Author Archive

‘No one will ever love your software… and that’s OK’

Posted on: April 29th, 2024 by Michael Millar No Comments

The inspiring – and deeply personal – story of how our new head of product development conceived, built, and sold his own SaaS company.

In this interview, Bjørn Ivar Knudsen talks about:

  • The overheard conversation that put him on the track to SaaS success
  • How being a misfit from early on shaped him into a successful entrepreneur
  • The ‘euphoric’ experience of his first paying customer, and how he won thousands more afterwards by helping them ‘walk on the grass’
  • The tactics he used to build his customer base …including the underhand ones
  • How he got on the radar of the market-leading software firm, then persuaded them to buy his platform
Bjørn Ivar smiling at the camera in the SmplCo office

When you talk to Bjørn Ivar Knudsen, there’s always a glint in his eye. 

Is it a sense of mischief or just a restless curiosity? In my experience it’s usually a bit of both.

Those traits have served him very well in the past. They helped BIK (as he’s fondly known ’round these parts) to design, build and finally sell his telematics software, QuickLog, to market-leader ABAX, contributing to the evolution of Europe’s second-largest asset tracking platform.

His latest move is to step down as chairman of SmplCo to join the company full time, so he can help entrepreneurs and innovators to bring their own digital dreams to life. (A decision he wryly puts down to the fact that ‘SmplCo has suddenly got so interesting and profitable’.)

A euphoric, defining moment

When I ask BIK about his success as an entrepreneur, he doesn’t focus on that holy grail for entrepreneurs: exiting.

Instead, he keeps coming back to his first sale and his first customer.

‘That was euphoric, a defining moment,’ he says. ‘In that moment I knew somebody felt something I’d created was worth something to them; so much so that they were willing to pay for it.’ 

‘I still remember the names of my first customers,’ he adds with a big smile on his face. ‘The very first one was called Lars, he was a golf pro and a travelling salesman.’

BIK’s first software dashboard.

How did winning that first customer feel, compared to the sense of accomplishment that came at the other end of the journey, when he sold the business?

‘Selling a business is not like getting your first customer,’ BIK says. ‘It’s a final confirmation that you have built something of value. And of course, the money arriving in your bank account is a great reward for all the effort and time and stress.’ 

‘But the best moment is when the first customers use your software. There’s no feeling like that.’

The origins of BIK

Bjørn Ivar’s backstory would delight a Hollywood scriptwriter.

‘I’ve always been a misfit,’ he says. ‘I’ve never felt comfortable unless I’m doing my own thing.’

Both nature and nurture clearly played their part in that.

‘I was born in what would be considered the worst part of this town back in the 70s,’ BIK says. ‘Then I grew up in what was then the second worst place, in the 80s!’

‘I had a teacher who complained that I didn’t want to learn but that wasn’t true – I just struggled to learn in the traditional way,’ he explains. ‘You’d probably get some diagnosis and help now, but there wasn’t any of that.’

Young Bjørn Ivar struggled at school

This was a crossroads in BIK’s entrepreneurial journey, although he could not possibly have realised it all those years ago.

‘I have a passion for simplifying things, and I think that comes from my school days,’ he says. ‘I used to take longer than most to get the hang of tasks and problems.’

‘So, I got into the habit of finding different ways to tackle them, to simplify them and – unconsciously – challenge the established way of thinking, which was often overly-complicated.’

He quickly discovered he wasn’t alone.

‘When I simplified things for myself, I found there were a whole lot of other kids who were just pretending to understand. So, I ended up helping them too.’

A fateful telephone call

That desire to simplify ideas and help people to solve problems never went away. 

You get the sense that BIK wants to help everyone… even if they haven’t asked for him for help.

The genesis of his telematics firm, QuickLog, is a case in point.

‘I came up with my first SaaS company after I overheard an accountant complaining about how bad their employees were at logging business travel mileage,’ he says 

‘They were saying how much money could be saved if there was a program that could create and keep travel records, and I thought: “Hmmm…”’

The beating heart of Bjørn Ivar’s QuickLog business

BIK’s programming skills were a bit outdated, so he got a book called “Learn PHP in 21 days”.

‘Around 18 days later, I’d created a simple prototype for something that would determine travel destinations and distances and store them in the cloud,’ he says, laughing at his own audacity.

‘I tested it on my friends, and – to my great surprise – most were really impressed with how it worked.

‘This eventually became QuickLog,’ he explains. ‘When we sold that company to telematics leader Abax ten years later, my little start-up had grown into the largest app- and SaaS-based service of its kind in the country.’

‘Help people walk on the grass’

That growth was driven by a genuine desire to understand his customers and put his ego to one side.

‘You have to solve someone else’s problem if you’re going to succeed,’ BIK says. ‘In fact, you don’t even need to solve it, just help make something they don’t like a bit easier for them.’

‘So often, nobody cares. They hate the task. They don’t love your solution. They just love spending less time on getting their job done.’

