Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Advantage of Disadvantages

A friend of mine, Bill Geist, who began his career in community destination marketing (DMO) about half way through mine, often poses a question to the clients for which he now consults:

“If you had it to do all over, what would you do differently?”

It has always seemed unfair for me to answer that question, not because I have been retired for four years, but because my career spanned “start-ups” in three very different parts of the country and in reflection, each time I did it very differently.

It wasn’t because I was a visionary, but I’ve always been somewhat entrepreneurial.  Steve Tobak wrote this week from Silicon Valley that having grand visions (or delusions) is one of the 7 great things entrepreneurs don’t do.

The “shoe” also “fits” with two of Tobak’s other entrepreneurial traits - I didn’t do it for the money and I didn’t try to be what I am not.

People often credit me as visionary but with no disrespect intended, it seems that can be said of almost anyone in hindsight.  Researchers find that success is usually more about “grit.”

To me the term “visionary” is suspect because it gets sullied when bestowed by special interests to schmooze someone who goes their way.

But whenever that label is applied to me now in retirement, I find myself looking back to unwrap what really happened.  Maybe the answer can help people just starting careers.

Not only is the personality of each community different, especially the three I represented, but each one faces a unique set or mix of barriers, and in essence, my former field of community marketing is about lowering barriers.

When I reflect back on what some people credit as insight, I see that each new approach I took during a start-up was really more about one of the themes Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his new book released last month entitled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

If there is an overarching theme to my success in the three communities I represented while managing the marketing arm for each, it was understanding what Gladwell calls “the advantages of disadvantages and the disadvantages of advantages.”

For example, I am often credited with first seeing that the “region” contrived to reference communities including Durham, North Carolina where I finished my career many years ago, was very different than those centered around just one dominant community.

It is true that I was the first to note that distinction and that being polycentric was actually an advantage.  This was to the consternation of some media outlets which misconstrued it as a “centered” model that represented many more hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

But how this came to me involves no stroke of brilliance.  I just made a connection.

Actually, the late Rick Kasper who was publisher of the Durham Herald Sun was the one who took my crude diagrams and examples and made them into a chart. He used to describe it to a regional conference invoking a room of nodding heads.

Ted Abernathy, who for a time headed economic development in Orange County and then Durham, should be credited with applying the terminology “polycentric vs. centric” regions to describe the distinction.

It was Harvey Schmitt who runs the chamber in Raleigh who teamed with me to adapt it to officially describe the Research Triangle Region as a “family of distinct and separate communities.”

The story of how the notion that the greater region around Durham was polycentric came to me in the late summer of 1989.  As with most epiphanies, it was more of a low key “hmm” followed much later by an “ah-ha.”  Definitely no “thunderbolt.”

Doing things differently is part of innovation—at least at the margins—and innovation is about making connections.  At the time I happened to be in the process of evaluating office and marketing technology for Durham’s new community destination marketing organization.

Because most organizations of this type and larger were still stuck using only stand-alone desktop computers—if any—and then primarily only for word processing, it would have been easy to replicate what we used in Anchorage, Alaska when I left.

It already enabled a competitive advantage in productivity.

There, in the early 1980s, we had moved to variations of a main-frame computer, first with the CADO system for accounting and then later with the IBM System 36 where I got a taste of what I would soon know as networking when it became viable.

So when I arrived in Durham at the end of the decade, I was already primed based on that experience to leapfrog the competition even further by adopting a relatively new approach then called a “local area network.”

This technology had been used by universities since the 1960s and by large corporations beginning with Chase Manhattan Bank in 1977.  But innovations in the mid-1980s began to make it feasible for smaller organizations as well.

It turned out to be more than just leapfrogging when this idea of each person having a terminal that works as a node along a network to share files and collaborate via email turned out to be the same concept behind the Internet which was opened to the public two years later in 1991.

A favorite saying of mine is that such an advantage provides only a “20 second head start.”  Adopting an internal local area network in 1989 gave the Durham start-up one of several immediate advantages as well as an understanding of the power of the World Wide Web when it rolled out in 1994, transforming community marketing.

Still, the path has been clearly marked since the early 1980s when the first IBM PC appeared in storefronts.

While IT professionals were explaining the concept of a “local area network” to me is when I began to gradually make the connection to a more accurate description of the regional setting surrounding Durham.

Rather than being main framed to any one dominant community at the center, Durham and other communities in the region including Raleigh were unique nodes on a network.

In fact, Durham was also a node in many other regions as each involving a different set of communities, e.g. communities along I-85, communities with Minor League baseball teams, communities with acclaimed private universities, communities with research parks, communities with organic personalities, etc.

If you want some other examples in the past, present and future about the advantages of networks vs. main frames, then read a book released last year by Steven Johnson entitled Future PerfectHe begins with a story about why German railroads outperformed French railroads in the 1800s.

The reason the connection I took from the IT example was so useful is that it was obvious from surveys after I arrived that in spite of being hammered by news outlets to think like a region centered around Raleigh, it simply wasn’t working.

Only 1-in-10 people viewed the region that way while nearly 8-in-10 of the people living in Triangle communities preferred to characterize where they lived by a specific city, town or county, while the rest thought in terms of neighborhoods.

Surveys showed that even people living in Wake County objected to the term “greater” Raleigh.  This was important because to promote Durham—or actually to promote anything—requires creating “divergence,” the second fundamental principal of naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

A few months before I retired from community destination marketing, Al and Laura Ries wrote an excellent book about “divergence” entitled The Origin of BrandsUntil I read that book, I probably used terms such as differentiation when I really meant divergence.

Our challenge in Durham’s marketing arm was to find ways for Durham to diverge and emerge from the shadows of more established destinations while at the same time preserving its connections to neighboring communities.

Looking back, I can see the “dots” I was fortunate enough to “connect” but the process was much messier and and far more ambiguous than I am able to relate.  It certainly wasn’t part of some “grand vision.”

Of course I had good mentors, read widely and was fortunate to have proclivities such as critical thinking, as well as having been fortunate enough to be engaged by communities with a deep sense of place.

If I were to do it all over again—and I have absolutely no inclination to do so—I wouldn’t change a thing…and I would change everything.

But I don’t have to.   While much of what is being done in my former field has transcended anything I envision I would or could have done, especially here in Durham, one thing remains a constant:

The drive to do things differently.

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