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Three Elements of a Successful Platform Strategy

We typically think of companies competing over products — the proverbial “build a better mousetrap.” But in today’s networked age, competition is increasingly over platforms. Build a better platform, and you will have a decided advantage over the competition.

In construction, a platform is something that lifts you up and on which others can stand. The same is true in business. By building a digital platform, other businesses can easily connect their business with yours, build products and services on top of it, and co-create value. This ability to “plug-and-play” is a defining characteristic of Platform Thinking.

Consider the market for smartphones. Nokia and Blackberry today are a shadow of their former glory. Their technology and products lag Apple and the Android ecosystem. But the triumph of Apple and Android is not from features and functions. It is from the app store on which external developers create value. Microsoft has gotten excellent reviews for the technology in its new phones, but it is the ability to create a successful platform that will determine its ultimate success.

The use of platform thinking extends beyond the tech sector. Retailers are shifting from distribution channels selling products, to engagement platforms co-creating value. Online retailers like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon led the way, and now traditional retailers are following.

JC Penney has made platform thinking a pillar of its reinvention strategy. Its stores are featuring more and more “boutiques” managed by others. It is no coincidence that JC Penney’s CEO, Ron Johnson, was previously at Apple. Johnson has said, “All those boutiques are the apps. What J.C. Penney is creating is a new interface.” While JC Penney’s pricing strategy has been controversial, analysts have been very positive about the in-store platform.

Nike is also shifting from products to platforms. Building on the success of its Digital Sport products, Nike recently launched its Nike+ Accelerator to help companies build on the Nike+ platform. Nike’s announcement reflects platform thinking. “We are looking for people who want to create companies that build upon the success of [Nike+] to make the world more active.”

The rise of platforms is being driven by three transformative technologies: cloud, social, and mobile. The cloud enables a global infrastructure for production, allowing anyone to create content and applications for a global audience. Social networks connect people globally and maintain their identity online. Mobile allows connection to this global infrastructure anytime, anywhere. The result is a globally accessible network of entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers who are available to create businesses, contribute content, and purchase goods and services.

Readers will recognize a number of intellectual foundations to platform thinking. These range from Geoffrey Moore’s ecosystems to John Hagel and John Seely Brown’s focus on “pull.” Where traditional ecosystems push, these new platforms pull. Platforms also rely on the power of network effects — as they attract more users, they become more valuable to those users. And there’s a growing academic literature that explores the unique quality of value creation on what are called “multi-sided platforms.”

In our view, the success of a platform strategy is determined by three factors:

  1. Connection: how easily others can plug into the platform to share and transact
  2. Gravity: how well the platform attracts participants, both producers and consumers
  3. Flow: how well the platform fosters the exchange and co-creation of value

Successful platforms achieve these goals with three building blocks:

  1. The Toolbox creates connection by making it easy for others to plug into the platform. This infrastructure enables interactions between participants. For example, Apple provides developers with the OS and underlying code libraries; YouTube provides hosting infrastructure to creators; Wikipedia provides writers with the tools to collaborate on an article; and JC Penney provides stores to its boutique partners.
  2. The Magnet creates pull that attracts participants to the platform with a kind of social gravity. For transaction platforms, both producers and consumers must be present to achieve critical mass. Apple needed to attract both developers and users. Similarly, eBay needed both buyers and sellers. Platform builders must pay attention to the design of incentives, reputation systems, and pricing models. They must also leverage social media to harness the network effect for rapid growth.
  3. The Matchmaker fosters the flow of value by making connections between producers and consumers. Data is at the heart of successful matchmaking, and distinguishes platforms from other business models. The Matchmaker captures rich data about the participants and leverages that data to facilitate connections between producers and consumers. For example, Google matches the supply and demand of online content, while marketplaces like eBay match buyers to relevant products.

Not all platforms place the same emphasis on all three building blocks. Amazon Web Services has focused on building the Toolbox. Meanwhile, eBay and AirBnB have focused more on the Magnet and Matchmaker role. Facebook has focused on the Toolbox and Magnet, and is actively building its Matchmaker ability.

In the future, we will see more and more companies shifting from products to platforms. Even those in the extermination business may worry less about building better mousetraps, and more on building mousecatching platforms. For example, imagine a smart mousetrap with sensors that wirelessly communicate to a cloud-based MouseCatcher service. Homeowners and exterminators could monitor the status of the trap on their smartphones, receiving a text message when it is out of bait or needs checking. Smart traps already exist. But the shift from products to platforms would focus on building the service (the Trapp Store?) that enables anyone with a smart trap to connect and communicate.

