Focus with the Ladder of Desire

Ladder rising from darkness into a brightly lit openingLike it or not, we’re all human (except for the spiders, of course). You are, your customers are, and I am. As humans, we’re not entirely clear on what we’re trying to achieve, or even if we are, we often don’t articulate it very well. Whether you’re not entirely sure what your clients want, or what you want, I may have an idea to help you bring more of these things into focus: the Ladder of Desire. I’ll first cover the idea itself, then get into how it can help you understand and better serve your customers, and to clarify your own needs.

If you’re confused about the spiders reference above, I recently talked about the “spiders” that crawl the Web in my newsletter.  Subscribe to get a monthly tech term defined, tips for improving your online marketing, and more!

The Ladder of Desire–An Overview

I was reminded of this idea while reviewing notes I took in a workshop a while back. The Ladder of Desire divides the strength and type of desire a person has for something into three broad categories. As you go up the ladder, the intensity of desire increases. Similarly, both the price tag and the involvement of others also increase.

Rung 1: Lowest desire for help/product/service, lowest cost, and lowest involvement for a supplier, consultant, expert, or other person who might be brought in for help. This is the “tell me how to do it” level. If you want a chocolate cake, Rung 1 would be represented by a cake recipe. It’s cheap, requires very little effort from someone else, and depending on your personality, motivation, and skill level, least likely to actually result in a chocolate cake that you can enjoy.

Rung 2: Step up a rung for a medium level of desire, cost, and involvement. This is the “show me how to do it,” or “do it with me” level. When a potential client says to me, “I could use a little hand holding,” I know they fall in this category. With our cake example, this would be a baking class. It’s more expensive than a recipe, and the baker or pastry chef needs to expend more time and effort than they would if they just handed you a recipe card, but most of us would be more likely to achieve a delicious chocolate cake afterward.

Rung 3: The top rung is where everything is cranked up to the highest level. Here’s where people say, “I’m willing to pay for you to do it for me.” If you’re married, did you take a baking class to learn how to make your own wedding cake?  Probably not. Instead, most people pay a lot of money for a skilled professional to take care of it for them so that they just go directly to the goal without worry or mishap.

Here’s where human nature gets funny, though. Lots of people are torn between valuing their money and valuing their time, between wanting the skill and wanting the result of the skill. In my own family, a story often told of my uncle was that as a child he’d complain that he wanted to be a great pianist but without practicing. And this is where the goal setting gets confused, and why the Ladder of Desire helps.

Serving Your Clients with the Ladder of Desire

It is a rare client who comes in knowing, and able to express, precisely what they want from you. Usually there’s some shopping around, or exploration, or asking questions. See if you can estimate which rung they’re on, first, because that is going to help guide the conversation.

For example, I used to work in a tea shop. Some customers were at a low level of desire. Maybe this was their first time into a tea shop at all, or they’d heard tea was good for you or something and wanted to look into it. I’d usually give those people our one-page price list of our most popular teas, including descriptions of each.  But some had specific questions about brewing tea (“What’s the difference between a teapot and tea kettle?” or “How do you use a gaiwan?”), so I would do a little demonstration. Customers could “try out” teapots to see how they felt to pour, whether they dripped, and so on. That’s a Rung 2 sort of activity. And, of course, we put on occasional immservie experiences like tea dinners–where the food is prepared with tea, and other teas are paired with the dishes. Or professional-level tea tastings. These were high-ticket items because they required the most from us as a shop, and only the die-hard tea aficionados (that is, Rung 3) would sign up.

The usefulness of the ladder doesn’t end there, however. In addition to helping identify what a customer might be most likely to purchase, you can also use the ladder to create new products or services. Are you serving each level of the ladder equally well? Are you pricing them accordingly?

Finally, you can also use the ladder as a way to draw people in. People who have engaged with you at Rung 1 are warm leads for Rung 2. After all, if they have your instruction sheet, or recipe, or price list, they have expressed interest in your offering. That’s warmer than random people off the street. Can you find a way to get those people to “buy up the ladder”? Perhaps they’re at a lower rung than they really should be, and the right conversation or the right offer will help them understand that they should be higher up…meaning both that they are better served and you’re increasing revenue.

Understanding Your Own Goals with the Ladder

Your busisiness is also someone else’s customer. So are you in your non-business roles. All of your vendors, suppliers, shops, restaurants, and other folks you do business with see you as a customer, but they may not be thinking with the Ladder of Desire. However, they’re going to love it if you’ve already done so.

When I worked at the Washington Women’s Business Center, we’d often tell people that every business owner should identify an accountant, a lawyer, and an insurance broker that they’d like to work with. (Now, I’d add a digital strategist because the Internet is so important to businesses these days, but as a digital strategist myself, I’m a bit biased.) Let’s say your business is fairly new and you’re still looking for an accountant. What’s your desire level? Are you looking for a book or software recommendation so that you can take care of everything on your own (Rung 1)? Do you want to take a Quickbooks class so that someone can answer your questions as you learn how to use the software package (Rung2)? Or do you want someone to just take all your numbers, put them in, and file your taxes for you (Rung 3)?

What do you really want? Going into a conversation with an accountant knowing that information will be so much more productive.

If you find a conflict in your desires, that can be useful as well. What if you want the Rung 3 work, but can probably only afford the Rung 2 level of service? That’s something you can articulate more clearly now! “I’d really love to have someone who can do all of this for me, but I’m just not there financially yet. How would you suggest I prioritize the services you offer? How have your other clients dealt with this situation? If I can only pay for you to guide me on a few things, what’s going to give me the most bang for my buck?”

