5 Lessons Every Small Business Can Learn from…Fight Club

I am Jack’s self-aware sense of irony.

Yes, this is a blog post about how to make your business more successful, inspired by the movie, (and Chuck Palahniuk’s book it was based on) about destroying corporations. The first rule of this post is you talk about this post. The second rule of this post is…you talk about this post.

If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, dig yourself out from under that rock, come out of the cave, and rent the DVD. If you’re really fancy, rent the Blu-Ray.

If you’re in your office right now, or on your schmanzy smartphone in an office supply store, go on over to the Avery mailing labels and check out the 1 1/2 inch labels (Avery Catalog #8293) or click this link – that’s the street address for the Paper Street Soap Company, as seen in the movie Fight Club. Now laugh as we find the business wisdom in the words of Tyler Durden and The Narrator (who we shall call Jack.)

Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy

Your product or service is probably not unique. And I’m not using “unique” in the hackneyed way it’s being used in the 21st century. I don’t mean that your product isn’t interesting. I mean it’s probably not the only one of its kind on the market. Whatever you’re selling, chances are someone else is selling it, too. Or they tried in the past and failed.

Take all the Groupon copycats. Not an original idea, but there’s a new one springing up every other week, even though the model is demonstrably unprofitable.

Before you invest your life savings and your future in your business you should investigate your product thoroughly. Try to argue all the reasons that your business is a bad idea. Really. Make it stand outside your house for three days with no food or water, with you insulting it every few hours. If it’s still there after three days, it’s probably either impervious to logic, or a great idea.

So, you have a great idea. Now you have to market it. It’s important that you realize that there’s probably no new ways to market your product. Sure, you read “Guerilla Marketing,” and you know how to invest your marketing dollars. You may even have read Olivier Blanchard’s excellent “Social Media ROI” and you have an idea of how to measure your digital marketing campaigns. But your campaign is something we’ve seen before. Your hook is something we’ve seen before, and maybe we’ve even rejected it.

So how do you get your foot in the door? You accept that you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. Accept that all business ideas are based on an need not met by someone else’s idea. All marketing is based on bringing awareness to that need and how your product can fulfill it.

And now I suppose you want an answer to this prickly quandary. I can’t tell you how to be original, but what I can say is this: for all of us, there is comfort in the familiar. As consumers, we don’t want the challenge of understanding and assimilating a new idea. Give it to us straight, and if your message is perceived as honest, and your product meets a need that we have, we’ll probably buy. It’s really that simple.

On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero

In his book, “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure,” Economist Andrew Harford shares a stunning statistic: of the top 100 companies in the world in 1912, over half had gone out of business by 1995. Harford says, “What happens when we look at survival rates in young, dynamic industries? The answer is that failure rates are even higher.”

The truth is that what we consume and how it’s delivered changes, sometimes rapidly. In 1970, this was the most advanced portable music player.

It’s a record player in a suitcase. You can use it as an airline carry-on. But only just.

Ten years later, the portable music player of choice was this.

It plays tapes. Ask a grown-up what “cassette tapes” are.

And now it’s this.

It’s smaller than a credit card, and holds your parents’ entire collection of records and cassettes.

Try buying either of the first two today.

And while 40 years might seem like a long time, consider that once we figured out how to fly, it took a scant 66 years to put a man on the moon. In 2077 I’ll be dead. Probably. But I know a breakthrough that happened today will be not only commonplace, but probably obsolete, by then.

There’s a reason that the US Marine Corps has the mantra “Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.” It works.

All businesses eventually fall prey to technical or cultural obsolescence, or a competitor that can run leaner. The companies that survive recessions and depressions know how to evolve their business model, they don’t buy into a long-term vendor contract when the market for that vendor’s product is peaking, and they understand the value of their human capital.

It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything

When you’re a kid, playing on the monkey bars, it’s only scary to fall the first time. Before we fall off we’re cautious, maybe even fearful. But when you hit the playground floor that first time, when you dust yourself off and realize that it wasn’t so bad, you figure out where you screwed up and why you fell…and you devise better, more successful ways to negotiate the monkey bars.

If you talk to serial entrepreneurs who’ve secured angel or VC funding on more than one occasion, you’ll find a common story. They failed in their first business ventures. They lost a ton of money for their investors, but their investors didn’t hesitate to give them more money the next time they came knocking.

Why, when an entrepreneur’s business fails, do investors want to risk more money? It’s simple really: investors do not invest in businesses. They invest in people.

If you have one good idea, it’s a fair bet that you’ll have another. Entrepreneurship takes a certain personality, like being a professional poker player. Entrepreneurs and pro poker players share a trait: they never stop learning. Every experience makes them better at what they do, more successful, far less likely to fail in the future.

Entrepreneurs who can’t take theit failures and turn them into something that makes them better are going to fail. Again and again. Investors look for people who can negotiate the monkey bars better next time.

No fear, no distractions — let that which does not matter truly slide

There’s a single-mindedness you need to develop as an entrepreneur. The Paper Street Soap Company works like a bee hive, and your business needs to adopt some of that mentality. Some of it, not all of it. If you adopt it all, your employees will never innovate, they’ll just wait around for your next instruction.

Goal-setting is one of the most important things you can do as a leader. If your team can see the end-game, the finished product, they can help find innovative ways to execute your plans. Daily re-focusing on the goal will reduce distractions. If your employees know how their work contributes to the final product, they’ll be more diligent, more innovative, and more engaged.

What your employees do need, and this will come from your leadership, is a belief that the work they are doing has value.

If you allow yourself to be distracted by trivia, rather than the tasks that help you achieve your goals, your employees won’t know where to focus their energies, and that will drive up costs, reduce productivity, and can lead to your final product being a costly experiment in how not to address a need.

This does not belong to us, we are not special

When fight clubs and Project Mayhem start appearing in many cities — Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, New York, Jack demands to know what’s going on — and Tyler tells him “This does not belong to us.”

When anything “goes viral,” the creator has ownership of the original idea co-opted by others who will replicate it, expand on it, mutate it, and evolve it into something new or different.

Here’s a technical definition: what you want, ideally, is to spawn an Internet meme. For example, “The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule…” That’s a meme. It’s out there, in our consciousness, unaltered from its original form.

When something “goes viral” it gets altered, people make their own versions, and those versions sink into our consciousness. You want an example?

In the summer of 2010, a video of a guy on a hike surfaced. He saw a “double rainbow” and raved about how wonderful it was. It was a huge youtube hit. It went viral, and was promptly co-opted by people who edited it, autotuned it, and performed it as a dramatic reading. They all went viral.

Do you remember the name of the “Double Rainbow” guy? Or the name of the guy that was interviewed for the news about a “Bedroom Intruder?” No. You know the viral video but not the source material. While it’s great to get your message out in front of millions of youtube visitors, if it’s being watered down, changed, mocked, or parodied, nobody will remember that it’s your message.

You want to be remembered? Focus less on “how can I go viral” and more on “how can I make this memorable?”

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