Every business today is faced with the fundamental question that underlies Platform Thinking: How do I enable others to create value? Building a better mousetrap still might not have the world beat a path to your door. But the right platform might just do the trick


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Sangeet Paul Choudary is a Singapore-based entrepreneur and author of the blog Platform Thinking.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Focus on Keeping Up with Your Customers, Not Your Competitors

Every company these days seems to be either contemplating or pursuing digital transformation. Most cite the need to keep up with disruptive and well-established competitors. But perhaps this focus is too narrow. We believe the greatest challenge to companies today is not keeping up with their competitors, but with their own customers.

One reason is that individuals are transforming to digital faster than organizations. Think for a moment about people as tiny enterprises. They’ve redesigned their core processes in the area of procurement (online shopping), talent acquisition (marketplaces), collaboration (social networking), market research (peer reviews), finance (mobile payments) and travel (room and ride sharing). Have you reinvented your core processes to the same degree?

Customers’ expectations are also more liquid and no longer based on industry boundaries. Customers – whether consumers or business buyers – don’t compare your customer service to that of your competitors, but to the best customer service they receive from anywhere. The same is true for their expectations of your web site, mobile app, loyalty program, branding, and even social responsibility.

So how can you keep up with your customers? You have to start thinking like them.

Customers don’t think in or; they think in and. You have to transcend trade-offs.

The adage used to be that you could pick any two combinations of “cheap, good, or fast.” But today’s customer doesn’t want to make tradeoffs. They want it cheap, good, and fast. As leaders, we are accustomed to thinking of business being about making tough decisions between competing objectives. But we need to think more like our customers. Instead of focusing on how to make tradeoffs, we need to focus on how to transcendthem.

Some of the tradeoffs that are most suited to digital transcendence are:

  • Big and small: Combine the speed, agility and creativity of being small with the scope, scale and influence associated with being big.
  • Complex and simple: Manage the systems and processes to run a global business while creating simple and elegant experiences for customers.
  • Global and personal: Achieve universal consistency and reach around the world while delivering relevant, tailored interactions to every customer.

Customers want to be empowered, not controlled. You have to act with empathy.

Business used to be about getting customers to do what you wanted them to do. But customers don’t accept this any more. They don’t like to be told what to do. They want relationships based on reciprocity, transparency and authenticity. If you want to keep up with your customer, you can’t be focused on getting them to do what you want, but instead on helping them do what they want.

This evolution from control to empowerment means a change in the basic building blocks of customer engagement.

  • Funnels used to be linear processes that moved customers from one stage to the next. There was no going back until a sale was either won or lost. Now these funnels have become Escherian journeys, fluid, customer-led and multi-dimensional. It’s not about capturing and converting towards a transaction, but connecting and collaborating around a shared purpose.
  • Channels used to be pipes connecting you with your customer, carrying carefully crafted messages to passive audiences. Now they are experiences connecting customers to their own desires, and communities connecting customers to each other. It’s not about promoting the features and benefits of your product, but building empathy and understanding of each customer’s intent – and helping them achieve it – as part of an ongoing relationship.

Customers don’t think in straight lines. You need to be non-linear.

To keep up with your customer, you have to let go of linear thinking. Customers today expect you to be where they are, deliver what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. If they’re browsing your website on their laptop, they will expect that when they next come to your site from their mobile device or tablet, or talk to a sales person in your store, branch or call center, you will pick up right where they left off. Business has become like that old game of Twister. You have to be flexible if you are going to win.

This requires rethinking and redesigning core disciplines:

  • Strategy has to go beyond analyzing markets, making plans, and forecasting the future. Strategy also has to build capabilities, transform culture and architect for constant change.
  • Campaigns have to be more than one-way communications for one-time responses. They need to initiate and expedite personalized journeys as part of ongoing conversations.
  • Personalization needs to go deeper than looking simply at what someone buys. It needs to be based on the subconscious motivations of why someone buys, revealed through real-time analysis of a wide variety of data sources.
  • Social can’t be treated merely as a channel for distributing messages. Done right, it’s a context for building genuine relationships that demonstrate how much they really matter.
  • Loyalty needs to be more than accumulating points for rewards. To be genuine and enduring, loyalty needs to be reciprocal. If you want their loyalty, you have to be loyal in return.
  • Operations need to go beyond the efficiency of the company to the efficiency of the customer. How can you optimize to help customers get more for their time and effort, not just their money?

It’s a significant shift in mindset and practice to reorient from keeping up with competitors to keeping up with customers.

