EP 298: Creating A Less Harmful Sales System with Wanderwell Founder Kate Strathmann | What Works

EP 298: Creating A Less Harmful Sales System with Wanderwell Founder Kate Strathmann

Sep 15, 2020 | Podcast, Sales

This show is called What Works for a reason.

Sometimes it’s a declaration: this is what worked for this small business. And often, it’s a question, “What works?”

Today’s episode is very much a question, many questions, really:

  • What works when it comes to selling when you want to avoid manipulative or exploitative practices?
  • What works when your values conflict with many of the best practices of selling online but you still want people to buy your stuff?
  • What works when it comes to sales in a business that is actively anti-racist and anti-capitalist?

And even more bluntly: Can you even sell things without causing harm or perpetuating harmful systems?

My friend Kate Strathmann is the founder of Wanderwell, a bookkeeping and consulting firm that grows thriving businesses while investigating new models for being in business.

Recently, Kate took a bit of a detour from how she’s used to building her business, which is 90% referral based and fueled by deep relationship- and community-building. She decided to offer a small group program called the Equitable Business Incubator as a way of exploring anti-capitalist business practices and how they apply to the small businesses we’re building.

To fill the program, Kate need to sell differently.

Which led her to asking the question: Can you even sell things as a anti-capitalist?

While that might not be your specific question, I have a feeling that you too have wondering how you can effectively sell your offers without causing harm, perpetuating harmful systems, or damaging relationships. And that’s why I knew Kate and I needed to explore this topic on the show.

This is a conversation about what a kinder, less harmful sales process could look like—and it probably contains more questions than answers. But I’m confident those questions can help you find the answers that are right for you and the sales system that you want to build to make your business stronger.

We start out by defining what we’re really talking about when we talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism. Then, Kate shares how the Equitable Business Incubator came to be and how she ended up selling it. And then we dig into what makes many of the sales formulas and best practices being taught today problematic—and how to think differently to create your own alternative practices.

Now, let’s take a look at what works for creating less harmful sales systems!

Tara McMullin: I'm Tara McMullin and this is What Works, the show that takes you behind the scenes of how small business owners are building stronger businesses. Now this show is called What Works for a reason. Sometimes it's a declaration, this is what worked for this small business. But often it's a question, what works? Today's episode is very much a question, many questions really. What works when it comes to selling when you want to avoid manipulative or exploitative practices? What works when your values conflict with many of the best practices of selling online, but you still want people to buy your stuff? What works when it comes to sales in a business that is actively anti-racist or anti-capitalist? And even more bluntly, can you even sell things without causing harm or perpetuating harmful systems.

Kate Strathmann is the founder of Wanderwell, a bookkeeping and consulting firm that grows thriving businesses while investigating new models for being in business. Recently Kate took a bit of a detour with how she normally builds her business, which is typically about 90% referral based and fueled by deep relationship and community building. She decided to offer a small group program called the Equitable Business Incubator, as a way of exploring anti-capitalist business practices and how they apply to the small businesses we're building. To fill the program Kate needed to sell differently, which led her to asking the question, "Can you even sell things as an anti-capitalist?" Now while that might not be your specific question, I have a feeling you too have been wondering how you can effectively sell your offers without causing harm, perpetuating harmful systems, or damaging relationships, and that's why I knew Kate and I needed to explore this topic on the show.

This is a conversation about what a kinder, less harmful sales process could look like, and it probably contains more questions than answers, but I'm confident those questions can help you find the answers that are right for you and the sales system that you want to build to make your business stronger. We start out by defining what we're really talking about when we talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism, then Kate shares how the Equitable Business Incubator came to be, and how she ended up selling it. And then we dig into what makes many of the sales formulas and best practices being taught today problematic, and how to think differently to create your own alternative practices. Now, let's take a look at what works for creating less harmful sales systems.

Kate Strathmann, welcome to What Works. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Kate Strathmann: I'm happy to be back.

Tara McMullin: I am happy to have you back, and especially to talk about this very complex, very big, very weird, but awesome topic of capitalism or anti-capitalism and sales. But before we can get to the sales and selling piece, I think that we need to come up with some... or just make sure that everyone's on the same page with some of the language that we're going to be using. And so let's just start off very broadly by answering the question what are we really talking about when we talk about capitalism?

Kate Strathmann: I always like to start most broadly of saying that economic exchange, which is kind of what we're talking about in business, is about getting needs met and that's food and housing and all the way up to self-actualization and taking a meditation class. And capitalism is an economic system that's defined... And I'm drawing from Kim Kelly, who's an awesome labor reporting based in Philly and she wrote a Capitalism 101 article for Teen Vogue that I often send to people, and so I'm kind of paraphrasing her. She talks about capitalism being a system defined by trade industry profits being controlled by private companies instead of by the people whose time and labor powers those companies. You and I are examples of that as we own businesses by ourselves, you own a business and a partnership. We have employees, they don't necessarily share in the profits unless we choose to do something like that.

I think it's helpful also to talk about our current system, particularly in the United States being a flavor that we would called neo-liberal capitalism, and what that really just means simply is that the system wants to extend the market as far as possible. Meaning privatize as many things as it possibly can. So we see that really visibly, and this is so pertinent for right now, in healthcare obviously and what a giant pain in the ass that is to figure out as an employer, especially a small one. One of the key features of capitalism is that it's a linear growth and progress model. Meaning that the goal is to continue growing, to continue accumulating, to use the economic term, and to create as much private capital as possible.

