Birth of Strategic Positioning

Toward the close of the previous millennium, I worked at Microsoft after it had acquired the startup that I was involved in. During those two years in Redmond, I worked for three different groups within the company. This post is about how my work for one of those groups gave birth to our Strategy category of services.

Toward the end of my time at Microsoft, I checked the internal job openings board for an interesting position. I noticed an enticing one posted by the Shopping group.

These were the very early days of Microsoft on the web. At the time, the company was dominated in most every way by the Windows and Office franchises. Web Shopping was a remote hinterland.

The job req posted by the Shopping group asked for someone with analyst skills. I applied and got the job.

The job turned out to be just the sort of "mercenary", urgent, short-term gig that I love. The core problem facing the small, account-oriented Shopping group was that they were about to be eaten by a larger automated, engineer-driven shopping group. (During my time at Microsoft, it seemed common to find two or more groups working on the very same thing — the winning group would eventually eat the others).

The Shopping group that I joined was comprised of expert account managers who, in their bones, understood the shopping dynamic. This group generated a significantly larger amount of revenue than did the much larger, automated shopping group.

If revenue was all that mattered, the little Shopping group would have had nothing to worry about. But the powers at Microsoft understood that revenue was not the only relevant factor.

So, the little Shopping group hired me to translate the needs of their retail clients into language that would persuade the Microsoft powers to leave their little group alone.

Starting with this "customer need", I chose to develop a "theory of shopping". I wanted to show how the approach of the little Shopping group resonated with that theory, whereas the approach of the large, automated shopping group conflicted with it.

In the late 1990s, I had little, to no, knowledge about shopping, or any interest in it. I still don't have any personal interest in it now. So when the Shopping group hired me, they didn't hire me for my shopping expertise or passion.

To develop my theory of shopping, I had the best, indisputable source of data at my disposal: the statements of the Shopping group’s biggest retail customers. That is, I sat in on one, or more, "shopping summits" in which these O(10) retailers gave their opinions on the current Microsoft Shopping experience, and explained what features they would like to see in the future versus those they would not like to see, and why.

The only retailer commentary I can even remember from those early 1999 meetings was that of a tech gadget retailer. He said that he was in the business of selling the infinite future. That is, as technology kept advancing, it promised infinite improvement. His marketing spoke to the human delight in the endless march of progress.

At the time, I found this idea interesting but also slightly repulsive. I didn't know why I had the latter reaction until some years later when I stumbled across Spengler and his theory of "infinity" as the cultural meme of the "declining" West.

I bring up my sense of repulsion here to point out that my emotional reaction to the substance of my work bore no relevance to the work itself. In fact, my antipathy might have actually helped the work. The theory of shopping that I developed, based on the comments of the retailers, was, in my opinion, beautiful, as well as bulletproof.

I believe that my analyst work helped save, for the short term, the little Shopping group from being eaten.

I left Microsoft way back in May of 1999, but my thoughts on this creative job with the Shopping group stayed with me. Almost 10 years later, in 2008, when I started up Jack Polymath, I found that some of my clients needed the same kind of work. "Same kind" does not mean shopping-related, nor does it always entail theory-creation.

Instead, the common thread in our Strategy services is that the project is of strategic importance to the client, and the work requires esoteric thinking.

"Esoteric thinking" means that there is no pre-set or formulaic guidelines for the work. Formatting the deliverable — i.e. deciding on the key questions to ask and to answer — is one of the key creative values that we deliver through this service.

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