How to Know If You’re an Adolescent Company, and What to Do Next
BY John Miller
August 23, 2021

Businesses get stuck for all kinds of reasons, internal and external, professional and personal, emotional and logical, fair and unfair.

But if (when?) your business is stuck, you (we) can’t just throw your hands up and say, welp, that’s it—this is as good as it gets and now it’s a long, slow glidepath to obscurity. Good Lord, just typing that sentence depressed me.

What got you here won’t get you there

What we see a lot of are companies that have been successful for five, 10, 15 years doing things one way. Like the insurance broker—insurance is a notoriously relationship-based business—that has maxed out personal networks and can’t figure out how to introduce its groundbreaking approach to new clients. Or a language translation services provider whose service is suddenly mandated for the healthcare industry, but can’t figure out how to begin conversations and kickstart the gold rush.

They’ve expanded beyond their initial circle of customers into a second layer of network, but can’t go further. They’re stuck. Trying harder doesn’t break them out of their stupor. Bigger incentives for the sales team have limited impact. It’s frustrating. It’s scary. 

One CEO of an adolescent company once told me that their sales numbers were good but, “we’re in deep shit.”

Which is how it can feel parenting an adolescent. The grades might seem good, but you can sense things getting a little wobbly.

As with an adolescent, this is a time to begin the transformation into the company’s adult self. The smart leaders at humble companies will realize they need to stop and change direction, to evolve to the next version of the organization. 

The symptoms of an adolescent company

There are some commonalities in companies that get stuck. They include:

  • Growth has slowed and you’re not sure why
  • You’re having a difficult time initiating meaningful conversations with prospects
  • The message that worked before isn’t working with new audiences
  • You have a blue ocean growth opportunity but no one in this new industry understands what you’re saying
  • Your team seems a little too comfortable

Basically, these companies need to break into new verticals or new geographies and the story they’ve been telling just doesn’t work anymore, often because it’s not differentiated from what others already in this new space have been saying for a while. “We’re an IT Consulting firm with superior customer service.” That’s great when you’re talking to people you know or have one degree of separation from, and it’s almost certainly true. But it’s not a provable differentiator. It won’t get you the meeting. It won’t get you the deal.

Rewriting your brand story

Adolescent companies need a new approach to the market. Not just different tactics, but a different story

It’s time for a brand refresh—and we don’t just mean a new logo and color palette. Rethink and reinvigorate how you articulate your offering so that it meets your customers where they are.

This requires taking a big couple of steps back to survey the larger picture. I’m willing to bet your industry has changed around you and you didn’t notice because you were so busy being successful (until suddenly you weren’t). 

(WARNING: Gentle sales pitch ahead.)

You probably need to hire someone like us to do this for you. This assessment is hard to do yourself; you have the curse of knowledge, meaning that you and your team have developed deep expertise in your industry and asking the right questions can be difficult. And when it comes time to look at your own marketing and sales materials, some members of the team will invariably have things they love and can’t imagine living without. You need fresh eyes to survey the scene.

A branding process worth following

I know organizations that have paid well into seven figures for branding consultants to rework their brand. This is a deep, painstaking, arduous and obviously expensive process. We think it’s overkill; for most, business moves too fast to spend nine months gazing at your naval … if you can’t figure it out with two months of focused work, we’re not sure you’re ever going to be able to activate any kind of marketing program. 

For starters, what is your customers’ reality? You need to understand the context in which they’re operating—their goals, pressures and impediments, and the problem they’re trying to solve. This is the starting point for the customer journey.

To understand this, you need to have honest conversations with customers. You need to do some research to see what the competition is saying. You need to diagnose what customers love about you and what they don’t love quite so much. You need to see what they’re buying, and try to figure out why they’re buying so that you can pinpoint entry points for your solution.

Once you have a good understanding of the customer reality, it’s time to design what we call the brand foundation. This includes What You Stand For, the north star that should guide every—yeah, I said every—business decision. From there flows the often mocked but hugely important brand basics of Mission, Vision and Values; getting these right requires expending some energy to make sure you’re setting yourselves up for success.

The next step in the branding process is to create what most people think of us as “the brand”—the visual and verbal identity that immediately tells us where this little bit of marketing came from. These narrative elements are the flashy parts of the brand, the part that excites the team working on the project … but if you don’t spend time on the earlier phases of this process these will inevitably ring hollow.

We’re almost ready to launch, but first we need to build out our toolkit. The website definitely needs to be updated, if not completely redone. This is not a can to be kicked down the road; your website is the go-to for everything about you and you need to treat it with the love and respect it deserves for doing so much work. Other “narrative expressions” that need to be built out are sales materials and collateral, and the design of an executable strategy for ongoing marketing and ensure that it dovetails with specific sales initiatives.

We’re ready to rock. This is the path to helping your company achieve the exit velocity needed to escape terminal adolescence. This is your new company, all growed up.

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