Accelerate Your Career Progressing Through Doubling Your Top Line

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My intention on writing this article, while it will talk at length about how to smartly grow top line, is to help you progress your career in the most sustainable way possible. That’s right, the most sustainable way to progress your career is to acquire mastery in growing top line. This is also the way to ensure security of your career. It is not only for commercial professionals such as sales, marketing and business development roles, but also for functional roles such as finance, HR, procurement, etc, if you can acquire yourself experiences on successful collaboration to grow business, it is a guaranteed way to grow your value in the market. Now, that’s just growing your business (which means incrementally like growing 10% or a little bit more), imagine if you can proudly say you double / triple the business or help the business to do so, any smart businessmen will fight over you for sure, because there are not that many professional able to do so. Having said that, there are other way for one to progress your career such as cost leadership or managing up and many people succeed to grow their careers with these strategies but how sustainable would this be if you want your career to grow over two decades and more and one day hope to ascend to top position and stay in top position successfully. Simply said, this is probably the only way. Sometime you may find yourself working in a company that doesn’t appreciate this precious skill you already master, then you need not worry, with this skill and credibility, there will always be other companies who probably smarter and sustainable (can a company whose leaders appreciate more on cost leadership and being managed up succeed in longer term anyway, right ?) who will appreciate you more and where you probably be happier working anyway. Now lets start 2023 with a commitment to either acquire, master some more and build more ‘street credibility’ as accomplished rain maker. So, lets start. 

First thing you have to believe no matter what other people tell you is on business, growth is always coming from top line, in fact, it should be first, second and third priorities or in other words, very high priority. I am not talking about saving cost in gross margin level, but truly growing margin and scale. When business leader mostly talk about cost leadership and then start resorting on cost cutting by percentage, to me it signals that these leaders have no idea how to grow its top line, let alone executing them successfully. It is also signaling these leaders have no clue about their business or resorting on short cut (if they short cut their P&L, God knows what else their shortcutting). Not a great place to work at for sure when the leaders have less or no understanding as well passion to grow their business. 

Now, lets start understanding how to grow top line. There are four ways to deliver fabulous top line growth, which you can also combine to give you explosive growth (that is if you execute them effectively otherwise it will create overload and chaos in the organisation so my first advise always start with one or two to allow the organisation to build the muscle first). They are scale of existing business ( two ways to do it, through new product launches and / or growth of existing segments / products), grow of new businesses through inorganic actions (acquiring businesses that give us adjacent products / segments / locations) and margin improvements. These three are incredibly difficult to ideate and execute but at the same time a measure of accomplishment of leader and commercial team. Truly great businesses will have something out of these three successfully (i.e profitably sustainably) every semester and good ones will have something at least once year. If a business go without any of these three for more than a year, it is truly worrying. Over time, business teams will be able to do it better and the indication is consistent execution of the combo of these, but to be able to do so, the teams and its leaders have to continue to get better at it, stay relevant with the dynamic of market and technology. Reflect when was the last time your company allow or even provide you with relevant development interventions in this space, and when was the last time your leaders talk about what are the relevant skills and where you and your teams are.

Growing scale especially through new products / segments are typically very difficult to achieve successfully so having new product development par excellence is absolutely key and if you can afford, then also having (expensive) R&D capability. One approach is through expanding to adjacent areas, which is adopted by Apple (who started with Iphone, Ipod, Ipad, Airpod, Minipod, etc). The key is to understand what are your adjacent areas and what are the key strength you have (you = business and business teams), that will allow successful expansion to the right adjacent areas. Fashion industry as well as pharmaceutical also adopted adjacent strategy well, but the success you will see depending on the right identification and as well your expansion execution. There are books specifically talks about adjacencies strategy for you to execute well, but what is important to remember is that you need to ensure your core products and processes are already mature sufficiently to embark on adjacent area so you have a strong foundation to expand. Maturity is a range in itself, but at the very least your core product portfolio already reach >10% market share to give you scale as adjacencies requires cash to finance. Additionally you also need to ensure that you have sufficient capability in-house to help with the development. You will have to keep yourself updated with the relevant technology as well and as well hone your ideation skill, it doesn’t matter what is the industry. Read yourself to keep up on this space and talk to people in your industry and beyond. Major area such as raising awareness in sustainability impact many industries, you need to keep up and understand impact to your business and as well your roles in growing the business. Lastly, you can also carve new segments depending what your business in, be it demographics / income / location based or combo. Customer insight is critical to ensure you are carving sizable, profitable and executable segments. New segments that have been created in the past for example modest wear, midstream segment (between value and premium segment), tween and so on. This will be the work of those particularly in marketing and route-to-market but collaboration with sales to validate is critical. 

