3 things fictitious drug dealer characters can teach us about growing a business

I have spent a significant part of my career working with early-stage businesses, supporting them to reach new customers, open new markets and grow their market reach and revenues. It's a rather odd analogy but I am usually struck by the similarities between my job in marketing and business development with what is usually the main plot of a drug dealer character in a fictional film, movie, or book.

Here are 3 business lessons that I have learned from these stories:

1. The drug dealer in the movie always has a supplier, often referred to as 'the connect'. This is usually a very important person who runs the whole supply chain...

In the real business world, I compare this to the market leader. We all want to be market leaders, to claim a big chunk of the market, and have a product that is popular. But often we operate in environments that already have a market leader and just like in the drug dealer story plots, there are usually 2 options to win the market.

Innovate and disrupt the market with a differentiated product.

Innovation is often thought to be the creation of an absolutely new product; but I like to define innovation as seeking a new solution to an existing challenge. Back to the film analogy, this is where the dealer launches a violent attack on the ‘connect’ and takes over the market/supply chain. In the business world seeking market share is difficult to do but with the right strategy, you can get a larger market share. It all boils down to;

  1. Having the right product: Solves a problem has sufficient demand and profits
  2. Consistency: Readily available and of good quality
  3. Customer experience: Easy to acquire and use
  4. Develop a unique brand position: Great products/services are a start but you need your marketing team to create a distinct look and personality for your brand.

Sometimes you can't disrupt

Disrupting the market may not always be possible, especially for product based businesses where the product features are quite similar. Here, collaborating  and partnering with the market leader, or creating a product/service that complements what is popular in the market would be a winning strategy. In our film analogy, this is where the dealer collaborates with the ‘connect’/market-lead to disrupt other players in the market.

2. In the story plot, the dealer always needs foot soldiers to 'move their product'. The dealer is always operating in a very competitive environment and usually needs foot soldiers in all corners to 'win territory'...

In the business world, we need our clients to spend money on our product/service. Having a great innovative product is good; having a marketing strategy that supports you to create brand awareness around the product/service is great; but if people are not actually buying- if sales are low, if the awareness is not converting to sales or the interests converting to leads, then this is critical to solve.

Why is your product not selling?

  • Pricing: Your price can be too high that your target market isn’t able to afford it or too low that the market thinks it is of poor quality. Conduct a customer survey and market research to understand what your customers are willing to pay to solve their problem and how much the competition is charging.
  • Suitability: The product doesn't meet the immediate customer need or needs customers to be educated on how the product solves their problem. Your route to market strategy should include educating your potential customers about your product and its benefits.
  • Accessibility: Sometimes your customers are not buying your product because it’s not easy to access. You may be selling your product online but your target market believes in handling the product in person before purchasing.

A simple design thinking session could help a business come to the root cause of low sales and afterwards come up with simple but effective solutions to improve sales.

The other vital thing to remember is that it is cheaper to retain an existing customer than it is to onboard a new one. Further, retaining existing customers while onboarding new ones is essential to growing your business. Consider a loyalty programme, engage with your customers frequently, use feedback loops to continuously meet and exceed customer expectations.

3. Finally, the story's main plot is usually when something goes wrong with the dealer e.g. the police attempt to track him down, someone they trust betrays them, 'powerful people' go after his family, etc...

The truth about business risk is that you can't always predict with certainty the nature of challenges/risks that your business will face and whether these challenges will bring the business down or propel it to success. With the effects of the COVID pandemic, many businesses have had to learn to navigate uncertainty and remain relevant.

When decision making in uncertainty;

  • Take a breath: This is not to say that you should procrastinate on making decisions, however, you can take some time to get all the pertinent information available.
  • Get multiple perspectives: Involve more stakeholders to get more perspectives. This will enable you to get more information without compromising speed.
  • Take small bets: It may be daunting to make big-bet decisions when there’s so much uncertainty. The workaround is to make the next small decision that takes you in the right direction  and expand based on the outcomes.
  • Resist the sunk cost fallacy: When new information comes in, change course. Know when to cut losses, refine your plan without dwelling too much on what you’ve already done. Some things you can salvage but sometimes you need to cut your losses and start afresh.
  • Reward your teams for the right decision regardless of the outcome: People avoid making decisions if they think they will be punished for bad outcomes.