Congratulations to The Beervangelist, AKA Fred Bueltmann, on his book being a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards! Black Lake is excited by Fred’s well-deserved success and looks forward to seeing it continue in the future.
The Next Generation Indie Book Awards is the largest not-for-profit awards program for independent publishers, and it is open to independent authors and publishers worldwide. Fred’s beer and food cookbook Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Philosophy of Food & Drink was honored in the Cookbook and Home/Garden category. Find out more about the Next Generation Indie Book Awards here.
Fred is an owner at New Holland Brewing Co., a landmark in our mutual hometown of Holland, MI. As The Beervangelist, he is also an outspoken, passionate champion of well-made beer and food. With years of discovery, experimentation, and experience in the craft brewing industry, Fred is a widely-recognized expert on pairing beer and food. He is a Certified Cicerone®, past president of the Michigan Brewers Guild, and a recipient of their prestigious “Tom Burns Award” recognizing the pioneering spirit of the “Great Beer State.” Fred also pens the column “Beer and Food with the Beervangelist,” which appears in various flavorful magazines.
It wasn’t so very long ago that he was looking for a way to educate the masses beyond the local scene—to Beervangelize them, if you will. He needed a Beeracle worker, and Black Lake was up to the challenge!
Black Lake worked with Fred to develop verbal and visual branding for The Beervangelist, including his logo, inspired by wood burning. The kickoff for Fred’s brand, we decided, would be a cookbook that focused on food and beer pairings as well as seasonal eating.
The result was Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy—a 252-page beer and food extravaganza organized, edited, designed, and published by Black Lake Press. As Fred’s personal brand took off, we’ve helped him with everything from presentation graphics to coaching him in his public speaking. We’re invested in the ongoing success of his book and brand, and that’s why we couldn’t be more pleased that he’s being recognized not only in the beer and food world, but also among the literary crowd.
I recently listed Five Ways to Fail in Business. Well, I don’t want to be overly cynical and pessimistic (I think that most of the time I’m just the right amount of cynical and pessimistic), so to more than balance out that list with optimism and positivity, here’s Six Ways to Succeed in Business. None of these six items will guarantee success, which is a complex and multivariable equation. But they run consistently through so many success stories that they might be said to be necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for doing well in the business world. At the very least, practicing these six will guarantee that your career is the best kind.
1. Add Value in Every Transaction
Every time you interact with someone in business, give them more value than you take. Leave them feeling like they got the better end of the deal. Treat everyone this way, not just customers, and your business will have an advantage over the competition.
2. Solve Someone Else’s Problem, Not Your Own
Customers don’t buy to meet your needs. They buy out of self-interest, to meet their own needs and fill their wants. Understand the demand, and supply it, and you will give people every reason to buy from you.
3. Be Resilient and Optimistic
Business is an obstacle course, across the rolling deck of a ship, while your competition throws stuff at you, and the customer keeps moving the goalposts. Fun, huh? Change is constant. Every minute you spend whining about change and refusing to adapt, you fall further behind. Remain resilient. If you fall down, get up; if you have a bad day, make tomorrow better. And have an optimistic attitude, because it shapes how you behave and how others see you. Adaptability, confidence, and a positive disposition can take you further in business than a brilliant mind or product.
4. Fiercely Favor Freedom
Love your liberty, and don’t give any of it away unless you have to. Don’t take on debt you don’t need. Don’t commit to anything that you don’t have to or don’t want to. Don’t burden your business with unnecessary overhead costs. Don’t let bad habits make you sluggish and impotent. Preserve enough energy to react, room to maneuver, and time to think and create. Be free to change and grow, and you can.
5. Seek Wisdom
Learn to recognize what is true and what is false, what is useful and what is wasteful, what builds up and what tears down. Know what is good, and how to be and do good. Cultivate sound judgment and the ability to process better decisions faster by disregarding distractions. Being smart has value, but it isn’t always a factor in success. Successful business leaders aren’t always smart, but they’re all shrewd.