‘What they really want is for you to make their lives easier and help them do more of what they love; whether that’s making more money, spending more time with their kids, going fishing, whatever.’

‘You can quickly get caught up in ego,’ he adds. ‘But you are just an atom in their lives. They have their own struggles and KPIs and things they want to solve, and you’ve got to do whatever you can to help with that.’

A schematic of one of Smpl's client protoypes
Behind-the-scenes: creating amazing digital experiences with BIK at SmplCo

To make your solution work, you’ve got to solve your customers’ problems in ways that work for them.

‘You’ve got to respect and accommodate people’s bad habits, their way of working,’ Bjørn Ivar adds.

‘People don’t keep to the path, they want to walk on the grass if it’s easier and quicker for them.’

‘So, you’ve got to fit in with them. That’s what we did with the mileage claim software and why it was a success.’

It’s good to talk

Getting this right meant BIK getting out in the market and talking to as many people as possible.

‘To start with, there were no barriers between our QuickLog team and our users,’ BIK says. ‘We were listening to them all the time. Even when we got to thousands of users I was still calling up and talking to as many as I could.’

Bjørn Ivar dismisses the often-held fear that if you get out into the market and talk to people, someone will steal your ideas.

‘Innovators – particularly start-up founders –have a tendency to be afraid of sharing their ideas,’ he says. ‘But this is usually your ego speaking. People don’t usually steal ideas, they are more interested in their own ones.’

Instead, he believes secrecy puts limitations on innovators.

‘You need to think: “Is this the fastest way to get this to market?”’ BIK says. ‘And you won’t get the answer unless you get people on board, share ideas, and get feedback.’ 

‘You won’t get any of that that if you go around being all secretive.’

How SmplCo gets people talking about your Big Idea

Guerrilla War

The only time Bjørn Ivar did require secrecy was when he turned to marketing tactics that were …questionable.

‘There was no social media when I started, it was all about my banners on different webpages and in magazines,’ he says. ‘But I tested everything to see where I’d get the best return.’

‘The best traction I got was fax marketing because all the offices had faxes – so I could get straight in there – and I knew all the companies needed what I was selling.’ 

‘I tested everything, including black [all ink] backgrounds that really stood out but made people angry because they got ink all over themselves!’

For anyone under 35, this is a fax machine.

With a cheeky smile Bjørn Ivar turns to the darker arts.

‘The tech websites used to do software reviews that anyone could do if they registered,’ he says. ‘So, I registered my software and created lots of different aliases to review my own software. I used to set an hour aside each night to do it!’

That went on until one user got suspicious and started replying to the reviews asking what the reviewer’s interest in the software really was…

Selling the business

Bjørn Ivar made so much noise in his industry that one of the big players, ABAX, came knocking.

He was ready for them.

‘I got a call from a guy representing ABAX,’ he says. ‘Straight away, I went to research them so I could understand what they were missing and where they were coming from,’ BIK says.

‘When I went to visit, I guess they’d already spent quite a lot of time picking my product apart, so they knew it was valuable to them – and I knew that too.’

‘Because of all the marketing I’d done they had no idea how small my business was, so I had an advantage,’ BIK adds.

He went in with one goal: to give his suitors the impression he was fierce competition with skills and ideas they didn’t have.

‘You should never go into these meetings with your cap in your hand,’ Bjorn Ivar says. ‘Go in proud and confident. You should never give the impression that you need them, even if you probably do.’

‘If a rival is looking at you, give the impression you are standing on your own two feet and – even if you aren’t a threat now – at some point they are going to have become scared of you.’

Bjørn Ivar stealing the show with his homemade Tiki Bar at the 2024 Impact Awards

Everlasting truths

Despite 20 years passing since he first stepped into the world of entrepreneurs and innovation, Bjørn Ivar says the rules haven’t changed, even if the tech has.

‘The key to success is getting out there and digging the ditches,’ he says. ‘You need to talk to customers and get under their skin; to feel and see and experience their pain. You need to be a user of your own system.’

‘Success lies in getting out of your bubble and getting into your customers’ shoes.’

If you want to catch up with Bjørn Ivar, or talk to the team about how we can bring your Big Idea to life faster, more efficiently – and considerably less stressfully – than anyone else, we’d love to hear from you.
Click here to email our MD Andreas, or leave us a message here.

Discover a Holy Grail of Innovation

Posted on: March 25th, 2024 by Michael Millar No Comments
How can you help customers solve a problem they don’t even know they have yet?

We recently spent time with a team of entrepreneurs who are seeking one of the holy grails of innovation: to develop a product or service that customers need… even if they don’t know it yet.

In this article we’re going to explain how they’re doing that – and you can too.

A tale of horses and apples

When it comes to the subject of solving problems people don’t know they have, this quote by Apple’s Steve Jobs keeps coming up:

“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.'”

It reminds us of one the chief drivers of civilisation (and hence innovation) since the dawn of time: convenience.

And therein lies the secret to finding the Grail…

Not a horse: the first Ford ‘Quadricycle’

How can you find this Grail?

