What does it mean to “Boost” another business?

by cv harquail on February 12, 2014

A few weeks ago I sent my book proposal draft out to a few colleagues to get their feedback on the ideas. [**Trigger alert, for all you academics.]

Asking for other people’s feedback is almost as hard as responding to their feedback, especially when the feedback is surprising.   In this case, I was expecting to hear that the idea of generative organizations was too abstract, or that digital business examples were too niche, or that business readers wouldn’t be interested in the idea of organizations helping each other as part of their own growth strategies.

Instead, while I got encouraging feedback about those issues, one colleague replied:

“The “boost” framing seems too simplistic and unable to carry the message. … I kept asking WHAT does “boost” mean?… “boost” is a limitation. You need to find a better way to brand your breakthrough.

“I kept asking WHAT does “boost” mean?”


iphone boost

Did I leave my core construct undefined? Is it possible that I offered no concrete definition anywhere in the 25 pages of the proposal?

Um, oops.        It turns out that I’d offered all of one sentence to describe what ‘boost’ means.  I must have taken it for granted that the concept was easy to understand, if not from the chapter summaries then from the 10 different examples I’d shared. Shame on me, since the whole point of writing is to convey ideas to the reader, not leave them asking WHAT in all caps.

I’m not quite sure whether the problem is:
— that the concept of practices that help your business and other businesses at the same time is too abstract,
— that the label “boost” doesn’t fit the concept well enough, or
— that the advice to build your business by creating opportunities for other companies is insufficiently breakthrough-y.

Whichever of these it may be, the first challenge is: Can I define this behavior in a way that makes sense (even if I use the term ‘boost’ as a temporary placeholder for a better label)?

Here’s my first take:   ~~~~~~~

As verbs go, “Boosting” is pretty straightforward.

We all know what it means to boost another person, we all know what boosting looks like, and we’ve all done it and had it done for us. We’ve helped someone up a ladder, cheered them from the sidelines, or given them an extra push on a swing. But in a business-to-business context, the idea of boosting someone else’s business seems more complex. It shouldn’t, because the concepts behind boosting are simple.

What Boosting Is

We boost another company when we find a way to execute some part of our business while giving them a hand. That’s the general idea. In practice, boosting can take many forms. 

Companies boost each other when they create opportunities not only for themselves, but also for their business partners and the network they all participate in. We boost another business when we shoot for a 3-way win— a win for them, a win for the system, and a win for us — all from the same business practice.


An Example of Boosting? Etsy’s Home Page

Etsy offers a very simple example of boosting other businesses, by the way that it creates its home page.

Etsy decorates their home page with eye candy. Featured in the center of the page is a grid of twelve beautiful product photographs linked back to the Etsy shop where they can be purchased. Designed to have you submit to temptation, Etsy’s home page aims to build their business by enticing visitors to explore, discover and ultimately to purchase things they hadn’t planned to buy.

Etsy could fill their front page with products selected efficiently through an algorithm that mines their data base for keywords and prices, according to what they want to maximize. Or, Etsy could sell space on the front page to merchants who wanted to pay to promote their stores.  Either method would work to build Etsy’s return business. But, neither method necessarily builds anyone else’s business.

Instead, Etsy uses a boost strategy: They invite members of their community to help cocreate the home page. Members can select a dozen photos of items from other merchants’s stores (not their own) to present them as a curated ‘treasury.

These treasuries are more than an assortment of products; they are a “collection, brought together by a discerning eye, that offers visitors the additional value of an aesthetic point of view.  The twelve items are selected using thick value criteria, not just on who can pay to be featured.  Member-curated selections are lovelier to look at, more exciting to browse, and more tempting to the visitor.  (And I should know, because as an Etsy customer I spend a lot of my online free time surfing these treasuries for… treasures. )

Because each treasury lists the curator’s name with a link back to her store, she gets credit for her contribution and for her taste. Customers now have a better sense of who that merchant is and what her store might offer. They might even surf over to the curator’s online shop.

At the very least, the merchant has enjoyed the chance to explore her taste, be creative, and shout out to other merchants that their products are worth collecting.

Etsy’s strategy for populating their home page with images builds their business, lets the curating merchant display her taste and brand, and helps other merchants connect with each other and be affirmed by their peers.

You can see how this boost strategy helps build business for Etsy, for the Etsy customer, for the curating merchant, and for the merchants whose goods are featured.  It’s layer upon layer of opportunity to create thick value for each other.

(For other examples, see how Justin Beiber invests in the success of his protégées, how LoveWithFood finds audiences for new gourmet products, and how CommunitySourcedCapital helps loan recipients build loyal local audiences.)

What Boost Practices Make Possible for Others

Through simple tweaks to everyday practices we’d do anyway, we can boost other companies by creating several growth opportunities for them at once. For example, we can boost them by helping them:

  • Develop a skill
  • Make a connection with an audience
  • Reinforce a value
  • Demonstrate their brand
  • Give them a chance to try out an idea
  • Get feedback
  • Feel part of things
  • Garner ‘social proof’ that their work matters or fills a need
  • Contribute to a larger goal that matters to them.

Oh, and get a quick shot of revenue, too.

Boosting has an unpredictable payout.

The thing about giving some other company a boost is that you can’t really predict how its going to help them, or even how they’ll take advantage of it. Will that push on the swing make a child squeal? Will it get him to soar harder? Will that nudge up the ladder make it easier for your friend to reach that corner that needs another dab of paint, or will it let her see her work from different vantage point? Will introducing that startup to your accountant help them get their cash flow in hand, or will it help them reduce their tax liability?