We suggest getting started by assessing where you are.

  • How does your transformation compare to your customers? In what areas are they moving faster or slower than you are?
  • Who is setting your customers’ expectations? It’s probably coming from outside your industry.
  • What kind of relationship do you want to have with your customer? Are you trying to get them to do what you want? Or figuring out how to help them do what they want?

Next, look at where to focus your attention.

  • Which tradeoffs do you need to transcend? We mentioned a few above. Others include speed and scale, consistent and nimble, high-tech and high-touch.
  • Where is linear thinking getting in the way? Review the disciplines outlined above and see which ones will have the most impact on your customer experience.

Creating sustainable advantage is more elusive than ever. The new game is designing customer-driven journeys across touch points to help them achieve their intent, and to create more multidimensional relationships. To win this game, stop thinking about just keeping up with your competitors, and start thinking about keeping up with your customers.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Gene Cornfield is Managing Director at Accenture Interactive, where he helps global organizations transform their customer experiences, organizations, and business outcomes.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Age of Social Products

We are moving from a world in which physical products are separate to one in which they are connected.  Computers were just the beginning.  Appliances and engines now send alerts when they need to be serviced.  Cameras upload their photos automatically.  Vending machines trigger their own restocking.  Crops feed and water themselves.

This shift has many monikers:  “The Internet of Things” and “The Internet of Everything” are two of the most popular. But the history of the Internet suggests that this is just the beginning.  The real change will happen when products aren’t just connected, but social.  Instead of the Internet of Things, we should be thinking about the Social Network of Things. To take advantage of this shift, you need to start thinking about the social life of your products.

What makes the Internet of Things possible is the confluence of multiple technologies:  inexpensive sensors, wireless networks, and cloud computing.   The ability to access data and computing resources from anywhere means that products don’t need to have computers and memory built into them.  They can just use the cloud.  Put sensors, a simple processor, and a wireless connection together and you have the makings of an intelligent and connected product.

The Internet of Things is already expected to transform customer servicebusiness models, and advertising.  But we should remember the evolution of the Internet.  The early days (Web 1.0) was about computers talking to computers.  A few years later (Web 2.0), people started talking to people.  The Internet was disruptive as a connected infrastructure, but it became explosive when it got social.

Today, most of the discussion about the Internet of Things is about products being connected.  But just because your product is connected doesn’t make it social.  For products, the real revolution will come when objects aren’t just passing information back and forth, but collaborating around a shared purpose.

This insight is behind Google’s recent acquisition of Waze for $1.1 billion.  Google already has the best map and traffic program, so why would they want another one?  Was it just to keep it out of the hands of Apple or Facebook?  We think not.

Among other things, Waze cracked the code on social products.  Google Maps is a data network, while Waze is a social network, in this case of cars, phones and people.  Waze creates a constantly updating repository of traffic information, much like Wikipedia creates a dynamic repository of encyclopedic information.  However, in this case, it is cars, phones and people who are collaborating to create the body of knowledge.  Waze provides a glimpse of how the car can become a social device by using the little data created by each individual car and driver.  According to the head of Google Maps, the goal is “to harness the power of Google technology and the passion of the Waze community to make it easier to navigate your daily life.”

Waze shows us how the cars of the future will not only connect to each other but also leverage the collective intelligence of that community of connected cars. We can see this in other areas as well.  Connected e-readers already help every individual reader benefit from the actions of the community. Nike is betting on a future with connected shoes, where each individual shoe learns from the data aggregated from a network of connected shoes. Social products leverage the power of the community to learn from other products.

So how do you create a social product?

First, you need a product that is smart and connected.  You can build your own (like the thermostats and home alarms from Nest) or use someone else’s device.  It might be a smartphone (think Waze), a consumer device with open APIs (like Nike’s FuelBand), or a commercial device with a strategic alliance (likeOpower and electric utilities).

Second, you need to make the product social.  This requires a platform where people and products are connected in a collaborative network.  Each individual product and each user benefits from being part of a community of fellow products and users. For example, Nest’s thermostat and smoke detector work together.  When the alarm detects carbon monoxide, it tells the thermostat to turn off the furnace.

In the case of Waze, each car and driver benefits from the information gleaned and aggregated from the community of cars and drivers.   That’s not all.   A Department of Transportation study demonstrates how cars of the future will talk to each other.  Cars within 1,000 feet of one another will send out their speed and location to the others, which will then notify the driver as needed.  Google’s driverless cars will be able to make adjustments automatically.  In this future state, is it the cars that are driving, or the social networks?

