How To Do A Good Customer Interview That Helps You Sell Your Product Or Service

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Wednesday, 5.34am

Sheffield, U.K.

As a professional journalist, I’ve been interviewing people for almost thirty years. And the one thing I’ve learned from all those interviews is that I am always going to be surprised. – Hector Tobar

The biggest mistake you can make as you get started on your business is to assume that you know what people want.

And the biggest defence you have against making that mistake is to get really good at listening and asking questions – interviewing your customers to understand their situation and what they really need to check your own beliefs – and change them if needed.

How do you go about doing that?

Start by being genuinely interested in them

You may have spent months, even years working on your ideas, your proposition, and are eager to tell everyone about what you do and how they can buy from you.

Don’t.

Think about the dynamic that exists when you first talk to a prospect.

They may know you very well or they may have agreed to speak with you because you’ve reached out to them or been introduced.

But you probably don’t know a great deal about them and their background and what interests them and what they’re trying to do.

The traditional approach is to start telling them all about yourself, all the things you’ve done and the types of products and services you have.

When you do that you start selling yourself – and it’s too early for that.

You need to first understand what they need, what they’re trying to do, what their purpose is.

If you understand their purpose you can talk about what you do in terms of how it helps them achieve their purpose – and you can make it more relevant and therefore more persuasive.

Now, you’re not trying to understand them just so you can sell to them – that’s not the best attitude to take.

You need to start by wanting to learn more about their situation, their business, what they do – because when someone has spent years doing something that is a genuine opportunity to learn and understand and appreciate a situation that you may be unfamiliar with.

It’s like being an anthropologist.

Every time you go into a new business, a new environment, you’re in the position where you’re studying and trying to appreciate a new culture – a group that do things in a certain way and have certain attributes, when it comes to power and politics.

You need to let go of your own assumptions, your beliefs and immerse yourself in the situation in front of you – as the saying goes, first seek to understand and then only to be understood.

And you start doing this by listening and asking good questions.

How to listen and ask good questions

When you listen to someone you need to do so actively, immersing yourself and picking up on as much as you can.

You can’t do this by sitting passively in a chair.

Get out a notebook, get on a whiteboard – take hand-written notes because the research shows that you’ll retain more information this way.

Write down what you can, draw concepts, connect ideas – you’re trying to capture the detail of what’s going on in someone else’s head – and the way in which you take notes is an important part of that.

Your note-taking helps you to pick out important ideas and reconstruct a narrative in your own mind that you can play back to your prospect to show you understand what they’re trying to do.

And you help those ideas to surface by asking good questions.

So, what makes a good question?

Some people talk about how you should as open questions rather than closed ones – but the research doesn’t really suggest that those distinctions make any difference.

Instead, I’d suggest that the one thing you don’t do is ask a leading question.

A leading question is one that tries to also contain the answer that you want to get.

For example, if you have spent three months creating a product that helps people to clean windows – you might ask something like, “Would you use this product to clean your window?”

The answer you want is implicit in the question – you want the listener to say “Yes!”

And they probably will – after all, it’s a hypothetical question about possible future behaviour, they don’t want to hurt your feelings and it costs them nothing to say what you want to hear, given the way you’ve asked the question.

Instead, if you ask them, “How often do you clean your windows” and the answer is, “Can’t remember the last time” or “The cleaner does it” that tells you a lot more about their buying habits in the past.

What they’ve done in the past is a much better indicator of what they will do in the future than what they say they will do in the future.

This is an important concept to grasp – past behaviour is probably the best indicator of future behaviour you can get.

If someone has a need for the kind of thing you’re selling and has bought something similar in the past – that’s a good sign that they will buy something like that in the future.

The other kind of information you want to ask questions around is the context – what’s the situation that existed when those decisions were made.

Why did you take that decision in that way at that time?

You will learn about what’s happening around that decision making process, the ideas, the people, the characters, the pressures involved – all the external elements that constrain and limit the possibilities and buying behaviour of your prospect.

These contextual factors probably still exist – people and culture change slowly.

The ways of working that you see modelled by three professions are ones that I find useful to keep in mind.

These are lawyers, journalists and anthropologists.

Lawyers are looking for the facts, what happened and when it happened and what the truth is about a situation.

Journalists are looking for the narrative, the story, the thing that links together the facts – and the way in which the people involved think and feel about what is going on.

And anthropologists look at the culture and dynamics of the situation – how the people in there act and why they act the way they do – they try and empathise with them.

If you get the facts, understand the story and have empathy – you now have a powerful basis on which to construct your own pitch.

How to pitch yourself

If you listen and ask good questions and get a genuine understanding of what the person you’re talking to is trying to achieve, what their purpose is, you can talk about what you do in relation to how it helps them achieve that purpose.

The bad way to do this is in a manipulative fashion.

If you’ve memorised your sales pitch and the features of your product and you try and link what you do to what you’ve heard without actually realising that they don’t fit together without someone changing something you’re going to fail.

For example, I once took a sales call where I explained that what I wanted was to work with partners who would introduce us to prospects directly.

The sales person wanted to sell me a marketing subscription service and pitched it as being able to do that direct introduction.

And instead of listening the sales person tried to use pressure and force a sale through persuasion and argument, which is both tiring and irritating for the listener and eventually I hung up on the person.

If someone has taken the time to tell you about their world it gives you an opportunity to look at what you do and see if you can adapt it for them.

If you can get your product or service fit their purpose then you’re in a good position to talk about working together.

If you can’t or you haven’t got the discretion to do so, then there isn’t a fit and you won’t get anywhere by trying to force one.

Find someone else who is a better fit.

Really, once you understand what’s going on you have two choices.

Change what you do or find someone else who needs what you do now.

And the biggest advantage you have when getting started is that you can change quickly, you can adapt what you do to what you learn people need – as long as you’re open and listen and learn.

