There is safety in a collective agreement that we all do things a certain way.

When we all agree, we eliminate the need to continually negotiate. We can stop looking over our shoulder. We no longer need to expend precious energy wondering when our turn will be, who we need to get in front of, whether we are going to miss out.

When we all agree, it’s obvious when someone acts out of turn. And we can be safe in the knowledge that if they do, that person will be held accountable. Perhaps through an overt punishment like a fine. Perhaps less overt - such as being socially shunned. But one way or another, they will be forced to go to the back of the line.

When we all agree, there are no shortcuts, no VIP clubs. These are some of the benefits of a collectivist culture.

But there’s the dark side too. In Japan, there’s an old saying that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. In Western Culture, it’s known as tall poppy syndrome. It’s the idea that we don’t like those who speak up, who make change happen, who achieve higher status.

Still, there’s much we can learn about creating systems that support collective agreement, about supporting not just ourselves but our networks.

Glass houses

It's tempting to poke holes in our competitors’ work. Perhaps they’re a digital marketing firm and their social presence is next to zero. Or their blog hasn’t been updated since October 2016. Or the stock photography in their brochure looks like it was shot in 1998.

It’s easy to think of all the ways you could do what they do better.

If you asked them why they hadn’t fixed that broken link or that go-no-where-form or attended to that bad grammar on their About page they might say ‘yeah, we know we need to work on that’, or ‘we wish we could afford to hire a copywriter to help us with our messaging’.

Putting our energy into criticizing others is a dangerous game. It lets us off the hook from investing in making our own processes better. Meanwhile, our competitors are out there having a go, doing their best.

What if you looked at your competitors’ work as a chance to learn and grow?

Your competitors are not who you think they are

If you search online for how to write a marketing plan, the essential elements of a marketing plan or how to write a business plan online I guarantee, you will always find a section devoted to analyzing your competition.

For brick-and-mortar stores and product manufacturers, it’s super important to know who else is on your street or which brands your product will sit next to on the shelf.

When shopping for a product, a customer can easily compare one list of features to the next. They can line up their options side by side and easily determine which item will best suit their needs.

But when seeking a service provider, things get more fuzzy. Services are based on experiences. It’s difficult for a client to objectively determine (even after they have paid for a service) whether it was the best option for them.

In his book Selling the Invisible, Harry Beckwith says service businesses have three main competitors and if you’re a massage therapist, a financial planner or an architect, two of them are certainly not who you think they are.

When searching for a service provider, clients are deciding between

1. Doing it themselves.

2. Not doing it at all.

3. Others in the same space. 

So when you’re creating your marketing plan, it pays not simply to think about what others are doing, but what barriers you can remove between you and your clients either doing the work themselves or not doing it at all.

You’re selling a relationship, an experience. Not necessarily just features and benefits.


After a recent visit to the local aquarium, a friend of mine wrote the aquarium a letter complaining about the number of plastic souvenirs available in the gift shop.

In a lengthy response, the aquarium’s retail store manager listed all of the initiatives they are undertaking to reduce plastic use and educate visitors about plastic and its disposal. Towards the end of her email she stated that minimizing plastic usage is a ‘big undertaking’ while getting rid of plastic completely was ‘not possible’.

‘Impossible’ seems incredibly pessimistic for a conservation organization. Especially one whose primary concern is the ocean - an environment severely impacted by plastics.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to take a radical stance? To be visionary? To say we have enough plastic. We refuse to add to the problem.

Stop and observe

When clients first come to us with their ideas and challenges, it’s usually easy for us to see what we think they need.

They need a plan, they need goals, they need fresh ideas, new strategies. We tell ourselves they need to take action and be strategic about it. They need our formula for growth, our tested process, to get with our program.

What would it look like if we slowed down and took the time to observe our clients before we made recommendations? If we look to answer not what they need but who they are. Behind the external goals, the missions and visions, what do they fear, where are their blocks?

Our interaction with them becomes about taking them from who they are now to who they want to become. After each action we help them take, what if we simply stopped to observe and asked ourselves is this taking them one step closer to who they want to become?

Making butter

If you have ever tried making your own butter, you know that before you see a yellow glob form in the jar, you must first endure a long period of shaking the cream back and forth. Back and forth. The process will fool you. You will begin to wonder how much more shaking will be needed. You will begin to wonder if this is really the way to make butter at all.

Meanwhile, your arm is starting to tire. The ache makes you switch hands. Still nothing.

‘Am I doing it wrong’? you will say to yourself.

Sure, there are certain conditions that do make the job easier. Using a large jar that provides ample space for the cream to move back and forth will help. Having a friend on hand to take over shaking the jar to give your arms a chance to recover has the added benefit of making the task more social.

