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Election time. Job creation time. Your time.

As I sat in the Montana House District 3 candidate forum last night at Discovery Square, my angle on “fixing” the economy was reinforced repeatedly.

As the candidates talked about the predominant concerns people have these days (jobs, the economy, taxes, education, roads) and, on rare occasion, the things that only politicians seem to care about, they only reinforced what I’ve said previously about the role of government (and the people) when it comes to economic development.

It’s on you. This isn’t their failing, it’s reality.

While there’s no question that the candidates care, and that they as representatives have some ability to impact job creation and retention – their most important role for entrepreneurs, small business owners and their employees comes as connectors and roadblock eliminators.

It’s one reason why I’d like to see them all on Twitter, Facebook or whatever. Not because it gives them yet another mechanism for spouting the party line (how most Congress members use it), but because it gives them the ability – in real time – to say “Hey, I just saw this opportunity”.

Serving that role as a connector might be all the kickstart a community’s economic development needs. Do your rep(s) and Senators connect or just spout?

The reality

I’ve made it clear before that I believe it’s your responsibility to fix your economy. By doing so, you’ll help others fix theirs.

Legislation doesn’t create sustainable jobs. The exceptions to that (like the stimulus) are temporary and require state or Federal money, a finite resource.

To me, a sustainable job creates value for the employer that they can profit from, pays a wage that doesn’t require a responsible person to work two jobs, and doesn’t end when the road, bridge or what not is completed.

Even if they *could* create sustainable jobs, our state house (much like your state or provincial government) has way too many other things to fix – and by that, I mean things they have the ability to address – for them to focus primarily on creating jobs.

I feel their job is to grease the skids. To make it easier for people to start a business. To make it easier to hire employees. To make it easier for communities to transform themselves.

Not to do it for them.

The forum

At a candidate forum where no one yelled and screamed (thank you CFalls), in a year when people ought to be showing incredibly high interest in who will spend four months in Helena next year, I counted 50 people in attendance in a room that has historically proven to hold 300.

Of those, probably 20 were candidates or their family members/friends. There were a few students there, some of whom were present and former students of the forum’s moderator, CFHS’ 10-time state champion speech/debate coach Mike Christensen.

Despite this, I think the forum was quite a success. The questions from the audience were quite good. But still, I wish more folks had been there.

Tax, tax, baby

There were plenty of references to Montana’s oft-reviled business equipment tax. Frequently, candidates spoke of a holiday from it (as an incentive to bring a business to the valley) or of eliminating it altogether.

But one wanted to keep it to discourage replacing people (and thus jobs) with automated equipment.

This is a short-sighted argument even for a third-world country, much less a U.S. state with smart, hard-working people like Montana.

Across the street from Plum Creek in CFalls, there’s a semi-trailer with the names of closed mills painted on the side. How many of those ignored technology and automation advances?

Look, I know that log supply, environmental issues and other things were involved, but I also know that modernization left some of them unable to compete in a price-sensitive commoditized market. Add all those other issues and the results are predictable here just like they are for Blockbuster, who filed bankruptcy this week.

Avoiding automation of (in particular) mundane, repetitive work is a really bad idea. Employees should be adding value to the company’s products and services whenever possible, or their jobs will always be in more jeopardy than the jobs of employees that DO add value.

Make better jobs, not just more of them

Automated equipment completes tasks that 20 years ago were performed by employees, which reduces costs. I’m not insensitive enough to miss that this means jobs and thus impacts on family and community. But how sustainable are those jobs when the company ignores competitive advantages?

Automation / technology has to be a strategic focus for manufacturers these days.

When companies replace jobs with equipment, it should also result in better, higher-value jobs in most cases. Getting rid of industry knowledge by getting rid of employees (rather than giving them a better job) wastes all of the investment you made in those people.

But it isn’t just the responsibility of the employer. Employees need to keep up. The more valuable you make yourself, the more likely you will be prepared to take on different responsibilities when your employer’s world (and thus your world) changes.

Bottom line, it takes two. I suggest you take the lead, no matter which one you are.

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Every job is a sales job

One of the unsung business assets of the area where I live is a customer service training program called “Montana Superhost”.

