The skills of being a good conversationalist are much like those witnessed in an exciting tennis or volleyball match. Like a talented athlete, a skilled conversationalist volleys a question to their discussion partner, listens with the intention of understanding, responds with encouragement and perhaps another question to dig in a bit deeper, shares their own perspective, and then allows the other to volley back with a question. A good conversation keeps the questions moving from person to person. A great conversation moves quickly and yet allows for each person to participate fully while making sure that each participant feels safe enough to share with vulnerability. Unlike tennis, however, the goal is not for one person to win. Instead, a successful conversation is one that leaves both feeling that the exchange was worthwhile.
Learning how to have a meaningful conversation is important for any entrepreneur. In fact, failing to have meaningful conversations with customers is one of the primary reasons businesses fail, regardless of size and stage. The entrepreneurial process requires a deep understanding of the market and a willingness to fill and serve customer needs. Markets are made up of prospective customers. These customers are people. People make decisions to buy products and services or not to buy them. It is critical for every entrepreneur to constantly be in conversation with customers throughout the life a business.
I had the chance to volley with Ian Barkin, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at SYKES, recently at the Synapse Converge conference. Our conversational goal was to share our insights with the audience about the topic of marketing and building brand. Ian is clearly an exceptional conversationalist and I really enjoyed the time we spent discussing our own perspectives and experiences on the topic. For those who follow Enfactor, you may recall Ian’s episode. If you haven’t heard it, I encourage you to check it out. In that episode, he shared his entrepreneurial story as the co-founder of Symphony Ventures and how he has transitioned that work into his role at SYKES after the company acquired Symphony Ventures.
Among other topics, during this conversation we talked about marketing for startups, building brand and the value of designing customer profiles and archetypes. We also talked about building brand by becoming a domain expert and providing content for anyone interested in the industry space. This was a strategy my co-founder and I used when we started RiskAware, a risk mitigation company for higher education. As academics, it was not surprising that we applied our research skills to better understand how to keep campuses safe and to share what we were learning with anyone interested in the topic. It became a natural way for us to not only better understand the space but also to build our brand.
But, an entrepreneur doesn’t have to be an academic with scientific research skills to use this strategy. In fact, I can recall a number of personal experiences where becoming the leading expert in the field was our primary means of building brand. Very early in my career, I took a position with a solid waste engineering company in West Virginia. When I joined the practice, it was primarily a small civil engineering company with projects that ranged from airport runway design to wastewater treatment facility design. However, the principal engineer was a visionary and he saw an opportunity to take a leadership role in the design of solid waste facilities. This was prior to the current sustainability and green movement. However, the states we served were beginning to move toward a focus on the environment and as such were writing new legislation that required more professionally designed landfills to replace the proverbial city dumps. Being not only a visionary but also an entrepreneur who was willing to take a risk, our principal engineer made the strategic decision to take on only landfill design projects, hire specialized engineers with training and expertise in the space, and to become involved in the legislative efforts taking place in our region. It was a risky strategy at the time and it meant we had lean months early on, but the small firm succeeded in becoming a regional leader in solid waste engineering and landfill design.
Another example is Richwood Pharmaceuticals, a marketing and distribution company of medical drugs founded by Roger Griggs. When I was working in the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky area, Roger became a friend and mentor to me. I can recall talking with him about how he built the brand for Adderall ®, a leading medication for ADHD. Roger and his team brought a number of significant pharmaceutical drugs to market. However, Adderall® was one of the most successful. At the time he acquired this medication, there was an increasing awareness of ADHD among all age groups and this new medication was found to be more effective for certain individuals. Roger thus saw an opportunity for his company to become experts in the same and assist with the advancement of the treatment of this condition. This led to tremendous success for not only this product but also the company when the company was acquired by the biotechnology giant, Shire Pharmaceuticals.
These three examples illustrate that a brand built on expertise can be valuable in a wide variety of industry areas. In fact, building brand through content and expertise is common today. It has become incredibly easy to claim expertise and to write a book, blog, or start a podcast. However, the fact that this strategy is so accessible, also means that this strategy is becoming more challenging to use as a competitive advantage because there are so many claiming expertise.
Becoming the leading industry expert can be a fantastic branding strategy but it is no easy task and there are no shortcuts. If you look closely at the three examples I provided, you will find a common theme. In each case, the branding decision was built on a strategy that was driven by the market, not by the entrepreneur or the technology. Knowing how to build a brand on content requires a deep understanding of the key driving forces in the industry and it requires a future focus that is grounded in solving customers’ needs. And, knowing the market goes back to the willingness and ability to be in regular conversation with your customers.