Belief, Opportunity, Capacity

What leads to business success? If you’ve ever gone back to your high school reunion, you’ve probably seen some surprise success stories and scratched your head while asking the same question. For small marketing firms, success typically follows one of two paths.

The first path is a deeply held belief or confidence about your value to clients. In spite of the fact that nearly everyone espouses this to be true, the evidence tells a different story (more on that below). But some, indeed, have an uncanny, even unwavering belief that their work is worth a certain amount and they escape the normal equivocation that comes when discussing fees. Their body of work, often over more than a decade, commands significant fees (regardless of its effectiveness). These people are rare, but they don’t depend on external validation for their business value, and that confidence becomes self-fulfilling in the marketplace (clients are drawn to confidence).

The second path is benefiting from many opportunities that come your way, either accidentally (being in the right place at the right time), or intentionally (you’re really good at marketing your services). This is the more typical path for business “success” in the marketplace. It’s a lot more work, trying to be in the right place at the right time, but it can pay off. It’s also something that can improve over time, too, as you invest your time and money in better ways so that you brush shoulders with more or better opportunities.

Evidence for Your Lack of Confidence

Before developing this idea of the two paths (innate confidence or bumping into opportunity), I want to pause and explain more fully what I mean by “not believing in the value of your work.” Some of you probably read that but don’t see yourself on that path when in fact you are. In spite of protestations to the contrary, I’ve learned to see certain business practices as clear evidence of that lack of belief:

  • Discounting your fees.
  • Modifying your terms.
  • Allowing unusual invoicing procedures.
  • Providing advice before an engagement is crafted.
  • Letting clients determine the problem while just looking to you for transactional solutions.
  • Presenting multiple, equally viable solutions and letting clients choose as the experts.
  • Changing your positioning to fit what prospects want to hear (in presentations and proposals).

The list above is truly “business as usual” in the marketing services space, but it doesn’t have to be that way. While most follow that path (the ones who try to rub shoulders with more opportunity), some do not (the ones who have a strong innate belief in the value of what they do).

Bringing More Success

So the typical marketing firm wanders one of those two paths in achieving success, and I’ve worked with hundreds of examples on either path. But one of the first things I need to do at the outset of an engagement is determine which path my new client is on so that the prescription fits the diagnosis, which in turn must fit the symptoms. Most firms, of course, wander the second path, carefully making the most of the opportunities they get or perhaps seeing a slighting bigger picture and searching for more opportunities in the first place.

Regardless, I’ll have more success in trying to fix the opportunity issue by helping them bring more of those opportunities to the table than trying to fix the belief issue by telling them they are really better than they think. It’s not that unusual for me to marvel at how much better a client is than they believe about themselves, but I’ve never been all that successful at propping up someone’s belief.

So I can’t reach inside them and “pull” that belief upward until it gives them greater confidence, translating to better client relationships. Instead, I stick with the second path by helping them generate more opportunity in the marketplace. That’s where we set the foundation of the right positioning, and then build a thought leadership platform on top of that.

Reacting to Additional Success

Fast forward, then, and assume you’re successful in bringing more opportunity to the table. What should your reaction be as opportunities increase? What we should do is measure the opportunities against each other, choosing the opportunities that allow us to compromise less and be more of an expert. While it’s really hard to turn down work that isn’t a good match for you, it’s a lot easier to do that same thing if you can replace the opportunity with a better one.

But the minute you upsize your capacity to handle the additional opportunity, you lose the ability to say “no” to clients who aren’t a good fit because you feel pressure to feed that new capacity. This temptation to match capacity to opportunity is made worse because of our cultural love of growth and the sheer lip pain associated with mouthing the “no” word in an entrepreneurial culture. We even call it “The Land of Opportunity,” and it seems unpatriotic to not take advantage of it.

But the goal, folks, is not how big your firm can get but how profitable and impactful you can be. And size is not that relevant to either goal. Having more capacity (i.e., a bigger firm) brings additional management pressure, additional financial risk, and additional pressure to keep the sales machine humming. The right size is always this: slightly smaller than the amount of opportunity within reach. That ability to say no—and really be okay with it—is one of the most precious things about running a marketing firm. It’ll keep you sane, more in control, and most importantly it’ll help you exercise that power that comes from withholding your expertise, which is really the only power you have.

By the way, if you aren’t able to increase your oppotunity enough to give yourself the power to say no, it may be time to reduce your capacity instead. Either way achieves the same result, though the latter is obviously more painful.

In Summary

You’ll be successful with strong innate beliefs or lots of opportunity.

If you aren’t as successful as you’d like, concentrate on fixing the latter.

As your opportunities increase, don’t respond by matching your capacity to meet the additional opportunities. Under-build your capacity, instead, and have more “no” conversations.

Remember that it’s easier to be courageous when you have better choices (choosing a good client over a bad one instead of choosing a bad client or going hungry).

Eventually the marketplace acceptance of your work will boost your confidence and you will spiral upwards, on the right foundation.

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