Put It Into Action

Here’s your assignment: Go out into the world this week. Whenever you’re in a place where you can watch people doing commerce of any kind, from the grocery store to your own business, try to keep the Ladder of Desire in mind. See if you can develop a “sixth sense” for which rung someone is on. When you’re looking at advertising or marketing–yours or someone else’s–identify which rung is being offered. Is this “tell me how,” “show me how,” or “do it for me”? Raise your awareness and see how it can help you see things differently, be more clear of what you want, and what you might be able to offer your customers.

Image:  Alcove house entrance, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA, by Wingchi Poon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

Ardea Hallowe’en Visitor Analysis 2015

Data & Trends

Trick-or-treet (ToT) visitors by hour for the most recent season by hour, with previous 4 years for context and year-over-year comparison:


Costumed visitors for competitor businesses:

  • Observation 1: 5
  • Observation 2: 2
  • Observation 3: 13
  • Observation 4: 6


What Does It Mean?

This year’s event lands squarely within the first standard deviation of the last five years. Of course, it comes nowhere near the numbers of 10 years ago (e.g., 2004: 52 visitors), but a new lower pattern has been established. Relevant features include:

  • No visitors prior to 6pm; earlier periods averaged 0.8 visitors before 6:00.
  • Continuation of pattern of no visitors after 9pm.
  • Establishment of a later peak time. Most visitors during 7:00 hour; a decade ago 73% of visitors arrived during the 6:00 hour.

The new dynamic can be traced back to the launch of competitor events such as this year’s Hunger Goblin Trick Or Treat, and Halloween on Holman. Increased competition from small business core areas in the neighborhood is meeting a majority of, but not all, demand.

What Should We Do?

Recommendation 1: A/B Test Better Candy
Competitor businesses were giving “fun size” and “bite size” selections of consumer-grade product. Test larger and higher quality options, using capturing at least metrics of visitor satisfaction rating and active word of mouth referrals (via exit survey question) as well as increased returning visitor percentage.

Recommendation 2: Reduce Hours
Given the reduced hours of visitors, focus on peak periods by only turning on the porch light between 6:00pm and 9:00pm. This reduces costs associated with Halloween overhead.

Additional Information

Costumed visitor metric based on photographic data taken between approximately 2:25 and 2:30pm on 31 Oct 2015 on the corner of the major intersection serving a main commercial street for the neighborhood. Costumes counted if waiting to cross or actively crossing the street.

An additional benefit to Recommendation 1 may also solve the identified problem of “too much damned candy left over.” While purchasing statistically-appropriate amounts is a direct way to address the problem, higher quality remainder product may result in a reduced perception of the leftovers as a problem in the first place…an indirect solution to be sure, but one to keep in mind during strategic planning for next year’s event.

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Analysis & Testing

5 Reasons You Need Clear Business Goals and 4 Elements To Setting One

You Need Clear Business Goals

You’ve heard it before: you need to set goals.  Not just personal ones, and not wishy-washy hope-filled ones, but clear business goals.  But do you actually do it?  Really?  Specific and measurable ones like they say lead to success?  I thought not.  So I put together a list of things you can’t actually do until you’ve addressed that omission.

Vader Finds Your Lack of Clear Business Goals Disturbing

Without Clear Business Goals…

1. You can’t be strategic. Strategy is the selection of the best tactics to get you where you want to go. If you don’t know where that is, there’s no way to determine the best path. To use an analogy, if you’re going to take a road trip, you can’t choose if you should start heading north, south, east, or west until you know what destination you’re aiming for.

2. You can’t measure success. I worked with an organization to put on an event once, and we set a goal of getting 3,000 people to it. We got more like 1,000. Some on the planning committee considered it a great success because the 1,000 people that came had a good time. But we failed to meet the goal of getting 3,000 and “having a good time” wasn’t one of the criteria we’d set…nor even one that we measured other than by “gut feeling.”

3. Choices become harder. This is a direct result of the first two. If you don’t have a strategy, and you don’t know what or how to measure success, there is almost no way for you to be smart about eliminating options. Everything possible is always on the table, and there are no criteria for you to narrow them down. That leads a lot of people to just choose things at random, or whatever seems comfortable and familiar…neither of which is likely to be the most effective thing to do.

4. Necessary skills remain undetermined. Again, following on the previous, choices made more or less at random mean you’ll be running into needed skills that you may or may not have. This issue also echoes back up the chain as well. You might be more likely to pick an approach that you think you can do, even if you’re not great at it. Or even if it’s not the most efficient way to get the job done. That can pull you away from success because you start thinking that you can measure this thing, that must be what determines your success, which is a path that pulls you away from any chance of a good strategy. It just entrenches the lack of strategy. But what if hiring an employee, or a contractor, to do something different is the best way forward? There’s no way of knowing without a goal.

5. Automation is impossible. With a goal, you can find things that increase the chances of success and turn that into a systematic practice, a procedure, company policy, or part of the organization’s culture. That kind of continuous improvement and refinement of your practices simply can’t be done because different practices may support different possible goals. The goal brings coherence to the practices you systematize and try to make automatic.

