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Who is your business? Part one

Every business — even if you’re just a work-from-home endeavor — eventually must determine “who it is.” The answer to this question is one of the most critical and often separates winners from losers before the starting gun has gone off. Of course, like your own sense of identity, “who your business is” is a dynamic fellow, a slippery, moving target.

I have spent many years in design, advertising, marketing, and full-out business consulting. And whenever I see start-ups and solopreneurs and small businesses approach the “who is the business” problem, I’m reminded of the Los Angeles Marathon about four years ago. They had changed the route and at the top of a steep hill around mile 11, they placed a water station that also served bananas to all the intrepid marathoners who had run walked up the hill. Since there are literally thousands of runners in the race and a pretty liberal dose of them were in front of me, as I topped the hill, we came face-to-face with a stretch of road wallpapered with banana peels. So I turned to my running companion and said, “Boy, here’s a practical joke waiting to happen!’

It is the nature of business to have the way strewn with banana peels, but in all my years, I’ve never seen entrepreneurs and small business owners go karooming to the ground more surely than in trying to determine “who” their business is. Not “what,” but “who.” And there are certainly tons of designers and marketing consultants willing to be paid to help you face-plant into the ground.

So, in the spirit of start-ups everywhere, I offer this humble little guide to “who” your business is. If you’re a virtual worker from home, a shoestring venture, a sky’s-the-limit start-up, or a small business on the rise, we start by asking “who” a business is.

The what of your business is all the stuff the business books are crammed with: product, market, revenues, infrastructure, human resources. If you’re an at-home virtual worker, the “what” of your business are your services, your clients, your equipment, revenues. If you’re a start-up, it’s product, potential market, business plan.

The who of your business is how people identify your business as something unique, that is, as having an “identity,” if you will, and integrate that understanding into the way they think about the world. If I mention a brand name, say, “Gucci,” you instantly think of not only “what” Gucci is, but “who” it is, as in, “high-priced,” or “upscale,” or “something I want,” or “only for nasty, stuck-up people who don’t know the value of a dollar.” Any of these are valid understandings of “who” Gucci is. The “who” is always the first thing that comes to your mind, not the “what” (do you know the full Gucci product line? Its business model? Its distribution model? Affiliate marketing strategy? Do you know who the President and Chief Marketing Officer are?) In other words, the first thing that comes to mind is how Gucci “looks” soon followed by your emotional investment in it.

Now, business books that know what they’re talking about call this “branding,” but I’m stepping back from this a bit. “Who” is a better word for all the concepts encompassed by the word “branding” and much more.

You see, it’s not only normal, it’s universal in humans to think in human terms. For instance, when a cat rubs our leg, we say, “Oh, darling kit-kat loves me!” Actually, darling kit-kat is scent marking you, but it’s normal to misinterpret cat behavior as if it were human behavior.

So it’s normal for people to put a human face on businesses, to understand businesses in much the same way they understand people. So if a person doesn’t like rich people (I have very little patience with them), their understanding of “who” Gucci is will be radically different from some poor sap who wishes with all her heart to be rich beyond her dreams.

It’s also normal for people to integrate what they know about a business with their own life, emotions, hopes, dreams, and disappointments. It doesn’t matter if that person is a customer, client, vendor, or employee — they “personalize” your business, just as they personalize their relationship to other people. Even in the most professional situations.

It is, I think, the Hooker’s First Law of Branding: “People take things personally.”

In practice, the “who” of your business is made up of three interlocked pillars: identity, positioning, and branding. In every case — every single case, no exceptions — businesses have all three. They may all be totally unconscious, poorly executed, or just a jumbled mess, but every business has a “who” made up of these three things.

It’s getting it right that’s the hard part.

And that starts with sorting them out in your head.

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