The last couple of days I took a sailing course in the San Juan Islands (Intro to Cruising.) We sailed across Bellingham Bay in a 44′ sailboat and spent the night in a little cove on Lummi island. We were just four students and an instructor and so we all got to know each other. There was a couple on the boat that made their living as apartment landlords.

“How’d you get into that?” I asked them.

“Oh we just sort of fell into it,” the husband replied, “We were flipping houses and had a couple of close friends that were flipping them too. After doing that for awhile, we wondered what it would be like to fix up an apartment complex. So we bought a shabby apartment complex and did it. Our next piece of property was a lot nicer and it just went up from there.”

Right before I hopped onto the boat, we got our first lead under the new positioning for my agency. It’s not a homerun, but still a good fit for us. I didn’t put that much effort into getting that lead. It came from a day’s worth of research and cold outreach.

Four years ago, I tried to position our agency under a different brand name into the same market (member based associations.) It took us two years of effort on a wide variety of marketing tactics before we got our first lead.

I’ve wondered about the differences in the two efforts. The first time around it took two years, this time it took a couple of weeks. Why?

First off, I think we were lucky. I happened to reach out to someone when they were in proximity of a situation where a referral was warranted. And we happened to have some unusual characteristics that made it so that our capabilities eclipsed the need for trust in providing that referral.

Beyond getting lucky, we’re pursuing a referral focused marketing strategy. We’re doing this because of the research I did last summer into agency sales. I researched that because I wanted to understand how most clients hired agencies. The answer was referrals- something we had never pursued.

Four years ago, I tried a lot of tactics that worked well for other businesses. If someone recommended it, we tried it. And saw little return. It wasn’t bad advice, just that we weren’t in those other business’s situations.

In terms of how you approach evolving your capacity, there’s a vast library of knowledge on how you can grow your business. It’s useful and you should learn from others. However, you need to filter and synthesize it through the lens of your experience. You need to both be intentional (learning from others) and responsive (learning from your environment.)

How do you tell when you’re sensitive to your environment?

When someone asks you, “How did you end up doing that?”

And you respond, “Well… we just sort of fell into it.”

Featured image is Boatbuilding at Pacific American Fisheries yard in Bellingham, 1916. Used under public domain.