This post is by Tim Calpin, CMO of multichannel retail platform ChannelApe. Prior to this he worked in brand and content for eBay Partner Network. He also spent several years working in the entertainment world – with credits including South Park and the Bruce Willis indie “Assassination of a High School President”. Tim is a graduate of Syracuse University, an avid writer and a raconteur.
Do you know who Joseph Campbell is?
He’s the foremost authority on journey and myth. Renowned storytellers like Spielberg and Scorsese are all about him.
Campbell believed all truly great stories were, in fact, the same story. He coined something called The Hero’s Journey, a narrative structure that embodies characters ranging from Jesus Christ to Luke Skywalker (as Luke should prove decidedly less controversial, we’ll use him as our example here).
The hero’s journey produces a character with integrity, worth and direction. If a seller can emulate this journey, they’ll create a business with the same characteristics – one that will naturally draw demand and generate a strong brand.
Three Act Structure
Let’s start with the basics. Every story has three parts: beginning, middle and end. And this is universal – it can be applied to the macro and micro alike. A much smarter writer than I once stated that, if you watch closely enough, even “the tick of a second hand on a clock” has three movements – preparation, movement and a resettling. Beginning, middle and end.
In terms of journeys, we refer to these parts as acts. Within these acts, there are plot points. Key moments where the story’s characters are faced with conflict. These points alter the trajectory of the characters and incite growth and change. Take a look at this breakdown:
Take note of these five key points:
- The inciting incident
- End of act one
- End of act two
Let’s see these moments in action, first in the context of a story most of us know, the story of Luke Skywalker. Then we’ll see how these elements apply to your business and run through a few simple case studies to show how successful retailers have adhered to this journey structure.
Enter Luke. Here’s his journey breakdown:
- ACT ONE/BACKSTORY: We meet Luke. He’s young and immature and kind of a baby. His biggest concern in life is picking up power converters at Toshi station.
- INCITING INCIDENT: Luke buys R2D2 and C-3PO. He finds the hidden message of Leia pleading for help. This leads him to Obi-Wan Kenobi.
- END OF ACT ONE: Luke decides to go with Obi-Wan to save Princess Leia.
- ACT TWO: Luke teams up with Han and Chewie as they venture off to save the princess. Along the way, he trains as a Jedi.
- MIDPOINT: Luke and co. are captured by Darth Vader. The journey gets harder but Luke grows proportionately stronger. He’s now capable of achieving his final goal.
- CLIMAX: Luke saves the day (and a planet) by destroying the Death Star.
- ACT THREE: Luke, Han and Chewie are given sweet medals at an intergalactic awards ceremony.
How Does This Translate to Business?
What does this mean for us? Picture these plot points as metrics for the most important journey elements: growth, change and sacrifice. Applying this structure to your business will allow you to benchmark moments leading to your ultimate goal. Envisioning the life of your business as a movie or story can help you to define all the scenes that have to occur in order for you to succeed in your third act.
The first act of any business starts before the business has begun. Your backstory is the series of events that lead you to opening your business. For the fashion retailer, it might involve designing your first piece of clothing. Or purchasing the ultimate pair of Air Jordans. It could entail your history in a family business, your education or personal relationships.
Your backstory is, in many ways, the most magical stage. It is the Inspiration Stage. It’s important to define this because it’s at the heart of your business. The person who opens a store solely as a means of making money will (and should) make vastly different decisions than the person whose business is a passion. When it comes time to create your brand, this is a stage you should draw upon. It’s your ideal, unhindered by the compromise of doing business. You may want to refine your brand along the way, but there should always be some element of this startup spirit.
Your inciting incident is the day you start selling. We’ll define this moment as First Purchase. It is the impetus for everything that happens along the journey after that.
The rest of this initial act is the continuous rise to your first climax – the end of act one. In the Seller’s Journey, we’ll call it Initial Growth. Unlike in movies, there’s no real time constraint or limit to when this occurs, no hard-and-fast rule that defines it. This journey point will be different for every business.
This is how you’ll recognize it: The end of your first act is the day your business changes you. This might translate to quitting your day job. It could be taking out a loan or finding an outside investor. Maybe you move out of the garage and into your own storefront. Whatever the circumstances, it’s the first time you substantially scale up. If you find you have trouble defining a discernible end to this act, it could be your first problem.
Upon entering the second act, your scope is much wider. As in a movie, TV show or book, this act is all about Rising Action. Everything you do keeps the line angled up, crawling forward. It’s defined by growth, change and sacrifice. To sum up Skywalker, Luke trained as a Jedi (growth), went from an immature young man to a full-bore hero (change) and put himself in harm’s way to save others (sacrifice).
True Growth, the growth experienced upon a real journey, isn’t like a lot of the tech growth we’ve all grown accustomed to. It can’t be hacked, it can’t be bought. It’s got to be earned. In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell defines the 10,000 Hour Rule, which states that a person has to spend at least 10,000 hours engaged in an action before they can master it. He found this to be true in cases ranging from The Beatles to Bill Gates. Time + effort is the only formula that equates to this brand of growth.
