Business Blasphemy, and Why You Should Embrace It

Some of you may have heard of the experiment, done back in 1967:

Five monkeys are placed in a room. A banana is suspended from the ceiling, with a ladder underneath it. Naturally, a monkey attempts to retrieve the banana. As soon as it makes a move to do so, all of the monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water. When a second monkey tries to retrieve the banana, again, the researcher sprays all of the monkeys with ice-cold water. This process is repeated until all of the monkeys learn that if they go for the ladder, they’ll all be sprayed.

One of the monkeys is then removed from the room, and a new monkey is introduced. The new monkey naturally immediately goes for the banana, only to find that he is physically restrained by the other monkeys. They effectively beat him up. The new monkey learns that if you go for the banana, you get beat up.

Another new monkey is brought in, to replace one of the monkeys that knows about the cold water. That new monkey goes for the banana, and the other four monkeys (one of whom has never been sprayed with cold water) beat up the monkey.

The process is repeated, where a new monkey is brought in, attempts to retrieve the banana, and is taught that if you do so, you’ll be beat up.

In the end, all of the monkeys present will physically restrain each other from retrieving the banana, but none of them were ever sprayed with cold water. None of them know the original reason for preventing other monkeys from retrieving the banana.

What do I take from this experiment? That the default “we’ve always done it this way” should be questioned frequently, and honestly. You don’t question the default for its own sake. You question the default because it can make your business stand out.

What’s Your Business Religion?

Can you look inside your own business and identify parts that are your business religion? Are your products always launched the same way? Is your marketing only ever done online? Have you only ever marketed to a specific demographic? Are you religiously attached to certain features of your product that are more technical debt than intentional improvement?

Or, thinking about your business religion on the process side of things: Do you have your one go-to place for hiring new team members? Do you attend the same industry conferences every year? Do you always give the same holiday gifts? Is Friday always casual? Is your executive meeting always weekly? Do your clients always pay you the same way?

We all have some business religion. We have things we do because we’ve always done it that way. I think we may be beating up on monkeys for no reason. Here’s where we’re headed:

  • We’ll discuss a few of my company’s (YNAB) religious holdouts.
  • We’ll highlight the power of blasphemy as it relates to differentiation.
  • I’ll point to some great examples of blasphemy (against both business’ internal and external tenets).
  • We’ll wrap up.

My Company’s Religious Holdouts

I bring these up, not to say that I think they necessarily should change, only that I recognize them to be fairly deeply held across our organization, and to blaspheme against them would be…difficult.

Customer support is best done through email

We do very, very good customer support via email. Our response time is very quick, we’re super friendly, and our customer support reps genuinely care about our customers. We are very proud of our support. We receive very nice feedback from customers on a regular basis. Is this the best way to support our customers?

Teaching our method and software is best done live in a webinar

We have the most polished, pristine, effective webinars for getting customers started on the right foot with our method and software. They’re a perfect balance of learning the method with seeing it applied in our software. We run live webinars daily, and the customer feedback from these live webinars is fantastic. Our teachers are phenomenal, and the webinar system is a well-oiled machine. I believe on average, we teach about 4,000 people each month live. Are webinars the ideal medium for teaching our method and software?

Newsletters should go out every other Tuesday

For the past several years, we’ve stuck (pretty strictly) to emailing our customers our general newsletter every other Tuesday. We’ve seen great results from the newsletter, we enjoy a very high open/engagement rate, and we see that email is an excellent form of marketing for us. Despite our fantastic metrics with the newsletter, is there room for improvement, or radical changes to our targeting?

Our try-before-you-buy model is optimal

For the last five years, we’ve given potential customers the ability to download our software and try it, full-featured, for 34 days. The model of downloadable software offering a trial is very, very mainstream (well, as mainstream as downloadable software is these days). We’ve followed right along that path, and believe it’s served us well. Should we abandon the trial and ask for customer buy-in immediately?

Business Blasphemy as a Differentiator

As you look to blaspheme your business’ long-held beliefs, be brave. Bucking a trend, and embracing some blasphemy can end up being a very big differentiator for you. Consider this observation my friend Brennan Dunn recently tweeted:

In other words, nobody is saying anything.

Several years ago, our software was being heavily criticized (more than normal) for not directly connecting to customers’ banks so they could have their transactions downloaded automatically. Know that a “direct connect” feature in personal finance software is almost seen as a given these days. Instead of going with the flow, we decided to become known for not doing the thing that all of our competitors were doing. In other words, you can take an anti approach, market yourself accordingly, and attract a (much more loyal) tribe because of your strong stance on an issue.

