Ever toured on a cruise ship? The kind of tour with calm, crystal waters and blue sky as far as the eye can see… peppy Julie McCoy look-alikes minding the Lido deck… sultry bikini-clad bathing beauties…the sticky, sweet scent of suntan oil wavering through the air… warm licks of yellow sun splashing across your face… while you languidly pass your time until you arrive at the next island port? By the way, I'm breaking into your Corporate Internet security system as you read this.
Bet I just got you to island-hop.
Small businesses have perfected the art of island-hopping: packing light, living low and swiftly changing direction based on needs, news and impending threats.
Big businesses can get mired in hierarchy and politics long before they can muster switching gears. In today's unpredictable world, big businesses can no longer afford to shelter the steadfast and specialists. Big businesses and their employees must learn to island-hop to remain competitive.
Here are six small business island-hopping skills to serve as inspiration for big business leaders.
1. On a small remote island—you're CEO, COO, CMO, and janitor
Long ago and far away, big business attempted to de-institutionalize island-hopping to preserve efficiency and contain costs. Big business hired specialists adept in one area and organizationally separated them into specific departments, brand teams, finance and operations. Although these teams often met together to present strategies and craft plans, there was never full integration or appreciation of one another's work.
True, many big businesses require cross-functional stints. P&G and Coke require finance teams to assume a brand role prior to promotion and brand teams to experience a field sales assignment, respectively. But short stints cannot flatten silos. Functional silos inhibit big business.
In a small business, management infrastructure washes out with high tide. A small business owner must lead operations, marketing, finance, investor relations, customer relations… as well as floor mopping. This makes small businesses nimble. More importantly, it ensures that small business teams collaborate, identify and eliminate bottlenecks and respond to surprises. The result: reduced transaction costs.
Although it would require an ongoing, disciplined commitment by executive leadership teams, big business could eliminate cross-functional silos with a redefined organizational architecture. A good first step would be to align staff roles to what customers need and to link cross-functional systems and processes. Let employees figure out what they're good at and shape what their roles should be.
And let everyone hail big business powerhouse SEI Investments—a financial services firm in Pennsylvania without walls, secretaries, or a Human Resources department—as a model of the new economy.
2. Stumble across hidden treasure (a.k.a., unplanned brands and innovation)
While at General Mills, Coke and P&G, I was befuddled by how long it took to activate programs or launch new initiatives. The annual planning process, while thorough and strategic, often precluded a brand from considering a delayed-arrival promotion or sponsorship opportunity. By the time a brand manager garnered internal support for a new idea—with security checkpoints all the way to CMO—system lag time often diminished the innovation's value.
Legend has it that Cool from Nestea (now the #2 brand in the iced tea category) originated not from brand management but from bottlers, who craftily decided to add preservatives to regular Nestea and package the product in cans without first seeking executive approval. Bottlers put the brand on the map. Brand management later had to concede the brand's success and create consumer taglines and promotion to support it at retail.
Microsoft's CEO even recently conceded in a Fast Company article, “Our people complain that we move more slowly than we used to.”
Small business can be flexible with regard to product offerings and market trends. The ability to change direction and respond to a changing environment is advantageous. No product launch origin documents or tedious division reviews, no exhaustive quantitative research or BASES studies, no test market pilots. While there is risk with rush-to-market first-generation errors, second-generation product renovation can fix many first-generation flaws.
Flexibility has been the key to survival for Chicago's Method Engine, a B2B Web-based applications design company. Method Engine has nearly doubled sales every year by adapting to changing client technology needs, plugging into and collaborating with client in-house tech development teams and overcoming internal personnel changes.
Innovation sprouts when and where it is least expected. When you find it, hop to the opportunity. Big business can speed new product innovation cycles by simplifying execution, eliminating unnecessary paperwork and Checkpoint Charlie requirements and fostering entrepreneurial spirit. Big business should establish slush funds to be flexible for late-in-the-game opportunities. Must haves for big business island-hopping: sneakers for speed, compass for change.
3. Castaway, Tom Hanks and the volleyball—have passion, conviction and creativity
Notice how the average entrepreneur is passionate, focused to the point of being a little obsessed, able to leap tirelessly from project to project and eccentric? Conviction combined with passion and discipline results in extraordinary creativity and productivity. The Tom Hanks Castaway character built a raft by hand, weathered several storms and managed to get rescued—all the while having heartfelt conversations with a volleyball.
There is something to be said about fanatically pursuing your company's mission. Island-hopping is all about how you get from here to there. Staying focused and just a little crazy makes the journey that much more fun. Tom Asacker, Founder of Sandbox Wisdom, is an example of the larger-than-life small business entrepreneur.
Ever see a big business employee with that wild gleam in their eye? Not often. Most have lost their zeal and inspiration. They measure results and watch the bottom line. But their heart may not be in it.