In the old country, er I mean a few years ago, the program cost $15-25 per trainee. The last time I saw a course offered , it was *free*.

Why every session of this course isn’t overflowing with people is a mystery to me. People should be lined up out the door as if someone is giving away iPads or fresh crispy bacon or something.

Even if they do start charging a fee, you’d be nuts not to send your entire staff – and *especially* the newbies and temporary summer employees.

It only takes one

Yes, even your temporary summer employees. In fact, ESPECIALLY those folks.

It might seem like a waste to pay them for their time at Superhost training (yes, you should) and the course fee (if any)- but I suggest that it isn’t waste at all.

No matter what every tourist season customer spends at your business, all it takes is one untrained, unfriendly (and/or surly, uncaring etc) employee to prevent that customer and their family from returning.

But that isn’t the worst part.

The worst part is that they’ll tell 10 of their friends about the experience (market research has shown that bad experiences are related to 10 people, good experiences are related to 3).

It doesn’t take much study to see the value of this investment, especially for those businesses with a lot of first-time public-facing employees.

Old man take a look at me now

About six years ago, I sorta dragged my then-15 year old son to Superhost training one summer morning. My interest was in seeing what was being taught so I’d know whether to advise customers to send their people to take the course.

He came away with a few lessons that have repeatedly paid off in every job he’s held.

I think Superhost should be taught a few evenings a year at every high school.

While the course varies a little from year to year, I’ve found that the training is definitely worth the investment of time and money for every staffer you have.

With money tight this summer and your employees perhaps being a little older than normal due to employment levels, you might be tempted not to provide customer service training for your staff.

Don’t make that mistake. Your employees might be under a little more pressure than normal due to their employment situation. A spouse might be out of work. It’s easy to get distracted when things at home are tense.

Training of this nature goes a long way to assuring the kind of consistent customer experience that brings people back again and again, plus it makes your employees (permanent or not) more valuable to your business.

That’s a critical concept, because the impact of their job reaches far beyond what they might think.

A few years earlier…

Many years ago, I was sitting in a course when the group was asked about the impact of attitude on a customer’s experience.

Specifically, the question was about why it mattered what attitude someone uses when working with customers.

In an almost mockingly depressing Droopy Dog kind of tone, I said “Because every job is a sales job”.

The instructor detected the point of my tone and asked me to repeat myself.

This time, I said “Because every job is a sales job” in a freakishly effervescent, pleasant tone of voice – again with the intention of making the opposite end of same point.


From the occasionally snarky customer service person having a bad day to the kindest delivery person, from the nicest hotel concierge to the annoying little computer tech support person with no patience for anyone who calls to report a bug, the interactions of any and all of these people has a substantial impact on your sales.

Bigger than you might realize. Big enough to run off every customer they work with, if left unchecked.

It’s not at all uncommon for staffers who don’t typically interact with the public, or don’t *want* to because they have work duties that require no customer interaction mixed with duties that do require regular customer interaction (bad combination for what should be obvious reasons).

Some of them don’t recognize that fact, because they haven’t been trained to recognize the value of their behavior to every customer whose paths they cross.

It’s your job to make sure they HAVE been trained…because their job IS a sales job, no matter what they do.

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Situational Ethics: Don’t go there

She sells seashells: the extended inventory
Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya

The probably not-so-old joke goes something like this: “There are two kinds of people: those who break people into two groups and those who don’t.”

When it comes to business ethics, there’s usually a pretty clear definition of the line between these two groups: the unethical and the accidentally unethical.

The accidentally unethical will stumble now and then and make a mistake that, in many cases, they didn’t even realize was a problem.

These folks are the reason why even the most jaded person needs to start by giving these situations a second look or a benefit of the doubt prior to dropping the hammer. Sometimes, you’ll find that easing into these situations will work to your advantage. You can always get serious about things after you gather more information.

The Wild West

I had just that situation occur a few years ago. Back in the wild west days of the internet, I found out that a competitor was using my product name in his web site’s keywords – something that no ethical website designer or business owner would do.