With online retail, it can be easy to put in the minimum while convincing yourself you’ve done all you need to do. You post on Facebook, send out a tweet. You buy a few AdWords for increased promotion. You check Google Analytics. While these things are necessary, they’re probably only allowing you to maintain the status quo. By lapsing into this minimum-viable routine, your journey line runs a plateau. As such, I’ve listed three ways here to inspire the type of growth we’re talking about:
Build A Supporting Cast
There are several services, tools and platforms out there that can help you grow your store. Drop shipping, for instance, is a great way to introduce new products and start cross-selling. There are platforms out there that’ll allow you to access several drop shippers and automate their inventory feeds. Larger ecommerce stores can look into companies like Stitch Labs or Magento. Platforms like ChannelApe (I’m their CMO) or Doba work for smaller independent sellers. Let companies like these be your R2D2 and C-3PO.
Find A Mentor or Train Online
Business owners that continue to learn put themselves in a great position for growth. Reaching out and building relationships with established members of the retail community will probably benefit you more than you can anticipate. You’ll want someone to bounce ideas off of – whether it’s a more professional arrangement with a paid retail coach or an email or phone correspondence with someone running an ecomm site, someone who’s got experience, connections and insight.
If you’re not into the whole interpersonal thing – that’s cool. There are many viable and affordable tutorial sites like Lynda.com and Coursera that offer a range of great classes. In learning a new area of business, you’re certain to find new opportunities and insights.
Create An Antagonist
Every great hero has a formidable villain. In business, your antagonist is not always quite so defined – but you can create one from your pool of competition. This can be done one of two ways. The first employs a contemporary. Find a business that’s in your league, research them and set goals to surpass their performance.
The second way of creating an antagonist is by identifying a more established business and measuring against their growth. The nice thing about this approach is that it’s often easier to find research on these organizations. If a company is publicly traded, you’ll be able to view its SEC 10-K reports and filings online. If they’re a private company, you should still be able to derive enough information to keep pace with them.
While you may not be doing the volume these companies are (yet), you can set your goals comparatively. For example, Amazon recorded $107 billion in revenue last year. You’re not there yet, that’s cool. But these sales amount to a 20% increase from 2014 to 2015. If you’re ambitious, there’s no reason why you couldn’t set this percentage as your YoY growth.
Change is directly correlated with growth. When a character starts the hero’s journey they are often immature and inexperienced. During the second act, they evolve so that they can continue overcoming conflict and ultimately end their journey. These changes are reflected in a character arc. You, too, should have an arc.
There are two types of change along the Seller’s Journey: Active and Reactive. Active Change occurs when you see opportunities and areas for improvement and capitalize on them. A great example of active change is Zappos’s product offering. After experiencing awesome growth as a shoe retailer through their first eight years, Zappos began offering clothing and accessories in 2007. As a result, they reached $1 billion in sales the very next year, reaching this goal two years before projected.
Reactive Change occurs when a business is confronted by a problem that threatens their profitability and/or stability. Walmart’s purchase of Jet.com is a good example. As the retailer continues to be threatened by the online success of stores like Target, they’re making a big move to ensure that they’re still relevant in an emerging market. Had Walmart built their own online infrastructure years ago, they may not have had to consider such a large acquisition.
How do you measure change? There are all sorts of ways – especially with analytics what they are today. As this is high level, I’ll list some very general methods. The first is simply monitoring your active/reactive ratio. You should have more instances of active change than of reactive. If you only change when you have to change, you’re missing opportunities. And when a reactive change becomes necessary, it’s frequently because an initial active change was overlooked.
Write down five numbers:
- The products you offer
- The employees you have
- Your technology integrations
- Your social media likes
- Your postal code
Compare the fluctuations of these numbers quarter to quarter, year to year. This exercise is less about whether the numbers go up or down and more about the changes themselves. Did something change? Why did it change? Is this good or bad?
The hardest part of any journey is sacrifice. By the end of Luke’s journey, he’d lost his Uncle Owen, Obi-Wan Kenobi and his right hand. As a retailer, you shouldn’t be facing any imminent loss of limb. So that’s good. You’ll have to sacrifice in other ways though. Time, money, sleep, emotion – you vest all these in your business.
In the hero’s journey, the ultimate sacrifice is the one that’s made selflessly. It’s offered up to benefit others. In the retail world, this translates to decisions made for the customer. As a retailer, there are going to be opportunities to make more at the cost of offering the customer less. These are short runs wins, but journey losses. A consumer-focused business is one that has longevity.
A close look at shopping comparison offers insight into consumer sacrifice. The best shopping comparison tools, like PriceZombie and PriceBlink, set themselves apart from other SCEs by providing a price history. This allows a customer to see when the price of any particular item is at an all-time high or an all-time low. This can help incite a sale. But when prices are high, this history often deters users from making a purchase. While the shopping comparison entity loses in the short run (they only earn affiliate income when a purchase is made), they win in the long run because they’re sacrificing a quick sale for the long-run good of the customer.
