The Bullet Factor
by Dan Walsh
Reduce drag, go further.
If a bullet and an umbrella were both shot from a gun, one of them would go a hell of a lot farther. Why is this?
A bullet has almost zero drag compared to an umbrella. My big project has been closer to an umbrella than a bullet. I haven’t wanted to limit my options – my potential opportunities – but I’ve created a lot of drag by trying to be everything to everyone.
I needed to become a bullet.
It’s been a few months since I started working on my giant project. I’ve had my ups and downs. Sometimes it feels like I’m battling the universe. There are happy moments, but there’s also a lot of self doubt. No one ever said taking on the universe was easy.
Much of this doubt came from not knowing what to do next. In fact there were so many options, and so much resulting mental chaos that I had to shoebox all my other projects so I could focus on the giant one. That felt good, but it wasn’t enough. I still felt lost. I didn’t know what to do next, and that feeling of being lost is devastating. I felt unfocused and slow. I felt like I had a lot of drag.
I first realized I had a drag problem when I couldn’t articulately explain to others what I was trying to accomplish. I could toss out something general, like “marketing”, but if they pressed me for more details I got jammed up. I tried to base my answer on what I thought they wanted to hear. Not out of a desire to please, but because I wanted to convert. As long as they needed marketing advice, I could pretty much help them with anything. It all depended on what they needed.
But as they say, if everyone is your customer, then no one is your customer.
I felt like I wasn’t cutting through the noise. My first instinct was to hone my “elevator pitch”. I thought my problem was semantic. But it wasn’t. It was scope. I was going wide and broad instead of narrow and focused. I was an umbrella and I needed to become a bullet.
When I Became A Bullet
I woke up in the middle of the night with a sublime sense of clarity. The static had been building for days and the epiphany finally struck like a bolt of lightning.
The universe rewards efficiency with mobility.
The more tightly I compact my purpose the less drag I create.
I narrowed in specifically on what, how, and who I wanted my big project to serve. Every choice lifted weight from my shoulders. Every decision was liberation. These were choices I avoided in the past because I thought they would be too constraining – would limit my options. But all of a sudden they provided a clear path on how to move forward.
My doubt evaporated.
Obstacles fell away. Questions answered themselves. Everything became easy to articulate. I was dealing with specifics instead of vague generalities. And perhaps most importantly, by tightly constraining my focus I knew what I could safely ignore.
It was like I could see through time all the way to my goal. It was like someone downloaded a divine master plan into my head.
I felt like a bullet.
Compact and powerful.
Defining new constraints was borderline addictive. I pushed them to ridiculous levels just to see what I could learn.
What if I only help people in San Francisco? How does my strategy change?
What if I focus exclusively on a niche in San Francisco? What happens then?
What if I only help a niche in San Francisco during the winter months… and the owners have to have brown hair.
But oh so elucidating.
How To Know If You’re A Bullet or an Umbrella
Self-assessment is tricky business. We always want to believe we’re on the right side of accepted wisdom. Sometimes we “know” something, and we think we’re applying it already – but we’re not. This is especially dangerous because we look for solutions elsewhere when problems arise. We think we already have that other thing covered, so we never examine it. That’s how I became an umbrella.
I “know” all the wisdom about keeping a project compact, so I thought I had it all covered. But I didn’t. It took me almost three months to circle back around and address the real problem. These were the three symptoms that tipped me off.
1. Lack of Clarity
It was hard to prioritize tasks and I felt pulled in many different directions. The pile of stuff I needed to learn felt like a mountain and I didn’t know which rock to start climbing first. I spent a lot of time prioritizing, and the re-prioritizing because I changed my mind. I felt kind of lost and adrift.
2. Bad Elevator Pitch
I had a hard time explaining what I do and what I was after. When I would give my little spiel, I had the sense that the other person didn’t really know if I could help them or not. Bad sign.
