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So far, 2018 has been a year of so much progress…along with a sizable dose of healthy frustration. Progress, in that we’re pushing multiple new brands (including Idea Magnets) to market. Frustration, because it’s 2018 and not 2011 or 2012, at the latest.

Here is the ultra-honest admission: I didn’t have all the business model stuff and entrepreneurial lessons figured out when I started The Brainzooming Group.

While I’d spent TONS of time and effort on developing our methodology, I thought all the people who told me that they wanted to work with me when I left the corporate world would come running to work with Brainzooming. The rest would be history.

I was wrong.

It’s taken until this year to feel like we’re putting important parts of the business model in place, and while that’s great and all, I wish it had happened years ago. Unfortunately, it turns out that it’s entirely possible you might start getting all your ducks (or even just a few important basics) in a row AFTER you’ve jumped into the entrepreneurial pool with both feet.

And, you know, if you keep surviving to do business another day, maybe it’s okay if you don’t have the entire business model solved immediately.

5 Entrepreneurial Lessons I Wish I’d Figured Out Earlier

While I usually save my entrepreneurial lessons for an annual-ish article, here’s a head start on what I’ve learned during the last year about the best advice people have shared with me that I wish I’d fully grasped before starting Brainzooming :

  1. The best advice? You have to find opportunities for leverage in your business. Without this type of opportunity, no one will want to invest in it. Without this type of opportunity, YOU should question your own investment in your own business.
  2. The next-best advice? Figure out what you can sell to all the visitors to your website that fall outside the target for your main business. Someone pointed out this incredible truism in 2012 or 2013. We’re only now starting to capitalize on it.
  3. The best advice after that? You need to have products to sell globally if you hope to generate revenue when you sleep (or even just sit on your ass and do nothing at some point in your life).
  4. Then? If you’re ultimately going to have something to sell to everyone that comes to your website, you need to engage and reach out to them along the way. It’s a mistake to overlook them until you have products ready for them. Find early opportunities to deliver value to them.
  5. Finally? Build your database EARLY. Spend time with your database. Continually explore and learn new ways for your database to shape and grow your business.

Looking at this list, it seems to comprise mainly things that I, as a marketer, should have instinctively known.

Alas, it’s taken time. And there’s still more learning ahead.

I just wanted those of you who more recently made the jump to the entrepreneurial life (and those of you in corporate life who think it sounds great to be your own boss), to know that you don’t have to know everything at once.

Despite what all the gurus say: it takes time, my friend. It takes time to learn the entrepreneurial lessons. – Mike Brown

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Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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Years ago, I attended a services marketing conference sponsored by a prominent university. One professor made an intriguing claim: customers compare a brand’s performance on specific features to the best performance of any brand offering that same feature. The instructor pointed out a specific example of how this happens with customer expectations. If a brand were offering subpar, phone-based customer service, it wasn’t being compared exclusively to direct competitors who also offered horrendous phone-based customer service. He suggested that customers would compare a brand in this situation to the best customer service they experienced anywhere. This would happen irrespective of whether it was a brand from the same industry or a hotel, investment firm, or catalog company that wasn’t competing directly.

While his point resonated, there weren’t many direct examples to prove out his perspective. It made sense intuitively; you may also experience similar situations yourself. Yet, when we wanted to try to prove it for a B2B brand, we always wound up eliminating the necessary customer satisfaction survey questions to reduce survey time or research costs.

You Shouldn’t Be Surprised that Uber Is Ruining Customer Expectations for Your Business

In an article from The Wall Street Journal, subtitled, “Uber Users Flub Cab Rides,” writer Katherine Bindley highlights how individuals accustomed to app-based rideshare services don’t know how to behave in cabs (or even their own cars). Telling the driver your destination, waiting to find out the fare, and paying the driver are not part of the Uber or Lyft experiences, although they remain so for cabs. These new disruptive options have caused frequent rideshare customers to forget how cabs operate.

You might say that passengers forgetting how to use cabs because of rideshare brands is all in the same industry. Granted, it’s all about getting from one place to another. Yet, these examples reinforce an important point about strong brands with positive, radically different customer experiences: they can reshape expectations and behaviors even when a customer isn’t using the disruptive brand.