What makes a good goal? Within the context of a small business, “more sales” won’t do. It’s not enough. Sure, it’s easily measurable, but it’s a given. Every business in existence wants more sales. It’s not specific enough to help you be strategic, make choices more easily, and determine what skills you need to carry out a plan.

Consider These Elements When Setting Your Clear Business Goals

1. Who? Often people create goals that are entirely self-centered. “I want to make more sales” is one of those. But working in a specific group of people helps with all of the reasons for having a goal. Compare the selfish example with, “I want to increase the number of women-owned businesses I serve.” Suddenly, I can set aside any options that are unlikely to bring me into contact with women entrepreneurs. That makes me more strategic. I can measure a ratio of female vs. male owned companies. I could choose social media sites based on popularity among women rather than focus on other demographic traits like age or geography or income (unless those are important to the business goal as well).

2. Where’s the Leverage Point? In many (most?) situations, there is a leverage point that may be different than the ultimate goal. That can be the low-hanging fruit, or the bottleneck in a process. Thinking of where you might get the most leverage when setting a goal helps you to step back from “this is what I want” and instead seeing your business more objectively, from the outside. It’s what E-Myth Revisited author Michael Gerber calls working ON the business, not working IN it; or what Sam Carpenter calls the “outside and slightly elevated” perspective in Work the System. If you’re outside looking in, you can more easily see these choke points and set goals that have a higher potential payoff.

3. What Threshold? One of the problems with “more sales” as a goal is that it cannot ever be achieved. Having one or more threshold in your goal gets you off the treadmill of more, more, more. It can focus your mind and your efforts on getting to a new and better point, where you can reassess. I mentioned the event goal earlier of 3,000 attendees. That’s a single-threshold goal. You might also have a dual-threshold goal. That might be where you say, “To be considered a success and done again next season, this project needs to bring in 100 new customers. It will be considered a failure and immediately scrapped, no looking back, if it brings in fewer than 50. In between the two is acceptable, but needs to be reviewed for possible improvements.” Notice that the threshold here effectively pre-decides what will be done, and measures success, simultaneously.

4. What Values/Philosophy? The late Marshall Rosenberg liked to say that punishment appeared to be effective only if you asked what kind of behavior you wanted from others, but didn’t look so great if you also asked the question, “Why do you want them to act that way?” In other words, you want people to take action because they want to, not because fear or circumstance or some other external factor forces the choice on them. To apply this to business, sketchy marketing practices might increase your sales in the short term–because you’ve tricked people into buying a product they don’t really want (or think they’re getting something else)–but is that why you want them to buy?

Take Action!

Did I stutter?  Set some clear business goals!  You’ve got the tools–set some great goals that help you be more effective in the future.  If you run into problems, or have an insight or success, leave it in the comments below.

Pre-Meme Image By William Tung from USA (SWCA – Darth Vader!) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, modified and memeified by Ardea Coaching.

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  1 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning

A ‘Start Up’ Tragedy

I recently discovered a new show that I’m really enjoying. Well, new to me–the show is in its third season. It’s called Start Up.  Host Gary Bredow travels the United States talking to the owners of various start up companies. It’s also a bit ‘meta’ because the show itself is one of the first products of Bredow’s own start up company. The businesses he visits all seem to be in the first couple of years of being open, having achieved at least a moderate level of attention and success, but not necessarily far enough in that they’re operating reliably at a profit.

The companies are in a wide range of industries as well. The episode I watched last week included an aerial dance/circus arts studio, and an the makers of a electronics-filled teddy bears that teach diabetic children how to manage their health. Bredow features two businesses per 30-minute episode, interviewing the owners about their challenges, their process in getting started, how they financed the start up, where their ideas came from, and more.

Having been a business couneslor for a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration for several years, I can say that their stories seem pretty typical, though very much weighted toward the success end of the spectrum. (It wouldn’t make very good TV to have a series in which 60-75% of the featured business owners talk about how their great idea sputtered and unceremoniously died because of poor preparation or lack of demand.) But the variety of where ideas come from, how money gets scraped together, and what kinds of unexpected pitfalls crop up along the way are all very familiar.

The show also drops in a few pieces where one business expert or another gives some tips or perspective related to the start up process.  And each profile ends with Bredow summarizing the interview in a pun-filled wrap up.

I have been enjoying it, but I knew I had to put up a brief piece about the show here on the blog when he asked Dori Ross, a maple-products maker in Vermont, “Social media–how has that impacted your business?” She tells him that she’s on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, and that she has two blogs. That’s all fine (though it’s a lot to do well). But then she stabbed me through the heart. She said, “And I don’t know if it works.”

It’s tragic, but it’s common. People hear that social media, or a blog, is this powerful thing that you can do for your business. They jump in. They do a ton of work to try and figure out how to work these new tools. They post pictures. They comment, and share. They write articles. And they never look to see if it’s actually helping them. It’s just blind faith that this stuff works, and in many cases it doesn’t.

I would bet that Dori could probably drop half the social media or blogging work that she’s doing. I don’t know that for certain, or which things she could drop, because I’m not privy to her data. Heck, I don’t even know if she’s collecting data.

Digital strategy is, in large part, determining what doesn’t work and dropping it. It’s choosing to not do things that are less effective so that you have more time and effort to do well the things that do work.

I beg of you, talk to me if Dori’s story sounds familiar. It is absolutely possible to figure this kind of thing out. It’s possible to figure out which social media sites send you the most traffic. Or send you the most buyers. (It’s not uncommon for visitor volume and most likely buyers to come from different places.) Let me help you figure out a few things you can drop from your To Do list. Because I can almost guarantee you’re doing things that don’t contribute to your success.

