Selling is simple when you have something that customers value and competitors can’t copy. Most companies strive to accomplish this through technology, which is simply defined by Peter Thiel as making improvements to a product that customers will pay for. When that’s the case, you can sit back and earn monopoly profits.
But here’s the rub: just as nature abhors a vacuum, a free market economy abhors a profit. Whenever you make an improvement that customers will pay for, others will begin plotting how they can get in on the action, either by matching what you do and offering it cheaper, or by leapfrogging your offer. In a flat world, here where competition can come from anywhere and technology changes so rapidly, the idea of enduring competitive advantage seems like a quaint relic, something that old-timers talk about while youngsters roll their eyes.
Unless you work for yourself, you’re selling a product that someone else is responsible for improving, so there’s not much you can do about that. But you are part of every selling transaction, and the technology of you is something you can control—in fact, treatment it’s the only thing you can control.
What are you doing to avoid becoming a commodity yourself? What improvements are you making to you that customers will pay for?
The only way to escape the personal commodity trap is to constantly make improvements to your personal technology, in the form of your professional learning and performance. You have to constantly make improvements to the product, and you have to do it in such a way that it’s difficult—if not impossible—to copy.
Why can’t they copy your professional learning and performance?
Learning is an individual responsibility and it’s hard, which is why most people stop at a comfortable plateau early in their careers. If they do make the effort, their laziness draws them to approaches that promise “secrets” and easy tips to improved performance, and easy tips are worthless as a source of competitive advantage because even if they work anyone can copy them.
Even with the best intentions, many people don’t know how to learn. Some think that it’s like punching a ticket—you attend a class and now you’re an expert. But the other side of the learning curve is the forgetting curve, which starts immediately unless you actively and deliberately practice the skills you’ve learned. Others get enthusiastic about a topic and start tackling it without either being systematic or being critical and choosy in their sources.
If you learn the right things right, you will be almost impossible to catch. First, knowledge is cumulative and it earns compound interest—the more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Second, by keeping your learning focused on what customers value, every improvement you make sets you apart from the competition.
So, you have to be smart about what and how to learn
The test for what to learn is, “what improvements will customers pay for?”
Know what your customers don’t know, because they won’t pay for something they already have. Look at all relevant levels and functions that you impact—technical, operational and business decision makers—and brainstorm ideas about what additional knowledge would make them more effective in their roles.
Compare your customers’ needs with an honest assessment about your current skills and knowledge; identify obvious weaknesses and discover positive opportunities. Have a “beginner’s mind”, and know what you don’t know. If you find this tough, ask around: there are many people who will give you an honest opinion, and most experts are proud to show off their expertise and will share a ton if you just ask. You’ll need a balance of broad and deep knowledge, or what I call being a “hedgefox”; depth will earn you the right to be heard and breadth will give you the perspective to bring valuable insights.
Learn how to learn. A lot of what we’ve learned about the best way to absorb and retain material is wrong, according to recent research. Rather than making this a tutorial, I recommend picking up any one of several excellent books about this, such as How We Learn, by Benedict Carey.
Copy and improve. While you want to make it hard for others to copy you, there’s no reason not to copy what others know. It’s called research and reading. But be careful what you put in your mind; it’s better to read one or two quality sources deeply than to skim a lot of shallow crap. Depth is critical because it’s hard, so those willing to put in the work will be rare and valuable.
Make it a habit. Set aside time in your regular schedule for professional learning and skill development. You have to take control and responsibility for your own “product development”, because relying on others will only put you at the same level of everyone else.
Let’s conclude with a good news-bad news sandwich. The good news is that continuously improving the technology of you can’t fail in propelling you to the top of your profession. The bad news is that you don’t own that spot—you have to keep paying rent to remain there, in the form of even more learning. But the final good news is that it will keep you young: Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.” So, learn early, learn fast, and learn well.
Stay curious, my friends.
Imagine waking up one day with a little tingling in your toes and the tips of your fingers. You might wonder a little about it, but shrug it off. But if a few days later you began noticing a weakness and a bit of klutziness in your limbs, you would definitely be concerned. Fast-forward a few days, and you’re lying in a hospital bed unable to move any muscle below your neck, and the doctors tell you there’s a chance your lungs will shut down too, and you would be terrified.
That’s what happened to Andy Coan a few months ago. Before that, he was a tremendously fit man in his mid-fifties, who looked like he could still swim a 100 freestyle in world-record time, just as he did as a high-schooler in 1976. His body had totally failed him, and he had absolutely no idea what to expect from this strange and savage disease called Guillain-Barre, which attacked his nervous system. Fortunately, he remembered that another swimmer, Rowdy Gaines, had gone through the same ordeal years before. We were able to track him down, and Rowdy gave Andy two things: useful information about what to expect, and–more importantly—hope.
That hope is what sustains him in his fourth month with the disease as he makes his slow and arduous comeback. He can move his legs somewhat and is relearning how to walk with a lot of support. His arms are all but useless. He can move his shoulders slightly, which is what he’s doing in the picture. When I visited him today, he was on the phone with a fireman who went through an even worse version of the disease (he spent four months on a ventilator because his lungs did shut down). The fireman told him that when he began his recovery, he could barely lift a three pound weight, and yesterday he benched 300 pounds!