If you use this approach you’ll find very quickly that you’re no longer selling.

What you’re doing is creating products that are fit for purpose – products that have a market and consumers want.

And then consumers will start to pull those products from you – you still need to get it in front of them but there will be a better fit and your chances of making sales will increase significantly.

The last thing you have to do is get yourself ready to do all the other stuff – construct the value chain that gets things into the hands of your customer.

We’ll cover that as we come to the end of this Getting Started book project.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Create Your Unique Business Model By Combining Different, Simple Elements

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Tuesday, 5.45am

Sheffield, U.K.

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. – Margaret Mead

How do you set yourself apart from others – show how you are different and unique?

Is it about the way you dress, the brand you create, the story you tell?

And how can you select an approach that works for you?

Being unique on the outside

The first way many of us look at differentiating ourselves is by working on what’s on the outside.

This comes down to the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

The idea that what you see first has a huge influence on how you perceive that thing leads to you making certain choices.

Your choice of colour and font, for example, can indicate whether you are playful or serious.

In the comedy series Yes, Prime Minister the characters talk about how if you have nothing to say, as a politician, you should stand in front of an exciting backdrop while if you are announcing a lot of change you should be in front of a staid and traditional backdrop.

You manage the environment and your image to manage you message – and this kind of approach makes up the vast majority of the approaches most people take.

We try and get across how we are unique by trying to show it on the surface.

Most of the time, however, what we end up doing is less about showing how we’re unique but showing what bucket we fit in, what genre we’re in or what style we follow.

Managing image ends up helping the person viewing you make a quick decision about what you are similar to rather than what’s unique about you.

Think about that in the context of clothing, for example.

If you want to look different from anyone else on the street, there are quite a few options to choose from, described by words like goth, hipster and punk.

These are about setting yourself apart from the mainstream but at the same time identifying with a culture – they’re not unique in that sense.

Instead, they’re defining, they tell the world what you are about and what you are not.

That’s a useful start, but you have to go deeper.

Being unique on the inside

While what you show on the outside is more about whether you’re in or out of a particular group, what’s on the inside is unique to you.

It depends on your own journey, your family experience, where and how you grew up, the opportunities and obstacles you had and what you did with them.

We all have a unique path we’ve travelled to get to this point where we have become us.

And that’s a scary thing to reveal and show to the world.

It’s much easier to hide behind a constructed exterior, something that’s what we want the world to think of us rather than open up and show who we really are.

When you do open up, however, and talk about and show your own journey then you have something that is unique, a story that no one else can tell – a story that others can listen to and see you for who you really are.

You have an opportunity to be authentic.

Now, of course, trying to use this as a marketing tactic ruins everything.

You will hear lots of people using their story in a way that appears manipulative.

These days it’s for reasons like trying to skew the algorithms that decide how to monetize content on platforms.

And while your particular journey is unique to you that doesn’t mean it adds value.

Lots of people may have a similar story – a rags to riches journey of their own.

Sometimes you see people apologise because they didn’t have a struggle growing up and life was pretty easy.

So, when you think about it if you grew up in a culture and followed a similar path to most others – yes you had a unique experience but it is something unique that you can offer someone else?

In most cases probably not.

Think about your resume – it lists all the things you’ve done but it’s possible to compare that with the things other people have done and decide who is a better fit.

So your story probably isn’t enough to give you an edge – so what will?

Combining things to create something unique

The two approaches described so far, trying to be unique on the outside or unique on the inside are like trying to pick what colour you are all the way through.

It’s like being a single thread which might be different but not very strong and easy to discard.

Another approach to consider is by looking at the value of combining things to create something unique.

One way to think of this is how you might combine spices.

Simple individual spices create amazing combinations of flavour – something you wouldn’t get from one spice on its own, however wonderful it is.

For example, let’s say you want to start a business in construction.

But you’re a woman.

And from an ethnic minority.

Those three things are just simple facts about you, but when you put them together you get a construction business run by a woman from an ethnic minority background.

In this day and age that’s still unique and something that will get you attention and press coverage and pretty good marketing.

This approach extends to the things you do rather than what you are.

You could be funny, like drawing and understand how engineers think.

Put those together and you have Dilbert, a wildly popular comic strip.

Now, it might take some experimenting to find a combination that works for you.

But, the more you work on this the more likely it is that you’ll come with a combination that’s unique not just in the sense of being different but being unique in the sense of adding value.

Take two photographers, for example.

One takes a range of pictures and is clearly competent at what she does.

The other specialises using drones to take pictures of historic buildings from unusual and eye-catching angles.

You manage a museum and want get some pictures for your marketing.

Which one are you going to choose?

The thing about using combinations to create something unique is that you are going to limit the market for what you do.

At the same time you’ll make it easier for people who need what you provide to make a decision.

And the increased success you have at getting business from a smaller but better defined market can often offset what you might have made by targeting a wider market where there is more competition.

Specialisation is a good thing – it helps attract the right people and makes it easier to convert them from a prospect to a sale.

It still needs to be a large enough market to support you – and finding that balance between the right level of generalisation and the right level of specialisation is something you will do through trial and error in your field.

But when you create combinations it doesn’t mean you can’t do the individual elements – it just means that you can also do something specific better than most other people.

In the photography example above, the specialist photographer can also probably show examples of more general shots, but the generalist will probably have few examples of the eye-catching building pictures the specialist has.

Look for ways in which you can combine what you already do to create a niche for yourself, a space where few others compete.

It’s often easier than you expect – and once you find that space make it your own, occupy it and focus your content and marketing on showing how you can do that better than anyone else.

Often, however, you need to be certain that the niche you’re going to occupy is one that can help make you a living before you commit to it.

This is particularly the case in service businesses, ones that depend on helping others do something they want to do.

