In one of my first client meetings after setting up a business the client asked “what’s it like?” I’d prepared for pretty much every question bar this. Searching for an explanation I suggested it was like an election campaign, without a polling day. Here’s why:
1. Audience segmentation
We know all about segmenting our audiences in politics. Identifying which wards to contact in which order. Putting out different leaflets depending on likely voting intention, targeting switchers, ignoring non-voters and so on. Running a successful commercial operation is not very different. You identify who you want to pitch to, why they want to use your service and how much income you expect to generate from them. You then keep contacting them until you get a ‘no’ or, better yet, until you find out why they don’t want your product. Ok, so there’s no electoral roll but there is LinkedIn.
2. Making an impact . . .
Election campaigns are all about making an impact. There’s activity that identifies voting intention – sales in a business but some of it is just about making a noise in the market place. Posters, banners, street stalls, loudspeakers. We know how to make an impact.
3. . . . with limited budget
Election campaigns rarely have the luxury of spare cash. What you do spend, has to work. The thing that I found most challenging about the early months in business was keeping control of costs. You want to do marketing, but you can’t afford for it to not work. There are ways of doing it cheaply, but you don’t want to make a bad impression.
4. Managing people
Campaigns would be nothing without the volunteers. There is a hardy group that will do it whatever the candidate, cause or climate but most will give more if they are more energised. But party members are often a cynical lot and no level of sophisticated fakery will work. Early hires in a business will need to contribute much more than the hours for which they are paid. And they won’t be as well-remunerated as you (or they) would like. You need their goodwill and forbearance whilst having to manage their confidence when income doesn’t match expectations.
5. Telling a story
Election campaigns that work tell a story about the state of the country, the merits of the candidate and the failure of alternatives. In business stories are also important – particularly for early investors who are interested in the person as much as the business.
6. Responding quickly
The best election campaigns react to events in minutes or hours. A press release written, a photo stunt organised, a leaflet printed. Even great businesses take weeks to turn things around. Startups don’t have that luxury. Responding quickly is massively important, whilst not losing sense of the strategic objectives.
7. Managing failure
In politics you are meant to lose before you win. It teaches you what you need to know before it really matters. Yet even with a British business culture (as opposed to an American one) you aren’t meant to be doing badly. It isn’t in the lexicon of entrepreneurs to admit to having a bad month. But managing the early, inevitable setbacks is vitally important if you are to maintain your business – and your sanity.
Many Labour Party activists – and most representatives – have little obvious experience of running a business. But most have already learnt some of the most important lessons. In my next post, I’ll examine what I’ve learnt from setting up a business which could be transferred to electioneering.