What’s so wrong with being a niche business?

I’ve written about Blackberry a number of times since I started this blog but not since 2012 when I wrote – I’m waving bye-bye to Blackberry. I noted the features were awful, the battery life was poor, and the two-year contract at the time was off-putting. The mobile device business has changed greatly since 2012 with data being paramount, yet battery life for most devices is still an issue. What I did not realize at the time was that Blackberry’s major advantage was in SECURITY. Research in Motion always was at or near the top when it comes to secure networks and platforms. And over the past few years Blackberry has morphed into a somewhat more nimble and niche-y company focused on offering e-mail and network security. Companies sometimes give a Blackberry to their employees in the interest of having a more secure communication environment. That’s not without good reason these days. In a recent article from CNET,

“Francois Mahieu, the chief commercial officer of BlackBerry Mobile, has high expectations for where the brand can go. Mahieu, speaking to journalists at a briefing ahead of Mobile World Congress 2018, said he hopes to capture 3 percent to 5 percent of the market for premium phones. “It doesn’t have to be a niche business,” he said. “I would not be satisfied with market share in premium (phones) that is sub-1 percent forever.”

That’s exactly where it is. Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, estimates that BlackBerry sold just 170,000 phones in the fourth quarter. With the total market for premium phones (defined as above $400) estimated at 320 million units last year, Shah said BlackBerry Mobile would have to sell at least 10 million units a year, or 2 to 3 million per quarter.”

Not every company can directly compete with Apple and Samsung. Not every company should try. Nokia and Blackberry had their moments in the spotlight. Both still exist today and have found their respective markets. Things may not have worked out the way that management and shareholders hoped for Blackberry, but having a defendable market position in offering one of the most secure environments.

If Blackberry doesn’t make it to 3% of market share is that reason to consider it a failure? MySpace is still around and does more than $800M annually. And Pandora, which does more than $300M. Are they niche businesses? Not quite although in comparison to Spotify and Apple Music some would beg to differ. Both are not on an upward arc that’s for sure. I think Pandora is trying to figure out its own point of differentiation from Spotify. Even though Pandora came first! Sounds familiar when you think about Blackberry and Nokia.

Being a ‘niche business’ is a term that’s sometimes used in a pejorative sense. Sure you can have a ‘nice little niche business’ but more often ‘niche business’ suggests limitations on growth and success. Personally I love the idea and position of niche businesses even if they are limited in terms of what others would consider to be substantial market success. You have to be aware of what is the ethos and what are the overall goals of the enterprise (aside from increasing shareholder value which would be the obvious one).

Would it be so terrible to have a successful niche business that could never become Apple or Amazon?

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The benefits of working remotely outweigh the disadvantages

I had a friend tell me that it seems my blog often touches on the experiences of driving automobiles. When I started writing this blog nearly 10 years ago I called it “The Way I See It”. Not the most original title I’ll admit but it did offer me a wide berth in terms of subjects. As a lifelong marketer I am fascinated by human behavior and human motivation, not only as it pertains to why people buy or don’t, but how people come to their own view of things.

This winter I worked nearly 3,000 miles away from my regular office. My wife and I drove across the country (yes both ways), and put on 7,000 miles on our leased sedan (no plug here). I wrote about the trip out west in a post entitled, “A Portable professional life” . But that was before I spent 6 ½ weeks away from the NYC office.

Overall the driving was easy and predictable. Google Maps continually proves itself to be a worthy additional co-pilot and the only thing worse for wear is my back which 10 days after returning is still a little twitchy.   My productivity was similar and my attitude vastly improved because the weather was better and I love the experience of being in new places and having different and ever-changing views. I am also very conscious that I am fortunate enough to be able to work remotely (I have a very understanding business partner), as most people do not have the choice.

Once ensconced in the desert of California I quickly fell into a routine that time-wise was not all that different from what I do when I am home. Working on east coast time was less of problem than I’d imagined and having hours of non-work daylight to burn in winter was something I’d never experienced as a professional. I was WAY more physically active, slept well or better than at home, and was generally happier in winter than I’ve been in while. Clearly I’m not a skier any more and winter in the northeast has little utility if you don’t participate much in winter sports.

