Pamela Slim is a writer, a speaker, and a business coach who works with small business owners ready to scale their businesses and intellectual property. She’s the author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, Body of Work, and, most recently, The Widest Net. Pam and her husband Darryl co-founded the Main Street Learning Lab in Mesa, Arizona.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Celisa Steele talks with Pam about the need for businesses to adopt an ecosystem point of view; how to find your ideal clients and customers; and the importance of using problems, challenges, or aspirations to identify ideal customers. They also discuss four categories of obstacles that typically prevent customers from solving their own problems; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and more.
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[00:00] – Intro
An Ecosystem (Versus an Empire) Point of View
[01:29] – Your latest book is called The Widest Net. In it, you make the case that businesses need to adopt an ecosystem point of view. Can you explain what ecosystem means to you in this context? And how do you contrast that with the empire point of view?
The core idea for The Widest Net came from decades of work. Pam found in working with people to build an audience that there is a lot of content that talks about building your business as an empire. This is comes with language about crushing your competitors, dominating, and positioning yourself as the supreme authority who has the answers to all the questions.
This empire view can create anxiety if you think you have to be the one who has all the answers and the perfect qualifications. It can also be limiting in how you help your customers if you’re trying to create something that goes beyond your capabilities and your particular areas of expertise.
Over the years, Pam has found that business owners trying to solve a problem never look to just one place—they look broadly for information, resources, and support. This can be in the form of software, tools, podcasts, books, conferences, etc.
The ecosystem point of view centers the ideal client. Then the work is to identify the places, in person and online, where they go to look for answers to the problem that you, as the organization, are also trying to solve. Doing that strategically and looking to find partners and places that are aligned with your values is what makes the ecosystem point of view different than the empire model.
[05:32] – If you adopt this ecosystem view, are there competitors? Or is everyone a potential partner?
That depends on how you choose to define competition. In the context of her work, Pam looks for aligned partners.
When thinking about recommendations for them on who would be an ideal fit, she usually bases that on sharing values and having something specific that’s going to fit the need of that client. She even refers people to another business coach rather than herself if that’s really the best fit because she wants to feel confident she can really help clients to solve their problems.
Pam doesn’t look at competition as bad. She, in fact, enjoys competition. When you think about it in the context of ecosystem versus empire, an empire view would say to get your competition out of the way and show everyone that you’re number one. An ecosystem view allows for supportive competition, where you’re pushing each other to perform better.
There can be a way that you want to be the best in whatever it is that you’re doing, but it’s not with the energy or intention of crushing the other person. It’s about elevating the total level of play and craft.Pamela Slim
Identifying Your Ideal Client
[09:12] – When an organization sets out to identify its ideal client you caution against starting with demographics. What’s a better place to start?
Pam uses a method from her friend and colleague Susan Baier of Audience Audit, an audience segmentation specialist. To be clear about who you want to connect with, it’s often unhelpful to start with demographics.
Start by identifying a core problem or challenge the ideal client has or an aspiration they want to attain. Later you can add demographics if they are relevant.
When you start with describing your audience first by problem, challenge, or aspiration, then it opens the door for that audience to identify itself and helps you look for effective ecosystem partners.
Partner with Tagoras
[12:09] – At Tagoras, we’re experts in the global business of lifelong learning, and we use our expertise to help clients better understand their markets, connect with new customers, make the right investment decisions, and grow their learning businesses.
We achieve these goals through expert market assessment, strategy formulation, and platform selection services. If you are looking for a partner to help your learning business achieve greater reach, revenue, and impact, learn more at tagoras.com/services.
Uncovering Problems, Challenges, and Aspirations
[12:39] – How would you recommend learning businesses go about uncovering their audience’s problems, challenges, and aspirations?
The best place to start is with people who you identify as being ideal clients. Organizations often serve a range of customers—some who are well aligned and most ideal and some who are not quite as ideal.
You really want to look for ideal clients and listen very specifically to the way that they talk about their problem, challenges, or aspirations.Pamela Slim
Pam wrote on her blog about a concept called The Magic Door. This is based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where a door of a wardrobe opens up for a girl and leads her to the magical land of Narnia. But before she went through that wardrobe’s magic door, the girl had no idea that Narnia existed. And that’s the way that it is for clients who work with you.
Sometimes we get so stuck in the language we use that we confuse them. Before a client starts to work with you, listen to the kinds of things they say that they want. That’s often language you can dig into with them once they begin to engage with you.
Then you can figure out what their specific issues are. Listen to conversations, and notice what they’re talking about.
Pam likes to center this work around your ideal clients because you want to be reaching more of those people.