This is a problem for the same reason that I can’t put “Goodyear tires” on a sign in front of my tire business if I don’t sell Goodyear tires. It’s misleading and it uses someone else’s trade names to attract business to my business. Not only is this unethical / wrong / slimy, but in most cases it’s illegal.

Plus it really ticks off customers who pull in wanting a pair of Goodyear Eagle GTs only to find that you sell nothing but Chinese-made retreads.

Back to the story. When I first found this website, I was angry about it. This was back in the days when website keywords mattered a lot more than they do now and I was in the middle of the “climbing to altitude” phase of my business – fighting for every inch and not interested in giving any of it back to a thief.

But…something inside told me to tread softly, so I called the guy in Michigan and explained the situation. He sounded sincere when he explained that he didn’t know that it was illegal to use my business name and product name in his website keywords.

Note: In most countries, it’s ok to use a competitor’s brand and name when comparing your product / service to theirs. It’s not cool to use them in ways to “game the system”. We’ll skip the details and geeky stuff for now.

The twist

As I explained the problem to the guy using my trade names, he got it and agreed to remove the terms from his website…and then a funny thing happened.

He offered to sell his business to me.

At the time, he was my biggest competitor. If we lost a sale to someone at that time, more often than not, it was to this guy.

And yes, of course I jumped on it. Not only was it a chance to take over a sizable chunk of the market, it made us that much stronger.

The gravy: the guy was well-liked in the business, so his enthusiasm about getting out of the business and selling it to someone who would treat his customers properly gave us a nice word-of-mouth boost.

The other kind

I don’t mind competitors. You shouldn’t either – they make us all better.

In fact, several of the local ones are friends and we refer business to each other.

Unfortunately, a couple of them – and one in particular – has shown that he is the other sort of unethical person. The kind that knows it and doesn’t care if you catch them at it.

More recently, I came across someone locally who was using the byline of this blog to advertise his marketing business.

When I called him on the fact that it was uncool to use my byline (he’s copied my business slogan to promote his business), he was unapologetic and refused to stop, claiming he somehow randomly arrived at the same slogan despite never seeing my blog or hearing of me.

Yeah. I got that same story from the Easter bunny and Santa too.

Kinda makes you wonder how he treats his customers, doesn’t it?

The Genie

You find these situations in business, politics and your personal life – and they seem to become more prevalent as a situation becomes more challenging / desperate (like the tough economy many are experiencing now). Almost without exception they will come back to bite you. Don’t let tough times tempt you into doing something like this.

A friend of mine has a saying that fits these situations well: “When you move on, the only thing you leave behind is your reputation.”

That’s a genie that you can’t get back into the bottle.

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Real business owners aren’t scared

Kick Butt
Creative Commons License photo credit: Teeejayy

While live-blogging the US Chamber of Commerce Small Business Summit, Brad Peck (US Chamber of Commerce official Twitter blogger) said this during Joe Scarborough‘s talk:

Somewhat annoyed by the “scared” comment, I responded with this:

I don’t know a single business owner that’s scared.

Annoyed? Sure. Aggravated? Sure.

But scared? Not. A. Single. One.

Thankfully, Brad understood. I say thankfully because I would wonder if he has any business working at the US CoC if he actually *believed* what Scarborough said.

I don’t believe for one minute that an entrepreneur would decide not to start a business because someone in Washington was talking about new taxes.

Do I think new taxes make business people happy? Of course not. But scared? No way.

Hand-wringing by the numbers

What you have to keep in mind when reading Scarborough’s quote is that he is a politician and a TV talking head. My guess is that his speech’s goal is to stir people up about government intervention, regulation, taxation in order to boost TV ratings, get votes or whatever.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Except (and here’s where I can predict the comments) that I really don’t worry about those things on a day to day basis.

Sure, I’m aggravated by higher taxes, especially when they arrive in the same wagon with government waste. And yes, it annoys me when a politician votes for final passage of idiotic legislation and then later speaks as if they are an opponent of the law (eg: Rehberg on the CPSIA is a fine example).

BUT…I don’t sit around wringing my hands about it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The best “revenge” is success.

While you might get some satisfaction out of passing your competitor on the street and waving at them from the driver’s seat of your new F350 or 911 Cabriolet, that’s really not what I mean. I don’t mean revenge against them, your favorite tax entity or anyone else in particular.

