Bonfire Blogs #1

This is the second in my series of blogs on the ‘Bonfire with Soul’ course I did courtesy of Duke Stump and the Do Lectures late in 2020. This is about the first of the twelve principles that Duke shared and illustrated. Each principle was explored as a 15-minute video synopsis from Duke and then a 45-minute video of a call between Duke and an exemplar of that principle.

So, let’s get into some content; this time on making your product (whatever that happens to be) as good as it can be.

‘Product is a mirror into the soul’

Whoa! That is a strong title, and the kind of ‘business bulls**t language’ my wife tells me off for (which tells you a lot about me, her, and us). However, it is probably better put (especially for those who are a little intolerant of such speak) as:

“product is a reflection of your values, if you cut corners it says something about you.”

Duke Stump

Now that I can concur with. When we deliver a half-arsed product or service, we are showing that we either did not have the time, skill, motivation, or resource to do better or that we chose not to use it to do so. Either way, those who receive that product or service will make a judgement about our competence, attitude, or both. That in turn suggests that if people are going to make a judgement (and they will), if we care what that is (and we may depend on it for future business) we should think carefully about what we can do to influence that judgement. Time spent on getting it good at the first attempt may save us time later in returning business.

One of the big elements of Duke’s summation was the insistence that ‘a product’ is never just ‘the product’; it’s the whole process. It’s customers identifying that they have a need, it’s their search experience, it’s them spotting your marketing, it’s them deciding to buy, it’s their retail experience with you, it’s their after-sales experience, it’s how their networks respond to that new purchase of yours… and all the emotions that weave through all that: “Product is not a thing, it’s a relationship.”

That idea of product as relationship is critical to understanding repeat business and avoiding skyrocketing costs of sales by not encouraging loyalty amongst those you’ve sold to already.

For me, this sounded a lot like the Service-Dominant Logic that I’ve been picking up through teaching alongside service designers (kudos to Ann Padley for introducing me). A product in this ‘logic’ should be considered as part of a service; buying a drill (a product) is better considered as acquiring access to a service that provides holes on demand, and the product you buy is not just the drill but the brand, the retail experience (did the salesman make me feel like the DIY-incompetent that I am?), and the experience of using it and maintaining it.

“Product is every touchpoint”

Duke Stump

Your product is only as strong as the weakest link in that service-logic user-journey of touchpoints; if the drill is great but the brand or retail experience is horrible it damages the whole thing. If the post-sales experience is dreadful you won’t make another sale and you won’t get a referral to another customer. Get that surrounding user-journey right and you get more sales.

This pivot towards understanding products as both services and relationships provides two usefully beneficial thought-processes:

1 – It reminds us that if “the consumer decides” we need to focus on really understanding what our customer wants and needs from the whole experience so that we can “romance the product” (yes, more bulls**t business-speak, but we’ve established that I’m OK with that). You should never lose sight of checking back in with the customer to see what they made of it, rather than what you imagined they made of it.

2 – And it gives us more opportunities to innovate. We don’t need to be technically better than other offerings, our innovation might instead be the packaging, the retail experience, the brand associations, the after-sales care. There are lots of businesses that have made these issues the place where they distinguish their offer.

However, I’m not a perfectionist, never have been, never will be, and I struggle with detail sometimes when I’m keener to start-up the next idea rather than polish this one. A former boss once asked me “If I gave you more time Dave, would you do the same things better or would you do more things?” My instant reply? “More things.” I would always do more things. So, this idea of being really invested in the details, whilst it makes sense, is philosophically really tough for me. I get the value of doing things better but I sometimes lack the will to graft a little more rather than pitch another idea.

“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well”

Steve Wilson

The exemplar interview with Steve Wilson, founder of 21c Hotels, really rammed this home; I was awestruck with the attention to detail, care, and attention he brought to his work and everything he did. Duke shared an anecdote of Steve inviting him to visit, which came with a specially commissioned piece of art and tickets to the Kentucky Derby (Steve knew Duke loved horses) which showed a real commitment to the idea of inviting someone and wanting them to come. I found myself writing down ‘How do you find the time?!’ but I already knew the answer, because he has the same 24 hours a day that I do, so it’s actually a question of priority; do you choose to lavish the time on getting something to a higher standard or not? Steve does. But you have decide for yourself what ‘good enough’ is in terms of balancing how much you do, how good that is, and how good it needs to be in the judgement of stakeholders.

And I really don’t have an easy answer to that. What I did realise is that for many years I feel like I have struggled to emulate the scale of my early achievements with my later achievements. When I was a student I was involved with loads of projects and largely delivered them well – huge events, lots of groups and responsibilities, always loads of high-profile projects; and now I feel like I do less (although I suspect I’m under-emphasising how much of an achievement my family, marriage, day job tasks and general work-life admin is and how it would have overwhelmed younger Dave). I do wonder if the standard needed to be good at so many fundamentally amateur activities was just easier to deliver whilst now the required standard as a professional and a father is just that much higher.

However, Duke was at pains to stress that if the effort you make on your product is ‘the best effort’ you were able to make then even if the standard falls short of perfect you can still be proud, and your customers can make their judgement with that in mind. In fact, if they value authenticity and effort your scrappy attempt may be even more valuable than the slickest of products that nonetheless lacked the same conviction and effort. Some customers will always be more exacting than you are and they’ll seek out a ‘better’ product that fits their needs, some customers will always need less and regard some of your offering as unnecessary, but if you take the time to build that relationship, and invest your efforts in that in an authentic ‘best I can do’ manner you’ll get enough connection to make that judgement about where to position your standards and how to articulate them to others. Ultimately you should just aim to be proud of your efforts. On reflection I think I would benefit from trying to be a bit more diligent than I am by default, that’s a habit to work on – even if it’s just “good enough + 1” I could prototype that and see how it goes; will the cost of the time be outweighed by more positive outcomes? Watch this space.

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