If you are considering building a strategy around social products, you have a few choices.   You need a connected product, a social network of people, a social network of products, and a collaborative platform for interaction, data exchange, and analytics.  The good news is that you don’t have to do all of this yourself.

  • Instagram leveraged an existing connected product (smartphone camera) and an existing collaborative platform (Facebook) to create a social network of connected camera-phones.
  • Qualcomm Life is creating a new collaborative platform to transform existing connected devices (for mobile health and fitness) into social products.  Recognizing they also needed a social network of people, they recently purchased HealthyCircles to help physicians, patients, and families coordinate care and support.
  • Nike is creating an entire ecosystem of connected products (Hyperdunk+ shoes), social network of products (FuelBand), social network of people (Nike+), and collaborative platform (Digital Sports).

The Age of Social Products will change the basis of competitive advantage.  Companies have traditionally focused on product supremacy, outdoing their competitors with better features and attributes.  In an age of social products, competitive advantage comes not from product features but from network effects.  Companies succeed by having products that better leverage the intelligence of the network of other connected products. This is a shift in mindset from standalone-product thinking to connected-platform thinking.

The Age of Social Products is dawning.  Companies that create products that are smart, connected, and, most importantly, social, will not only survive, but thrive.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Sangeet Paul Choudary is a C-level advisor to executives globally on platform business models, an entrepreneur-in-residence at INSEAD and the co-chair of the MIT Platform Strategy Summit. He has been ranked among the top 30 emerging business thinkers globally by Thinkers50. He is also a co-author of Platform Revolution (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) and the April 2016 HBR article Pipelines, Platforms, and the New Rules of Strategy.” Follow him on Twitter at @sanguit.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Coming Branded-Currency Revolution

Coupons. Gift cards. Loyalty points. These tried-and-true tools of the retail trade might not be as sexy as other forms of marketing. But together they account for more than $165 billion in purchasing power ($110 billion in gift cards purchased, $48 billion in loyalty points earned, and more than $5 billion in product coupons redeemed). That’s almost as much as total e-commerce sales.

These instruments share a common objective: to influence purchase decisions by equipping consumers with incremental spending power for specific brands and retailers. But consumers use them independently and individually (combining their value, when possible, takes a lot of manual effort), and store them in different places — often in drawers or folders where they lay forgotten and unused.

This is changing as coupons, gift cards, and loyalty points all become digital — and, more important, mobile. Mobile enables all of this purchasing power to converge in one place, and potentially be used interchangeably and collectively, always within easy reach for consumers.

What does this mean for retailers and brands? The mistake would be to think that they can keep doing what they have always done, but just add a little digital to it. Instead, retailers need to think about coupons, gift cards, and loyalty points not only as three separate tools, but as different forms of Branded Currency.

Economists define currency as a store of value and a medium of exchange. All of these instruments are stores of value, and by going digital and mobile, they become far more effective mediums of exchange.

The first wave of this convergence has made it easier for consumers to use their coupons or points for payment. Card-linked offers enable consumers to load coupons to their credit cards or loyalty accounts in advance of purchase. Valid offers are automatically applied as a credit when consumers’ cards are scanned at the point of sale. Consumers like it because they don’t need to remember or present individual coupons. Another approach is Shop-with-Points. As an example, Amazon enables consumers to use their credit card loyalty points as a way to pay for purchases on the site. Shoppers can see their balance and apply their points as easily as using a gift card or credit card.

Where the first wave made possible convertibility, the second wave introduces much greater convenience. Mobile wallets, like Apple’s Passbook, bring coupons, gift cards, and loyalty cards together in one place without the constraints of a physical wallet. This innovation is good, but it’s a bit of a horseless carriage, still tied to the mental model of a wallet. Consumers still need to manually figure out which instruments can be combined and which cannot, prioritize them based on expirations, calculate the math on their own, and then present them at point-of-sale one at a time.

The third wave will be the mobile portfolio manager, the automobile to the mobile wallet’s horseless carriage, which marries the convertibility of the first wave with the convenience of the second. When you treat coupons, cards, and points as convertible instruments, fully leverage the power of digital and mobile technology, and add intelligence into the system, you get an entirely new possibility: calculating and comparing purchasing power, converting currencies, prioritizing usage, and dynamically creating scannable barcodes or other methods for combined payment. Soon consumers will be managing their Branded Currency the way they use Mint to manage their bank, credit, investment, and other financial accounts.