Or if you’re not doing much of anything online, maybe it’s time to add one highly targeted thing to your list.  I could help you figure that out, too.

If you’d like to watch Start Up, they have a utility on their website to look up the TV schedule in your area.


Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Analysis & Testing

A Fun Way to Get A Discount

I’ll admit it. Sometimes marketing is boring. And really, I don’t like doing it much. However, it’s something that every business owner needs to take care of, so I thought, why not do something a little fun and out of the ordinary?

Therefore, I’ve set aside several (I’m not saying how many) sessions of my one-on-one strategy planning sessions for a special price. Usually, it’s $500 for me to spend half a day asking you questions about the details of your business and then producing a high-level integrated strategy for your online marketing. These special sessions will be offered for half price–only $250 for 4-hours dedicated to your business success.

How do you get one? Well, that’s where the fun part comes in. During the last week of September, I’m “hiding” various coupon codes around the Internet (and maybe a few offline places as well). So it’s a little like a scavenger hunt.

Each code is a unique or unusual English word, so this is a little like Scrabble or maybe a crossword puzzle.

And finally, each one will only “work” for the first person who redeems it, making it a little like a lottery ticket.

How to play:
1) Find one of these words. They’ll be labeled clearly so you’ll know when you see one.

2) Go to and fill in the form at the bottom of the page, putting the word you found in the “Coupon Code” field. (There’s also more info on the offer at that page.)

3) Either wait and see if I tell you that you were the first to find that code, or go back out there and find more to submit them as well! Your best chances come if you find all of them!

Note: One “win” per business. If you happen to be first on two of the words, for example, I’ll give you the one with the earliest time stamp, and give the other to the next in line for that word.

And to get you started, one of the unusual English words that can be used as a coupon code for 50% off the half-day strategy session is ACCIPITRINE

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Uncategorized

Going Viral The Low Tech Way: InCoWriMo

Image of correspondence with fountain pen and glasses, as an example of a low tech networking

If you know me, or have been to more than a few of my classes, you’ll probably know I rather like low-tech, analog things such as fountain pens, fine paper, and so forth. Recently, while I was catching up on back episodes of a newly-discovered podcast for pen addicts, I heard them mention InCoWriMo. I loved it twice over. First, it had to do with those analog things I love, and second, they were marketing it in a genius way that combined the low-tech with some of the things that make something go viral in the high-tech world.

What is InCoWriMo?

InCoWriMo is short for International Correspondence Writing Month.  Like its better known cousin, NaNoWriMo (“National Novel Writing Month”), the idea is that during the appointed month–February, in this case–participants endeavor to write a letter (or postcard, or greeting card, etc.) by hand to someone each day of the month, and either mail or personally deliver them.

Of course, I get excited by that idea just because it gives me an excuse to use my fountain pens and various pieces of cool stationery I’ve picked up over the years.

How Do They Market That?

They publicize the International Correspondence Writing Month with, of course, a website.  There are the prerequisite FAQs (Yes, they must be hand written, but no, you don’t have to quit if you miss a day–just write two the next day), a participation map, a contest to win a very nice fountain pen (now long past the deadline for 2015), and so forth.  There’s even a video about how to write a letter, for those who may never have done such a thing.

But the most brilliant piece of the marketing is a page called, “These 29 People Would Love to Receive your InCoWriMo Correspondence (2015)”  Since participation requires writing notes to people, even though these can be delivered in person or left secretly for patrons at a coffee shop or whatever, the organizers did not want you to be stopped by the excuse that you had nobody to send a note to.

The list begins with the promise, “All of the names on this list are real, live people. I’ve spoken to each personally (trust me) and while they may not be able to respond to the flood of letters that InCoWriMo provokes, they each confess, proclaim, and affirm that they crave your correspondence.”

Then come the names and addresses.  These are not just randomly chosen former participants of InCoWriMo.  Well, some might be–for example, there’s a student in Bangalore on the list.  But many of the people are folks like Ellen DeGeneres, His Holiness Pope Francis, Bill Gates, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, George Lucas, Google CEO Larry Paige, Jon Stewart, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Why is this genius?  Because these people have influence.  And that’s important for two reasons.

They’re Not Going To Read My Letter…Are They?

The first reason it’s useful to have these influencers on the list has nothing to do with whether or not they really have time to read your letter.  Or any given letter.  But imagine the person who is considering whether or not to participate in InCoWriMo.  There is likely someone on that list of 29 people who they’d be a little star-struck to meet.  Whether you’re totally into comedy (Ellen, Jon Stewart), are religious (the Pope or the Dalai Lama), or a technology and science geek (Gates, Paige, Tyson), or interested in the entertainment industry (Lucas), there’s probably at least one person there that is intriguing.  And, having read the ‘disclaimer’ at the beginning, ostensibly they are welcoming your letter.  Not welcoming–they crave your letter.  That might just tip you over the edge into participating in InCoWriMo.  After all, he might even write back, and how cool would that be?

So the potential for connection with a celebrity, in a particularly personal and individualized way, nudges people into participation.  I can imagine that most of the 1.2 billion Catholics would be at least a little intrigued by the possibility of getting a letter from the Pope.  Therefore, you’ve got more people pulled into the activity.