You first need to get good at finding out what people want to do – and that starts by talking to them.

We’ll look at the art of doing that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Are You Going To Show The World What You Do Better Than Anyone Else?

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Sunday, 6.32am

Sheffield, U.K.

It would be better for everyone if we deleted everything by default and saved the things that are important to us. – Evan Spiegel

In the last post we looked at how you should make it easy for people to do business with you.

One important part of that is how you look when compared to the competition – how easy is it to find someone else who does what you do?

What is your moat?

If you’re going to spend a significant amount of time and money getting started on a new project you want to make sure that you have a sustainable competitive advantage.

That doesn’t mean just being a little bit better or providing the same thing everyone else does.

If what you do can be widely found and easily compared, then you are operating in a commodity market, and price setting is done by the market.

The advantage you have to have in that situation is in your ability to keep costs low and market your product effectively.

Or you can be content with a smaller market share.

For example, if you open a market stall you’ll be in a space competing with other, similar food businesses and your income will depend on the level of demand in any given period.

If you’d like to have more control, however, you need to start building a moat, something that acts as a barrier to entry for other people wanting to compete with you.

That’s why you’d build your castle on top of a big hill, surrounded by defensive walls, with a moat and spikes to greet people.

What you want to do is make them stop and think again, look at what you’ve created and decide that maybe it’s best not to compete with you.

Using content to set yourself apart

Think about your business idea – the thing that you want to do.

What is it that sets you apart these days?

It’s not pricing or service – the world is full of national service providers who can provide anything anywhere faster and cheaper than a startup can.

What they can’t do is provide you – you as an individual.

If you try and compete on the basis of stuff – it’s quite likely that you’ll come up against competitors that have more and better stuff than you.

If you compete on the basis of you – well, that’s unique, there’s only one of you and you have her or him.

So the first thing you have to do is think about how you can make your business about you, about your team.

This can be a difficult concept to accept because most people feel like they would like to separate their business from themselves – as if it could be run and delivered by anyone.

And you can do that – but you won’t have an advantage over the other identical, anonymous services out there.

The kind of advantage you have when you work on building a personal connection with others in your market.

And these days you do that through content, by creating material that shows the world what you do.

And if you create enough of it you start to create your moat – you build this collection of material that showcases how well you do what you do and how you go about doing what you do.

The trick with content is keeping it focused, making it easy for yourself and working in the same space day after day.

Select a format and stick with it.

When I started this blog, for example, I settled on a format that worked for me: a hand-drawn image that captured the essence of the concept, a relevant quote, and then a piece of text that explored the concept further.

The topics have been wide ranging, but within the realm of management and the improvement of situations that people consider problematic – and in my field and for the people I work with, it helps to establish my capability at doing what I do.

When you look around for examples of people who do this, the best ones are not necessarily the most popular content creators.

With popular content, the audience that watches is actually part of the creator’s product – their market is actually the advertisers who want to reach that audience.

The best examples for a business that’s getting started are the ones that create content that is relevant and helpful to their customers and helps them achieve certain outcomes.

But it’s hard to start with what’s in your customer’s minds – so it’s best to start with what’s in yours.

And work out a way to express and publish that.

Selecting where to publish your creative work

There are a bewildering array of choices out there for how to get your content published.

It depends on the nature of your business, your ability to use the technology, your comfort levels with opening up to the outside world.

There is no one best way – there is only the way that works for you.

Ask yourself what you find easy to do that other people find hard.

If you like writing, then long form blog posts may be the way to go.

If you are happier speaking but don’t like being in front of the camera, then try out podcasts, screencasts or narrated presentations.

If you like video, then talk to camera.

The important thing is to pick an approach that works for you, your personality and your ideas, and work on creating content.

You build your defences by first piling up everything you can and then you can build your castle on top.

You can publish on every platform out there or pick a few and let people find you.

In the early stages, treat what you do as a learning opportunity.

You’re learning if you can create content in this way, day after day, without burning out.

You’re learning if you like doing what you’re doing – life is too short to spend doing tasks you hate.

But if you’re creating content on topics that interest you using methods that are easy for you to use – then it’s really simple to accumulate that material you need – the material that will eventually help you stand apart from everyone else.

But it helps if what you do has something unique about it.

And creating something unique is easier to do than you might think.

We’ll look at that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Make Something Work By Focusing On Flow

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Monday, 5.46am

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. – Lao Tzu

As you build your business there is one question you should ask over and over again.

What happens next?

I once came across a concept called the velocity of money, something that people who really understood business seemed to understand instinctively, understand deep inside.

One way to think about this concept is to imagine a stream,

Imagine clear, sparkling water dancing its way along, moving, changing, shimmering.

It’s clean and crisp and refreshing and inviting.

Now, imagine a pool filled with stagnant water, unmoving.

That’s not so inviting, is it? It’s old, stale, dirty, polluted.

Rot starts to set in when something stops moving, when you stop being active and renewing yourself every day.

Staying still atrophies the mind and dulls the senses, just like metal rusts and tools lose their edge, when left alone and untouched.

It’s the same with work as you do it in your business.

Everything you do needs to move your business and your customer’s business on – it needs to work in a flow and it’s when that doesn’t happen that you start to struggle.

When something is finished and is now only fit to be preserved, kept pristine and untouched, we call it art.

Everything else is work in progress – something that fits into a greater purpose – and your job is to figure out how to keep things moving in the service of that purpose.

Which you can do by repeatedly asking, “What happens next?”

Raw in, clean out

Imagine you run a business that helps other businesses – like a management consultancy.

When you describe what you do to someone who has used consultants before you’ll often notice them wince.

They’ll probably ask you if you do something like come in, have a look around and write a report.