There is a lot of talk these days about brands as publishers. But the successive waves of Branded Currency suggest that retailers will also need to think like bankers who mint their own currencies. Market leaders will be those who best help consumers manage and spend Branded Currency from their portfolios, offer the best exchange rates, create the most liquidity, and make the most efficient markets. Retailers who adopt and execute smart Branded Currency strategies will gain relative share of wallet and have deeper, more enduring relationships with consumers.

Starbucks is perhaps the most advanced retailer in the area of Branded Currency. Most retailers treat their gift card program as an afterthought. Starbucks, on the other hand, has turned it into a hub for competitive advantage. In fact, CEO Howard Schultz considered the combination of mobile payments and social networking as central to the company’s “blueprint for growth.”

In 2011, Starbucks launched Android and iPhone apps that enabled customers to mobilize and easily reload their plastic cards or purchase new digital gift cards. Most Starbucks customers use the gift card not as a present for others, but as an easy way to pay for purchases, redeem offers, and earn rewards. In effect, they transformed their gift card into a mobile payment/loyalty card and their mobile app into a wallet for their Branded Currency. Over 7 million people now use Starbucks’ mobile app to make 4.5 million payments a week, accounting for at least 10% of Starbucks total U.S. revenue. Over 10 million Starbucks eGifts, the digital version of a gift card, have been sent just since 2012.

The strength of Starbucks strategy is not in any single program or promotion. It is the way that the entire Branded Currency system works together to provide an integrated and seamless experience for the customer. They knit together a variety of technologies and platforms from Apple, American Express, CashStar, Facebook, Square, and daily deal providers to promote and execute their deals, offers, and payments across digital, mobile, and social channels. But most importantly, by having its own Branded Currency system, Starbucks maintains control over the customer experience, relationships, and data.

Many technology companies including Apple, Google, eBay and Square are hoping brands will rely on their platforms to integrate and manage coupons, offers, gift cards, payments, and rewards.

Apple has been quietly creating a platform for managing branded currency in the form of its Passbook app and a newly filed patent. If brands aren’t careful, they will be as beholden to Apple for digital and mobile coupons, payments, and loyalty as record companies are for digital music, book publishers are to Amazon for digital books, and social game publishers are to Facebook.

As the market for Branded Currency converges and grows, brands will fall into three categories.

(1) Losers: Some brands will continue to operate their coupons, deals, offers, gift cards and loyalty programs the way they always have, as separate standalone programs, and will adopt mobile technology reluctantly. These brands will steadily lose their competitive edge and share of consumer spending.

(2) Laggards: Some brands will play catch up, adopting best practices after they are widely accepted, and rely on the platforms developed by technology and financial services companies. They will stay in the game, but will be in the middle of the pack, either unable to control the customer experience, lacking full access to their data, and losing margin to the platform provider.

(3) Leaders: A few brands will set the pace by creating an integrated approach to using Branded Currency as a vehicle for customer engagement. They will aggregate deals, offers, payments, and loyalty; unify online and offline; and put mobile at the center. They will work with other third-party platforms and wallets, but not be beholden to them. As a result, they will use their data to create value for their customers and bring a unique brand experience to every touchpoint. They will enjoy increased frequency and spend, forge stickier relationships, and greater and more sustainable profitability.

Will you be a loser, laggard, or leader? History, current trends, and the billions of dollars at stake would suggest it’s time to start building your Branded Currency strategy and system now.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Gene Cornfield is Vice President of Marketing at CashStar, a provider of digital gifting and mobile payments solutions. Follow him on Twitter @genecornfield.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

What if a Company Maximized Jobs Over Profits?

All over Silicon Valley, venture capitalists are asking entrepreneurs “How scalable is your business model?” What they really mean is, “Can you grow without having to hire people?”

In our digital economy, value creation and job creation don’t always go together.  Consider that Whatsapp just sold for $19 billion with only 55 employees.  It used to be that business growth led to job growth.  But as machines get smarter, labor becomes a reluctant necessity.  Companies only hire as a last resort.

But what if the purpose of a company was to employ people?  Instead of hiring enough people to make the greatest profit, it would make enough profit to hire the greatest number of people.

Put simply, these “job entrepreneurs” maximize jobs instead of profits.  There is a precedent in this. “Social entrepreneurs” seek to maximize purpose over profits.  They take a social problem, like health, poverty, or the environment, then work on finding a business model that can remedy the problem. They seek to make enough profit to make the greatest social impact.

Job entrepreneurs take a similar approach. They start with a group of people they seek to employ, then work on finding a sustainable business model that leverages their talent and experience. This isn’t about job placement. There are many organizations that help people find jobs in other companies. Job entrepreneurs bring people directly onto their own payroll.