There are lots of ways to conduct your quest to solve a problem customers don’t even know they have yet.

But I’d argue that the simplest route – and the one our entrepreneur friends are using – is to follow three steps:

Step 1️⃣

Start with the essential strategy for any successful innovation. Namely, taking something people want/need and make it easier, better, and/or more convenient. (Making something mind-blowingly original can be disastrous. As our co-founder and tech giant Lasse Andresen likes to say: “People with unique ideas often have stupid ideas”.)

Step 2️⃣

Work out how you can combine multiple – currently unconnected – tasks / problems / interests via one, easy-to-use, platform, product or service. This is exactly what Jobs did with the iPhone, by bringing together a telephone, music service, and ‘internet communicator’ (as he called it at the time).

Step 3️⃣

Get out there and test your hypothesis with good old-fashioned market research. The world does not need any more products or services that solve a problem no one actually has.

We’d obviously recommend our 5-Day Prototypes to help test your ideas. This video explains how and why:

Finding the Grail

The innovators who inspired this article are using their new tech to link several household items/utilities, which you’d never have thought could or should be interlinked.

It’s one of those “Why-has-no-one-not-thought-of-that-before?” ideas.

By connecting these, they are not only making it cheaper, easier, and more efficient to carry out household tasks, they are adding value by letting customers use those those utilities in new ways.

One example of this value creation is using their tech to transform an item you usually put energy into, into a storage device you can take energy out of, when required.

Their stroke of genius was to see the problems inherent in NOT connecting and leveraging the functionality of these standalone items, which they realised could add value by working together.

This insight has allowed them to develop a solution that customers don’t know they need yet, but which will make their lives more convenient and cost-efficient.

Conceptually, it’s not that different from, say, taking a telephone, music service, and ‘internet communicator’, and putting them into one, convenient device.

Delivering on your potential

A caveat: even if you discover this Grail (which I keep banging on about like I’m in a Monty Python film), you can still quickly lose your way.

For all his creative genius and pithy quotes, it’s easy to forget that even the mighty Mr Jobs did not always get this stuff right himself.

Take the launch of the revolutionary Apple Macintosh. This event happened 40 years ago, but still offers a great example of getting innovation right… and wrong.

Talkin’ about a revolution: Steve Jobs and the Macintosh in 1984

There are two major things today’s digital innovators can learn from that momentous event.

Major Thing Number 1️⃣

The launch of the Apple Macintosh was a huge success from a PR perspective.

That was because the STORYTELLING was excellent, with really clear, exciting messaging that culminated in a great piece of theatre.

At the event, Steve lifted the Mac out of its bag (!) and fired it up with next-to-no effort.

Little monochromatic words and pictures flashed up on the screen, all set to the suitably inspiring Chariots of Fire.

The computer even SPOKE.

Here’s the highlights of that event:

The crowd – who were all shareholders, by the way – went wild.

Apple got blanket media coverage of its funky new tech, driven by some great storytelling that focused on how easy it was to use (you needed a degree in astrophysics to start computers back then).

That’s lesson one: the importance of a great story – and being able to get it out of your head and told in a way people will engage with.

I’ve written a guide to doing that. Check it out.

Major Thing Number 2️⃣

The importance of KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE.

Those shareholders who went wild might not have been so happy in the following months because, despite all the hype, the Mac did not sell that well.

This takes us back to our points above about solving real problems for real people and testing hypotheses.

There’s no question they had solved a problem by making computers much more user-friendly.

But Apple and Jobs hadn’t really worked out who it was for. There was a presumption that its cool branding and user-friendliness (or UX/UI as it would be called now) would entice everyone. It didn’t.

Apple had to pivot the brand to focus on a more creative community before the product really took off.

Winning at innovation in 2024

There is still a ludicrous number of products and services created today that don’t really understand or serve their audiences.

But, unlike the Apple shareholders at the 1984 Mac launch, 2024 shareholders/investors/budget holders won’t be so tolerant if they can’t clearly understand who you are serving and how.

Once you’ve come up with a way to solve a problem no one knows they have yet, you’ll be much more successful if you then combine great storytelling with a laser focus on the core of how you will solve that problem.

If you want an example of someone who is GREAT at this, check out this interview with Vibeke from SR-Bank. In it, she lays out her process for gathering, judging, testing, and selling her innovation ideas.

For all your grail-questing needs

It’s easy to set out all this theory, but you need practical solutions too.

That’s why we created the 5-Day Prototype to help you overcome the challenges set out above.

It allows us to focus relentlessly on the problem clients are solving, who they are solving it for, and the core flows that will deliver that.

That’s how our clients raised over €3.5m last year, won awards, and landed big clients – before they even had a product.

Here’s an example of a 5-Day Prototype in action:

Good luck on your quest for your own personal Grail! If you’d like our help with your innovation agenda, let us know. Our SmplCo strategists and designers have helped numerous clients find their market fit, get investor/stakeholder buy-in, and win both awards and their first customers .
To find out more, email our MD Andreas or just leave us a message here and we’ll come straight back to you.

