Teach Everything You Know - Define

Company Of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business - Paul Jarvis 2019

Teach Everything You Know
Define

BRIAN CLARK STARTED OUT IN the mid-1990s as a practicing attorney, with a great job at a reputable law firm. The only problem was that he wanted to be a writer—and not just any writer, but a writer with full control over what he wrote and how his writing was published. And he wanted to use this new medium called the internet to do it.

So he quit his law job and began writing about pop culture, attempting to make money by selling ads and affiliated offers through his website. Unfortunately, these revenue streams didn’t bring in enough money to pay the bills. So Brian began to learn about marketing, mostly through the work of marketing guru Seth Godin, who was writing about building mailing list audiences and selling your own products instead of ads for other people’s products.

Brian took the next step. Since he still had his law degree and was running out of funds, Brian started a website that combined his love of writing with his experience practicing law. In law school, he had been taught that young lawyers need to get jobs at established firms because it’s the more senior lawyers in these firms who have the clients. Having decided that he wanted to find his own clients instead, Brian decided to do so by teaching people who wanted to learn from lawyers about legal issues. Freely sharing information with them on a weekly basis proved fruitful: because he was writing educational content, people trusted his expertise and then wanted to hire, not just any lawyer, but the person who was sharing the information they needed. Brian quickly built up a huge roster of people eager to hire him to solve their own legal issues.

However, Brian still didn’t want to practice law. Taking an interim step toward the business he now runs, he decided to focus on an industry that had both the money to pay well and a low starting point of knowledge about the internet: real estate. He took what he had learned about internet content marketing and sharing information with an audience and founded two very focused real estate brokerages. Within a year, he was making more money than he would have if he had become a partner in the first law firm he worked at.

The problem was that, amid this great success, Brian was burned out. Although he was excellent at marketing and online education, he was a terrible manager for his growing companies. His two brokerages required a lot of work because, having never documented the processes involved in running them, he ended up just doing most of the work himself. Then, in 2005, he had a catastrophic snowboarding accident that left him unable to work for several months. He used his convalescence as an opportunity to sell both brokerages, but since neither of the new owners knew what was involved in running them (and Brian’s lack of documentation certainly didn’t help), they both went under soon after.

Brian started CopyBlogger as a side business at first. He hadn’t saved enough money prior to his accident to go full-time with it, so he was doing a lot of consulting work just to pay the bills. But the internet was starting to notice how content, sharing, and education could come together as a legitimate form of marketing for any business. And so CopyBlogger, a business focused on teaching companies how to use content marketing, gradually began to thrive.

With his previous online real estate businesses, Brian learned that his competitive edge was in his ability to outshare his competition, and that’s what he did with CopyBlogger—he shared everything he knew about content marketing with a quickly growing audience. Brian believes that building an audience by sharing content with a growing mailing list is a solid business model, in that you can find out exactly what your growing audience wants from you and then build it for them. He learned from Seth Godin that selling to people who truly want to hear from you, because you’ve been sharing with them, is far more effective than interrupting strangers online who don’t even know you. Each year this idea was proven correct, as every product CopyBlogger launched was more and more successful. Each product was based on direct intel from interacting with and listening to the audience consuming the content that Brian was sharing. This “education through content” built the necessary trust to turn into sales.

Of course, the stereotypical model for selling is manipulation: pressuring potential customers until they give in and buy, like the proverbial pushy used-car salesperson. But great salespeople—from car dealers to real estate agents to B2B sellers—know sales increase when you honestly evaluate what someone needs and then teach them the value of what you’re selling. (If your product doesn’t fit their needs, you need to let them know that as well.) Sharing content and information is an effective way to begin a sales process because it helps a potential customer see what they need, why they need it, and then how your products can help solve their problem.

