By Jenny Bridle
(Courtesy of http://www.fasttrack.hk)
Anyone with an entrepreneurial streak may wonder what it would be like to appear on one of those reality shows where start-ups pitch their business ideas to a group of venture capitalists looking for new investments. In several countries, including Canada, the best one of these kinds of shows is called Dragon’s Den.
During each episode, the “Dragons” ask about valuations, sales volume, product placement and advertising, amongst other things. But everyone really has to start at the beginning and answer that time-worn entrepreneur’s “big question”:
What business are you in?
These 5 words seem simple. Surely, if you’re as passionate about your business as you claim, coming up with a short and sweet answer should be straightforward, right? Easier said than done. Several cannot-fail types of companies have gone out of business precisely because their great minds answered this question so poorly. Think Kodak, Blockbuster, and right now, today in North America, many big box retailers who have anchor stores at mega malls and continue to behave as if online shopping is a flash in the pan.
In the Den would-be entrepreneurs attempt to provide their simple and succinct answer, offering up what they believe is the heart and soul of their unique and amazing business idea in a carefully chosen, sometimes nervously spoken, sentence or two. Some, like the darlings of Holy Crap Cereal fame, have a great sellable product and do a masterful job.
Others not so much.
While we may cringe and laugh nervously at ill-conceived ideas and presentations that are painful to watch all of us who call ourselves entrepreneurs should give this a try sometime – answering the big question aloud to people who matter either personally or professionally. What you say and how you say it may surprise you.
For those of us involved in horse racing, how would we do pitching racing in the Den, presenting our “elevator description” of the business we are in?
There are so many challenges to overcome in racing these days not least of which is finding a way to reconcile and unify all the participants. After all, racing is many things — a sports business, an entertainment and/or a lifestyle business, all about regional economic development, agriculture and the breeding industry, funded primarily by gambling and, in some jurisdictions, in part or in whole, by government agencies.
And, when you start to think about how you might answer the question in the Den, you may find, you get to, Hey, isn’t this business trying to be all things to all people? Doesn’t that mean it could end up being nothing to anyone?
Maybe here is where racing gets bogged down: everyone sees it in their own way and, when opinions differ, most seem unable to work toward consensus. Instead, they mirror horses on the track, competing with one another instead of collaborating. In the aftermath of opinions and egos, racing’s direct and indirect competitors are more than happy to pick up the slack and serve existing and potential customers. (A question for another day: why can’t we each come to the racing table with our particular ideas and then all work together for the good of racing?)
When in the Den, it wouldn’t be enough to say, “I’m in the horse racing business,” would it? Imagine the questions the Dragons would ask: What is that? How does horse racing actually make money? How is your business regulated? What kind of marketing are you doing? What about customer segmentation?
Imagine the Dragons’ responses to the answers they would get from some of the current thought leaders of racing. This many followers on Twitter proves we are engaged with our target market. We don’t have exact figures because we don’t have a counting turn style but we know thousands of people came to the track that day. Or, based on our consultants’ million dollar report we are taking such and such a course of action.
And when you start thinking about marketing the business you’re in, it’s not surprising to realize that a lot of what passes for horse racing marketing is doing something so you can be seen to be doing it or merely functional, like putting brown sugar and butter on two pieces of white bread and calling it a sandwich when, even with a pantry that’s close to bare, you know you could at least manage a peanut-butter-and-raspberry-jam-on-twelve-grain masterpiece.
It’s a struggle to decide if the blame should be laid only upon poorly conceived marketing strategies, a lack of good useful research, a creativity void or any number of other factors. A friend has told me that he thinks it’s because racing marketing people are just not smart but maybe the most important cause is at once subtle and obvious. It’s clear that some racing organizations understand and are trying very hard to market their product. For some, maybe that’s part of the problem – you try too hard at something and everyone knows it and in this world of “real moments” where an action or an image captures millions in a heartbeat via Social Media, obvious attempts to “go viral,” plastic surgery, Photoshop is dismissed instantly in the clamour for “authenticity” and “reality.” In horse racing “marketing,” like so many things in life, you can’t “fake it” or you will be found out. And, the consequences now that Social Media appears to be everyone’s main source of information? Haters in a circle game which, if, even noticed by non-racing people, would surely make them think twice about participating as customers/fans.
Here you are getting ready to meet the Dragons. You’ve been over and over your pitch and your answer to the question of the day and now you’re poised, ready to achieve greatness. This is your chance to bring in a group of new investors be they owners, bettors, customers. As you stand there, waiting in the wings for your 15 minutes, you need to be thinking about what the business of horse racing is going to do that’s different from the 80% of businesses that fail in the first 1 – 5 years because they are seeking money before demonstrating they have a product that adds value; because they lack vision and focus, and have a fear of failure; because they have poor business knowledge and are money hungry; and, because they think they can do it all by themselves without outside help.
And, when you come forward to say you are in the horse racing business, you need to say the words with genuine pride while explaining that the business you’re in offers many pathways of opportunity from sports to entertainment to lifestyle to gambling, just to name a few. What you’re looking for, you tell the Dragons, is not so much straight-up financial investment. Horse racing has been around for hundreds of years and, although pundits have been saying it’s dying for at least 75, you believe it is here to stay. What horse racing needs, you say, is more insight into customers and greater marketing savvy, more creative minds and fresh eyes who will actually implement ideas and re-package the racing product more ingeniously, with greater technological integration, for this, the 21st century.