This is a common sales approach that many such consultancy organisations take – they carry out an audit examining the current situation and identify issues and recommend changes.

When this is done well they show the prospective client what needs to be fixed and they talk about how they (the supplier) can fix the issues.

This can lead to a sale.

The problem happen when the report tells the client what they (the client) has to do next – when it’s a prescription rather than a cure.

That kind of report tends to gather dust on a shelf.

And that’s because most people are too busy doing what they need to do.

They haven’t got time to do what you want to do.

If you want to be useful to them you have to fit into their flow – figure out how to insert yourself into their way of working and add value.

And you can do that by showing them what they will get from you that they can use in the next step of their own process.

For example, we recently visited a maze that the farmer creates every year using maize.

She described how she comes up with a design and then an experienced tractor driver plants the crop in rows.

She then plucks out plants to create the design.

When it’s ready she gets a drone operator to take an aerial image which then goes into the marketing literature and the maze is now open for business.

The farmer has a flow – a number of things she has to do over a few months to get this attraction ready for visitors.

Everything she buys in as a service has to help her move towards this outcome – help her achieve this goal.

If you can help her, then you might have an opportunity.

But you have to provide something that is clean, something that she can use in the next step of her process.

For example, that image from the drone operator is clearly useful for marketing – the picture itself, maybe some video footage, can be used for branding and publicity.

It’s not just a work of art, even if it looks good – it also has purpose and function and fits into a larger whole.

It’s useful.

Get rid of waste in your process

A useful side effect of asking what happens next is that you can identify things that don’t help.

In most cases, trying to track what’s doing on and create reports doesn’t help.

That creates busywork that you don’t really need to do.

Sometimes you have to monitor things to understand what is going on, but it’s not something you have to, or should do all the time.

What matters more is getting what needs to be done done.

Anything that doesn’t contribute to moving you own, to keeping the flow going, should be considered for elimination.

You can’t get things wrong that you don’t do at all.

The best way to improve quality is not to do what you do better – but to do less of everything you do and focus more on the things that matter.

When you stop thinking in terms of time or tasks and focus on flow – on what happens next – you’ll start to develop a feel for the velocity of your business.

The smoother, faster the flow, the more you keep things moving, the cleaner and more efficient you will be.

You’ll also be more effective.

As you design your business keep this principle in mind.

At each stage, provide clean output – something you or your client can use without modification.

Something that fits cleanly into the next step in the process.

But you won’t get this right on your first attempt – you’ll need to work at it to get to that point.

Which is what we’ll cover next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Learn Anything You Need To Know For Your Business

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Sunday, 7.11am

Sheffield, U.K.

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. – Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

What do you do when you realise you don’t know something?

All study is self-study

There is an Indian story of a forest hunter called Ekalavya.

He wanted to study archery but the best teacher in the land, Dronacharya, who taught the royal princes, refused to take him as a student.

So Ekalavya built a mud statue of Dronacharya, literally modelling him out of clay, and taught himself, practising every day in front of his teacher until he became a great archer.

The story doesn’t end well for Ekalavya – but that’s in another time and place.

The main lesson – that you can teach yourself anything you want – is one we should take to heart.

Once upon a time you needed to be apprenticed, you needed a teacher.

And then we had books that distilled the knowledge of experienced people into packages that anyone could take up and learn from.

And now we have YouTube, where we can see how others do it and learn anything we want, from how to teach better to how to replace a broken door frame.

You have everything you need to learn anything you want – we all have access to more opportunity than anyone before in history.

But how do we go about using it successfully, rather than drowning in a flood of knowledge.

Focus on relevant, useful information

When information is everywhere you no longer need to absorb it all.

You can access it on a just-in-time basis rather than a just-in-case basis.

Rather than trying to learn everything about a subject, focus on the outcome you want and identify the things you need to know to make that outcome happen.

That list of things becomes what you need to know.

For example, to build your personal brand, you need to be clear about what you want to get across – what is it that you want to be seen as an expert on?

How will you showcase that content – will you write, create a podcast, create video, or do all three and more?

Will you do it yourself or get someone else to do it and manage the process?

How will you get people to come and look at your material – how will you get the word out?

When you are clear that the outcome is a enhanced personal brand, what you need to do will become obvious very quickly.

You have to ask yourself how you will do these things and how much it will cost you and how you can do them well.

And if you don’t already know how you are going to do this you should spend some time watching you other people do it well.

Learning through modelling

On my Twitter feed one of the posts said that you shouldn’t pay people to tell you how to get rich.

After all, if they were already rich, they wouldn’t need your money.

Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, responded by saying that they would often tell you how to do that for free.

Now, being rich isn’t the only outcome that matters – and you will find examples of all kinds of people who have created outcomes that are relevant and useful to you.

Some of them will share their story and what they’ve learned and when you come across them you have an amazing opportunity to learn because they are modelling how to do something and giving you the opportunity to watch and learn.

But you have to be careful.

With every person you watch, read or listen to, ask yourself how they make their money.

Most of the ads you see on YouTube for people who are offering you a course on how to be successful have no useful content.

You will often find a detailed breakdown of the flaws with their programmes if you do a search, but what most of them boil down to is that you make money by selling their programme.

It’s a network marketing strategy, where you create something that has little intrinsic value, but you persuade other people to join you in selling it and make money off the membership fees they pay.

You should ignore all these entirely.

Then you have a category of “personalities” who have strong opinions and are entertaining.

Many of the big names in self-help will fall into this category – they are inspiring, articulate performers who can make you think you can do anything if you have the will and the grit and the ability to outwork everyone else.

You should be careful with these people. Some of what they say is useful but most of it is entertainment.

If they make most of their money through speeches, courses, books, conferences – then you know that it’s the performance and the thrills they’re selling rather than the content.

Most of the content is folk-lore – common sense repackaged for your viewing pleasure.