Let me highlight a few businesses that seemed to have blasphemed their way to great success:

Ramit Sethi’s Long Copy

Ramit and I go back quite a ways. He helped me grow my business back in 2008, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. The guy inspires me because he doesn’t accept defaults as gospel.

Long sales copy used to be popular. Over the last decade it fell out of favor, and if you had your website visitors scroll more than a few times, you were committing all sorts of Sales Sin:

“Users don’t read!”

“Users don’t scroll!”

Well, Ramit blasphemed the short copy idea. His sales pages are long. I’ve given him a hard time about it, because I’ve been stuck in the short-copy is better camp. But you know what? It’s working. And guess who’s now thinking about longer copy for his homepage?

(Honorable mention here would be Basecamp, with nothing close to the length of Ramit’s, but still much longer than what we would have expected to see in the past. And of course, those guys have probably started a trend…)

Baremetrics Baring Their Metrics for All

Josh runs Baremetrics. He’s blaspheming a long-held belief in business that your business stats are private, protected, and should remain super-secret. He runs a company that helps Stripe users analyze their revenue data. The demo page for Baremetrics is the company’s actual metrics (anonymized obviously).

What does this mean for Baremetrics? It means they become known for their transparency, while at the same time demonstrating the benefits of the service they offer. It’s brilliant marketing that came about because they blasphemed the idea of their revenue stats needing to remain secret.

Buffer’s Public Salary Policy

Buffer blasphemes daily, I suppose. They’re constantly pushing the envelope along the theme of absolute, total transparency. It’s fun to watch.

Their policy of sharing all of their employees’ salary data (called Open Salaries), quite frankly, scares me to no end. That type of eyebrow-raising moment is a sign that 1) I’m tied to a deeply-held belief that 2) they’re abandoning.

To demonstrate how blasphemy can aid your marketing, look at how Buffer uses their open policy as a tool for publicity. They’re reaching other business owners, and basically creating much more exposure for themselves because of their radical stance on being open. Come on, their blog is on an aptly-named “open” subdomain!

You see many businesses attempting to show their internal, or social side as a way of connecting with their customers, and boosting their marketing. However, what ends up happening is that the business doesn’t really have much to say or show. An email marketing company that teaches you how to market emails…that makes sense, but is boring. But if they can teach you how to market emails in a way that perhaps bucks normal trends…that marketing is powerful.

Wrap Up

You’re operating under serious assumption oppression. You’ve always done so many things a certain way, and you likely haven’t even questioned if they should be done at all. I’d urge you to question your deeply-held business beliefs. See if you can’t promote a bit of blasphemy in your own organization.

A few points that are blasphemous for us, but recognizing that for this to work, we really do have to question everything:

  • offering phone support to customers (we hold the belief that it’s too expensive),
  • not taking any funding (I hold the belief that taking outside funding would effectively ruin my life), – jettisoning our forums (the YNAB community is strong, but we officially do very little to support that forum, and Adam, our CPO has raised the scary idea of handing them over to the community completely),
  • working all together in an office (we all work remotely, and think it’s the best thing ever),
  • only email customers when there’s something truly relevant. As Seth Godin states in his excellent classic Permission Marketing: “Permission marketing is marketing without interruptions.” This actually seems less blasphemous the more I think about it. We need to implement this. It seems obvious.

As you buck and blaspheme the default, you’ll stand out. Search for ways to be a bit blasphemous.

As you’ve read this, what examples of business blasphemy came to mind? What deeply-held business beliefs do you have that should perhaps be questioned?

6 Responses to “Business Blasphemy, and Why You Should Embrace It”

  1. Maiya says:

    Newsletter every Tuesday? I never knew there WAS a YNAB newsletter! I would have signed up to receive it.

  2. Pat says:

    Great post! I think a re-examination of all our held beliefs in business is overdue!

  3. Dale says:

    Check out They publish pretty detailed stats of all their sales.

  4. Shawn says:

    Jesse, you have made me think about something I do that may be a total waste of my time. I write out invoices for every job I do and then when I return to the office, I scan them into my computer. Afterward, I file the paper copy away at some point. But in the mean time, they just pile up, waiting to be filed. Why do I even keep the paper copy? Maybe I should just shred them. After all, isn’t that the point of scanning them? I have some serious thinking to do…

  5. Natalie says:

    I tend to keep an eye out for better ways to do things. If there’s a way to do a task that takes less work, but yields the same or better outcome, I’m ready to give it a try. However, my business partner tends to cling to his deeply held beliefs that the way we’ve always done it is best. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And without his cooperation, well, we stay where we are.