3. Couldn’t Say “No” to an Opportunity
I didn’t know which opportunities to accept and which to decline. Just because I can sell my product to someone, doesn’t mean I should. I couldn’t answer this question: “Who would I turn down, even if they were offering me money?” This was a big one for me, and I credit Geoffrey A. Moore’s book, Crossing the Chasm, for helping to shake these thoughts loose. *
How To Become A Bullet
So, how does one become a bullet? How do you compact yourself – your cause – so tightly that you become dense enough to punch a hole through the universe?
You let go.
Jettison all the maybes, just-in-cases, and don’t-want-to-miss-outs. They create drag, confusion, and doubt.
Ironically, the point of becoming a bullet is to get “what you do” so narrowly defined that there’s no ambiguity about what you don’t do. For me, this required ratcheting down on who, what, where, and when my service applied.
The two big questions to ask are:
- What specific service or product do I offer?
- Who specifically do I offer it to?
You might have to ask yourself these questions multiple times before you hit your target. But you’ll know when you get there because all of a sudden everything will make sense. You’ll also end up with more people in the “not my customer” column than in the “are my customer” column. Which is the reverse of where you probably started.
For example, let’s say I want to start a coffee roasting company. That’s an umbrella. It has a lot of drag because it’s way too general. There are a lot of questions to figure out. I’d end up chasing my tail and never go anywhere.
What kind of coffee should I sell? How do I roast? How much do I roast? Who do I sell to? What’s my distribution model? Do I setup a shop? What’s my price point? Blah blah blah…
Here’s how transforming that umbrella into a bullet might look:
- I’m going to start a coffee roasting company.
- I’m going to roast central american coffees… by hand.
- I hand roast Guatamalan coffee in one pound batches and sell them at San Francisco farmer’s markets.
All of a sudden those tough questions are answered. Some of them are even answered directly in my bullet statement, like what kind of coffee and how I roast. And I can find out the rest of my answers because I know where to look know. For example, my price should be on the high end because I make small batches of artisan coffee and sell them to price un-sensitive yuppies at the San Francisco Ferry Building. All I have to do is check out prices for other similar products and I’ve answered a universally tough question: “how much do I charge for my product?”.
That third iteration is a good place to stop, but for the sake of experimentation, it can be useful to push a project to ridiculous levels to see what kind of clarity it creates. It’s just an exercise, so there’s no commitment.
4. I hand roast Caturra coffee beans from family owned estates in Guatemala and sell them in one-pound batches at the San Francisco Ferry Building to people wearing “Escape From Alcatraz” tshirts.
See what happened?
All of a sudden it becomes clear that I’m selling to tourists, not locals. I’d need to adjust my marketing to appeal to souvenir shoppers. I’m also probably dealing with one time buyers instead of repeat customers.
New endeavors are hard enough already, don’t make them any harder by creating unnecessary drag. If you don’t know which opportunities you would turn down, then you probably have too much drag. It can be scary to niche down because it feels like you’re needlessly missing out, but you’ll actually liberate yourself in the process. You’ll be free from habitually second guessing yourself and the toxic self-doubt it creates. If you have a project on the fire right now, take a few minutes to really think about specifically what you offer and who you offer it to.
*Here’s the passage from Crossing the Chasm that helped trigger my bullet factor and the thoughts in this post.
“Starting a fire isn’t rocket science, but it does represent a kind of discipline. And it is here that high- tech management shows itself most lacking. Most high- tech leaders, when it comes down to making marketing choices, will continue to shy away from making niche market commitments, regardless. Like marriage- averse bachelors, they may nod in all the right places and say all the right things, but they will not show up when the wedding bells chime. Why not?
First, let us understand that this is a failure of will, not of understanding. That is, it is not that these leaders need to learn about niche marketing. MBA marketing curricula of the past twenty- five years have been adamant about the need to segment markets and the advantages gained thereby. No one, therefore, can or does plead ignorance. Instead, the claim is made that, although niche strategy is generally best, we do not have time— or we cannot afford— to implement it now. This is a ruse, of course, the true answer being much simpler: We do not have, nor are we willing to adopt, any discipline that would ever require us to stop pursuing any sale at any time for any reason. We are, in other words, not a market- driven company; we are a sales- driven company.”