Painkillers, vitamins, and trophies

While I’ve worked with a lot of really great clients, I’ve also had some prospects tell me that my business’s services were way too expensive. In fact, some of them seemed to get offended when they saw Wonder Shuttle’s rate card, or when I told them the price over the phone.

I’ll always remember one particular week a few years ago, with back to back sales calls. One CEO of a well funded startup said, “What?! That’s way too expensive.” In her defense, she was benchmarking my team to a freelance writer, which wasn’t exactly an accurate comparison; still, it felt discouraging. The next day, with the same rates, a director of design said, “That sounds good, please send the paperwork and let’s get started.” 

If you’re in the business of freelancing, providing professional services, or offering expertise, this piece is for you:

Candies and cures

There’s a startup framework for this situation: it uses the metaphor of painkillers and vitamins. If you’re starting up and looking for a problem to solve, you want to find pains that people are already feeling (like a painkiller). You don’t want to sell supplemental services to prevent future pains that they don’t feel (like a vitamin).

Wonder Shuttle used to be in the content marketing business, which was closer to a vitamin; it promised a long term solution for branding, lead generation, and leading thinking—though the companies I was pitching often thought in the short term.

Now, Wonder Shuttle mainly offers a productized service that supports companies with starting or maintaining its engineering blogs. The pain I had honed in on was the urgent need to hire, and how many companies didn’t put their best foot forward in communicating with engineers, exacerbated by the challenge of competing with MAANG for talent.

Still, I realized in the following years that this framework was very limited. For starters, there are also unhealthy solutions to emotional problems, like solving the pain of boredom with addictive mobile games (candy), and products or treatments that entirely solve the pain (cures).

Wonder Shuttle was very much a professional services company, not a technology startup. I noticed there were all sorts of professional services companies—certainly, ones that started as vitamins and gradually became painkillers (the pain and urgency of creating a mobile app grew worse and worse, which made Xtreme Labs’s business better and better)—but also others that were in businesses that couldn’t be lumped into either painkiller or vitamin with twisting the word into a semantic pretzel.

I’ll propose a metaphor to help describe these different types of companies: trophies.

Why trophies matter

There are some very practical reasons you’d want to win a trophy. For example, trophies send out signals; they create or communicate perceptions that open up new opportunities. Curtis Jackson—also known as recording artist 50 Cent—writes in Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter, about the moment he met his late mentor Jam Master Jay early into his career. He writes:

Jay never would have invited me into the club with him if I hadn’t been driving my 400 SE. If I had just walked up to him on the sidewalk, he wouldn’t have even stopped to talk to us, let alone take us inside. That’s not a knock against him or his sense of judgment—random people approached him everywhere he went, and there’s no way Jay could ever accommodate everyone. 

But the moment Jay saw my car and thought I was Kenny Anderson, I was operating under a powerful perception. Even when it turned out that I wasn’t an NBA player, I was still somebody to him—somebody who deserved his attention. Once I had it, it was up to me to capitalize on it. 

Which I did.

There are certain material goods—and cars are at the top of the list—that signal to other people that you are someone who should be taken seriously. That you are different from the rest of the herd. Especially in New York City. You can’t drive your fancy apartment or brownstone down Broadway, but you can damn sure roll by slow in your whip.

A good trophy signifies that people should take its recipients seriously, shaping and creating opportunities for its recipients that they otherwise would’ve missed out on. That’s what people are buying; it’s not so much to cure a pain, or to prevent a future one, but to buy a chance to fulfill a dream. The business making the trophies need to understand desire, create this dream, and communicate and perpetuate the dream (known in technology as category creation).

There’s a cost to earning this trophy; the money is merely an entry fee. Clients must go through the process of contributing to, managing, and trusting the company developing the trophy. Eventually, the trophy is complete; the recipient celebrates the new website or brand, the new blog post or publicity, or the new mobile app. They’ve arrived.

The business advantage to making your product take on the elements of a trophy is that direct competitors can no longer compete; if someone wants your trophy, they will do anything they can to get it, as long as they want it more than what it costs them. No other product will suffice, which means your product has no direct competitors in your field. (It’s still competing with other trophies though! More on this in another post.)

When nobody can compete with you, market rates don’t matter. As long as people want your trophy more than its cost, they will pay. You’re free to do as you like; your trophies enable you to become a tastemaker, to lead thinking, and to set industry trends.

The business of trophies

By definition, trophies hold greater value if they’re earned; they’re not really that valuable if they’re bought. So, trophies aren’t sold—they’re earned and rewarded.

Businesses that reward trophies don’t really cure an existing, burning, pain like a painkiller, or supplement and prevent a future pain like a vitamin. 

Trophies provide social stratification; the recipients of these trophies display them to signal that they’re a winner. Luxury brands are the best examples of trophy companies; nobody really functionally needs an impractical luxury suit or dress, or shoes that hurt their feet. 

But, people do emotionally want one of these trophies, so badly that they’re willing to earn it through the journey of earning income, educating themselves, shopping, selecting, and even sometimes the painful process of wearing.

Here are some non-luxury examples of businesses who reward trophies:

  • Lists and directories also make for great trophy companies; a Michelin Star can change the trajectory of a restaurant’s business, a Verified badge on Twitter means you were important enough to be taken seriously. 
  • Membership clubs like Soho House have an application process, a waitlist, and rules—like no taking photos inside the club. (Some clubs have dress codes!) 
  • Professional certifications are also in the trophy business; before these organizations created the category and standard, there was no way to distinguish between licensed and unlicensed practitioners. 

Professional services businesses can also manoeuvre themselves into a place where people treat their work like trophies. A great example of a professional services business that rewarded trophies was Teehan+Lax. While there were (and still are) lots of design agencies, Teehan+Lax distinguished itself with its Labs initiative; imagine if companies thought to themselves, “We don’t want a new design. We want a Teehan+Lax design.” 

They became superlative, difficult for other design agencies to position against, and less of a commodity business. When I pointed this out, partner Jon Lax wrote, “This was something we were very aware of and was our main new business strategy.”

This is the same for Teehan+Lax’s products, Wonder Shuttle’s publications, and for Pentagram’s brands and designs. Play Bigger even literally creates badges for their clients who successfully complete the process of category creation.

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