Do the easy stuff first

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Remember before starting a math test, your teacher would remind you to do the easy problems first? To go all the way through the test, noting the questions you're confident about, and doing those ones before the harder ones.

They'd say, “You'll end up with a better mark because you got 80% of the questions right, and didn't spend the entire hour banging your head against a problem you won't be able to answer.”

I don't know about you, but I never took that advice. I attended a normal public school and felt I was reasonably intelligent, so I figured there wouldn't be a problem on there I wouldn't be able to solve. They wouldn't give out a test with questions that were impossible to solve by a reasonably intelligent student.

So I did the questions in order, and if I got to a hard one, I'd work at it for a while, and eventually skip on to the next one if I seemed to be spending too much time on it.

I did okay on most tests. Sometimes I'd ace them and sometimes I'd barely pass. But I never really changed my system. Always tackling the problems sequentially, and skipping the odd one if necessary.

It wasn't until I had advised hundreds of clients about marketing that I realized why this lesson was so important. And I think it's equally important to analyze why I was wrong.

 First, my assumptions:

  1. That I'm reasonably intelligent
  2. All problems on the test are solvable

The first assumption is irrelevant. Intelligence doesn't matter on a test—study and preparation matter most. The least intelligent kid in the class can do better on a test if they study and prepare more than the most intelligent kid who didn't pay attention all semester. In fact, assuming I was intelligent led me to skip studying a lot of tests, and my marks, unsurprisingly, suffered.

In the second part, that all problems are solvable. For some reason, I had always assumed a failure to answer a question was necessarily a failure on the part of the student. But sometimes problems are worded incorrectly, or the material isn't covered accurately.

My previous assumptions can be quite similar to one's assumptions about marketing. Intelligence, quick wittedness, and a strong will might do more harm than good—confidence should come from competence, not blind faith in oneself. For example, a less aggressive competitor may easily beat you if they know more about marketing. Intelligence alone may not guide you away from a pitfall that's clear to someone who's surveyed the terrain.

In marketing it's important to realize that not all problems are solvable—there are variables we'll never discover, and context and unstated premises that will always remain opaque. Or, they may be solvable, but you don't have enough time—the allotted hour is running out (or your financial runway or release schedule).

So why do the easy problems first? Because the test isn't fair, and you should tackle the things you have confidence in because you have competence in that area. Getting a higher mark—and doing successful marketing—comes from getting as many wins as possible, not solving the hardest problems. Stubbornly working on a problem you'll never solve isn't virtuous, it's irresponsible.

Another thing I only recently realized about testing applies to marketing, too: getting a series of answers right—making progress—gives you the extra confidence and the extra insight you need to tackle the harder problems later.

So what do I mean by easy problems?

Most practically, do things like:

Get your email signatures looking professional day one. You'll feel like more of a company and you'll find designing your new ad campaign just a tiny bit easier because you’ve already made some design decisions.

Fix your business cards. Have someone professionally design them, and print them on nicer stock. You'll feel more confident giving them out, so you'll give out more. And you'll likely use some of the design inspiration on future projects.

Set up your social media accounts and post a few things on each before you work on your first major initiative. You'll have made important decisions about tone and aesthetic that you'll be able to reuse when the stakes are higher.

On the strategy side, if there are already people buying your product, try selling more of it to them before trying to "grow the pie." Too many marketing plans and creative briefs talk about getting more customers but say nothing about getting current customers to buy more.

There are people who already want what you're selling, and you know that because they're buying from a competitor. Getting them to try your product is an easier problem to solve than getting someone who's completely unaware of your industry to enter the market. They may only be buying from your competitor because they didn't know an alternative existed.

Don't build your marketing around an ad campaign. Too many businesses say this way too often: “We need to finish the new ad campaign before we can do that, because we'll need them to tie together.” No, you don't. You need your website to look and work better today, not when your campaign's done. You need to remove your ugly, old logo from your email signatures as soon as you’ve designed the new one, not when the campaign to launch the new “identity” is ready. If it needs a campaign to support it, it's a bad logo.

Lastly, training your customer service team is more important than advertising. Retaining customers is cheaper than creating new ones.

Doing the easy problems first, above all, forces you to decide. Waiting until you've solved the hard problems can keep you from having to make any decisions at all. But as U. S. Grant said, “Anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong, we shall soon find out and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.”

So do the easy problems first. Get as many wins on the board as you can. The harder problems become easier as you go.

I wish I'd learned that lesson back in high school, but that's the great thing about marketing, and life: the best time to do the right thing may have already passed, but the second best time is always right now.