Another approach you can also consider is partnering with known brand and personality to co-ideate and launch co-branded products that will create excitement to consumers/customers as there is sense of higher value achieved for consumers / customers or alternatively sense of security because you partner with known brands that customer trust or identify with. Of course your brand will need to already have strength to offer collaboration, otherwise it will be a different form of collaboration in which you are paying for the other brand to support yours, which is also a great way to raise awareness. One interesting recent cobrand is Gucci-Adidas, in which both have agenda that the other party can help meet. It help Gucci to strengthen its ‘street cred’ to the segment its trying to target and for Adidas it gives opportunity to differentiate itself from competitors. Adidas truly realized the power of co-brand and so it has started with Balenciaga and Prada, which probably not as successful as Adidas Gucci but it is a learning journey and development of credibility as trustworthy partner. One need to be clear what is the intention to do a co-brand and the structure of the co-brand itself otherwise it will be messy to untangle especially when we choose partner that in the short term may look attractive but in the longer term may impact dangerously. You need to ensure you and your partner investing resources and put together work plan, collaborate in structure manner to ensure succeed – including regular review to evaluate the value gained by both partners and how both can continue to gain values.

Launching new products can also be within the same range (so not adjacent) and also without partner (so no co brand), it can merely be good old fashion understanding and even anticipating the trend or the need of customer and respond with new products. Air dresser by Samsung is an interesting example of launching new variety of washing machine as customers have more and more fragile and complex costume and has less and less time to go out and dry clean these delicate clothes. Electric vehicle of course is another example of launching completely new product and in Indonesia how people go after Ioniq 5 from Hyundai who launch successfully its EV range (and now it seems Genesis is coming soon). Product development team has critical role to identify needs from customer as well as trend captivating customers that business can leverage well. 

Growing scale with existing product portfolio / area / segment means you focus on arising preference through marketing activation and then channel management to increase usage. This is actually very difficult despite it seems like business as usual because customer typically get excited with new products but existing products there is nothing exciting about it. Therefore to ensure the product benefit can be seen as materially benefiting customers with predictable quality, is truly important. Vicks inhaler or La Mer crème are some examples where the product benefit is as such that new people keep trying their product despite it is not a newly launched product although having said that they are not without marketing activation through promotion (of course Vicks and La Mer have different approach in term of marketing). While they are not new products, from time to time they are both get updated for example packaging, variety of product for different segment, etc. Your classical product need to stay relevant. In luxury goods with enduring brand, this is especially held true. If you observe for example Lady Dior, they have so many variety in size, finish and color sometime we forgot it is still a Lady Dior bag. It is the same with automotive, BMW series 5 have so many refresh in design and functionality within more than 5 years you will see nearly entirely new style. Refresh of classical core products is a must even when it is still selling well. 

Lastly promotion to sustain preference is critical as customer may get bored, have reduced ability to purchase during bust cycle or experiencing shift in preference as they go through changes in their life (Pandemic is a great example of major change in people life that impact purchasing profile). Another way is having brand ambassadors to raise your product awareness and / or preference. Selecting brand ambassadors require meticulous homework, you need to ask question on what does your product or brand need and whether the ambassadors can give you that. Leveraging famous people to just say ‘pick this brand’ at best will only work short time and can sometime backfire. They have to have the right values your brand has, they need to be able to embody the values and benefit on their daily life without seemingly awkward, they preferably have platform your brand can be placed. You will need to negotiate the best exposure required from your brand ambassadors and evaluate their effectiveness. Some worth a lot of monies but readiness for such strong brand ambassadors is key otherwise you will miss out, partnership between BTS and Mc Donald is one example where the interest to brand generated very strongly. Funnily enough, it doesn’t generate the same with some other merchandise. 

Another way to grow your top line is by buying yourself top line through mergers and / or acquistions. You can buy scale (location for example) or segment or products / services or customers. Growing inorganically is something you cannot bootstrap yourself, you have to have enough cash. Valuation is fickle and this require negotiation. Larger companies are better at this and if you are working on one of these larger companies and has mandate to buy market share or profitability (buying profitability especially by buying higher quality / premium brand for example), then you need to do your home work to ensure valuation is thorough and you plan well integration.There is a reason why many of M&A end up in M&A graveyard and unable to be monetized, integration is hard and valuation more often than not is over what the value supposed to be – by far. Understanding and catering the needs of the owners of your target is important and it increase the success of your acquisition, and if you work in multinational companies and M&A is handled out of country, you will need to ensure a lot of work to ensure your M&A people truly understand and responding the needs of the owner and building trust toward mutual gain, while ensuring fair and just process for both.

Margin has strong relationship with scale. If margin differential is minimal to competitors and at the same time there is measurable brand strength, it means margin differential is negative, or in other words, you price your products cheaper than competitors (and missing out in values) – then the question is even after you sacrifice the values from available value pool, whether your business successfully gain market share from competitors. The more premium the brand and the quality the higher the market share should be acquired in this case especially when you position your price similar to your lower level competitor (in term of brand strength for example). Most of the time, this step is tactical and strategic error and need fixing.

