Democratic business practices are a powerful weapon

I’ve been thinking about getting a Gillette Mach 3 razor. My Uncle Chuck converted to the Mach 3 after using my grandfather’s wartime shaving kit for 50 years.

But I’m hesitant because Gillette has finally allowed third parties to compete and create cheaper blades to fit my old razor operating system, the Gillette Sensor. Gillette’s upgrade policy traps you into purchasing proprietary blades until they abandon a product and make it an open standard for third-party manufacturers. As soon as Loblaws started producing blades for the Sensor I knew there was another Gillette product in the hopper.

Why isn’t Gillette building a real community around the Mach 3 by allowing razor solution providers to manufacture for it? It could go far to ensure the long-term viability of the product and could potentially convert even more consumers than just Uncle Chuck and me.

Open standards and allowing a community of consumers, suppliers and partners to build around your product scare the hell out of some corporate giants. Netscape’s initiative and the growing influence of Linux shows how powerful a weapon democratic business practices can be. It’s a real threat to companies like Microsoft because it’s not just one single competitor, it’s a community of groups and individuals who share a vision.

MP3 must scare the hell out of record companies and others; it’s direct consumer involvement and choices in a cut-throat industry. Companies compete in this new environment by being as open as possible, developing a loyal customer community quickly. You’re not building a market base; you’re building a community tied to you because you provide them with a reason for being.

Jean-Louis Gassee, CEO of Be Inc., recently announced that he will provide his BeOS operating system for free to any OEM wishing to bundle it with newly manufactured computers. Gassee wisely sees the value in creating a community of partners and suppliers.

I know that many of you who read ComputerWorld Canada work in the consulting/services side of our industry, so you may wonder how any of this applies to you. I’ll tell you. It’s your ideas.

The idea may be a methodology you use, or a particular business focus, or a target strategy, whatever. Often, those of us on the services side get protective of our ideas for competitive reasons, but you might want to rethink this. You want your firm to be the one setting the standards that others emulate. Your community, comprised of your strongest proponents, needs to believe in your vision. They must feel like team members. In order to get that buy-in, you need to be as open as possible with your vision. You need to get your customers, partners and suppliers to buy into your vision. Your vision is the product.

Take the high road and be a leader. Relax, and communicate your vision. You’ll always have more ideas. Lester Dent, the creator of the pulp Doc Savage novels, once said that you should “always put all of your ideas into the novel you’re working on. You’ll always have more ideas later.” So go ahead, if you’ve got a methodology that you think sets you apart, make it integral with your marketing campaign rather than proprietary info. Make the things that are different about you synonymous with your brand, so your customers see you and immediately associate you with your great ideas.

They are your customers because you provide them with services, but also because they’ve bought into your vision. Try the open standards thing now, freely discuss and promote all your ideas, make it part of your brand. If you build your brand, the community will come.

Martin is project manager at a Toronto-based communications company. He can be reached at