When we are on the Appalachian roads with Digital Builders, a creative agency and non-profit cooperative, we are reflecting on our travels, projects and drop in pitstops and coffee shops. We have been fortunate to have had the opportunities to play the start up game on the field many times, as many of our team started their careers in Silicon Valley. So we’re blogging on a series of articles and bringing you some real experience stories that can quickly give you a basis and tools to start your own strategic planning for growth!
There are many valid-sounding reasons for not being as strategic as you want to be or should be… culture, budgets, fierce competition, short-term personal objectives, etc. Complexity, budget, and time constraints (or “time-to-market”) are the triple threat fears I hear about regarding focusing strategically. However, complexity doesn’t have to mean complicated. And strategic planning doesn’t have to be costly or time consuming. In fact, once learned, strategic planning can develop quickly and save you time, money, and heartache.
Do we need tactics? Of course! But almost every day I see long-term successful and sustainable opportunities missed that, if seized through strategic marketing, would establish success that’s sustainable and more valuable.
Strategy is not about any one discipline, component, or element of marketing… or some quick fix, rapid gain tactics, or detailed “how to” marketing actions… or a technical marketing guide focusing on technologies, platforms, and applications. Strategy is about how you’re going to innovate-to-grow and sustain growth long-term.
Innovation will be the critical path to survive in the post-pandemic economy
Before COVID-19 landed on our shores, many businesses were already fighting for more of the same pie and wrangling with innovation issues like managerial support, innovation happening in vacuums, lack of collaboration, missed custom connections and low morale.
The pies of our industries are shrinking to their new baselines before posturing for growth. Fighting over the same pie again won’t be an option. It’s time to innovate and create our own pie that’s “deliciously” remarkable and also sustainable to scale. We begin by looking inward, strategically, and revisiting our core strengths, ideology, intellectual property and business intelligence and then rebuild a vision and mission around these new or updated discoveries! Yes, remember the silly plaques on the lobby walls stating the company’s vision (where they want to go) and mission (how they’re going to get there)? They’re not silly and serve an overarching purpose that flushes and fleshes out the truth. .. like distinct competencies ..
Distinct Competency – everyone has it.
Throughout my career in sales, marketing, and leadership roles, when the strategy was the main driver to an important marketing objective, we always came out on top.
Having a strategic planning process that is both agile and iterative is critical for modernization and digital transformation. Moving at modern speeds with the ability to adapt and evolve in real-time, without losing the parameters or overall framework of your strategy, will allow you to compete with advanced technology and systems as a human thinking ‘system’ in a fast-approaching artificial intelligence-powered economy.
This isn’t necessarily a new way of thinking but rather an optimal way. We’ve seen these types of attributes before in total quality management principles—models made popular in Japanese manufacturing and the teachings of William Edwards Deming who was a famous American statistician. These early mathematical physics models on statistical process control, continuous and total quality management helped drive growth, efficiencies, and sustainability in modern manufacturing.
Go and grab a mirror, the biggest one you can find, and then get it very clean. Use Windex, vinegar & water mix or a clay bar and microfiber towel if it’s really dirty, but get it clean! Metaphorically speaking or not, don’t worry. You are not crazy—the exercise works. I’ve done it!
Now, stand in front of the mirror and ask questions around your project’s mission, goal, obstacle, and purpose. What kind of questions should you be asking yourself at this first “INTERPRET” stage? The mirror exercise will help you see the truth and take stock of where you and your team are in alignment with your brand marketing targets.
The questions that will help you design an effective marketing plan truly depend on you and your teams objectives. However, below are some of the more general questions that my team and I considered when launching a robust brand plan.
1. What are you trying to accomplish? In other words, what is it that you, your partner, your employer, or the stakeholder wish to achieve? Perhaps grow to plot a strategic company exit? Grow to go public (IPO)? Grow to position the company for an M&A?