Understanding What Drives Customer Expectations

Are your customers’ expectations being set by your brand, a direct competitor, or an apparently unrelated brand? And how do you REALLY know what factors are driving changes in expectations?

If there is a possibility that disruptive brands are blowing up conventional customer experiences in your market, here is a checklist of tactics you can implement to attempt to remain ahead of the situation:

#1. Dig deep to understand what experience dimensions drive choice and preference

You need a robust understanding of what drives customers’ brand choices in your marketplace. One option is to ask these types of questions directly in surveys, sales calls, and customer service interactions. Doing that, however, leaves it to customers and prospects (if you interview them) to tell you what THEY think drives their choices. Their self-perceptions often place price at the top of the list, even if price isn’t the reason they prefer one brand over another.

A more effective way to tackle this question within a survey is a two-part approach. This involves asking questions about overall preferences for brands along with questions on how these brands perform on specific features. From the answers to all these questions, you can identify the relationship between how important each performance attribute is in predicting brand preference. This approach generally produces more reliable answers on what drives purchase and re-purchase.

Using this information, you can typically identify a smaller subset of features to monitor for performance levels within and outside your industry.

#2. Evaluate how industry competitors set and deliver high performance standards

Look inside your industry at various types of competitors (including high-profile, traditional, and potentially disruptive ones) to assess the performance claims and promises they make and deliver on preference-driving features. Explore their marketing materials, content marketing, and accessible customer communications. Conduct conversations with current and former customers and employees.

Through this evaluation, you will want to better understand:

  • What they say and demonstrate to set performance expectations among customers
  • How they deliver on expectations – both their processes and actual performance
  • How your own performance compares on each of the features

If possible, go beyond anecdotal performance accounts; become a customer of your competitors. This is easier done in consumer markets. In B2B, it may happen through some type of secret or mystery shopping. You might even engage a firm specializing in competitive intelligence to do this. No matter the means, there is nothing like actual usage experiences to help evaluate competitive performance levels.

#3. Look outside your industry for performance leaders on comparable features

Examine your list of preference-driving features. To the extent that they have meaningful comparisons in other industries, search out the highest-performing providers outside your market. You should be able to find far-flung examples of many features, including online or app access to services or information, responsiveness, timeliness, status or exception reporting, and accuracy, among others. Seek out any available information to understand top brands’ disruptive innovations, practices to set expectations, and performance levels.

Along with this, begin to routinely ask customers what brands they experience as providing the best service on your critical features. The objective is expanding your understanding of which brands may be impacting performance expectations in your customers’ minds.

It may be tougher to push for innovating your performance levels relative to players you don’t compete with directly. Still, you need only look at Amazon for a disruptive player that is upending industries in which it didn’t originally compete or even resemble any major players.

Taking the Next and Ongoing Steps to Managing Customer Expectations

If you decide to pursue this evaluation, it isn’t one-and-done. It involves an ongoing, periodic, commitment to maintain an understanding of performance expectations shaping your market in, as cab companies are discovering, potentially unexpected ways. – From Inside the Executive Suite

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Looking to Boost Customer Experience Innovation? Brainzooming Has an Answer!

Brainzooming Outside-In Innovation Strategic Thinking Tools eBookBusiness growth can depend on introducing new products and services that resonate more strongly with customers and deliver outstanding value.

Are you prepared to take better advantage of your brand’s customer and market insights to generate innovative product ideas? The right combination of outside perspectives and productive strategic thinking exercises enables your brand to ideate, prioritize, and propel innovative growth.

Download this free, concise ebook to:

  • Identify your organization’s innovation profile
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  • Incorporate market-based perspectives into your innovation strategy in successful ways

Download this FREE ebook to turn ideas into actionable innovation strategies to drive your organization’s comeback!


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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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A client raised a question about what more it can do to quicken its pace of innovation?

As with lots of innovation questions, my quick response was we have an eBook for that . . . and lots of articles, too!

Resources are a common barrier to innovation, download the Brainzooming innovation eBook, 16 Keys for Finding Resources to Accelerate Your Innovation Strategy. Accelerate will help you think about potential resources in dramatically new ways.