How do you instill this spirit in big business employees? Give them freedom and the resources they need, then let them go. Reward them for thinking differently. Appreciate diversity and accommodate “eccentric” inventors who don't fit your corporate culture but may contribute more than fast-track Mr. Smith (schmoozer and company poster boy) or reliable John Doe (20-year veteran of plug-and-chug, churned-out standardized reports).
4. Punch, lunch, and piña coladas—tap the power of networking
As in all small island settings, island natives can be helpful guides. You have to quickly learn their cultural norms, share in their rituals and work together to get things done. You make time for socializing.
In big business, networking is typically limited to “networking up” or “networking over.” “Networking up” results in political power and promotion. “Networking over” results in perceived power and influence among peers. Often, big business fails to network altogether—with middle management struggling to juggle heavy workloads as a result of the new consolidate-headcount economy. Hats off to up-and-coming big businesses like Whole Foods Market that offer employees time for networking, board leadership positions and volunteerism.
Small business owners are powerful networkers. Social relationships offer entrepreneurs information, business resources and support. Small business owners need to employ all their negotiation, persuasive and political skills to encourage people to share valuable resources. Susan Walters-Flood, president of Nu-World Amaranth, belongs to multiple special interest networking organizations in addition to coordinating her daughter's playgroups.
Smart small business owners network in five areas:
- Clients: Meeting with previous clients can generate new clients and strengthen customer service.
- Competitors: Share ideas and referrals, as long as you establish your unique niche up front.
- Suppliers: A coffee and a smile can result in just-in-time supply management and discount rates.
- The Business Community: Chambers of Commerce, associations, clubs… all are potential avenues for garnering business leads.
- Internal Staff: Inspiring teams means Friday baseball games and long lunches.
Big business should encourage networking among their employees as a cost-efficient business-building strategy.
5. What would you do for a Klondike Bar?
Scarcity increases demand and perceived value. When something is in surplus—say, Klondike Bars on the mainland—you don't deem it very special. But on an island, that Klondike Bar may dance like sugarplums in your head after noshing on native food. By building a business model that limits supply and aims to exclude people, you can achieve phenomenal results.
By virtue of size alone, it is often difficult for big business to feign “hard to get.” It is not impossible. The American Express Black Card is a smart big business example of marketing exclusivity and constraining supply to leverage demand. Another—Frito-Lay's hard-to-find Tostitos Gold Chips.
Small businesses have an advantage in being elusive. Many customers no longer trust corporate conglomerates with shop-in-the-box locations on every street corner. They actively hunt for the hidden gem or quirky but authentic business with a few select locations. Consumers take pride in discovering the next best thing before anyone else beats them to the punch. With limited distribution and availability, small business brands can unintentionally become the “un-gettable get.” Silver bullet small brands—Kate Spade, the Razor Scooter, Juicy Couture—can become instant classics.
Big business can generate hot and heavy consumer pursuit by producing a limited product supply and restricting distribution. Be unforgettable and un-gettable.
6. Survive on coconuts, rainwater and hope
When you island-hop, you travel light, live low, and pray you miss hurricane season. If all else fails, you can survive on coconuts, rainwater and sunshine rays of hope.
The M.O. of big business—big budget, high profile mass marketing, traditional advertising and one-to-one customer relationship marketing—is dead. My respects to Seth Godin, but I wish he would quit exhuming the grave in his blog. Clutter, consumer disinterest, and splintering of media have dramatically changed the marketing landscape. Big business dabbles in next-generation buzz marketing with product placement, even fortune cookie ads. The problem: even the most innovative big business buzz marketing ideas come across as meaningless hyperbole—worse yet, insincere.
Small businesses learn to live with less on shoestring budgets en route to exponential growth. Small businesses are like the Professor from Gilligan's Island; they can craft a radio out of a coconut. Tight times call for “little billboards” — informative, well targeted product packaging…kitschy catalogs, websites, and brochures…epicenter retail counters.
“Grassroots marketing” and “buzz marketing” emerged from the small business community. Hotmail is a former small brand that built a stellar reputation on pennies and buzz. 1154 Lill Studio, originally a home-based studio hosting private parties and open houses, garnered national attention and distribution for its custom-made, girly-vibe handbags.
Small business marketing evokes consumer trust because it is disarmingly imperfect, bootstrapped, and genuine. Simple advertising without the glitz of a celebrity spokesperson or grandiose claims can be incredibly motivating. Consumers are hungry for daily doses of reality.
According to Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center Director Michael Fields, “Small businesses have an around-the-clock, client-centric mentality with a deep understanding of financial management. Big businesses that can maintain this focus are likely to experience continued growth.”
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In the face of mass media noise and unabashed marketing promotion, I often advise clients to pursue “reverse-hype.” I didn't coin the term—my personal hero, Harry Beckwith, did—but I believe strongly that brands that say very little but say it well are far better than those that say too much. If big businesses want to proffer authentic and trustworthy brands—those that consumers will believe in and evangelize—they might try doing more with less, forcing marketing teams to think small and simplifying their messages and mediums.
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