That's how we burn the Amazon, but it's also how we need to get more and more followers on social media and eyeballs and attention, that kind of endless churn. I'd see that as a linear growth point. Then the other key feature that I think people really are seeing, especially this year, is that it's hierarchical and concentrates wealth. In that linear progress, generally that means that things are getting pulled to the top, and so that's how we get Zuckerberg making billions of dollars in a pandemic from openly spreading disinformation and white terrorism. That's really not from his labor. It's not because he did a better job and he got a big bonus because he was super productive himself, that's advertising dollars and data mining and a whole mess of employees that are creating that value for him to benefit from. So I think those are, I think in my mind some of the key sort of features to talk about and I think where people instinctively more and more understand that there's something wrong or that there's something harmful going on, that's where they see it or that's where we're experiencing it going on.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. Yeah, I think you're exactly right in that a lot of people right now, even if they're not familiar with the problems of capitalism specifically, definitely if they're not familiar with anti-capitalism or just even other systems other than capitalism, they do have a sense that something is wrong right now, and not just politically speaking but economically speaking. And all of 2020, not just the pandemic, but everything in the news cycle right now points to something is not right here. And so much money and time and energy has been devoted to a story around capitalism and the free market that this is how we solve problems, this is how we get people taken care of, this is good, good, good. Why is that not the case or why is it not... Is there something good there and if so why is it not all good?

Kate Strathmann: You know I ask this question in the Equitable Business Incubator, which I know we'll talk about in a bit of are there benefits to this? And I think one of them that people point to is choice, like you want to go buy a t-shirt, there's a billion t-shirts out there. I think a lot of times in our imagination we think like Soviet era socialism and it's like everybody's wearing gray t-shirts and that's all that's available. But, so I think choice is one thing, but I would say to answer that though is that we have so much inequality right now and that's a key feature, as I said, in this economic system is that it concentrates wealth, it concentrates power, and so what we're seeing, especially in all the upheaval this year, is there's a real stratification between who's okay and who's not and who has access to care and who doesn't. Who has access to healthcare and who doesn't. Who has access to wealth and can go to their second home. All of those kinds of things are like I think real features of what this economic system has created today that's really problematic and scary.

Tara McMullin: So one of the things that I've had my eyes really opened up to, as my eyes have been opened up to this whole sister system to capitalism, which is white supremacy, is the interplay between white supremacy and capitalism. Although we could spend a whole hour or more on that particular conversation, can you give us just sort of a brief overview of the relationship between white supremacy as a system and capitalism as a system?

Kate Strathmann: Yeah, I'm still working on my three sentence, if that's even possible, of how to even talk about this. We talk about the racial wealth gap between black and white people particularly. That wealth gap is vast and we can look historically there's a direct line from the racial wealth gap today and access to wealth and resources and capital and all of those things, all the way back to slavery and that system of ownership of black bodies. And then how that's been supported through laws and culture that give white people an economic advantage at the expense of black people. And so some of the ways I think we see that play out, I mean again, this could be a whole episode of itself, but when we talk about essential workers versus again, the folks that are making billions of dollars during this economic crisis. The people making billions of dollars are generally white men. When we talk about essential workers a lot of those folks are black and brown people.

That's structural in terms of access to jobs, access to education, resources, all of those things. I'm in Philadelphia. Our rates of business ownership mirror this. Even though population wise I would call Philly a very black city in a lot of ways population wise. Business ownership doesn't reflect that at all, mostly it's white people that own businesses here, and a lot of that's access to capital and resources. And things like generational wealth I think have a big impact on that, so for myself as a white woman I had... There's legacies of entrepreneurship in my family that go back a few generations. I had a uncle business owner with a car dealership business owner that basically funded my college education, and those kind of things they really matter generationally and those are privileges that I have directly from being a white person.

Tara McMullin: I think it's also worth calling out that there is cultural, it's not just economic systems at play, but there's also the cultural systems at play too. So white supremacy has cultural implications and capitalism has cultural implications, and they are very similar, they are very, very similar. I think we'll get into that probably more as we start actually talking about the sales process too, because those sales processes are being built on top of a lot of those cultural foundations too. We're going to talk about how business comes into play in capitalist systems or not capitalist systems, but first, let's talk a little bit about anti-capitalism, what are we talking about when we talk about anti-capitalism?

Kate Strathmann: We can define capitalism pretty clearly. It's harder to define anti-capitalism because we're talking about so many different things, and there's a lot of different discourse and conversations and disagreement and yada, yada, yada. I think the way that I find that's most helpful to think about it is almost like what are the different values that are sort of the antidotes to the kind of harmful values that capitalism holds and the outcomes that it creates from that. And so what are a set of values that would lead us in a different direction? Those are things like solidarity is a really big one. Just the idea that we can mutually meet each others needs, that would be a good thing, and it's not like every man for himself or herself or their self to... I'm not alone in whether I succeed or fail, that that's a collective project.

That's very much an anti-capitalist idea that shows up in a lot of different frameworks and discourses. And in business solutions, when we talk about that more specifically, that's one that I think about a lot. I don't know if there's things that come to mind for you in terms of values or how you've been thinking about this.

Tara McMullin: You know in my business and things that we've done to restructure or how we create value, how we deliver value, and how we exchange value, it's become a much more collaborative, co-creative environment and to me those are really important values that certainly break down some of the systems that are most harmful about capitalism and white supremacy. And then I have found that there's a real anti-institutional thread in my whole life's interests, so whether we're talking about religiousless Christianity and what does faith without church look like, which was my college interest. Or whether we're talking about business and finding what works for you in your business instead of what some institution or guru tells you you should be doing, there's that value as well and I think it's very easy to build a kind of guru institutional type of business in a capitalist system, it's much harder to build a very collaborative, co-creative, anti-institutional business in a capitalist system.

