(By Tim Berry)
“Just imagine the story of somebody who has a problem or wants something, finds your business and buys from you. Pretend for a moment that you’re writing a story or talking to a friend about your company. Don’t sweat writing or editing, just make it a simple story you can tell. Go ahead, be creative and let go“.
Do you think business strategy is for someone else? You’re running your business, putting out fires, holding the fort, and—thank goodness—things are going well. Strategy is something you leave for the academics and business writers. I’ve been there myself.
However, it’s not that simple. Strategy might seem academic and remote, but lack of strategy is generally equivalent to never saying no, having no priorities and trying to please everybody—which is a recipe for failure.
Lately, however, I’ve started to think about business strategy as a story. As it turns out, it’s a quick and powerful way to be intuitively strategic.
Business Strategy as a Story
It’s simple. Just imagine the story of somebody who has a problem or wants something, finds your business and buys from you. Pretend for a moment that you’re writing a story or talking to a friend about your company. Don’t sweat writing or editing, just make it a simple story you can tell. Go ahead, be creative and let go.
For example, a story for one business might be how Ralph buys organic ketchup off the shelf of a grocery store that carries organic products. Another business, such as a restaurant, might imagine the story of how Mary and Ralph choose a restaurant for date night. And a third business, such as a company that creates apps, might imagine the story of how Mary downloads an app that tracks business expenses. Each of these stories includes several foundations of business strategy:
- Target market. Who has the problem your business solves? Who wants what you sell? How well do you define these people and distinguish them from the rest of the world? How well do you know them? How are Mary and Ralph ideally suited as customers?
- Product-market fit. Your business offering has to match the needs and wants of your target market. The more it sets itself apart by focusing on specific factors, matching its offering to the market, the better. In the organic ketchup company’s story, their customer Ralph doesn’t want generic ketchup. The restaurant’s date night couple, Mary and Ralph, don’t want fast or cheap food when they leave the kids with a babysitter and go out for dinner. The app business should know that Mary needs the app to track expenses easily, manage the information and export to an expense report.
- Getting the word out. The story includes the search that customers did and path they took to purchase. The ketchup probably depends on the packaging to make its pitch and the channel of distribution to get that package in the right place, where Ralph sees it. The restaurant probably depends on word of mouth, review sites and related mobile apps to get Mary and Ralph there for a meal. The expense tracking app probably depends on placement in the app stores, reviews and links to expense report software. The restaurant and the app are probably both seeing a steady increase of the importance of amplified word of mouth in social media, where tweets and Facebook likes and customer sharing are extremely important, as well as a few key blogs, where reviews and comments are common.
Your business might have more than a single story. If you like buzzwords, the people in these stories are sometimes called personas, and each persona stands for a kind of buyer and business offering. You don’t need to have just one, but more than two or three won’t work because you lose focus and get diminishing returns.
Turn Your Story to a Business Advantage
Use your strategic story to drive specific business decisions on pricing, product configuration and marketing messages and media. For example:
- The ketchup company can redesign its packaging to make its healthy organic claims stand out better on the store shelf. It can make sure its higher pricing reinforces its positioning on quality. It can look for new cold-press technology to appeal to more high-end buyers.
- The restaurant owner can use the story of a date night to revise its listings on Yelp and Google to highlight quality, quiet and service. It can use the story of how Ralph and Mary search for a restaurant to beef up its website, making sure it’s responsive to mobile devices and has a menu accessible and optimized for mobile use. It can resist the temptation to lower prices or offer 2-for-1 specials.
- The app can focus development on easier export to spreadsheets or accounting applications. It can develop specific promotions in app stores and co-promotions with vendors of bookkeeping and accounting and related software.
- All three need to deal with the increasing importance of social media. If their stories include how the customer finds them, the restaurant and the app are probably especially sensitive to reviews, Facebook, Twitter and blogs. And the ketchup company should be posting and tweeting the kind of content about organic food and healthy eating that would be of interest to their target market.
Why and How These Stories Work
Strategy is focus. It’s what you don’t do. It’s who isn’t in your target market, and what your business doesn’t offer. It’s a lot like sculpture, in which doing everything for everybody is the original block of marble and a focused and effective strategy is the finished statue.
For most of us business owners, focus is really hard because it means saying no. The ketchup business rejects a cheap organic ketchup. The restaurant rejects drive-through and price promotions. The app maker rejects features that appeal to a few power users while making the interface harder for everybody else.
We want to do everything and please everybody. And trying to please everybody is a key to failure, not success.