On the drive back east we listened to Ray Dalio’s book Principles which has a focus on corporate “Idea Meritocracy”, but also stresses that doing things that are unfamiliar and difficult are paramount in helping human beings continue to learn and grow. As predictable as driving has become with the reliability of automobiles and the advent of GPS maps, there’s still some daily uncertainty when you are on a 3,000+ mile drive. Like when should we stop for gas? (Since we got close to running out of gas at one point driving through an Indian reservation). Where should we stop? (Hotel Tonight is a useful app when things are unplanned). Is that truck going to hit us? (This happened more often and supports the reason for self-driving trucks that don’t do stupid people things).

Some drive highlights:

Marfa, TX where we were not lucky enough to see the Marfa lights but did see the International Space Station race right overhead on a frigid late January evening.

On the drive west we drove through Texas Hill Country and its wineries, which before I did not know even existed. More than 50 wineries are along the road west of Austin deep in the heart of Texas. We rolled through in the early morning and regrettably did not sample any of them.

On the return trip we stopped in Santa Fe, NM never having been there before and were surprised at how the high desert altitude (7,200 ft.) affected us at first. A pretty little artsy town we had a great meal from a renowned chef out of Mexico City who has been there for more than twenty-five years.

There were many other nice moments particularly in the early morning drives as sunrise over the highway no matter where you are has a promising feel. Since we drove for longer days on the return trip (750 miles per day back, only 500 per day on the way out), working was more difficult and I was more about responding to people than initiating things with people, which is not my norm.

I can give you a short list of reasons why you should consider driving across, around and all over the United States.

  1. It’s BIG and BEAUTIFUL! The Mandarin name for the United States is ‘Mei Guo’ which means ‘Beautiful Country’. It’s both flattering and correct. There’s so much open space in the United States. You have to see it to appreciate it.
  2. Experiencing new places and having the ability to stop when you want and change your plan at the last moment is energizing and sometimes very rewarding.
  3. Do it now. Road trips with self-driving cars will not be the same. For us the journey truly was its own reward.

Disrupt thyself. You might be surprised and glad you did.

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Ready? Your Healthcare provider will be contacting you MUCH more often

Let me start by noting that I am excited and in favor of the use of telemedicine. The expectation is the delivery of timely and accurate care. As co-owner of a small business I am faced with the same healthcare decisions most companies have to deal with on an annual basis.

Coverage options for the team and costs against those options are the primary considerations. Consequently each year is a search for the best option for our company and we’re prepared to switch providers – a big hassle for everyone when that does happen. This year we made some changes but did not end up switching providers. But there’s another change I’ve noticed and I am betting it’s not limited to our provider. It’s apparent that I will be receiving a much greater number of messages from my healthcare provider encouraging me to log into the portal and update my records, use the portal to help monitor and improve my health and improve the relationship between me, my doctor(s), and the health insurance provider.

If early indications are a harbinger fasten your seat belts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Theoretically and with luck eventually, all this future communication (think emails and if you agree SMS text messages mostly) will make caring for oneself better for patients. But first there’s going to be a messy in-between period.

The days of the solo or small group practitioner are nearing their end. In the U.S. physicians of all kinds are banding together in large group practices for a multitude of reasons that include managing paperwork, compliance, insurance and malpractice issues. Smaller groups would be more prone to delaying technology investments, which are substantial. The larger medical groups are focused on efficiency and maximizing physician time and revenue stream. Yes larger physician groups still want to deliver excellent patient care too, but from what I see and hear, it’s on a tight schedule. To have a GP or specialist spend more than fifteen minutes with patients is becoming a rarity. Nurses are doing more and more work that the doctor used to do. That’s not a bad thing, but it is different, very different from what most people have become accustomed.

Less time with the doctor, more messages in your inbox (and smart phone) asking you to ‘visit your profile for updates to your health condition’ are in your immediate personal health future. I will keep hoping that ultimately it will be better overall but I am not looking forward to the transition over the next few years. Are you?


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Sleep as business currency

I recently finished UC Berkeley Neuroscientist and Professor Matthew Walker’s interesting book Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams. I’m particularly interested in how much people sleep (or don’t sleep) and have written a few blog posts about human sleeping habits. Professor Walker claims: “The silent sleep loss epidemic is one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the 21st century”. I’m inclined to think that if he’s not completely correct he’s not far off.