Who knows? Either way, your boost has helped them do that they decided was important.

What happens with the boost is up to them, but making the boost happen is up to you.

Boosting creates a space for opportunities to emerge, but what these are and how these emerge is not something you can predict or control.

What Boosting Asks of Your Company

We can create a boost for other businesses by:

  • Extending an invitation, rather than issuing a decree. Your business offers a chance to other companies, but they don’t have to take it. When they do take it, they take it on their own terms.
  • Creating an opportunity for them to experiment without harsh penalties or costs. Your business draws on its own strength to create a somewhat protected, otherwise unavailable space where your partners can try something new.
  • Investing in them rather than only consuming what they have to offer.
  • Empowering them to direct their own growth, instead of controlling them to enhance yours.

What Boosting Gives Back to You

When you give other companies a boost, you can’t expect to get back a direct, tangible, roi-able benefit.

Certainly, you don’t want boosting to cost you money. No one’s asking your business to weaken itself to boost others.  You’ve got to make sure you’re strong enough to push the swing forward, and smart enough not to stand so close you get knocked over on its way back.

At the same time, though, you can’t focus on the financial benefit, because the thick value generated by boosting is too broad to confine to financial metrics. Similarly, the benefits of boosting might not return directly to you. They could take a meandering path through your network and benefit you indirectly though the improved health of your neighbors.

Boosting does generate direct and immediate value for your company, however, by increasing trust, enhancing your  reputation, and letting you experience the delight of being helpful. 

The Challenge of Defining What a “Boost” Is 

If we rely on the outcomes of action to define what ‘boosting’ is,  the concept does become too vague. The outcomes of boosting are too varied, too numerous, too specific to the context, and often too far removed from the space where the action happens to be easy to observe and to attribute back to the practice itself. And we have to be at peace with this.

We can only rely on the intent of our behavior and on our effort to translate this intent into our own practices, which is all that our company can control.

If we want to define ‘boosting’ by the outcomes it achieves for others, we’ll lose. If we want to define boosting by the actual, specific things it gets others to do, we’ll be frustrated. Boosting, and helping in general, is not amenable to that kind of pressurized, concrete definition.

We can’t control what the kid on the swing does with the push we give her. We can’t tell her what to do with it, how to take advantage of it, how to feel about it, or whether to try to sustain the momentum that we– ever so briefly– can offer. We can’t even take credit for what we might have done to help her along.

We can only decide whether we want to try to contribute to her success, and be happy in making the attempt.

~~~ Okay, so that’s a little rambl-y. It’s a start. What do you think? I’d love to know…



Images: Boost iPhone Cover, from iPhone4You on Etsy 

Treasury, feature on Feb 6,  handpicked by jami


Anne Marie McEwan February 26, 2014 at 2:22 am


“We all know what it means to boost another person, we all know what boosting looks like, and we’ve all done it and had it done for us.” – you were the first person to leave a comment on a blog post I wrote when I just started out. I will never forget that and always be thankful.

But you’re right about boosting in a business context. It’s such a grind trying to get a business off the ground. Boost some other business? I haven’t got the energy. Well that was my response when I first read your idea.

I’ve only really understood the Etsy example because I walk with a woman in the village, who’s an artist on Etsy and she has been explaining the extent of the community support she gives and gets from other artists. It sounds inspiring.

This led me to think about who would benefit most from boosting? And who would be most likely to kick off a boosting revolution?

I said this is in my last blog post – “The idea of an organisation as a stand-alone entity is now inconceivable. Businesses are increasingly operating in ‘hive-minds’ of strategic alliances and partnerships to share risks, to access capital or to gain access to knowledge and skills. And they are operating within fast-responding supply networks to deliver customer value.”

So tactical (transactional) boosting among alliances & partnerships might be one – mutual help. I suspect that’s not in the spirit of what you have in mind for boosting. But it’s still an opportunity for boosting behaviour for mutual gain.

It just occurs to me that boosting can be linked to game theory – are you thinking of exploring that? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_theory. Also link to the ‘gamification’ of work?

What about relational boosting? Well, someone we both know gave me an hour of her time yesterday. I am still energised by what she said. A possible competitor? No, a trusted and valued friend. Certainly there are Venn diagram overlaps with what we do and aspire to do – but she is welcome to any insight I might have that could be of any possible use.

Two thoughts come out of that exchange. One is that trust has got to be (in my eyes) a feature of boosting. Otherwise, as my mother used to say, “Do I have mug tattooed on my forehead?” The other is that I am certainly going to be on the lookout for people I can help to boost.

What other current workplace trends might encourage boosting behaviour? Thinking about it, growing-in-power consumers making recommendations is already a form of boosting behaviour.

Or link boosting to the emergence of new forms of networked structures that challenge existing, failing institutional structures? But networked structures involves cooperation and competition – back to game theory, I think.

Maybe more examples beyond Etsy? As I say, I now understand Etsy but only because spoke to someone who explained it to me in person. Or if you do use Etsy, interview some of the artists about what they get out of promoting the interests of possible competitors?

And I think I’ll stop it there. I think you are onto something, CV. It took me a while to get it though.

Fingers crossed for the book proposal!

Anne Marie

Anne Marie McEwan February 26, 2014 at 2:51 am

P.S. This just came into my Twitter stream https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkW6kCzG5n8 Biz Stone saying that altruism is the future of marketing. Boosting = altruism.

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