6. Success is Being Good and Doing Good
Money isn’t the only measure of success, nor its only reward. A business that loses money can’t be said to be succeeding, but the one with the biggest bottom line might not be the best or the one that you want to own. If it were, we’d all strive to be investment bankers or run international drug cartels. Be profitable, but earn that profit by being a good person with a good reputation who provides a good product that brings good value to good people. You will succeed enough to be happy, and to enjoy the love and loyalty of your family and friends. What more do you want?
Like this? See the companion article, Five Ways to Fail in Business
There are actually dozens, if not thousands, of ways to fail in business. But these five run through the stories of fizzled careers with a sad consistency. They are important landmarks on the map to the minefield of professional failure. We all might make one of these mistakes at some point, and they can be left behind with great effort. But every one of them is corrosive to professional success. If any one of them is your normal mode of operation, knock it off right now and learn to practice its opposite trait on my list of Six Ways to Succeed in Business.
1. Cost More than You Are Worth
Does your product or service take more from people in money, time, energy, trouble, etc. than it gives to them? Do you cost too much to your employees, colleagues, suppliers, government regulators, etc.? As soon as this equation is upside down for you, your days in that business are numbered.
2. Misunderstand Your Marketplace
What do customers need or want? Why do they, or would they, buy from you to meet those needs? Where else can they get their needs and wants met? If you don’t know your customer or the constantly shifting dynamics of your marketplace, your days in that business are numbered.
3. Think Like a Entitled Victim
Never believe that customers owe you their business, or that you deserve to succeed. People buy to meet their interests, not yours. Never dwell on any unfairness that you think you’ve suffered. While you feel sorry for yourself and nurse your wounds and grudges, your competition is wooing your customers. Passivity is a prescription for business failure.
4. Lose Your Liberty
Business success requires flexibility, adaptability, creativity, and resiliency. All of those require freedom to think, choose, and act. The more you limit your freedom—through debt, unnecessary overhead costs, bad commitments and contracts, your own bad habits, etc.—the more narrow your room to maneuver in a constantly changing marketplace. Self-imposed limitations shorten your shelf life as a business.
5. Value Information Over Knowledge
Know what you know, and what you don’t know. Know what you need to know, and what you don’t. In every business there are thousands of bits of data, information about everything from the environment to your customers, competition, and resources. Knowledge is information that you are sure of, and that is useful. Focus on what you know. If you need to know something but don’t, learn. Other information might be interesting, but if you aren’t sure of it and can’t use it, it’s a distraction. Don’t waste your time on useless information, or your days in business will be numbered.
Like this? See the companion article, Five Ways to Succeed in Business
Every day on the way up to or down from the studio, I see this plate (why do we look down in elevators?).
I got to thinking about the Otis Elevator Company. It isn’t innovative like Apple or Amazon. It doesn’t have a celebrity CEO or a Twitter feed. The branding isn’t clever or interactive. It isn’t green, and you never read about its horizontal market strategy (that could be fun), or its “velocity” (that would be scary). They just keep on keeping on, quietly building most of the elevators in most of the buildings that have them.
Working with entrepreneurs, I meet too many folks that want to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerburg or hipster kid who invented Tumblr and sold it for Big Bucks. Hey, that’s cool; I’m thumb-typing this (so pardon the errors) on my iPhone, into Tumblr.
But the world needs Otis Elevator-type companies. Someone has to quietly haul us up and down. Heck, Jobs and Zuck probably ride up to their fancy offices looking down at an Otis logo just like the one I see. And for us to have those kind of companies, someone has to start them. And so some folks have to aspire to start the next Otis.
What would be wrong with that? It’s a decent, honorable, and (I assume) profitable thing to do. You could do worse things with your career—far worse. Build a solid business that meets a legitimate need, and work at it faithfully and without any more fanfare than you need to market your products. Be an Otis.
A couple of events lately have me thinking about the price tag that ought to dangle from every brand.
