Circles of Growth

Part 1: Personality


B2B Marketing, today, is a profession of the paranoid: most disruptions now occur in or near marketing, and subscription revenue creates a situation where your competition could displace you within twelve months.

This paranoia has led to a wave of innovation, as we see in the MarTech landscape each year. Unfortunately, with great innovation comes great bullshit. Every vendor attempts to position their product as the silver bullet you need.

I believe in silver bullets; I just don’t believe in the ones offered to you in your inbox.

But founders and CEOs, appropriately, want to adopt everything they can. They try to keep up with the giant landscape of tech and channels by dabbling in everything. Random acts of marketing mature into random acts of martech purchases.

I’ve witnessed this firsthand: a client asked me to implement a fully featured martech stack before they even had a product launched. How can you cover all the bases when you don’t even know what your customers look like? Yet this is the prevailing sentiment in the market.

Marketing must change: successful marketers will.

Circles of Growth is a new series I’ve developed around this thesis:

The foundation of growing a company is built around a handful of fundamentals; these fundamentals are so high-leverage that getting the core of each one right can lead to exponential growth; losing sight of one of these fundamentals will rot out the core of your marketing.

In the following weeks, I’ll outline a growth circle, how to get it largely right, and highlight success stories.

Circle of Growth 1: Personality

The most core, central, important part of your marketing, when you begin, is your personality. Not your product, not your market: your personality.

My first side hustle was buying pizza and selling it at my high school. Later I purchased and resold hundreds of burritos and other foods.

In each case, I stumbled upon a side business built around unique opportunities. I had two things going for me: one, I had the freedom of time and location to obtain better products at lower prices; the students around me were locked in by fences or distance. Second, my personality fixates on first principles, and the pricing and hours of the market leaders were based on accidents rather than fundamentals.

Many entrepreneurs mess this up: they start a business based on modeling another business, or entering the family business, or because they see a path to become wealthy.

These approaches fail because the business becomes a means to an end: you choose a business that in the best case will solve other headaches for you, but the business itself becomes your headache.

Other entrepreneurs make a smaller but no less significant mistake: they choose a business that can only grow in a way they are not comfortable.

I made this mistake in 2010, when I started my consulting business. From day one, I was competing with executives who had twenty more years of experience and referrals than I had. In hindsight, it seems obvious: don’t compete in a game that relies on referrals unless you already have a large referral network.

But the personality mismatch didn’t end there. I found myself selling services in high-politics environments, even though politics are one of my biggest weaknesses. Clients needed to “crawl-walk-run” while my personality is to “run-run-run”. And my business required a lot of people, even though I don’t particularly enjoy management.

And the services I offered were based firmly in the present: most every client needed the same repetitive requests, while my best work is in the future.

I struggled for years, surviving only by balancing these significant structural disadvantages with key advantages in labor arbitrage and spartan living.

It didn’t need to be a struggle.

The first personality check is whether your revenue model matches your personality.

In the Millionaire Fastlane, MJ Demarco identified five business models you can adopt:

  • Rental models: real estate, licensing, etc.
  • Software models: SaaS, etc.
  • Content models: books, movies, courses
  • Distribution models: Uber, Facebook ads, PPC, Amazon, App Store
  • Human resource models: agencies, consultancies

Many business require more than one of these, but when starting most businesses focus on just one.

Which one is right for your personality?

Human resource businesses are great if you love people. They don’t scale particularly well, but this means you don’t need to grow to be #1 in your market to survive: fragmented markets let a thousand SMBs bloom.

Rental and distribution businesses are great if you love power. They are both about acquiring some kind of small monopoly: owning an exclusive property for rental, or the attention in the case of distribution. Distribution is important for every business at scale, so it is a solid model to pursue at the beginning.

Software and content businesses are great if you love ideas. Software and content, particularly in this moment of history, have an extraordinary ability to expand and scale based on their quality. Of course, the best don’t always win, but they do have an advantage.

The second check is whether the growth mechanisms match your personality.

I’ve found two dimensions matter here:

  1. Size of deal
  2. Legibility of results

In general, the larger your average contract, the more you have to work with people. If you love steak dinners with strangers, then selling to the government could be a great model. If you enjoy the feeling of being in demand 24 hours a day, then a high availability mission critical infrastructure could be the perfect business for you.