Other ways to quicken innovation include setting clear objectives, fine tuning the culture, speeding up insights and managing risk, better anticipating the future, and implementing for impact. We have links to articles on all these topics, plus a set of case studies from Disney, Estee Lauder, and Amazon. Here are links to nineteen Brainzooming articles on these topics:

Frame Your Innovation Landscape

Make Sure the Culture Is Working for Innovation

Speed Up Insights and Manage Risk

Better Anticipate the Future

Quickly Implement for Impact

Case Studies

Looking for Even More on Quickening the Pace of Innovation ?

Still looking for more on how to accelerate your innovation strategy? Contact us, and let’s discuss a faster path to new thinking, development, and market success for your innovation strategy!  – Mike Brown

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Find New Resources to Innovate!

NEW FREE Download: 16 Keys for Finding Resources to Accelerate Your Innovation Strategy

Accelerate-CoverYou know it’s important for your organization to innovate. One challenge, however, is finding and dedicating the resources necessary to develop an innovation strategy and begin innovating.

This Brainzooming eBook will help identify additional possibilities for people, funding, and resources to jump start your innovation strategy. You can employ the strategic thinking exercises in Accelerate to:

  • Facilitate a collaborative approach to identifying innovation resources
  • Identify alternative internal strategies to secure support
  • Reach out to external partners with shared interests in innovation

Download your FREE copy of Accelerate Your Innovation Strategy today! 

Download Your FREE Brainzooming eBook! Accelerate - 16 Keys to Finding Innovation Resources

Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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When you decide to change your routine, you need to be prepared to make do. That can include bending the random into something strategic and on message.

Thus, the photo of the monkey, the cow, and the pig.

Heading to Chicago last week for a first in-person strategy workshop with a new client, I didn’t bring toys. Part of it was saving space. Part of it was being cautious working with a new client on a second-chance engagement and not wanting to start on the wrong foot. Part of it was wedging too many trips and separate client engagements into a seven-day period and neglecting to put toys on my travel checklist.

Dining with our client contact the night before, she mentioned her promise to the company’s CEO that the 1/2-day workshop would involve fun strategic planning. I told her I hadn’t brought any toys along, but that I would visit a store on the walk back to my hotel and buy some toys.

I mean, anything for fun strategic planning!

Fun Strategic Planning and 3 Stuffed Toys

This commitment to our client took me to Walgreens on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I scoured the store for squeeze balls that the executives could safely throw at each other. Finding none, I bought these three stuffed toys, all of which originally had “I Love Chicago” shirts.

The next morning, as we set things up for the strategic planning workshop, I told the clients that each of the stuffed toys had a special purpose that they could call on to guide the workshop:

  • The monkey was for situations where I was moving quickly, and they wanted to spend more time. They could pick up (or throw) the monkey to signal the need to monkey around with ideas a little longer.
  • The bovine was for when we hit a sacred cow issue that needed to be challenged and not simply accepted as imperative.
  • The pig was for wildly innovative ideas that we should consider at future workshops, but were bogging down our progress since, at least right now, these ideas would only happen when pigs fly.

The moral of this little fun strategic planning story?

I didn’t have all those roles figured out when I bought the three stuffed animals. As I was shopping, it occurred to me that they should have some reason for being at the workshop. Using one of our core analogy-finding questions provided the basis to turn these random stuffed toys into a part of a strategic planning workshop.

Those connections were, in this case, part of turning a regular meeting into fun strategic planning. That’s what Brainzooming does! – Mike Brown

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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If memory serves me, I saw actress Sally Field say one time on Inside the Actor’s Studio that performers must be skilled at applying mental sandpaper to themselves to quickly trigger the necessary emotion for a role or scene.

For whatever reason, as someone who has never had any hint of the acting bug, her comment stuck with me. It is probably because the idea of being able to instantly reach something important that is difficult for most to do is at the heart of the structures Brainzooming uses. All the strategic thinking exercises we’ve developed are focused on helping non-strategists become adept at strategy with very little preparation. All we ask is that anyone bring his or her knowledge, expertise and an open mind.

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6 Ways to Help Experts Realize What They Know

I’ve been thinking about this idea of mental sandpaper relative to a talk I’m giving this week on transitioning a business to the next generation of Idea Magnets.