The real revenge is being successful enough to do *exactly* what you want to do – and none of that has anything to do with fear of what happens in Washington.

Real satisfaction

If you observe people like Bill Gates (and you should), you’ll find that the big screen movie theater in his home might give him enjoyment, but wiping out polio via his $350MM+ donation to Rotary is what really gets him excited. Likewise his efforts in the sustainable energy business (see more on that at

No one – including Bill Gates – likes paying taxes. Like you, he’d rather use that money for something else.

Here’s a suggestion: Worry about making more gross so you have more net than you need.

More net than you need means that you can do the things you always wanted to do, including helping folks that you always wanted to help. Or maybe it just means a new boat. Whatever.

It isn’t always about that million dollar donation or the new bass boat. Little things mean a lot.

Small favors

For example, when my Scout troop goes camping once a month, we don’t cook on Friday night. Everyone brings a sandwich or eats before they leave home. We cook Saturday and Sunday.

Before I arrive, I typically buy a footlong sandwich and save half because most trips, one of the guys will have forgotten dinner, gotten it creamed by a wayward backpack, dropped in the mud or some such.

The why and how really doesn’t matter.

While you might consider lecturing the boy on “Be Prepared” (and yes, we will talk), what matters to me is the look on the face of a kid who just got a half a lukewarm meatball sub, when he thought he was going to go to bed hungry because of an accident.

Gates could do the same to Rotary. He could lecture them about what they’ve done wrong in the home stretch of their 25+ year polio battle. Instead, he gave them a pot of money (with conditions) to make it happen and when he saw how they used it, the next pile came without conditions because they had earned his trust.

Trust is a measure of success as well.

Control and the flip side of taxes

I’m sure many will read this wrong, but I’m going to say it anyway: I *want* to pay more taxes (all else being equal) than my competitors, because I want to do more, earn more and create more business for my clients.

The more good you’ve positioned yourself to do (as a business person), the more taxes you’ll pay. Part of that hurts, but it sure beats not paying any because you’re in the red.

If the government puts a regulation in place that impacts one of my clients, I enjoy spending time (and earning fees, of course) helping them profit *despite* the regulation, while their competition sits around and whines about it, writes a letter to the Daily Bugle complaining about it and then fades slowly out of business because they whined rather than working.

The point is that real business people don’t have the luxury of sitting around and hand-wringing (or teeth gnashing) about what Washington DC or Helena are up to – only talking heads like Morning Joe have that luxury.

Work like you’re scared

With very few exceptions, folks in Washington are gonna do what they’re gonna do.

Don’t get me wrong – I strongly believe that you should make every effort to right the wrongs (if not fix them in advance), but that’s isn’t enough. In addition, you’d better be working twice as smart /hard as everyone else in your market in the meantime.

All of the stuff that government does affects us, but we have a lot more control than most of us believe. If our businesses kick butt and take names, the government’s so-called “efforts to scare us” are mostly irrelevant.

Work, don’t whine.

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iPads important to Montana tourism? HaHaHaHa, RIGHT.

Wild Goose Island and Saint Mary Lake
Creative Commons License photo credit: RTPeat

After reading yesterday’s comments about iPads and your business, if you own a business in Montana, you might have shrugged, rolled your eyes and thought “Yeah, but this is Montana”.

Long-time readers know that comment sends me to the stratosphere in a hurry.

So what made you think that?

It might be that “only” 600 were connected to the internet (for the first time) in Montana in the first week.

It might be that we don’t have decent GSM service, despite what the postcard-tossing guy on TV says. You’re right, we dont…yet.

That seems pretty wimpy compared to other states. It’s almost not worth bothering with, ya think?

Think about this instead

Around 3.5 million people visited Yellowstone last year.

Around 2.3 million people visited Glacier Park last year.

I don’t have to tell you which states they come from. You already know.

Can you afford to be invisible (or less visible than your competitor) to the “mobile, connected affluent” among that population?

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Who I follow on Twitter – and Why

I‘ll likely start updating this list with a new post every week or 3, but you have to start somewhere.