2. Who are my team members, and why?
3. Is my intellectual property unique?
4. What are the growth areas/gaps to exploit?
5. Who are our competitors? The best competitors are the ones you choose! Choose the ones where their differences can create pull-through or value-add for your own differences – adding value to both organizations.
Some may think these are pretty heavy questions. They are, but success—especially that which is sustainable—begins with honesty and transparency. Today this can be a challenge to do without boiling the ocean!
After you have answered the questions above, use a Scrum-like approach to identify where you are with your existing marketing/brand plan and how/where you need to make adjustments. Scrum is an agile process for moving the planning, execution and evolution of complex work altogether at the same time to lend a paradigm shift in performance gains. Between-stages scrums will lead you to analyze your current stage against where you’d like to be and help you bridge that gap.
Synergistic Teams with One Goal
The same mirror exercise needs to happen with your collective team. This could be colleagues, executive leadership team, stakeholders, angel investors, and venture capitalists. What’s essential at this first stage (INTERPRET) is that you and each member on your team, have a deep understanding of your goal, yourself, and a solid situational awareness; this is essential because in the final hours of a critical project, something could go wrong and everyone in the bunker needs to be ready to set sail into uncharted waters, together.
If you are building a team or have inherited a new one, this intra perspective is useful when looking for complementary and synergistic attributes from the team synergies. Big time goals and aspirations take significant time— so learning about your team from an all-around perspective is very beneficial.
I’ve lived the final hours approaching the climactic moment everyone on the team worked hard to attain. Then, the unthinkable arises. When you are in the trenches of a marketing plan cycle, it’s human nature that the individual takes into account how the current atmosphere is going to affect them personally. Every team member’s plan A and back-up plan must align with the brand and marketing goals, so there are no surprises. It is critical that as a collective and on an individual basis, each person knows their potential and limitations.
For example, let’s suppose we have a new startup team to launch a bitcoin business with a focus on crypto technologies. One co-founder wants to be hands-on and build a long-term, sustainable company that performs well on the stock market and sets new standards on the IEEE committees. The other co-founder is interested in quick returns by raising funds and growing to achieve a swift and lucrative exit with a net of $250M. This misalignment would be caught early through the use of a strategic process and the first stage where we discover everyone’s true intentions, value and objectives. Through such planning you can spot these glaring differences and understand the risk they are taking and align all of the “needs and wants” with objectives, missions, stakeholder expectations and perceived competencies.
The first stage of strategic planning is also where you research the major assets in the endeavor you are undertaking— be it products, services, segments, growth rate projections, etc. and look at your business intelligence or marketing analytics to identify potential exploitable gaps and mashup opportunity.
You are considering the collision of many variables at the same time—hence, a term that I love to overuse –‘mashup.’ This process is looking for, of course, value-add opportunities where there are gaps in the marketplace. Still, more importantly, during this INTERPRET stage process, you are looking for where the mashing of one and one may equal three or more or interesting anomalies as if observing the dynamic reactions of an atomic and molecular collision process. Elements in the foundation taken at face value may have incredibly different or unique value when clashed together and considered as part of a whole.
In most cases, you already have a good idea about how what and where to research. However, don’t rely on secondary (internet/public domain) data only, especially for this highly strategic planning phase. Don’t settle for governing rules of the road that could be found in software development associations or trade magazines. Instead, carry out “primary” research.
Apply professional research best practices to areas where you need critical discovery or validation. For example, if you’re laying out a wireframe and general user interface (GUI) for a game app, run a series of focus groups in the key demographic and geographic audience to get first-hand feedback and experience. Sometimes, even visual expressions of the focus group members can differ from what they express in writing.
I’m often surprised about the primary research findings we sit down to review after having pre-determined mindsets.
A Little Bit of Something
Four young, innovative professors were teammates at a rather famous engineering institute in Europe. When they graduated, they split off in teams of 2 to embark upon quite different journeys—to pursue different dreams. The opportunity was to disrupt the market with a new technology to stream video over world-wide networks. To put it in context today, it is akin to the type of specialized technology that is required in content delivery networks used by Fox Sports and Netflix.