The key point involves how an organization can prevent a huge part of its intellectual capital walk out the door as baby boomers retire in the next decade. One of the challenges in this knowledge transfer is that experts often lose sight of unique knowledge they know that others do not grasp. Working to identify ways to make experts realize other people don’t know things that they know is where the idea of mental sandpaper has been at the forefront of my mind for months.

What are some forms of mental sandpaper in this situation?

  • Having to teach what you know to someone else
  • Creating a presentation about your knowledge
  • Demonstrating what you do
  • Reviewing another expert’s perspective on what you know
  • Having the expert note gaps when someone with less experience explains the information or process at which they are expert
  • Starting over from scratch on a process that the expert typically only tweaks (as when a computer file you really need gets zapped)

Those are just a few ideas. If you have an expert Idea Magnet walking out the door soon and need to capture what they know, stock up on these variations on mental sandpaper and get to work! – Mike Brown

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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I’m a stickler about the word leverage. I can’t stand it when people use leverage when they could just as well use use. Using leverage doesn’t make you sound like an Idea Magnet; it just makes you sound like a jargon fiend.

I’ll admit, though, that in the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about leverage. That ties to a conversation at a networking event with a serial investor. He told me that when he looks at businesses as possible investments, he ALWAYS looks for ones that have a leverage-related opportunity. For him, that means something is present in the business model allowing the brand to scale dramatically with disproportionately fewer resources – be they dollars, time, or something else.

6 Strategic Thinking Questions to Leverage Leverage

We most often apply a comparable version of this idea when working with clients that have started a lot of things and are wrestling with how all the things fit together. At that point, leverage looks like taking the best advantage of things that they can do once and use successfully, with little change or adaptation, many times over.

If you want to push a group to focus on these types of opportunities, here are ELSE-oriented strategic thinking questions that do the trick to get the thinking started:

  1. Who else can take advantage of this?
  2. What else can we (or someone else) do with this idea?
  3. Where else can we apply this concept?
  4. When else would this be relevant (or important)?
  5. Why else might this matter to someone?
  6. How else can we adapt and extend the advantage of this idea?

Running through this set of strategic thinking questions (along with whatever else you can think of) is a strong start to finding points of leverage and taking full advantage of them!  – Mike Brown

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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I was chatting with someone about what to do when someone asks you a question in a meeting. If you are fine with where everything is heading or you’re not sure what to ask, should you simply say you don’t have any questions?

That may seem like the natural answer.

I suggested another one: Go ahead and ask a great strategic thinking question.

It is always better to respond to a request for questions with a question versus saying you are completely set (whether you are or not) and have no need for more information.

In these situations, asking a positive, open-ended question:

  • Suggests that you’ve been listening very closely
  • Puts the attention back on the other person
  • Provides an opportunity for the other person to clarify

The next natural question in our conversation was about what types of strategic thinking questions to ask.

While I think there’s a Brainzooming blog post for this, it was almost faster to write a new, updated list of questions than to find the post. (That’s why having a book of Brainzooming creative leadership ideas all in one place will be so handy!)

21 Strategic Thinking Questions When You Have Nothing to Ask

via Shutterstick

Here are 21 updated strategic thinking questions with varied purposes you can use when someone asks you if you have any questions:

Create More Room to Elaborate

  • Can you talk about that more?
  • How will it work?
  • What is most intriguing to you about the idea?

Seek Additional Background

  • Is that a typical approach that you take?
  • What brought you to that conclusion?
  • What other ideas did you consider before arriving at that?

Explore Potential Impact

  • What are some upsides to this approach?
  • What types of impacts should / can we expect?
  • Did you look at this idea relative to others and their expected impacts?

Identify Opportunities

  • Are there other areas in which we can apply this?
  • What other initiatives could branch off from doing this?
  • What other initiatives could get new life when we introduce this initiative?

Identify Success Factors

  • What do we need to pave the way for success?
  • Who will need to be involved to make this successful?
  • Can we depend on existing capabilities or will we need new ones to make this work?

Understand Previous Experience

  • What does your experience tell you about how this will work in our situation?
  • How have you used this idea in other situations?
  • How does that differ from other things you’ve tried?

Push for More Innovation

  • Is that a new idea / approach?
  • What are other alternatives you considered (or are under consideration)?
  • How does this approach improve on what’s been done before?

Given all that, do you have any questions? – Mike Brown

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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