Do you know what business you’re really in?

what business you're really in

By Keith Reynold Jennings, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Introductory Note from Keith: It’s a privilege to be a new contributing columnist for Mark’s blog, {grow}. I hope you’ll reach out and introduce yourself. I look forward to getting to know you!

Do you know what business you’re really in? I’m going to share some insights that might surprise you but let’s begin with a story about socks and Skittles.

Getting crazy with socks

John Cronin was born with Down’s Syndrome, but he tells anyone willing to listen that it will never hold him back.

In 2016, at the age of 21, John told his dad that he wanted to start a business with him. You’ve got to hear John tell his story, but it goes like this…

John’s first idea was to create a “fun store.” But he couldn’t figure out what a fun store was.

John’s next idea was a food truck. He had seen the movie, Chef, about a father taking his son on the road with a food truck. And it seemed like a good idea. But there was a problem. “We can’t cook,” John said, with a grin.

Eventually, a new idea emerged: socks.

John had worn crazy socks his whole life. Socks allowed him to be creative and have fun. And, with that, John’s Crazy Socks was born.

Spreading Happiness

When I first saw the video of John and his dad telling their story, I fell in love with their company. It’s clear from the moment you enter their narrative that they’re not really in the sock business. They’re in the business of spreading happiness. Socks are merely the means.

  • They spread happiness through their ever-expanding inventory of crazy socks.
  • They spread happiness through a pack of candy and a hand-written note included with each order. Residents in Long Island get their socks personally delivered by John.
  • They spread happiness through John’s infectious Instagram videos.
  • They spread happiness through their growing workforce of, and advocacy for people with differing abilities.
  • And they spread happiness through donating a significant percentage of the company’s profits to causes John cares about, such as Special Olympics, Down’s Syndrome and autism.

The weird marketing turn

My first pair of crazy socks were a gift from family for my birthday (which, indeed, included a note from John and a pack of Skittles). I’ve continued buying socks from John ever since.

Each time I wear a pair of John’s Crazy Socks, people ask me about them. So I get to tell them the story of John and his dad. And, each time I tell their story, I watch people light up with (you guessed it) happiness.

Naturally, I follow John’s Crazy Socks on Instagram. John has Monday Madness Mystery Bags, Wacky Wednesdays, weekend dance-offs, you name it.

But here is where the narrative takes a weird marketing turn.

Other “funny sock” companies started showing up through sponsored ads in my feeds and search results. And they did that ridiculous tactic of liking my Instagram pictures and following me in hopes of a follow back. Of course, I blocked them.

Why would a company do this? Because they think it’s about the socks. There is an important lesson here.

Be Customer-Oriented, Not Product-Oriented

For decades, railroads dominated passenger and freight transportation. Then, they started to decline. Why? Because railroad executives thought they were in the railroad business.

Theodore Levitt called this “marketing myopia,” in his legendary 1960 article in Harvard Business Review. He believed there is no such thing as declining market growth, only a failure of management to see bigger, emerging opportunities.

In other words, business leaders tend to be product focused, rather than customer focused. And this myopic tendency blinds them to new opportunities literally right in front of them.

According to Levitt, had railroad managers believed they were in the transportation business, they could have capitalized on the opportunities that cars, airlines, buses and trucks offered. Instead, they shrank as these new modes of transportation lured customers away. They were railroad-oriented, while their customers were transportation-oriented.

That’s why those sock companies thought their job was to “target” me with their stuff. They were myopic. They couldn’t see past their own products. They thought it was about socks.

In reality, is was about me: the customer. I’m not buying colorful, cotton covers for my feet. I’m buying the feeling I get supporting and sharing the story of a young entrepreneur I believe in. I’m buying the spread of happiness!

Think about the things you buy. It’s rare you buy anything merely for the functional job it can do. More often than not, you’re serving a bigger story. You care about the emotional, social and even transformational benefits a product, service or idea offers.

What Business Are You Really In?

Had the railroad titans asked, “What business are we really in?,” they could have seen the emerging opportunities in passenger and freight transportation.

“What business are you really in?” is the classic question Theodore Levitt challenges us with and it’s as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.

John Cronin is the business of spreading happiness. He currently achieves this through socks. But he recently announced plans for John’s Crazy Christmas Store. John is not myopic. He’s sees opportunities his product-centric competitors cannot.

What about you? What business are you really in? What are your customers actually buying when they buy your product or service? What else could you offer that would help them get that functional, emotional and/or social job done in their lives?

Now go do that!

Keith Reynold Jennings is an executive and writer. He serves as vice president of community impact for Jackson Healthcare. He’s an advisor to And he writes about the intersections of social impact, identity and legacy. Find Keith on Twitter and Instagram.

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