Team A wanted to stay and work in their hometown and further develop their innovation through patents (and eventually building an ASIC for integration to a motherboard for use in high speed network routers and switches) “focusing” on a particular niche or swim lane (video distribution in networks designed for local and national high speed – high definition media broadcasters).
Team B set sail for Silicon Valley at a time when venture-backed tech startups were all the craze. They raised money and built an impressive team. They successfully communicated to executive leadership and VCs, their intentions and goals to endure and own a niche, ultimately leading to a rapid acquisition or IPO. But, they didn’t do this.
They decided to build a “God” box …a router switch that was all things to all people to be used in every enterprise application and they went after THE two largest leading players in the business at that time, Cisco and Nortel. Their company marketing and sales was doing a good job at building awareness and did their best to position the products against the goliaths of the industry. It quickly became clear that what they communicated differed greatly from their real intentions were to make a lot of noise within a multi-billion-dollar marketplace and sell out for $1 Billion+ within just a couple of years.
Aside from the deception of stakeholders, it might have worked. However, they didn’t take the right time to build intellectual property (IP), plot to sustain a customer base, or establish a stable product line to own that niche. Instead, they were greedy and thought they could cheat and in the early stage they clearly skipped what would be their INTERPRET stage of planning.
They were approached by one of the networking goliaths who offered them a nine-figure offer to buy the company to get it sort of out of the way but the two professors said, “NO, we’re worth a billion. So, sorry. No deal.”
Team A did it right. They grew modestly and continued to hone their value, securing more patents and building a nice little business which resulted in an IPO in their local country’s Xchange. They’re still around today, continuing their mission to drive more and more value for their niche through innovation and remaining transparent and collaborative with their stakeholders, stockholders and customer-base.
Resolve What You’re Meant to Do Then DO IT!
No matter how big the temptation or adaptability of your technology or solution, you can’t do it all – you can’t be the solution for all things. First phase strategic planning, like INTERPRET, enlists you and your team to collaborate on many issues having to do with discovering the way to develop the best solution to sell into the best aligned segment of a market to optimize your chances of success. The “ability to execute” is one of the key elements of this stage. It’s like the raft scene in Cast Away, 2000 release with Tom Hanks, when his main focus was to build a raft strong enough to get over the first tide wall that was around the island. Can you evolve your product and niche over time and find new applications for your solution in new segments? Yes, of course, but achieving just one objective or a tight group of objectives that are focused will enable you and your team to survive to the next phase of your business destiny.
The professors who stayed in their town to focus on building out their distinct value, patenting it and delivering it into niches for which the value was optimized for were happy with a little bit of something, which grew into quite a lot of something. They’re now on the cusps of 25 years of respectable growth because they provided a significant value proposition consistently year over year, built around core value from which would be hard for others to duplicate.
Company B? It was debunked within a year of the buy-out offer. They should have taken it the deal. They ended up with a whole lot of nothing.
INTERPRET allows you to understand the monolithic effort that it takes to get anything off the ground, be it a new product, a new division of products or possibly a spin off company. Once you are familiar with the key issues that can make or break the start of anything then you won’t have to expose yourself to the risks of failure and be able to collaborate effectively with your team around actions that are important and that you can control. The business landscape for any market today is extremely competitive! Even when you plan correctly and execute efficiently, you’re still not guaranteed to win.
INTERPRET is about understanding (and sometimes discovering!) yourself, your team and stakeholders, your research and trends, and your benchmarks and gaps. It arms you with discussion point elements to flush out within a workflow that’s designed to enable you to discover the answers and actions that you can take forward into the next strategic planning stage I call “INNOVATE” – where you build around your INTERPRET findings, putting together the right technology set and specifications for optimal value. (ref: 7i Marketing System, an innovation and growth planning process, pictured above).