes both talking to both your employees and your customers/suppliers/industry, and doing both consistently and often.

I recently worked with a company going through the high-risk process of merging two brands, both with decades of equity built up and very loyal client bases. The fear was pervasive.

How can we possibly navigate this merger without some significant customer backlash?

We started the process the way we always do: with intense listening to employees and customers. When we did, we didn’t hear a reason to be fearful. We heard an opportunity: customers who believed in the two brands, and wanted to make sure that the brands valued them as customers. Would they be forgotten? Dismissed as small fish in a bigger pond?

If the company stopped communicating with these customers during the merger, they would certainly create that very narrative in their customers’ minds. Instead, we immediately put into place an aggressive, multichannel communication strategy and established opportunities for customers to ask questions and express their own fears of potential loss so that they could be addressed directly.

The result? I got a note of thanks after the merger that referred to the final official notification as a “nonevent” for their customers. “They were completely supportive.”

This was an inflection point that could have gone in a totally different direction. Instead, we applied a simple but highly effective recipe: Be consistent, be transparent, be aggressive.

In the absence of a credible story, people will make up their own. So don’t let there be a time when there isn’t a story offered.

Five tips for communicating a change initiative:

  • Start the internal conversations early, at every level of the company.
  • Let employees know how they should answer tough questions from customers/suppliers/partners. (Over-prepare them. Their fear is always way worse than the reality, but you want them to feel like you have their back.)
  • Talk to customers as early as possible, and do it in multiple ways (in person, in a letter, in an email, on the phone, in a postcard, on social media).
  • Give people a chance to talk back and ask questions. Listen to them and respond as a fellow human, not a corporation.
  • Be consistent, internally and externally. The level of detail and focus should be different, but the message should be the same.

Make sure that you have clear steps, roles, and accountability for each of the areas above. If you can make a communication plan and stick to it, you can avoid spending a lot of money, time, and effort trying to salvage relationships and reputation.

Your brand and your story are a company asset. Protect them.

Qualitative Research: Building a Disruptive Brand, Part 2

The most disruptive insurgent brands win through insights in qualitative research. They are determined to understand their primary target customer better than the competition. They see the unseen.

For your brand to have a truly differentiated value proposition, you must first understand the buyer — and it does require the restraint of focusing on one singular primary target customer.

Part two of this six part series by creative strategist Tyler Leahy focuses on the qualitative research actions your brand should take to uncover consumer insights and leverage them into a value proposition unique to your brand.

This is part two of a six-part series. Part one can be found here


Your customer, inside and out

So, you already decided you want to turn your industry on its head after reading my previous article. Before we radically change the consumer world as we know it, let’s start small.

Insurgent brands are determined to understand their primary target customer. Inside and out. Better than the competition.

Sounds like a no-brainer, but it takes a tremendous amount of restraint. Your product or service is not for everyone. Even if it could be for everyone, you need to focus on a primary target audience in order to brand and market effectively. And to focus, you need to do your homework.

Why: Your whole value proposition depends on understanding the buyer. Through qualitative research, figuring this out early on was the key to Halo Top’s meteoric ascension

We don’t think of ice cream as inextricably linked to marathons, CrossFit, and powerlifting. But Halo Top learned that for fitness-obsessed twenty-somethings, there was a gap in the market, first through a hunch, then through qualitative research. Typical “diet ice cream” options weren’t appealing, but these fit shoppers could only live with the guilt of buying a decadent pint of Ben & Jerry’s or other premium ice cream once a month at most, or maybe even once a quarter. 

qualitative-research-halo-top-case-study

It became Halo Top’s business intent to offer an ice cream that fit twenty-somethings could buy every single trip to the grocery store, without the guilt.

Every component of the Halo Top buyer’s journey is designed to create brand loyalty within its target audience. The low calorie count prominent displayed as the largest text on the packaging. The premium look of the gold halo ring around the cover. The Instagrammable messages on the inside of the foil lid.

A strong value proposition for retailers was developed. Marketing effectively on a very slim budget became possible. And Halo Top skyrocketed.

Fully immerse yourself in your industry’s consumer culture

What does that mean for you? Study up on the emotional drivers of your target customer. Here’s how.

Challenge your team (including yourself) to become superfans of your industry, as consumers, not as representatives of your brand. It’s not a task reserved for the marketing manager or the VP of sales. It’s a company-wide headset.

Here’s what you do:

Dive in. Attend industry events and meet-ups. Talk to individuals who are clearly “superfans.” Join social media groups. Scour forums. Read reviews and watch homemade YouTube videos about your brand and about the category in general. Get your hands on all of the qualitative research you can, all so you can confidently answer these questions:

  • Who is our potential superfan? Why? What’s their profile? 
  • How does this product or service fit into their life, and into the ecosystem of other brands they are superfans of? 
  • What informs their first-time buying decision? What informs their long-term brand loyalty? 
  • What unmet needs are they talking about with each other, and what platforms do they use for communicating? Are they using any “hacks” to get past their unmet needs? 

