Postlight CEO Paul Ford wrote:
Consider Medium.com and Genius.com. One is for writing new things and one is for annotating things. But both are web platforms that have users, logins, long-form text, annotations, and rich media. You could, with some stretching, build Medium on top of Genius, or Genius on top of Medium. They’re different under the hood, but it’s not like one is Photoshop and the other is TurboTax. They kind of do the same thing.
Referencing Ford, I said in my conversation with Tom Osman that Discord and Slack were essentially the same product as well. But the brands couldn’t be more different. Slack has described itself as “Where work happens,” whereas Discord is “Your place to talk.” But beyond the words, the communities are also completely different. Slack is for corporations and workers, Discord is for gamers. (Their words: “Ain’t Nothin’ but a LAN PAAAARTY!”)
The same idea applies for all sorts of products—WorldStarHipHop and YouTube, ConvertKit and Substack, etc. I also recently noticed that this applies—perhaps doubly—to books as well. I’ll suggest this for two books: Tom DeMarco’s Slack, and Richard P. Swenson’s Margin. Both of these books have the same big idea. People are overloaded, which causes them stress. Spending less time working will make people’s lives better.
Both even have similar visual metaphors—one is of a slack line, the other is of the difference between a load and a limit. Slack is framed as a productivity book written by a consultant (with a slinky on the cover!), and Margin appears more like a wellness book written by a medical doctor.
While the books may seem like competitors, and they may even have an audience overlap (I bought them both, so I’m living proof!), they actually target two completely different audiences. Slack is targeting managers, entrepreneurs, and CEOs, while Margin is an attempt to break through to mainstream wellness readers.
The main difference is, I read Slack in a couple of days, right after I bought it, while Margin has sat on my shelf for the past few years. I could go on for a while about why Slack’s positioning really worked for me, at this moment in time, but the more important point is:
If you have your own take on an idea, say it your way.
“Branding” is Corporate Jargon for Expression
Through my editorial studio Wonder Shuttle, my team and I have worked with 30+ companies to start their corporate blogs (like Shopify’s product team, and Flipp’s technology team). We have also coached dozens of people on writing and editing.
One of the most common things we’ve learned from this experience: A lot of people have ideas, but the ideas are fragile. These ideas may be lessons from a project they’ve worked on. It might be a summary of a project and how it came to life. Or, something as simple as what a day in their life looks like.
This is actually all great material for people to get to know a company from the outside, and naturally to wonder what it might be like to work there. (We can’t help but naturally wonder as we read. People are learning machines, as Tom DeMarco writes.)
Part of the problem in getting these blogs going is strategic: The company hasn’t figured out what they want to say to the people they’re recruiting. Or, they want to figure out where to balance between openness with their own trade secrets. We make recommendations on these things.
But another problem is operational: Many don’t have a safe place to put the ideas. Others don’t have time or focus to write it. Still, others aren’t familiar with the writing process, so they get discouraged by how bad their first drafts are. And sometimes, there’s simply no place to publish the blog posts once they’re written up. (Making sure people actually write and edit, getting other people to actually read the work, etc.).
To start or re-start these corporate blogs, we hold ideation workshops to create a safe space for people to talk about their ideas. We also coach people through the writing process, or offer co-writing services to help turn these ideas into first drafts, which can be edited for voice, style, and subject. It’s through this work that we discover a team’s brand—which is shared internal corporate and team values, expressed through a collection of blog posts which hold voices and opinions. And of course, we buy domains and set up CMSes so that they can build publications without additional work for IT.
Shopify founder Tobi Lütke says, “One thing that is interesting is how people have accused Shopify of being a book club thinly veiled as a public company.” Businesses are simply a network of people and ideas.
Making an Idea Relevant With No Audience
If you’re still looking for permission to say something important to you, here it is: Say it! It really doesn’t matter if someone more famous, credible, or original than you has said it before. Give people credit where it’s due, let people know who came before you. But other than that, say it your way.
So anyway, you have permission. What you do with it is now up to you. If you believe me but you want me to talk to your boss, or your company, you can hire my team.
I’ll close with John Stuart Mill in The Claims of Labour, “Ideas, unless outward circumstances conspire with them, have in general no very rapid or immediate efficacy in human affairs; and the most favourable outward circumstances may pass by, or remain inoperative, for want of ideas suitable to the conjuncture. But when the right circumstances and the right ideas meet, the effective is seldom slow in manifesting itself.”