How to innovate in a corporate environment

Posted on: January 17th, 2023 by Michael Millar No Comments
Who says innovation is just for start-ups? Michael Millar explains how you can develop the next big thing in places where innovation may not be a priority.

Trying to drive innovation in a corporate environment is a mixed blessing.

There is (in theory) access to expertise and budget and support structures.

But what’s that coming over the hill? Oh no, it’s the Corporate Bureaucracy Monster!

It has talons made of procurement, fists toughened by legacy IT systems, many corporate silos for tails, and the blazing eyes of executive politicking.

I’ve done battle with this beast in some of the biggest firms in the world. Here are my five steps to subduing it…

1. Back yourself

Before you do anything else, take a look in the mirror and recognise you’re the one to change the world in your own little way.

It’s very easy to think successful innovation is the domain of people blessed with genius, good timing, and loads of luck.

In most cases it is nothing of the sort.

Successful innovation comes from finding a new way to solve a problem or meet a need, creating value for your customers, and improving the bottom line.

This usually comes from experience; from seeing a problem or opportunity and grabbing hold of it.

And make no mistake, if you’ve spotted that problem or opportunity, there’s no better person to latch onto it than you.

It is your experience – your immersion in your area of expertise – that has brought this opportunity to life. It is you taking your understanding of data, inefficient processes, and/or shifting marketplaces to update a product or create a whole new service.

You you you.

As such, you are the ideal person to drive innovation. So, back yourself. (And remember, if you don’t, how can you expect anyone else to take a gamble on you?)

Tiny corporate businessman sitting at desk and thinking
So, tell me about this “innovation” you speak of…

2. Build support

You can’t battle the Corporate Bureaucracy Monster all by yourself. You’ve got to get the right colleagues on your side if you are going to drive corporate innovation.

Here’s how I’d recommend you do that quickly and effectively:

  • Put together a list of core stakeholders that you’ll need to involve to obtain the buy-in and support you need. Obvious candidates for this are the product owner, your manager, the budget holder, and friendly clients/customers (for validation)
  • Once you have that shortlist, create a longer list covering everyone who could help or hinder you within your organisation. Do this by dividing them into four groups of people who would be involved in the delivery of your project:
    • Those that are / would be responsible for actions and outcomes
    • Those ultimately accountable for those outcomes
    • Those who you’ll want to consult due to their expertise or place in the hierarchy
    • The people you’ll need to keep informed along the way, so they aren’t out of the loop
  • When you know who those people are, put yourself in their shoes, asking what they want and how your idea would benefit them. This will allow you to tell a story and pitch your ideas in a way they will understand. There is simply no more powerful way to sell an idea than telling people what’s in it for them ­– both in terms of the benefits they’ll get and the risks they’ll avoid

If you take these steps early on ­– combining what’s important to your audience and what you need from them – you’ll save you a lot of time and stress later on.

Make quick, effective gains by stripping your idea back

Michael Millar

3. Prioritise and focus

Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll be pushing innovation on top of everything else you’re already working on – and you’ll be doing it with less money than you need.

This means you’ve got to make the best use of your time and resources to make rapid progress.

To get off to the best start, take the data and insight you have, workshop ideas with key stakeholders, and quickly create a basic prototype.

Doing this will allow you to make quick, effective gains by stripping your idea back and clearly focusing on a core customer journey and getting to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) fast.

You will also better engage with your stakeholders and demonstrate early progress – both crucial to keeping the right people interested and on-side.

Workshop attendees hard at work
At Smpl we love a good workshop

4. Encourage creativity in others

If you’re in a leadership position, do whatever you can to foster a culture of corporate innovation within your organisation. (If you’re not, show your leaders this article and tell them Smpl – a company founded and run by some wildly successful entrepreneurs – sent you.)

Create systems that encourage anyone to suggest new ideas. Then build the processes to facilitate quick, cheap experiments to validate those ideas (again, workshops and fast prototypes will be crucial to this).

You don’t need to spend lots of money (although wouldn’t it be nice to have something like Google X or Disney Accelerator?) I’m talking about creating spaces and forums where people can have the autonomy to:

  • act like entrepreneurs
  • connect with the support they need
  • test their theories

You’ll quickly find there’s nothing like a sense of control over destiny and connection to a purpose, to inspire colleagues to innovate.

Corporate inertia will soon be superceded by an environment where you are a disruptor, rather than the disrupted. Oh, and there’s a chance you’ll make a killing at the same time…

5. Find the right partners

There’s a very good chance you’ll need to find someone external to your organisation to bring your idea to life.

