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Adii Pienaar

Now working on Receiptful. Co-Founder & ex-CEO of WooThemes. Author of Brandiing. New Dad. Ex-Rockstar.

Business is becoming art again

For any entrepreneur to build a viable business, they needed to find and leverage some competitive advantage.

And if that same entrepreneur wanted to scale their business, they would need to find something more akin to an unfair advantage (“one that cannot be easily copied or bought by your competitors”).

This has become table stakes in the game of business and should not be new to anyone reading this. But while it’s one thing for competitors to compete against each other with any advantage that they can find, it is a different context altogether when one considers the dealings between a business and its customers. The latter, I would argue, is where companies have had a growing, unfair advantage for many years now.

Consider for a moment the proliferation of highly powered marketing tools that have become more powerful, cost-efficient and accessible. The ability of businesses to identify, track and learn about their prospects and customers is unprecedented, not to add the fact that all of this can be mostly automated at a vast scale too.

What does this mean though? Whenever any of us, as customers, start a conversation with another business, they probably already know quite a bit about us (which puts them at an advantage). That first conversation does not start on equal footing.

Whether this in itself is unfair is a moot point to some extent at least, because we are still able to vote with our feet; if we don’t want to interact with a business that puts us at a disadvantage, theoretically we can (try to) avoid them.

The problem is more systemic though, and all of us have been complicit. For starters, we have accepted that we will be retargeted on Google, Facebook and anywhere else that displays ads, which condones this behaviour. And as business owners, we have neither spoken out about these tactics, and we all leveraged similar technologies to stay competitive.

The result though is that relationships between businesses and customers are built on a foundation that includes manipulation (let’s whitewash this and call it “clever marketing”), coercion (if you don’t accept our T&C - which is unreadable anyway - you don’t have to do business with us) and lacking proper consent.

It is no surprise then that the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have all been in the news in recent weeks related to data privacy. I suspect that this spotlight will continue to grow, especially once the GDPR comes into effect in the EU in May. While I’m never one to stake our futures on the decisions by bureaucrats (and as such, I won’t comment on the nitty-gritty about the GDPR or the ball-ache of trying to implement it), I believe initiatives like the GDPR are aiming to level out the unfair advantage that business has had.

In my mind, the message is simple: relationships need to be consensual, honest and transparent. It boggles my mind how we can probably all agree on this with the greater social context of our lives yet in business it becomes okay to treat these as optional activities.

I could continue this passionate rant plea for another couple of paragraphs, but I’d like to create a segue back to the first two lines of this article, as well as my reference to art in the title.

The tools that created this unfair advantage and inequality in our customer relationships have worked so well because it makes building a business more about science: find the systems and processes that enable you to grow your business repeatedly. But as regulators start curtailing business’ ability to exploit this, our ability to make decisions based only on the science of our business will diminish.

This leaves us with our intuition and creativity, which are core components of art.

When we can’t reduce our customers down to a common denominator that we can merely push through a meat grinder, we will need a new approach.

The great businesses of tomorrow will be those that can consistently create astonishing art that resonates with their customers and fans. Their artwork will be emotive, but it will not prey on psychological weaknesses to sell an ideology that promises “a better you”.

This is how commerce worked before we all started transacting in a global marketplace. Relationships between business and individual customer mattered. If you had one loyal customer, it was a challenge and not an apparent pursuit of finding more of those customers. You also had a limited reach within which you could cast your net. Happy customers still told their friends about your business though; word-of-mouth is not a new thing that is limited to (online) social networks.

Importantly, to build a lasting, trusting and mutually beneficial relationship with their customers, their interactions did not rely on manipulation, coercion and a lack of consent. Entrepreneurs had to rely on their intuition to read their customers, negotiate with them and nurture that relationship.

And I don’t know about you, but if you have ever been in a romantic relationship, you’ll know the success of that relationship is more down to subjectivity than any objective science. :)

Business has and always will be about customers, and nurturing those relationships will need a good dose of art going forward.

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