Have you seen my Marketing diagram before? This is the one I use to help explain marketing in terms of its breadth and depth in your business.

I also usually say, “I’m biased, but I believe EVERYTHING in your business is about marketing.”

Go ahead and take a gander and then tell me you don’t agree (I’ll wait)…


So in light of this month’s topic (market research) and this month’s mission (to hold an “Un-Focus Group” online), I thought it would be seriously helpful if we also talked about Iteration.

That’s a word you want to get to know and get comfortable with.

It’s an experience that every start-up business goes through and you really can’t skip over it.

In fact, things will go a LOT easier for you if you learn to expect it, plan for it and embrace it as part of the growth process.

Basically, we iterate while creating/delivering a product or service for a particular type of client or customer.

First we do our research. We get to know our target market inside and out. We put together an offering that we believe fills a gap and will solve their problems.

And then we gather feedback — from our customers AND ourselves.

Did that offering do what you expected it to? Did people respond to it? Was it satisfying for you to deliver it? Or did it create more headaches than you’d expected?

We take all of that data and then we refine and/or shift the offering to make it more appropriate for the customer and/or ourselves.

In English, that just means you won’t get it right your first time out of the gate. Even if you’re an experienced business person with tons of marketing experience.

Here’s how I know that’s true…

In 2006, I moved back to my hometown so I could deal with some family issues. My employer allowed me to telecommute. We both thought the move was temporary, but it wasn’t.

When I realized I needed to stay put, there were decisions to be made. I could either find a new job (probably in Los Angeles which would mean an hour+ commute each way), or I could finally start my dream company.

I opted for the dream.

Later that year, I launched an agency called Social Good Marketing. My vision was to create a company that provided strategy, public relations, graphic and web design to nonprofit clients.

I did the research. I wrote the business plan. I built the agency.

My tagline was “We only use our marketing superpowers for good.” 

And I had a solid policy of no fear-based messages. Ever.

What I didn’t count on was the out-dated thinking of the local nonprofits.

They were still very much attached to using fear-based tactics. You’ve seen them: Help us NOW or we won’t be able to accomplish our goals.

They didn’t really see the value of telling positive stories. Of sharing the successes they’d been a part of. (They did that a little, but most of the time it was send money now or our community will DIE!)

So after about three months and many conversations later, I saw that I’d need to shift my focus to mission-driven for profit businesses. Which — given the locale I served — meant mostly artists, massage therapists and green businesses.

Ultimately (because the artists tended to not have a budget for marketing), most of my clients fell into the green/sustainability bucket.

At first, this was a great thing. Sustainable business and social enterprise were still new enough (in this particular region) that I had no competition. So I pursued this niche with a passion.

It was something I cared about passionately.

Life was good. Business was good.

And…the better it became, the more I felt like I needed to set the bar high and BE a beacon for good.

Then two things happened:

1. The economy began it’s now infamous decline.

2. A big client left town owing me nearly $25,000.

So, not only was I feeling like I’d created this unattainable ideal that I needed to live up to, but I also had to deal with a severe lack of cash flow.

I laid off my one employee. I rented out one of the offices in my suite to another solopreneur.

But honestly? I was not a happy camper.

The thing you also need to know is that I’d been increasingly frustrated the entire year before that. The clients I was helping didn’t understand the need for a business plan. They came to me when they needed a logo designed or a brochure created, but they’d never given a second thought to who they really were and what their branding needed to accomplish.

My contract vendors (other graphic designers) were also causing me headaches. Essentially, I couldn’t find designers who charged a reasonable rate, were skillful and creative AND could meet deadlines.

And then one of my clients did something surprising. They offered me a full-time job with a nice salary and potential for bonuses. They offered to take over my office lease and buy my furniture and equipment. In short, they offered me a way out.

I took it.

So for a year and a half I was an employee again. Doing something I loved, true — but not playing the leadership role I’d thought they’d promised.

Ultimately, life conspired to send a new man into my life and when he asked me to move in with him (he lived 300+ miles away), I said yes.

He told me to take my time and figure out what I wanted to do.

He created a supportive comfort zone that allowed me to play with the things I loved best: food/cooking and writing. Just for the joy of it.

It wasn’t long before I realized I could combine the two things into a new business: Word Chef Enterprises.

In this case, Word had a double meaning. I would help my clients with their marketing messages and their websites (via WordPress).