Getting the right partner is crucial. Here some key questions you should be asking yourself:

  • What track record do they have? (This doesn’t need to be in your industry, but rather in terms of navigating complex systems and finding innovative solutions )
  • Do they have the expertise across the whole design & development process? (Working between different companies/agencies can get disjointed, confusing, and stressful very quickly)
  • How do they charge? (Be wary of ‘time spent’ models. They encourage delay and high costs as firms spend as many hours as possible on your project)
  • Who exactly will own and run your project on their side? (All-too-often you will be pitched the A-team, while inexperienced staff deliver your project)
  • What are their response times? (There’s nothing worse than asking questions and being met by deafening silence for days at a time)
Good luck with your journey! If we can be of any help, let us know. We have a lot of experience of delivering corporate innovation and would be happy to share it with you.
You can email our MD Andreas or just leave us a message here and we’ll come straight back to you.

“Remember, no one can taste what you taste”

Posted on: December 2nd, 2022 by Michael Millar No Comments
Meet Michael, our Head of Marketing & Brand, as he talks about the wisdom of wine, the biggest mistake you can make with your marketing, and going to war by mistake.

A life lesson from Bollinger

When I was a journalist, I got myself into all sorts of trouble (including going to war by mistake… more on that in a moment).

But one time I found myself truly out of my depth was at the launch of a new Bollinger champagne, which I’d blagged an invite to by claiming I was a wine expert. I was not.

In the private room of the exquisite London restaurant, I got my comeuppance when the President of Bollinger announced we would go round the table with each expert (that included me) offering their thoughts on this top-of-the-line Grande Année.

In a panic, I turned to the (fully qualified) Master of Wine next to me and told him I was a charlatan and in deep water. What on earth would I say?

He looked surprised at this and replied: “Remember, no one can taste what you taste. Just say whatever it is you think is right.”

It occurred to me much later that this advice was a great life lesson. Back yourself. Or, to use another well-worn phrase, ‘You do you’.

If you really believe in what you’re doing (or, indeed, tasting!) don’t take no for an answer. You don’t have to accept other peoples’ truth, particularly in relation to you and your areas of expertise.

Stand your ground, tell your story, sell your Big Idea.

After all, no one can taste what you taste. It’s just up to you to convince them that whatever you’re offering tastes great.

Screenshot of Smpl's Michael Millar reporting for the BBC
Michael telling stories, back in the day.

Life is made of stories

Another piece of wisdom I cling to is the maxim that ‘Life is made of stories’.

On your death bed, all you’ll have is the stories you created or were part of. So, you’d better make as many as you can in the time you’ve got.

But the true power of stories comes not just in making them; it comes from being able to tell them too.

This is as true professionally as it is in your personal life.

However clever you think your new product or service is, you can be sure that someone somewhere is doing something very similar. The one thing that can set you apart – every time – is your story and how you tell it.

That’s why stories must be at the core of how innovators and entrepreneurs sell their ideas to whoever needs to hear about them – be they investors, colleagues, bosses, or customers, or whoever. (I’ve written about how to master storytelling here).

Everything you do can (and should) have a narrative that creates value for your audience. And if you have a narrative, then you have a story.

If you apply storytelling correctly then even the most challenging and potentially mundane marketing tasks (creating a set of automated email follow ups, for example) suddenly become interesting to you and – more importantly – to your audience.

So, in a world of fantastically complicated algorithms, programmes, platforms, and channels, always remember that, at the end of the day, people want good stories. (Oh, wait, did I mention you can buy my books here…?)

Accept that NOBODY CARES

This is my favourite meme:

Toot toot

I show it to clients all the time to remind them of the biggest mistake people make when designing, developing, and marketing their products and services.

That mistake is to presume people will care about what you are doing.

Audiences are selfish, lazy, and ruthless. If you aren’t solving a problem, easing their pain, or fulfilling some need then they won’t care about your amazing, shiny, spinning widget thingy.

Always ask yourself: how does what I care about align with what my audience cares about? Your success lies in the sweet spot where those two things intersect.

If nothing else, ask: “Will this pass the ‘So What?’ test”.

If that’s the response you think you will get, or are actually getting, from the audience, then re-watch the meme and be honest about who your product and your messaging is really for.

Is it your audience? Or is it really to make you feel good?

Smpl's Michael Millar when he was a journalist, in body armour and helmet
“Hello? Yes, I wonder if you can help me. I’ve gone to war by mistake.”

I once went to war by mistake

Everyone has stories about waking up after a big night of partying and regretting what they’ve done.

Well, I once woke up and realisated I was going to war.

As a journalist I’d been invited to a PR firm’s office bash by an old friend. It turned out the company represented the British Army and after plying me with whisky, one astute PR exec got me signed up to go to Iraq.

I went, but not before learning the Arabic phrase: ‘la tutliquu alnaar, ana sahafi’… don’t shoot, I’m a journalist.

The time I spent there was quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, in both good and bad ways. War is horrible… and now I know too much about kill zones. But the people I met, the places I saw, the stories I heard, and the things I felt are an indelible part of me now.

There’s probably a lesson here about the importance of an inquisitive mind, taking risks, embracing new experiences, and getting the rewards.

But that’s lesson is for another time. I’m just here to tell stories… and this is a good one.

