The simplest brand building tool of all

black mercedes

Building a brand with meaning is a difficult thing to do. But there is one hack which tells us more than any other signal, and it takes less than a second to give that signal.

The price.

If it’s super cheap or outrageously expensive, it tells a stronger story than any other feature immediately.

It tells us where it sits in the scheme of things, the consideration set of where I could cast my dollar votes. It tells me if this is option is in my range or not for me. Sometimes the price is most important feature, we want people to know how much we paid. The story I tell myself has already began. I make a decision based on the price which tells me I’m being smart and frugal, or I deserve this most expensive option. In some categories like apps and software, these days there’s an expectation of no price at all.

If our price stands out, then even before our product or service has been trialled we have a brand perception. The only challenge of course, is making sure that after consumption the experience lives up to what was expected.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

Podcasts are a University on wheels

podcast head

After a false start in the mid 2000’s podcasting is back killing radio. For anyone who spends a fair amount of time driving, exercising, travelling or just existing as a human, it is the ultimate short cut to ‘get learned’ by some of the worlds best thinkers – University on Wheels say some.

So here are some great podcasts I literally rub my ear balls in whenever I am on the move.

My top 7 Podcasts:

  1. EconTalk with Russ Roberts – Not as highbrow as it sounds. An incredible array of topics related to business, culture and sociology. The most insightful look into our economic lives you’ll ever listen to.
  2. The James Alticher show – Mostly about entrepreneurship, technology and financial independence. He interrupts the guests a bit much, but with good thoughts & questions. Has great guests on the show.
  3. Crap Hound with Cory Doctorow – Mostly about cyber security, IoT, income disparity, privacy & surveilance, Gov policy regarding digital rights, and other important digital issues around control and the world you’re about to live in. Eye opening view of the future. One the globes sharpest minds.
  4. HBR Idea cast – Podcasts of around 20 mins. Perfect for short trips. Covers topical issues in business and management. Gets to the critical issues quickly.
  5. The Long Now with Stuart Brand – Seminars about long terms thinking. Generally a long 1 hour plus podcasts which are from Keynote speeches from the Long Now Foundation. Has the world best thinkers on key topics regarding the long term survival of humanity. Kinda heavy I know – but the topics are more ‘human and now’ than you’d expect. Everything from why stories last to can we live on Mars to the long arc of moral progress.
  6. Planet Money NPR – Great stories about all things money and finance. Super interesting stories with insights you’d never expect. Totally entertaining on the usually boring topic finance. Short podcasts too around 20 mins.
  7. Here’s the thing with Alec Baldwin – Has a great range of guests with entertaining content regarding creative and business pursuits. Lots of laughs and relaxing.

If you like hearing me rabbit on, then you can always check out the #BBB podcast (Beers Blokes and Business) which I appear on and I recent recording I did for the newly launched Future Sandwich podcast.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why podcasting has made such a massive comeback in the past couple of years, there’s probably a myriad of reasons. But here are two that spring to mind. (1) We’ve had a couple of super ‘hit’ podcasts to put it on the agenda like ‘Serial‘ and (2) I think the increased data most people now get on their phones these days removes the download it now and listen barrier. No need to plan and download at home.

Startup blog says – let your ears do the reading.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

The only way you can compete on price

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My favourite blogger Seth Godin talks about competing on price as being a race to the bottom. I couldn’t agree more. Yet, it can be a valid business strategy, and here is the only time when competing on price is a smart thing to do:

When everything the customer does not see is focused on price.

If you want to compete on price, then the price tag itself is the least important part of the ‘low pricing strategy’. It’s the back end, and every single thought and action in your business needs to be about efficiency and reducing cost, all day, everyday.

If we can manage to do this, then we can win on price. But we should always remember a price sensitive customer is always the least loyal.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

Yes, we know Uber has no cars, but what do they really sell?

