What Is The Most Important Asset You Can Own?

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Wednesday, 9.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers – Seth Godin

In Hit Refresh, a glimpse into the mind of Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, we see how hard it is to reconcile old and new ways of thinking.

For centuries, millennia perhaps, power and property have been inextricably entwined.

Those with property had rights – and the rest did not.

For example, only those with land had a vote in early experiments with democracy.

As the definition of property expanded from a narrow view of land and fences to a version of the law that allowed you to own mineral rights and computer code, you started seeing the concept of capital – the idea of owning assets.

These days it’s not uncommon to think about everything in terms of who owns it.

But, at the same time, capital is starting to lose value because there is just so much of it.

Once upon a time, if you had access to capital you could build a factory, pay people a pittance and make yourself even richer.

And, perhaps as the world’s only licensed producer of wool or steam locomotives, you were able to control markets as well, dictating terms to buyers.

That sort of business still goes on but in places further away.

These days, however, almost every physical thing you buy lives two lives.

One is as a commodity, with a price effectively equal to the cost of production.

And the other is as a brand – where you pay to feel a certain way.

For example, you can get knock off headphones for Apple devices for very little money or you can pay a lot of money for the official ones.

There’s very little difference in the innards – they’re all made and glued together in the same place – possibly in the same factory.

So what makes the difference – why doesn’t everyone just buy the cheapest product?

A clue is in Nadella’s book where he tells colleagues that what they get to own is a customer scenario, not the code.

Putting aside businesses that make things – this is an insight that service businesses would do well to mull over.

In a service business you depend on a combination of people, process and technology to help your customers.

None of those things offer a sustainable competitive advantage.

The chances are that your people are just as good as everyone else – you don’t tend to find teams where one company somehow has people twice as clever as everyone else.

Having a good process is something you take for granted – if it doesn’t work the customer will let you know by taking their business elsewhere.

And technology is available everywhere – quite possibly for free.

The fact is that there is no shortage of people who can do what you want – all they ask is that you tell them exactly what you want them to do.

And if you do know what you want – then you’re in search of a commodity.

Make a list, ask people to quote and pick the cheapest quote – that’s the way to make sure you buy what you want at pretty much the cost of production.

But if you don’t know what you want – when there are a number of things floating about in your head – what you’re looking for is help turning that into a scenario.

That scenario is the thing that will solve your problem, improve your business or move in the right direction.

From a service provider’s point of view, if they can “own” that scenario they’ve got something that you’ll buy.

In theory then, owing a customer scenario is the best asset you can have – because that’s the value that the customer gets in exchange for the money they give you.

Although, now that I reflect on that, I’m not sure you can really “own” a customer scenario.

The customer owns that.

If you ask them nicely they might lend it to you – so you can show them how you’d go about solving it.

And then, if you’ve built up enough trust, they’ll consider working with you over someone else.

Maybe the real asset you should try and build is your ability to appreciate what other people want.

And then, as Zig Ziglar said, “you can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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