Success may mean staying true to what you know is true



By Mark Schaefer

I invented Groupon. Well sort of.

Many years ago, my first big consulting opportunity was with a national newspaper chain. The company saw the writing on the wall and knew they needed to make big changes to adjust to the digital age. I was invited by the publisher to come into their office and present my innovative new ideas to monetize.

I presented a number of concepts but they went nuts over one in particular — I laid out the business plan for a way to help online subscribers discover exciting new local discounts. I had articulated the business plan for Groupon — but this was before Groupon. We could have been the first Groupon!

Indeed, the idea would have actually worked better at this company because they had sales people with established customers all over the country, something Groupon has lacked.

So they bought into the innovation and I was asked to lead a team to actually make the idea come true.

I had a lot of experience leading dramatic change in an established company culture. In fact, I actually have a master’s degree in organizational development, something I don’t talk a lot about, but an experience level that has helped me a tremendous amount as an enterprise-level consultant.

And then the wheels came off

In our first meeting, I said that we needed to accomplish five things to make this very entrepreneurial opportunity work in a very slow-moving company. I can’t remember precisely what those five points were but they came out my many years in business. I absolutely knew how to execute on this plan, how we needed to bring about this dramatic change.

In our first meeting, everyone was optimistic and energized. I left the team with a list of actions that were to be accomplished by the next week.

In week two, I was informed that “number four” of my five-point plan was not going to be feasible. But they assured me this was not a real obstacle.

In week three, another of my points was taken off the table. We would not be able have a dedicated employee for this effort — they thought they could do it with bits and pieces of existing employees already working on other jobs. I began to twitch.

In week four, another one of my imperatives bit the dust … and you can probably predict where this going. Nowhere.

The truth you know is true

Piece by piece, my plan was dismantled. Instead of fighting for a strategy based on my own experience, my own intelligence, and what I knew to be true, I became assimilated into the lethargic company culture. I didn’t want to rock the boat, when my job was to rock the boat.

I could have been the Father of Groupon but instead I was an idiot.

The truth is, this was an extremely difficult project because of the deep-rooted culture that resisted anything new, but when my points started to fall off the table, I should have gone to the company sponsor of the project and fought harder for what I knew to be true.

I promise you, I have never made that mistake again!

It is important to me to not just provide a strategy to my customers, but to provide a strategy that WORKS and is built in a way that can make it thrive in the company culture.

What you know is true

The irony is, I was reminded of this early-career incident when the tables were recently turned. I’ve been working with a very talented young video story-teller who agreed to make a short video for me. We talked about the vision and what needed to happen and then I waited for my video.

When I received it, it was nothing like either one of us had envisioned. In fact, it wasn’t very good at all. We talked about the situation and I was able to confirm that a hunch I had was correct — he was intimidated by the situation of working with an experienced marketer. Instead of fighting for what he knew was true — what needed to happen to create a great video — he let his standards slip to accommodate problems we had along the way.

Once I assured him that I didn’t know shit about video, and that he was the expert, not me, we seemed to get the project back on track.

If you want to become a business leader and thought leader, you certainly must be able to adapt and adopt, but you also need to know when to stay true to what you know to be true.

And if I had only known that many years ago, who knows? I might be the coupon king.

Well, if I really did invent Groupon, I probably would be on my yacht in the Mediterranean right now instead of blogging. And I do love to blog. So maybe I wasn’t such an idiot after all.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon. 


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