CopyBlogger, now renamed RainMaker Digital, has capitalized on this “share everything” mentality: it now does more than $12 million in annual revenue and has more than 200,000 customers buying content management software, online courses, and WordPress themes. The company’s success has flowed not from a commitment to achieving higher profits or more sales, but from focusing entirely on what its audience needs to learn and then teaching them that (through free articles and paid digital products). And obviously, the company has been rewarded for correct prioritization.

To stand out and build an audience as a company of one, you have to out-teach and outshare the competition, not outscale them. This approach has several positive outcomes.

The first is that creating a relationship with an audience that sees you as a teacher sets you up to be perceived as the domain expert on the subject matter. If you’re teaching an audience about legal issues on the internet each week in a newsletter, they’ll begin to trust your insights, and then, as happened with Brian, you’ll probably be the first person they think of when they need to hire someone to help them with legal issues.

The second benefit of out-teaching your competition is the chance to show an audience the benefits of what you’re selling. For example, if you’re selling a plug-in electric vehicle, teaching people the benefits of this type of vehicle—how much they’ll save by not buying gas each year, why and how it’s safer than a gas vehicle, the vehicle’s reduced environmental impact, and so on—shows them all the reasons they’d want to buy from you, without overtly selling to them. You’re simply giving them the information they need, in a genuine, compelling, and educational way, and letting them come to their own decision about whether such a purchase is right for them.

The third reason teaching works is that by educating new customers on how best to use your product or service and showing them how to get the most out of it or how to be the most successful with it, you also ensure that they’ll become long-term customers and tell others about their positive experience.

The final reason teaching works for a company of one is that, except for certain proprietary information—like your unexecuted ideas, business strategies, or patentable technologies—most ideas or processes don’t need to be kept under lock and key. Being transparent in almost all areas, while running your company aboveboard, can only help build trust with your customers.

IDEAS ALONE ARE WORTHLESS

How many people have you heard say something along the lines of “I had the idea for [Amazon, Zappos, Google] long before it existed—I should be rich!” But ideas aren’t a valid currency. Execution is the only valid currency in business.

To clarify, as this can feel like a fairly controversial point to make, an idea alone is worthless because it stands outside of execution. So, for example, the idea itself, that growth should be questioned, is something I’ve been sharing for years online, in my newsletter and podcasts and with anyone who’ll listen. Sharing the idea in a copyrighted book, however, is different. The purpose of the copyright is not to protect the idea (it’d be great if more people wrote about this subject, and I encourage that), but to protect the execution—the months of research and writing that went into formulating the specific words and flow of this book. Protecting intellectual property is important, but protecting general ideas is not, because if all you have is an idea, you’ve not done the work yet.

Sharing your ideas far and wide helps build not just a following for what you’re selling but a movement around the core values and thinking that your product stands for. Having even more books, research, and ideas flowing around the idea of questioning growth ultimately helps both this book and others like it.

The idea for UFC—a mixed martial arts organization—started in 1993, but those attempting to make it a reality almost went bankrupt, owing to rules and government opposition. In other words, the idea was there but the execution was not—so it was unprofitable. It wasn’t until two casino moguls became involved and had rule changes implemented that complied with government standards that UFC turned into a $1 billion business. The idea wasn’t enough on its own to make the UFC business thrive; it needed the right execution (and the right people involved to manage the execution).

At the core of many massive, profitable, global companies is an old idea executed exceptionally well. Facebook is just a better MySpace, and both are essentially digital meeting places. Taxis take people from point A to point B. Uber/Lyft just figured out how to make this service more convenient. None of these are billion-dollar ideas; rather, they’re billion-dollar executions of ideas. That’s why companies of one shouldn’t worry about sharing their ideas, as long as they’re taking care of execution and their ideas are not proprietary.

There are also very few completely new ideas. Most ideas just riff off existing companies, plans, ideas, or solutions. By focusing a lot of time and energy on protecting ideas instead of sharing them, you run the risk of not letting them get better through critical feedback from others. Even sharing your business idea with potential customers has its benefits, as they can weigh in early, before you’ve invested a lot of time or resources, and help you shape and position the idea into an even better execution.

