Break All the Rules: Business Lessons from MasterChef

MasterChefI have to admit I have this love/hate, moth-to-the flame relationship with reality TV: I resent that it’s the nearly the only thing made any more, and yet I keep getting drawn back in.

But what really fascinates me is when, like last night, an episode of MasterChef can serve as an advertisement for the importance of market research.

If you didn’t see it, the final challenge of the night pitted Red Team vs. Blue Team in true Gordon Ramsay style to cook the best hamburger for hungry truckers.  The truckers determined the winning team by voting in true trucker style – by pulling a would-be air horn cord rigged to a counter.

But the really interesting part was what happened in each of the teams.

Red Team began as a complete disaster, producing a product that frankly never made it to market.  Their burgers wouldn’t cook, wouldn’t stay together, and couldn’t even make it onto a bun let alone be eaten.

Blue Team, by contrast, had their plans perfected into a tried-and-true recipe and produced a consistent product right out of the gate.

Then the fun began.

Red Team, under the emerging leadership of Sharone, broke all the rules.  Actually, that’s not quite right.  They realized the rules Blue Team was apparently playing by weren’t actually rules at all.

Red Team didn’t just get their act together, they changed their recipe. And when that worked, they made it better. And when things were going great, they made it better still.  (How do you make a trucker burger great?  Dip it in bacon grease and double the size.  Yum.)

While Blue Team, under the emerging “leadership” of Jake stood still and stuck to their product, Red Team 1) Found out what their customers liked about their products, 2) Made it better, and 3) Introduced new features to make it better still.

Call it artificial constraints.  Call it stubbornness.  Blue Team got stuck in it.  Red Team broke free, reinvented themselves multiple times within the span of one meal service, and came back to win.

My favorite moment: Even after they lost, Jake of the Blue Team said, “We had the better hamburger.”  If only I a dollar for every business owner who decided what their customers want without consulting them and gone out of business with their convictions intact.

What assumptions do you make about your customers and their desires?  How do you know those assumptions are fact-based?

Most importantly, what steps can you take right now to begin separating fact from fiction?

How to Do Marketing

BullhornIn a post started here, I asked you to respond to my reader’s comments on their biggest challenge in growing their business.

What I’d like from you:
1. Read through the responses.
2. Find one that you know how to solve, or for which you have a helpful suggestion.
3. Leave a comment with your answer. (Remember, you can post under an anonymous “name.”)
4. If your response is on this list, check back here for what people suggested.

Nobody Understands What We Do
We’ve created innovations in eCommerce and Fair Trade that are so revolutionary that they’re hard to put into words.  We’ve put a great deal of effort into trying to communicate clearly about our capabilities, innovations, and what our platform can do. But it seems that we still struggle to explain them simply in a way that people understand and care about.  As a result, it remains tough to find start-up funding.  How do we crack this nut?
 – eCommerce Start-up

I’m trying to reinvent our message to get back in front of clients that think they already know us.  There’s more that we can do for them.  I’m trying to create campaigns complete with calls, emails, postcards, webinars – you name it – not only to capture new customers but to wake up established ones, too.  How can I get going in a unified way?
– Non-Profit Advocacy Group

Internet Marketing
I have inspirational art targeted at coaches, consultants, speakers, and bloggers.  Whatever emotion you’re trying to elicit, I’ve got the perfect piece of art, paired with the perfect quote.  Now what I’m trying to do is figure out the easiest and best way to run an eCommerce Marketing test to market my work.  How do I get started?
– Artist

Leave your responses below.


Laser Focus and The Perfect Client

Laser FocusIf law enforcement officers were business people, they would never struggle with questions like, “Who is my Perfect Client?” or, “Will I run out of customers if I focus on a select niche?” They would just know with confidence who they’re after. Take this extreme example from my past.

It was early January of 1993 when Officer Harlan Graham of the Iowa State Patrol pulled me over north of Decorah, Ia.  Having wrecked my car the week before and now traveling seven miles over the limit, I was an easy target.

As I sat in the squad car and the officer wrote up a collection of what he assured me would amount to nothing more than warning tickets, lights began to flash and an eerie whine sounded from a box on the dash.  So I did what I do: I began asking questions.  “What’s that?”

“That’s my radar,” came the quick reply, “and the whine tells me a car is approaching.”  Sure enough, just then, a car emerged from the heavy mist, doing the precise 55 miles posted as the speed limit.

