Sunday, July 30, 2023

Michelin for Barbers

Haircuts could be more science than art.

Every few weeks I get to reincarnate myself. I sit in a swivel chair, they pull up my ‘profile’, read out some numbers, and get to work sculpting my hair. After a while, I don my glasses and look in the mirror for damage control measures against the perceptions with which I’ll leave those I meet over the next few weeks.

I wish that besides reading out trimmer guard sizes they would also have a silhouette of my head. I even tried showing screen shots of a TV interview where I felt the cameras had captured two angles of my best haircut, yet no barber was able to replicate that.

We live in a world that transacts on a foundation of perceptions. You can choose the clothes you wear. You can choose the kind of smile you want to wear and where you can (and cannot) smile. You can practice your speaking style. You may even have the foresight to choose the right kind of vehicle to drive in because you are often judged by what you drive. However, the way you wear your hair is rarely in your control.

First impressions tend to last, and leaving a critical component of first impressions to chance seems shortsighted in an age where a realtor can virtually stage a home to help us visualize an empty room, a meteorologist can predict the weather for us, but hair stylists can’t predict or help us visualize the hair style they will deliver for us.

Haircuts are considered more art than science. Social media foments the image of a barber as an artist, and every head of hair as their canvas.

My grandfather had the same barber for years. The backyard barber, Gangaram got to decide how Grandpa must present himself to the world. His haircut used to be consistent month after month. Not everyone has the luxury of providing patronage to the same barber or hair stylist for a lifetime. Time available to spend on a barber’s chair is another constraint.

Just as the Michelin tire company created the Michelin ratings for restaurants, there may be an opportunity for, say, Monster ratings or LinkedIn ratings to create a rating system for barbers, rating them similar to Michelin – on quality, mastery of style and hair-styling techniques, personality of the barber, a balanced haircut, and consistency between visits.

When I observe how I can take a key and replicate it in a kiosk on a blank at the touch of a button, it makes me wonder if the haircut industry will embrace technology beyond having a scheduling app or an app to log the tools used by a stylist. Once a digital map of one’s head pre- and post-haircut is ready, it is probably a matter of time before we see a helmet-like device or kiosk pre-configured to give us that consistently perfect haircut. Meanwhile, that Monster-star or LinkedIn-star barber would work.

Small business, of medicine


If small businesses can surf on a community’s patronage, so can medical practices.

In a perfect world, physicians will attend to patients, give or prescribe medicines, and set the patients back on track to health. However, within the practice of medicine, lies the business of medicine. Learning how to navigate the business of medicine ultimately determines the success of a doctor and the satisfaction of the patient.

In the business of medicine, the principles of a profit-making business apply even though the care of fellow humans is best driven not by profit motive, but by altruism commonly associated with non-profit organizations. Non-profit is misunderstood as an endeavor that does need not profits. Even non-profits need to be profitable for self-sustenance.

Running a successful business (including the business of medicine) requires survival, and therefore, positive cash flow.

The challenge with being in the business of medicine is that doctors have fewer hours to spend healing patients. Electronic medical records software, if designed by patients, would have allowed for less staring into a computer by doctors and more eye contact with patients. When the initial or primary care of patients gets bogged down in systems it gives rise to a complex layer of administrative support. The success of a medical practice depends on both, bedside manners, and whether the administrative layer acts as a buffer for both, the doctors and patients, while removing bottlenecks in cash flow.

There may be business models worth exploring for certain service-based medical practices that entail low capital investment.

One model that comes to mind is that of a Chinese restaurant. Often, small towns across America have great Chinese restaurants thriving in a symbiotic relationship with the community they serve. The food is affordable, served hot and fresh, and they are open year-round, even on holidays. They accept cash payments, or for a little extra, credit cards. They probably have zero hurdles in their cashflow pipeline.

A good way to test the waters is in rural areas that could use more local doctors. If a rural medical practice is perceived as a small business that supports a community, and vice versa, whether with cash or in kind (assuming, comedian-ophthalmologist Dr. William E. Flanary’s YouTube alter ego Dr. Glaucomflecken’s skit on rural medicine is to be believed), there may indeed exist a viable patronage model for the small business of medicine. Perhaps, a thousand households in a community could directly fund and sustain a thriving medical practice. Noteworthy also, is renowned author-surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande’s description of a hospitalist in rural India who deftly and swiftly handles multiple medical issues of the local population, supported by the pharmacist across the street.

Such a local doctor could also use a small business’ marketing playbook and become a household name in a community.

The first step is for a community to accept the fact that a medical practice is in the business of doing good, but also one that must remain viable as a small business.

Picture credit: Photo by NCI on Unsplash

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Selling Sleep


Picture credit: Elizabeth Lies on Unsplash

Mattress makers may be giving themselves reasons to lose sleep with their marketing.