So by now everyone knows that Uber has exactly zero cars and Airbnb has zero hotel rooms. But this shouldn’t really be that surprising given it has been the playbook of the internet since like Altavista was a thing. So we can stop putting it in presentations as though it is a surprise. The web is a connection device, those who make the most useful connections win. It’s all about access, not ownership. While these two tech companies don’t own the assets they rely on, we ought remember some older examples from the ‘Connection Playbook’.

  • Apple have 800,000+ app developers they don’t pay.
  • Alibaba has 4.2 million factories they don’t own.
  • Facebook has 1.2 billion content creators.
  • Amazon sells almost every author in the world.
  • WordPress has 75 million journalists writing for them.
  • eBay doesn’t own any good it sells.

The web has always been about leveraging cognitive surplus and idle assets. Owning stuff and paying creators is so Industrial era.

Now let’s consider what people are really buying when they get an Uber: Certainty & Transparency.

Uber time to arrival

For me the thing that makes Uber valuable isn’t the nice black vomit-less cars, or the random risky strangers who drive them. It’s knowing the car will be at my house in 6 minutes. It’s far superior to whenever I order a taxi – they still to this very day have the gall to tell me they’ll send the ‘Next Available’ – which does not help me get to the airport in time. I’m also a fan of just leaving the car without having to waste like 7 seconds swiping a credit card to pay. Yes, human laziness knows no bounds. Interestingly, the key features that make it work could all have been done by the taxi industry. But heck, why would they do that in monopoly conditions?

As for Airbnb, I’d much rather stay in a hotel when travelling on business. Hotels are far more convenient and have a number of services that matter when travelling for work – like late night burgers and concierge. But whenever I hear someone talk about their Airbnb experience, it’s never about convenience and amenities. And it’s not always about price. Most often it is about the story of where they stayed and how authentic it was. Airbnb sell the story of accommodation. They localise the experience for strangers.

Yes, it’s quirky that many big businesses connect things rather than own them, but it’s more important we understand what their customer advantages really are.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

Why predicting the future is more about sociology than technology

Technologies arriving by 2025

This chart above is from a new World Economic Forum report, Deep Shift: Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact, predicts 21 dates in the future when previously unimaginable innovations will enter our daily lives, transforming the way we live and the way communities and governments function. And after perusing the report, I couldn’t help but think that the results focused too deeply on technological capabilities rather than social and economic incentive. It seems that while predicting the future is always a difficult task, every time I read such predictions, human behaviour is not considered at a deep enough level.

I disagree with most of the predictions above, but mostly for two reasons:

  1. The flawed and simplistic definitions from the past. (This is how companies get disrupted by the way, but more on that later)
  2. The lack of consideration given to how incentives shape behaviour.

Simplistic Definitions:

Report Claim: 10% of people wearing clothes connected to the internet. Reality: We are already wearing technology. Our phone is a device we have been wearing as clothing for nearly 10 years. The definition given in the report doesn’t serve the function of why you’d wear technology – it’s too limited. It’s a yesterday definition.

Report Claim: Over 50% of internet traffic to homes to be for appliances & devices. Reality: The internet of things (IoT) in the home will be at least 10 times the size of humans connected, current estimates are for 50 billion items. So in pure connections it will be way bigger than their estimate. But as a portion of traffic and bandwidth it will still be small compared to human generated internet traffic. Most IoT devices will have simple sensors and awareness functions through connected nodes, which in real terms generate very little traffic as long as we maintain Net Neutrality. I’d also add that we are already generating more than 50% of web traffic through home connected devices – aren’t TV’s, smart phones and laptops in the home ‘devices’? Again the way things are defined mislead.

Report Claim: First city of over 50,000 people with no traffic lights. Reality: We already have hundreds of cities around the world of more than 50,000 people without a road rule in sight, let alone traffic lights. Seriously, have any of these people behind the report ever been outside of the confines of Davos or their Ivy League Learning Institute? China, India, Indonesia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America all have cities that fit this definition today. Another example that the world view of the economically fortunate is often myopic and first world centric.