If you like to find out how you can define and tell the story of your brand, product, or service, get in touch.
You can email our MD Andreas, or leave us a message here.

How to be a successful innovator, without ‘being in sales’

Posted on: November 25th, 2022 by Michael Millar No Comments
‘Sales’ is a dirty word to many people. But those who think they aren’t in the business of sales every day of their life are either mistaken or deluded.

Every day we’re selling something to someone. Trying to raise money for your new Big Idea? Sales. Encouraging a team to undertake certain tasks? Sales. Trying to persuade my kids to get out of bed and ready for school as the rain hammers against the window? Sales.

In each scenario we are trying to sell something, even if we wouldn’t consider ourselves as ‘being in sales’.

The truth is we are all selling all the time, albeit usually in ways we find comfortable / acceptible – even if they’re difficult (goshdarn kids).

But if you want to be a successful innovator or an entrepreneur, being able to sell – and do so in any sort of circumstance – is crucial.

So, how can you move out of your comfort zone and into the realm of selling, without ever tarring yourself with the brush of ‘being in sales’?

Here are my top tips…

1. Don’t be so damn rude

There’s no escaping the fact that the idea of ‘being in sales’ turns many people off. The good thing is that we can – and should – be leaving that whole idea behind.

‘Sales’ as a concept is tainted because it is associated with a relentless, self-centred approach that no one wants. If you think of engaging with your stakeholders in terms of a hard sell – where you’re in a battle for supremecy – then you’re likely to fail.

This is an approach that is long past its sell-by date.

Instead, think about marketing and sales as being about building a relationship, based on understanding, trust, and an exchange of value.

When we think about it that way, it’s not sales. It’s communication.

Adopt the approach espoused by the marvellous Dan Fleyshman. His advice is good enough to put in massive letters:

“If you think that your product or service is good and functional and people are going to like it, you’re rude if you don’t sell it… If you have a product that you believe helps people, that tastes good…looks good on them… helps them with their family, or anything in between, you are rude if you don’t sell it.”

Dan Fleyshman

2. Focus on your audience

Look, I know you’re great. You’re goddamned fabulous. I also know your product or service is going to be – or already is – marvellous. That’s a given. Seriously, I’m in awe of you.

But now we need to move on and start thinking about your audience.

The sad truth is they don’t care that you’re awesome (like I do). They care about what’s in it for them. That’s where your focus needs to be.

This notion is neatly encapsulated in my favourite meme:

Toot toot!

It’s your job to be relevant to them. To make them care.

If you put your focus here, you’ll avoid the biggest mistake innovators and entrepreneurs make every day: not thinking about customer needs.

Ask yourself: ‘why should my customers, investors, directors (or whoever you’re talking to) care? What’s the benefit you’re offering them?’

If you don’t do this at the start of your journey and remain focused on it, chances are you’ll end up with a solution in need of a problem.

If you want to communicate your story effectively and build trust in both you and your product, take focus on where your audience wants to go and why.

And remember, the reasons your audiences will care – the reason they will believe in you – will be different in each case, so make sure your messages are tailored to those different needs.

Moreover, you have to do it in language they understand and using methods they want to engage with.

If you do this, you’ll find yourself asking questions like:

  • Why should different audiences engage with me?
  • Why do my plans and schemes matter to them?
  • How does my solution align with their purpose?
  • What challenge or problem is standing in their way, which I am ready and willing to solve?
  • Where and when do they want me to tell my story?

Once you’ve created a bond with your audience by dealing with them within their own context, you can then lay out your plan. You’ll be prefectly poised to tell your starry-eyed new acolytes precisely how you are going to help them reach their goals, to their utter delight.

And why wouldn’t they be delighted? They are clearly in presence of an expert. A person of substance. A person they want – nay, need – to do business with.

3. Find a man to bite a dog

When I was a young, naive reporter, starting out on my journalistic career, I was given two pieces of advice that really stuck with me.

The first was: ‘A good story is not “dog bites man”, it is “man bites dog”’; the lesson being the second scenario is surprising, interesting, and unusual, and thus an inherently better story than the first.

This metaphor is a great manifestation of all the key ingredients to a great story – exactly the kind of story you need to be telling to whoever needs to hear it.

Those ingredients are:

  • Topicality: your story needs to be relevant to the time or moment you are telling it
  • Relevance: your story needs to be relevant to, and ideally strike a chord with, your audience
  • Unusual: If people have heard it all before it’s unlikely they’ll be interested
  • Troublesome: an element of conflict or risk elevates every story and makes it more engaging
  • Human: bringing in a human element, whether it be case studies, stories of your own, or whatever, will make your story come alive

To help aid your memory, you’ll have spotted these make a neat acronym: TRUTH.

The author as a journalist, being particularly young and naive (and, hopefully, bulletproof)

4. Take out as much as you can

The second of the journalistic lessons I mentioned above was ‘Your story’s not finished until there’s nothing left to take out’.

This is a founding principle of Smpl and how we approach strategy, design, and development of any digital product or service.