One pioneer in the “job entrepreneur” movement is Dave Friedman. Two years ago, Friedman left his position as a Fortune 100 executive to start a new venture.  His goal was to employ people on the autism spectrum – individuals who have traditionally been unemployable.

Friedman considered creating a traditional startup, but he realized that his goal was different. He didn’t want to maximize profits but rather employment.  Many advised him to setup a non-profit. But Friedman didn’t want to rely on grants and donations. He believed the business needed to generate a sustainable profit to foster discipline and efficiency. He also wanted his employees to know that their jobs weren’t just charity, bringing a source of authentic empowerment.

Some advised Friedman to create a social enterprise, but the models didn’t really apply.  Friedman wasn’t changing how the product was made (e.g. organic or sustainable) or where it was sold (e.g. low-income buyers).  He was focused on changing who gets hired.  Like social entrepreneurs, WHY mattered more than HOW MUCH.  But in this case WHO mattered more than HOW or WHERE.

Without an existing model to guide him, Friedman set out to make his own.  He had a powerful belief that people on the autism spectrum represent an exceptional yet hidden workforce.  But he needed a business model that would turn what others saw as a deficit into a source of competitive advantage.

Friedman found his answer in what he calls “Process Execution” jobs.  These are labor-intensive activities such as website maintenance, data entry, and software testing. Many companies struggle to fill these positions. But the repetitiveness and attention to detail are well-suited to the talents and abilities of people with autism.

As much as possible, Friedman downplays the fact that his employees have autism.  He is not looking for charity.  He wants to compete on the same playing field as other companies providing similar services.  But on the inside, AutonomyWorks is unlike any of its competitors.  Friedman has redesigned the way work is structured, organized, and managed to suit his employees.

With these changes, Friedman has found that not only can AutonomyWorks match traditional competitors, but it can produce better quality at a lower price.  By generating profits, he is able to hire more people and fulfill his mission.  In the process, he has empowered an overlooked workforce and relieved families of the costs of supporting autistic relatives.

Another company following a similar model is Shinola, a Detroit-based manufacturer originally known for its shoe polish.  Shinola has recently reinvented itself to create jobs for unemployed auto workers.  Like AutonomyWorks, Shinola started with jobs and worked backward to the business model.  In this case, auto workers have unique skills in light manufacturing and upholstery.  So Shinola produces watches, leather goods, and handcrafted bicycles.  A traditional entrepreneur wouldn’t set out to make this combination of products.  But for a job entrepreneur in Detroit, it makes all the sense in the world.

So what does it take to be a job maximizer?

  1. Choose Your Talent. Who do you want to employ? AutonomyWorks focuses on people with autism. Shinola focuses on former auto workers. There are many other segments of the labor force who are underemployed or underutilized.
  2. Find Your Market. What products or services can these workers best make or provide?  This is where the entrepreneurial magic comes into play.  You need to find something that suits your people and also generates a sustainable profit.  Friedman recommends looking for markets where work has been off-shored or automated, and that have low capital requirements.
  3. Design Your System. What innovations do you need to meet the unique needs and bring out the best in your workers?  This might involve rethinking hiring, process design, management, or organizational culture.  The key is turning people’s disadvantage in society into your company’s competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Over the last twenty years, we have successfully created an entirely new economic sector in which social entrepreneurs maximize purpose over profit.  It’s time to turn this entrepreneurial spirit on a new goal:  job creation.  We need more people like Dave Friedman and more companies like Shinola — job maximizers and employment entrepreneurs.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

A Good Digital Strategy Creates a Gravitational Pull

Thanks to social media, businesses need to change how they think about influence. You can control what you say in an ad, sales meeting, or company memo, but when people connect peer-to-peer, you lose direct control over what is said or done. The new challenge is how to have influence from a distance.

Our mental models — such as those that come from the battlefield or biology — are ill-suited for this challenge. To understand influence from a distance, we must look to a different kind of force: not mechanical or biological, but gravitational.

By definition, gravity is a force that attracts any object with mass. Every object is pulling on every other object in the universe, a fact that is known as Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Objects with greater mass exert more pull, and the strength of the force increases exponentially as objects move closer together.

Gravity has four attributes that are relevant to thinking about strategy in a digital age.

First, gravity is a force of attraction. As John Hagel and John Seely Brown have observed, business models are shifting from push to pull. Instead of pushing resources to meet expected demand, companies such as Uber and Zara enable customers to mobilize resources by pulling them in as need arises. A similar change is happening in marketing, as ad spend shifts from push strategies that broadcast a message to pull strategies that respond to or even predict customer interest. Gravity gives us a way of comparing the relative strength of a pull strategy, whether as a business platform or a method of engagement.

