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08/17/2010 Why Did You Start Your Business?

Mitch Joel gave a great talk at our Burlington Social Media Breakfast club lunch the other day. He emphasized how companies and individuals who want to engage in social media should focus less on what they want and more on what they're customers want. The businesses should try to provide worthwhile content and information so that people seek them out, rather than the other way around.

It reminded me of Adrian Ho's #btvsmb talk in February where he talked about how people want value from brands not relationships. 

In business, we have wants, needs, goals and budgets. We want people to X in Y amount of time, in order to hit our sales numbers. It's a very inward looking process. And it made me remember an old question I used to ask both for-profit and non-profits clients:

"Why did you start your business or organization? What was it you were looking to provide people with, that they didn't already have?"

Usually, it started with some thing to make people's lives easier, or to help out a community, or to provide support for a group of people. Usually, the product or service the entrepreneur developed sprang from fulfilling that need. And it's what drove the early entrepreneurs and non-profits to put so much of their energies into the business.

Later on, after the organizations developed the products and services that actually helped people, the focus shifted completely to selling these things. It's how organizations stay in business. But in shifting the focus from the people it's helping to the product they're selling, can the business can lose the value that once inspired them.

When I hear the Mitch Joels or Adrian Hos of the world speak, I think its time for companies to go back to their essences and to start talking about, creating content about and providing the value about why they exist. They exist to make our lives somewhat easier or somewhat better in a particular way. So talk about that and expand on that. 

I worked with a woman who invented the first federally approved airplane seatbelt for toddlers and lap kids. She started her company because she wanted her grandchildren to fly safely. There's a great story how Bob Stiller of Green Mountain Coffee drank a cup of coffee in Waitsfield and decided that everyone should have the pleasure of drinking great java.  The business came after the desire to change something for the better.

When a business has its roots in making things better, there should be stories and values to share. Some of those might be about your product but some might not be. Alcohol companies seem to have an unfair advantage here, since they're mostly about people relaxing and having fun, and there are lots of ways to create and share interesting content about fun with other people.

But what about businesses that have started from a strictly financial standpoint? When someone goes into business because they know how to make widgets cheaper or they simply see a market opportunity, do they really have any value to share? Maybe. I'd like to see Walmart provide content on how to do and buy EVERYTHING more cheaply, since that's seems to be why they went into business. A blog called The Frugal Bugle? I know people in the marketing business who have no interest in marketing; they're just good business people. I'm not sure what they have to share is of much interest to others, though.

Another question is whether brand agencies help or hurt this process. If you really don't have anything of value, brand agencies try to create one, however tenuous. That might be a good, if somewhat inauthentic tactic. Other times brand agencies but so much stuff on top of the original business value that the original focus is unrecognizable, or they boil the original value down to a generic and meaningless emotion that goes no where.

If you're struggling with what to share, go back to your beginnings. Ask yourself why your organization exists and how it was supposed to help people.  Don't think about your products or services; think about one group of people helping another group of people. Once you get to that place, you'll probably find that you can provide and share lots of valuable content with interested people.



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