Your midpoint and second act climax are closely tied together. The cool thing about the Seller’s Journey is that it encompasses your entire business history, but it’s also applicable to shorter periods along the way. Your climax is a goal that you set. Subsequently, your midpoint is the halfway mark to that goal. This doesn’t necessarily correlate with actual figures and time periods. It isn’t just cutting a sales goal into two halves or a year into six-month periods. The midpoint is when you actually become capable of hitting your end goal. As such, we’ll refer to the midpoint in the Seller’s Journey as Climax Capability.
Let’s say your goal is to gross $1 million in sales. This doesn’t mean that your midpoint is $500,000. Your midpoint is the day that $1 million in sales becomes a feasible projection. It means you’ve grown that much. In truth, this Climax Capability point should come far before you reach that sales figure, as long as you have the resources, relationships and integrations you need to do so.
Once you’ve reached your goal, your third act resolution is a time to celebrate. It’s important to acknowledge when a goal has been achieved and a journey completed. While this in no way signifies the end of your business story, it allows you to put what’s happened into a definitive context. As you’ll see in the Seller’s Journey image below, a third act looks an awful lot like the beginning of a first act. Using the momentum you’ve gained, you should be able to segue right into the next phase of your ultimate journey.
Apple’s Seller’s Journey
Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of The Seller’s Journey, let’s see how it’s played out in some real world examples. And how you can learn from what great retailers have accomplished along their journeys.
Steve Jobs and the story of Apple have inspired several great books and one great film (sorry, Ashton). There’s a reason for this: it’s because these stories are true journeys.
- ACT ONE/BACKSTORY: Uber-nerds Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak dream of building the first home computer.
- FIRST PURCHASE: Jobs and Woz sell 50 hand-built Apple I computers to one of the first computer retailers, The Byte Shop, in Mountain View, CA.
- END OF ACT ONE: Apple releases the Apple II in the late 70’s. This puts them officially in the big leagues – rivaling competitors like Commodore and IBM.
- ACT TWO: Apple likely has one of the most turbulent second acts any company has experienced. They release the Macintosh, fire Steve Jobs, put out a series of flops – while Microsoft kills it – and hire Jobs back. They make a lot of mistakes, but all in the name of progress.
- CLIMAX CAPABILITY (MIDPOINT): This is a good example of a journey point not adhering to time constraints. Apple’s mid-point runs twelve years from 1985 to 1997 – the same years that Jobs was absent from the company.
- CLIMAX GOAL: The release of the iMac in 1998 revolutionizes home computing.
- ACT THREE: We’re living in Apple’s third act. Once they got it right, they just kept soaring through a successful third act with the iPod, iPhone, iPad and laptop series.
Apple exemplifies the need for sacrifice. The year before the company released the computer that changed the world, they were down to a few months of operating budget, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Jobs made the decisions to cut the development of 70% of Apple products so the company could focus on their most relevant product offering. Throughout their entire history, Apple has always made hard decisions and sacrificed for what they thought was best for the user.
The Girlboss Seller’s Journey
The story of Sophia Amoruso and Nasty Gal Vintage isn’t quite as well-known as Apple’s, but it’s definitely more accessible. And considerably more badass.
- ACT ONE/BACKSTORY: Misspent youth. A teenage Sophia takes to hitchhiking and shoplifting. During this time, though, she cultivates a love for vintage items.
- FIRST PURCHASE: Sophia sells a stolen book on her newly opened eBay store, spawning her brand ‘Nasty Gal Vintage’.
- END OF ACT ONE: After being caught shoplifting, Sophia gives up stealing altogether and focuses all her time and effort on her eBay store.
- ACT TWO: Sophia becomes a marketing pioneer, using social media (MySpace mostly) to promote her site and inventory. Sales and popularity grow.
- CLIMAX CAPABILITY (MIDPOINT): Sophia gets kicked off of eBay. Instead of giving up, she opens her own online Nasty Gal store.
- CLIMAX GOAL: By 2011, Nasty Gal reaches sales of over $20 million a year.
- ACT THREE: Amoruso continues to be a retail mogul. She’s segued this into a best-selling biography, a Netflix series and her own personal brand #girlboss.
Two things stand out in Sophia’s story. The first is how strongly tied her brand is tied to her character and her backstory. Amoruso was and is a retail rebel. Her history, attitude, perspective and love for a fashion niche are all manifested in Nasty Gal’s name and look. She never went mainstream and that’s part of what’s made her so popular.
Amoruso also embraced change. She sold fashion through eBay and used social media to market before these things were commonplace. She transformed from a seller to a store owner to a business mogul to a writer to an icon. That’s straight up reinvention.
Your Seller’s Journey
So many people walk blindly into business. By identifying a narrative, placing yourself in it and adhering to the rules of the Seller’s Journey, you can effectively tell your own story. It is the master plan, the ultimate strategy. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. When we take a closer look at any real-life Seller’s Journey, it’s going to look less like a straight line and a lot more like this:
Every business has its ups and downs, no matter what your strategy is. Each peak and valley is less important than the overall upward trend. To maintain that, you’ve got to know where you’re at and where you’re headed. I hope by using this process you’ll grow, change, sacrifice and create a profitable business with integrity.
Tim Calpin can be contact through ChannelApe.
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