Three ways to overcome a startup's single biggest problem

Do you know what a "lek" is? A lek (rhymes with wreck or check) is the area where birds gather during the breeding season for community courtship displays to attract mates. Not all bird species congregate in leks, but they are common for different game birds such as prairie chickens, grouse and peafowl.

In a lek, male birds defend their territory and engage in different courtship displays to attract the attention and admiration of nearby females. They will do fancy footwork, bob and bow, adopt attractive postures and call or sing.

These displays are fascinating and beautiful. They send the right signals, show that the male is in prime condition and ready to mate. Male birds that do not send the right signals fail to attract a mate.

Just like male birds have evolved the perfect signals to attract a mate, we need to send the right signals to attract the right clients.

The biggest problem every business has to deal with

Ask any business owner what their biggest problem is, and chances are they'll reply "sales". Everyone seems to need more sales, more revenue, more stable revenue streams.

But in my work with startups and small businesses, I have found that there is another problem that most businesses have to solve before they will be successful at sales:

The biggest problem almost every business struggles with is crystal-clear clarity on what they do - and for whom.

Until you can explain in plain, simple language that anyone can understand what it is you do, and for whom, your business is going to struggle. You will be vague, your marketing will be vague and potential clients are not going to get it.

If you're not clear about what you do, you may be:

  • changing your message frequently;
  • trying to adapt your offerings on the fly to suit a particular client's requirements; or
  • lack a clear range of solutions or offerings.

Whatever the symptoms are, if you're not clear about what you do and for whom you do it, your sales will not be what you want them to be.

Here are three things you can do to get crystal-clear about what you do.

1: Forget personas

Marketing professionals advise us to use "personas" to define our target audience, their likes, dislikes, demographics and the problems they may be experiencing.

But a persona is a fictional character. They have a pretend name, live in a pretend place, have pretend likes and dislikes. And they have pretend problems that you hope to solve for them.

So when you create your marketing material for a persona, you're creating something for someone that doesn't really exist. This colors what you create, the words you use and the emotions you put into your messaging.

If you pick a real person, you know exactly who they are. You know what they look like, what they do for a living, and what their likes and dislikes are. You know their particular circumstances, what their specific problems are, and most importantly you know the words they use.

Many of my articles are written for someone specific. They're based on a question my clients or potential clients asked or something I saw them do or say. When I write the article for them specifically, it comes across as personal, my writing "voice" is a lot more relaxed and natural and the articles resonates with real people. (Of course I anonymize the articles, but if you've been following my articles for any amount of time you may even have recognized yourself or a problem you were dealing with.)

Real people have real problems When you want to get crystal clear about what problems you solve, and for whom you solve it, it is a lot easier to craft that message based on what real people have expressed than it would be trying to imagine what your persona is experiencing.

Personas certainly do help to craft your marketing material, but I have found that starting out with real people and the problems they experience helps you get a lot more clear about what you do - and for whom - than some imagined character.

2: Use their words

The words that resonate most with our clients are the ones they use. Not the ones we think they're using or the way we want to express the problem - their own words. If you want to get their attention you need to use their words.

This does not mean that we have to use their exact words or phrases or sentences. We have to find the key words they use to describe the problem we want to solve for them.

How do you find their words? It's as simple as listening. In the course of building or running your business you're dealing with clients and potential clients all the time. And over time you will pick up certain words that many of them use to describe their particular problems. These are the words you're looking for.

Every conversation is an opportunity to find the key words your clients are using to describe their problems. If you don't have enough of those conversations, you can interview potential clients. You can invite them for a coffee, ask them about the problems they're experiencing - and listen with intent.

It's not rocket science - but you do need to park your way of thinking about the problem at the door and listen to what your clients have to say.

Over time, you will pick up a pattern You will recognize words like "engagement" or "leads" or "high-value contracts", and these become the key words you will need to consider in gaining clarity.

3: Ask them after three days

So how do you know when you've got clarity about what you do? I like to use the 3-day test:

If a client or potential client can accurately describe what you do 3 days after speaking to you, your message is clear.

After you've met and spoken to a potential client, go back to them after 3 days and ask them what it is you do. If they don't remember it, you've failed. If they're not close, you've failed.

But if they get close you know you've succeeded in being clear to them about what it is you do. Which of course means that you have clarity about what you do.

But my services are very technical!

Your services may be technical, but the outcome you're going to achieve for your clients is not. Even if your clients come to you with a technical problem, solving that problem is what they're after.

For example, very few companies are looking for content marketing - they're really looking for more clients. It just happens that you specialize in using content marketing to nurture leads and turn them into clients.

Similarly, very few companies are looking for video marketing just for the sake of it - they want video to attract more leads and turn them into clients.

Examples of great clarity

Back in the 90's I was based in the Netherlands, working with a team to develop and deploy the world's first digital TV systems. One of the bleeding-edge features we were working on was interactive TV, where you would be able to interact with programs or advertisements to get more information about products or situations.

Although interactive TV never made it big time, my friend Tim had the best "party line" ever. If someone asked him what he did, he replied:

We marry the TV to the Internet.

Somehow everyone was able to understand what Tim was describing - without any technical details or long-winded explanations.

Here are some more examples of great clarity:

Asher Lewis of has one of the best LinkedIn summaries I've ever seen: I help leadership speakers grow their non-speaking income. Jonathan Stark helps credit unions increase member engagement (his website is a showcase in power marketing), while Philip Morgan helps self-employed software developers specialize their business.

There are two key points to take from these examples:

  • the target audience is clearly identified; and
  • they express their services in terms of outcomes, not how they go about doing it.

If you can get as clear as these guys do, you're well ahead of most of your competition.

In summary…

One of the biggest problems I see startups and small businesses struggle with is clarity about what they do and who they do it for. If you're not able to express this clearly, in terms your clients or potential clients are using, your business will always struggle.

There are three things you can do to clarify your message:

  • use real clients or potential clients rather than personas to define the problem you're solving;
  • use your clients' words rather than what you think they need to hear; and
  • ask clients to play back what you do 3 days after you first spoke to them to see if they can accurately recall what you do.

What message are you sending from your lek?

Birds have evolved to communicate a very clear message about their suitability as a mate. When they gather in a lek to attract their mate, they go all-out to advertise their value.

You may not be advertising your suitability as a mate in your messaging, but you need to be crystal-clear so that you can attract the right clients. To do that, you need to use words that resonate with your clients, and focus on the outcome rather than how you go about doing it.

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