Why Good Marketers Can Fail in Business?

This will be a thought-provoking post but I’m gonna explain why good marketing won’t necessarily make you can build a great business. The example would be me. I am a decent digital marketing guy, who had a good career. I thought this increase my success chance.

I understand all kinds of marketing from all types of businesses. Working with TikTok makes me have that kind of privilege to have access to a lot of business owners. It’s the coolest job for aspiring entrepreneurs like me. I can say that I can execute all kinds of digital marketing necessary for starting a business.

January 2022, I go full-time to create my own business. What kind of business? I don’t know. I think I will figure it out because I can be very versatile. I need to find a product that I can sell with my so-called great marketing skill. I choose the waste management industry. I said to myself, “It’s not that hard, there’s a lot of startups here so I can definitely do it better”.

First entry point, I tried export business. It’s hype on the internet. I learn the model. It’s required me to find a product, and my digital marketing skills will solve the rest of the problem. I do my homework, I need to find the supplier and the buyer. They are often not tech-savvy, very offline, and sometimes not reliable. The people in the field is very different from the marketing professional that I met before. This creates a confusing situation for me.

Getting the supplier but finding the buyer is even harder. I thought my great website-making skills will magically grant me a bunch of buyers. Nothing happened. Turns out I’m pushing my current worldview to an existing world. This hits my confidence. Later I realize that I approach this problem with the wrong decision-making process. I dedicated this post to talking about my decision-making mistakes and how you can avoid it.

Stage of making a decision

Decision-making is a skill. Let’s take a simple example. Imagine you riding a car on an empty road. You create a decision about where you wanna go. The left steer will make the car go left. Push the brake and the car will slow down. This is a simple decision. Everything is predictable.

Let’s take this to the next level. Still the same car but this time you are on a more crowded road. You need to go fast. The decision is not to push the brake and gas pedals. You need to make a decision to overtake other cars. This requires some analysis. You might now know what will happen if you move to the right without looking at the side mirror. You make a decision whether to drive in a lane or move into another lane whichever is faster. The more experiences you have overtaking other cars, the easier the decision-making.

The next level of decision-making is completely different. Imagine that same car, with the same crowded road, but the goal is to make the travel time 5x faster than before. Is the solution a faster car? more road? more public transportation? The decision-making is more complicated and no best practice is available. Your previous experience might be useless because the variable happening is too much.

A whole other level is how to build the transportation infrastructure from scratch. We can’t abandon the current transport flow in the city. You can ask the taxi driver or ojol, but their insights wouldn’t help much. The situation is more chaotic.

Each needs different nuance of decision making. The cause-effect relation of pushing the brake pedal is easy decision-making. Making transportation faster is not making everyone push the gas pedal more often.

The Cynefin Framework

The example above is an introduction to the Cynefin framework. My investor introduced this framework last year. It was too complex at the time I read it. But now I understand the implication.

Cynefin (pronounced Ku-nev-in) is a Welsh word meaning something like ‘a habitat’, but it also implies many unknowable factors in our environment and our experience. Dave Snowden create the framework and introduce it in an HBR article in 2017.

Source: Dave Snowden/Cognitive Edge

The framework distinguishes the predictable, unpredictable situations, and complicated and complex spaces.
Dave separates the Cynefin framework into 5 categories, which are:

  1. Obvious/simple
    This is a situation where cause and effect are clear as the sky. If you push the brake pedals then the car will slow down. Without fail, if you do X you will get Y.

    This type of decision-making will produce a “best practice”. Most standard operating procedures on corporations/organizations are in this space.
  2. Complicated This kind of situation is where cause and effect are not very obvious but you can try to analyze it. This is where experts come in and try to give some “good practices”.

    The expert will suggest do & don’ts based on his experiences. If you do X, you expect Y. If Z happens, do A. Consultants from a technical background such as engineering, medical, etc are usually are in this space. Normal people would find a hard time finding solutions.
  3. Complex
    When there’s no visible correlation between cause and effect, you might fall into a complex problem. Echoing the previous example, no one knows which one from building roads, faster cars, or public transportation that can solve the problem. The silver lining is not there. A bunch of experts has different their own point of view and you aren’t sure which one is correct.

