Ditch the Blood Riddled Feeding Frenzy

SHARK FEEDING FRENZY - Marshall Atkinson

So pretend you are a shark.  Swimming silently through the ocean.  Not tweeting about your kid’s soccer practice, but on the lookout for your next meal.  Hunting.  A mile or two away, you sniff some blood in the water.

“Hey, that’s smells like a great snack!”

With an explosive kick from your mighty tail you surge forward toward the carnage.  Hundreds of other sharks are already there, gorging themselves on whatever they can chomp down onto or bite that floats by.  “What the hell” you say to yourself, as you ram through the crowd gnashing your jaws, trying to get a nibble.

And then it’s over.  All the other sharks have gobbled up their dinner and only left you a few unsatisfying bits.  Unsatiated, you circle away hoping for another opportunity.  Soon.

Guess what?  That short, bloody story is the description of your business right now.  You are engaged in battle every day with your competition over the same “meal time” opportunities.  In your industry marketplace everyone just slowly circles around potential customers, hoping for a bite.

The water is red from the carnage of competition.  If only there was a better way.

One of the great things about attending trade shows is you never know when that next great idea will bump into you.  At the recent SGIA Expo in Atlanta I was fortunate to sit on an expert panel with Chris Bernat from Vapor Apparel.  Besides being a Clemson grad, US Army Veteran, and all around funny guy…he’s a pretty smart cookie.

During his time on the panel he referenced a book, “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne.  This short volume was published by the Harvard Business School Press, is fairly easy to read and all around excellent.  When I returned to my hotel room I ordered a copy from Amazon.  You should as well.  Click on the hyperlink above.

Chris’ company, Vapor Apparel, is swimming in deep and miraculously blue water right now.  Why?  He took his company and found an unexplored niche and has developed it into a new market for manufacturing, printing and distributed sublimated apparel.

The premise of the book is that instead of fighting for constant market share in your business, a better approach is the leave the “red water” for “blue water”, which is untouched by anyone.  This means striking out on your own and literally inventing your market.  Just like Chris did.  The trick is to find the opportunity in front of you and recognize it so you can act on it.

The authors cite several examples throughout the book.   The most impactful for me was all about the circus.  You’ve been to the circus before, right?  Clowns, trapeze artists, acrobats, elephants, maybe a tiger or two.  The biggest and most recognizable circus has been Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  There are other circus acts, but they are smaller copies really.  They all have one thing in common though.

That water is pretty red.  They are fighting for the same audience.  Just like you.

How do you innovate a circus?  How do you not only grab the attention of people who like the circus, but other audiences as well…and more importantly charge several times more for a ticket?

Because you know, it’s all about the Benjamins.

You ditch the animals.  You get rid of the hokiness.  You don’t do things in three rings.  Add in some fantastic music, a storyline, more sophistication, huge amounts of dance choreography, and amazing artistic flair.  Now you have Cirque du Soleil.  

Kicking the circus’ butt since it opened.

Instead of trying to grab the same market share as the circus, Cirque du Soleil made “the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers, thereby opening up new and uncontested market space.”

That’s the secret of a Blue Ocean Strategy.  Travel out to virgin waters and create your own market.

So how can you make this idea work for you?  Only you know that.  I certainly can’t hand you that magic.  However, I can give you a few things to chew on and consider so you can discover some different ways of thinking about your business.  

In the book, the authors cite four steps to visualizing a new strategy:

Visual Awakening

Start by comparing your business to your competitors to truly understand your present state.  Be extremely honest with yourself about your company.  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  What about in your marketplace?  What about in similar marketplaces adjacent to yours; could you pull in customers from there?

Do any of these overlap?  Meaning, you have a weakness in your company that could be considered a strength in the marketplace if you resolved it?

For Cirque du Soleil, one weakness that circuses always touted was their showcasing of live animals.  The public has a growing concern over the treatment of animals in the circus; not to mention the ever-growing expenses of feeding, housing and veterinary duties to care for the animals.  Lions, Tigers & Bears…oh my.  By seeing that one “plus” of the circus was actually a weakness, Cirque du Soleil differentiated their product by not featuring live animals in the show.

This is where you can outline where your strategy may need to change. Jot down any ideas and brainstorm.

Visual Exploration

Next, it’s field trip time.  Go out into your marketplace and explore the industry.  What are the alternatives to your product offering?  How are your customers buying or using what you are selling?  You can’t do this from your office.  Get out and talk to your customers.  Also, try to find non-customers and think about ways you might envelope them into what you are selling.