Okay, so lets talk about the role of business. Because I think this is where people start... They understand there are problems with capitalism. They understand that especially right now something feels very wrong and it feels very wrong in an extremely deep and rooted way, and then they say, "But I'm a business owner. Are you saying I have to give up my business? Are you saying I have to give up my livelihood in order to rethink this system?" So from your perspective, can you even have a business in a system other than capitalism?

Kate Strathmann: I think it's real damn hard to own a business and not participate in the economics of capitalism. We're all in the system. I've put this question out a lot in the last six months and on Instagram and just to understand how people are thinking about it, and one of the things that's been most interesting to me is that there's a lot of confusion that just income equals capitalism or having a livelihood equals capitalism. I think those are outcomes of whatever we're doing in a business but they don't necessarily need to happen in a capitalist mechanism. In order to not get bogged down in the semantics of it and like, "Am I a capitalist if I'm a business owner?" I think there was some conversations I've been part of where does a sole member LLC count because you don't have employees? Things like that, and ultimately I think I'm just more interested in what kinds of decisions and repercussions happen as a result of our values.

So rather than getting hung up on whether me personally I'm a capitalist or not, and technically yeah I am. I make assets from labor of other people that I employ. At the same time there are a lot of features in Wanderwell, and this is off topic for today, of how I share power within the organization and will continue to do that. And I think that's one of the key features of how do you understand an anti-capitalist business or start to work in an anti-capitalist manner as a business owner? One of the main features is like well how do you hold power, how do you share power? That can be with customers, clients in the sales process too for sure. And I think some of it's just doing things like being transparent or trying to create structures that address some of the systems that create inequality.

I mean there's been a lot of discourse around anti-racist business practices and how do you grapple with that in different kinds of ownership structures or different kinds of business models? In an explicit way, the whole cooperative movement is about anti-capitalist business and as a main form of economic resistance, that community is doing that.

Tara McMullin: You know, normally when people say, "I don't want to get into the semantics," or, "Not to get lost in the semantics," and I'm like, "But semantics are important," which is why I wanted to start the conversation by kind of defining all right, what are we really talking about when we talk about capitalism? What are we really talking about when we talk about anti-capitalism? I think words and phrases matter, and also one of the things that I do love the most about this conversation is that while we have terms that we can kind of use to loosely signify the different systems that we participate in or don't participate in at different levels.

What you said about choice and the values that you might have slightly different values than I have or you might prioritize different values than I prioritize, but in prioritizing different values than the system we are doing something different and we're resisting, we're pushing back, we're forging new territory in different ways. And I think that's actually really exciting. There's these systems that we participate in and there are so many options that you have for doing things differently in a way that can start to push back on or start to recreate, reenvision an economic system that works better for more people.

I think that kind of leads up pretty well into the Equitable Business Incubator. So you have been kind of putting this work out into the world in different ways over the years, but this summer you put together a program and sold a program called the Equitable Business Incubator. So give us sort of just the quick elevator pitch, I know you have one of those, [crosstalk 00:20:26] for the Equitable Business Incubator and then we'll get into actually kind of how you sold it or how you approached the sales process for it.

Kate Strathmann: So this incubator was bringing together a bunch of different threads of work that I've had for years, and I wanted to create a space, especially in the kind of cauldron of 2020 for folks to really come together and grapple with these alternatives that we've been talking about and what does it mean. Like we're saying in this conversation, I don't have the seven point checklist of when we talk about funnels, I can't make a funnel about this kind of work. It's too messy. One of the things that I've noticed in working with so many business owners and co-ops and people that are trying to do things differently is that there's three interlocking pieces that kind of happen. One is our personal shit around money and how we personally interact with the system. The second is what are the economics we're in, what does that look like, feel like, taste like? Then the third is well then how do we do things differently and how did all those pieces interact?

So this program is put together to really get in there with a group of people and explore all of these topics and think about what alternatives would look like, how do we create different practices, and marry the personal reflection, the analysis and learning with all right, but really I have to show up tomorrow and open my inbox and deal with this shit, so what does that look like? So that was the project, and we just wrapped up yesterday actually.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, yeah.

Kate Strathmann: So this is very timely.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, and I want to kind of call out at this point too that while listeners are really familiar I think with this kind of program model and it may not sound unusual to them that you created something like this and sold it, this is not the business model that you operate in typically.

Kate Strathmann: Right.

Tara McMullin: And for you creating the program and selling the program was something new or newish anyway.

Kate Strathmann: We used to teach and do a different program but that was years ago.

Tara McMullin: So it's not like you had an audience that was used to being sold to, that was used to you making offers like this. This was something a little out of left field. Not unwanted, I know people have been asking you for this sort of thing, but that doesn't mean that it still didn't require a lot of thought and intention on your part. So let's start there. I know you wanted to be very intentional about how you put the program together and how you sold it. What kind of constraints did you put on yourself when it came to how you were going to approach actually selling the incubator?

Kate Strathmann: Yeah, the first part is a lot of my constraints were driven by the kind of experience I wanted to offer people and who I wanted to be in the room. And I think that's an important sort of probably first context. My intention in this played out, like this is how it happened fortunately too is I wanted to really create a space for in depth conversation and that people would really engage and get in there with me. It's not me to broadcasting, it's not just me teaching, it's like I really want people to be engaged and get into the messiness of this kind of conversation. So pressure would not help that. I don't want to trick anybody or pressure anybody that's on the fence to come into the room, like I really wanted the right people there.

