How to Look Past Boundaries That Are Holding You Back

by Dan Blank on March 30, 2010

If you work in media, then likely, your career is in transition, as is your business. Maybe everything looks less certain today than it did 5 years ago. Maybe you have a strong belief in your business, but are finding it difficult to keep your brand on that wild streak of profitability.

So today I want to chat about the barriers you may be facing. In doing so, I am going to focus less on the things outside of yourself and your brand. This is a journey inward, not outward. Let’s get ready to dive…

Who Are You?

Three years ago, Apple dropped the word "Computer" from their name. Why? Because they chose not define themselves by a single product. In fact, they chose not to define themselves by a product at all.

Instead, they focused on who they serve and the overall solutions and experience they provide. They were branching out to media players, smartphones, and tablet devices – focusing on the behaviors, problems and solutions that tied their audience together, not the physical products. In doing so, they rewrote the economics of the music industry, attacked a variety of software and media issues, launched a successful retail business, and changed the way we think about gadgets and their role in our lives.

The result? They are wildly more profitable than their competitors:

Look at that red line for Apple. WAY more profitable, even with far less revenue. Why is Apple so successful? Maybe it’s this:

They know who they are, who their audience is, what they need. They don’t define themselves by what they make. They don’t even define themselves by what their audience asks for. They have a vision, and they embrace it 100%, regardless of any external forces.

Most companies pursue business opportunities. Apple does that only in relation to their vision. Apple is as much about what they don’t do as what they do do. (de do do do, de da da da…)

Last week they did something that absolutely floored me. For two days, this is what their homepage looked like:

Not for an hour, not for a day, but for two days. That is an incredibly bold move for a company that needs to promote its array of products, including the iPad which launches soon. Would Dell do that? Would ANY company of Apple’s size do that? The answer is simple:

No they wouldn’t.

Any other company might have sent out a note, or created a little box in the corner. But not a homepage takeover for two days. Only Apple. Only a brand that knows who they are, a brand whose "values" are more than a poster in their stores and offices.

Apple knows who they are. And because of that, they can take massive risks that others avoid like the plague.

And this begs the question: Who are you? What is your vision?

Who Defines the Value You Provide?

Why is it that a young popular band like Coldplay plays a 1.5 hour set at each concert, but Bruce Springsteen plays for nearly 3 hours per show (the guy is 60, by the way).

It’s not that Bruce exceeds your expectations, it’s that he wasn’t defined by them. To Bruce, playing a 1.5 hour set is not an option. His concert promoters, his fans, the venues, Ticketmaster, they would all be very satisfied by a 1.5 hour show from Bruce. Two hours could even exceed expectation. 2.5 hours could wildly exceed them.

But Bruce goes close to 3 hours each night. He takes requests. He crowd surfs. He has acoustic sets, and full band numbers. He pulls people on stage. He plays new songs and old songs. He jumps, slides, dances, and does mild acrobatics.

Nobody defined for Bruce the value he provided. His manager didn’t say, "Bruce, we’d love if you played for 1.5 hours" and then Bruce went for the gusto playing another 15 minutes.

Who defines value for you? Your manager? Your HR dept? Your job title? The finance dept?

The brands and the people that exceed expectations challenge us to realize how pathetic normal boundaries are. That you shouldn’t feel satisfied if you meet them. That these boundaries really don’t exist.

A business such as Zappos gets heralded in the media for something that slips through the grasp of other companies:

Customer service.

You know, actually tending to their customers. Servicing customers. You think that would be basic, right? Nope. Zappos does it better – WAY better – and they are treated like masters of the universe because of it. They didn’t invent some innovative new doo-dad. They simply served their customers. And they’re a shoe company! How boring can you get!

Do you think Zappos exceeds customer expectations because they hung a sign in their call center that said: "We believe in customer service!" Nope. Did they benchmark their competitors and say "Amazon’s average call resolution time is 3 minutes, let’s shoot for 2 minutes thirty seconds!" Nope.

They did everything different. They defined their own vision, their own standards. And then, they lived up to them.

Zappos now has programs to train others how to deliver superior customer service. My guess is that for the thousands of people who go through this program each year, that few of them will successfully implement Zappos’ suggestions. Why? Because these people are armed with tactics, but lack the vision to implement. They lack the perspective that looks at the barrier and realizes it isn’t really there. It’s like the movie the Matrix, when Neo evolves by realizing that nothing around him really exists. In that moment, he becomes all powerful.

How many of your barriers exist merely because you have willed them to be? Because you haven’t questioned common assumptions?

You Are Not a Magazine.

There’s a book out now called "You Are Not a Gadget." It’s gotten good reviews and is on my reading pile. I like the title, so I am borrowing it here. Now, please keep in mind that I love magazines and I love those who create them. This is what I mean by ‘you are not a magazine’:

  • Even if you work for a magazine, your business is not magazines.
  • If you work for a book publisher, your business is not books.

These objects – magazines & books – these are merely conduits. You are delivering value, solutions and entertainment to an audience, to a community, to a person.

When you define yourself as a magazine, you have hobbled yourself – you have destroyed any opportunity to find new ways to serve your audience.