First event. My wife and I recently made our semi-monthly trek to Sam’s Club. The free samples in the grocery section are always the highlight of our trip. We passed at least a half-dozen little carts with ladies offering us miniature pizza rolls, or little cups of key lime pie, or slices of black forest ham. It’s like snacking on the hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. I would normally say, But without the cocktails, except that this time they had free samples of frozen margaritas and a new brand of table wine. It was better than some parties I’ve been to.
Second event. My team and I are meeting with a new client to help them articulate the value proposition of their service. In order to launch their marketing campaign, we need to be able to explain what’s in it for their potential customers. Walking a client through this exercise is always a tricky maneuver, because the value of what they make or do is so obvious—to them. Most of us have a hard time explaining why our business is unique because we see ourselves as unique. After all, our mothers told us we were special, and we can’t understand why other people don’t understand that.
Anyway, these two events have me thinking about the value proposition of free samples. There are, I think, two branding lessons we can extract from a free cocktail weenie.
First, the person giving away free samples sweetens the deal for their brand. One of the reasons my wife and I go to Sam’s Club every couple of weeks to get staple items is that we get a free lunch, or at least a free cocktail party, thrown in. Free samples is a time-tested way to stack the value proposition in any transaction in retail or B2B merchandising. Of course, the consumer has to ignore that the cost of the sample is built into the deal, so it’s not really free. But almost every business finds a way to pull off this slight-of-hand, and consumers are usually willing to shrug and go along if the illusion is pulled off with any reasonable artfulness.
The second lesson is less obvious, but just as important. While free samples make the grocery store’s brand proposition, they have almost no effect for the brand of the free sample product. On Saturday, I got two bites of a frozen key lime pie. I can’t tell you what brand of pie. In fact, I don’t really care. It was OK, but because it cost me nothing I wasn’t invested in the experience. A critical element in any branding exercise ought to be articulating what that brand costs the consumer. Almost daily, I hear entrepreneurs say that their product or service is so amazing that it has no down side for the client. This widget is simply wonderful! But everything involves some cost beyond the purchase price. It might require change (which can be intangibly expensive), opportunity cost (if I take the right turn, I can’t take the left), or additional commitments (if I buy the green sofa, I need to go all-in and redecorate the whole room).
I find that clients rarely want to talk about the implicit costs of their brand. They think that makes the deal harder to sell. It certainly means that we have to work harder articulating the value proposition. But those increased stakes make the value proposition real. It provides a real choice, and it opens up the possibility of real dialogue through the marketing and sales cycle. A brand that doesn’t ask the consumer to put any skin in the game is just a free weenie on a toothpick. If that’s your brand identity, don’t be surprised if people smile, wave, and push their carts past you.
Ambition can blind us to opportunity. Ambitions are the supply side of life’s economy: they are what we want to give to (or in some cases, push upon) the world. Opportunities are what the world wants or needs from us.
Supply-side creativity is a magical thing, beautiful to watch. A great inventor imagines some wonderful new thing and delivers it to the world like Prometheus bringing fire to mankind in Greek mythology. Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon are recent models of the ideal.
But most successful people are demand-driven, including most of the great inventors and innovators. They see the wants and needs around them, listen to what people are asking for, and figure out how to make and deliver it.
They have an uncanny instinct for finding and figuring out opportunities. They see gaps and shortcomings, the frustrations or unfilled expectations of people or businesses. Read a book on the history of invention and you realize that many of the greatest products and companies in history were not conceived by someone accidentally spilling a beaker in a lab and discovering some new Wonder Thing. Instead, someone was trying to solve a problem that everyone else was aware of and working on. Often, they went through countless possible solutions that didn’t work before they hit on the right combination that did. After that, ambition kicked in as they came up with a plan to sell it into the marketplace.
The same can be said for careers. Some people do form an early dream to grow up and be something and work relentlessly at it. Some careers pretty much require an early ambition because the education and training is so long and selective and expensive: doctors and fighter pilots, for example. One doesn’t stumble into being a brain surgeon at forty-two years old by responding to an advertisement online.