This means boiling down what you observe into tangible ideas you can explore.  Using Cirque du Soleil as our example, they found that people enjoyed the theatrics of the circus.  The atmosphere was fun and different than anything people could normally see daily.  People enjoyed the clowns and acrobats the most.  What they hated was the three rings of action going on simultaneously as it made the experience hard to watch.  This was astonishing as most circuses tout that in their marketing.

So for Cirque du Soleil boiling down the essence of the experience meant keeping the entertainment value with fun clowns and acrobats, and focusing on the atmosphere of dramatic live action.  Enhancing the creativity was important too, as the audiences wanted to escape their daily life and enjoy something new.  Now it’s more Broadway show meets rock concert performed by amazing acrobats and sophisticated, weird clowns.

What you want to search for is your opportunity to change something to make it better and more unique.  Discover the things you need to create.  Find the things that you should change.  Locate the things that you should completely eliminate.

Visual Strategy Fair

Once you have spent a good deal of time researching your present state and your marketplace by doing field research, it’s time to bring that all back and debate the merits of what you’ve discovered.

Your mission is to invent your “to be” strategy that boils everything down based on the insights you’ve gleaned from your observations.  For instance, the Cirque du Soleil team knew the animals were a big concern as they investigated this avenue with the audience.  Years in the industry demonstrated the cost, effort and difficulty of keeping the animals happy and engaged.  They used this knowledge to eliminate this facet from their show.

What in your industry would you eliminate if you could?

Next start pulling all of your ideas together to form a loose strategy map.  This isn’t the fully baked, ready to implement stage.  It’s more of the “I think this might work if we did this” stage.

Then, start discussing it.  Present your new business idea to your internal team.  Your current customers.  Your supply chain.  People you trust.  What are the strong points?  What are the friction points?  What do they love?  What do they hate?

Pull all the feedback you receive and use that to refine your idea to build your best “to be” strategy.  This is going to be a lot of work to get here.  However, what you will be uncovering is some undiscovered truths about what matters to your customers, how you interact with them, and the real direction you should be traveling if you are going to find your Blue Ocean.

Visual Communication

This is the fun part.

Now, take your new idea and compare it to your present business model.  Your job is to clearly communicate the difference between the “old way” and the “new way” by describing your business on one page each.  Here’s how we used to do it.  Here’s how we’re going to do it.

These are going to be distributed to your employees.  It’s important that everything is easily understood and encapsulates your goals and strategy in clear, concise and exact terms.

Once you have defined the new strategy and communicated it to your employees, everything moving forward is about implementation.  The strategy you set becomes the rules that everyone follows to achieve the intended result.  For Cirque du Soleil, this meant purchasing didn’t have to buy tiger food, but instead spent their time shopping for more electric guitars and brightly colored spandex suits.


Does any of this sound interesting to you?  If it does that’s fantastic.  Honestly, it’s a lot of work.  However, if you knuckle down and get your hands dirty exploring some better options and swim free of the red water, you might find that the effort would be worth it.

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson



  • I so enjoying reading your blog, either to reinforce that we are doing some things well and to make us take notice of things we are maybe not doing so well.
    In watching one of your factory tours I noticed that you did not tape your screens at all, we have cut back to one row of tape on the inside, but it looks as if there was something around the inside of the frame, could you share this with me please?
    Sydney, Australia

    • Pamela. First, thanks for reading and commenting!! Glad you are enjoying that blog.
      For the screen taping, we outsource our screen remeshing to a company called Graphic Screen Fashion in Chicago. We use aluminum static frames, and they overglue the frames about two inches on the inside of the frame. After you coat the screen thus firms the barrier you need for the screen with the ink. For the intersection of the frame and the mesh, they apply a special caulk that sticks to both. In combination this allows us to eliminate the use of tape.
      I’m not sure if there is a similar source in your area.
      If you email me to marshall@visualimp.com I’ll shoot you their info. Maybe they can help.

  • Marshall, thank you so much for sharing this insightful blog on how companies can differentiate their products and services. I’ve been involved in the decorated apparel industry for almost 30 years and one of my biggest disappointments is watching how skilled companies are compelled to devalue the products and services they offer, just to stay competitive with other companies in a race to the basement on pricing. The unfortunate thing about garment decorating is that it is a fairly easy process, and a low capital intensive industry to enter.

    As a result there are many people who buy the “silver or gold” package comprising a press, flash cure, dryer and supplies and market themselves as professional screen printers. While some of these new start-up shops are the future of our industry, there are others that operate without a true understanding of their cost of production who unwittingly devalue the products and services of other professional decorated apparel providers.

    Your advice to apparel decorators to seek out a niche where they can create value is a sound strategy that I hope people follow.

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