10 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Politicians Mike | February 13th, 2012

‘Tis the season. Not for giving gifts or reflecting on peace on earth. This is the silly season where we have to opportunity to elect our next President of the United States. Every four years, our country engages in a ritual which will impact the course of our economy, our social policy, and our governmental priorities. More importantly, this quadrennial exercise will determine the content of our newspapers, blogs, TV newscasts, and radio editorials. Writers will fulminate, pundits will issue declarations, and talking heads will revel in the traditional aspects of the sport known as Presidential Politics.

What can entrepreneurs learn from politicians? Historically, the political industry has pioneered strategies for marketing, partnering, business development, social media use, and audience engagement. Brand-building is key to successful political campaigns as it is for businesses, and politicians build their own personal brands using tactics that all of us use everyday. In short, small businesses and startups can draw many valuable lessons from politics, politicians, and political campaigns. In previous posts i have written about how we can learn from kidsdogsmusicians, chefs, and athletes.

As we speak there are still four candidates actively competing for the Republican Party nomination for President, and while we find ourselves by turns, laughing at them, swearing back at them on television, or nodding in agreement with their ideas, we do have to admire them for their passion, their dedication, and their persistence as they each create a distinct brand and pursue their share of the elector market. So, let’s take a look at the politicians and see what they have to teach us!

1. Politicians competePolitics is a cut-throat industry, rife with cheating, back-stabbing, and intrigue. Not that those are necessarily ‘bad’ things, right? While i do not espouse the use of dirty tricks or underhanded strategies to gain advantage in business, we do stand to learn from successful politicians and their ability to put themselves forward in the best possible light, while painting the most unflattering picture possible of their opponents. In politics at its best, this competition takes the form of a debate about ideas and convictions and, at its worst, it can get viciously personal and destructive. While rejecting the negative approach we see so often in politics, entrepreneurs can and should learn from those politicians who compete by emphasizing the values they represent, the superiority of their ideas, and the benefits that come with their service.

2. Politicians market actively. Politics requires constant and active marketing. During campaign season, this is obvious – just ask anyone in Florida about the recent inundation f television commercials, mailers, robo-calls, door hangers, yard signage, and wall-to-wall billboards. But between elections good politicians continue to energetically market their ideas, their legislative priorities, and their brands. This usually takes the form of public relations – news conferences, press releases, public appearances are leveraged to keep the person or the issue in the public eye and push the priorities and ideas of the politician into the public conscience. Entrepreneurs can draw clear connections to their own businesses, products, and services and can leverage many of the same techniques politicians use to increase awareness, build brand loyalty, and keep themselves top-of-mind with their own audience.

3. Politicians differentiate. One of the keys to a strong political campaign is the candidate’s ability to draw a strong distinction between herself and her opponent. Voters take a risk when electing a candidate – after all, we don’t really know what a candidate will do once they become an incumbent – so it is critical for a politician to show how they are different and to give voters a clear choice. Small business can take a similar approach in the marketplace: by communicating how our offering differs from the competition, our customer can better understand the choices they have and the benefits they can derive by choosing us over the competition.

4. Politicians build audiences. In social media one measure of results is the size of our audience: followers, likes, re-tweets are ways we determine our success. In politics audiences are not just important, they are critical in determining whether an incumbent keeps his job or whether his opponent takes it over. So, needless to say, a politicians ability to build a faithful audience can make or break a career and determine whether their ideas and programs prevail. Our ventures, too, thrive with the support of a loyal audience; ensuring customer satisfaction, creating great word of mouth, and building a fanatical fan base can allow our own businesses to prevail in the marketplace.

5. Politicians listenIn order to build loyal audience, it is imperative that politicians develop the ability to truly listen to their constituency. This often takes the form of community meetings, town halls, and other public events, but more sophisticated methods that politicians and campaigns use include market research techniques such as polling, surveys, and focus groups. The most successful politicians keep their finger on the pulse of the voters and take into account what they are saying and what they desire. Startups and small businesses can imitate these tactics to great effect, formally and informally. Watch how customers interact with your business, make it simple for them to give you feedback, and take their input seriously.

6. Politicians talk. Communication is a two-way street; in addition to listening to the voters, great politicians communicate effectively to lead. Many issues are complex and to help people arrive at a knowledgable and meaningful opinion politicians must work hard to educate voters and help them understand the politician’s own position. As entrepreneurs we can learn a great deal from this; communicate often with your customers and do it in ways that are accessible, simple, and clear. Newsletters, meet-ups, handouts, and email are examples of communication tactics that provide education and information about your products, your team, or your business in ways that can truly help your customers.

7. Politicians adjust. We write often about a focus on iteration and agility in startups. In politics the ability to adjust positions and react to the environment is crucial to long-term success. Politicians must not only be strong leaders to succeed, but they must also be in tune with the times and with prevailing ideas and notions. This does not mean that politicians should pander (nor should businesses), but rather that they be flexible enough to roll with changing attitudes and situations. In order to survive and to thrive businesses, too, must make adjustments based on environmental, competitive, economic, and other constantly changing factors.

8. Politicians compromiseSome of the creates of legislative accomplishments of the past 50 years were the result of compromises reached between opposing politicians and political parties. At the heart of today’s cynicism about our government and out leaders in Washington is their seeming intractability and their inability to compromise and cooperate. The greatest politicians have the ability and the inclination to reach across the divide and find a solution that everyone can live with. The lesson for small businesses is to stay flexible, accommodate your employees and partners, and look for ways to work together with other companies and organizations to create value and increase the size of the pie for all to share.

9. Politicians leverage strengthsJust like small businesses, individual politicians come with their own set of strengths. The trick is to identify those strengths in order to leverage them to their full extent. If a politician is a great public speaker, then she should be out there at every opportunity letting the rhetoric flow; if she is an empathic listener with the innate ability to put people at ease then one-to-one meetings are a great venue; and if she is a meter at crafting legislation then she should work hard to create value through that. But to truly leverage strengths, politicians have to sell those and this goes back to communication. When considering whom to vote for in an election we tend to weigh the candidate’s relative strengths and weaknesses; the more we are aware of these, the greater they will weight our decision. Businesses must do the same: communicate clearly the benefits and the value, and allow customers to make a choice based on your company’s strengths.

10. Politicians address weaknesses. The flip side to the ability to leverage strengths is the ability to exploit weakness. Politicians do this all the time. Talking about how awful their opponent is is one way they can point out their own relative strengths and emphasize the choice voters must make. As small businesses this is a tactic that we too can employ, but I would caution care in doing so. Sometimes pointing out a competitor’s weakness can actually serve to build awareness with your customers that a choice even exists. If you do choose this strategy, make sure that your benefits are strong and the differentiation offered is clear.

Photo: Mike Licht

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