Report Claim: 1st 3D printed production car by 2025 Reality: At volume this will not make sense, but it also depends on what they mean by ‘Production’. If less than 10,000 units then this is a clear ‘No’ as the industrial production line has advantages 3D printing will never have, an undisputed fact among 3D printing experts. While many parts of cars will come from printers, the entire production process will not. In fact, they key benefit of 3D printing is the exact opposite of ‘production efficiency’, it’s about customisation. They’re missing the reason.

Ironically, the reason many companies get disrupted through technology is how they define their business. They define things in terms of what they sell, and not the problems they solve. Technology often unveils new ways to solve old problems, which renders yesterdays logistics and infrastructure outdated. 

Incentives & Social Considerations

Report Claim: First Robotic Pharmacist will arrive by 2025. Reality: We already don’t need pharmacists and it is largely the strength of their government lobby that keeps them putting little labels on little bottles. There is no economic incentive for the pharmacists to replace themselves, and so I doubt they’ll let it happen. If this incentive existed, they’d already be selling medicine in grocery stores. If however, the report is referring to 3D printed medicine, well the FDA approved that in August this year.

Report Claim: 5% of consumer products printed in 3D by 2025. Reality: While I think 3D printers will be in a majority of homes, it’s still like 1975 was for personal computers. An entire infrastructure of software, materials and socialisation around the industry needs to be created. The opportunity is really in platforms to support the potential of 3D printing – read here, selling shovels, not finding gold nuggets. But let’s add the social reality to the mix. We are more than 20 years into the World Wide Web and e-commerce is still only 7% of US retail sales. And this is more evolutionary and easier to adjust to socially than 3D printing items is. This tells us the truth more than any predictions will.

Report Claim: First AI machine on a corporate board of Directors by 2025. Reality: As per the pharmacists being a Board Member is not a question of need and decision making ability, it’s a question of power, influence & gettin’ paid. The incentive for board members to replace themselves, is really not there. If someone does it, and they will, it will be a mainly be about company PR.

Report Claim: Driverless cars will represent 10% of all cars on US roads. Reality: This number will be significantly higher, maybe even higher than 50%. This is true for a few reasons. Firstly, the cost of self driving cars will be a lot lower than people expect. Because cars are now rolling computers, the same pricing dynamics now apply. Costs decline while performance increases exponentially. I’ve already written about why every car on the road will be electric in 10 years, and when we add things like; the ability to watch movies or sleep while travelling; having an extra drink after work on a Friday night, putting your car to work to earn money while you’re not using it (if indeed you own one); and not having to pay insurance for a self driver, then the incentives for self drive put this in the smart phone category – we curve jump to it as soon as it’s available.

The problem with the report, was in my view, that it was done by asking opinions and averaging them out. A bit like designing something by committee. You end up with well, average results which probably don’t reflect the real views of any individual who was asked.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

What startups can learn from Studio 54 and the velvet rope

Studio 54 opening night

As soon as we launch a startup we’re secretly desperate to get as many users as we can as quickly as possible. Even if we’ve hacked some kind of alpha test, or user MVP – or any other buzz mechanism to justify that this shit is gonna work. That aside we still want users, bodies, customers, people to come, use, share, evangelise as quickly as possible. It’s all about speed to market, so we move super quick to make this happen. Speed of customer acquisition is the key right?

Maybe not. Maybe what we should really be doing is the exact opposite. Maybe we should keep people out. Even those in our desired audience. Maybe we should be focused less on the quantity of users and instead focus on the quality and frequency of interactions with insiders. Those we let in. Just like a popular night club does, it creates desire by creating a space not everyone is allowed into. The line outside, is not a bug, it’s a major feature.

