New digs for Digitera

Kenneth TruemanGeneral0 Comments

As the winter came to a close, we took the opportunity to move Digitera’s offices to new digs. We now call Place Ville Marie, Montreal’s most iconic office building, home. We’re over there on the left in building #3, the original home of WeWork in Montreal.

Place Ville Marie

Clarity: the gift that keeps on giving

Kenneth TruemanGeneral0 Comments

clarity

One of the first things we do when starting a new customer engagement is to ask a series of basic questions about the target market, the target personas (the buyers and sellers to be interacted with), the market pain that is being solved, the thing or things that are unique about the customer’s offering, etc. (It must be something about our training.)

It is always surprising but not unusual when working with smaller companies to see that many of these questions often have no answer—whether clear, immediate, or at all.

At best, these questions were answered when the company was founded (5 to 10 years ago or more), but the answers never evolved along with the market. Worst case, these questions were never asked in the first place, and the company basically felt its way along, hitting every pothole along the way with the inevitable impact on finances and employee morale. While such perseverance on the road to eventual success can speak to the character of a team and its members, it is hard to draw many other lessons, aside from “what not to do next time”, if given the chance.

Such an approach to addressing the market you don’t have (as opposed to the customers you do) is akin to flying blind. It prolongs the “spray and pray” approach to marketing (spend money and see what sticks!) that was supposed to be rendered partially moot by the introduction of tools for quantifying and tracking customer intent across the buying cycle. And so, lacking insight into market needs, many companies were left with the usual “garbage in, garbage out” dynamic and then wondering why marketing and sales plans didn’t work out.

Digitera’s approach

At Digitera, when we sit down to start a new customer engagement, we immediately speak to the importance of answering (or updating) these outstanding questions regarding the business the company is in (or wants to be in), the nature and the value of the product or solution, the typical and the ideal customer, etc.

We also involve employees from different functional groups. From our experience, this effort to provide clarity has value not only for sales and marketing needs but for the entire organisation:

  • Marketing and sales teams have a better understanding of what problem(s) their solutions address, they have better messaging, and they better target their marketing and sales efforts
  • The management team better understands the core product / solution offering and is better able to evaluate the efforts of the marketing and sales teams.
  • The engineering / operations teams have a better appreciation of the impact of the product or solution on the lives of customers; they better understand what the marketing and sales teams are trying to achieve; and, they better appreciate how their own efforts contribute to the achievement of marketing, sales, and ultimately, company goals.

We call this clarity about purpose, direction, etc., the “gift that keeps on giving” because everything flows from it. Customer messaging, sales tools, product design, internal measures of success, etc. Everything the company touches or does benefits from a clear internal understanding and clear wording about what is essentially the company’s reasons for existing.

Best practices for business presentations

Kenneth TruemanGeneral0 Comments

Over the years, we have had the opportunity to make presentations to a broad variety of constituencies in a broad variety of business situations (sales calls, trade shows, courses, etc.)

Unfortunately, delivering a solid presentation is not just about the content of the presentation, though that definitely does count. How you present is also as important, though the relative weighting of best practices will depend on the presentation objective and context as well as the audience.

Here are some best practices that we have learned over the years:

BEFORE THE PRESENTATION

  • Visit the presentation room as early as possible to get a feel for it
    • The goal is to “take ownership” of the space. You want to know where you are relative to the crowd, the lectern, the projector, the screen, etc.
  • Get a feel for how you will move around during the presentation too. It is OK to walk around (though not in front of the projector)
    • By moving around, you get people to stay focused on you and not on reading the screen, or checking their devices
  • Bring any accessories, including equipment such as mice / pointers, if you think you will need them, even if they are supposedly provided for you
  • Bring copies of your presentation on your computer and a USB memory key and email a copy to yourself and to a colleague or contact as well
    • Having a back-up plan for your back-up plan is good practice. Things that can go wrong will go wrong.
  • Bring your business cards and have them handy to hand out
  • Don’t present on an empty stomach but more importantly, don’t present right after eating
    • Make sure to eat 2 hours before your presentation so that you have gotten the digestion portion over and are not burping