Why Have I Not Heard of This Before?

The other reason the celebrity mailing addresses are useful is because of the other end of the equation.  Imagine now that you’re the celebrity.  For my example, I’ll pick Neil deGrasse Tyson.  So you’re Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science educator.  Someone asks, “Do you confess, proclaim, and affirm that you crave receiving hand-written correspondence?”  Of course you say you do, because who doesn’t like getting a nice letter in the mail?

Now imagine hundreds of letters showing up in your mailbox in February.  Or, since you probably do get a good deal of mail, hundreds of extra letters.  That’s notable.

So notable, in fact, that you might mention it.

The mention of a celebrity is so powerful that companies pay huge sums to get celebrities to endorse their products.  It’s so powerful that consumers still buy into it even though they know the celebrities are paid to say those things.  Think how powerful a celebrity endorsement is when it’s genuine and unsolicited.

If Ellen mentions InCoWriMo on her show, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about it in an interview, that one mention is worth potentially millions of individual word-of-mouth shares, as well as potentially millions of dollars of advertising.  Of course, it would be free.  It’s not guaranteed, but it would be very valuable and free, from the point of view of InCoWriMo.

In short, celebrities can spread the idea further and wider and faster than most individuals, and the more people send them mail, the more likely they will.

Okay, So What?

The point is that you don’t strictly need technology to go viral.  The technology part is just a tool that might make things go a little easier.  You do, however, need to understand the mindset and psychology of the people you’re trying to reach.  If you recognize the motivations of your target audience, you can come up with marketing approaches that naturally nudge people into sharing or spreading the word.  And that’s what makes something go viral.  No technology required.

(By the way, if you want to correspond with me, you can send a letter to Michael J. Coffey, PO Box 30632, Seattle, WA 98113.  Even if it’s not February.  I’d even write back.)

Image credit:

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

Charlie Munger, the T Professional

CharlieMunger smallBefore we get to Charlie Munger and what a T Professional is, I want to be up front and say this article has two basic purposes.  If you find that you are similar to Mr. Munger, I hope this article helps you recognize some of your strengths or eliminates a sense of stigma that sometimes accompanies this kind of skill set.  If you are not a T-shaped professional yourself, I hope this article helps you understand why you want to hire, partner with, or in some other way have around this type of person for the benefit of your business.

Who is Charlie Munger?

A while back, I read an article about Charlie Munger. Never heard of him?  I hadn’t.  He’s the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, so he’s Warren Buffett’s right hand man.  I’d heard of Warren Buffett before.  There’s more to Mr. Munger than just that, of course, but that’s enough to give you a sense of how successful he is at business. When Warren Buffett calls you his business partner, you probably know what you’re doing. But that’s not what I found interesting about him.

What I found intriguing was the term used to describe him: an expert-generalist.

It was a term that resonated for me. And described me.

The term “T-shaped individual” or “T professional” also refers to this same concept but is a little more popular in human resources circles.  It refers to the strengths of a particular approach to learning and life experience.

When I was growing up there were lots of terms people used to describe me: “Jack of all trades but master of none,” and “professional student.” These terms seemed to say, “You are incapable of picking one thing, but until you pick, you can’t specialize. And if you don’t specialize, you can’t achieve success.”

But I never bought into that model. Sure, it used to be that you could get a job where specialization meant career advancement, and career advancement meant moving up the ladder at the company that hired you in your 20s and from which you retired in your 60s. We no longer live in that world, of course, but the attitude that specialization is the only gateway to success still hangs on.

Charlie Munger is an obvious example of how wrong those attitudes were.  Warren Buffett is successful, in no small part, to having Charlie Munger sitting next to him.  He represented the successful “Jack of all trades” — the expert-generalist, or the T professional.

What is a T Professional (or Expert Generalist)?

It is a person whose interests are both broad and deep. That is, they are interested in lots of different topics. But they also go deep in many of those topics. Not as deep as a true specialist, but deep enough to understand how that field, area, or topic generally works.

In my case, I’ve got lots of very diverse interests. To list a few: British literature, business, chocolate (not just eating it, but how it’s grown and processed as well), education, genealogy (both through historical documents and genetics), green technology, history, language, music history, neuroscience, non-Western music, publishing, tea (not just drinking it, but how it’s grown and processed, its cultural history, economic significance, and more), technology and how it both helps and hinders people, and world culture.

Some of these are fairly shallow areas of interest, like non-Western music and chocolate. I’ve taken a couple of classes, or read a couple of books, and found it all fascinating. I’d learn more if it happened to come up.  But some areas are pretty deep, like British literature (my college degree), business (one part or another of my work since I started my first company in 1998), education (I’m a State-certified teacher with years of classroom experience) and tea (training people since 2003 and now writing a book).  These are areas where I’ve spent multiple years actively studying in the field.

But so what?

Strengths of the T

In preparation for this blog post, I watched myself for a while, looking for specific examples of what characterizes the T.  The strengths derive from taking models and concepts from one area, and applying them to an entirely different realm.  For example:

  • I used the mating strategies of shrimp to explain different approaches a client might take in dealing with a business problem.
  • I applied understanding of the cognitive biases that lead to various “denial” groups (climate change denial, moon-landing denial, Holocaust denial) to a marketing issue in social media
  • I avoided making a bad electronics purchasing decision because I know how health claims about tea tend to skew (or get dead wrong) the actual facts.

