I'll speak for myself in this post, as opposed to making false attributions to others (which would be very easy to do!).
The world of marketing and sales drives me crazy. This is my gig -- proposals, marketing, sales -- but what a racket, right?
As a small business owner, the push for visibility and market share takes serious work. If you want to make a mark, you have to put in the long hours to do that. It's like forging steel. Or creating sculpture. Or writing an orchestra piece. It doesn't happen right away, even if you're an advertising genius and do everything right.
Market research. Keyword analysis. Search Engine Optimization. Brand personas. Buyer personas. Differentiation. Finding the niche. Selecting channels. Social media. Listening to the buyer. Speaking their language. Evolving around the customer experience.
These are often necessary activities. Indeed they are disciplines in which people specialize and excel. But I'll be honest - in reading this stuff all day and in doing it for others, there's an awful lot of bullshit out there. And I've recently asked myself where it's all coming from, and why? The stench is increasing exponentially by the day. It's getting hard to listen to anyone any more, let alone breathe.
Here's my perspective. I've spent two years slogging it out in the market. Website. Blogs. Social media. Meetings. Networking. Conferences. Relationship building. And I'm confused. It's time to admit it. The market doesn't want much of what I've got -- or, at least that's the way it would appear. The truth is much more subtle.
Self-Help Business Advice says, "Be yourself, you're awesome!"
The endless push for uniqueness derives from the desire for revenue. If I want to sell, then I need to be different, or better, or cheaper. Someone told me recently that you can't be all three. Really? Imagination can help fill that gap pretty quick. Take local organic produce at a farmer's market over Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. Take a taco truck in southern California over a pricey dinner at a swanky restaurant on the ocean. Or look at the Honda Fit against other cars in its class.
The thing is, some people and companies are awesome. One of my favorites is The Made Shop. They excel in making things they don't know how to make yet. Awesome. Another company is Darn Tough. This company makes socks with a lifetime guarantee. Amazing. Yet another company is Basecamp. Great project management software at one price point. These people are being themselves and killing it. Why? Because they ARE different. It's too bad that this is the exception.
I write proposals. There are hundreds of ways to write them. Differentiating my work is difficult, because the outcome depends on so many external factors. Who is staffing the proposal? Do they know the customer? Are they pricing the services right? Do they have the best people? If I can't say yes to all these questions, my odds of winning decrease. Anyone in the proposal industry who says their win rate is higher than 60% is a liar. 35% is doing very well.
So when I read advice about being myself, and touting that as my imprint on the market, it rings a bit hollow. Many, many people can write proposals well. None will do it like me, but the outcome may be the same. In the end, then, what does it matter that I'm myself? To an external buyer who doesn't know me from the next company in the Google list, I'm just a line on a screen.
Marketers say "Differentiate and be unique! No one wants the same-old, lame-old!"
My point is that I hear and believe things because of what I read and do. On one side, the small business self-help world tells me to be myself. Go for the dream. Put my mind and body into it. Do something different. Disrupt. On the other side, the marketing world tells me to research what the market wants. See what other people are doing. Look at what's been successful. Then say why you are different. Tell them what sets you apart.
When I researched what people look for in proposals, the greatest return on key words was "winning." Proposal companies write winning proposals. The people who hire them want winning proposals, because that's what makes money. No losing proposals. Not different ones. Winning ones. Comparing my process to someone else's doesn't matter, even if it is better. All the work I spent on being and defining my self and my way doesn't matter.
Am I a hard worker? Yes. Am I always on time? Yes. Am I a great storyteller? Could be. Taking the business advice made me feel good. I am unique. I know that Qocreate's Story, System, Style approach is different. It's better. It saves time and money. It gives people their weekends and nights back. It helps ease tensions and create an atmosphere of confidence.
But you know what? No one in the market cares about those things. They care about winning. And so many people talk about it, that even $300M in new revenue doesn't draw a crowd. So, what are all these winners saying about themselves?
The Market says, "We want the standard, because we know it's good!"