    What you can do is separate the known and the unknown. You can also do is to run a safe-failed experiment on a small scale and analyze them fast. This helps you understand more of your current hypothesis.
  4. Chaotic
    No correlation at all between cause and effect. You see unrelated clues and can’t find any conclusion. What you can do first is to stabilize the situation and try to see a pattern.

    Building an innovative transportation solution might need you to dig a tunnel below the land. And it might not be the solution because the implementation is too chaotic
  5. Disorder
    This type of situation is where you don’t know where you are. You are trying to apply your previous experience to this unknown situation. It will create a disorder until you realize what type of situation you are in.

Each of us will have a different way to see the world. For example, if you are working from a big organization (private or government), you tend to see with “the simple” lense. Because big organizations need stability and have already figured out everything. When I was working on TikTok, I solve problems using this lens. Every problem encounter already has its own best practices. If you fail at something, that means you fail to follow the procedure.

If you are a deep expert on something, then you see from the “complicated” lense. You tend to know better than normal people. Any problem you encounter needs enough time for analysis. I use this lens in my previous job as a digital marketing expert. I can see a problem and come out with hypotheses and potential tests to fix the problem or get more data.

Do you notice that even though the skill is the same when the environment is different, the output is also different in decision making? When I was in TikTok, there was already a team dedicated to distributing the newest solutions. I’m not using my expert lens. They make the organization learn faster. But there are pros and cons to using this lens too long.

Lastly, imagine you are a politician or battlefield commander. You don’t know all the dots in your field and it might attack you sometime in the future. What you do is you will get conversations with a lot of people and secretly hope you get some intel to win the war.

My analysis of the Cynefin framework

As I said earlier, when I choose the business I’m just being confident. I pick waste management as my field for my company, KARUN. I don’t know how complex is the industry. All info that I know is coming from internet research. I gather so much info in one night. Enough to make me confident.

Then the reality check happened. I view the industry using my “digital marketing expert” lens. I will solve the problem given enough time to do an experiment. But I discovered that I do not even know what experiments I should do. It’s very different than launching many variations of digital ads to see which CTR is better. Or should I post content on TikTok or Instagram?

My intuition tells me that if I can find a product from waste management that I can sell, my business will succeed. Finding products is one thing, but a desirable product from waste management is not a lot. The players in the industry are fragmented so I can’t secure the supply. Also, the demand for waste management products is not high because of the stigma. I met a huge wall.

This is the unknown part of the problem. The mistake is that I’m using my “complicated” lens to solve this problem. I was hoping that my previous best practices would help me create my business. In other words, I am biased toward my own worldview, and I’m not even considered that my skills aren’t relevant. It was too shameful to admit it.

Looking back to the Cynefin framework, this is a chaotic or complex space. I don’t know the real face of the industry. Also how KARUN can help the waste management industry and connect the stakeholders better. So if I have a good product to sell doesn’t mean I solve the problem in waste management. But now I realize what kind of method should I use for this problem.

In reality, marketing is just a fragment of a huge part of business. You can excel at one thing such as marketing, finance, or creating a product. Will that help you create a business? Yes. Will it guarantee your success? No. Chances are your obstacles are not in your domain expertise.

Other cases for Cynefin

Cynefin will be very useful for decision making because you make a pre-assessment of:

  • Your current skills
  • Your biggest potential bias
  • The cause and effect of the problem
  • The complexity of the problem

If you encounter a hard problem but someone has already solved it in the past, chances are it’s a complicated space. You need to ask an expert that already solves it.

Let’s say the goal is to build the biggest digital marketing agency in Indonesia. I can use my complicated lens. Why? I already have so much exposure in the industry. Also looking back, there are already so many people trying to create a digital marketing agency. There is something to learn from them. Also, the cause and effect might be visible to me.

Most of the problems would fall into simple and complicated category. But when the stakes are high and you encounter complex, chaotic, or even disorder; sit back and think of what you should do. This might save you time, energy, and resources.

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