Put another way, I used my knowledge of biology to further a client’s education, neuroscience to improve business, and tea to reduce costs.

The strength, then, is the something like a metaphor.  Or of systems thinking.  It’s applying models and patterns that are useful in one realm into areas where they’re less common but equally applicable.  It’s recognizing that problem X is hard to solve, until you notice that it has essential qualities of problem Y in another field, which was solved in that field by approach Z, and therefore, the best answer might be to find the analog solution in the field where problem X appeared.

It’s not just recognizing similarities between things.  Anyone can make a metaphor.  X is like Y.  It’s deeper than that.  As mentioned in another article, the expert generalists like Picasso and Kepler depend mainly on two cognitive traits: openness to experience, and need for cognition.

The first is based on the basic neurological fact that you can’t put the pieces together in new and interesting ways if you don’t have any pieces.  The habit of collecting more and varied experiences and knowledge support innovation and creativity.  Someone in my family once called me “brave” for buying a cheese at the grocery store that I’d never tried before.  My behavior–trying a new product–was openness to experience.  Her reaction illustrated the reverse.

Need for cognition, on the other hand, is essentially the trait of enjoying thinking and learning.  (When someone says to me, “You think too much,” I have a hard time not immediately replying, “Are you sure you don’t think too little?”  I stop myself because I know not everyone enjoys thinking.  For some people, it’s unpleasant and they see it as a drawback.)  It’s this enjoyment of mental activity that leads to taking those pieces and putting them together.  It’s looking for ways of using them in unusual ways. It’s of asking deeper questions to understand how they work, and how those revelations can be applied to new situations.

It was probably someone with need for cognition who came up with something a friend said in college:  a cat is like a sidewalk because neither can play the piano.  Someone thought about the qualities of cats and sidewalks and pianos long enough to recognize a new, innovative, and surprising way of putting those pieces together in a completely true statement.  It is what “thinking outside the box” looks like.

In short, then, an expert generalist is a specialist of a sort.  But it’s not a specialist in a subject area, but in a group of mental skills that prime them for being extra creative, problem solvers, and solution finders.  It’s an expertise in learning things and a specialization in figuring it out.  And that’s a hugely beneficial trait in the constantly changing landscape of a small business.

How Can I Use This?

That depends.  Are you an expert generalist yourself?  Are your skills truly T-shaped?  If so, I’d say take a moment and revel in your awesomeness.  Then keep an eye out for the societal pressures to silo yourself into a narrow band of expertise.  Pull as much interdisciplinary strength as you can into your business.  I have no doubt you can figure it out.  It’s what you do.

But what if all that doesn’t seem to fit right?  What if I didn’t describe you above?  It might even sound horrible.  What if you realize you’re not that open to experience, or you don’t enjoy sitting down for a long session of pondering?  Well, get someone like that on board.

I started Ardea Coaching in part because I recognized that I could lend my brain–my rather unique way of dealing with information and situations–to those who found it difficult to do what I found easy.  If you want me to apply relevant things I’ve learned from my palate of deep-learning subjects to whatever your marketing or business strategy problems are, that’s what I’m here for.  I do this mainly in the area of online marketing and business strategy, but there are other T-shaped consultants, mentors, and coaches out there whose particular background make them great at other areas of business.

You could also get that boost by looking for that kind of person when you hire employees.  If you go this route, though, be sure you actually listen to their suggestions and recognize that although they might be saying some things that seem oddball to you, those suggestions are precisely why you hired them.  It does no good to ask a T professional to solve a problem and then throw away the solution, even if you struggle with how and why they arrived at it, or how you might carry it out.  That’s just a new problem for them to solve.

Free bonus interview question:  You see a kind of cheese in the supermarket that you’ve never tried before.  It’s next to the kind you usually get.  What do you do?  (Just kidding, but describing a situation that might have multiple solutions and seeing how creatively they address it could be a good approach to revealing some of these traits.)

Whether it’s you, a consultant or coach like me, an employee, or a business partner like Charlie Munger, be sure you have at least one expert generalist, or T-shaped professional somewhere in your inner circle.  Their skills will really boost the flexibility, creativity, and effectiveness of your small business.

Image credit: Nick Webb

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Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  1 Comment  |  in General Marketing

Happy Birthday, Ardea!


Yes, today’s the day Ardea Coaching (in its new form, focused on digital strategy and analysis for small business owners) is a year old.  My last day at my old job was July 4th.  I took a weekend, and started my new self-employed life on the 7th.  Happy birthday, Ardea!

According to stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1994-2010, and summarized here), that means that roughly 22% of the other businesses that started last July 7th have shuttered.  While being in the top 78% most successful business startups isn’t a terribly high bar, it’s certainly one I’d like to be above rather than below.

What have I learned as a (third- or fourth-time) one year old business?

First off, it’s always harder than you think.  I mean, my previous job was counseling small business owners.  I talked to multiple entrepreneurs every work day for nearly three years.  I knew it was tough.  I would say that in every group presentation I made for prospective startups.  And yet, I still found it harder to actually do than I remembered.

I think this is because there are so many challenges on so many levels.  Sure, there are the regular challenges that even those not in business experience, but entrepreneurs take on twice as many of, like “This isn’t what I ordered,” or “Oh, crap. When was this bill due?”  Then there are the bigger, more strategic, business-problem solving kinds of challenges that non-entrepreneurs don’t have to worry about, like “Where am I going to find new customers?” or “What’s the best intranet software package for my business?” or “Is it going to be better in the short and/or long run to give pay raises or better benefits to my employees?”  (I’m not struggling with that last one yet–still just me.)

