I learned some important lessons this week about proposals, capture, and business development by talking to some artists and people who know nothing about business. I got dragged to a cocktail party in a quaint little historic district populated by galleries and boutiques. I love the area, but when it unsolicited I usually don’t engage in talks about business with little retail startup businesses, especially boutiques that I believe are mostly doomed to fail.
But I do listen.
I listened to them describe what they make and sell, how they’ve had to change over time, and how customers only want certain things. I withheld talking about how making and selling things is easy, but finding customers is hard. And how you should start with figuring out how to get customers and not what to sell.
As they talked, I listened. And I realized that they are artists. They have a creative vision and make what they make. And then hope people will come in and buy it. I realized that lots of people start there. The business failures are the ones who stay there.
What does this have to do with Burt's Bees?
I listened to a story about the founder of Burt’s Bees. I don’t even know if the story is true. I listened to how the founder started selling Burt’s Bees on the side of the road. And stuck with it. Day after day. And now look where the company is.
At first, I thought it was a dumb story. Perseverance might be a good trait. But it is not the secret to business success. The founder of Burt’s Bees might have gotten lucky. Buying lottery tickets every day is not a smart business strategy.
If they ever did, I'm sure that Burt’s Bees doesn’t follow the same strategy today. Today, they know who their customers are and have designed a product line that intentionally targets each group of them. Somewhere along the line they switched from “I like it, I hope somebody buys it” to “I know how to find my customers and what they want to buy.”
Then I realized that it’s okay to start off as an artist who has the desire to start a business. But your success will be determined by whether you make the switch to focusing on where to get your customers quickly enough. Where to find, how to get in front of, and how to hold your customer’s attention is at least important as what they want to buy. And far more important than what you want to sell. Most retail stores are counting on their location and signage to find their customers for them.
You don’t have to be a business expert to succeed. You don’t have to be a sales person. But you do need customer empathy, the ability to find them in sufficient numbers, and some creativity about how you earn their attention.
PS: The real story of Burt's Bees is a lot more interesting. And maybe even a little sad. Try Googling it. I did and found this.
What does this have to do with government contracting and winning major proposals?
If you’re a small government contractor startup, it’s okay if you sell what you’ve got in terms of capability. But you probably won’t grow until you start focusing on finding out what the agencies are interested in buying and building the relationships you need to get in front of them.
And if you write hundred million dollar proposals that take a month to prepare using a team of writers, customer empathy is just as vital to your success. And you can't just imagine customer empathy. You have to discover it through relationship marketing.
But maybe it can be okay if you do your best to add value in proposals that are written to customers you don’t know. Today. But if you want to be successful, you have to make the transition to already having customer insight and an information advantage when you start your proposals. Your success will depend on how quickly you can make that transition.
If you try to function like a retail business, and all you ever do is look for RFPs on the street that you can bid, you will doom your company to being a low cost provider of whatever you can scrounge up. Everyone has to start somewhere. Maybe it’s okay to sell what you’ve got today, so long as you develop your focus tomorrow.
I see a lot of companies struggling because tomorrow never came. But it’s not the starving artists and business startups you want to learn from. It’s the ones who found their customers and changed their business to focus on them. It’s the ones who learned how to find more customers, what to offer them, and how to close enough sales that you want to learn from. Perseverance will help. But what you really need is empathy and the ability to find new customers.
Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY
Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at email@example.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.