Look at anything valuable in life, and you’ll see a place where people had to earn their spot. People had to get invited, pass a test, earn recognition, or create value before they were allowed to be part of the thing in question. This process creates the human fear of missing out

When Facebook launched you had to have a Harvard email address to join.

When Gmail arrived, you needed an invite to get access.

When Uber came along it launched city by city.

The first Tesla cars went to high profile people.

Even the original Frequent Flyer programs were by invite only.

And Studio 54 turned exclusivity into an art form, literally.

While it is very hard to build a big business with a tiny audience, it is much harder to create a great product while trying to please everyone. We should instead create an isolated market so we can serve the faithful few. Make a product they love so much that they can’t help but talk about how great the thing is. we need to get them raving about it so others will want in on it. We need to put a velvet rope around what is on the inside. We need a door person who has the task of saying ‘Not in those shoes pal‘ or the classic ‘members only tonight.’ Of course, none of this is actually designed to exclude others, it’s more about making those on the inside know how special they are, that they are part of creating something valuable. It’s only then that they’ll help you make something which can grow beyond the group who started it.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

How toilet paper weirdly tells a story of industrial disruption

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If you’ve been wondering recently why you use so much toilet paper. Why it seems every year you’re buying more rolls than ever before. Wonder no more. As a bonus you’ll also find out with a weird example how so many industrial companies sow the seeds of their own disruption.

The first every job I held with a big company after graduating was with Kimberly Clark. An American multinational paper goods manufacturer. A big brand of theirs is Kleenex. The market leading toilet paper which we now buy giant packs of up to 24 rolls. But it wasn’t always this way. When I started working there more than 20 years ago the best selling package size of toilet paper was a 4 pack. Did we all of a sudden start going to the toilet more frequently to require more toilet paper? If not, then how is it that most families could survive on a 4 or 6 roll pack from the weekly shop and now we need to purchase to a 24 roll pack?

Here’s how:

When I started working at Kimberly Clark most toilet rolls had between 300 and 500 sheets (paper squares) per roll. Some brands had up to 1000 sheets per roll. But what I discovered as a few years went by is that instead of raising the price, the company would simply remove 10 or 20 sheets per year. They did this as they believed that consumers are more sensitive about price than quantity. It’s a popular fast moving consumer goods ‘pricing‘ tactic to maintain profitability without changing the selling price. Kleenex Cottonelle is now down to 180 sheets per roll. In addition to this Kleenex Cottonelle is 1 ply, and the Kleenex brand it replaced was 2 ply. Some toilet papers are down to 100 sheets per roll. They even increase the size of the core of the roll to keep the same perceived roll width. So there is your answer. Each roll we buy these days has far less paper on it. Often by a factors of 4, 6 and even 10. This is why we need to buy packs which are 4x times the size. But the paper companies got what they wanted, they kept their prices per roll roughly the same.

But this goes deeper than a story of bathroom anthropology. It tells the story of how many large legacy companies are coming undone. It’s a story of their industrial mindset. And that mindset is as follows: They’d rather give their customers less for the same price than be transparent. In fact, it’s exactly what industrialists do, they want to get more for less, every single year. But in a strange kind of reversal, they end up costing themselves more and giving themselves less. Their cost per roll in distribution, and packaging goes up. And their cost per tonne of what they sell in retail margins increases. And it is of course a race to the bottom. A brand can only cut product delivery so far until the product is no longer. It also creates a worse product experience for the end consumer. I know I don’t want to carry home toilet paper packs four times the size in my trolly or buy it 4 times as frequently.

Above all of that, it shows where the focus is for these companies: On selling stuff they already sell, as cheaply as possible, using the machines they’ve already got, with a short term focus. At no point is the end user considered, or part of a strategy which doesn’t involve trickery. They have a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. On the flip side we have many startups and technology companies focused on giving more for less, and creating platforms for consumer creation and collaboration. It’s no wonder half of the the Fortune 500 lost their invitations to the party in the past 10 years.

New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now.