You know and I think talking about our money shoved in our businesses and all the conflicts around that, it's not a lighter low engagement kind of thing at all, and so part of I think the constraints were really driven by well I'm not trying to sign up 500 people to my webinar, I want eight to 10 people maybe max in a room of the right kind of people and people that already have some awareness around this kind of stuff and aren't new to business. I think a lot of the constraints were driven by I have a pretty, somewhat specific kind of person in mind and there were people in my community that I knew wanted this kind of thing so I was trying to design it to them.

Tara McMullin: It should be a huge takeaway for people when they're starting to rethink or reapproach what they think about sales and selling in the first place.

Kate Strathmann: Yep.

Tara McMullin: Because a problem I see is people trying to match a kind of program, a kind of offer, a product to sales systems that were designed to sell something else entirely.

Kate Strathmann: Right.

Tara McMullin: Right.

Kate Strathmann: Totally.

Tara McMullin: And so I think a lot of people who are listening would probably love the idea of building a program just for the right people for in depth conversation for eight to 10 folks who already know they want to show up for that, right?

Kate Strathmann: Yep.

Tara McMullin: That's exactly what they want. And yet, then they'll try and build a sales funnel for it. Well the sales funnel is built or designed to create a different kind of experience, for a different kind of product, for a different kind of outcome, and so even if you don't want to say there's something wrong with the sales funnel in the first place, which we can get to, it's not a good fit, right?

Kate Strathmann: Right.

Tara McMullin: And so I think just stopping to say, "What kind of experience do I want to create and who am I creating this experience for?" Is the perfect place to start when it comes to rethinking what your sales process is going to look like.

Kate Strathmann: And honestly it would be really out of integrity with Wanderwell and the business that I've built because we've built an ecosystem of intimacy, which is what I call it. It's very relational, and so if I all of a sudden came out of left field for this, and I only need eight people so it's not like I'm trying to... And I see this a lot in my clients too and I definitely fall prey to this too where you sort of get overwhelmed by needing to reach all of the people in the world and social media really creates this amplification. The way that I ground myself in that is I only need these eight people, and I already know most of them because I've been in conversation with them for a while. And I think that's the other thing that was like maybe just a reminder to myself, which was like I don't need new people. I already have the community, I already know who I want in the room, I don't have to feel any sort of weird certain way because most of the people that took it are folks I've worked with before.

That's actually really great. That means I'm really serving my community and their needs. And so I think that informs a lot of it. And then I would say the other thing is obviously I didn't want to replicate qualities of the system that we're trying to critique. I can say more about this in sort of my oh God, how many emails do I send on the last day moment of wanting to die, but I think the other point that feels important this year is the I was running on fumes while I was putting this together and doing this, which was like June, beginning of July. And this was from the spring and the pandemic and everything. I hadn't had a vacation yet and just didn't have a ton of bandwidth for writing a 20 email funnel sequence. I don't have time for that. Makes me kind of want to throw up thinking about it. Some of it was I need to be really efficient because I'm tired and I want to really conserve my energy for facilitating, leading, and delivering the program, not for generating all of the sales around it.

Tara McMullin: I also want to kind of throw in here too kind of bringing it back to something that we mentioned around values where you prioritize maybe different values than I prioritize, and that you have a particular model that didn't require you to go out and execute some crazy sales system because it just wouldn't have been a right fit for you. On the flip side of that, I have a different model than that and my model only works at a certain kind of scale, and so I do need to be out there growing my audience and I do need to make sure that we're inviting in enough people at any given time, and so I'm going to make different choices around how many emails I send out on the last day and you're going to make. We could argue maybe whether that's good or bad, but I think the point that I want to make is that the way you did it is not the right way because that's the whole conversation we're trying to have here right, is that there isn't a right way.

Kate Strathmann: Right, right.

Tara McMullin: But it's like what are the options? What are your values? What kind of experience are you trying to create and then how do you design a sales process that is true to those things and is still effective? So let's get into the effective piece. Walk us through what the sales process then actually looked like for the Equitable Business Incubator.

Kate Strathmann: Yeah. I had a pretty short sales cycle, and again this was exhaustion, timing, also not wanting to put myself through the nervous system load of a month of doing this stuff, so I think it was really just a couple weeks. And there were a couple things... And it might be good also, because I think you brought this up at the beginning. I did want to, and I had anxiety for sure and was thinking about using this also as an opportunity for growth of audience because I think it would have been a mistake not to. But I realized sort of early on that I didn't necessarily... and I can talk specifically about some of the things I did, but I wanted to reach new people but I didn't necessarily need to sell to them.

Tara McMullin: Oh, that is such a good distinction.

Kate Strathmann: Well for instance, and I'm kind of jumping ahead. One of the things that I did and this is again, efficiency, efficacy, is I created, or I should say my art director girlfriend created some Instagram stuff for me that was really targeted towards you're really into this kind of topic and you might not know about us, but some people that like us. That kind of made awareness people. And I didn't create it for people that already follow us on Instagram, I created it to share or to have other people share. And then I reached out into my network of other business owners and particularly people that reach much larger audiences than I do and was like, "Hey, would you share this and this is the deal and blah, blah, blah," and got a ton of engagement from that and a lot of new followers. It did really, really well.

