I’ve always been obsessed with technology. Not just the products themselves, but the relentless march of improvement.
Because what the best product companies get that most service businesses don’t is that marketing is additive to a well-run, well-designed, well-strategized company.
Marketing cannot save a company, nor can it make one.
As Rosser Reeves once put it, advertising can’t “transmute lead into gold. We must start with gold.”
And yet, take a look at most service businesses in your city or your industry.
Every law firm, for example, seems to do the exact same thing, for the exact same people, as every other law firm. Industry competition is restricted to golf tournament sponsorships and bus ads.
Service business often act as if just hiring more sales people, buying more ads, providing more discounts, knocking on more doors, or sending more cold emails will help them finally break free of the low-margin, commodity hustle.
But that’s not how it works.
Complex adaptive systems like evolution and commerce select not for "fitness" or quality—that’s the bar for survival at all—but for distinctiveness.
As lots of service businesses discover, it turns out that you can “survive” for a long time without the market ever really selecting you. Without it ever really preferring you. And that usually doesn’t feel like succeeding, it usually feels like struggling.
Because the prize of market selection and preference doesn’t go to the singular “best.” It never has.
No, the prize of sustainable profit goes to the best of the most interesting. The best of the most specialized, most daring, most opinionated, most focused, or most convenient.
(Well, okay, there are actually two prizes: one goes to the most distinctive best, and the other prize goes to the cheapest best. But you probably aren’t aiming to be the cheapest.)
The problem is that there are no prizes for everyone in the middle.
Those service businesses will just keep burning ad money, new business reps, timesheet increments, and energy until they simply burn out.
But think about how big product companies succeed. The first Apple Watch that came out in 2015 wasn’t very good. Okay, it was good for a smartwatch, but it wasn’t, like, good good. Calling it the “best” smartwatch at the time was the faintest of praise.
But it was pretty dang interesting. It was fun to play with. If you got one early on, people asked you about it.
Now, the Apple Watch is, supposedly (I don’t have one), actually great. They got a dang dive computer and satellite phone on the new one!
Consequently, they control a third of all smartwatch sales, and Apple sells more watches in a year than the entire Swiss watch industry put together.
But if the owner of your run-of-the-mill service company was suddenly in charge of Apple after the Watch launch, I get the feeling they’d just hire more sales people. They’d buy some leads from a dodgy referral service. They’d sponsor more fundraisers, or attend more industry dinners.
They’d do anything but make the actual thing they’re selling a better fit for its target market. More specialized for what it’s best at, and less focused on where it will never be great.
Apple doubled down on the features people liked, fixed the ones they didn’t, and kept working on it until it worked. And they also spent a fortune on advertising, sponsorships, influencers, and partnerships.
Not one or the other—both.
The trick to being selected by the market is simple. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
You’ve got to approach your business like it’s a product and get ruthlessly clear on what’s working and what isn’t. Get rid of what people don’t care about, and focus on what they care about most of all.
Be guided, not by what you imagined your service business to be, but by the problem you’re most inspired to solve.
In a 1990 interview with Apple founder Steve Jobs, there is this wonderful moment where he says,
“I remember reading an article when I was about 12 years old, where they measured the efficiency of locomotion for all these species on planet Earth. How many kilocalories did they expend to get to Point A to Point B?
The condor won. It came in at the top of the list, and surpassed everything else.
Humans came in about a third of the way down the list. Which was not such a great showing for the ‘crown of creation.’
But somebody had the imagination to test the efficiency of a human riding a bicycle. A human riding a bicycle blew away the condor, way off the top of the list.
And it made a really big impression on me—that we humans are tool builders. And that we can fashion tools that amplify these inherent abilities we have to spectacular magnitudes.
And so, for me, a computer has always been a bicycle of the mind.
Something that takes us far beyond our inherent abilities.”
That’s the kind of thinking that product companies succeed from—caring, not about the tool itself, but about what the tool enables.
When Jobs returned to Apple after his famous ouster, he centralized the company onto a single P&L. Why? So that individual department leaders would stop being territorial for their product lines at the expense of the company as a whole.
That’s some pretty revolutionary thinking a lot of service businesses could also benefit from.
Because it’s not about the individual service, the individual product, or the individual tool—it’s about what the tool, or your service business—makes possible for your customers.
If you’re a web developer, you’re not selling code. I can get that practically for free from an AI or an outsourced remote partner. What you’re actually selling might be confidence that my website will perform the way my customers expect, or pride in what I do, or reliability in what I’m building. But not code, for goodness’ sake.
If you’re a bookkeeper, you’re not selling quality bookkeeping services. I can get that at the mall down the street. No, you might be selling confidence that my books aren’t all messed up, and the feeling that at least one thing in my life or business is under control.
Which means the job isn’t to sell me on the quality of your bookkeeping or your code, it’s to sell me on why you’re the bookkeeping or development shop for the job.
What makes you extra credible to me?
For some clients, that’s letters after your name or a fancy certification. For someone else, that’s a cool vibe and an easy going manner. For someone else, that’s crisp professionalism and traditional values. For someone else, that’s plain language and clear explanations. For someone else, it’s the ability to completely offload a nagging problem from their mind.
Whatever your best clients love most about what your company does best for them, that’s the thing to focus on.
That’s the unique and distinctive way your company is best able to serve its market.
So, for Apple, if the initial guiding principle was to be the “bicycle of the mind,” the direction of the business and its marketing gets so much simpler: They had to constantly improve, iterate upon, and develop new technologies that make a more efficient “bicycle.”
First, it was fixed to your desk. Eventually, you could start carrying it around with you in a bag. Then, it could fit in your pocket. Now, it’s on the wrist. Soon, you might wear it like a pair of glasses.
And they had to demonstrate (not just talk about) why their best customers would prefer them over the alternatives. That’s where we get their focus on privacy, ease of use, and interoperability. That’s where we get “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC.” That’s where we get “What’s a computer?”
But as any fan of Apple’s competitors will remember to tell you, what Apple clearly doesn’t care about is making their products cheaper.
And they’re right! Because their best customers are happy to pay basically anything to get what they can’t get anywhere else.
(It must be noted here that many Apple fans, though, will tell you they’re pretty upset with the company these days, as they’ve been increasingly demonstrating behaviors in conflict with their stated values)
For Apple, being the bicycle of the mind that just works, and which seamlessly integrates into all your other activities, is a pretty good spot to be in.
So, what spot do you want to be in?
- What problem are you actually solving?
- How do you solve that problem?
- Most distinctively for your best clients?
Example time, using my business:
The problem we solve: Business owners don’t know what to say about their business—or how to say it—to get the right people to profitably value their products or services
Our solution: We provide the best marketing strategy development and operationalization for business owners
What makes us distinct: We personalize the marketing strategy to make sure the business owner is equipped and excited to make it work, and we provide the joyful structure they rely on to keep working at it until it works (because nothing else does)
Is this the final iteration of our business? Certainly not—I consider us on version 6.0 of a never-ending release schedule—but it’s a far stretch from where we started.
In version 1.0, we were selling a bit of marketing here and there to everybody at bargain prices, and feeling awfully tired and frustrated most the time.
But people who want what we provide now, though, really value it. Because it addresses their problem in a way that’s best for them. And in a way nobody else does, or even can.
Because you can’t actually be the best for everyone.
You can only be good enough, and that’s not good enough to profitably thrive.
To do that, you’ve got to be special.
Like a bicycle for the mind.