DURING THE PRESENTATION

  • Look at different people in the audience during the course of the presentation
    • Avoid looking at the same person all the time; the audience will notice that you are focusing on a single person and tune out as a result
      • This applies even if the person you would like to focus your attention on is the ultimate decision maker
  • Try to keep the audience engaged by asking them general questions that can be answered by putting hands up or making general remarks that get them to nod
  • Try to nod / be a little bit over-expressive for effect
  • Make a point of referring to your presentation topic or objectives and your progress in addressing them to date

QUESTION PERIOD

  • Avoid or reduce the awkward post-presentation silence by having an ally (or a colleague) in the audience ask you a question to start the ball rolling
    • This implies having thought about it before hand and asking that person to do it
  • Listen to each question and repeat to the audience what you understood
    • This is even more important if there is no microphone available for participants
  • Answer the question to the best of your ability
    • Limit the number of follow-up items in your answer
  • Take a question offline if it can’t be answered easily / succinctly
    • There is value in taking questions  from more attendees than less; maximise this opportunity to let your expertise and experience show through
  • Don’t reference customer names unless you have permission; instead speak in more general terms, though you could refer to the customer’s industry, company size, etc.
  • If you don’t know an answer, say so and take a note to follow-up

AT THE END OF THE PRESENTATION

  • Repeat what you saw during the presentation
  • Remind audience members of desired next steps
  • Tell people if the presentation or other related artefacts will be available (when and where)

AFTER THE PRESENTATION

  • Meet with attendees whose questions you took offline
  • Collect business cards / contact info and write down questions, next steps, etc.

This list is by no means exhaustive but should already give you a bit of a leg up. It came about while preparing a customer for his first ever presentation at an industry conference.

Which best practices do you recommend ?

There's lean and then there's lean

Kenneth TruemanGeneral0 Comments

recycling-bin-2

In the world of technology start-ups, particularly software-based ones, there is nothing more hotter or critical than the philosophy of The Lean Startup, which proposes an iterative approach to determining what the market values and then building a solution to meet it. At Digitera, we use that philosophy for the purpose of strategic planning and provide consulting services to customers with that approach in mind.

There is a big difference though between the economics that underlie a successful software-based start-up and those that are present in the context of a consulting business, particularly one that is a solo venture (for now!).

The reality is that professional services don’t scale well. Unlike Schrödinger’s cat, it is hard to be in two places (or states, in the case of the cat) at once. In a solo venture, your lean start-up is about as lean as they come. The people available to do the work are me, myself and I.

What does scale is software (liberally defined), specifically a website and presences on social media for generating awareness and capturing leads; tools, specifically standardised documents such as presentations and templates; and processes, such as methodologies.

Every day is thus a judgement call, except when performing billable work, which typically takes precedence. Do you invest free time in generating awareness, building new sales and marketing tools, or documenting project processes ?

Blogging, while at first sight an easy effort, is actually a tough call. It creates value in terms of search engine placement and it demonstrates activity, which is reassuring to many. But it is not something that scales well, that can be reused, improved upon (yes, self-plagiarism is frowned upon in media circles), etc., unlike a sales tool document or  core messaging for a website.

Blogging is also difficult to do well if you want to do it right. Like any good story, it should have a well thought out beginning, middle, and an end. Instead of leaving the reader hanging.

Mental maps and the importance of analogies

Kenneth TruemanGeneral, Marketing strategy0 Comments

Mental map

One of the first challenges when presenting a business or an idea to a prospective customer, employee, or business partner is helping that person ‘wrap their head around’ what exactly it is. Another way of thinking of this is as a mental map.

Usually this means that the person is looking to relate what they already know to whatever it is that is new. It is essentially a shortcut, since understanding and assimilating new information has a cost.

When it comes to marketing to consumers, for a certain generation at least, there was a tendency to compare one thing to another, to use an “analogy”. Specific makes and models of cars have often been a frequent basis of comparison to establish positioning in the minds of the buyer (though as the fortunes of automobile manufacturers have waxed and waned over the years, the choice of make or model as a basis of comparison has varied as well). To label something as the “Corvette” or the “Ferrari” of something is to give it qualities of performance. To label something as the “Cadillac” would mean that it had luxury characteristics, or was full-featured relative to a basic configuration.