But the kicker is the psychological level.  As YouTube educator CGP Grey sometimes puts it in the two podcasts he does, you’ve got a “monkey brain” that you’re constantly trying to train…or at least control.  Or at least distract long enough that you can get something done.  Layer onto that the strain of having this constant battle between “I’m the master of my own life.  I can do whatever I want because I own this place!” and the undercurrent of abject panic that if you don’t get the next project done–right now–you might miss a mortgage payment next month.  Yes, I can choose to play Minecraft or Myst Online all morning on a weekday because there isn’t any boss to scold or fire me, but that decision carries with it all the internal mental and emotional bargaining between the Id and Superego that rivals trying to get to the gym or sticking to a diet.  Plus actually trying to get to the gym and stick to your diet as well.

It’s crazy.  And if you don’t think it is, then you are.

But there are cool benefits as well.  Not only am I constantly learning, since my industry is one that surfs on the waves of technological innovation, but I’m also frequently learning about myself.  I’m reminded over and over again that I can do things as easily as breathing that other people just can’t wrap their heads around.  And, more humbling, that there are things other people seem to do effortlessly that I’m safer to not even try because I’m so bad.

But I’ve reached a point in this blog post where the part of my brain that’s prone to worry is getting a little panicked and thinking by writing more about my experiences has reached its effective cost/benefit point and if I keep doing it, I’ll just be wasting time that could be spent finding more clients, or making the slides for next week’s presentation, or… or… or…

It’s enough to drive one crazy.  But thank goodness I’m self employed…

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Uncategorized

My Services Bullseye

I’m not a web designer.

Things would be so much easier if I were a web designer. People know what web designers do. They immediately have a sense that the work has to do with graphics and colors and space and the ubiquitous “look and feel” of a website. It’s easy, straightforward, and accessible.

I am not a web designer.

And yet, when I say I’m a digital strategist, I often hear “you mean like a web designer?” in response. “Nope,” I sometimes tell them, “I’m just about the opposite of a web designer. I make sure a website is effective at carrying out the owner’s goal, whether it looks good or not.” I’m also not a social media community manager, and I don’t ghost-write blogs.  All things people assume I do when I say “digital” or mention that I help small businesses with their online marketing.

So I made The Services Bullseye.  Or, rather, I wrote about it and took a stock image of a target as a way to illustrate what I wrote (you’ll see why below).  The bullseye is the collection of things I really focus on doing, and each ring out are things I do because they support stuff closer to the center but become less and less “what I do.”


The Bullseye:

  • Strategy: helping decide on an overall approach to marketing online, such as choosing the right social media sites to reach your customers, or whether Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is going to be worth the effort.  Developing key pathways from a potential customer’s first discovery of the business all the way through to repeat purchases.
  • Analysis:  Looking at your Google Analytics data, or Facebook or Google+ Insights, or your keyword performance data in your Moz account.  Wherever the data comes from, I’ll dive in, check for obvious problems, and pull out actionable insights.  Where you might just see charts or tables or graphs, I transform them into recommendations like, “You should switch from using the term ‘teahouse’ to ‘tea house’ because 6x as many people search on it.”
  • Testing: Sometimes you don’t have the data to analyze…yet.  That’s where testing comes in.  Whether it’s different designs, or color schemes, or headlines, or position of the button, I set up tests to see what changes work, which don’t, and which make do difference either way.  This is where we determine whether you need to change your design at all, or whether the proposed adjustment is effective at increasing your sales.

The Middle Ring:

  • Training:  There are lots of things to learn as a small business owner, and sometimes the best thing for your strategy is a tool, or social media site, or an approach that you know very little about.  That’s why I do trainings; I’m an educator at heart, and it supports your being able to carry out a better strategy.
  • Tool Setup:  Many websites already have Google Analytics or some other data collection system installed when I first start with someone, but sometimes not.  Perhaps you’ve got GA, but not Google Search Console, or Bing Webmaster Tools.  I can help you set those things up so they are collecting their own unique types of data.  This means any analysis I would do for you includes more facets of what’s going on, resulting in better answers and deeper insights.
  • Social Media Account Setup:  Similar to tool setup, sometimes you just need some help with what the best practices are for branding your social media accounts or setting them up in a way that supports your business goals.  Since this, too, gets another source of data started, it directly supports analysis.
  • Simple Website/Domain/Hosting Setup:  Don’t have a website at all?  Well, as I said, I’m not a web designer (or a web developer).  However, I know a couple of tricks about getting a professional-looking website up quickly and cheaply.  It probably won’t win a top design award, but really, is that one of your business goals?  (And when was the last time you said, “What a gorgeous website!  I don’t know what they’re selling, or if I need it, but I’ll buy it because the site design is so good!”)
  • SEO Triage:  There are lots of things that can harm your search engine optimization, and lots of simple things that help it…while simultaneously being good for your online customers or prospects.  Ensuring you’re doing these basic SEO things right is what I call “SEO triage.”