Second, gravity exerts influence at a distance. In a networked world, things are more interconnected but also more fragmented. As a result, there is a greater chance of events happening outside our field of view: In politics we have seen Brexit and the surprise result of the recent U.S. presidential election, while in business we see customer insurgencies like the one against New Balance. In addition, brands are recognizing the limited effectiveness of branded content they can control. Real influence comes from catalyzing trends and ideologies happening in the broader culture.

Third, gravity is ubiquitous. It’s no longer possible to control everything about your product. We need to assume that everything can and will be seen by anyone. Amazon plans its product launches on the assumption that the news will be leaked. Companies need to find ways to be everywhere, all the time. The media landscape has become too fragmented to only target individual audiences. People are now the new channel. Gravity gives us a way of thinking about reaching anyone at any time.

Fourth, gravity is exponential. The ability to harness exponential growth is a common element of disruptive business models and a key to successful platform strategies. The problem is that traditional ways of thinking about strategy are mechanical, and therefore incremental. Gravity gives us a way of thinking about strategy that is exponential. As gravity pulls an object closer, the gravitational effect increases exponentially.

Physics tells us that gravity is more complex than two objects pulling on each other like magnets. Einstein revealed that gravity warps space and time. Gravity puts curvature into the universe, like a bowling ball dropped in the center of a trampoline, altering the path that objects travel along. In a similar way, companies that use the gravity model to compete can warp the marketspace, altering the dynamics of their industry. They do more than hit their targets and push them through the sales funnel: They create an ongoing relationship that alters the trajectory of customers’ lives and companies’ operations.

To compete with gravity, your strategy needs to generate a force of attraction, pull people into its orbit, and help them pull others in, too. Here’s what you need:

  • Gravity Generators. To create a force of attraction, you have to go beyond thinking about value propositions and target audiences. Gravity originates in a shared purpose that is created with your stakeholders as cocreators, not just to or for them as consumers. Sephora, for example, creates gravity with a mission to “Beauty Together,” and relates to their customers as artists. Nike creates gravity with a mission to inspire the athlete in all of us, and relates to everyone as an athlete. Its saying is: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
  • Experiential Orbits. To turn purpose into profit, companies design orbits that keep customers (and other stakeholders) in an ongoing relationship beyond individual transactions, or orbit. Instead of using relationships to drive transactions, gravity companies embed transactions in relationships. Amazon’s Prime program is a sophisticated orbit, attracting members with a wide range of experiences, from shopping to ebooks to streaming media. Google and Apple have designed different kinds of orbits. Google’s orbit includes search, email, and maps; Apple’s has iTunes, Facetime, and the Genius Bar.
  • Force Multipliers. Companies competing on gravity create the equivalent of solar systems, with a shared purpose at the center and stakeholders in orbit around that purpose, like planets. But planets generate their own gravity. Your stakeholders’ networks are like moons around a planet. By helping them generate their own gravity, you attract others into your orbit. Vail Resorts does this with its EpicMix program, turning skiing into a social experience. Topgolf has done the same with its driving ranges. When you help people attract others, you become an even greater force of attraction.

The following questions are helpful for understanding how well you are generating gravity and warping marketspace to your advantage:

  • Is your narrative more about your products or your purpose? Is there a reason for people to want you to succeed in your mission even if they never buy anything from you?
  • What proportion of interactions with your company are not directly related to a transaction, either as sales or service? Do you create value for people beyond the products you sell?
  • What proportion of interactions about your brand or product happen without your direct involvement? How well do you support those interactions (without being in control of them)?

What does all this look like when you put it together? Imagine your industry as a galaxy. Each competitor has its own solar system. Your prospective customers are floating through space. Your job is to create enough gravity to pull them into your orbit. Your job is also to dislodge those on the outer edges of your competitors’ systems and bring them into yours.

Once they’re in orbit, you need to keep bringing them closer, increasing their loyalty and advocacy and attracting peers from their networks into yours. As the mass of your solar (or social) system grows, so does the gravity you generate. If your gravity weakens, a competitor will come along and attract customers away.

Competitive advantage has traditionally been about higher barriers to entry. Now it’s increasingly about generating a greater force of attraction.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Little Data Makes Big Data More Powerful

You may not know this, but Big Data has a little brother. And together, Big and Little Data are far more powerful than Big Data alone.

