Business Nantucket Sleighride

Business Nantucket Sleighride.

As a young boy, I was enthralled with Herman Melville’s book “Moby Dick”. The daring tale of Captain Ahab and his crew hunting the giant albino sperm whale captivated my boyhood imagination.

The island of Nantucket was the home base of the whalers in the novel. My wife and I had the good fortune to visit this beautiful island whilst I was asked to facilitate a strategic planning workshop a few years back. The port is like a time capsule of the 1800s. We imagined how lively the village must have been at the height of the whaling economy, prior to the invention of the electric light bulb.

The local whaling museum depicted a scene of terrified sailors on a whaling longboat hanging on for dear life whilst being taken on a “Nantucket Sleighride”. This term refers to a harpooned whale dragging the whalers’ boat along behind it. The speed of the sleigh ride could reach up to 23 mph (37 km/h) and some powerful species of whale could dive and drag the longboat and its occupants beneath the surface. Once the whale had exhausted its energy, the sailors (if still afloat and alive) would kill the whale and harvest its oil for lighting and heating.

I use the analogy of the Nantucket Sleighride to teach clients about the dangers of not focussing on their target customer. A scenario that can pull you in a direction you never intended to take, and even sink your business if you are not careful.

As I stated in the article, “How to identify your target market customer”, there is only one winning strategy. You need to carefully define your target market customer and then deliver a superior offering that is designed specifically to delight that type of customer.

Your target market customer is the center of the bulls-eye. It’s who you have in mind when you develop your product/service, and who you think of when you create your marketing communications. You create and deliver something remarkable for customers exactly like them.

Beware the great whale.

Imagine you are a B2B company. You have identified your ideal target customer as being a small-medium sized business (SMB); a company of a certain size, structure, and complexity, with a certain number of employees, and with clearly defined needs that your offering is designed to solve in a unique way.

You design your business model to serve these marlin-size clients (SMB), but occasionally a giant whale (large Enterprise) enters your sales funnel. Your staff accountable for revenue generation salivate over the size of this potential catch. The sales commission dollar signs flash before their eyes as they frantically row the longboat after the whale and throw a harpoon. Sometimes the harpoon sticks.

Whoosh! Now your company is being dragged on a Nantucket Sleighride.

Here’s how it often plays out:

  • The whale is bigger and more powerful than your company.
  • The whale pulls you in the direction it wants to go.
  • The whale is more demanding than the target customers your business model is designed to serve
  • The whale expects you to add features and services to cater to its unique needs (features and services that may not be applicable to your ideal target customer)
  • The whale soaks up a disproportionate amount of your product development and customer service resources
  • The whale frequently expresses dissatisfaction with your offering (not surprising as your product/service was not designed for whales in the first place)
  • The whale’s complaints and bullying attitude upsets your frontline staff
  • The whale starts dictating your company’s strategic direction.
  • You react to the whale’s needs, vs carefully choosing the best way to allocate your precious time, money, and resources
  • After being dragged on a wild Nantucket Sleighride over the horizon, you realize that you can’t hold on any longer. You argue whether the whale broke the rope, or whether you cut the rope to save yourselves, but regardless of who broke the relationship off, you are left adrift, tired and exhausted, miles away from where you began

As you nurse your wounds, you remember that guy Stephen Lynch who delivered a strategy workshop to your company once where he said the most important strategic decision is to clearly define who your target customer is, and then focus your resources on building something remarkable for that target customer.

He said you can’t be all things to all people, because strategy requires trade-offs. This means saying yes to some things and no to other things. It also means saying no to some customers, because not every customer is a good customer for your business. The essence of having a strategic plan is choosing what you are not going to do.

It’s a harsh lesson that you just learned the hard way. So you promise yourself that you will never again let a whale tempt you and drag your boat off course.

Thar she blows!

Six months later another huge whale ends up in your sales funnel. Once again the dollar signs flash before your eyes. Someone in the sales team throws a harpoon.

Whoosh! Here we go again…


Until next time…