Audit brand experiences in your category. You know who your competitors are. Review their product packaging and collateral. On social media, in advertising, and elsewhere, look for differences in tone and emotion. Compare value propositions. Look for thoughtful loyalty initiatives and value-adds, and discern what they’re trying to accomplish. 

  • How do buyers interact with your brand’s product packaging or collateral materials? How about your competitors? 
  • What makes the buying decision easier for them? 
  • How our competitors bringing their people and culture into the brand experience? 
  • On social, what are customers saying about your competitors? And you? 
  • Is this anything experiential that has staying power post-purchase, reinforcing your competitors’ brands? 
Think about your “brand experience” as a continuous cycle. From the time a prospective buyer discovers you, to the time they (hopefully) make a purchase, to follow-through, how are they experiencing your brand? How is it adding value? How are they co-creators in the journey? What makes them come back? What makes them tell a friend? 

Here’s what you don’t do:

  • Try to sell while out in the field learning. This process is for learning about your primary target consumer, and doing so can compromise the integrity of the data you collect.

  • Become Dr. Frankenstein. As an entrepreneur, you’re going to notice things your competitors are doing really well and be tempted…but resist. Insurgent brands don’t chase the competition. They forge their own path.

  • Launch a new product or service without doing this thinking. 

The takeaway

If you want to disrupt your market, it’s not good enough to make assumptions about your target audience. Qualitative research is where many of the “whys” are often hidden — those emotional x-factors you can build into your brand (more on that later).

For Entrepreneurs, No New Growth Without Pruning

Becoming a better leader is often achieved by letting go of past responsibilities that you can now delegate to members of your team. Entrepreneurs and owner-founders particularly find this to be challenging. To grow and scale your company, the CEO (and others on its leadership team) need to delegate tasks to work on company vision and growth initiatives, rather than placing the majority of their focus on day-to-day company operations.

My mom had a habit when we were growing up that never failed to embarrass when we were out in public.

We would be walking by a flower bed…in front of a store, a neighbor’s house, or along the sidewalk…and she would reach out and impulsively “dead-head” the flowers. For those of you who didn’t have a mom with this compulsion, this means she would pick off the dead flowers on a plant. She told me why it was important – it is what keeps the plant full and healthy. Instead of diverting nutrients to dead or dying parts of the plant, the plant could focus its energy on producing new shoots and buds. It always bugged her to see the plants growing in a way that was not healthy.

My dad also went through an experiment of growing apple trees in our small yard. They had a number of requirements that we needed to learn to properly care for them, including pruning, in order to keep the trees healthy, shapely, and producing fruit. It was always a tad disturbing to see him lopping off huge portions of the tree, but, lo and behold, the little trees filled in quickly and started budding.

So when I heard one of my current favorite podcast hosts use the phrase, “there is no growth without pruning,” I was immediately brought back to the vividness of these childhood experiences.

As an entrepreneur, particularly one who is well past the start-up phase and looking to grow my business into something scalable and sustainable, I find that I am constantly diverting my most precious resources, time and energy, to activities that are not going to drive new growth. I have dead-end tasks that I do because they are comfortable, because I feel like I am “sparing” others from them, or because I am “leading by example” to show I am not above small tasks. But that is bull. If I was a plant, I would immediately draw my mother’s attention, and she would be plucking dead-heads off me in no time.

Goodbye social media monitoring.

Goodbye project updates to clients.

Goodbye IT troubleshooting.

And many more.

Yes, it is painful and shocking to lop off those roles I have clung to, but I can already feel the new energy and opportunity taking the place of the old.

Of course, as a business owner, I have to ask: Would it be cheaper if I did those things myself? Only if I am thinking short-term and don’t trust my own ability to grow and lead the company. But I wouldn’t be in the role or have had the success we’ve had if that was the case.

When I announced my intentions to a few employees, I expected some eye rolling. After all, why should I get to shirk tasks that they have to do? Instead, I was met with more new energy – and some relief. “That’s great! I didn’t really want you to spend your time on that.” It made me realize that I wasn’t just hurting my own growth by hanging onto those roles. I was hampering their growth, and their opportunity for growth in the company. They could see it was time for a pruning before I could.

The only way I will grow personally and the only way I will grow my company is to prune away those activities that are keeping me from living into my role as CEO and leader of my company.

Delegate and elevate.

Work on the business not in the business. It isn’t a new realization, but the metaphor was a powerful one to me, and I wanted to share it with others looking to the new year as an opportunity for growth.

It won’t happen without some pruning. So get lopping.