The only way for you to regain the value once you acquire market share is to increase margin (i.e price specifically) but this requires negotiation and offer development and delivery par excellence. Offer must be customized for customer B2B while for B2C must be segment based to appeal to personalization feel, stickiness will make customer / consumer less sensitive because it is worth paying. Negotiation will be based on combination of relationship depth, need met and competitive pricing – whether B2B or B2C. Ability to create relationship through activations, communications, engagements – will be fertile soil for growing relationship and gaining insight on customer / consumer hot buttons and needs. Offer personalization creates further stickiness because the needs met and anticipated. Just like any relationship, to avoid boredom and to meet changing needs, new product must be launched several times during the year especially if you are addressing more than one segment. While product launch is about growing scale, it can also help lift the margin especially if you are launching higher margin products. Launching higher margin product is about meeting the need of those with higher ability to purchase as well as those with exclusiveness / meeting more difficult needs, it is often related to technology upgrade or higher quality but that doesn’t have to be the case all the time, it can also be the immediacy or availability of the offer. 

Now all the steps above is about accelerating growth, but to then double top line successfully, you need to understand which steps will give you ‘multiples’ growth. Double down. Simple example is to open new and sizable segment allow you to leap, Simple example is to open new and sizable segment allow you to leap, launching new products that is in tune with current trend is another one, very smart compelling promotion (well executed of course), is another way. It is your leaders job to sift through permutations of actions toward doubling your business however, there should be nothing to stop you to help your leader to identify the opportunities. If your first idea gives you 10%, don’t despair, we all start somewhere and then work ourselves toward higher growth, learn why your ideas don’t give you multiple and remember to apply the learning the next time. Typically the opportunity to double or more comes from area where there is none or difficult to break through, many people say it is difficult or not profitable or not accessible. When people say something like that, it usually means people have not yet figured out how to break through and break through profitably. It is your opportunity to break through. My personal ‘secret sauce’ of growth is effective collaboration with functional professionals with keen commercial mindset. My functional partners helped me to ensure I spend effectively and profitably, recruit the right people in record time, find me the right financing partners who are invested in my growth story, develop one-of-a-kind best-in-class development intervention, negotiate very hard to get me the best supply chain service at the right quality (that enchant my customers), and so on. Everyone need to work toward the same growth goal and keen to develop themselves to be accomplished professional and courageously breakthrough on many segments and products we did not think possible. It is also about being very detailed, very intentional, very structured in the execution. It is at the end of the day, about winning in the execution.

These are some reflections on doubling top line successfully, there are many books that deep dive each area and even overall that can help you to understand even better. Some examples are books about sales or marketing but also biographies about companies. One of my current favorite is biography on Tencent (which I review also here). Successfully growing top line requires years of practice but if you are good at it, there is guarantee your values in the market is a cut above the rest. It is not easy but to miss out trying to grow your skill, is to miss out golden opportunities to be the very best that you can be. You need to practice by participating in your company’s initiatives to improve top line, if it doesn’t yield enough, it is ok, just keep at it year on year. 

I caution if your role too far from top line, people may not be honest with you that these roles have very slim opportunities to progress, because somebody has to do these roles too. Of course, if it is conscious choice then it is ok. Having said that, most roles impact top lines, beyond sales and business development roles. Roles like marketing is for sure also. 

But roles like finance, HR, Procurement, PR – these are roles that impact companies ability to grow and double top line for sure. Finance people who advocate cost cutting without understanding how it will hurt top line just because they are after cost leadership or HR people who focus on transactional HR tasks, for sure are not only not enabling the business to grow, but hurting the business in longer term. For functional professionals, most important is to ask questions to the commercial teams to help and enable them to accelerate profitable top line. It is about investing in the right area, recruiting and developing the right talents, developing the right partners profitably and lastly delivering the right and compelling narrative to the stakeholders, these are critical elements of growth. 

My advise as you read my article, think about what skills you lack or need strengthening so you can truly master the art and skill of growing and even doubling top line profitably. Ask your line manager or invest in yourself for these skills by reading, participating in initiatives, taking classroom and importantly get a role as much as possible close to top line. Don’t be afraid to take commercial role, do a stint. It is good for your career. Do not forget to include the experience to grow top line in your CV, it should be front and center where people can read them immediately. Make sure that you put together structured narrative to highlight your success but also to share the learning. Whenever you succeed in doubling or more top line, in addition to make sure it is in your CV (and these days it is LinkedIn), try to share your experience with others, write and talk about it so others benefit and you build your brand. Even when you are happy at your current company, try to calibrate your market value regularly by talking to other companies. Companies who talked to you will equally benefit as much as you benefit as you learn from each other (not the confidential area of course). 

All the best and do let me know your experience on doubling top line.

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