Still, there will inevitably be a long period of shaking the jar when no change is evident.

The cream will give you no indication that it’s changing states until you sense a telltale glob moving from end to end in the jar. The butter will suddenly, almost miraculously, form itself in the bottom of the jar with just a trickle of watery run off remaining of what was once fluid cream.

Making butter is a repetitive process. There are no shortcuts. It involves doing the same thing over and over until you see change.

Escape velocity

In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed needed for an object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body - for example a space shuttle trying to escape the earth’s gravitational pull.

For a space shuttle, this requires an enormous amount of fuel. More fuel on board adds more weight to the space craft, which in turn requires more thrust to lift it. More thrust requires more fuel. An endless cycle.

NASA says escape velocity represents one of the biggest challenges in space travel. A challenge scientists work to resolve by creating lighter vehicles, more efficient fuels and different forms of propulsion.

In small business, the slide into exchanging time for money is quick and almost imperceptible. Soon work has become a familiar grind where the harder you work, the more work your business seems to require. And yet, strangely, this isn’t reflected in your bank account.

Achieving escape velocity from the pull of daily tasks means letting go of thoughts like “If I can just get through the next [week, month, project, pitch], then I’ll have time to [make a plan, call that prospect, prototype that design].”

Because there will always be another task, another pitch, another project to complete next week, next month or next year. More work and by extension more money requires more time, more energy, more power.

Unless you re-design your business to be lighter, to require less resources or that requires a different kind of propulsion.

Good design is good business

Thomas Watson Jr, IBM CEO from 1952-1971 first coined this phrase back in 1973. While it sounds reasonable, is it actually true and how would we go about measuring it?

When you think of good design what comes up for you? Is it the sorbet in beautiful packaging you bought the other day? Your favourite social justice organization’s annual report? The pen that when held gives you a certain kind of feeling?

Design is not one thing. It is not just graphics on a page. Or the logo on an appliance. Or the appliance itself. But it’s these things too. Recently researchers at McKinsey Quarterly set out to determine the true value of design. They identified a 300 top performing, publicly listed companies and rated them on design.

They found that companies that invested in good design consistently outperform their competition in terms of profit. And not just by a little. At nearly twice the rate.

It held across all industries studied. It held for both products and services.

So why are we so reluctant to invest in good design?

And what is good design? According to McKinsey Quarterly’s researchers:

  • It’s analytical and can be measured

  • It’s cross-functional - everyone’s responsibility

  • It’s continuous iteration - not just a phase

  • It starts with the user experience - not just a product

And what does all of this mean for small businesses and freelancers who don’t have the luxury of an in-house design team?

It means starting with your user in mind. It means incorporating design thinking into your planning. It means involving your end user sooner and iterating quickly based on what you learn. It means thinking of design, not as a line item on a budget or as something you’ll invest in if you have money left over or if you do better next quarter.

What is marketing?

Try using marketing’ in a sentence.

‘I have trouble marketing my business.’

‘I don’t need marketing for my business because I already have enough clients.’

‘I think distributing a catalogue with all my products to potential customers it the best marketing strategy for my business.’

Do you view what you do and why you do it from the inside out or from the outside in? That is, do you think of what your customers can do for your business or what your business can do for your customers?

Marketing is both. And other things too.

Marketing is why you do what you do. Marketing is what you do. Marketing is how you do it.

If you believe you don’t know the best way to market your business, then what is it that you really believe?

Perhaps you aren’t sure if what you do truly matters to your target audience.

Or perhaps you don’t know if you’re charging the right price.

Or perhaps, when people ask you what you do, you don’t know what to tell them. Or that when you tell them, you lose them.

Finding answers to all of these questions is marketing.

When complexity becomes a burden

There is a traffic light I encounter everyday on my way to work. It’s at a regular four way intersection - streets perfectly perpendicular to one another.

In one direction the street is divided into four lanes, the other into two. It’s not an overly busy intersection however on one side is the entrance to a bus loop making it a hub for pedestrian traffic.

The duration between light changes is interminable and there are long periods where no one moves at all. Drivers receive advance green arrows no matter in which direction they are turning or from where they approach.

All of this waiting while streams of traffic move only in one direction or another makes pedestrians impatient. Instead of waiting for the signal to cross, they’ll cross whenever it appears clear. Often only to become stranded on an island at the centre of the intersection.

The signal sequence makes the flow of traffic unpredictable. On many occasions, I’ve watched as pedestrians get blindsided by vehicles travelling in a direction at a time they didn’t expect.

The intersection is a system burdened by unnecessary complexity.

Which of your systems could benefit from pruning, or paring back to leave a minimum viable offering?