But their main measure of success is eyeballs watching their content – eyeballs they can monetise.

And then you have people who show you how they do things – in an authentic and transparent way.

What you’re looking for here are real people – the ones that show it as it is.

Perhaps the best example here is Warren Buffett and his shareholder letters.

They articulate what he has thought and learned over decades of investing and if you’re interested in that field they are required reading.

People like this use their ability to create content as a way to showcase what they are interested in, what they do and the products and services they have to offer.

They make money either through the businesses and assets they have which they’re talking to you about, or they have created products that you can buy from them – but the products are how they make their money not by monetising you as their audience.

But, there aren’t that many examples of people doing this intentionally, but what’s interesting is that you can find better examples as you look into the early days of what people did.

When I come across someone on YouTube whose channel I like and find useful I often view their earliest videos – because that gives me a sense of where they started, and how their approach and message has changed over time.

Many develop their craft and ability to tell a story over time and it’s fascinating to see how they balance content and presentation.

For example, some focus on enhancing their content and teaching style while others improve their lighting, camera setup and on-screen presence with hair and makeup.

And when you come to their latest content you can tell whether they have a product to sell you or whether you are the product that they’re trying to sell to advertisers.

You also need to appreciate that you can learn different things from different people at different times in your career – and the best thing you can do is be intentional in who you follow and why.

Modelling over time

Different people will show you different approaches and you can learn different things from them.

The test is how relevant they are to you and what you want to get out of things.

If you want to learn about developing your screen presence, your ability to speak into a camera and be persuasive – then the big personalities of the Internet are where you go looking.

If you want to build a sustainable business then you might want to look elsewhere, to people who have found a niche and developed their business to fit into and dominate that little patch of cyberspace.

That’s certainly how I progressed over time – starting with persuasive speakers who told you to do things like write affirmations.

I still have books filled with daily writing somewhere – based on people saying that if you just wrote down what you wanted every day the universe would come along and give it to you.

The thing that changed the way I looked at these things was when I was introduced to the idea of thinking critically.

Critical thinking is not a negative thing – it’s not about criticising.

It is, instead, about taking in information and sifting it, evaluating it, and looking beyond the rhetoric, questioning tradition, not accepting authority unthinkingly and always being conscious of the objectivity of the people involved.

People will say things for many reasons.

You need to be careful to learn things for the right reasons, as best as you can given the situation you are in.

The test of knowledge for you is whether it is useful, whether it can help you take the next step you need to take.

And taking a series of steps will get you to where you want to be.

We’ll talk about that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Exploring Your Prospect’s Mind And Planting An Idea Flag

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Thursday, 5.25am

Sheffield, U.K.

Skillful conversationalists can explore disagreements and make points in ways that feel constructive and positive rather than combative or corrective. – Gretchen Rubin

What is your project?

In the last couple of posts we looked at making sure you were heading in the right direction and that you had taken a good look at the obstacles in your way.

Now, as you set off, let’s ask the question; what is your project?

Is it to start a business, write a book, create a portfolio, make a course, produce a product?

Now, what do you do with that idea?

Exploring your prospect’s mind

The world has been thoroughly mapped and explored, there are few places you can go to on the surface and plant a flag to claim that you found it first.

That’s not the case with the territory of the mind.

You have a vast, uncharted space to work with, a space where you can create territories rather than find them if you choose to do so.

Apple are an example of a company that’s great at doing this.

The products they have come out with have redefined what the world looks like for their customers, changing how they live and act.

You and I, we’re not Apple, but we can still have a go at exploring this territory of the mind and planting a flag in a patch that we believe we’ve found for the first time.

And this is important because why should anyone listen to you if you have nothing different to say to everyone else?

In marketing speak this idea of finding a space that’s your own is referred to as your USP – your unique service proposition.

That’s not entirely right.

It’s not what you do that needs to be unique.

It’s the way you position yourself in the mind of your prospect that needs to be different.

For example, if you’ve recently started as an estate agent, what are you going to do to win customers?

Are you going to act exactly the same way as the company you’ve just left, the one that trained you?

Or is there going to be something different, something unique about your message, your brand, your approach?

Now, in order to set yourself apart, you need to know what normal looks like to your prospect.

That means having conversations, enough of them to be able to map out what’s going on.

What does your prospect think, feel, believe about the world around them.

What are they happy with, what doesn’t work, what’s frustrating, what do they really want to fix?

All these questions help you explore the minds of your prospects and, as you wander around, you may come across a piece of mental real estate that’s unclaimed, something that you can make your own.

Somewhere you can plant a flag and stake a claim.

Planting your flag

The act of putting your flag in the ground is a decisive one – it means you now have an intent, an end goal, a place to call your own.

And there is a power to doing this – you can now look at every option you have and discard the ones that do not directly contribute to achieving your goal.

For example, I have been writing this blog for a few years now – writing every day.

I had no real plan for the blog at first, I wanted to write, but I wasn’t sure what to write about and I wanted to give myself time to work that out, work on developing a voice and a style.

I used the blog to help me read and learn, finding out what interested me and what didn’t, discovering which ideas were useful and which weren’t.

So far, I was wandering the territory of the mind, looking around – just exploring.

On the 26th of May 2020 I decided that I would start a project to write a book and planted an idea flag.

I briefly described my plan in a post and came up with a working title for the book.

And the act of doing that has made subsequent decisions extremely simple.

Especially when it comes to getting started.

I have a box filled with paper slips that set out the structure of the book and every day I take out the next slip and write that section.

That’s it.

But you have to be kind to yourself.

Everything is a work in progress

You have to realise that just because you’ve planted your flag that doesn’t mean that you’re done and can rest now.

That’s just the beginning, you now need to cultivate, to build on, to develop that patch of intellectual territory you’ve staked a claim to.