We don't have, I mean I don't even know off the top of my head, like somewhere between 500 and 600 followers on Instagram. That is not a place I've ever invested in a lot of growth, so that was one thing was kind of keeping in mind the immediate sales that I wanted to make but also can I generate more conversation and get people more in the room for next time or later or whatever. And then the other thing I did to backup is I had a early interest list, and that was either from folks I had talked to directly and I added them manually and was like, "Can I add you to this list," or from website email newsletter signups. So I had like a teaser even before I knew what the thing really was going to be or what the dates were that was like, "I'm doing this thing. You want to know about it?"

So I had a list of I think it was only 20 to 24 people maybe on that list, and I emailed them in a very direct, "Hey, doors are open. Here's the deal, these are the three bullet points of if this would be a good fit for you but I think it is because you're on this list, and I'm going to tell everybody else in the world tomorrow so you get a head start." And so I think I got the first couple signups literally within 15 minutes of that email landing because they were waiting for it obviously, and they were people that I've worked with in depth and know me and my work and that kind of stuff. And that's really soothing to sales anxiety to have that happen, so I think those are kind of like the main things.

Then I guess I'll circle back to the do I send three emails on the last day, am I wanting to throw up and die because I think you were there when a super lovely and wise colleague and I was like, "I need you all to coach me. Please mastermind friends help me to get over all of my mindset bullshit around not wanting to bother people." And I think a lot of people in my sort of default is sit back and chop down a tree and then hope that people five miles away hear it in the forest.

Tara McMullin: Yes.

Kate Strathmann: So part of this was also an exercise in stretching myself and being a little uncomfortable of all right, I'm going to send a couple more emails than I feel like I really want to and try and close some extra seats and that kind of stuff.

Tara McMullin: It's just like what we've been kind of saying here is that there is a scenario where I think sending two or three emails on the last day of a campaign makes sense and is in many ways a kind thing to do, and this is not the thing, right? Or it's probably not that kind of thing, and so again, it's thinking about what's the experience, how do you want people to feel about this? The other thing I really want to call out for people here too is something that you said about... You sent a very direct email to that early interest list, and I think really most of your communication around the... Said it again. Equitable Business Incubator, was very direct and one of the things that we have seen become just incredibly pervasive in online marketing, information marketing in particular, which this program would basically fall into, is indirect communication as a way of manipulating people into recognizing needs that they don't have, or that they don't want to fill right now, or that aren't priorities for them.

You haven't seen this content yet, but I've literally just created content for the network talking about the difference between explicitly asking for the sale versus implicitly asking for the sale versus direct pitches and indirect pitches, and when you use them at different times because there are legitimate reasons why you would use more of an indirect pitch. But largely it's being used to exploit people or manipulate people now, and so I really appreciate you calling out that you were very clear and direct. You asked for this thing, I made this thing, I would like you to buy it now if it's a good fit for you. Here's how to determine whether that's true. And even the content that you created for Instagram I think fell into that category as well. There was content to it, there was sort of a teaching component to it, but in terms of sales content that goes out on the internet it was pretty direct.

It was like if you believe these things or if this is something that you jive with, I made this for you. And I think that's one of those... There's a lot of Seth Godin's work that lately is hitting me in all the wrong ways, but one of the things that I always come back to with him is this idea of I made this for you, being a very genuine but also incredibly effective way to approach sales and marketing in general and that's kind of what I'm hearing all over this is as a way of kind of defining your sales process here.

Kate Strathmann: Well and I think if we go back to sort of the beginnings of this conversation and some of our shared language, there's a way to think about that as pushing back against the sort of linear progress hungry ghost model of like you always need more eyeballs, you need more followers, you need more signups, all of those kind of things. And it's like for me I'm always like, "I don't know that I do at this very moment." And that might change in the future, who knows? The model might shift, at some point I'll have a book out and we'll need more people than the 12 beloveds that I can text about it or whatever.

But I think some of that's really... Operating in the ecosystem that I already have built and I'm already in and the relationships that I've nurtured over the years, and really being okay with that. That I don't need to strive because I'm getting all of those messages everyday, and I definitely had moments in this process where I was like, "Oh God, I'm not doing enough or I'm not reaching enough people or whatever," but I think at the end of the day it just feels better because it's more in alignment and more in integrity with sort of Wanderwell and my work and all of those things.

Tara McMullin: We'll be back with more of this conversation with Kate Strathmann in just a minute. But first, a work from our What Works partners. What Works is brought to you by Mighty Networks. Did somebody say sales? Making the sale gets infinitely easier when your prospects are highly engaged, excited members of your community. When your prospects are members of your community, you can easily keep your brand top of mind, personally nurture the right people, and regularly demonstrate the value you can provide. And Mighty Networks, of course, makes it easy. When you run your brand community on Mighty Networks, not only can you connect with the people most likely to buy your next offer, you can make that offer right inside your network. Mighty Network's premium courses and groups features make it easy to offer higher levels of service as paid offers that increase both the value of what you're offering and your profit margin.

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I look forward to having the conversation with you about growing your audience when the book is... Not when the book is coming out because we need to have that conversation way sooner.

Kate Strathmann: I know.

Tara McMullin: But I look forward to it. Okay, so I don't know how we are 45 minutes into this conversation already, but we need to get to actually talking specifically about some of the practices in the market that are causing harm or have the potential to cause harm. Because again, it's a lot going on here, there's a lot of possibilities, potential opportunities here and there's also some things causing some real harm or having the potential to cause real harm. Let's get into that. One of the words that you often use to describe sort of the bucket all of these things fall into is the squeeze. Tell me what you mean by the squeeze.