[15:47] – For organizations trying to talk to ideal clients about their problems, challenges, aspirations, is that better done one on one, or can it be done with a mass online survey? What are your thoughts on the right mix for how those types of exchanges happen?
It depends, in part, on the time and the resources available to an organization. While Pam’s a fan of surveys, it’s becoming harder and harder to get people to fill them out because so many businesses ask consumers to complete a survey. You buy a pack of gum, and you get an e-mail asking you to complete a survey. But well-constructed surveys are a very useful tool.
At the Main Street Learning Lab, which she co-founded with her husband, they spend a lot of time listening to people who walk through the door. You can do something similar with people are walking through your Web site. Ask the biggest question that you have about whatever area you’re trying to help customers with.
Pam also likes to stay tuned to the publications ideal customers are reading, what they’re posting on social media, how they talk about questions, and how they respond back. From a strategic perspective, when working with clients, look first at the big picture—their goals and objectives, what they know and don’t know.
Four Categories of Obstacles Preventing Customers from Solving Their Own Problems
[18:11] – What are the four typical categories of obstacles that prevent people from addressing their own problems or achieving their aspirations?
The four categories are the following:
- Knowledge, skills, or information
- Thoughts and beliefs
The Role of Leaders in DEI
[21:47] – The Widest Net Method, which is what you talk about in The Widest Net, starts with a business’s need to understand its root mission. In the book, you share about your root mission and the desire to address the lack of visibility of Native American leadership and entrepreneurship, which led to the Main Street Learning Lab. What are your thoughts on the role that leaders (broadly) and learning leaders (more specifically) need to play in diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Pam’s husband is Diné (Navajo), and an interest in Native American culture and leadership has connected her to a lot of people in the Arizona area. They have 22 federally recognized tribes.
When she did a 23-city tour around the United States, teaching the early stages of a framework for The Widest Net, she asked in each city, “How many of you have ever seen a Native American business presenter at a business conference speaking on a business topic?” Of all those cities, only seven people ever had, and four were in Vancouver, Canada.
Having been around tens of thousands of Native American entrepreneurs, Pam knew the problem wasn’t that they didn’t exist. The problem was visibility. This recognition was the seed for the Main Street Learning Lab, which they structured to highlight leadership that exists but is rarely seen in the community.
When approaching work, Pam has a favorite series of questions to ask:
- Who is here?
- Who is not here?
- Why aren’t they here?
These questions can be helpful if you’re thinking about your organization and looking at learning in your organization. You can also ask those same kinds of questions to think about your customers.
Asking those three questions can uncover the need for other perspectives in your ecosystem. If you aren’t the identity that’s missing, you can’t answer the question of why they aren’t here. To answer that, you have to engage and listen more deeply.
And, to me, the overall issue of equity and inclusion is we want our organizations, our customer base, our communities to be representative of the people who live there, and we want to create a system and structure that supports access and equity for all people…. I can’t imagine not focusing on that because it’s just something that I think is fundamental to what’s going to create a more healthy, flourishing kind of environment.Pamela Slim
Main Street Learning Lab
[27:39] – Tell us about the Main Street Learning Lab and what it’s doing.
The Main Street Learning Lab is located in Mesa, Arizona, and Mesa has often been overshadowed and forgotten by the larger Phoenix area. But there’s been tremendous growth happening in Mesa.
Innovation districts stimulate economic development within an area by involving different kinds of primary organizations. An academic anchor (which Mesa now has) and things like learning labs and maker spaces are important to innovation districts.
The innovation district in downtown Mesa is around the creative economy, and part of what Pam and others recognized was missing was the visibility of Native American entrepreneurs.
So Pam and her husband Darryl created a physical space, where Native Americans and other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) can come together and do what they want and need. All events are led by and for the community. From a diagnosis and learning perspective, a fundamental belief Pam holds is that generally the community knows what it needs. To be supportive, they created a beautiful space. Something magical happens when people walk through the door.
The Main Street Learning Lab is a showcase for Sprouting Effect. When they hosted Navajo language classes, somebody who came then asked to host their Native American book club meeting there. The book club then led to someone asking to shoot a YouTube series in the space.
What these community leaders isn’t more training. They need beautiful, supportive space where they can stretch and grow. And Pam and Darryl fund the lab themselves so there’s no charge for people who use it. In the past, many of these community members haven’t felt safe or welcomed in Mesa, but now people show up physically and are growing comfortable. Having a place of connection and belonging are critical for learning and community development.
[32:54] – Wrap-up
Pamela Slim is author of The Widest Net, Body of Work, and Escape from Cubicle Nation. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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