Cigarettes and Kickball
I left the corporate world in 2011 having spent $540 million dollars of Philip Morris’s money marketing Marlboro cigarettes the previous year.
I was at once a highly successful 22-year-old corporate brand manager and a 22-year-old nicotine pedaling yuppie. In truth, both were 100% correct. But it isn’t easy to live in a world where heroes moonlight as villains. For three years of corporate servitude, I’d spent a lot of time justifying my job. On one hand, if someone was going to market cigarettes who better than a responsible young man like me? On the other, why the fuck was I wasting my career promoting a product whose customers wished they could stop buying it?
The mental dissonance became too much, and I quit (but not before scheduling a bunch of bullshit work trips so that I could follow the Utah Jazz around on their eastern seaboard road trip). Sorry, not sorry.
Leaving my job wasn’t a stressful decision. I come from a wealthy family and don’t know what it’s like to worry about money. But it felt like the most stressful decision I’d ever made. Leaving my cushy corporate gig made me question who I was and what I stood for in a very profound way. If I wasn’t a cigarette marketer was I a better person? And if I was a better person? Were my former coworkers, the people who still marketed cigarettes, bad people? And after a little bit of entrepreneurial success, a how new flood of questions. How could those formerly “good” but now “bad” cigarette marketers still work for that big bureaucratic machine? Were they stupid? And if they were, did that make me smart?
These questions may seem silly within the context of Seth Godin’s enlightened altMBA. They may be. They may be silly sans Seth. But I’m not going to lie to you. My answers to them regularly flip-flop. They are the sorts of questions that we aren’t taught to notice. They pass through our conscious mind so quickly that we don’t have time to truly consider their implications. Maybe if there were an identity building seminar in college I’d be able to readily create more fully formed answers. But there wasn’t. Identity, the collection of stories that we tell ourselves and the world, by in large aren’t on any syllabus. Like dental dams, they remain entirely individual fodder. That’s truly tragic (not the dental dam part).
As you can probably deduce leaving cigarette-land, I had plenty of questions. Well, entering entrepreneur-ville only incited more.
In 2011 I started Beehive Sport and Social Club (beehivesports.com). I dedicated myself to building the most fun after work kickball league in Salt Lake City. When our first kickball season ended everyone was clamoring for more, so we started a flag football league. Then a dodgeball league. Then a sand volleyball league. Onward and upward.
We were cooking with Crisco except for one glaring issue. I couldn’t get over why people were still playing in the other city kickball league. We had built a better mousetrap. We had well-trained referees, better equipment, better fields and our league was cheaper! Hell, I had brought beer for everyone that first season. And yet, we couldn’t make a dent in the membership of that other league.
A million questions stewed, each occasionally bubbling up into my conscious brain for a fitful few minutes. Did they not see we were better/funner/cooler/nicer? What part of “Free Beer” wasn’t working? What were they not understanding? As each question took its turn, one question appeared to root the rest.
How could they be so much like us but make such a different decision?
For a long time, I didn’t have any idea. The issue was an annoying anomaly. A constant itch hanging between my ears. And then I realized the truth. Truth was relative. Fact was fiction. Or more precisely, fact was informed by the fiction we created to make ourselves feel safe, loved, valuable, needed.
I was telling myself a series of stories about who they (people who didn’t choose my league) were and those stories were at fundamental odds with the ones they were telling themselves.
Let me give you four examples:
- I thought they were rational people. They were, in fact, emotional people.
Money was important, but it was subjectively weighed against hundreds of other decision factors — often falling far down the priority list. They weren’t making a purely cost/benefit decision liked I was hoping they would.
- I thought they were thinking long and hard about which league to join. They were actually spending less than 10 seconds on the decision.
I wanted them to construct a nice neat pro/con sheet. Spend some time asking around. Scour the reviews. But that was a pipe dream. In reality, they were finding their league of choice in one of two ways — being asked by a friend to join a team or picking whichever league popped up as search result #1 on Google.
- I thought they cared about cost, equipment, referees and fields. They just cared about their friends.
Where they had made new friends or built a stronger friendship was much more important to their decision. The league that had facilitated those memories had a built in advantage that was tough to counteract.
- What I thought they thought of my league vs. what they really thought of my league.
I thought they’d see me as a young, cool kickball league on the rise. But they only saw themselves admitting that they’d been buying the wrong thing for an increasingly large period. Each passing season they didn’t switch to my league, ironically, made it more likely that they would never switch.
In 2016 I finally made a breakthrough.
Players were starting to switch leagues. We were growing at the other league’s expense. My breakthrough was the aggregation of all the gaps in stories that I had identified. It was a calibration of my fundamental needs with those of my prospective customers. It was a realization that I wasn’t selling kickball (or football/dodgeball/volleyball). We were selling one new friend and hopefully more. But at least one new friend. The best decision I made all year was realigning my resources to focus on helping every single player in my league make one new friend. Inevitably one of those new friends would be someone who played in the other league or knew someone that did or met someone later on who was.
Stories of friendship (that I facilitated) spread faster and wider than all my previous promoted Facebook posts combined. Friendship, it turns out, is perpetually in demand.
It took five years and countless headaches for me to understand (and harness) the power of one simple truth. The market for new friends is infinite.
I hope this essay helps you understand your market in a new way.
An infinite way.