It’s an old formula, but it has stood the test of time because it works: if you want to get ahead in your career, pay careful attention to what others want and need. Be shrewd, inventive, and hard-working enough to meet some of those wants and needs. If you focus less on your ambitions and pay more attention to opportunities, you’ll make your own luck.
We’ve all heard that the way to succeed in business is to invent a better mousetrap. And some business owners despair, because they aren’t that inventive.
But we don’t necessarily need to invent a different kind of mousetrap, some revolutionary concept that reinvents the relationship between mouse, man, and death. You don’t need to be Steve Jobs and come up with the iTrap.
You can do very well in business making regular old mousetraps, but making them better, or cheaper, or delivering them faster, or getting them to distant markets where they’ve never heard of mousetraps, or selling them with a smile so that your customers love and are loyal to you. You could offer to bait them for your customers, or to come to their house to dispose of the dead mice. The combinations for success with the venerable mousetrap design are endless.
Consider the humble haircut. As near as I can tell, no one has invented a new way to cut hair in quite some time. But it seems like there’s a haircut place on every corner in my town. Why? Well, (almost) everyone needs his or her hair cut. There’s a big market to share, but haircut places don’t really compete by offering a different product. They all offer essentially the same product. They differ slightly on quality, service, price, convenience, and amenities, whatever. Some will tell you that they have a better mousetrap because they’ve radically reinvented the hair cutting experience. Whatever. Look, there are better and worse haircuts, but they are still just haircuts.
My point is this: don’t beat yourself up if you can’t be Steve Jobs and invent the iTrap or some other new clever widget. I’ve reached the place in life where I’m comfortable and content buying from certain businesses, not because they do something different, but because they do something better. I have my favorite coffee shop, my favorite lawn care guy, and my favorite haircut place.
The shrewd businessperson can find plenty of ways to succeed. If you can’t build a better mousetrap, be better at selling the regular ones.
Recently I’ve done four branding consultations, meaning that I’ve sat with the senior staffs of four companies and listened to each of them explain their identity in the marketplace, value proposition, and brand narrative. After each team finished, they paused and waited for me to tell them if their brand could be articulated more sharply and effectively. Of course, most everything could be said better, but this week I heard some pretty fuzzy presentations. These are all great companies, but most of the confusion was driven by common misunderstandings about how to communicate a brand story. So I’m going to identify one of these typical mistakes (without identifying the companies, of course).
It’s not your customer’s job to connect the dots between your product and their preferred future.
Every brand is a story. There must be a line of causality between whatever you’re selling and your target customer’s aspirations. In other words, if he or she were to buy your widget (or your widget service), that would result in a chain of events that would bring about a better future (from his or her perspective) than if they hadn’t. Sometimes that chain is very short: I buy bottle of water, drink it, and my thirst is quenched. But if the thing you’re selling is more complicated or intangible, that chain can be very long. For example, what story do you have to tell in order to convince someone to spend $40k/year to get a B.A. in sociology or art history? I’m not saying that a $120k investment (most of it in long-term debt) won’t bring you a better future, but the causal chain is long and fuzzy (and getting more so).
Most of the stuff we sell lies somewhere between a bottle of water and a six-figure liberal arts education. But however many links that chain has, your brand narrative has to identify them pretty clearly. I’ve heard presentations that do walk the potential customer down that path, step-by-step, but if you’re not careful it can quickly become a boring lecture about what people ought to do, with the implication that if they don’t get it they’re too stupid to understand what’s good for them. If your sales presentation has multiple PowerPoint slides that beat your prospect into submission, then you’re making it too complicated.
And don’t forget that every link is another assertion on your part: what if (for whatever reason) D doesn’t happen after C, well before your customer gets to the payoff at L or M? If your brand narrative is based on lots of speculative assertions, it’s prone to failure. Every chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the case of one of the client’s I consulted with, their “chain”was about four or five links long, meaning that if someone bought their product, two or three things had to happen before the customer got the payoff—and the company couldn’t say that those intermediate events would happen, only that they might.