In the proposal writing market, winners talk about standards. Shipley's, with an astounding 96-step process, is a standard. The Association of Proposal Management Professionals is a standard. Why is this important? Because the market likes standards. They are predictable. They feel safe. They produce results.
There are standards for everything. Project management. Proposal management. Information Technology systems design. Cyber security. The bodies of different disciplines have standards. The International Standards Organization (ISO). The American Society for Quality (ASQ). Fill in your own here - I'm sure your field has a comparable oversight organization.
All these standards apply to certain areas of work. People walk around wearing acronyms like a badge. PMP, LSSBB, CISSP, SHRM-CP, CSM, CPP APMP, and others signal professional credentials. Have fun looking those up! And please don't huff if you're certified in one or many of these. I have no doubt you earned it and it's helping your career. Many of my friends enjoy the benefits of these certifications. The crux of the matter for me, though, is that signature blocks bloat with this stuff. It doesn't mean you can do the job better than anyone else. It means you learned (hopefully!) a few things from study.
The bottom line here is that what marketers tell you to sell is different than what the market wants. The marketer screams different! and unique! But people and organizations want to buy things on which they can rely.
Some of you may know about the Rogers Bell Curve and the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle. In it, 16% of people are innovators or early adopters. This means they get in on an idea when it's new or different. The remaining 84% take a while to warm up to something new. A full 50% are late-stage adopters or laggards.
So - let's say you have an amazing, differentiated, and new approach to something. You're missing 84% of the potential market right off the bat. This doesn't mean you won't win some people over, just not everyone right away. Those 84% love the standards. They want something that works for others, and by correlation will work for them.
The 16% of people willing to try something new - you'll have to do extra work to convince them. They're shrewd, usually, and smart as hell. You've got an ocean to swim for the minority. Then you have Everest to conquer in persuading a skeptical majority.
Be Yourself? Be Someone Else? Or Be the Standard?
My guess is that most small business entrepreneurs are like me. I think I have a better way of writing proposals than the majority out there. My methods have made me and others a lot of money. Why not bring this new and better (and cheaper by the way!) approach to market? People will LOVE it.
Qocreate's Story, System, Style approach does great things. It increases chances of winning (that's all the market talks about). It decreases costs (lower overhead and improved Return on Investment). And it enhances the lives of employees (who no longer have to work crazy nights and weekends).
This, to me, seems like an absolute win-win-win. I am being myself. I am providing a new, differentiated service. I am better than most (please don't read this as arrogance...the numbers speak this truth as well). And, because of the efficiencies my process brings, I am also cheaper.
However, in setting myself up like this, I committed a critical error. I thought the market wanted something new and better. The truth is, an 84% majority of the market wants to live and die by standards - which is code for something that anyone can do.
So what's the result? Be myself -- different, better, cheaper? Be someone else -- listen to the market and pound my uniqueness drum as loud as possible? Or, be the standard -- a very profitable option?
This madness in marketing surprised me. We spin our wheels creating unique and captivating stories. If this is what people wanted, many people would be millionaires. The truth appears to be different. People want something they can trust, not something innovative or groundbreaking. Marketers encourage us to do a lot of talking, because they have to tell us something.
The truth is, only a tiny minority of people are innovators, and early adopters are another minority group. But that doesn't mean that new and better approaches and ideas aren't worth bringing to the market. What it means is that entrepreneurs have to be patient. We have to capture these small minorities and trust that they'll help influence the rest of the world. And we have to make sure that we have a plan to survive and grow while our ground-breaking ideas are adopted.
This is all very possible, and it's a lesson I've learned in the two years I've been in business. I offer these observations to help others learn from my mistakes, because the upshot is this: if I had it all to do over, I would lower my expectation and enthusiasm around market adoption. I would take to heart that many people are slow to change. I would also tell myself to be patient - change may come, but it's going to take time.
Disruption can happen these days, but I wouldn't get too tripped up on it. The 84% still have a long way to go.
If you want a different, better, and cheaper way to win proposals, give us a call. Fifteen minutes may just be enough to sell you on the idea. Until then, all the best with marketing and growing your business.