But it should also be your credo when it comes to selling anything, whether it be a nascent idea, or an all-sing, all-dancing product.

In Point 2 above, we talked about focusing on the needs of your audience. Now we’re talking about taking those targeted needs and being laser focused on the core benefits and features you are offering to meet those needs.

If you do this your target audience will understand you and get on board with you much more quickly. than if you baffle them with endless detail.

You need to have all the detail at your fingertips, but save it until you’ve commmunicated a clear and concise story that addresses your audience’s needs or challenges.

5. Be yourself, everyone else is already taken

Finally, a motivational cliché! Sorry it took so long.

But this is one worth repeating in this context because we live in a world where people are desperate for authenticity and transparency.

It’s a world where we are becoming increasingly distrustful of the information we are being fed – and, by golly, isn’t there a lot of it!

If you’re out there telling your audience telling your story, you must be authentic. Don’t try to be someone or something you are not.

If you believe in what you are doing and saying, and you tell your story with passion (but not arrogance) then people will engage with you.

There is nuance of course; you might need to be a bit bigger, bolder, or brighter in your pitch than normal, but everything still needs to be rooted in your personality. If it isn’t, people will be suspicious and you will lose your connection to them.

I hope all this helps. Now get out there and sell. But for God’s sake, don’t ‘sell’. You’re a communicator now.

We’ve got lots more advice, bon mots, and (frankly) weird stories on our blog.
But if you want to talk to us in person about how we can design, develop, and help you sell your digital product or service more efficiently and effectively than anyone else, we’d love to hear from you.
Click here to email our MD, Andreas, or leave us a message here.

How to use stories to build your brand and win loyal customers

Posted on: November 18th, 2022 by Michael Millar No Comments
Would you ask someone to marry you on the first date? Probably not.

The same goes for customers (although this applies equally well to investors, suppliers, and any number of other stakeholders).

If you want to win them over and build a lasting relationship, you first need to build awareness, understanding, and trust in your brand.

And while no one will accept your marriage proposal straight away (sorry about that), a strong brand delivers an audience that will engage with you, do business with you, and even become your ambassadors.

Then they’ll be in for the long haul.

People engage with brands (as opposed to simply products) for lots of reasons. These include:

  • finding or reaching a desired state/status (often empowerment)
  • the feeling they get from doing so
  • the community they are joining
  • a mission or beliefs they share
  • …or a combination of the above

To make this connection with them you’ve got to tell great stories. Or, as advertising legend David Ogilvie put it:

‘tell the truth but make it fascinating’

Or as another person put it, ‘Start with the soul, not the sale’. (You won’t be surprised to hear that there’s no shortage of pithy one-liners in marketing circles).

Stories have never been more powerful

To be clear: building a successful business means engaging with customers in many different ways; storytelling isn’t a panacea.

To get folks through the digital (or, indeed, physical) door you’ll still have to consider things like promotions, price messaging, the right channels to reach the audience, how you talk about product benefits and features, the way you package everything up, and so on.

None of that is going away.

But that’s marketing. That’s the ‘how’…. As in: ‘How are we getting people into our (web)shops filled with the desire to snap up our product or service?’

We’re talking about establishing your brand: the ‘why’… As in: ‘Why are people going to want to associate themselves, work with, and buy from a company like ours?’

Your brand is what gets you recognition, leverage in an industry, and positive recognition among customers.

“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room”

Jeff Bezos, Executive Chairman, Amazon

If you take time to work on your brand (rather than simply pushing the benefits and features of your products), you will create deep and meaningful relationships – ones where customers understand you, trust you, and learn to love you.

That is what will keep them coming back for more. And building those kinds of relationships requires stories.

It is your brand’s stories that will help your consumers understand the role and relevance of your brand in the world, and its appeal to them.

No one wants to be ‘sold to’ any more. Instead, your stories can connect them to you, whatever personal benefit they hope to get from engaging with you as a customer.

And in a world of relentless information, data, and competition, the power and importance of stories has never been greater.

The author telling stories, back in the day

3 reasons why good storytelling works

1. We are hardwired to engage with stories

We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years because they serve deep-rooted psychological needs.

People have the innate desire to learn about certain developments that might be relevant to them.

As humans we’re on a constant quest for knowledge and stories help us satisfy the urge to learn and be entertained, and do so in a highly effective way.

Stories help us to connect and feel part of a group; they help us to make sense of things and trigger deep emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and joy. They give us something to believe in. Don’t we all need that right now?

“Storytelling is like a vitamin. When it gets into your readers, it permeates their whole being, and fights every objection that might otherwise stop them from becoming loyal customers.”

Neil Patel

2. Our brains just love it

Let’s briefly dip our toes into neurophysiology…

Simply put, good stories make our brains light up. Studies show neural activity increases five-fold when we hear a good story.

When those neurons fire it triggers memory and that lets us retain more information. This is why people retain 70% of information through stories, but only 10% from data and statistics.