I follow…

@ElijahManor because he always has amazing jQuery (and related webdev) links.

@MatthewRayScott for a couple of reasons. He not only makes my marketing head twitch, but he has a sense of humor that resonates with mine.

@WriterAM because she’s a Rotarian who talks about dog sledding and airplanes. What else do you need to know?

@outsideHilary because she’s a local, but also because I enjoy the combination of craziness at the Outside Media office and watching her work her PR magic on Twitter.

And of course, props to @ChrisBrogan for suggesting this was a far better way of talking about folks on Twitter whether they challenge your thoughts, engage you in thought/conversation or simply because you enjoy listening to their wisdom. All the reasons are right on target. And of course, for prompting better thoughts on ways to engage clients, prospects and folks you want have a convo with.

More next time. Enjoy.

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Driving Miss Daisy… at 6000 mph

You might be aware that the Google Fiber for Communities applications are due Friday.

And yeah, I’m a little annoyed about it.

See, I watched the “big city” media interview local internet providers in Bozeman and Missoula and managed to avoid throwing shoes at my monitor as I listened to their management universally declare that there was more than enough bandwidth in place already.

This self-serving response came when they were asked to react to the Google Fiber applications filed by Bozeman and Missoula.

This Google project has communities all over the U.S. applying to be one (or more, perhaps) of the lucky communities where Google will install one *gigabit* internet service.

Once built, it won’t be free, but it’s a little crazy to think about what that kind of bandwidth would mean to business, education, industry and so on.

One gigabit internet service. One billion bits per second.

Currently, I use Bresnan’s 15mb/second (15mb down, much much less up). Given that 10 years ago, we were on dialup here in Columbia Falls, things could definitely be worse.

On the other hand, to listen to these people say “we have all we need” makes me want to trade their regular coffee for Folger’s.

100 times

Google’s fiber is supposed to be roughly 100 times faster than the average best speed (across all local providers here) that you can get now.

If I could safely drive the 140 or so miles to Missoula 100 times faster than I do now, I could get there in 15 minutes. Would that change the economy of your area? Probably.

BUT that’s really only 10 times faster.

At 100 times faster, I could be in Missoula in slightly more than 90 seconds and Billings or Seattle in less than 5 minutes. Thanks Dr. Porsche!

The obvious question

“What would you do with that kind of bandwidth? You can’t even use it all.”

Yeah and all I need is 640 meg of RAM, right Mr. Gates?

Horse biscuits.

So what *would* I do with all that bandwidth?

Here are a few people who’d impacted by it: radiologists, remote medical clinics, telecommuting programmers, doctors (especially remote ones), graphic artists, video editors and other creative types, corporate educators, K-12 and other educators, among others.

Oh and maybe something related to that health care bill a few people have been talking about.

If you take that bill and you shake the business out of it, you’ll find a massive pile of programming projects and medical technology opportunities.

Remember how things changed when “everyone” could afford a refrigerator?

Consider that effectively removing (for now, at least) the impact on work and more importantly, the design thought process, if bandwidth constraints were no longer a design consideration. Kinda like someone inventing a cheap fridge and giving it to a caveman.


Maybe we’d eventually be overrun with geeks, but you know what else we’d be overrun with?

Jobs. Someone has to manage the geeks. Someone has to feed them. Sell them a car. Run their servers. Plow their parking lots. Build their homes. Teach their kids. Pour their beer. Serve their meals. Drive their families to the airport. Do their taxes. Divorce them. Marry them. And so on.

Oddly enough, situations like this tend to mushroom. Some of those people quit the companies that brought them here and start something more important (to them, and maybe to us).

If it seems like a long shot, consider what happens if the community that gets that service happens to compete with 6 (or 60) of the best / biggest / strongest / most innovative employers in your area.

Or with you.

Suddenly, that community is the hottest thing going. It’s in the news. Confidence there soars. Home prices start to rise, allowing upside down homeowners to get out if they want. Everyone wants to move their business there. All that stuff.

Coulda been your town.

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Earn trust or destroy it? Your choice

Creative Commons License photo credit: aturkus

Millions of people depend on Gmail.

Sometimes it goes down unexpectedly.