Big Data is what organizations know about people — be they customers, citizens, employees, or voters. Data is aggregated from a large number of sources, assembled into a massive data store, and analyzed for patterns. The results are more accurate predictions, more targeted communications, and more personalized services. Big Data is what enables banks to predict credit card fraud by analyzing billions of transactions, marketers to understand customer sentiment by analyzing millions of interactions on social media, and retailers to target promotions and offers by analyzing millions of purchases.

In contrast, Little Data is what we know about ourselves. What we buy. Who we know. Where we go. How we spend our time. We’ve always had a sense for these things — after all, it’s our lives. But thanks to the combination of mobile, social, and cloud technologies, it’s easier than ever to gain insight into our own behavior.

As an example, consider the emerging field of mobile health. Portable devices like the FitBit or Nike FuelBand measure your activity level and sync with your smartphone. The associated mobile app gives feedback, encouragement, and rewards as you reach your goals. New research shows that people who use tracking technologies are more likely to be successful in losing weight and getting in shape.

A similar trend is underway in energy conservation. The company Opower partners with utilities to give customers visibility into how their electricity consumption compares with the average of their neighborhood.

Big and Little Data differ in three primary ways:

  • Focus: The focus of Big Data is to advance organizational goals, while Little Data helps individuals achieve personal goals.
  • Visibility: Individuals can’t see Big Data; Little Data helps them see better.
  • Control: Big Data is controlled by organizations, while Little Data is controlled by individuals. Companies grant permission for individuals to access Big Data, while individuals grant permission to organizations to access Little Data.

Without Little Data, Big Data has a tendency to become Big Brother. We’ve all experienced that unsettling feeling when ads follow us on the web, a practice marketers call retargeting. And retailers have gotten into trouble when Big Data predicts things about people they don’t even know themselves.

On the other hand, Little Data without Big Data is incomplete. One complaint about portable fitness devices is that they aren’t sufficiently prescriptive. They don’t tell you what to do based on your behavior. How much activity should I be getting? If I’m not sleeping well, what can I do to sleep better? This requires a partnership with individuals and health care providers to combine tracking with advice and treatment.

Or consider the experience of grocery shopping. We are all familiar with the coupons we get when we checkout at the register. In the time it takes for you to sign your credit card slip, a massive database analyzes what you bought today, what you bought in the past, and what people like you tend to buy, then matches it to the available offers and prints out a personalized set of coupons. A classic case of Big Data.

But what does this scenario look like with Little Data? Start by applying the three steps:

  • Shift Focus: How can we help individuals achieve their goals?
  • Make it Visible: How can we give people visibility into their own data?
  • Share Control: How can the relationship be more reciprocal?

Putting these together, we can imagine a different kind of shopping experience. The Little Data alone could be used to create a personal shopping assistant that lets you:

  • Generate shopping lists automatically based on what you’ve purchased in the past. This feature could be used to send a reminder while you are right in the store, e.g. “Don’t forget the milk!”
  • Bring promotions to you based on your interests. For example, instead of paging through the entire circular, you could find out if there are specials on any of your favorite brands.
  • Provide useful information to guide purchasing decisions. For example, the assistant could alert you to foods with ingredients that might trigger food allergies.

Things get really interesting when we combine the power of Big Data with Little Data. For example, as a shopper, I’m interested to know which brands have the highest loyalty or what else people might have on their Thanksgiving shopping list. There might even be patterns that could predict which foods I am most likely to enjoy based on what others buy who share similar purchase histories. (Think of this as the Netflix of food.)

This connection between Big and Little Data applies in other areas as well. Consider the smart thermostat made by Nest, which automatically adjusts itself to your preferences and behavior. A utility company could connect the Little Data from Nest devices to the Big Data from its power grid. Nest customers could then benchmark their energy usage against others in the community. Furthermore, the sense of shared purpose and the greater transparency and control give individuals greater incentive to share information and participate in energy saving initiatives.

This partnership between Big and Little Data can apply to almost any industry, from travel and financial services to health care and government. While companies build up their business intelligence teams and hire (Big) Data scientists, companies should also look to create services based on Little Data that empower their customers. These services would enable customers to pull information towards them when they need it, instead of just trying to figure out what message to send and when to send it. They would enable customers to make better decisions themselves, instead of trying to figure it out for them. This is a new way of thinking, and a new way of engaging customers. Perhaps we need a new generation of (Little) Data scientists to figure it out.

There is no doubt that Big Data will transform business. But in an age of connected and empowered individuals, precision targeting must be balanced with personal value. If you want to build loyalty, spend less time using data to tell customers about you, and spend more time telling them something about themselves.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.