First Principles Thinking for Marketing is a Game Changer

Today I’m going to teach you how to build a rocket ship. Well, more like a marketing growth machine. And it all begins with a typewriter.

The first typewriter model had some problems: characters were mounted on metal arms, which would clash and jam if neighboring arms were pressed at the same time or quickly after one another.

In order to solve for that, the QWERTY keyboard layout was created to slow down typing. And, for marketing purposes, the letters that make up the word typewriter were placed on the top line so a salesperson could show how fast the machine operated by typing the brand name. This design became popular with the success of the Remington No. 2 of 1878, and remains in ubiquitous use today.

As a result, the computer keyboard format the majority of us use is technically inefficient. Mechanical key blockage is no longer a problem, nor is there a need to type typewriter as quickly as possible.

Yet despite more efficient and more ergonomic layouts being possible the QWERTY arrangement still dominates. On the one hand, it’s universally accepted. On the other, so was cursive handwriting, and look what we’ve achieved there!

Yes change can be costly, and sometimes it doesn’t deliver the results we want. But more often than not, we stick with the default even when the benefits of change far exceed the costs.

When it comes to marketing your “keyboard” could be as vast as:

  • your offline-only storefront
  • your marketing tech stack
  • your marketing department structure

or as small as:

  • the day you send our emails
  • the way you name files
  • the layout of your homepage

Though, you can’t really constantly question everything, because you’d exhaust yourself. So a good rule of thumb is if you find yourself getting annoyed by something three times, it’s time to take a look at it. Other ways to realize it’s time to kick into change thinking include:

  • listening closely when you’re onboarding a new employee
  • reading customer reviews and support emails
  • having someone from another department spend a few days shadowing you and asking what you’re doing
  • time recording to see what’s actually eating up your day
  • whenever the cost of something is relatively high
  • when you see a competitor doing something new
  • when you’ve made a mistake

But how can you arrive at a solution? That’s where first principles, which our boi Aristotle defined as “the first basis from which a thing is known” can help. Basically you have to doubt everything you can possibly doubt, until you’re left with fundamental truths.

As Ozan Varol shares in Think Like a Rocket Scientist:

“If you were a horse breeder in Detroit in the early 1900s, you would have assumed that your competition was the other breeders raising stronger and faster horses…The past drowns out the future. Steady as she goes-until you hit an iceberg….We’re constrained not only by what we’ve done in the past, but also by what others have done as well.”

Knowledge is good. But knowledge can constrain your thinking. Rather than being a cover band, aim to create something totally new, by questioning every core component of your project ruthlessly. Basically peel back the layers of the onion until you find the core, and then build from there.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk uses the cost of batteries as an example, as his company looked to launch a manned rocket into space and succeeded (for the first time for NASA in 9 years bruh!!).

“People would say, ‘Historically it’s cost $600 per kilowatt-hour, and so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future.’ First principles means you say, ‘Okay, what are the material constituents of the batteries?’ You just have to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

For example, say you’re trying to get your leads and customers to join an online webinar.

  • Do you have to send them an email?
  • Does it have to have an image?
  • Does it have to have text?
  • Does it have to be from you?
  • Do you have to use the same technology?
  • Does your presenter have to talk?
  • Does your presenter have to stick to a script?
  • Does it have to be an email?
  • Does it have to be a free webinar?

That’s how you’ll end up with:

Questioning the core truths can lead to a better end result. You just have to take the time to do it! Up next, learn about the landmark content technique.

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By Megan Mitzel

I'm the wearer of overalls behind the marketing advice website Marketing Overalls. I'm also a senior marketing director with more than ten years of experience leading acquisition and lifecycle marketing at successful startups. Before that, I got a business degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Before that, I owned a seashell shop. And that's the tea on me.