But this time, I would focus more on teaching and consulting and less on doing the work for my clients. I’d avoid the things that had caused me so much unhappiness before.

My idea was solid, but the deeper I got into WordPress, the more I realized that there was SO much more to learn. And while I loved the platform, it wasn’t something I felt I could devote that much time and energy to.

So I shifted/iterated again.

Now the focus is on marketing messages — starting with the branding (the Secret Sauce) and building out into all channels of delivery (e.g., social media, email, etc.).

But wait! I wasn’t done refining just yet.

There were two areas that needed adjusting:

1. One-on-one consulting/mentoring

2. Group Coaching

In my previous business, I saw over and over again that my clients needed help with their business planning. So, this time I decided to make that one of my core offerings.

The trouble was, this type of offering didn’t seem as attractive to the solo biz owners I wanted to work with.

I had assumed that because I’d been able to sell consulting services to small businesses in the past, that I could sell them just as easily to solo biz owners.

The other issue (group coaching/classes) also threw me for a loop.

In the past, I’d taught a lot of in-person workshops. And I LOVED those.

There was real energy and engagement between myself and the students — and among the students themselves. Many folks said the classes were “life changing” for them. (I was teaching them how to write business plans.)

When I tried to take those classes into the online world, I found things didn’t quite translate there.

The curriculum was the same, but the students weren’t as engaged. They weren’t completing their work at nearly the same rate. Why?

Over time, I realized that teaching online classes required a whole new set of skills. So I went back to the drawing board and researched what needed to be done. (It’s ultimately how the Digital Dining Room came to be what it is now.)

In my first business (with Social Good), it was easy to connect with potential clients because I did a LOT of in-person networking and public speaking. 

I was comfortable in the classroom and it was easy to create an engaging atmosphere for my students.

This time, I my strategies couldn’t rely on the in-person stuff. Especially because my intent was to create a location-independent business. So I was gonna need to bump up the basic online strategies if I had any hope at all of doing this successfully.

Two big lessons learned:

1. Your assumptions (drawn from experience) usually don’t translate completely to new places or channels. Your ideal clients will be different from location to location. You can’t take the profile of one and apply it to everyone across the board. In my case, the nonprofits I worked for and with in Northern California weren’t like the ones I tried to work with in Southern California. They didn’t understand what a social enterprise was (a nonprofit that functioned like a business with earned income and not reliant solely on donations). Also, the shift from a location-based business to an online only business also required new ways of thinking about how I marketed and how I talked with potential clients.

2. Your Ideal Clients’ needs won’t necessarily translate into something they want to buy. Often times, we sally forth with product creation based on what we observe that people need. But if your ideal client doesn’t know that they need that thing, you’ll have a terrible time trying to sell them on it. In my case, the start-ups I worked with needed help with their biz planning, but that didn’t mean they were willing or able to pay for that assistance. Until they could see and understand those needs as acute (versus just a nice-to-have someday kind of thing), they wouldn’t be lining up to buy my higher priced mentoring/consulting packages.

How I Continue to Learn About My Ideal Clients

1. Collect questions and comments. Every comment on my blog, every response to an email, every post on social media is a potential clue. When something looks intriguing, I copy it over to a digital collection file. It’s important to have these things in folks’ own words. I don’t just do this once and forget it. I do it over and over and over. Market research is never done.

2. Surveys. Market research can do a couple of things for you: provide you with real world insights into your ideal clients AND allow you to get some much needed PR in the process. I’ve done BIG surveys in every position I’ve held over the last 15 years — many that included a PR component. And I do little, one-question surveys with my clients. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Just know that sometimes, people will tell you what they think you want to hear. And not what’s true. It’s human nature, but that doesn’t mean you should stop asking. Just remember to listen.

3. Look for patterns. What things keep coming up over and over? What problems or complaints keep recurring? I look for common threads and then use those to develop new products, services and even marketing content. And then I go back to listening. Did it work? What needs to shift? How can I make it better?

Sometimes things flop. That’s okay. But don’t just throw your hands in the air and walk away. Try to look at the situation like a scientist or a CSI detective. Ask questions. Try to determine what happened. See what results you get if you change one thing. Test it again. Iterate. Test it again. Iterate…

Are you having fun yet? (Share a question or comment below and let’s make this process the adventure it is!)