“Let me show you,” Officer Graham then said, throwing the cruiser into drive and pulling onto the highway.  With that, we were unexpectedly on patrol, with him explaining the finer points of how the radar worked.

Just then, a van approached at 63 miles an hour, 8 miles over the limit.  Time for another question. “Tell me, how do you make the decision between giving a warning and an actual ticket?”

“I always give tickets starting at 8 miles over.” Then, suddenly, and with what I would swear was a hint of ornery in his voice, “Oh… you want him??”  And with that, Officer Graham reached down, flipped a switch and the dense fog began to flicker a brilliant white and red.  I think I nearly swallowed my tongue as I realized we were pulling a u-turn in the highway to take down the van and give the hapless driver a ticket.

My point is simple.  Harlan had ruthless criteria for what “clients” he was after.  Furthermore, he had absolutely zero fear he would ever run out of clients. (Yes, I asked.)  After meeting Harlan, it seems absurd to think any officer is ever wandering the streets with any less resolute internal guidance. Taken in the context of a law enforcement officer, the question of whether or not getting focused is valuable seems instantly and recognizably obvious.

Yet business people do struggle with questions of focus and their implications every day. Focus can feel limiting instead of empowering. The fear and confusion is natural, but let me be the first to assure you that if it seems absurd to imagine Harlan without focus, it should be no different for you in your business.  Getting focused on your best possible clients, finding more of them, and executing a sound plan to win them over is your best plan for dynamic business growth.

The Perfect Client
Imagine you could buy a police laser gun you could point at the head of a potential client and it would instantly tell you whether they were a match for you.  What dials and settings would your laser gun have?  Put another way, what is the profile of the typical client you want and is most worth winning?

Where are they located?  Within your city, your state, your region?  Or further away?  What size is their company, typically, and what is their budget for your product or service?  Moreover, how much of your competitor’s service or product are they typically using when you find them?  Perhaps most importantly, put yourself in their shoes: what is their actual motivator for considering your product or service.  That is, what pain do they feel that you solve?

Finally, a question too few think to ask themselves. Would your radar gun tell you how well the client pays their bills?  Reliable payment is a prerequisite to be a “Perfect Client,” right?  Yet many businesses end up acting as banks because clients don’t pay.

When I go through this exercise with my clients, I like to ask how they came up with their answers.  In particular, I like to make sure the answers hold true when I look at only the most profitable clients for the past year.

The point here is to ask what it would look like if you took your knowledge about your clients a level beyond however good it may be right now, as well as if you were even more proactive about choosing the clients that you find and do business with rather than settling for what business comes through the door.

Finding Them
You’ve formulated a good picture of your ideal client base.  Now let’s get specific.

How many of your Perfect Clients are out there?  What are their names? Who are the contact people you need to call? In sessions, people are often shocked as I wait for actual answers to these questions.  Yes – actual numbers, names, and lists.

If you’re looking for some tools to get you started, one of the best places to head is your public library to make friends with the people behind the research desk.  They may have library-only access to paid resources like ReferenceUSA and Dunn & Bradstreet business searches, as well as databases that will connect you to business associations in any industry you’re working with. For call contact information, also try online sites like or

Again, the goal is to determine how many Perfect Clients really exist within our territory.  Think why this is important.  Often, people don’t get focused because they’re afraid “focusing” somehow equals “limiting my business” and that means “I’m shooting myself in the foot. Or head.”  By taking the time to find out just how many clients in our territory match our criteria, not only are we performing a valuable safety step of validating our market focus, but often the result is a surprising realization of just how much business is out there.

Now go get it.

Your Plan of Action
Winning business means going and actually solving the pain of those clients you just identified. How are you going to do it? Will it mean letters, calls, visits, or something else?

Be more specific with your plan than feels natural at first. I don’t like hearing things like, “We’re going to divide up the list and have the sales people call” – that’s not a plan.  Try this: “Bob is going to assign each salesperson 20 names by the end of today.  They have until Friday to call through their list.  Their goal is to set four appointments for within the next two weeks. We’ll know call campaign results by close of business Friday.”  THAT’S a good start to a plan.

The point isn’t really what you plan to do but that you plan to do something and that you do it with precision and intention.  Our consistent theme here has been intention, purpose, and proactive actions make the difference.

Everybody Needs a Laser Gun
The Perfect Client concept sounds simple, and it is, but it is amazingly powerful.  Taken to its fullest extent, it really is the laser gun for your business, driving you to the level of proactive action you need in order to get ahead.

Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at

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