THE DOWNSIDE OF SHARING IS . . . NOTHING

Jessica Abel is a comic book artist, writer, and teacher—both online and in the classroom at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she’s the illustration chair.

Teaching everything that she knows is baked into who she is as a person. Her very first website in the 1990s was about creating your own comic book, and she has continued to teach others since then. With her current focus on launching creative ideas, she shares all of her expertise. Sharing has helped her own business build trust with her audience, assuring them that she’s the person to come to for domain expertise.

As a classroom teacher, she knows that the first time she teaches a course can be a bit of a dog’s breakfast—she will definitely make the material work and explain concepts to her students, but as questions and misunderstandings arise from this first round of teaching, she gets a very clear idea of what needs to be rewritten or rethought in her syllabus. So by teaching in the classroom, she receives essential feedback to make what she’s teaching even stronger. In other words, she benefits just as much as her students do. She couldn’t offer students a great class without teaching it the first time and then learning from their feedback.

Customer education—providing an audience with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to become an informed buyer—is one of the most important parts of a sales cycle. Too often we’re so close to what we’re selling that we assume others are also experts on it, or know what we know, but most of the time that’s not the case. Customers don’t always know what they don’t know, or don’t know enough about something to realize how useful or beneficial that information could be to them or their own business.

Companies in the past have not always been eager to invest in customer education, as they haven’t seen clear or direct economic benefits from it. Conventional (but uninformed) wisdom has been that if you teach customers everything you know or share inside tricks of the trade, your customers will use that knowledge to not buy from you—or even worse, they’ll buy from the competition instead, armed with the knowledge they gained from you. But these fears are just myths. In fact, the opposite tends to happen, according to a study done by Andreas Eisingerich and Simon Bell at the MIT Sloan School of Business.

Eisingerich and Bell surveyed 1,200 clients of an investment firm and found that the more those clients were educated on the pros and cons of the financial products the investment firm offered, the more they trusted that firm, the more loyalty to the firm they developed, and the more appreciative they became of the firm’s customer service for taking the time to educate them.

The truth is that lots of companies use marketing ploys or disingenuous advertising to trick consumers into making a quick and sometimes impulsive decision. But these days, more and more consumers are demanding honest and straight information about products, so they can make their buying decisions at their own speed. By providing them with that kind of important knowledge, your company will form a strong link with customers, as you were the most helpful in their quest to learn before deciding.

Let me give you an example of how this works. Casper, a new breed of mattress company that’s focused entirely on direct sales and internet marketing (similar to Need/Want), uses sleep education to indirectly sell its product. In the past, people who wanted to buy a mattress would go to a mattress store and test out several mattresses by lying on them, then choosing the one that felt the most comfortable. Since Casper’s sales happen entirely online, the company decided to take a different, more education-focused approach, one that disrupts the traditional model for purchasing. Casper educates customers on why a solid night’s sleep is important with two publications, “Van Winkles” and “Pillow Talk,” which don’t overtly sell mattresses and aren’t littered with ads or purchase links. Rather, they convey everything Casper has learned about the science of sleep, which leads to greater consumer confidence in their brand. Combined with its superior-to-the-competition trial period—100 percent full refund if not satisfied—Casper has been gaining market share without growing into retail stores or wholesale operations.

A company of one would be smart to follow this new trend of educating customers. Sharing vital information on a product or a service provides a new customer with key insights into how to use it and get the most out of it; you may even show people ways to use what you sell that they hadn’t thought of. The lack of this kind of sharing can lead to customer frustration or distrust. They may even opt to buy a replacement product from someone else, all because they just didn’t know how to properly use what they bought from you.

So, by sharing information about your product, you can help your customers or clients see why your company, based on all the information you’ve shared, will indeed be their best choice—and you’ll be doing that without pushing that choice onto them.

