How Oprah Nearly Killed My Business

How did being featured on the cover of Oprah's magazine almost cost this author his business?
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
January 03, 2012

My book, Goal-Free Living, was featured on the cover of the November 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Two full pages were dedicated to my goal-free concepts.

Although this was one of the proudest moments in my life, surprisingly, this type of publicity actually had a negative impact on my business.

You must be thinking: How is this possible? Doesn’t everything Oprah touch turn to gold?

Yes, typically. But my situation was different. My core buyers were (and still are) innovators within corporations. As much as I personally admire Oprah and her work, my clients were not as enthusiastic.

For example, after putting the Oprah mention on my website, my bounce rate (the number of people who immediately leave my website) went through the roof. I had potential clients say that they chose someone else who appeared to be more focused on the needs of corporations. They proceeded to share that the Oprah mention made me seem less “serious.”

I even had one client tell me, just as I was about to go on the stage, “If you mention Oprah, we won’t pay you.”

Apparently, the combination of my “self-help” book and the magazine publicity caused confusion. It was no longer clear that my main business focused on the needs of corporations. In this moment I discovered that the old mantra was true: “A confused buyer never buys.”

There is a lesson in this for every small business.

Know your audience. Know their needs—explicit and latent. Speak their language. Understand what gives you credibility in their eyes.

When you innovate, don’t alienate your current market. You can expand to other markets, but continue meeting the needs of those who have been loyal fans.

Innovation is about shifting your business in a new direction at the right speed. Think of the degree of change as a compass setting.

Reinvention is different than innovation. Reinvention (what I attempted when writing Goal-Free Living) is when you move your business on a 90-degrees (or even 180-degrees) turn. It is a pretty radical change. Your customers may not understand the shift and you may lose them in the process.

On the other side of the compass, there are many businesses making only 5-degree turns. They focus their time on incremental innovations. Although these improvements are valuable, on their own they are not sufficient to sustain long term growth and prosperity. You can ride your past success for a while, but eventually your competition will out-innovate you.

So the big question is: What is the right level of innovation? What is the correct compass setting for your business?

Typically, a 5-degree turn is too little while a 90-degree shift is too much. Forty-five degrees should be just about right.

What does a 45-degree turn look like? It is exploring how to tap into your existing market with new offerings, new services and new products, while also expanding into adjacent markets.

My business just turned 10 years old and I am in the process of rethinking my current model. As it stands today, I primarily convey my innovation messages via speeches and books. My objective in 2012 is to leverage my current intellectual assets by finding new ways of delivering my content.

For example, in 2012, I will be expanding the licensing of my content to corporations, training organizations and individuals who can deliver my work. The more I can tap into the reach of others, the more I can grow my business.

For this, I am not changing my message or products. I am primarily deepening the content and making the process of delivering it “replicable.” Instead of content changes, I am exploring different distribution channels such as eLearning systems, membership sites and other digital platforms.

Additionally, while others are delivering my content to my current target audience, I can explore how to extend my existing content to new, tangential markets. For example, my Personality Poker assessment tool has been largely focused on the corporate market. It can also, however, be positioned to provide value anywhere collaboration is beneficial: relationships, families, negotiations, ventures and so on. Expanding in these directions still positions me as a collaboration expert (a key component of innovation) and would most likely not alienate my core market.

180 degrees is throwing everything away which is probably not a wise direction. Sadly, the default tends to be a 5-degree turn of incremental innovation with existing products to existing customers. Sometimes a knee-jerk reaction for a small business is a 90-degree turn. This is where your company creates new products for new customers or even takes existing products to new customers in ways that potentially erodes your credibility with your current market.

That is what I did. Oprah didn't really destroy my business. It was my decision to move in a new direction, roughly 90-degrees, with a totally new set of customers that caused my particular challenges.

So, how do you innovate at the right level for you?

Ask yourself the following: How can you leverage what you currently have to potentially new markets without alienating your existing market? How can you create new products that serve existing markets in new ways and help to leverage your business even further? How can you produce creative partnerships with organizations that already have access to markets you wish to reach?

The answers to these questions will help you to discover your own 45-degrees of innovation.

Image credit: MelvinSchlubman

Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation