There are a number of ways to think about designing a business. There is the traditional business plan, which is defined up front and then used as an accountability mechanism. There is the business model canvas, where things are mapped out and tested one by one, until you get to a decent and self-sustaining business.
And then most recently, Megan Macedo pointed out that business forms are useful as business prototyping tools. In other words, in what form does your business show up? What structure does it have? And what is the resulting customer experience? This is largely defined by setting certain boundaries and then converging on something specific.
The original source of this “WhatIf” was her own creative process. The benefits of creative form are easiest to understand by starting there.
For example, the sonnet. 14 lines. Iambic pentameter. Like it, love it, or despise it, it is a very particular structure. And it has been used to get across different types of messages: love, coming of age, nature. The form was the same, but with very different messages, reader experiences, and external outcomes.
Or the Haiku. Also a clear structure of 5-7-5. Used for a large variety of messages.
Novels and non-fiction books have a form, too. And some are better than others. Frameworks like Story Grid help authors create a structure or form that feels intuitive. Or authors like John McPhee literally map out a novel’s structure visually before writing it–as part of the creative process.
Or song lyrics. Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus etc.
From a business perspective, your key business slogan could live in any of the above forms. A podcast intro. A business novel like the Goal. Probably even a sonnet if you gave it a proper shot.
You can choose to broadcast a message across in any of the above forms. And they could work, or not. In other words, the form doesn’t tie down the message to anything in particular, but as the delivery mechanism–it’s part of the message. And part of the audience experience.
Or physical forms, to get a bit more concrete. For example, at the moment, the main form my business exists in is that of my book, Launch Tomorrow. In fact, it is only sold at the moment in electronic form. So the “physical form” is that of a kindle. That is the main way customers experience Launch Tomorrow.
Consulting is another form Launch Tomorrow exists in. At the moment, consulting is remote only for reasons outside of my control. So the physical form there is a computer screen and headphones.
These are physical objects that structure the business, without really tying down the “content” of the business.
Each of these delivery vessels also imply a way of finding customers, and who those customers are, and pricing structure, and all the rest of it. There are lot of assumptions that everyone has around any given physical object. So choosing a physical form piggy backs on those assumptions, and makes the experience more tactile.
Megan Macedo tells a good story about Doug Sohn, who ran a gourmet hot dog stand in Chicago. He wanted to make sure that everyone had the experience of eating amazing food, even if it was a hot dog. He'd work long hours, charge low prices given the quality of what he was doing, and pretty quickly had a long line of customers at his stand.
He didn't go for the big location scale-up, or turn his business into a franchise, or follow any other received wisdom around the restaurant business. He just did his thing.
He did write a book, as a passion project. He later opened up a second stand near the local Cubs baseball stadium. Probably due more to his wanting to be with the fans than purely a foot traffic (read:business logic) thing.
And then, one day after many years, he closed shop. He’d had enough. Just wanted to do something else.
We choose our own containment
The key message I found in Doug’s story is that we choose our own containment. And it can be liberating–a way to create something unique. It might not be the "go big or go broke" approach which VCs will expect you to take, as laid out Peter Thiel’s Zero To One. But it can be a lot more rewarding and fulfilling.
In Doug’s case, the business form was a hot dog stand. And he really played it out. until the end. Trying things which hot dog stand owners wouldn't, like offering gourmet food. Thus becoming unique. And globally famous, since a lot of his customers were tourists who'd just come to have one of his hot dogs, sometimes even as repeat customers.
This story also shows how all of the traditional advice around business can be a type of containment. A form, in and of itself. One which some people will love, others will feel imprisoned by. And Doug knew himself enough to make sure that his successful business existed as an extension of his life, and not the other way around.
Isn’t is all artsy-fartsy clap trap?
You’re probably thinking that I’ve been in lockdown for too long by now.
From a traditional business lingo perspective, the form is the product. How something is productized. You need to accept design constraints to create it. And then turn it into a both a delivery mechanism. And ultimately, a customer experience.
In terms of software or technology, Geoffrey Moore’s Whole Product model shows how much more there is to “product” than just getting the technology bits and bytes to work. Of course, having a working technology is a necessary condition to reach early adopters. But as you start scaling the product up and out to the larger market, you will need all of the above to make the product usable and relevant. So that it “sticks” in the customer’s world.
Essentially, we are talking here about the form that a customer engages with it.
- Is it a SaaS app?
- Is there a community of power users in forums to help answer questions?
- Is it available via the App Store?
- Do you need a particular type of cable to get it work?
- How do you configure it and apply it in your particular case?
These are all “form” decisions, in the context of a technology product. And notice that most of them don’t require deep engineering knowledge, even though they are super relevant to customers. If anything, they require a deep knowledge of customer needs.
Taking advantage of the momentum
Like Doug, we need to choose our own box, before starting to think "out of the box". This is just as much a note to self, as anything. That simple act of choosing is paradoxically empowering.
Taking my own advice, the form that I am exploring is that of audio, for my upcoming book Align Remotely. This is a book to share my experience in managing remote teams, which will hopefully come in handy during the lockdown (and whatever remote friendly regime we’ll have afterwards). I’ve spent close to a decade either participating in partially or fully remote teams as a software guy and author. And most recently, I ran a remote program for a client, with 3 sub-teams of around 30 people.
At the moment, I am starting to release it for free, chapter by chapter, on LeanPub. Or pay what you want, if you insist. Eventually, there will be a lower bound of the price; but it’s free for now.
From a “forms” perspective, if you grab a copy, you will get details of how to get the audio form of the same content.