That’s the kind of stuff that someone like Andy needs to hear, but it took a lot of trouble and some luck to find people who could help him like that. Now, besides his number one goal of getting better, Andy has another project in mind which sustains him. He wants to find a way—maybe through videos, a blog, and so on—to make it easy for others to get the information and the hope they need as quickly as possible if they ever get into the same situation.
What’s wonderful about listening to Andy describe his project is hearing and seeing the enthusiasm he has for helping others, and when he’s thinking about others, his own troubles are the furthest thing from his mind. To be clear: he knows he will get better eventually, but he doesn’t know how long it will take, and his rehab sessions are as tough as any workout he had back in the good old 10,000-meters-a-practice days when he was training for the Olympics. It’s not easy by any means, but there’s no feeling sorry for himself—because he’s focused on something bigger than himself.
Someone at the hospital today said “Everything happens for a reason.” That’s a cliché, and I don’t know if it’s true in the metaphysical or religious sense. But I am definitely sure that it can be true in a practical sense. Because when something devastating happens to you, you can choose to give it the meaning that you want to give it, and the service of others is about as fine a meaning as you can choose.
The list of ordinary things that Andy can’t do right now is long; but the list of extraordinary things is even more impressive. He can teach, and he can inspire, and that’s also about as fine a list as you can choose.
Note: If you have ideas for how Andy can spread the word and reach out to others who may be facing the terror of Guillain-Barre, please let him or me know, or share this with someone you think can help.
On January 1 of this year, I wrote a post about the three words that would describe my focus for 2014: Here’s what I intended and what I actually did.
Focus: I have a restlessly curious mind, which is a nice way of saying I get distracted easily. I am going to focus more this year. I’ve been training myself to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time on a single task, and I am going to up that commitment by blocking out dedicated time slots for my key business and personal priorities. I will read fewer books but suck the marrow out of those I do.
Actual: The dedicated time slots idea worked for part of the time, but I gradually got away from it and I definitely wasted far more time than I should have. I did a little better on my resolution to get more out of the books I read, especially when it came to taking detailed notes and writing summaries. Overall, I would give myself a D-minus on this one.
Connect: I’m a natural introvert in a profession that rewards extraversion. I will communicate more often, make new friends, network more widely, and pick up the phone a lot more. I will go more than halfway in my relationships.
Actual: I believe that I partially achieved my intentions for connecting. I widened my circle of acquaintances, deepened some relationships and friendships, and certainly made an effort to reach out more, even to the point of dedicating time to connecting on a daily basis. Grade: C.
Give: This is partially to balance the first two words. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in your own goals and priorities and forget that others have goals too, that you might be able to help with. I am going to mentor more, volunteer my time, and share whatever expertise or other assets I have with those who ask for help. Please let me know if I can help.
Actual: This was my best focus word for 2014. I volunteered time to StartUp Quest Broward, joined the corporate board of my church, and helped some friends in need. The best part is that, having begun these activities, I am now “locked in” and will already have a great base to build on in 2015. Give was by far my most rewarding emphasis for 2014, because whatever I accomplished in giving to others was returned to me many times over. But there is still much more I can do. Grade: B.
In reviewing my overall results for the year, I clearly fell far short of the potential that was contained in those three words, but I am glad I did the exercise. I’m further along than I would have been if I had not chosen to emphasize those areas in my work and personal life, and I’ve learned lessons that will help me gain even more in 2015. That’s why focus, connect and give are also my three words for 2015.
I gave a speech yesterday in Aspen about the four major lessons I have accidentally learned about selling during my career: thinking outside-in, delivering value through knowledge, the critical importance of preparation, and being real.
As I worked on my remarks, however, I discovered a fifth lesson: it occurred to me that somewhere along my journey, I have found a passion for selling—for the practice, study, and teaching of the craft—that I never would have anticipated when I was younger.
In fact, I did everything I could early in my career to avoid selling. I thought it was beneath me, and I was also a little afraid of it because I thought I had no talent for it.
But life makes unexpected demands on us, ampoule and selling became a part of my job description despite my wishes. I flailed around in it for a bit (because the bank that said I had to do it didn’t provide any training), but gradually worked my way up to at least mediocrity just through trial and error and trying to use common sense.
As I’ve written before, I stumbled on the idea of outside-in thinking during a sales call on a prospect when I had to admit that I didn’t know why he should do business with me; to recover, I was forced to quickly think up some good questions and he opened right up. I soon learned that asking questions, while a good start, is not enough. At some point you need to take what you’ve learned about your customer and combine it with your own specialized knowledge to teach them something new that improves their situation.
I think it’s the first two lessons that seeded my passion for selling. By taking a genuine interest in my client’s success and studying hard to learn new ways to add value, I’ve gained the satisfaction of knowing I’m helping others; I’ve grown from the constant challenge; I’ve met thousands of interesting people.
Psychologists tell us that intrinsic motivation comes from autonomy, purpose and mastery. Selling has given me the first two and the chance daily to pursue the third. Incidentally, I’ve also made a decent living doing it.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else, which would be quite a surprise to my younger self.
That’s one reason that I think the well-intentioned advice we give to young people today—to follow their passions—may be misguided. At their age, most don’t know what their passions are. Maybe it’s better to do the best job you can where you can, and find your passion in that.