They say a clear conscience guarantees sound sleep. I’ve seen laborers sleeping soundly on a piece of cloth spread across rocky surfaces after a day’s work in the hot sun. I have seen perfectly healthy people toss and turn on the plushest of mattresses. Sleep is complicated. Mattresses need not be.

Mattresses are getting commoditized, thus giving rise to brand marketing. Ever since mattresses started becoming brands, there seems to be a struggle for differentiation.

Mattress marketing is getting increasingly complex in its messaging. Some mattress brands emphasize how a mattress conforms to the contours of the human body on it. Some use the imagery of the spine and the risks to health from bad sleeping postures. Some brands sell shopping and shipping conveniences. Other brands highlight their product’s construction similar to how automobile tire companies try to sell their products based on superior technology and cross-sectional pictures. Mattress brands also wade into couples therapy territory with a tailored feel to each half of a mattress.

The more complex the messaging, the harder it becomes for a buyer to be surefooted about a mattress.

In other words, the more marketing dollars used to promote mattresses, the more complex the messaging gets, and the more difficult it will become for mattress companies to sell. The last thing that the greatest mattress companies want to deal with is the analysis paralysis of confused consumers.

From a consumer's point of view, some introspection might help mattress makers position themselves for a higher trajectory in marketing. Some questions might help.

Can a mattress manufacturer follow the model of Gilette’s razor blades? Innovate on the mattress toppers and accessories, something that can be changed out every few years with more innovative versions.

Can the mattress manufacturer reposition itself as a productivity tool? After all, a good night’s sleep is not the end but the means to an end; a good night’s sleep ensures a more productive day and a better quality of life.

Could home builders add mattresses and furniture to their offering because, after all, a mattress needs a bed, which in turn needs a room?

Can a mattress company create complementary product lines for incremental uses, from dorm rooms to sleeping under the stars, much like apparel brands that allow for mix and match combinations and accessories?

Can a mattress brand be positioned as a wellness product or a medical product?

Can a mattress manufacturer become a sleep-and-sensory-experiential offering instead of a one-off product sale?

Would it help a mattress manufacturer to strip away all the marketing noise about its value proposition and instead focus on stories of sleep deprivation? In sleep deprived cultures, would such messaging bring greater clarity about the need for the product and create brand gratitude?

Addressing these questions while crafting a marketing strategy might help mattress makers think bigger. After all, they are selling something precious and priceless – sound sleep.

The Slow Gym


Physical therapists can transform the fitness industry with preventative services.

“You’d be surprised at the number of patients I see for injuries they sustained in a gym, even with a personal trainer,” said the physical therapist who underwent years of training in the medical field and is considered a purist for relying more on hands than on equipment to treat injuries. After an injury while dancing at an Indian wedding, I not only gained a new gait, but also insights into the business of physical therapy.

The facility was equipped very much like a gym, but largely underutilized. This was a physical therapy clinic, but it was also a business. The physical therapist had to worry about marketing, cash flows, and a lease, alongside customer satisfaction.

Another physical therapist at a university, a Ph.D., didn’t have those worries. She brought in research papers to explain how the body works to her college athlete patients. Yet another physical therapy office had mostly elderly patients. For all practical purposes, the place looked like a busy gym in slow motion due to its rehabilitative purpose – a slow gym. Slow gyms, like Slow TV, the Norwegian television channel which broadcasts several hours of views from a running train, serve a niche audience. A physical therapy center must go beyond its niche audience.

Typically, one thinks of a physical therapist only for rehabilitation after an injury or surgery; there is a stigma attached. They don’t permeate popular culture, something that personal trainers have done since the Jan Fonda era. Peloton gets celebrity trainers to keep its subscribers hooked. Social media’s audio-visual convenience allows individual physical trainers to build a massive following. Chris Heria has close to 5 million followers. We even see solo fitness instructors at parks leading small groups of followers. ‘Future’, an app, makes markets for personal trainers allowing for subscribers to get one-on-one lessons via live video. Subscribers’ progress gets tracked on a complimentary Apple Watch.

The market seems primed for physical fitness. Viral marketing tools abound. Gyms allow us to pay a subscription fee to feel less guilty about not working out regularly. Physical trainers push their sweaty customers to the sound of pulsating music.

In the midst of this fitness frenzy, physical therapy practitioners are left behind. Even when exercising the wrong way causes injuries, chiropractors get a call, but physical therapists remain an afterthought.

Physical therapists must eliminate the stigma of being something for the injured or the elderly and expand into physical fitness by promoting preventative maintenance of human mobility. Physical therapists could try:

  • Subscription based models for access to a physical therapy expertise.
  • Training camps for personal fitness instructors.
  • Extended hours to utilize the capacity of a physical therapy center after patient hours.
  • Partnerships with gyms and fitness instructors as distribution channels or affiliates.
  • Building a cool personal brand online.

Lastly, advocacy groups must make slow gym into a movement by enlisting the help of athletes, soldiers, and movie stars – maybe even Jane Fonda.