Your Giant Pumpkin

One of my favorite business books is The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz. It uses the analogy of growing giant pumpkins and applies it to building a business.

The basic idea is to figure out who your best customers or clients are, so you can specifically tailor your business to serving them well. Then ideally you’ll attract more people like them and build a thriving business that’s also a joy to run.

Here’s the key though: To grow a giant pumpkin, you need to pluck the smaller pumpkins off the vine – whichever pumpkins aren’t good candidates for eventually becoming giant ones. Ultimately you want all of the vine’s energy flowing into growing just one pumpkin – the pumpkin that will become your giant one.

Mike suggests actually firing your misaligned customers (i.e. your partial matches), even if it means letting most of your customers go. Then rebuild from whatever is left, even if you only have one or two clients left after purging.

Note that this is similar to Marie Kondo’s strategy of releasing whatever possessions don’t spark joy for you. You could regard The Pumpkin Plan as The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up applied to business. Keep what sparks joy. Let the rest go. Then make sure whatever else you add sparks joy too. It’s about raising your standards and then keeping them high.

When you develop higher standards for the customers you attract, you can focus on building long-term, win-win relationships with them. Such people are delightful to serve. They appreciate what you do for them.

Consider a company you love to deal with. Compare that with a company you hate dealing with. Now flip it around. For the first company, you’re probably an awesome customer, and they may have good reason to want to invest more in a relationship with you. Would you like that too?

For the second company, however, you may be a bad customer for them, and they may be better off repelling you because they can’t actually do a good job of pleasing you. But they may be able to please and delight a different kind of customer. Do you see how that might be possible? A company that sucks for you to deal with might actually be decent or even good for someone else. You may not be a good investment for them, but someone else might.

I think how far you take this frame depends on your type of business and how much work is needed to serve people. With my blog I can serve lots of people who never become paying customers, and I’m fine with that because the Internet makes this very efficient. But since we also offer courses and Conscious Growth Club memberships, I have to be careful about the incoming flow there. If we attract misaligned people into the courses and CGC, it could make the business a hell to run and really slow us down.

Fortunately the nature of my work does a pretty good job of attracting the right people. I’ve published more than 1550 blog posts, so that does a lot of filtering by the nature of the topics. Once they read enough free articles, people are generally pretty good at figuring out if we’re a good match or if we’d be better off going our own separate ways.

When I first started blogging in 2004, I didn’t think about this. But over time I realized that blogging serves to filter for aligned versus misaligned matches. It attracts a pool of people who want to keep investing in a long-term relationship together, and it (sooner or later) repels people who don’t want that.

Occasionally I write articles to deliberately repel certain types of people when it’s pretty obvious that we wouldn’t be good matches for working together long-term. Here are some examples:

  • 10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion – Highly religious people generally don’t make good matches for my business. I’m an ex-Catholic and don’t belong to any religion, and that bothers many of those people who see me as a heathen or heretic or some kind of demon. I know because in my early years of blogging, they used to send me long emails filled with Bible quotes telling my why I was doomed. So partly I wrote that 2008 article to deliberately piss them off and clear them out (which actually worked quite well). I want my business to be built upon mutual respect with the people I serve. People who are too religious don’t respect my open-mindedness and curiosity much, and I don’t have much respect for beliefs built upon layers of goofy nonsense (including the beliefs I was taught when I was younger). Moreover, having a head full of religious dogma really gets in the way of exploring many aspects of personal growth that require open-mindedness and framing flexibility. While I do believe you can be religious and still grow, I’d much rather work with people who’ve outgrown such training wheels and have the maturity to go faster. We don’t really know how this reality actually works at a base level, and we never will, and we need to deal with that intelligently. So I see getting past this clingy, false truth phase as an important prerequisite for getting into the much juicier aspects of personal growth. That said, I’m okay if such people want to keep reading my blog posts, and if a few do become customers from time to time, that’s okay too. But I don’t want my business to cater to their fictions. Some people have actually thanked me for how my work helped them overcome the constraints and limitations of misaligned religious beliefs, and I welcome more customers who want to take that journey too. So that article is also an invitation.
  • How to Be Vegan (and other articles on veganism) – I’ve been vegan for 23+ years, and my wife is a long-term vegan too. We’re ethical vegans, so we see it as unethical to treat animals and their bodies as products for human use. I wasn’t born vegan, so I know what it’s like to live with a very different values system as well. I’m fine having customers with opposing values in this area. But it’s important that they don’t have an issue with my being vegan because these values infuse my business too. For instance, if we did a live event and served food at the event, we’d make sure that all the meals were plant-based. To some people that will be attractive. To others it will be acceptable. But some would resist dealing with that kind of business. If people are too resistant to values that are really important to me, it will create friction in our ability to invest in each other long-term. We’d lose respect for each other. With an online business this friction is lower than it would be under different circumstances, but I still want people to do their part to self-select. If someone has an issue with veganism, they’re unlikely to be a strong long-term match. But someone could still be non-vegan and accepting of my lifestyle and values, and we could still invest powerfully in each other. I am used to interacting with people with different values, and I want to work with people who can handle this as well for our mutual benefit. Moreover, I love attracting fellow vegans as customers, so this filter works well both ways.
  • Please Begone From My Reality, Foul Trump Supporters – Trump supporters are quite possibly the worst mismatches for my business. One of our core principles is truth alignment because truth is a key growth accelerator, and such people are demonstrably far from it, not to mention Trump himself. The whole America First mindset obviously doesn’t mesh well with a global business that attracts readers and customers from all around the world. Imagine what it would do to this community if it were infected with lots of hatred, violent attitudes, ridiculous conspiracy theories, and so much other Trumpian nonsense. This isn’t about politics at all. It’s mostly about basic intelligence. So personally and professionally, I prefer to repel Trump supporters like infected zombies that might bite if they get too close. I don’t want customers that I’d feel inclined to punch (and that many current customers would want to punch too). If I did cater to Trump supporters, they’d eventually piss off many of my very best customers, much like you see certain customers fighting over masks at various retail stores like Costco or Target. I’d rather have a harmonious business that sparks joy. Trump supporters spark nausea.

