How to Escape the Commodity Trap

Lisa Nirell

How often do you review your product and services portfolio to invest more in what’s working, and get rid of what’s not working? Some of your choices – especially if you lead a successful organization — will not be popular. Yet they could be the difference between success and survival.

Let’s look at Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek Daily Beast, and her recent decision. In late 2012, she announced that they would stop distributing the Newsweek print edition. Their continued market decline forced Brown to make a tough decision. Brown announced that they would transfer print subscribers to Newsweek digital, and invest more in The Daily Beast news site.

What are the implications and lessons as you refine YOUR annual growth plans?

  1. Be willing to fail fast. Brown let Newsweek languish behind Time for two years after the Daily Beast and Newsweek merger, and did not take action. It costs $42 million a year to print, design and distribute the print version. That does not include the cost of hiring and sustaining good journalists. What if Brown had taken that $84 million and invested in other innovative assets?
  2. Spread “seeds”–and let them germinate. My friend Guy Kawasaki says “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Try new, lower cost initiatives with partners, digital content providers, and other industry leaders in your space. You never know what aspect of your growth strategy will gain traction.
  3. Continuously review your portfolio of offerings and look for unmet needs. Think more broadly about what makes your offerings unique. My mentor Alan Weiss shared this model with me: Create a 3 x 3 table or grid. On the top row, make a column for commoditized, competitive, and breakthrough offerings. On the far left column, create rows for products, services, and key relationships.

Now map your offerings and key relationships. Which ones can you expand upon, and which ones deserve to be sold or scrapped? Clearly, Newsweek was a commoditized product with little or no differentiation.

The demise of Newsweek motivates us to redline our own products, services, and relationships. We have the power to re-write our narrative before another year passes us by. Carpe diem.

What are your experiences? Share them on my YouTube page.

copyright 2013, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved

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