I am a big believer in getting 7.5 hours or more of sleep each night. It doesn’t always work out that way but I am aware of when I’ve not been able to sleep as I normally do. Professor Walker also advances that the idea of catching up on sleep on the weekends to make up for your own personal sleep deficit is a fallacy. It doesn’t work. Based on my experience I’d say he’s right.

Having worked many years in and around the mattress industry I became familiar with organizations such as the http://www.SleepAssociation.org and the National Sleep Foundation (who has its own idea on how much sleep we need – https://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need). The answer for many people is that they are not getting enough sleep. People that sleep longer, live longer.

There ARE people who can function well on 4 hours of sleep but the numbers are extremely small. When I mention sleep as currency it’s your performance both professionally and personally that suffer when you do not have adequate sleep. In the book Professor Walker offers stats on the alarming rate of mistakes attributed to an under-slept population are compelling. Note: I have not reviewed the data sets used in his research but he is a very trusted voice on the subject.

Celebrities and business executives are beginning to admit their attention to sleep is partially responsible for their success.  The old adage of “I’ll sleep on it” has very solid reasoning behind it. A good night’s sleep is something I try to use to help me solve a problem that has me stuck. It works more often than not.

Some of the details in the book are ones with which you may already be familiar. Drinking coffee or having caffeine less than 7 hours before you sleep is a bad idea. Blue light like from your mobile phone or tablet is a bad idea if you want your sleepy-time melatonin to flow more freely and unimpeded. He makes the same arguments you’ve heard about middle and high school student school start times being too early – with good solid supporting evidence.

I came up with a marketing campaign approach for one of the mattress manufacturers – “Sleeping is selfish” – You don’t sleep for anyone else but yourself and yet when you get the right amount of good sleep all the people you come into contact with benefit as well. A true Win-Win! As it turned out they did not go for that one.

Building your sleep currency is one of the most important things you can do to improve your – and if you are forward thinking – your team’s performance AND quality of life.

So don’t be surprised if when I see you next I ask you how much sleep did you get last night and in general. I want you to be around for a long time!

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A portable professional life after two weeks

Now that road trip #1 has been over for nearly a week and I’m for a month ‘living’ out west 3,250 miles from home base, it’s real. And disrupting. And I love it.

I wake up and a at work early often starting before 6AM PST. Mornings are super-long since I don’t break for lunch until noon local time having cranked out 6 hours already. The afternoons are shorter (with some intent), and it’s mid-afternoon before we have the opportunity to do things we need to do like buy food, run errands and exercise. But already I’m convinced that I will be as or more productive than usual.

Of course in thinking about human behavior, if it’s more productive I not last as I become more familiar with my new day-to-day routine. For now the routine is different what I do normally I am fully practicing the idea of ‘disrupt thyself’.

I find that I am reading more, thinking more, moving more, sleeping more, and commuting less. The roughly three hours per day I commuting mostly by train is pretty easy compared to most but it’s still three hours. As productive as I try to be it’s a significant part of my Monday-Friday so without it feels as if I’ve recovered some time even if I don’t spend it that differently, (thinking, working and reading).

Yet all the above being the case, the way I am interacting with my colleagues, clients and friends is not really different for me. Emails, texts, phone calls, social media posts and replies, all are just the same wherever I am. The idea that my physical location is immaterial is one of the points of the experiment and experience.

I won’t say any more about the weather where I am other than it’s been great and typical of the California desert in winter.

We’ll see how I feel in another two weeks. Will the bloom be off the rose?

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A portable professional life

I’m about to embark on an extended (6 weeks) “working while out-of-the office experience”. I don’t expect to work any less than I normally do which is to say – I’ll be working a lot. Meeting in person with clients and marketing partners is an important part of my job. Yet working in midtown Manhattan I don’t have nearly as many meetings in person in New York City as used to be the case. Part of that is due to having fewer clients based in New York. But it’s also a harbinger of the times since working people today do more with less time mostly because of technology.