In my case these posts are a first draft, fleshing out the ideas on those slips, creating a form and argument with words.

I have to give myself permission to create – badly if necessary – but to create.

I need the words on the page, however badly written, however inadequate, because it’s only when these words are down that I can go back and edit and rearrange and trim and improve.

Until the words are down the book is just an idea.

Just like any project you may have.

So, be kind to yourself, and allow yourself to be rubbish – it’s okay to create stuff that you aren’t proud of.

It’s more important to create, to make a start, to get going – because once you have something you can make it better.

You can’t improve something that doesn’t exist in the first place.

Planting an idea flag gives you a place to call your own, a patch of mental territory you can now work.

But you’ll need to give yourself time – time to till the land, get rid of the rocks, create a fertile soil for your ideas and plans.

And that’s what we’ll look at next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Need To Research How People Allocate Their Attention

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Friday, 5.16am

Sheffield, U.K.

The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it. – Elbert Hubbard

In my last post I talked about the importance of studying who you could help so that you could build empathy and understanding with them, which in turn helps you understand what kinds of products and services you can build for them.

Let’s start by studying the things they pay attention to.

Data is everywhere now

One characteristic that you will start to notice if you study what happens on the Internet is that there is a pattern that repeats all the time.

It’s called a power law, and tells you the difference between being number one and anything else.

Let’s say you run a YouTube channel and list out your videos with the number of views each one has had, it’s very likely that one will be the clear winner.

The next one will have half to two-thirds of the views.

The third one will have half to two-thirds of the second’s numbers.

And then you have all the others.

This applies almost everywhere, actually, but it’s most visible on the Internet because the statistics are easy to collect.

For example, the chart below shows the views on my blog for the last month showing the first, second and third page views and then the average views of the next seven pages.

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But, while there is usually a clear winner with this kind of situation, there are two observations you should take away.

The first thing is that you need first place to get attention.

But you will only get first place for one of your pieces of work – and the rest of your list, the backlist, still matters to build your credibility and conversion.

And while the winner brings people in through the door, it’s everything else that will get them to stay and convert them into paying customers.

Again, this is a phenomenon you see all over the place.

In the publishing industry, for example, it’s the initial book sales that makes reputations – as the publicity and attention get people to notice you.

But it’s the sales over time that make you a fortune.

Given that situation, what do we need to look for?

Look for models of how getting attention is done well

As part of this Getting Started book project I’m running experiments that can help support some of the suggestions made in these posts.

For example, one project that you may be considering is whether you should start a YouTube channel.

How would you go about looking for models of how this is done well in your sector – what people have done to get attention from others?

I started by doing a search for a term on Google and comparing the results on the “All” results tab and the “Videos” tab.

You get around 6 million hits for the term on the All page and around 550,000 on the videos page.

This first term is fairly technical so I put in a non-technical but also fairly specific term.

That had 440 million hits on the All page and 2 million hits on videos.

What this tells you is that the more technical the subject the less competition there is.

The richer the content, in terms of adding images, audio and video to text, the less competition there is.

And the more detailed, useful and longer your content, the less competition there is.

When you do this you’ll end up with a much smaller universe of people who you might be in competition with – and then you have to look at what they do well.

And the chances are that they do the basics extremely well – they do the things that make life easier for their viewers and audience.

As you look at each one take notes of the elements that you think they do well, the things you notice.

I like doing this on index cards or slips of paper for the first five or so results, because you notice different things each time you look at a video or page.

If you have notes on separate cards, you can then spread them out and see what elements are common, what are the things these successful pages or videos do well?

And then you have to ask yourself whether this is a space in which you can compete.

If you think you can do something differently, combine your skills to create value in a way that isn’t being done already, then you may have discovered a niche.

If the field is dominated by a small number of very well-known people then you’re going to find it harder to get attention – but if you keep researching and digging you’ll probably eventually find a niche that has space for you.

And then you have to make that niche your own, so that the next time someone comes digging they take a look at what you’ve done and decided there is no point competing with you and go away to find their own niche.

And that’s when you become a model for others.

Why can’t you just make stuff and not bother with research?

I wouldn’t argue with that point of view – I’m in favour of creating without restrictions, without keeping an eye on the market, without looking for an outcome.

But that’s about you – about you doing what you enjoy and creating something that you would make anyway whether people bought it or not.

And the best projects have their inspiration in something you care about, something you like doing.

If you enjoy DIY or writing or technology, then the core of what you do is the work, the thing you do.

And the first element of getting started is just to do more of that thing you want to do.

But we’re talking here about developing a market for what you do – getting other people interested in buying it from you.

In getting them to first give you their attention and later their money in exchange for the things you make.

And that requires a different approach – it requires starting from how they see the world and the kinds of things they need.

Now that you can see the kinds of things they already pay attention to from the research process described in this post, it’s time to start thinking about why they pay that attention – what kind of person are they?

We need to develop empathy with them, so let’s try and do that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Arrange The Elements Of Your Story

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Wednesday, 5.31am

Sheffield, U.K.

Nonfiction is both easier and harder to write than fiction. It’s easier because the facts are already laid out before you, and there is already a narrative arc. What makes it harder is that you are not free to use your imagination and creativity to fill in any missing gaps within the story. – Amy Bloom

Why should we believe you?

Why should we buy into your idea, sign your proposal, invest in your scheme, go with what you say?

In the last few posts on this book project I’ve been discussing ways to look back at your life and get a sense of what you’ve done.

The idea is to look at things from multiple perspectives and, as you do that you will start to notice significant elements, from significant events that influenced you to specific creative opportunities that helped you grow.

We need to capture these memories.

The power of slips of paper

Robert Pirsig’s book Lila describes the way in which the main character, Phaedrus, documents his research on slips of paper.

When you write things down on paper, you freeze them in place.

