Growth Marketing

Do You Know the Most Important Question You Need to Answer Before You Try to Sell Anything?

I love the moment of epiphany. That moment when something clicks for you, and in that instant, it goes from a complex theoretical concept to something so clear and simple that it’s hard to remember when you didn’t know it in your bones.

In my 20s, I left a potentially lucrative position on Wall Street to take a job with STSN, a tech startup that had just received funding. This was the mid-90s, so tech startups were getting funding all over the place – but lots of them were burning through their money and crashing spectacularly.

When I joined up, the company was making about $50,000/year in revenues. When I left a few years later, it was doing $60 million in annual revenues. That’s a pretty big jump, by anyone’s standards. And it happened because the company knew how to answer the most important question — the question I’m going to ask you to answer in just a moment.


Before You Can Optimize Your Website, You Have to Optimize Your Employees

Now, like I said, tech startups were getting a lot of funding at the time — and there were a lot of startups around. To entice employees, most of those companies offered a lot of cool perks. You know: ping-pong tournaments, free massages, catered lunches, and whatever else the founders decided was cool enough to inspire people to work for relatively low salaries and the promise of maybe striking it rich at some point down the line.

There are many reasons a lot of those companies aren’t around today, and it all comes down to asking that all-important question.

At STSN, we didn’t have free massages. We definitely didn’t spend our time playing ping-pong. I don’t remember any catered lunches, but I do remember realizing at around 6pm most nights that I hadn’t actually stopped to eat anything that day.

I worked hard — just like everyone around me. I got caught up in my work alongside my colleagues. I didn’t just have a job. I believed in what I was doing. I believed in the company’s vision. I believed that realizing that vision was worth the time and effort I was putting in, day after day. And night after night. In cities that were far from home.

Because what STSN did really well was hire people who did believe in the value of what we were doing. I know that, because on more than one occasion, my colleagues and I slept in actual basement closets in the hotels we serviced in order to ensure a phenomenal customer experience. Why? Because we had a MVP (Minimal Viable Product) that still needed a bit — okay, a lot — of fixing to make perfect.

Trust me, we weren’t sleeping on thin, dusty mattresses for the adventure of it. We weren’t spending nights and weekends away from our families because of the money. We did it because we believed so completely and totally in the company that we were 100 percent committed to giving it absolutely everything we had. We had an emotional connection to STSN. We believed in what we were doing. It wasn’t just a job.


Now, it’s true that we also had a financial interest in the success of STSN, but without the emotional connection, without the belief in what the company was doing, any of us could have walked away to the first startup that offered us a signing bonus. And in the 90s, companies were offering signup bonuses left and right.

Long story short, on one of those nights of sleeping on the floor, in a basement closet of a hotel, waiting for a call from engineering, my mind churning even as my body craved a few hours of sleep, came the moment of epiphany. STSN had asked the most important question, and in the answer to that question, they uncovered their Story — and yes, it’s a capital S, because Story drives growth.

Every employee at STSN believed in the Story the company told. And because we believed in it, our jobs felt less like work, and more like a mission. And because we cared tremendously about what we were doing, we were doing it with passion. And every single customer that we touched could feel, see, hear that same passion. And because of that, the company was growing — exceeding everyone’s expectations and doing amazing things.

Of course, STSN wasn’t exactly curing cancer. We were delivering high-speed broadband Internet service to hotels. I know that not everyone would see the noble pursuit of Internet for all hotel guests as worth their time and effort. But if you had been there to hear my boss describe his vision, the vision that came from asking the critical question, you might well have been swept up, too. Story can drive growth for any company, in any industry, from creating a device that allows users to control any air conditioner from a cell phone, to enabling fee-free Internet payments, to designing a platform that enables artists to sell their wares directly to the public.

As long as you start with the most important question and use the answer to inform your Story, you can create a company that is primed for growth, with employees who view the work they do as much more than a job.

A Solid Digital Marketing Strategy Starts With Story

That moment of epiphany has guided the way I’ve built business ever since. Over the years, that spark – the idea that Story drives growth – has grown into the system I use to grow companies or help companies grow time and again. I’ve seen this system work in companies I’ve started and exited, in companies I’ve consulted with, and in companies I’ve admired from afar.

And I’ve also seen the opposite. I’ve seen what happens to companies that don’t bother to answer the most important question — or that don’t take the time to make sure that their employees believe the answer to that question, or when the answer to the question doesn’t meet the needs and pain points of customers. When that happens, there’s no growth.

When the answer to the most important question — your company’s Story — serves as the core of your digital marketing strategy and your employees are vested in your company’s Story, that’s what I call StoryVesting. It looks a little something (or a lot something, more accurately) like this.

storyvesting framework

On the surface, StoryVesting might seem straightforward. As you dig deeper into it, you’ll discover a wealth of nuances and complexities that bring this business transformation framework to life. I already went through those in another post and even deeper into them in The Growth Code. If you want to really get your hands dirty in this framework, I encourage you to carve out some time to dig into those resources. In the meantime, here’s what you need to know for the sake of this post as it relates to that one critical question.

