posttitle = Exploring non-coercive marketing for my intentionality app business titleClass =title-long len =67

Exploring non-coercive marketing for my intentionality app business

My backstory & situation

About 10 years ago, I set a goal to not have to get a job when I graduated from university 3 years later. My rough plan was to start a small software business that made me enough money to live on so I could do whatever I wanted. It took me another year to actually start working on that goal, but I achieved it!

I built Complice, an intentionality app that helps people set goals and work towards them each day even when what they need to do each day is very different. It’s based around the idea that regular inquiry into what you’re doing towards long-term goals makes a big difference in your ability to steer towards the futures you want.

After I hit ramen profitability, I grew the business a bit more, but it hit a plateau. While I never really decided to stop growing it, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the growth stopped right around the threshold of wealth that I was used to as a kid growing up: definitely enough money for basic things and healthy food, but not like… extra. More concretely, about $50k in subscription revenue, with very little required work—the famous four-hour work week.

It’s hard to express how awesome this has been. I get to do weird illegible things like prototype a new cultural platform for humanity, without convincing anyone else that they’re worthwhile. I like to say that for something fairly highly rated, passive income is still underrated—at least for me. Some people feel the need to have external structure in their life in the form of a job, but not me. I like waking up every day and broadly doing what I feel like doing, or what seems to need doing based on my own personal assessment.

And one thing I’ve felt like doing over the last few years at many points is designing and coding new features into the app, many of them to scratch my own itch, some at user requests: a new hourglass timer mode, streaks that let you miss a day, quarterly reviews, a new extra-anti-staleness page called the Now Page, and a commitment contracts feature.

But one thing I haven’t felt like doing is anything remotely strategic towards growing Complice. To be honest I’ve barely done anything at all in the last 5 years that might even plausibly help those numbers go up except talk about the app on twitter sometimes. I started to guess that I probably have some sort of financial set point or upper limit problem, such that I’m not motivated to make more money.

“Enough money” is contextual though, and my context has been shifting in a way that makes it increasingly clear to me that Complice needs to grow: I want to raise kids in the near future. This puts me in a similar situation as when I set my original goal of having passive income to sustain me when I graduated, where the benefit of making more money isn’t just “I have more money” (which the past 6 years suggests is not motivating to me!) but “I get to have the kind of lifestyle I want”—just this time that lifestyle is afforded for my whole family, not just me.

So! My medium-term growth goal is to go from $4k/mo to $10k/mo subscription revenue, by the end of 2023. Increasing by 2.5× in one year is actually a moderate growth rate for a software company, but it’s clear that it’ll require doing something new, after years of basically no growth at all. I expect I’ll want to grow it further than that, but if I can get it there I’ll probably have a much better handle on the kinds of levers that will let me do that.

Last I checked, the jury’s still out on whether posting goals publicly is helpful. In any case, I’m not really doing it for accountability towards the specific number+date of the goal—if I don’t make it, so be it, as long as I’m actually working on it and adjusting course appropriately. But I am trying to align my sense of myself around this being one of the main projects I’m working on, and I’ve long had some resistance towards marketing or seriously aiming towards a particular level of revenue.

Exploring non-coercive marketing by strategizing in public

Back in 2013, when I first started actually working on what I would shortly name “Complice”—which was an amazing bootstrapping process, as having a system to track that goal was a vital part of what allowed me to succeed at it—I wrote a blog post I’m Starting a Business: Planning and Achieving Goals. It’s a pretty loose reflection on what I was up to at the time, probably in part to solicit people to sign up for my initial alpha-testing cohort. This post is kind of a sequel to that, although I’m more clear in this case that publishing this post is not directly intended to cause anyone to sign up for Complice.

Anyway, shortly after that, my blog transitioned away from life updates and started being mostly ideas & frameworks, trying to convey insights & wisdom to the world (except for my yearly reviews). But I’ve been coming to increasingly appreciate the value of saying the obvious, so I figured it could be meaningful to just write about my own journey with what some of us are calling “non-coercive marketing“.

Rob Hardy, the main guy championing the term, wrote this primer, and he clearly groks how his work helping people to do non-coercive marketing isn’t ultimately about marketing but about the same cultural platform transition I’m working on. I know because of this tweet I came across while writing this post:

my big secret is that non-coercive marketing isn’t actually about marketing at all, but instead about how we relate to ourselves and to others and healing the wounds of distrust that ripple through generations

but don’t tell anyone 🤫

(my blog is a place where one of the main things I’m talking about in the first place is this larger intergenerational project, so I think his secret’s safe here)

Part of the inspiration for writing about this comes from Tad Hargrave’s Marketing For Hippies (M4H is basically another way of saying “non-coercive marketing”) where he says “We want to find a way where our marketing can actually be an expression of what we are doing”. When I saw that, I wrote in my notes:

so for me/complice, the marketing wants to be an expression of intentionality etc, an expression of goal-orientedness
an expression of taking an improvisational, playful approach to such things, rather than super top-down

probably I’d benefit a lot by keeping a bit more of a public log of my goal, even though Complice isn’t about publicizing goals per se

