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What Marketers Can Learn From Speed Skating

Innovation anywhere becomes a pattern for innovations everywhere.

4 min. read

Every industry has Moneyball moments.

In the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, team speed skating had one.

Team speed skaters typically skate tightly together, skaters behind drafting off the skater in the lead.

The lead skater, facing the full headwinds is expected to tire more quickly.

At intervals, the lead skater will peel off and another teammate moves into the lead position.

This technique exists in nature. The V-shaped flight pattern of migratory geese forms as each goose behind captures the upwash from the wingbeats of the goose in front.

When the lead goose tires, another goose takes the lead. This technique has been show to increase the range of the flock by as much as 70%.

It’s a beautiful orchestration; clearly teamwork as nature intended.

Except that speed skaters aren’t actually migratory geese.

And at the pre-Olympic world championships in Salt Lake City, team U.S.A. shattered the world record by trading one natural law for another.

What’s the secret?

The U.S. team chose NOT to release the skater in the lead.

For the entire race, the leader stayed in position.

In fact, every team member stayed in a single position, with skaters behind pushing those in front.

And voila! the sport was forever changed.

(The young American team ultimately took bronze in China due to a setback and veteran teams mimicking their innovation. Fast followers are a topic for another post.)

What’s the innovation?

Instead of sharing the load equally, they specialized.

Specialization is a natural law.

In a macro sense, specialization of labor is a self-perpetuating attribute of growth. Economies, like companies, start general and evolve to more and more specialized roles.

SaaS sales is a good example.

Sales is a competitive discipline and they live under a microscope. (What other team has EVERYONE—whether inside the company or out—watching their main KPI?)

It’s now over a decade since Predictable Revenue ushered in the age of the SDR.

SDRs are the innovation equivalent to the speed skating in B2B sales—because they follow the law of specialization.

Sometimes sales leaders go counter to this.

Who gets promoted to be the team lead in inexperienced organizations?

The top AE.

It’s like a form of recognition.

“Way to go, you’re now team captain!”

Unfortunately, the team’s best closer is off the floor. And management expects her skills in sales to magically transmute into skills at motivating and managing a team.

Promoting your top people without considering if they’re prepared for new and different responsibilities leaves executive teams scratching their heads wondering why sales are down.

Strong managers, strong reps, strong setters, etc. crush a team of generalists.

In general, specialists win (ironically).

Marketing is inherently general

The law of specialization is kind of a problem for marketers.

Marketers are not only predisposed to be generalists, their job descriptions often require them to be.

I made my career as a “full-stack” marketer.

Someone who was capable and willing to wear a lot of hats and do it well.

When I went to graduate school, what degree did I pick? An MBA. The most generalist business degree possible.

The bad news?

Specialists make mincemeat out of me.

For example, I rate myself a solid 5-6 as a graphic designer. And I LOVE design.

But a 9-10 will have me weeping in a corner at my hubris to even click the icon for any Creative Cloud application.

In a perfect world, every company would hire a full team of marketing specialists.

What if I can’t afford to hire a team of marketing specialists

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In the scrappy early stages of building a company, you might be trying to decide who to hire as marketing employee number one? Or building out a team of two or three.

Which means you have a tough decision.

Do I hire senior? or Junior?

Do I hire an agency for my specialization?

And the right answer for your situation is probably all of the above in some form.

Here are my tips:

Find T-shaped marketers for your day-to-day execution.

A T-shaped marketer is today’s full stack marketer. They are broad enough to cover many marketing responsibilities, but deep enough to be really strong in at least one area.

Try to find someone deep in the area you need the most.

Hire agencies in their area of speciality. Hire them for SEO, or content, or media buys.

Give them clear precise goals and metrics for success.

Most of the time, you need to be well-versed enough to tell an agency what to do and someone needs to own and manage the relationship.

Be careful hiring agencies for general strategy. They are human and often Maslow’s Hammer is at work.

For top level strategy, consider hiring a senior marketer in small doses.

The fractional CMO is an innovation in how companies staff for growth. It’s an effective way to grow and get the senior input they need in a quantity they can afford.

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