When your customers’ pain points, needs or wants are completely aligned with your product or service and internal employees can get vested in that alignment, then your customers are more likely to become advocates for your company. They’re ambassadors for your product. They are the champions who defend you on social media, who take their friends to the store to buy what you’re selling, who blog about you and share your coupons on Facebook and so much more.


So what is the most important question you must ask yourself before you try to sell anything? It’s deceptively simple. Ready?

Why do you do what you do?

 Sounds simple? Cliché, perhaps? Guess what: if it were really so simple, no company would ever fail. Every company would experience amazing growth. So… either this approach is wrong or people still haven’t truly internalized the importance of this question

As consumers, we don’t care what you do. Your business could be selling handcrafted jewelry for mothers-to-be, how-to guides for animal photographers, or an app that lets users control their coffee machines from their phones. That’s the what, and what you do is irrelevant right now. Consumers need to know — you need to know — why you do it. And if the only answer you can come up with is to make money, well, then, I probably can’t help you. You might as well click away. Keep spending your money with those fly-by-night Link Building SEO firms that promise huge returns but don’t seem to deliver over the long run. Because until you can clearly articulate why you do what you do, you won’t have StoryVesting, and you won’t have real growth.

The Critical Difference Between Digital Marketing Education and Digital Marketing Agencies

I know that Why is not an easy question to answer. Even worse — it’s a question that only you can answer. You have to dig deep, to put in that time and effort, and get back to the moment when you decided to stop watching Mad Men, give up your nights and weekends, borrow some money, and get this business off the ground. Why did you do it? What was it that you believed, deep in your soul, that made you forgo sleep and leisure time, that had you pacing around your office talking to yourself? Why?

When you figure out the answer to that question, you will feel a surge of energy and excitement. That’s how you know you’re on the right track. Once you have the Why in place, everything you do will be so much easier. Your Why will drive how you do what you do, which will in turn inform what you do.

Let me explain. Why did I start IN THE KNOW and the Podcast, Marketing IN THE KNOW? It’s really simple. I actually love the idea and challenge of driving growth (and not only professionally, either) and I love helping entrepreneurs, small businesses, and modern marketing teams figure out their specific growth puzzle.

Clarifying this purpose in my own mind helped me realize that I wanted to create a something a little different than what I had previously done. The thought of creating a digital marketing education platform — not just a consulting firm — appealed to me at this stage in my life. In other words, I don’t want to keep all this knowledge for myself and charge companies exorbitant prices for sushi. Instead, I want to teach entrepreneurs, teams, and companies how to build and own their growth.

The Why drives the How. I provide online marketing education resources, such as this blog – along with my Podcast, eBook, Webinar, courseware, and in-person marketing training such as Workshops and in-house digital marketing training sessions — to teach companies how to “do digital marketing” right.

Whereas many other digital marketers tell business owners that they must outsource their digital marketing process (at great expense), I teach entrepreneurs, small businesses, and even in-house marketers how to build the People, Processes, and Platforms that will consistently drive growth, no matter what technological changes come down the line — and no matter how many times Google changes its algorithms.


StoryVesting is hard to explain completely in a single post. So I’ve really just scratched the surface here. I’ve got more to say — and I’ll say it, but all in good time. Because StoryVesting is only the first part of the system I have developed and honed over 20 years.


So in my next post, I’ll tell you about the second part of the system: The 3Ps.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What are the biggest questions you have about driving growth? What keeps you up at night? And, of course, Why do you do what you do and what do you want to learn?

  • ike Stranathan
    Posted at 07:39h, 16 August Reply

    Great stuff here. Thanks Buckley for letting us in on some of your trade secrets!

    • Buckley Barlow
      Posted at 03:10h, 17 August Reply

      Ike..appreciate you man!

  • Jasper
    Posted at 00:54h, 17 August Reply

    I like what you said because it gave a reason to come back and read more of your post. I also want to know what drives me and how can I improve my small business. After reading this post made me realize that I still need help and guidance about this.

    • Buckley Barlow
      Posted at 03:08h, 17 August Reply


      Glad I could keep you reading!! 🙂

  • Dipesh Patel
    Posted at 12:42h, 25 August Reply

    Nice, thank for sharing this post.

  • L L Realty
    Posted at 10:29h, 30 December Reply

    Life can be tough at times, you put in the hours of work and only end up with blank stares. You know what I mean? That’s the time posts like this keep me motivated.

    • Buckley Barlow
      Posted at 19:41h, 30 December Reply

      Cool, glad it resonated!

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