With definitions like this, opportunities become very narrow; perhaps you can offer new ad sizes, new supplements, new layouts, new ways to shift a "magazine." But a magazine can only shift so much before it extends beyond your definition of what a magazine is. So the definition becomes the barrier.

Your goal is not a thing. Even though you are a master at the craft of writing and creating an article, the article is not the end game, not the goal. Having that article affect a reader is the goal, having that article translate into an idea, an action or a solution is the goal. This is not meant to belittle the conduit – the article. Rather, it’s meant to focus on results, on how these articles shape our world.

When I look at the archives of one of RBI’s brands, an archive often going back decades, I don’t think just of the work itself as the goal. Instead, I think of how this work spread, how it shaped the world, how it was a catalyst for education, for ideas and for change. The ‘result’ of the body of work cannot be seen on a shelf of magazines. The result is out there in the world, tied into the fabric of our culture and of our lives.

This is why I say ‘you are not a magazine.’ Because even though your craft may be writing, even though the conduit may be a magazine, the goal is not to have a shelf full of printed matter, but to actively shape the world, to have a positive affect on the lives and future of the industry you serve.

When you look beyond the medium itself, that is when doors open to achieve your goals in new ways. It doesn’t mean that the magazine has any less value, or is placed anywhere else but the center of your brand’s offering. It simply allows you to try new things outside of it that achieve your same goals, in new ways.

Many brands today look like magazines, but earn a ton of revenue from events, or training or data services or lead-generation. My impression is that there are many people at these magazines who don’t realize this. They write articles each week, and they just assume that their work contributes as much to supporting the business as anyone else. But the reality could be that the events team could be delivering 60% of revenue.

So, you may be thinking: "That may be true, but without the magazine and content creators, there would be no event to draw revenue from." But how many magazine staffs do you know of that are bigger today than they were five or 10 years ago? Is your company hiring as many editors as it is salespeople?

When you define your goals by the conduit, you miss opportunities to connect with your audience, to serve their needs, regardless of the medium you define yourself by.

Apple doesn’t define their homepage by business goals, but by a message of who they are and a set of beliefs that extends to their audience. That is what allows them to post a dedication to a board member for two entire days.

When you are ‘only’ a magazine, not only do you create unintended barriers for yourself, but you drive home a message to your audience, that says:

"They deliver a magazine to me."

But doesn’t your value extend beyond the paper it’s printed on? To ideas, to solutions, to connections? To things that can take place in a magazine, or at an event, or via a database, or through an online community?

Be careful how you define yourself, both on an individual level and on the business level. Simon Sinek wrote an excellent book that touches on these topics called "Start With Why." He posits that most companies pitch you in this order:

  1. Here’s WHAT we do.
  2. Here’s HOW we do it.
  3. Here’s WHY.

And that is not an effective way to create loyalty or to create a unique brand. People don’t buy features, he says. Instead you should pitch yourself this way:

  1. Here’s WHY we exist.
  2. Here’s HOW we deliver value.
  3. Here’s WHAT you can do to join us.

So he flips the What, How and Why. Really intriguing book. Here’s a video of him explaining the basics of his theory.

Olivia Khalili looks at why REI’s brand means compared to Patagonia. She reviews REI’s branding and asks them: "What’s your mission? Accessible mid-range outdoors products? That’s not enough."

Many companies don’t have a brand such as Patagonia or Apple as direct competitors. So the real question is: what is stopping you from becoming the Apple or Patagonia of your industry? What is stopping you from becoming the Steve Jobs or Yvon Chouinard of your brand?


Clearly, I don’t have the answers, and quite frankly, no one does. But it’s always helpful to bounce ideas off of someone else. If there is any way you think I can help, send me a note at dan@danblank.com. You can also follow me on Twitter: @DanBlank

  • patrickmardian

    Excellent post, Dan. You always get me thinking.

  • http://www.zapposinsights.com/ Jon

    Thanks for the great post!

    I love the fact that you related 'getting it' to the Matrix!!

    If you'd like to see more about what we do and how we do it, please take some time to look on zapposinsights.com!

    – Jon Zappos Insights Culture Guide

  • http://www.zapposinsights.com/ Jon

    Thanks for the great post!

    I love the way you related 'Getting it' to the Matrix!

    If you'd like to see more about what we do and how we do it, please take some time to look on zapposinsights.com!

    – Jon Zappos Insights Culture Guide

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Thanks Patrick!

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Thanks Jon! I suppose that makes Zappos Neo. Not bad.
    Enjoy your evening.
    -Dan

  • http://causecapitalism.com/ Olivia

    Dan, really, really good post. I love the different elements and stories you wove together. I'm going to use your example of Apple's homepage–that is amazing. I wrote something similar about Zappos last week (if they can do it–being a boring online shoe retailer–than there's no barrier to any business finding its identifying mission: http://causecapitalism.com/why-cvs-social-respo…).

    Thanks again for this–thoughtful and invigorating.

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Thank you so much Olivia! I just read your post with the Zappos reference, totally agree. The Apple homepage is something I am still trying to wrap my head around.
    Have a nice night!
    -Dan

  • lisagenasci

    Really interesting blog post and ahead of a next big speech, thinking about how to apply this to philanthropy/fundraising/widening social impact. Any thoughts much appreciated!

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Hi Lisa – thanks! I just sent you an email, we can discuss there.
    -Dan

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