Miller High Life used to be called the Champagne of beers. Unfortunately, the word “Champagne” is protected and so the Miller Brewing Company had to abandon that language in its official marketing.

In the 1992 movie The Player, there is a recurring Hollywood “gag” relative to pitching movie projects. Every proposed movie project is essentially the concept behind one movie, a known success, with a new spin to give it some originality. Godzilla meets Bambi. Pacific Rim meets The Horse Whisperer. You get the picture.

In the world of technology, there is a tendency to take the name of the hot company du jour and use it to build an analogy for a desired business model or company. Whereas 10+ years ago, companies wanted to be the “Google of …”, and 5-6 years ago they wanted to be the “Facebook of …”, nowadays the tendency when pitching a business idea is to present it as the “Uber of…” or the “AirBnB of …”, both of which are shortcuts for the “sharing economy” (which followed on the tails of social networks, Peer 2 Peer, micro-lending, and any number of others hot models that gave rise to a thousand VC-funded dreams).

Once you understand the need to create a mental map, you can adapt your pitch to your audience accordingly. By addressing early on your audience’s need to create such map, you can rapidly move them into a more active listening state, one where they build on what they know and instead begin to add to that understanding with the things that you want to communicate and actually care about—what makes your offering unique, the pain you can solve, the value you provide.


In the case of Digitera, we can, in theory, do pretty much everything as it relates to marketing. However, in a world of mental maps, being able to do everything is almost as bad as being able to do nothing at all. (It is mildly better, because you can do something even if that is not readily understood at first.)

So in December and January, we took our eyes off the blog and instead we worked on productizing a couple of offerings, in order to provide the beginnings of a mental map for our prospective customers and business partners. That basically meant that we carved out some of the things we can already do and presented them as discrete, named offerings, with a list of what was included, an engagement model and some reference prices. Those offerings, described on the Solutions page, are as follows :

Marketing on Demand

Digitera’s Marketing on Demand solution provides smaller companies—that may not have the means or the need for a full-time marketing resource on staff—with cost-effective and timely access to a range of product marketing and marketing communications services. Learn more.

 Web Site and Social Media Audit

Web Site and Social Media Audit

To provide companies with a clear picture of where they stand in their online marketing efforts across channels and devices—and ultimately how to move forward—Digitera has developed a Web Site and Social Media Audit that will assess your current online marketing initiatives and provide a benchmark for future improvements and measures of effectiveness. Learn more.

 Digital marketing catch-up plan

Digital Marketing Catch-Up Plan

Digitera has developed the Digital Marketing Catch-Up Plan to revitalize your web, social media, and online marketing efforts for  and beyond. Learn more.


Note: The day after publishing this piece, Forbes magazine shared its own article in a similar vein: the importance of embracing categories to help people figure out just what it is that your new company does.

Tales from the Frontline – Episode 2 – The numbers don't add up

Kenneth TruemanBusiness model, General0 Comments

Numbers-dont-add-up

This post is part of a series, Tales from the Frontline. (Image: https://flic.kr/p/6AJr93)

Every time you present to a customer or to an investor—or to anyone whose time or money you want—they are looking for reasons to say “No”.  Making a mistake with numbers just hastens that result. If you think about it, unless you are working with an existing customer or investor, your credibility is likely something that you are building from scratch. You may even be starting from within a hole, since you probably had to beg to get a meeting time and, from the attendees’ perspective, “this better be worth it”.

Consequently, when introducing numbers into a discussion or presentation, in addition to mastering the numbers as you talk to them, the numbers need to add up on paper or on the screen.

In fact, as soon as you introduce numbers into a discussion or a presentation, one or more members of the audience will immediately take out their calculators (pocket or mental) and begin looking for ways to poke holes in your reasoning. That’s why it’s also important to be upfront about any major assumptions you are making. These should be also be documented separately.