Kate Strathmann: There was somebody I was curious about their work recently, and so I signed up for a thing, some free thing, and then was like horrified, even though I should have expected this, that I got bombarded with emails, some of which had countdown timers to what they wanted to sell to people. I think when I say the squeeze, which is my sort of like gestures vaguely in the distance term for all the stuff. It's just like a way to talk about the urgency and the you need this now or you're missing out and the FOMO and the scarcity and all of those kinds of let's create as much anxiety about people missing out as possible.

Almost throw people out of discernment for themselves by using a lot of pressure and I think that term is actually... Some bro marketer came up with it, it's not my term, but of it's like the idea it's like you get people to the end of a funnel and then you push them through the final... I don't know what the right word is but the final little bottleneck.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, I mean we used to call them squeeze pages, right? I don't see that language used very often anymore. We just call them landing pages or there's a sales page, but a squeeze page is a page, whether it's for an opt in or whether it's for a sale where there is literally nothing else you can do but buy or sign up and it is the whole page is designed to squeeze you into that action. And you know, I get part of it, it's like our attention is all over the place, it's really hard to design in a way that gives people options but doesn't then distract them unnecessarily. People just read web pages in unusual ways that we can't predict.

I get the desire to squeeze people towards the action that you want them to take, ideally that is in their best interest to take, but I think where it goes is that it's all about what you want, what you as the marketer or salesperson want, as opposed to what's actually in the best interest of the person on the other end. And for me, when I think about what are the exploitative practices, while there are specific things that I can name or could name, I think it's more the intent behind it that I get a little... Not a little, I get a lot, frustrated with and things that I have certainly fallen into myself, as a marketer and salesperson, which is prioritizing what I want to have happen versus prioritizing what's in the best interest of the person receiving the email, landing on the page, reading the copy, whatever it might be, or even in a live phone call or a live Zoom call where you're going through a sale.

And so for me it's like I'm looking at every single practice, every single technique that I have ever been taught in terms of marketing and sales and saying, "All right, how do I take what's good from this or how do I take what's effective from this, but do it in a way so that it is designed to help people make the best decision for them as opposed to just getting them to do what I want them to do?" It leads you to make some very specific changes. Things like, because I know people are going to be like, "Well what do you mean by that Tara?" Things like I don't build landing pages anymore that don't have outgoing links, so our main sales page still has our fricking navigation at the top of it and there was a time when I would have never done that because the whole point is to get them to buy, right? But what if they want to look at the about page? What if they want to check out the podcast first? There's other things that would actually help them make the sale if they knew... or help me make them make the purchase if they knew they existed, so why not let them see it?

Kate Strathmann: Well and I think there's a control aspect of this.

Tara McMullin: Yes.

Kate Strathmann: Too that I think is really playing out. And it connects to... I know we made notes around lack of consent and what comes to mind for me when it's like the landing page and you've taken all of the context out, people can't go research more, they only get what you give them. Is really what you're trying to do is control the response and the outcome as much as possible, and I would say that's... I think if we go back to what are the values or what's the impetus behind those sets of decisions, it's about growth, it's about profit. Those are all linear growth choices because you only want people to do one thing, which is buy. And you want to tell them what that need is and then you want to fill that need, rather than giving people the agency and the context I think to really identify, discern their own needs, discern whether this is the right choice for them, collaborate with them if it's not and you can change something in your process.

There's a whole other way that I think is mutually respectful to do things, but yeah I think once you were talking it was like, "Oh yeah, control, interesting."

Tara McMullin: Yes. I've enjoyed conversations around consent when it comes to marketing and I think it's really easy to get caught up in the semantics of that, whereas control I think gives us maybe a broader lens to look at the whole system through versus like, "Well did they give me their email address for this purpose or that purpose?" Well okay, that actually may or may not matter, but are you trying to control their next action? Yeah, that's good. I like that, I think people are going to like that. One of the things that often comes up around exploitative or manipulative practices in marketing and sales is the different laws of persuasion. You mentioned scarcity already, that reciprocity is another, the law of liking is another.

Reciprocity is basically like if I put out lots of good free content then you will have to buy from me or you will be incentivized to buy from me. Again it comes down to control. Control is again, such a great lens to look at all of this. So the idea of the law of reciprocity is that yes, if I give you a good webinar and I teach you something, then you are going to be not just more likely to buy because you're more informed, you're going to be more likely to buy because I've given you something and now you feel obligated to give me something in response. And often what I am asking for in response is not an equal exchange to what you have already received.

Now yes, you are giving me that again in exchange for something else, but I think there's something to talk about here in that I don't necessarily think a "lead magnet" or a webinar or any kind of free content, hello this is a free podcast, is a bad thing. But why are you doing it? What is the intent behind it? Is the intent to create that experience of reciprocity and to control the exchange such that people feel obligated to give back to you. Or are you legitimately educating, informing, entertaining people, creating a relationship, and therefore creating the openness to make an offer? It is again, a very semantic difference, it is perhaps just a lot of gray area, but I think that it's worth, as marketers and salespeople, I think it's worth thinking through why we're doing the things that we're doing in the ways that we're doing them for this particular reason but also for many.

Kate Strathmann: Well it's like are you giving people more agency in your process or are you taking away agency in your process by design? And I think a lot of the harmful stuff that we're calling out it's like designed to remove agency and discernment so that people will feel like they have to... They have no other choice but to make the sale or to buy the thing.

Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kate Strathmann: I think that's like when I look at a lot of the practices, that's one of the sort of lenses that I'm looking at is am I creating agency for people, do they really truly feel like it's up to them whether they want to do this thing or not or pay me money? Or do they feel like they have to? It's worth saying that in all of the destabilization of this year, the amount of scarcity that a lot of us are operating under in reality because our businesses have been disruptive or just because that's what the air we're breathing. I think that makes it really hard because sometimes it's hard to be in a non-anxious consensual sales process when your business is on the line.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Kate Strathmann: You know it's like I think these things can get really tricky when our anxiety is around what revenue we need to close are really real. I've definitely felt that, whether it's even just because I feel that or because we really have real revenue needs in our business all the time of course.

Tara McMullin: As I do start thinking about how we're going to wrap this up, knowing that there is so much more that we could talk about, so much more that we can cover, and we will hopefully in future episodes, so if you've got questions, if there's particular things you want us to talk through around these topics on creating businesses that do less harm, that are actively working against systems that are harmful or exploitative or manipulative, let us know. You know where to find me on Instagram, I think. Shoot me a message, I'd love to know what you want to hear more about. Actually where I wanted to go was the difference between actual mindset blocks that we have, things where it's like are you making this decision because you want to be less manipulative and give your buyers greater agency, or are you making this decision because you're scared or you don't want to be an imposition, you don't want to take up space? Because there's so much of this conversation that can be used to reinforce bullshit mental patterns that we have.

Kate Strathmann: Totally, totally.

Tara McMullin: I would love to hear what your response is to that.

Kate Strathmann: Well I think one of my responses to that, or at least what I... I should probably tell this to myself more, at least when I tell clients. Is that like most of us that are asking that question are so far on the end of the spectrum of not doing toxic bullshit stuff, that our fears are sort of unfounded.

Tara McMullin: Yes.

Kate Strathmann: I would have to work really hard and learn a whole bunch of stuff that I have no facility with to create a really toxic marketing campaign I think, and I'd probably do it really badly.

Tara McMullin: You're probably right.

Kate Strathmann: I think that's my first answer. And I think the other one is like slowing down. One of the things I've been thinking about a lot this year, especially in my continued work on anti-racism and white privilege and stuff like that, is whenever I'm most at risk at causing harm I'm in urgency, and that's true every time. And I think that that's when I think about sort of how to discern between how I'm making choices, am I letting my shit get in the way, and all the messages as a queer woman in the world that I take on about not taking up space, which are vast. And I think some of it's just really coming back to ground and slow down and get back into alignment with values and get back into alignment with who am I making this for and all of those kinds of things are at least how I get myself out of those moments, especially in having to sell in a way that I haven't done it in a long time and filling seats and having to be time based.

All my shit came up for sure. I was definitely like, "Oh God, I haven't felt some of these feelings in years." Here they are again, and I think a lot of it was having really good conversations with people that know me well and were like, "No Kate, you'd be doing a disservice to people if you didn't tell them about this thing." And I think also coming back to who am I? What kinds of gifts, knowledge, skills do I bring to the table? What can I add to this conversation? One of the results of that was one of my last emails was about the meta conversation of what does sales look like in the context of an incubator that's looking at anti-capitalism in part? What does that even mean? It's alignment with praxis of what we'll be doing so there's a piece of it that's like, "Well this is also... We'll be having these conversations," but I think that's also who I am and the kind of like how my brain works. So it was authentic to really all of the concerns that we're talking about.

Tara McMullin: It's interesting, you're a little further removed from your sales campaign, literally just wrapped up our last sales campaign on Monday so kind of reflecting on that for myself, there was a meta component to that for me as well. Again, thinking about values, thinking about what I want to prioritize as part of the experience, and for me honesty and transparency and personal reflection are the things that we prioritize so much at What Works. It's part of the podcast, it's part of how the network works, but it's also become an integral part of our marketing and sales process as well. So as opposed to telling people what they need to do or even bringing in a huge teaching component because I'm going through a sales campaign and that's what I got to do, I got to teach people stuff so that they feel obligated to buy from me.

A huge part of that campaign was a personal reflection. These are the things that I've learned. This is why things are structured the way they are. This is why I think this is in your best interest, but even if it's not here's what you can do instead. Here's how you can incorporate these same ideas and still that I made this for you and here's why kind of piece to it. So again, like a campaign of mine that looks very, very different from a campaign of yours because they're different models, those campaigns have different needs, different audiences, different experiences. The bones of it or where it comes from is very similar in thinking through how do I actually demonstrate values that are important and are counter cultural in a lot of ways, or at least in the business world, to create the experience that I want people to have so that then, as you said, so that they have agencies so they have control over their own decisions much more than squeezing them with a countdown timer.

Kate Strathmann: Well and I think it's everything you're saying. It's in alignment with your product and what you're selling, right?

Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kate Strathmann: If you did some squeeze campaign or had a lot of urgent selling, much like I was saying, somebody could get... I could put a lot of pressure and knock someone off the fence they're sitting on to join the incubator and then they'd probably have a terrible experience or it would... There are a couple of folks that I actually steered out of it and could have met revenue goal and didn't because they just weren't the right fit, they weren't in the same stage as the other folks that were in it, and it would have... The conversation would have shifted in a way that I didn't want it to. And I think that's the same thing with a What Works campaign. You're promoting the experience that marketing has to be in integrity with the experience that people are going to find when they get there too, and if they're not the whole thing falls apart.

