Feb 23 2009

What vs. how

The distinction of "what" a company does vs. "how" it does it has come up recently in a bunch of different contexts and it got me thinking about this idea as a useful distinction for companies to consider as they talk with customers, partners, media, etc.

The idea stems from a tendency that companies have to focus not on what they do, but on how they’re doing it.  In my experience this tendency is particularly true of technology companies and very prevalent in early stage companies – who in both cases are often heavily weighted towards technologists in their staffing (and therefore thinking).  It’s easy to understand how companies fall into this trap. They’ve developed a new bright shiny object (their product, web service, widget, whatever) and are enamored with how they were able to make it work. Rather than simplifying their description of what their BSO does, they talk a lot about how they were able to make it so bright and shiny (after all they’re proud of the fact that they figured out a new way of doing something).  That’s great if you’re showing off to other technologists (at least ones you don’t mind sharing your secret sauce with) but can be confusing (and counter-productive) when talking with customers and partners. 

My advice (and the theme of the conversations of the past week where this distinction has come up) is to keep things simple. Focus on what you do for your customer; what you bring to your partner. When you start running down the path of "how", stop yourself and get back to the more basic message of  "what".