Numbers need to add up in all directions

When we say that the numbers need to add up, it is worth pointing out that this means in all directions: when you drill down, when you sum up, when you project forward, and when you look backwards to describe historical performance. In all directions. Without exception.

Finally, working with numbers in a presentation tool such as PowerPoint can be a challenge, as it is way too easy to make mistakes when manually transcribing from one document to another. It is best to copy and paste your results from Microsoft Excel, or another spreadsheet tool, and then reformat them as opposed to typing them up from scratch. If you have to choose between fancy tables in your presentation software and validated numbers from your spreadsheet tool, go with the sober yet correct tables copied from the spreadsheet.

Tales from the Frontline – Episode 1 – We have no competitors

Kenneth TruemanGeneral, Marketing strategy2 Comments

Competitors-football-small

Image: https://flic.kr/p/dmjdmE

Digitera was founded on the premise that many organisations are strong on technology but would benefit from assistance on the marketing and business front. As such, we have the opportunity from time to time to work with entrepreneurs looking to take their products to market, to secure investment funding, etc.

So while we see some interesting product ideas, business models, and investor presentations, we also see a lot of mistakes—common mistakes—that hurt an entrepreneur’s chances of success in securing funding or successfully launching a product. These are real world examples, though names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Big Mistake #1 — We have NO competitors

One of the most frequent mistakes we have seen, both at Digitera and in past experience, is when an entrepreneur claims that there are no competitors for a given technology or a proposed product / solution. This is actually one of the worst claims you can make, and will immediately cost you the credibility you dearly need if you are looking to raise funds.

First point: There are always competitors, either partially or completely, for any market pain that you propose to solve. The most prominent among these competitors is the one that you know already, and which probably led the entrepreneur to imagine something better. It is called the status quo. It is the way things were, are, and always will be if no one proposes something better. But it is a competitor nonetheless. You need to know this competitor just as well as you would any formal, branded competitor. Failure to understand what causes the status quo to remain the status quo will condemn you to never displacing it.

From a technology perspective, the greatest competitor to many solutions has historically been Microsoft Excel. Yes, the status quo solution—the “good enough / if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”— is a 20+-year-old spreadsheet application. Status quo, thy name is Excel. Before Salesforce.com, before SAP, before so many other leading lights of tech, there was Excel.

And before Excel—before Visicalc to be honest—there was the word processor, and before that, the paper ledger, and the abacus, etc. Each invention displaced the previous status quo. But you can be sure that the inventor of the abacus had to communicate why counting on one’s fingers and toes was no longer good enough. (Big Idea™ at the time: I predict that someday you will need—not just want—to count to 21 !)

Then there are the numerous real competitors from whom customers are purchasing already. They may be competitors with a partial solution to the problem or they may be companies selling solutions that customers are repurposing—unbeknownst to their vendors—to address the market pain you are proposing to solve. You need to be aware of these types of competitors. You will find out about them by talking with your target market BEFORE you talk to investors (or the company’s leadership team if you are developing a new product internally).

Second point: Unless you have the ability to predict the future or have perfect knowledge about the present as it relates to the activities of everyone on the planet Earth, you cannot be sure that no one has launched (maybe in a different language for test purposes), is currently working on, or plans to work on, a competitor to your product.

Once you put up your website, once you make a presentation at a conference or a prospective customer about your offering, the cat is out of the bag. The idea behind your product—if not the details—are now in the public domain. There are no products that can’t be replicated if you throw enough capital or manpower at them. And when you can hire 10 engineers in Vietnam for the price of 1 in Silicon Valley to fill in the details between the product idea and a shipping product, you can be sure that your product can and will be replicated at some point, probably for cheaper than it took you to do originally.

Even if you can afford to patent an idea, and to defend that patent in the court system (which may or not be in the jurisdiction you are based in), the damage will be done. You are better off to accept that you have or will shortly have competitors and to instead focus your efforts on capturing and locking in market share for the long term. (This is where the sales and marketing folks come in.)

Third point: If you are looking to raise investment capital, the most important reason that you want to show that you have competitors is because you want to demonstrate that there is a market with people actually willing to pay to make the pain go away.

If a market pain can’t be monetized, there is no market. It’s a charity case and probably not something that you are looking to build a business on.

The business model, billing, provisioning, customer support and more

Kenneth TruemanBusiness model, General, Marketing strategy0 Comments

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(Image credit: Richard P J Lambert; https://flic.kr/p/oG1Uw3)

One of the first questions to ask for any business is, “What is the business model?”

Answering that question inevitably means first talking about billing. It’s where the rubber hits the road, where the theoretical becomes the real. Or not.

Billing is everything

Working for a phone company, there was a saying: “Billing is everything”. In the case of a 100-year old phone company (aka a telco), with disparate systems for the different offerings developed over the years, creating the customer bill was a major undertaking. (And if there was ever an example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, then telcos are it.)

If yours is a new company, how it plans to bill for services, as well as to receive payment, has to be one of the first things to be settled. Billing is the final step in the business model. But it is surprising how often it is left as an afterthought. Do you expect to be paid in cash ? To be paid by check / cheque ? How about credit cards ? In person, via the web, over the phone ? How about PayPal ? These are incredibly important questions that need to be answered before customers are banging on the door and not after. (Unfortunately, it often happens that prospective customers are asked to wait while someone figures out how to create a bill / invoice, let along actually receive payment.)

What are your payment terms ? What if the customer pays early ? What if the customer pays late ? Your ability to bill and to be paid is key, no matter what your business situation: self-funded, venture-capital financed, etc.

But it turns out that there are many other steps that are just as important as billing. Like customer provisioning.

Customer provisioning is also everything

What is customer provisioning ? It is everything that happens once the contract or sales agreement is signed. It consists of the activities required to deliver the actual product or service to the customer, the thing that the customer is actually paying for. (In that regard, unless it is a specific revenue item in a contract, provisioning is a cost center. It does not generate revenues in and of itself, now or in the future.)

If you ship physical goods, customer provisioning involves setting up accounts, placing orders, and delivering goods to customers. If you are active on the web, you still need to create an account, activate a billing plan and provide access to the tools or services that come with the paid version (as opposed to a free version).

And more often than not, it is the type of detail that is left until the first customer is actually signed. Yes, after working so hard to attract a customer, via the web or by pounding the pavement, both at great cost, we ask the customer to wait while we figure out what comes next now that someone actually wants to purchase the product.

While it may not be practical to put in place every single component of the provisioning (also known as the on-boarding) process, it is important at a minimum to map out the major points, identify the types of inputs required from the customer as well as the outputs that the customer can expect and the timeframes that go with them.

Customer support is everything (too)

You might be starting to see a pattern here. Yes, like billing and provisioning, customer support IS everything.

And similar to the dynamic of provisioning, it is often something that is left until the last minute, when there is an actual customer that needs to be supported.

Who will answer the phone or respond to the email or the request on Facebook or Twitter? (These are all individual channels to be managed.) What about afterwork hours, on weekends or on holidays ? What will be said when someone wants support ? What commitments will be made to fix the problem or at least follow-up on it. Is there a service level agreement or a warranty in play ? How do you make sure that its clauses are respected ?

Everything IS connected

One way to think of an organization is as a pipeline, a continuous flow of activities, or as a series of touchpoints (each with a moment of truth), where when something goes wrong—and inevitably it will—it holds up everything that follows.

You can’t bill for a customer that is not provisioned. An unhappy customer without support is not a customer for long, and you can’t bill them anymore once they leave.

So these are all the types of things that need to be thought out—at least a high level—and taken care of before customers are signed.

This post was originally conceived with a song by the group Depeche Mode in mind. And it is correct in that, “Everything counts in large amounts”.

by Kenneth Trueman

Kenneth Trueman, Principal ConsultantKenneth Trueman is an experienced product marketer and business strategist with almost 20 years of experience working with technology companies, ranging from early stage start-ups to established small and medium-sized businesses and organizations with thousands of employees.