On a deeper level, what pushed me over the edge to write this was I mentioned to my friend Visa, “one thing I’ve been thinking about is like, talking more publicly about my business growth goals” and he said:

it’s a good idea in part bc it challenges you to articulate what they are to yourself in a way that you find palatable sharing with the world – once legible and true, it becomes a vector that other people can align on, but really imo most important is that you are aligned with it

The bit about “palatable sharing with the world” made me realize that part of what has been making it hard to do marketing is that it’s felt somehow bad or manipulative or something, and relatedly I’ve felt like it’s not totally okay to actually have a goal of getting more customers. On a big picture level, I know that obviously it’s possible to find a win-win between:

  • respect my prospective customers’ autonomy
  • grow my business

…so my intention to write publicly about my marketing plans is oriented towards helping me figure out what that win-win looks like, and to unearth places where I’m making assumptions that put those at odds.

I had a call with my friend Aneesh recently, in the context of him being one of many Complice users I’m having short convos with to talk about their experience of using the app. He’s been thinking about all this stuff too, and on the call he came up with the phrase “transparent reflective equilibrium” to point at this: imagine that whoever you’re marketing to knew exactly what was going through your head while you were designing and executing your marketing strategy. Would they be okay with it?

That feels exactly like what I’m going for here. I want to be an open book, not just because my story has the potential to be inspirational to other business creators (I’m aware of at least one other company that exists in part because of someone hearing my story and thinking “I could do that!”) but because the kind of marketing that I want to be doing is a kind that is best done transparently and openly.

Paraphrasing Tad Hargrave, I came up with this articulation of non-coercive marketing that I really like:

find the people for whom them paying you money for your offering is a win-win, and discover together that that is the case

this tweet

This is the essence of what I’m aiming to do. It’s not about convincing anyone, it’s about a process of mutual discovery.

Unlike Rob Hardy, who had a bunch of success with conventional coercive marketing strategies before shifting to non-coercive marketing, I’m coming from a place of having long been clear on the non-coercive part, but struggling to figure out what that actually looks like for marketing. There’s also a piece about finding the marketing that I actually feel energized to do, so that I’m not self-coercing myself to “do marketing stuff”.

I’ve decided to keep this post short—more to come with reflections on my resistances and actually starting to flesh out my strategy.

I’ve been getting increasingly drawn towards working with the garage door up based on some encouraging experiences of thinking in public on twitter. Huh, it occurs to me that working in a Complice coworking room is itself kind of like working with the garage door up as well, in a manner very different from verbose reflective thinking in public.

edited by me. source 1, source 2. scoreboard is an actual screenshot of the internal complice stats view I made years ago. it’s not how I’d design it now, on many levels, and I’ve left it a bit

(live practice) addendum: whether to include a call to action

Hmmm… I’m noticing as I close this out that I want to include a link to the online goal-crafting intensives I run, which is something I’ve usually done when I publish something that has anything goal-related when we’ve got an upcoming workshop. And then part of me feels weird about that! I guess… there’s not really an obvious segue aside from this meta-commentary. Well, no, I could say something like “if you want to think with me about your shifting life goals or strategize about non-coercive business models, you could come to our workshop.” Which is true! But it still sorta feels like a stretch. I’m wary of creating the false impression that I wrote this blog post as a set up for the marketing link. Which would be bad because… well, in this case it’s false. But it’s sometimes been true! In years past, sometimes what got me to publish anything to my blog was the need to sell more tickets to the GCI workshops. Is that bad? It doesn’t seem bad, but my fellow non-coercive marketers have been pointing out that tiny deceptions form part of a whole manipulative relationship:

Tad talks about the importance of having both lots of free samples (“pink spoons” in his ice cream shop metaphor) while simultaneously making it clear that you can pay for a larger serving if you like the taste. So I guess part of the puzzle here is whether this blog post is sufficiently relevant as a taste of what someone might get from a GCI.

And I think it is. It is in lots of ways, in that part of what permeates both the GCI videos & exercises and the GCI coaching is my way of thinking about goals, which I’ve been embodying in this entire post. And if you like the taste and want some of it oriented towards your situation, the workshops are a stellar place to get that. And if you don’t, then I’m glad you have that clarity. I guess that’s the essence of it, as I wrote above: truly embodying a stance that wants to discover who is a great fit for what you’re offering. It’s partially an internal orientation, which I feel I’ve achieved here just now but didn’t in the aforementioned past years, and it’s also a way of communicating about it. (While acknowledging that it’s entirely possible that someone receiving my communication won’t actually trust that I’m embodying that stance, and that that’s okay.)

So, with all that said: here’s the link to the workshop signup page if you want to check it out.


Also here’s a follow-up post where I talk about emotional blocks: Exploring & integrating my resistances to growing Complice

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.



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