If, on the other hand, you are internally motivated and would rather eat alone, selling to the government probably isn’t your gig. More likely a business you can grow around online advertising is a better fit.

Do you prefer writing or speaking? If you prefer writing, digital marketing channels will fit you well; if you prefer speaking, something more brick and mortar, sales-driven, or video-driven might feel right.

The second dimension, legibility of results, is an interesting one I discovered by accident.

My consulting business was built around technology configurations, and I found I could win deals simply by quietly working for free. Over and over, I would start a Socratic dialogue with a prospect, help to prioritize their list, and they would then push me to draft a contract.

This worked well for two reasons: first, I am more comfortable talking through business challenges than talking about sports. Second, my work became instantly legible as they could see I was already solving their problems, and the proposed tasks included clear standards of quality.

Then I started selling whitepaper video trailers.

Suddenly I was in the business of illegible work. When you buy an email workflow implementation, you know what success looks like because you already modeled how it should behave. When you buy video production, you actually have no idea what a good video looks like.

Working from overseas only magnified the issue: buying legible work at a discount feels like a win, while buying illegible work at a discount feels like a risk.

If you’re in the business of selling creative, illegible work, I can promise you this: you must walk around with the highest status.

If you tend to be status ignorant, as I am, illegible work is a bad model.

We actually produced some solid videos, but without the ability to posture high status and look the part, we never saw the traction in the market that I hoped for.

If you’re just starting your business, it can be helpful to exaggerate your personality traits when choosing your business. You’ll have to compromise later, but why do it now?

I knew when I started the consulting business I wanted to avoid permanent employees. Instead I hired interns on a freelancer model: they would make extraordinary money on their hourly billings, but would remain contractors and need to grow their own skillset in order to make more.

This worked okay for a bit, but it slipped into management when they insisted on job security and I had no vocabulary to explain my boundaries.

A few years later, I had a dozen employees and an office, and while I took great pains to maintain maker time, the assumptions of an office in the end were too much for me.

In the past year I changed the direction of my business drastically to match my personality. I no longer have employees, which matches my desire to work independently and not manage people. My work is remote, which allows me to ignore signaling like fashion. And the work I do is built around content and software models, which suits my desire for something that scales and is logical.

As this business grows, I still may hire people, work on-site, and add new revenue models. But until I have to, the current configuration suits me quite well.

The last part of your personality to consider is your boundaries.

Do you have any?

One boundary I’ve always lacked is working hours. As a teenager, I worked every possible shift in the day, and this pattern continued into university. Holidays, too, were a time to clock in.

When I started my last business, I brought this lack of boundaries with me. It had some advantages: Seeing the day as 24 hours enabled me to move to Asia with US clients, and ignoring holidays allowed me to run some wildly effective marketing outreach. But mostly the boundaries stretched further: because I had not limit on working hours in the day, I had no rituals to turn off work in my mind. Often email was the last thing I read when I slept and the first I read when I awoke. In speaking with CEOs in similar businesses, this looked like a pattern that would continue for the next twenty years of my life.

Today, I artificially limit my necessary work to the morning hours, and paradoxically I get more done.

A friend runs a physical therapy business out of her home and struggles with client boundaries. Her industry is already notorious for difficult clients, as many need mental therapy as well. Making it worse, she creates strong connections with clients, and they want to be friends. It all came to a head when a client started leaving her voicemails on WhatsApp at 1am. She could have simply turned her phone off during these hours, but as it is her personal number it wasn’t so simple.

My advice to her: just as you need to financially separate your business and personal life, you need to create boundaries in your offline and online space. She should rent a separate office, purchase another phone, and create a dedicated Facebook page for her business that isn’t her name.

Beyond the separation, though, are more fundamental issues of boundaries. Does your business allow you to create boundaries, or does it encourage the violation of boundaries?

Your business will be a reflection of your personality, and you’ll generally get the clients you deserve.

Starting a business based around a different personality will feel like you’re wearing a stifling ill-fitting mask. Starting a business based around your personality will feel like a natural extension of who you are, like a fish getting paid to swim.

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