More constraints and creativity

Kenneth TruemanGeneral0 Comments

In a previous article, I discussed the interplay between constraints and creativity.

Constraints throughout history

I thought it would worthwhile following it up with some historical examples, ranging from ancient times to the very present.

Cuneiform tablets

Made out of clay, the cuneiform tablet has a limited amount of space to write. If you make a mistake, you can’t really erase it. If you have more to say, you need another tablet. And that takes time and money to produce. Here is an example of a cuneiform tablet dating from 1350–1330 BC, one of the Amarna letters.

Contraints - cuneiform tablet

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amarna_letters

Haiku

Originating in the mid 17th century, Haiku is a Japanese form of short poetry featuring 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. Here is an example:

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku

The shipping container

Originally developed in the 1950s by a shipping line owner and an engineer, it was standardised internationally in the late 1960s. In the period since, it has revolutionised international trade.

Shipping container

Caption: The lowly shipping container. Available in any colour you could probably desire, not that you likely even cared. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermodal_container

Designed to sit on top of similar containers and interlock with them, the shipping container solved the problem of what do with pallets of goods that could not easily be stacked, were prone to breakage and theft, etc.

But the real innovation behind the shipping container was two-fold. The first was the promise that if “it” could fit in a shipping container—a constraint if there ever was one — it could be shipped easily. The second innovation that sprung up around the shipping container was how the means of packing, transporting, and storing shipments were affected by the shipping container. Containers could be stacked one on top of each other, meaning that more goods could be sent via the same ship, and ships grew in size, as did ports and locks, so that this extra volume of goods could be dealt with.

Constraints - Tank container

Caption: And it if could be made to look like a shipping container, in this case with corners and locking mechanisms where they were expected to be, it could be handed like a shipping container. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermodal_container

They could be placed on tractor trailers and hauled behind a truck on an interstate highway. They could be stacked by twos, one on top of another, doubling the capacity of a train overnight. And a new term was born: intermodal.

Shipping containers could be taken from a shipper to the shipping company, and with the right paperwork and inspections, be sent on their away. The shipping container removed much of the drama around shipping goods across a country and around the world.

Google AdWords

A multi-billion dollar advertising business, Google AdWords is fuelled by constraints on the number and type of characters that can be put into a maximum of 4 lines.

Constraints - Google Adwords character limits

Source: https://support.google.com/adwords/answer/1704389?hl=en&ref_topic=3119117

There are limits as well on what you can say in an ad. For example, you cannot mention the names of competitors or provide certain types of calls to action. The following ads were generated on November 17th, based on a search query for “budget hotel new york”.

Texts ads for a budget hotel in New York City

Twitter

Launched in 2006, Twitter is another multi-billion dollar advertising business, laid on the basis of 140 characters of text at a time. This was the very first tweet ever.

The food truck

The food truck—The source of a thousand business plans and reality show hopes, the food truck is at base a blank canvas. Leveraging a standard form factor—the Grumman-Olson step-van is prized for its street cred—the food truck is ultimately about how much and what type of kitchen equipment, tools and food you can fit into a truck. The truck itself is the constraint and it is unmoving in that regard, though there are some accepted conventional means of expanding on it, such as fold-out steps, a counter, or an awning to protect against the bright sun or inclement weather. (Non-conventional means are more related to decoration such as fixtures and gimmicks.)

Constraints - Food truck

Aside from mentions on social media, the truck itself is often the only form of advertising, a billboard that alternates between rolling along and parking on city streets, providing another inspiration for creativity. And as each advertising campaign relies upon uniqueness and a concept, so each food truck must do as well, paying attention to imagery, colour schemes and text. There are four sides to a food truck, but room must be left for windows, doors, etc., thus reducing the creative canvas.

Belying the advantages of starting a business in a food truck—the lower upfront costs than with a fixed presence, the ability to move to where customers are at the drop of a hat—is the fashion truck, where one can browse, try on and purchase a range of fashions; it too relies on social media for awareness and demand generation, with Twitter as the principal medium.

