This piece is really two pieces, one on the theoretical mistake of imitating success, and the other on the practical approach of breaking from the herd.
Part 1: First, an example – one of the common questions I get about the new internet marketing (e.g. social media marketing) is this:
“I haven’t seen anyone doing that.” Answer: I’m confident I can provide lots of examples. But if you’re not engaged in social media, how would you expect to see that?
“I think my industry is different. I don’t know of anyone in my industry doing that.” Answer: I do. A lot of them are my clients.
“Fine, I don’t know anyone in my local area that is doing that.” Answer: That’s exactly why it will work. If you do what your more successful competition has done, you’ve got no edge, you’re just following them, and they’ve got the head start to be the first with the most. If you’re the first one in your industry, in your area, to do the new thing effectively, you’ll get a jumpstart on your competition that’s hard to match, let alone beat.
There are two kinds of responses: in marketing, entrepreneurship, or being an early adopter of any new thing. Bull and cow. And I don’t mean the kind of “bull” you get from those “SEO” companies that want $600/mo for “search engine optimization” and don’t even require an administrative login to your web site (means they don’t intend to touch it – they’re going to simply drop your URL in a piece of software, and move on to the next sale). No, if you buy that stuff, they don’t call you a bull or a cow, they call you a “whale”. I mean there’s a bull and cow response that determines who competes and who merely follows – and those are two different things.
What is the cow response? The cow response is waiting until other people are successful with something before you try it. You look over at the green pasture on the other side of the fence. You’re standing in nothing but scrub. It’s meager, but you can survive. You won’t die, but you won’t prosper, either. That green pasture is just too risky. You’d rather be safe than successful.
The bull response: The bull pushes down the fence and ventures into the new pasture. He eats the new grass first. Only when the cows look up and see the bulls munching contentedly, and the world hasn’t ended, does the herd move toward the feeding ground. By that time, though, the bulls are already in position, dominating that area, and the grass is picked over. The bulls, in fact, are already scouting out the next patch of ground.
If it’s the “latest thing”, the bulls were there already: By the time the everybody is rushing to copy the successful, the successful have already moved on. The bulls are already setting up the next thing that will make them more successful than the cows, and will keep them creating more success for themselves, and a trickle of left overs for the cows. As Heraclitus said of the stream, ‘by the time you step into it, it has already changed and moved on’. That’s certainly true of the cow approach.
Risk is a bull tactic. Survival isn’t the goal for a bull. Success is. In business competition, this means that success is partly predicated on risk, but certainly not half hazard risk. There are the crazy, irrational type of cows that wander into the road for no good reason, desperate to do anything but stay amind the remaining, inadequate scraps of dry grass that is all that’s left. Dropping $600/mo on a locked in annual contract for “search engine optimization” from some guy named Skip, who is never going to even touch your web site.
As an example: relying just on passive marketing – optimizing yourself to “be found” instead of actually going where the prospects are, is also a cow response. Bulls don’t just wait around for people to locate them in the online equivalent of a phone book (search engines). Bulls don’t wait for the grass to grow under their feet. They look up, over the herd, and they go where the lush is. While cows are waiting, bulls are moving toward the food.
Rule of Work: Don’t just imitate what the successful have done, imitate the principles they use to keep doing it.
In other words, don’t imitate the success so much as you imitate the successful . It’s so very common to get requests to build web sites that have what that successful guy has. “I basically want you to copy his web site, and just change a few things to brand it with my business.” How lame is that? Is that really who we want to be? A close imitation? If you think like that, stop right now and add the following line to your web site header, “Compare me to a successful competitor.” Isn’t that what the generic copies do? “Funky Flakes. Compare to Frosted Flakes.”
Seriously, though, by the time you imitate your successful competition, it’s already too late. To be successful, don’t do what they do, do what they haven’t done yet.
Part 2: Bull Principles (How to be a bull in a herd of cows):
- Accept 80% success rate in exchange for 20% failure. If you’re thinking “But I can’t accept any failure.” Then you’re thinking like a cow. If you need every marketing effort, for example, to pay off, your efforts will be minimal. You’ll wait for the guarantee, which involves seeing other people do it successfully first, and you’ll never initiate anything that others strive to catch up to and imitate. Bulls don’t manage to take over every pasture, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t pushed against the gates.
- Spend 1/3 of your time eating, 2/3 hunting tomorrow’s food. Cows eat all the time, if they can. As long as there’s grass, they’re chewing something. It’s sort of OK, because the activity of bulls in the market ensures that something will always be left to trickle down. Bulls aren’t like that, though. To get the new grass, they’re always working on where it’s going to come from. When life is comfortable, they work on innovating, experimenting, growing. They use that comfortable time as a platform for delving into and trying new things. This is why I advise people: ‘even when you’re at peak season, and get very busy, work on your marketing constantly -schedule it, set aside time, and consider it just as important as filling orders.’ It’s like the rule that says ‘save 10% if your income – even when you’re making only a little or an awful lot’.
- Be an early adopter. The herd can’t take you anywhere the bulls haven’t already been. If you’re OK with just some business, some success, there’s really nothing wrong with following others. It’s not a crime, and it doesn’t make you less respectable as a business person. But we’re not talking about that – this article is about success relative to competition. It’s fair to say the only ones really competing are the bulls. As long as the bulls eat, the cows will eat something, at least a little – it will trickle down. But if you’re looking enviously over at the bulls, wondering what you can do to be as succesful as them, own up to what you’re talking about. Want to beat the bulls in search engine placement? Don’t copy their web site – that isn’t going to work – search engines aren’t that dumb – do what they did, when you were doing something else – in other words, do the thing the other people aren’t, including them. You see? Running with the bulls, my friend. To think like a bull, step out of line from the herd, kick at the fence, and do the socially and professionally risky thing.
