How I Found My Place as a Food Startup in the Influencer Economy
As the lines between B2C and B2B models blur, is it possible to find stability within the modern business ecosystem?
Few years back I spent a lot of time in front of a whiteboard with my team. We were trying to determine whether we should sell our supplements using a B2B or a B2C model. Many businesses go through this process at the beginning of their sales journey. It all relies on a simple question — Do we sell to business (wholesale) or direct to the consumer (retail)?
Through these workshops, one thing became apparent to me. A business needs to be aware that it is part of a delicate ecosystem within which all the components operate interdependently.
New Scientist magazine explains the concept of ecosystem using the butterfly effect. This is the idea that some complex dynamical systems exhibit unpredictable behaviors such that small variances in the initial conditions could have profound and widely divergent effects on the system’s outcomes.
A butterfly beats its wings in China, and a man in the USA drops his cheese sandwich as a result. The butterfly didn’t directly knock the cheese sandwich from the hand, but there is always a domino-like effect at play.
The butterfly’s beating wings cause Zhang Wei to admire the butterfly, so he stays a moment later than he would have. Walking home, Zhang Wei sees an ad for coffee on the side of a passing truck. The next day he remembers the coffee ad and stops for coffee on the way to work. The barista spends an extra five minutes drawing Chairman Mao on Zhang Wei’s coffee.
As a result, he is late for his Zoom meeting with John in the USA. John hates people being late to his sessions. He slams his fist on the desk. Charles, who is about to eat the cheese sandwich his wife made, jumps in fright and drops his cheese sandwich on the meeting room floor.
Business is a Complex Web
Butterflies aside, the point is that we realized that we were simplifying things too much by simply asking ‘B2C or B2B?’ Like everything in this crazy world, business is a complex web of interdependent causes and conditions that move with each other in a dance of creation. We are never alone and independent but only ever part of an ongoing process of change.
Through our workshops, I decided that we had to find a way to acknowledge and draw on all aspects of our business ecosystem within our chosen model. So, even before this thing called the influencer economy, we created our model — a B2B and B2C hybrid.
The consumers were the businesses and vice versa. We could no longer afford to think in straight lines. The influencer economy was being born even before the ‘naming generation’ gave it a name.
This merger of consumer and business made me take a step back and ask a fundamental question. Within our ecosystem, how exactly do we add value?
The supplements market was already heavily saturated. Supplement makers were becoming the used car salespeople of the new world, focusing on driving their salespeople to use ever-increasingly aggressive methods to push their consumers to buy more.
To a degree, it is hard to blame them for this since adding any unique value had become almost impossible. One supplement was generally the same as all the others.
The key to being a successful entrepreneur is to identify a problem and develop a solution. One thing I had always noticed was the foul taste of supplements. So, our idea was to solve this issue by creating products that tasted great. On a crowded, level playing field where unique value is rare as hen’s teeth, we had a truly, legitimate ability to add value.
As it turned out, supplements that tasted great turned out to be popular, and our early adaption of an influencer-type model was highly successful. They say you shouldn’t let success go to your head, but it happened to me for a while.
I forgot about the benefits of our hybrid model, and without realizing it, we began to default back to the binary system of B2B/B2C, where we sell to a party and take no part in the process beyond the actual sale.
Acting as part of an ecosystem is not easy. It was always tempting to lay back and assume the role of a chief architect without getting involved in the processes of the influencer economy. It’s no surprise. The process of influencer marketing took away requirements for massive spending and control over traditional marketing.
It took away our need for the troublesome management of classic sales teams and marketing meetings. In the beginning, it seemed like all of our marketing troubles were over.
But, in leaving the influencer economy to work its magic, we also found that we lost our eyes and ears on how our product was being presented as well as who was presenting it.
The influencer market is a highly competitive, brutal industry. Taking one’s place within the ecosystem as a business required a relatively simple change in psychology. Getting influencers to do the same is a whole different story.
The Paradox of Simultaneous Competition and Benevolence
Higher business minds today recognize that competition means something very different from what it meant twenty years ago. I wrote an article about the 5000-year-old Chinese game ‘Go’, which speaks about the paradox of simultaneous competition and benevolence.
The old way of competing to oust your competitor from the market kills the competitive drive to innovate. This innovation grows the market resulting in more significant revenue for all involved. Competition in 2021 means recognizing one’s place in the greater ecosystem and working competitively to expand the market through innovations in marketing, supply chain, sales, and communication.
Explaining such concepts to the CEO of a business is one of the benefits of a B2B model. In a B2C model, no such analysis is necessary. But when the two are combined, it is tricky to explain the ecosystem concept to the nineteen-year-old girl selling nutrients on her youtube channel because Kim Kardashian did the same.
The realization that these are the kinds of people responsible for your business’s success is a little hard to swallow for a serious business owner.
Many of our influencers wanted to start their own brand using our product. We looked closely at a white-label strategy. If we were part of the regular supplement market, this would not be an issue since our only focus would be on moving as much product as possible.
But, given our rare value proposition in a highly saturated market, it would be commercial suicide to allow others to take credit for a product that was many years and many dollars in the making.
For these reasons and others, we decided it was time to establish some degree of governance over the different members of our ecosystem. I like to think that things have changed rather than thinking we were doing something incorrectly initially. I see this as the next phase in the process where we manage our influencers.
In terms of recruitment, we still approach new influencers reasonably regularly, but our criteria have changed. We are no longer in a place where we need just anyone. Now, we look for a strong connection and an understanding of the ‘ecosystem’. We focus on a few loyal, established influencers who are fit and ready to adapt to whatever comes next.
Besides interdependence, one thing that is also certain in business is change. The influencer economy, like everything, will come and go. At the least, it will evolve into something utterly different, and we must be ready to respond to that.
Concepts like digital misinformation threaten the influencer economy. Users rush back toward more ‘official’ sources such as the brand itself rather than relying on a system where one is never quite sure where to find the truth.
This retrospective shift may stimulate the re-emergence of more ‘old school’ marketing methods. While this is only one possibility, we can be sure that the influencer economy will not be what it is today in five years.
The business ecosystem is becoming increasingly complex. There is barely any place these days for long-term strategy. Instead, there is only a place for the dynamic experimentation that led us to adopt an early version of influencer marketing in the first place. Only the fittest will survive in a market that is changing every day.
I, for one, am getting very comfortable in my meeting room, with a whiteboard and my team ready to adapt to whatever comes next, and I am confident now that my influencers share that vision with us.
My writing is based on true events and stories. It is as real as it gets. I changed parts of the stories and excluded real names as I don’t want people to get hurt. But most of the stuff I write is authentic and includes my thoughts and feelings.
Generalist that thinks broadly (not deeply).