I think you get the idea.

Since I’m very actively involved in the business (including writing the blog posts, creating the courses, and doing the coaching calls in CGC), it’s important that people are able to accept me personally too, at least well enough to feel good about being customers of my business. I think the best policy here is honesty and openness about what I’m into. So I don’t try to hide my personal interests, including those that will repel some people, like D/s play or open relationships.

Some people will try to make their businesses appeal to as many people as possible by following the rule “Thou shalt not take a stand.” I might be able to grow my business differently if I did that too, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It wouldn’t spark as much joy. And I think my customers and readers would pick up on that too, and it would drag down our relationships.

Consider that if you hold yourself to a higher standard of customers who spark joy for you, you’ll very likely want to engage with and invest more in your business – because you like it. You’ll remove a lot of the friction that many entrepreneurs suffer from. It’s challenging enough to develop and evolve a business with the best customers. You don’t need to inject mixed feelings, doubt, worry, and procrastination to make it harder on yourself. Just think of what it would be like to run a business that attracts mostly Trump supporters, and you’ll get a better idea of how important this is.

Even after three years of doing group coaching calls in Conscious Growth Club, I still look forward to them. The reason is simple – the wonderful people we have inside and the cooperative spirit we create together. We still have our differences, including some hefty debates now and then, but deep down there’s enough alignment that we can work very well together to help each other grow.

A group like CGC is vulnerable and delicate though. It’s hard to create a group like this, and it would be easy to break it. I do my best to make sure that the stream that feeds it isn’t filling up with people who’d ruin what we’ve built.

I often frame my blogging work as writing for current and future CGC members. I primarily write for the giant pumpkins, and a big part of this involves pruning those who’d resist what we’re doing. As I see it, there’s no need for bad blood when that happens – the mismatches are simply someone else’s giant pumpkins.

My web traffic these days is significantly lower today than it was at its peak many years ago, yet my business is doing better than ever. We have zero debt, abundant cash, and solid and stable income streams. There’s a wonderful group of aligned customers who appreciate what we offer and who want more. That’s a really nice place to be, especially during a pandemic when many other businesses aren’t doing so well.

I think it was critical not to try to be all things to all people, such as by writing only fluffy articles that no one could object to. If you want to invite stronger alignment, you have to invite objection too. That’s true both personally and professionally. But the rejections are usually quick and painless. The long-term relationships you build can provide so much mutual benefit over time.

It’s really about impact. A business will be more impactful with some people than with others. If you get duped into dealing with too many mini-pumpkins, you probably won’t have the long-term impact that would really light you up and make you love going to work each day.

You may not really know who your giant pumpkin is when you start. I didn’t. That’s okay. When pumpkins start growing on a vine, you won’t immediately know which ones to prune and which one to keep. Give it time. Pay attention. Look for the serious misalignments, and prune them quickly. Then feed more energy into the candidate pumpkins till a clearer winner emerges.

More generally, pay attention to which aspects of your business spark joy, and invest more in them. And notice which aspects spark nausea, and prune them. This is especially important to do for your customers. Aligned relationships are good for all involved.