But here’s the kicker: their brand narrative never bothered to explain the chain of causality. Their sales presentation boiled down to this: Buy our product and you’ll make more money. The connection seemed obvious to them. But the reason they brought me in to consult was because their sales force has been getting blank stares, so apparently it wasn’t obvious to their potential customers. When I asked them to unpack it, step-by-step, it took nearly an hour with a group using a whiteboard. Still they stared at me. Why aren’t people “getting”what we do? I asked whether their salespeople got an hour in front of a whiteboard with their prospects. Of course, they didn’t.
Here’s the point: it’s not your customer’s job to connect the dots of your value proposition. You can’t simply explain your product and assert that through some unexplained, magical process the customer’s world will be a brighter, better place. You have to articulate your brand narrative and value proposition sharply and succinctly. It needs to build a big case with a few words. The revolutionary nature of your whizz-bang new widget and a bucket of charisma won’t always close the deal, because you’re asking your customer to fill in the gaps and do the work you were too lazy to do.
A couple of weeks ago, I did a branding consultation with a very successful West Michigan business. The company started in the early 2000s, when the founder found a way to cleverly adapt an existing product. The process is very labor-intensive and requires some proprietary knowledge to duplicate, meaning they have no real competitors. The value proposition for clients is so obvious and compelling that the company has never had to put much effort into marketing or branding. They pretty much show up at the client’s office, explain what they do, and the deal gets done. Annual sales have grown by about 2,000% since they launched ten years ago. Everyone’s made a good living, and there’s no end in sight. As the 80s pop song said, the future’s so bright, they have to wear shades.
So why was I there?
At this point, their team is unprepared to articulate their brand story in a competitive marketplace. In fact, their current brand story is simply their company history: Ten years ago, we invented X, and it’s been a huge success. Client’s have been thrilled. Wanna join them? Their brand is stale. It’s still making them a lot of money only because they have no real competitors.
I was there because the founder of the company suspects that it’s time to refresh the brand. He suspects that someone might come along who’s as clever and hungry as he was ten years ago and invent a better mousetrap. The technical or regulatory environment might change, making his one product less viable. And if something like that does happen, his team will be caught flat-footed. I walked the senior staff through an exercise where they were asked to articulate their value proposition without resorting to the stale story. I proposed scenarios: What if a serious competitor came along with a more innovative product? What if the market shifted? How would you explain your brand if it were challenged?
The senior staff had no answers and looked bored. Some of them kept leaving the room to check their messages, to see if they had closed any more sales in the last few hours. They wanted to get back to counting their money, and they all drove away in nice cars. They are great people, but I worry about how vulnerable the are to anyone who would mount a serious marketing challenge. I sincerely hope that their cruise never ends and the grand buffet never runs out, but their ship practically has “Board Me”painted on its hull, big enough for every hungry pirate within a hundred miles to see.
A run of success can cause complacency. Muscles that aren’t exercised get flabby, and the same is true of marketing skills. Success is awesome as long as it’s happening, but it isn’t always good preparation for more troubled times. Senses get dulled, and you no longer pay attention to threats as sharply as before. Reflexes slow, and you no longer think on your feet or innovate as quickly as before. You’re no longer tuned in to the spirit of your marketplace, and your ability to speak into it atrophies. In short, you are vulnerable to any shifts that make your brand narrative obsolete, or any competitor that can tell a better story.
All of us could sell more if we’d do two things. First, keep your story sharp, not stale. That takes self-awareness as well as awareness of your market. It also takes creativity and a whole lot of energy and effort. Are you reviewing your brand, and your marketing assets, for relevance and effectiveness every year or two? Second, keep your marketing skills sharp. Exercise those muscles so if you get challenged you can defend your brand, and your income.