What we want to do is capture your thoughts but put them into a form that’s flexible and useful for what we want to do next.

Get a stack of index cards or tear up some A4 paper that you need to recycle into 4 parts.

It’s time to mine for memories.

Look back at your past and start to jot down key memories about what you’ve done so far.

On one slip, you might make a note about a school you attended.

On another, a particular class that opened your mind.

Perhaps notes about each of the mentors you had and what you learned from them.

A note about each of the projects you’ve done and what’s significant about them.

These notes don’t need to be long and detailed, a few words will do unless you want to add detail.

Now, you could write about anything and everything, so how do you keep from writing forever?

Perhaps the time to worry about that is after you’ve got a few down – for most people the act of remembering and writing is going to be naturally tiring and you’ll stop after a while.

So perhaps give yourself twenty minutes or so to write as much as possible and then sit back to look at what you’ve done so far.

What is your purpose?

The reason why you are collecting these memories is to support the project that you’re trying to get started on.

For example, let’s say you want to start a business as a consultant, doing something you specialise in like analysis or data management.

You’ve made things a little more challenging by handing in your resignation shortly before the start of a global pandemic and it’s important that you get something in place fairly quickly.

Now, let’s say you are given the opportunity to pitch to a prospect – what are you going to do to get them interested in you?

You could list a series of facts about yourself.

Or you could tell them your story.

What is a story?

A story, your story, is at its simplest a telling of one thing that happened after another.

This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

The things are connected in time and you go from start to finish like travelling along a road.

What do you need to keep in mind when making that journey?

The first is to recognise that there is a main path, one that takes you from start to finish.

Other paths and side roads are not relevant to this particular story.

The second is that darting about to different points in the road is probably not the best way to make the journey.

Going from start to finish along the road is the most effective way, unless you find that it’s useful to dart forwards and back, flash forward or back.

The third is that an interesting road is not a straight line from A to B, a narrative arc is more interesting.

So, how do you tell your story?

Arranging the elements of story

Let’s go back to those slips of paper.

The first thing to do is put them in order.

You can do that simply by taking two slips and comparing them.

Does one come before the other in a narrative – did one happen before the other?

If so, arrange them in order.

Then pick up the next slip and compare them with the ones you’ve already ordered.

They will fit in there somewhere.

Repeat until done.

When you’ve finished you will have an ordered pile of slips of paper that set out key memories as they’ve happened over time.

You now have the raw materials for your stories.

Creating a narrative arc

Let’s go back to that example of a consultant and that pitch.

What is it that the prospect wants?

They may have a “presenting problem”, something they say is an issue that they’re looking for help with.

That’s their state at the start of your discussion.

When you’ve finished doing your work you want to have helped them solve that issue, improve their state.

And so the purpose of the stories you tell is to provide proof, a narrative of how you’ve done that before so that they can see that you know what you’re doing and should believe that you have the ability to solve their problem.

Too many people spend these valuable pitch minutes talking about things unrelated to the presenting problem.

Not you, not when you have your slips of paper at the back of your mind.

You can draw on the ones that create a linear narrative that provides proof of what you can do.

And you make it interesting by following an arc – a road or through-line – that connects the elements.

Start with the introduction – I’ve solved this very problem in a few other situations.

Provide a build up – for example, I was in this situation and these were the challenges we were facing.

Rise to the main problem – things came to a head because we had to deliver in two weeks and our systems just couldn’t cope.

Resolve the problem – what I did was create a set of spreadsheets that could work with our systems to deliver the information.

Provide an ending – and so we shipped on time and the client was happy.

That simple narrative is often much more powerful than a list of facts or certificates or courses you’ve taken.

Why does storytelling matter in business?

People don’t care about you and what you’ve done and why you’re so clever.

Not because they’re mean or cantankerous – it’s just they’re busy and they have their own problems.

They care about what you can do for them.

But they won’t just believe you – you have to show them why they should believe in you.

And the best way to do that is to provide proof – evidence that they should believe.

And the best way to present that proof is in the form of stories, narratives that describe how you did this, for whom and when.

And it helps if you can make it interesting.

Now that you know how to mine your memories, record them and select and arrange them to tell a story it’s time to find someone who’s willing to listen to you.

Let’s look at that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

When Have You Helped Transform Something Into Something Better

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Monday, 5.27am

Sheffield, U.K.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Let’s talk about transformation today.

In the last post we looked at a technique to look back at your career in terms of stages.

Along the way you’ve done much, achieved much.

But how have you changed things?

That’s what we need to find out next.

What is a transformation?

The essence of transformation is in taking something in, doing something with it and pushing something out.

You could have a transformation that does nothing – and that could be because of the input what happens in the process of transformation.

For example, if you just pour water through a sieve, nothing happens – the water drains out even through the sieve’s purpose is to hold something back.

But if you use a sieve to drain a saucepan of potatoes you’ve put on the boil you’ve transformed wet potatoes into dry ones.

Transformations are all around us.

Everything we see that’s made by humans has involved taking in raw materials, doing something to them and producing something different.

It’s the most fundamental act of human creativity and every single manufactured thing that you see in front of you right now is an example of how it’s done right – how raw materials turn into a finished product that someone like you is willing to buy.

It’s a concept that’s so ubiquitous that we don’t always recognise that’s it’s happening so it’s worth spending a little time digging into what this means for you.

What have you made today?

Let’s start with something simple.

What did you make today?

What raw materials did you gather and shape into a product that someone else found valuable?

Arguably, everything you do meets that criteria.

As long as you haven’t spent the last eight hours asleep in bed or in front of the TV, you’ve been doing things that involve transformations, even if it’s just for your benefit.

You’ve transformed a sink full of dirty dishes into a sink free of dirty dishes.

You’ve transformed dirty clothes into clean ones.