For the past few years my wife and I have been building up to making our lives as portable as possible. The trip we are taking will be by car and after it’s over 6 weeks or so from now, we will have driven more than 6,000 miles. I’ve written about how much I enjoy driving and that with the onset of self-driving cars I think it’s conceivable driving one’s own car may not be practical. So I’ve got to get in my miles while I can!

Millennials have been onto the portable life thing for a while now. My niece and her husband are true digital nomads – moving around the globe from place to place (they do not yet have children), experiencing different countries and cultures, while they work from wherever – digitally and otherwise.

Baby Boomers early or late like me, have been a mobile generation overall. Historically they have moved somewhat frequently as they married and had children. However as they (we) have aged we become less mobile and less portable, more set in our ways and comforts. I have felt for a while that disrupting oneself is as important to keeping fresh as anything one can do. Working while being on the move is something we’ve experienced before so we kind of know what to expect.

New geographies combined with routine-breaking will create new memories and (I believe), the opportunity to think differently. That and where we’re headed – the desert in California has nicer weather for the month we’ll spend there.

I like working. I hate being bored and am not a giant fan of soul-killing routines. Disruption and uncertainty are ways to keep us fresh. And we’re very lucky that we have the ability to do it. That includes my business partner who supports it, the team members that I won’t see as regularly, the clients who know what I’m doing and expect (as they should) it will be business as usual. What I hope happens is that once I am on the phone, emailing and video-conferencing , where I am will be much less important – even forgotten.

It’s all about the quality of the work and that’s why a portable life is possible in your future too.

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What if our agency prefers not to specialize?

My business partner and I run a small marketing and advertising ‘shop’ with an office on Madison Avenue. Yes we’re Mad Men. Ok that’s out of the way. We’re successful and have been growing our business over the past few years. Through no direct effort we are mostly a healthcare marketing agency. One assignment with a client led to another and we’ve begun to receive referrals and attract interest from companies we’ve not been in contact with before.

I am (as are we all) asked what makes our company different and the answer for me is pretty simple. We like to get in the weeds and get dirty with research, data, and first hand experience with as many aspects of our clients’ business as possible. In the case of healthcare marketing it means talking and meeting with nurses, surgeons, hospital and practice administrators, keeping close tabs on health insurance trends and coverage. There’s a tremendous amount of information that keeps getting us deeper and deeper.

Maybe it’s a reaction to walking off a red-eye flight from the west coast back into NYC, as being at one’s desk at 6AM in the morning in midtown Manhattan no doubt affects you in odd ways, but as I tried to sleep on the plane, I kept rolling around the idea of ‘Should we go all in and CALL ourselves a Healthcare marketing agency?” There are plenty of good reasons to say yes. A robust market is out there and in case you hadn’t noticed big pharma and healthcare in general are not afraid to spend money on marketing and advertising.

Yet we don’t ONLY work in Healthcare. We have and have had several financial industry clients, restaurants, and consumer products.   I think I can speak for my partner and all the members of our team that the variety of work is refreshing and in my opinion makes us better marketers. Needing to take different approaches for different vertical markets and products keeps us in a constant learning mode and forestalls any chance for us to get lazy and complacent in our approaches.

However there’s the real concern that non-specializing robs our company of the opportunity to be ‘known’ for something and build a reputation as a proven resource in healthcare marketing. In a sense it’s innately riskier NOT to specialize – as long as you’re really good in your chosen specialty.

That risk is more than balanced (at least this is where I am now), by what I see as my and our company’s continued enthusiasm to get dirty and do great work that most importantly delivers tangible results for our varied clients

One of my early jobs in the 1980’s was being an advertising photographer’s representative. I really liked the photographer and while he had long career he was not one of the ‘known’ photographers who had work to shoot each and every day.   This photographer did not have work to shoot every day. I felt it was in part due to his desire NOT to specialize. He was adept at doing portrait photography, location photography and tabletop. Then (as likely now) art directors preferred to hire a ‘specialist’ – and they did. However I did take note that the photographer was very happy doing what he was doing, and he continued to work well into his seventies. I like to think it had something to do with the varied and interesting professional challenges that came around over the years.

So for now, the moral of the story may be, it’s better to specialize but it’s far less interesting and a lot less fun. At least that’s the way I see it.

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