Caption: Considered a pioneer in the Los Angeles food truck scene, Kogi BBQ announcing its locations for evening service on November 18th, 2014, via Twitter.

Constraints and creativity

Kenneth TruemanGeneral1 Comment

Source: https://flic.kr/p/5BckWG
Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/5BckWG

“So you have been studying <foreign language> ?”
“Cool.”
“Say something in <foreign language> then.”

This type of exchange is usually followed by a blank stare by the person who is studying the foreign language. Silence—dead air—followed at best by an “Umm”, then an awkward and unconvincing, “Bonjour!” or “¡Hola!”.

The same thing happens when you give a person a blank sheet of paper and ask them to write something. Or to draw something. The majority of people—those without a preferred doodle or saying always at hand—will stare at the blank page for what seems like an eternity. Minutes pass. Sweat forms on the brow. And still nothing.

“I hear you like to draw. Can you draw me something?”

Give that same person a blank piece of paper and a single instruction—for example, draw an animal—and you will be surprised how quickly the piece of paper will fill up. Depending upon the person, you may even have to ask them to put the pencil down; the level of detail, when provided with such a simple instruction, can be downright impressive.

What changed between the first scenario and the second one ? You provided a constraint. A constraint sounds like something negative, like a restraint or limit to one’s creativity. In fact, it is the opposite, a spur to creativity.

Now what if you specify that the drawing should be a cat? So far, so good, since most people know what a cat looks like and know how to draw one. 2 constraints in place—(1) an animal that is (2) a cat—and we are producing results.

So we add more constraints. The cat is wearing a hat—no—a fedora. “Ok”, the person says, “I can draw that”, though since no one wears fedoras anymore it took a moment to remember what one was.

And now the cat is wearing a suit. (“I need to process that first, since I am not used to seeing a cat in a suit”.) And now the cat should be carrying a box of fish. Again, more mental acrobatics.

Now is where it starts to get interesting. As we added the initial constraints, the creative juices started flowing. The addition of a constraint or two provided a gentle push to get the ball rolling, to get some creative momentum. As we add constraints beyond a certain point—a point that really depends on the participants, the context and the creative task to be accomplished—we start to see diminishing returns. The person who is asked to be creative is starting to spend more time on calculating the interplay and the impact of the different constraints than on being creative.

That person is also starting to wonder as well if there might not already be an expected answer, solution or result to the creative task that they are being asked to undertake—and that their response will ultimately be compared with. Once you start to increase the number of constraints and the mental ‘cost’ required to take them all into account, and you add the suspicion that the person doing the asking has something particular in mind, the average person will start to lock up, consciously or unconsciously. And you are largely back to square one with an empty sheet of paper or a bunch of scribbles that don’t represent anything.

It may be helpful to think of the interplay between constraints and creativity as a bell curve. Maximum creativity can be found in the middle.

Creativity-constraints-curve
If you plot creativity on the Y axis and constraints on the X axis, you would get something like this.

The number of constraints and how they shape the curve are specific to the nature of the creative challenge(s) to be answered and the person or persons who are asked to answer it/them. What is important to understand is that creative efforts can be improved by adding some—but not too many!—constraints.

Constraints in the context of marketing

Assuming you can answer the infamous question pairing of “So what? Who cares?” when trying to put words to the nature, the functionality or the value provided by a product or solution, constraints provide for an interesting exercise. In this case, the constraint is the word count.

If answering those 2 questions initially required 200 words, the next step is to reduce it to 100 words. Then to 50 words. Then 25 words. Then 10 words. Can you get it to 5 words?

Experience has shown that if you can get the nucleus of the idea down to 10 words or less, you can then expand on it the other way, back up to 25, 50, 100 words or more. Not only will that core idea still hold water, but it will likely be tighter than the original 100 or 200-word starting point.

by Kenneth Trueman

Kenneth Trueman, Principal ConsultantKenneth Trueman is an experienced product marketer and business strategist with almost 20 years of experience working with technology companies, ranging from early stage start-ups to established small and medium-sized businesses and organisations with thousands of employees.

Originally published May 26, 2014 on Medium ; minor corrections applied.