Tara McMullin: Yeah and I mean I literally had to untangle that for myself over the last three years. It took me a full year of knowing how I wanted the community to operate knowing what I wanted our values to be, trying to make that work to realize that the marketing and sales process that I had developed effectively for years, was completely out of alignment with the product and we were creating the wrong expectations. Even if I wasn't being manipulative or trying to exert control over people, we were just setting people up for the wrong thing and it wasn't working, it just didn't work. And it's amazing to have gotten to a point now where I feel like okay, everything is in alignment and guess what? It works better now and now when people join they get it immediately and they dive right in. It's like holy crap, where was this three years ago?

We feel so much pressure to fall into sales, or to adopt sales processes, sales systems because we tell ourselves, "Oh I'm not a good salesperson, I don't know how to do this so I'll follow someone else's instructions." When it really is an incredibly personal process and it needs to fulfill your values and to be effective at the same time. Okay, we really should wrap things up and I want to give you an opportunity to say anything that you were hoping to get in or excited about that we haven't gotten a chance to touch on yet.

Kate Strathmann: There is one thing that in terms of the urgency and the squeeze, a really beautiful example of how to use that for good that I wanted to offer and incent to you.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Kate Strathmann: Which is my friend, Holly Wren Spaulding who is a poet and teacher, and her business Poetry Forge. It's a community of poets and writers and creatives and she offers a bunch of different programs and classes and that. And she has a program that she runs I think seasonally called 21 Day Poetry Challenge, and back in June, kind of in the midst of uprising, she sent... And it was a Sunday afternoon, cart closes in four hours email, but the pitch was, "Hey, if you've been looking for this experience here it is." The sale was low pressure but the urgency was if you sign up I'm just going to donate everything that comes in from here until close, and I don't remember off the top of my head actually what she donated to, but she named... It's going straight to here, my goal's $1,000, have at it if you want to or not, whatever. And she raised over $4,000.

Tara McMullin: Oh my word.

Kate Strathmann: This was a 21 day mostly email program and I think it's under $300 or $300 range. But I was like, "This is cool. This is such a good use of last minute."

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Kate Strathmann: And I think it was really authentic to how she was feeling that day and in the moment and in the churn of protests and all of that stuff. I wanted to put that out on the world to listeners. You can use urgency and last minute cart closing for good and not just for sales.

Tara McMullin: Yes, I love that. And that's a perfect place to leave things too because while we have really just paddled our way through a whole lot of gray area today, I hope what people take away from it is that it's not that there are certain things that are off limits, it's that there is an intent or yeah, there's a foundational intent that needs to be in the right place and that it's the right place for you and your business and your offer in order to create a sales system that is going to be effective and create the experience that you want for people. And that in doing that we are pushing back against things that are causing real harm and damage in our culture and our society today. And I think that gives us a really amazing opportunity as business owners, in a capitalist system, to do something good without having to give up everything and join a commune.

Kate Strathmann: Well and I think that's maybe another point to land on to just layer on that. I want people to have their oxygen masks on, I want them to have their vacations. I don't want people to not have income or not even to not have robust incomes. I want everybody to be taken care of. This is really a project of can we all meet needs, not I have to get mine taken away from me.

Tara McMullin: Kate, I will ask you the question that I ask everyone at the end of every episode, which is what are you excited about right now?

Kate Strathmann: Well I would be remiss and inept if I didn't say I'm excited about doing the Equitable Business Incubator again. By the time this comes out I will have dates on the website and be enrolling, so that'll start in October again. And again, there is no seven point system to this, but it's been a really robust conversation and I've learned so much and it's just been super fun and I know the folks that have taken it have gotten a lot out of just being in the room with other folks asking these questions and being really honest about what's working, what's not, and the lack of clean easy solutions, as we're grappling with all this stuff.

Tara McMullin: Kate Strathmann thank you so much for this conversation and sharing your experiences and the lifetime of learning that you have done on these subjects.

Kate Strathmann: Thank you Tera.

Tara McMullin: All right, so we barely scratched the surface on this conversation and I'm betting that your brain is swirling with questions, possibilities, and probably some ideas right now. So I wanted to pull out a few ideas from the conversation to give you a jumping off point for thinking about your next steps. One thing that Kate and I came back to over and over again in the conversation was values. What are the values we personally hold? What are the values that are key to the business? And what do those values mean for how we approach sales and selling? Your values, my values, and Kate's values might all be different, but by prioritizing our particular values, we can create a sales system that works for us and does less harm in the ways that are most important to us.

Another idea that I think is key is knowing what you and your business really need. One of the reasons my sales approach differs from Kate's is that the needs of my business are different than the needs of her business. And those needs aren't arbitrary, they're based on what it takes to deliver a great experience to our customers and fulfill our value promises. Consider what your business really needs and what approach to sales is a good fit for those needs before you decide on a particular system or tactic.

Finally, Kate made the incredible observation that so many of the sales tactics that are potentially harmful are about exerting control over the person buying. The tactic is designed to get the recipient to do what we want them to do, instead of creating an experience where we can all make the best decisions for ourselves. Are you trying to control the results of your sales process? Are you trying to engineer your system to guarantee those results? If so, it's probably time to reconsider and create a system that invites exchange instead of controlling it.

Find out more about Kate Strathmann at wanderwellconsulting.com. What Works is produced by Yellow House Media. Our production coordinator is Sean McMullin. This episode was edited by Marty Seefeldt and our production assistants are Kristen Runvik and Lou [Blazer 01:10:02]. Get more of What Works delivered to your inbox every Thursday. I share a letter on building a stronger business and becoming a stronger leader, as well as handpicked resources to help you grow in our free weekly newsletter. Go to explorewhatworks.com/weekly to sign up.

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Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

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