To put it simply: if you’re a storyteller you’ll be more memorable to customers.

That’s not everything either…

Scientific tests show well-told stories trigger the chemical dopamine in our brain, which (again) helps aid memory creation (and, hence, brand recall).

They also trigger oxytocin, known as ‘the love drug’, stimulating deeply rooted, powerful emotions. If you do that then you’re making customers care about you and helping them be better predisposed to you – on a neurological level.

“Are you sitting comfortably? No? Oh, I’ll begin the story anyway.”

And (no matter how rational we all think we are in the 21st century) these emotions then influence our decision-making… and much more often than we might think.

We make decisions based on emotions all the time – often without realising it – and justify them with logic afterwards. It’s no coincidence that when marketers present us with data, it is often wrapped up in a story (e.g. a case study).

These clever folk know that emotion means they get remembered. They know it’s emotion that gets their stories – and hence their brand – shared… and it’s emotion that opens wallets and purses.

3. Trust is a luxury item

As we move further into the 21st Century, people are becoming more and more savvy and more cynical. They won’t tolerate the hard sell and, as I’ve already mentioned, they will get pretty put out if you try to marry them on the first date.

But that’s not all. We are overloaded with information and we distrust it more than ever. That’s why there’s such a drive for businesses to present themselves as honest, authentic and transparent.

Many firms are now waking up to the fact that consumers want even more than that: we want commonality. We want our brands to understand and relate to us.

So it’s hardly surprising that marketers have moved towards appealing to emotions, rather than bombarding their audiences with self-promotional tactics.

This is as true in the traditionally more staid world of B2B, as it is in B2C.

Research by Google found:

  • 50% of B2B buyers were more likely to buy if they can connect emotionally with your brand
  • 71% of B2B buyers purchase when they see personal value in your business
  • 69% of the B2B buyers surveyed are even willing to pay a higher price to do business with a brand they believe in

Where are your stories?

It’s really easy to think ‘I don’t have any stories to tell’.

Everybody has stories to tell.

Yours could come from all sorts of places, like:

  • Your origin story (and what that tells the reader/viewer/listener about your vision, mission and values)
  • Your inspirations (what or who or where inspired you to make major decisions, for example)
  • Your employees’ stories (from inside and outside of work, as long as they relate in some way to the firm and its mission)
  • Your work in the community or with other third parties, and why you’re doing it
  • Customer case studies (how did your firm or its products make a difference to their lives?)

And don’t shy away from telling the rough alongside the smooth. Audiences crave authenticity and transparency.

We love hearing about people who struggle and overcome the odds – it gives us someone to root for – that’s why trouble or tension is a part of all the best stories.

So tell stories, but do it right

Some crucial rules to make sure you get your storytelling right:

  • Tell stories that entertain, educate, inform, or inspire. Make sure you put these goals before saying ‘Look at me, I’m great!’ (I recommend the 80/20 rule, where you aim to spend 80% of the time helping people out with your expertise, insight, or whatever, and 20% overtly demonstrating your benefit to them)
  • Tell stories that are topical, relevant, unusual, filled with conflict, and which have a human experiences at their core (the more of these ingredients you can weave in, the better)
  • Tell your stories in a consistent, authentic way that builds commonality (i.e. a sense of belonging / community)
  • Define how are you going to talk to your audience(s) (i.e. What tone of voice are you going to use? How technical or in-depth will you go? FYI: always prioritise clarity over flare)
  • Keep the audience interested and engaged by adding lots of hooks as you go. (Hooks include strong statements, questions, interesting facts and stats, metaphors, quotes, personal anecdotes, etc.)

To ensure you stay focused, ask:

  • where can you add the most value to your target audience? (Where their interests and yours intersect is that sweet spot)
  • what does your audience actually want to see / hear / read about (in the context of what you do)?
  • where can you provide authority? (Be careful of straying into places you don’t belong)
  • what are the key messages you want to get across about your brand, its vision, and it values? (These don’t need to be explicit, your stories can be a reflection of them)
  • where does the audience hang out, both digitally and in the real world? (That’ll shape the media you use to communicate with them)

And if you need a ready-made structure to help shape your stories, you could do worse than adopt Pixar’s approach.

The famous animator uses a very simple structure to begin writing all their films (with my thoughts on what they mean in brackets):

  1. Once upon a time… [someone or something existed or came into being]
  2. Every day… [something happened that was the norm / drove them on / etc.]
  3. One day… [someone or something changed / took a big decision / etc]
  4. Because of that… [there were certain consequences]
  5. Because of that… [someone or something had to take action]
  6. Until finally… [the situation is resolved, lessons are learned, and a new paradigm adopted]

If you can follow these rules then you will tell stories that will give people an engaging insight into your brand, what it does, and what it stands for… and what that means for them.

Trust me, it won’t take long for your customers to thank and reward you for it.

If you like to find out more about how you can better tell the story of your brand, product, or service, get in touch with Smpl’s experts by emailing our MD Andreas or leaving us a message here.