Lessons in Failure – 5 steps of Focus
As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve had some wins and some losses. Hey, that’s the game, isn’t it? One of high-risk/high reward, where a million things can go wrong and only a few can go right. While I defiantly prefer winning it’s those losses that became a necessary part of my growth process; both personally and professionally.
When searching for something to write about I came across a list of the reasons why my last venture failed. After building and selling two consecutive footwear/handbag companies the third time turned out to be not quite the charm. The list was created a few years ago after someone asked me to explain what exactly had happened. The experience was pretty painful so took the question to heart and decided to really reflect on it. I figured it would be good to understand what I’ve learned since then as well as what I would do now in a similar situation. The process felt a bit ‘unnatural’ and possible only now with some distance. Done any earlier, it probably would have been a list of people, external circumstances, and random situations that were responsible.
Today I can appreciate the lesson, chalk it up to experience as I continue my career trying to help others not make these same mistakes. Below I attempt to turn that initial list into a cohesive narrative by honing in on the biggest mistakes I made and 'the one' that causes so many other issues. One, that unfortunately, I see so many other companies across industries make as well. I also highlight some modern-day fashion success stories as well as where I think modern-day strategy may be heading. My aim here is to have all of you who think you're focused, to take a pause, reflect and ask yourselves again, “Am I really?” and “What can I do better?” From experience, I know how easy it is to get lost in your day-to-day, lose focus, and not even realize you did.
Now back to my most recent failure where we tried to be 'everything to everyone' and went out of the gate with too wide of a product range. This is a natural tendency I’m sure many business owners can relate to. We feel hesitant about excluding anyone from our product or service offerings, so we intentionally keep options wide open. After all, we can always see what sticks and who wants to be seen starting out as a small ‘niche’ company. Go big or go home, right?
By doing this we just skipped over building a solid foundation; one that would have positioned us around less much competition while also better aligning our already limited resources. This lack of focus was definitely the biggest mistake made and one that caused a cascading series of other problems on my list. Issues ranging from ineffective marketing strategies to poor supply chain management to inconsistent distribution plans came back to haunt us. So, unless you have a big name behind you, an already established infrastructure, really deep pockets, and are planning to compete-on-price I strongly recommend using a Niche Marketing Strategy. On second thought, it’s probably the only way to go in today’s highly competitive global market where no one needs the 10th best anything anymore. Just remember even the mighty Amazon started out with just books.
5 Step Framework
Here is how I would strategize a high-altitude Niche Marketing Strategy today no matter what industry I was working in. Of course, there are many other steps as well, but I believe without these done, with surgical precision, those would eventually suffer as well. Perhaps they can be looked at more as ideals or principles which can help everything else fall into place.
· Part 1: Identify underserved target markets
· Part 2: Clearly understand characteristics of target market
· Part 3: Create uniquely superior products, services and experiences
· Part 4: Over-deliver on the brand promise and serve market flawlessly
· Part 5: Plan to expand to adjacent markets
· Part 6: Repeat all steps
Examples of Niche Marketing Strategy Done Well
Part of being in the fashion industry, or any industry for that matter, is having a healthy obsession with what your competition is doing. So, who then did it right in fashion for the last few years? For me, it was the EU-based footwear brand Both Paris Amsterdam’s Filling Pieces and Stockholm’s Axel Arigato. They all are great examples of a Niche Marketing Strategy well executed. While I would also use the US-based handbag company, Mansur Gavriel,Mansur Gavriel as a case study if I was teaching a class on the subject. By launching in a ‘not for everyone’ small scale and by leveraging all things digital they all seemed to avoid many of the current fashion system pitfalls and check all the boxes in the steps above. Soon enough they all became exactly the type of brand profile that retail stores throughout the world would start aggressively seeking out in order to increase their own relevance. I would also be remiss not to mention the US-based eco-friendly footwear brand Allbirds. While the majority of brands are stuck in a vicious cycle with department stores, having to overdevelop at a frantic pace, they are kicking everyone’s ass with basically just one style.
The Evolving Niche Strategy – ‘Occasion of Use’
Even more recently I started to see a new slant on Niche Marketing Strategies. Brands are starting to take unique positions within a well-defined ‘occasion of use.’ Meaning, you know exactly why, when, and how you are going to use their products. I think this is an often-overlooked strategy that is becoming more and more critical in the fashion business today. Think of the rapid rise of Lulu Lemon or the fact that brands like Moncler and Salomon have such solid global positions today and are able to secure collaborations with basically whoever they want. It all started with a clear-cut ‘occasion of use.’ When you are out shopping, how many redundant brands do you see with too wide of a product offering attempting to cover all occasions while competing with ubiquitous trends and similar pricing. Sorry folks, that framework is dead.
In the last couple of months, I've come across some really fresh examples of this type of 'occasion of use' strategy. Two brands that seem to just get it are Satisfy Paris and P.A.S. Normal Studios based in Copenhagen. Covid-19 has only seemed to strengthen both of their value propositions; now that health and fitness have become one of our most sought after luxuries in the new normal. Satisfy decided to take on the behemoths at Nike and Adidas by offering an intellectual luxury take on a running lifestyle that seems like a cross between 1970’s counterculture and what Rick Owens might wear to the gym. It’s just really cool and appear so far from being ‘mass-produced.’ While P.A.S. Normal Studio has taken a position at the top of the road cycling apparel food chain with an ultra-modern slick aesthetic made with high-end Italian tech materials. Recently, they have seamlessly moved into a wider range of après’ cycling gear.
I believe that all these companies I mentioned above should be viewed as references for anyone looking to grow a brand or enter the fray of modern-day fashion. More than ever it’s about focus so that you even have the chance at creating an authentic connection between you and your customer, which in turn will enable you to create content, experiences, services, and products that emotionally resonate with them. I believe this can only occur if you can listen, empathize, and truly understand their needs at emotional, physical, and social levels. Although this could all be dismissed as pseudo-psychologically mumble jumble, I believe that in today’s highly competitive digital world this type of deep understanding needs to be considered simply as the new level of table stakes.
Thank you for reading.