Not long ago, people all over the world were “freaking out” and saying the F word (“Fail”) because Gmail was down.

In addition to numerous posts via Twitter and other social media, here’s how Google communicated a problem when they had a major downtime (their description – the downtime was not quite 2 hours).

Think about how your business responds when there’s a problem.

Do you keep it under your hat?

Do you update your clientele frequently so they remain calm, even if things aren’t going so well.

When things aren’t going so hot, it quite often ends up being more important how you communicate with your clientele when there’s a problem.

Here’s an example that’s a bit more serious.

It got worse for the business because they handled communication poorly.


A few months back, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) suddenly started buying (or trying to buy) pieces of track-side real estate in Whitefish MT (a resort/ski community in Northwest Montana) and Somers, MT (a lakeside resort area not far south of Whitefish).

No reason was given for the sudden interest in track-side land but people started talking. Conspiracy theories were abundant.

Here’s an excerpt from an early newspaper column about BNSF’s behavior:

Burlington Northern Sante Fe is up to something. The railroad giant has approached property owners in Whitefish and Somers, offering to buy their land. No one knows why, exactly, not even those who have been asked to sell. And BNSF isnâ??t talking â?? leaving entire neighborhoods apprehensive…

Eventually, residents got wind of BNSF approaching their neighbors and started asking questions. BNSF was mum about it, not even talking details with those they offered to buy out.

As a result, the residents made the natural move – they got attorneys.

Feeling the heat, BNSF decided to admit what was going on, albeit a bit too late to avoid looking a bit slimy.

By then, the tone had been set. Lying until you get caught is how things were gonna work, even if they were “only” lies of omission.

Coming clean only works in your favor when you do it upfront.

Without Grace

Not unlike W.R. Grace’s behavior in Libby MT (which echoed its earlier behavior in Woburn MA including lying to the EPA about their chemical use), BNSF had set the stage such that nothing they said was going to be trusted.

Before long, the EPA got involved and now BNSF has to do things the hard and likely more expensive way. Just like Grace, at least in Woburn.

While the BNSF and Grace situations are substantially more serious than a mere 100 minutes of Gmail downtime, that really isn’t the point.


The point is that there are two choices: Communicate in a manner that generates trust, or communicate in a manner that destroys it.

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Business Code of the West

Kinda stands on its own, doesn’t it?

It’s what customers want and expect, but in many cases they’ve become accustomed to much less.

Use it as a starting point and deliver no less.

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Free, Seth, Malcolm and Reinvention

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If you haven’t gotten a free copy of Chris Anderson’s Free by now, you didn’t try hard enough.

The free ebook versions were pulled off the net recently, but a little Googling will still reward you if you look at the publisher’s site. Likewise, the free audiobook version of Free is still on iTunes (a 6 hour+ listen).

While I’m planning on commenting further about Free in future posts, reading what Seth said about the whole Free thing has provoked me to comment a little early about it.

In particular, his response to Malcolm Gladwell’s comments about Free got me going, especially given that I read it not long after posting last week’s Beacon column about the news business.

During the dustup between Malcolm, Chris and Seth, Seth says this: “People will not pay for yesterday’s news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance.”

When you describe a newspaper that way, it sure sounds quaint and outdated, if not irrelevant.

How can your business/product/service be described to make it sound like that?

While “people will not pay” might not be 100% true today, that day is rapidly approaching as my parent’s generation ages. Of course, people also might not pay for it online. Figuring out how to make it work is the premise of Free.

We’ll talk more about the strategy of Free (or not) in the coming weeks, so in the meantime, do your homework: take a listen (or read) Chris Anderson’s Free and consider how it might reinvent your business, or at least, impact it.

You may not be in the newspaper business, but the reinvention of your business is just as important to you and Free might help you figure it out.

Should you give it away?

If you have trouble with ideas on this, think about what would be most painful if your strongest competitor started giving it away. Likewise, what would pain that competitor the most if you gave it away? It’s a place to start the thought process and might even identify a new value proposition for your business.

All of this is less about free and more about finding a way to reinvent your business. Not necessarily because your business is broken, but because strategic reinvention before you need it beats the crud out of reinvention focused on survival.