Clearly, a major driver in all of this is the internet, which has democratized education. Businesses should take notice—customer education is the new form of marketing. Education makes a real difference between a product that people perfunctorily buy for utilitarian reasons and a product they are truly eager to purchase because it adds real purpose to their lives. As a company of one, what you teach people about your product can and will set you apart. So, for example, if you sell mailing list software, be sure to teach your clients about the importance of email marketing. If you sell sport bras, be sure to teach customers about fitness or the science of running. If you sell luggage, teach travel hacks.

TEACHING BUILDS AUTHORITY

If you’re a company of one, asserting the authority of your own domain expertise becomes paramount, as there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s just you.

When it comes to selling and marketing, consumers are easily tempted to go with a larger company, which seems “safer” simply because it has more people and infrastructure to support it. Authority is the countermeasure to this instinct, as you can assuage any concerns from customers by making them feel that you are an authority on what you’re selling. They’ll trust that you have not only the answers but the right answer, one that will help them in a way that the competition, however big, cannot.

In other words, what we’re talking about is creating an environment where customers respect and value your opinions because you’ve demonstrated consistent competency by educating them.

By building this type of authority, you can stand out in any industry because both your peers and customers turn to you for expertise, regardless of the size of your company. Word of mouth happens, Google links to you favorably, you’re invited to speaking gigs, and so on—all because your expertise is valued. But how do you build authority? And how does it work?

If you think of the leaders in your industry, you can see that those people have an image of authority—like Debbie Millman in the field of graphic design, or Elon Musk in the field of electric cars. We look to these people for answers, we learn from them, and if we’re part of the audience they’re teaching, we probably buy from them as well.

In business these days, it’s not enough to just tell people you’re an authority—you’ve got to demonstrate your actual expertise by sharing what you know and teaching others. You build authority not by propping yourself up, but by teaching your audience and customers—so that they truly learn, understand, and succeed. When you make that happen consistently, you’re building and establishing the right kind of authority.

Teaching your expertise positions you as an authority simply by virtue of the fact that you’re showing someone else how to do something. People can be guarded if they think they’re being sold to. But more often than not, customers will engage and open up if they feel like they’re learning something useful. The more you teach, the more your audience will see you as an expert. Then, when it comes time to buy something, they’ll find that they want to pay for more of that expertise. A study done in 2009 by neuroscientist Greg Berns at Emory University found that the decision-making centers of our brain slow down or shut off when we are receiving wanted advice from experts. Customers consistently rate experts as the most trusted spokespeople, far above typical CEOs or celebrities.

Basecamp has no internal goals or quotas around conversions or customer growth—its only mandate is to outshare and out-teach everyone else by writing books, speaking at conferences, and even hosting workshops at the Chicago office. These events, called “The Basecamp Way to Work,” share everything Basecamp has done to become a successful company, from internal communications to management organization. Nothing is held back or kept off the table. These $1,000 workshops sell out typically within minutes. Because of teaching what they know, and by showing others how they successfully run their company, they are the go-to experts for a tech company that isn’t hell-bent on growth.

The reason these kinds of experts stand out, regardless of which industry they’re in, is because they teach what they know. They share and give away their ideas freely. They don’t worry about whether someone will steal their innovation for a product, a service, or a book—they just work at executing and sharing ideas faster and better than anyone else, in their own unique style and with their own unique personality. And this approach leads to business success.

Teaching builds trust and expertise like nothing else for a company of one. When someone’s receptive to what you’re teaching, they inherently trust the information you’re sharing. If you can consistently give your audience useful, relevant, and timely knowledge (through your mailing list, speaking events, website, and so on), they’ll begin to lean on you for more information (which you can then charge for). Teaching also doesn’t require lots of time, resources, or even money—it can be as simple as sharing what you know with the people who are listening.

In sum, teach everything you know and don’t be afraid to give away your best ideas.

BEGIN TO THINK ABOUT:

· What you could begin to share with or teach your customers or audience

· How you could focus more on executing ideas than on protecting them

· What investments you could make in consumer education as a marketing channel

· What you could share that would position you or your company as an authority in a niche