As I write these words, I’m working on transforming an idea on a slip of paper into a small essay on the subject.

The thing to remember about transformations – the absolutely essential point – is that something has to change.

If something doesn’t change it’s all just talk.

Which transformations matter

If everything humans do is some kind of transformation then which ones matter – which ones create value?

Value is something that is created in the eyes of the person who benefits from the transformation.

The same activity can be classed as a transformation or a waste of time depending on how the observer sees things.

The easiest way to see this is to think about any kind of expert consultancy activity.

The first thing a consultant will do is transform facts into an opinion.

For example, a lawyer may give you an opinion on whether the facts of the situation surrounding your dismissal justify bringing a claim against your employers.

If the opinion favours what you want to do then you might judge it worthwhile.

If it doesn’t, you might judge it worthless.

If you see an opinion that is negative as one that has potentially saved you from spending a lot of money fruitlessly then you might judge it worthwhile.

Value is a layer of perception built on something that passes for an agreed reality.

We agree I have transformed something into something else – for example, an idea into an essay in this post.

You judge if that was worth doing, if it is valuable.

What valuable transformations have you done in the past?

This idea of transformations is something that you need to take a good look at if you want to get started on that new business or project.

It’s not enough to have skills, to say that you can do something and are available for hire.

That’s just a job – one for which you’re either paid a steady salary or an irregular one, depending on how you’re hired.

But it’s not a business.

You have to look back at your career and look for examples of where you helped someone in a situation move to a better situation.

In business, this often comes down to increasing revenues, cutting costs or improving operations.

Preferably all three.

For example, if your marketing services helped a client understand what their customers needed better, created a focused project scope that meant they could make it with fewer resources and associated costs and, in the process, cut down their sales conversion from 12 months to 6 weeks, you have an example of a valuable transformation.

The more experience you have the more of these examples you will have to draw on.

We hope.

Think back over your career and life so far, and list the times when you did something that was transformative and valuable.

These are the examples around which you can build your story.

But what if you don’t have any yet – what if you don’t have anything to talk about?

If you haven’t got a past, you first have to create one before you can move forward.

Let’s talk about that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Map The Stages Of Your Career To Date And Work Out What’s Next

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Sunday, 5.20am

Sheffield, U.K.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin

We’re working through the second act of the Getting Started book project.

This is the last of three techniques to help explore the past and get some perspective on what you have experienced so far.

The first technique, lifelines, let you see the sweep and trend of what’s happened.

The second, defining experiences, asked you to pick out key events that have made you who you are.

And this technique, stages of growth, will ask you to take a hard look at the development of your career to date.

What stage of your career are you in?

This is not, as I have explained elsewhere, a book that promises shortcuts.

Transformation takes time and you should think in terms of decades, not weeks or months or years.

If something is easy to do then it’s as easy for someone else to do – it gives you no competitive edge, no protection, no defensive moat.

Those things come with time, with accumulating experience and creating artefacts and building proof.

And over a period of time, your own career will have developed.

For example, let’s look at a typical knowledge worker’s career over a span of fifteen years..

The first five years are spent in learning about the field and doing analytical work on a customer’s account.

These tasks include carrying out research, documenting findings, creating analyses, creating presentations, dealing with queries and handling administration.

Most of the time you do what you’re told to do and, if you’re lucky, you get the chance to improve systems and processes and demonstrate your competence.

Over the next five years you might progress into the role of a consultant.

You now have the experience and understanding of workflows and how things are done.

Instead of having to be told what to do you can start having conversations about what needs to be done – moving from an task focus to thinking in terms of outcomes.

As a consultant, your focus is on delivering what the client needs, not completing a particular task – and the better you are at understanding their objectives and marshalling resources to deliver what is needed the more likely you are to get given responsibility and oversight.

Then, in the next five years you start to move into the role of a specialist, someone who is an expert in a particular area.

You may have your own team or operate with few resources and bring in others when needed – but you become the “go to” person when there is something that needs to be done related to your field of expertise.

Most people should be able to see themselves somewhere on this continuum, as they look back on their careers.

You can get started at any point

You can start a new project at any time in this timeline – but the way you think about it will be heavily influenced by what you know at the time.

Early in your career you will focus on the tasks you can help with – the specific skills you bring to the project.

The kind of business you may gravitate towards will be a freelancing structure working on a project basis.

Later in your career you will have a better understanding of the landscape and how what you do fits into what the customer does.

This gives you the ability to range more widely, creating value where you think you can.

Still later in your career you will focus on specific value creation, preferably as high as possible, to justify using your experience and higher costs.

But these will be dynamic times, filled with tension and difficult choices.

Early in your career you have less to offer but more flexibility and the ability to learn and change.

Later in your career you have more to offer but may also be getting more rigid in your thinking, less open to change, both professionally and personally.

It’s important to be clear sighted about where you are right now – because there is much still left to do.

Complete the model

Draw this model out for yourself, starting with three overlapping ellipses and adding as many as you need.

Work through your career and label the stages you think you’ve been through – use words that capture the roles and expertise you’ve developed over time.

Try and separate the stages so that they are clear in terms of growth, not title.

Going from a junior analyst to an analyst to a senior analyst may simply mean that you’ve become more competent at doing the same tasks.

Moving from being focused on getting a task done to being focused on what the client needs doing is a significant growth step in any career.

It the first step in moving from being self-centered to being customer-centered.

Getting Started

The important thing to remember the fact that you can get started on a new project at any time – but keep in mind that the next stage is likely to take another five years, regardless of which stage you’re in when you start.

Especially when what you’re trying to do is start a business or create a step change in your career.

That’s because in addition to doing what you do you need to learn how to sell what you do.

And that requires some deep thinking about the way in which you’ve changed people’s lives, which we’ll get into in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh