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Polarize Your Offerings

Posted by Dave Allee on


This piece originally appeared on the Almond Surfboards blog:

I wrote briefly last week on the subject of "doing the work that others aren't willing to do" in an effort to share more of the lessons I have learned over the last eight years, and received some encouraging feedback from that post.  One guy on Instagram even did an illustration based on the piece, which was awesome. So, I'm going to continue sharing some things that I think have value.  Part of it feels a bit counter-intuitive, because I've had to learn these the hard way, and there's a certain right-of-passage involved, but hopefully you will save yourself some headaches by learning from me.  I know I have certainly had plenty of wise people help me out along the way.  Today I want to talk about product offerings. Whether you manufacture and sell a product line, or provide a set of services, hopefully you will find value in this one.  I must preface by saying I believe in this one whole-heartedly, so if you are an entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur or freelancer, pay attention.

I believe it was Mark Twain that said "I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time." (or something to that affect)  The point, I'm assuming, he was trying to make, is that it is really difficult to edit yourself.  This is especially true with brands or freelancers.  What I mean by that is, there is an overwhelming temptation to want to get your hands into too many things: "If having six items is good, having 45 items is even better, because there are more options for people to choose from." Wrong.

In 2015, we have been advertised to and marketed to and lied to for enough years to be skeptical of most of what we run across.  A brand that slaps their label on everything they can think of is essentially trying to say "we're experts at ALL of these things" It doesn't work that way anymore.  The days of "if you build it, they will come" are long over, because the barrier to entry to starting a brand (or becoming a graphic designer or fill in the blank) is essentially nothing.  Literally anyone can start a brand these days.  All it takes is a foundation level understanding of Photoshop and a few hundred (better make it thousand) bucks. As tempting as it may be to start printing and embossing your newly penned logo onto everything you can get your hands on, you've lost the game already.

More and more I see people responding positively to brands, individuals and craftsmen who are specialized; who know what value they add, and who stick to their guns.  So far, this might just sound like I'm beating the "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" horse, but I promise I'm working my way to a real point, if you stick with me.  The temptation to do too many products, or offer too many services, is rooted in the idea that casting a wider net will equal catching more fish.  The lesson I would like to expand upon today has less to do with the size of the net, and more to do with the type of net.  At the root of the temptation to offer too much is a lack of understanding about what role each product/service plays.

I believe there are three major categories of products in a business:
1. High-visibility, high-price-point, Brand Builders
2. High-volume, lower price-point Bank Account Builders
3. Gray-area stuff that falls in the middle, that doesn't really serve either.

Before you produce a new product, you need to be really honest about whether that product is intended to be a Brand-Builder or a Bank-Builder.  Is this the product you are leading with, to establish who you are and what you're about; or is it a support product that you can sell 100 of for every 1 of the Brand-Builders you sell?  If the answer isn't clear, I suggest you take a close look at that product and find a way to make it:
A. Carry more of the values of your brand, so it says something significant about you.
B. Lower price, and higher volume, so you can actually sell enough of them to make it worthwhile.

Same could be said for a designer, you might be known for these really extravagant design pieces that you do, but you really make most of your income doing marketing campaigns for a real estate company.  There's no shame in that, you just have to know what role each one plays.

Using us as an example, it's fairly easy to point to our surfboards as being our high-visibility, high-price-point brand builder.  The surfboards are what we hang our reputation on, and it epitomizes the value we want to add to the marketplace.  To a certain degree, some of our apparel pieces are in the same boat.  We make our clothes our of primarily natural fibers, and make them in California, and build them (hopefully) to last.  Our boardshorts, for example, are 70% cotton and 30% nylon, because we wanted them to have some weight and substance, and we triple-needle stitched all the structural seams, because we wanted them to last. These aren't exactly following the trend of 4-way super stretch, and they certainly aren't a throw-back pair of 100% nylon trunks, but they speak to the values and aesthetics of the brand.  We know that we won't sell 1,500 pairs of them this year, but I'm okay with that, because they are the trunks we wanted to build, not the trunks we thought we could sell 1,500 pairs of.  The same could be said about much of our line.  

On the other end of the spectrum, we sell t-shirts and keychains and coffee mugs, posters and carpenter's pencils.  These are all products that bear our name, and our aesthetics, but don't really speak volumes about who we are striving to be as a brand.  Sure, the keychain will help you get your fin in and out of your finbox, in a pinch, but we aren't rocking the world of keychains and Every Dar Carry aficionados. And our t-shirts are all custom made and dyed in Los Angeles, but we aren't cotton scientists looking to wow the world with our developments in washes and construction.  It's a logo t-shirt, and we hope that people who identify with the values set forth by the surfboards, surf trunks, and retail space will proudly wear their Almond t-shirt.

Surfboards and t-shirts are pretty easy to identify, but what about that "Gray Area" I mentioned? This is where, I believe, too many people get lost.  This is where the inability to edit yourself causes you to loose focus, and wander away from the path.  If a project, or product or service doesn't speak to some deep conviction, and it doesn't immediately look like a clear-cut financial opportunity, maybe it's a stone better left unturned.  Hindsight is 20-20, and sometimes you don't know what you have until you explore uncharted territory, so don't use this as an excuse to not pursue something new, rather use this as a filter for checking yourself along the way.  As you dig deeper into a new pursuit, continually ask yourself what role you hope this new venture will play.  Is this something meaningful that adds value to everything else you do? Or is this a way to help pay the bills so you can continue to do the part you love?  If the answer is neither, consider leaving it alone.