The Outer Ring:

  • Content Templates/Guides: If you’re not used to blogging or making social media posts, I could work with you to build that skill or develop some templates that are appropriate for what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Editorial Calendar Creation:  Knowing what you’re going to post, and when, and where, is important and lets you plan and do some prep work in advance.  But you know your own business and expertise areas better than I do.  I can help you organize some of that into a calendar, but it really is an area where the important pieces (the individual decisions about what you’ll write about) need to come from you.  I can help provide the structure for that, however.
  • Scheduling Posts.  If you’ve written a bunch of posts and have an editorial calendar for when you’d like them to go live, I can help you schedule them so that it’s automatic.  But really, I’d rather teach you how to do it so that you’re more self sufficient (see “Training” in the middle ring).
  • Primary Research.  Sometimes I do this as part of my analysis, but things like researching good keywords for you, or finding out data about your competitors, is really something you should be involved with personally.  This is mostly because you have a better sense of your target markets, and are more likely to notice something that is a key bit of information due to your more in-depth understanding of your business.
  • Content SEO:  Beyond the “triage” level of SEO, there are lots of things you can do with your content–images, videos, text, even metadata–that helps your ranking.  Again, I’d rather teach you the best approaches rather than actually editing your text, for example.  But sometimes there are things that are easier to adjust myself rather than explain to you why you should adjust it.  (There are also some simple “technical SEO” things that I’d put in this category, too, like looking at how your links are coded, for example.)

Missing the Target:

(aka “stuff people sometimes think I do, but I don’t”)

  • Website Design: The closest I get to being a “designer” is being able to identify colors, or the locations of elements on a page.  “Yup, that’s green all right” or “The sidebar is on the left side.”  If you value your business, do not hire me to do design work.  I’m aesthetically impaired.
  • Graphic Design:  Same goes for making infographics or the like.  I pretty much suck at anything artistic.  That’s why I used a stock image in this post.
  • Web Development:  A webdev is someone who likes to play with computer code.  I like to play with data.  Those are different.  If you want your site to look good, hire a designer.  If you want it to do something, hire a developer.  And if you want to know how effective it is, or what to do next, hire me.
  • Advanced Technical SEO:  Following on web development, there’s all kinds of arcane technical, code-level SEO stuff that I’m not that into.  My specialty is not making small fiddly coding changes that make it easier for Internet-indexing robots to get the information you want them to have.  If you want the full depth of everything that can be done in SEO, it’s probably better to hire someone who specializes in SEO.  I, on the other hand, can help determine whether improving your ranking in search engines the best approach to build your business.
  • Content Creation:  Although I’ve been paid for my writing, and as an editor, I’ve decided I’m just not going to create content for other people.  There are ghost writers and photographers and other content creators out there who are simply better and love it more.  If you don’t want to create your own articles and pictures, definitely get someone who can.  But that someone is not me.  I would be happy to help you narrow down what you should be looking for based on your situation and goals.
  • Sales:  Also not my strong suit.  It’s very important, but not something I can effectively do for you.  Where I can help is making sure that if you want your website to be one of your sales “employees,” I can make sure it’s pulling its weight and being the best salesman your website can be, using analysis and testing in a cycle of constant refinement and improvement.


Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Uncategorized

They Had More Fun Learning Than I’d Have Imagined

Having some fun learning about blogging

Having some fun learning about blogging

The premise of telling a bunch of business owners the mechanics and strategies of blogging as a marketing strategy doesn’t immediately bring up mental images of having fun learning and a room filled with lots of laughter. However, that’s exactly what happened at last week’s “Better Business Blogging” class.  It was taught by me, hosted at InsideWorks, and attended mainly by some of the kick-ass businesswomen associated with But that just goes to show you: get the right people together and even the most dry topics can become ridiculously fun.

How did it end up that way? Well, one topic that moved us off the ‘boring’ path was when we talked about pictures. One attendee, in building a company culture that emphasizes team rather than hierarchy, decided to only use people wearing masks when they took company photos. We talked about the positives of actual human faces, but there’s certainly an element of Mardi Gras that comes to mind when you think of everyone at work in masks, right?

I may have influenced you a little earlier on by suggesting that the class was just “telling.” As a teacher, I realize that there’s a lot of telling that has to happen if a class is going to cover material at any kind of speed, but learning needs to be interactive. Evidence shows that having fun learning (or really any of the emotional reaction that interaction can evoke) helps to increase attention and cement the learning in the brain. Interaction is also a good element to add to your blog, which is why you often see blogs with questions at the end, or a challenge, or a call for comments. Let’s just say that with this group last week, it didn’t take much to get the interaction going. Some audiences are a little slow to warm up, but not this crowd. We got some great ideas flowing. notwithstanding the occasional suggestion of using “Tumblr style pictures” to boost traffic (our in-class euphemism for more racy and salacious content).

The real reason it was such a blast, though, was that it was a partnership. Not only was I interested in help them, but they didn’t just sit passively and absorb what I said before going home. Instead, they were active in (warning: jargon!) co-creating the learning experience. For a creator of content, that’s always a joy. When the students are clearly taking what’s being presented, thinking about it, connecting it to their own situation, and using that to generate even more stuff—whether ideas, or deeper questions, or whatever—that’s what makes teaching rewarding.  When students are having fun learning, the teacher usually has more fun teaching.

In the end, the class was a blast. It was hugely successful. I mean, going into it I didn’t expect that we’d all get so into the ideas of interaction, and getting people involved, and using human faces in blog photos that the whole “Charlie’s Angels” thing would happen. But it did, and there’s the proof! (Though I don’t think John Bosley wore a bow tie, did he?)

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Blogging
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