- Don’t be a bull evangelist. Cows don’t benefit from hearing continually about bull exploits. If you’re determined to stick with a cow response, I’ve already lost you at this point in the article – admit it. If you’re a bull, though – one who is newly discovering who you are – don’t preach the gospel of bullness all the time to the herd. It doesn’t work that way. It’s like someone who has newly discovered a religion and ends up out on a sidewalk trying to convert passersby, holding debates in coffee shops – there’s no substantive time left in his life for either piety or growth. If you’re a bull, you’ve got to ‘abandon’ the herd in some sense, go pushing ahead without looking back to see if they’re following. If you’re successful, they’ll follow. Go be successful. It’s like the hawk adage, “they’ll like us when we win”. That’s a classic bull statement, however one may feel about those politics. We write a lot of posts aimed at bulls, and I run an internet marketing company based in part on the premise “let a bull help you” or, as we put it in the Market Moose slogan, “Loose the moose!” But if we spent most of our energy in our former cubicle life trying to convince people of the virtues of tearing down the walls, we’d still be there, like the convert in the coffee shop talking about the spiritual life of the desert. Bulls don’t wait for others to see the new grass. They talk over their shoulder while going on without them.
Rule of work: When doing something new, partner with other bulls.
One of the points I’ve made for the past year is that startups (new, innovative marketing realities), require bulls as early adopters. Because there aren’t vast numbers of people already enjoying their roles in a new startup, quietly and contentedly munching the established new grass, you’ve got to recruit and appeal to innovative explorers, risk takers (even if we think the risk is only superficial) as clients and business partners – people who go into new pastures while the herd is still doing things the old way. The cows will move when they look up and see the bulls over there, or see the cows in front of them already moving – the herd moves when the herd moves. The bulls take the field like Marines take a beachhead and, only then, do the regular forces move in. Bulls – those are the targets for a startup. If they need to see lots of other people in front of them, they’ve told you they need to be in the middle of a herd, and they might dance around your product or service a bit, saying it’s a good idea, but they aren’t going to stake anything on it or be an early adopter.
Recognize a bull by the horns: Lastly, I just want to say that there’s been very good research and there’s plenty of good material (and a lot of bad) on the personality characteristics of bulls – so there’s little need for a full treatment here. Whether you call them Type-A personalities, Choleric, Drivers, or whatever, the mistake is to believe a) that only those personality types can be bulls – and simultaneously that b) you can get the value of bull mentalities without at least some of those same idiosyncratic traits of personality. Some of those traits might make cows uncomfortable in comformist environments, but that doesn’t mean you can get bulls in cow suits and reap the benefits. You’ve heard the phrase “bull in a china shop”. Bulls don’t sleep in the middle of the herd, but at it’s head. That’s what those horns are telling you – it’s quite natural. Put a bull in the middle of the herd, and insist he or she stay there and chew the pre-decided grass, and you’re simply acting against nature – eventually the bull is going to step on someone’s baby. On top of that, you’re robbing yourself of the value of bulls, by not correctly allocating resources or providing sufficient opportunities for the bull to succeed by doing what he or she does well. You’re sacrificing the contribution you could otherwise get if you ordered your organization so that each personality can succeed according to their unique gifts, without constantly being punished for their particular weaknesses or stereotypes. You can’t clip the bull’s horns, and still have the same thing as before.
It’s hard to cuddle, when you’re a bull: More successful organizations recognize the horns and, instead of being offended by them, maximize the opportunities for bulls to deliver value through innovation, leadership, and even risk (like standing up in front of an audience, or coming up with unusual ways to achieve a seemingly impossible goal). Your bulls aren’t supposed to be the most popular and fun people in the cafeteria, or the least likely to call out the elephant in the room – they’re geared toward making a beeline for their goals, making decisions, achieving goals, and even strutting a bit when they do. Watch bulls that are intentionally stressed, bewildered, angered, and confused by rodeo providers, and you’ll see how many organizations make it difficult for either party to do the other any good. That’s why you need the clowns, if you get my drift. So if you’re a bull, and you’re in an organization where you can help it grow by maximizing the contributions of other bulls, bring them in, give them what they need, and then for freak sake get out of their way. One bull makes a successful bull – but collaborating bulls (even if collaboration looks far less cuddly when bulls do it) help an organization achieve the same success.
Cows achieving bull-like success: If you’ve ever had a dog breed that was geared for digging, hunting, racing, or whatever, and tried to confine them to apartment life without sufficient opportunity to do what they’re built for, you know it’s a lost cause. At the same time, you can train a dog, even a lap dog, to dig, hunt, or race. We can train ourselves, even if we’re not bulls, to act more like bulls in some things. We may not walk up and talk to that gorgeous girl at the bar. We may not get that tatoo and challenge random truckers to arm wrestle for money. But we can bend, even if we don’t go charging through the barbed wire. And we can get the help of bulls who will kick down the fences with us. Instead of copying the merely superficial activities of bulls, like a cow in a bull suit, we have only to look over the tops of the heads in front of us, to immediately begin to see ways to get and have more of whatever it is we want. Just stick your head up. The bulls aren’t looking at you, don’t look at them. Look at what they’re looking at – the beyond – the thing out there. That’s the beginning of bull-like success.