Mark Dancer on the Future of Channels | Mentoring, Workshops and Research for Channel Innovation - Founder - Future of Channels

Mark Dancer is passionate about channel innovation. You may know channels by their given names—retailers, distributors, dealers, restaurants, and more, but Mark prefers to start with a definition. A channel is any business that brings together products and services to meet a customer need in exchange for customer purchases, loyalty, and recommendations. Said differently, channels are all about creating the exchange of value. Products and services are offered in exchange for a customer’s business, participation, and their active support. Channels are where business is done, serving both customers and other businesses. Channels are the businesses that help us live our lives and do our work.

Mark has just launched the website Future of Channels to help enable channel innovation. His goal is to help innovative channels tell their stories, to promote networking and an active exchange of ideas, and to build awareness and conduct outreach. Drawing on more than twenty-five years of channel consulting experience, Mark understands that there is a revolution underway among all channels in the way that they operate their businesses and the customer experiences they create. Mark’s work builds on his work as a published author on business model innovation and digital transformations as a Fellow for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence and addresses business, craft, and artisanal and human channels.

Out of the gate, Mark’s first project for the Future of Channels is to publish a study on the unique innovations and community impact of craft and artisanal channels in his adopted hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Next steps include sharing channel innovation stories from his network in North America and the global markets and to explore human-centric innovations that are emerging as a counterpoint to the dominance of technology-driven change.

How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?

My passion for channels started with my first job following my time as an officer in the US Navy. Through mostly luck, I was offered a manufacturing position with a company that made lasers and supermarket scanners. The company was chasing opportunities around point of sale automation and data capture and had captured leading share positions in global markets. I was able to work on cross-functional teams, and quickly discovered that much of the company’s growth was driven by building partnerships with indirect channels. I left to pursue an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management, then home to one of the leading authorities on channels, Professor Louis Stern. I was inspired by Professor Stern’s insights and that led me to continue my pursuit of learning about channels.

Following graduation, I joined a boutique consulting firm focused exclusively on channels and began my career. I worked at several consulting firms, each adding experiences across a very wide range of channels and markets, and launched my own consultancy, Channelvation. Channelvation works with client teams to create unique and innovative solutions for changing markets. Through Channelvation, I apply my skills for working with leaders and their teams to develop capabilities as we solve channel problems. I also began conducting research on digital technologies and channel transformation for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence. My work as a NAW Fellow has evolved from exploring how channels are transforming to the adoption and use of digital tools to address leadership and organizational competencies that are essential for countering disruptive threats and driving innovation in existing value chains.

How do you make money?

My new business, the Future of Channels, is not about selling traditional consulting engagements. Rather, we will earn revenue by providing channel innovation mentoring, workshops, and research. Our clients include large and small channel businesses, and we also work with local governments and social organizations. This approach reflects the fact that channels are not only competitive businesses working to earn revenue and profits. Since channels help us live our lives and do our work, they are also active members of communities that contribute to quality of life, economic development and social causes from the future of work to providing access to food and housing. As we gain traction, we will conduct leadership and community exchanges to help enable an exchange of ideas around human-centric innovation, craft & artisanal channels and providing a work experience that enables people to do good while doing business. 

How long did it take for you to become profitable?

My first business, Channelvation, was profitable from day one because it was launched on a solid base of satisfied and loyal clients. I expect that my new business built around the Future of Channels will require two to three years to be profitable for two reasons. First, our immediate goal is to assemble channel innovation examples through interviews and share them through posts on our blog. This work is missionary in nature. I believe in the power of channels and I need to assemble a body of knowledge to demonstrate their power in a way that is compelling to businesses, governments, and social organizations. Most importantly, I want it to serve as a source of inspiration and ideas for channel innovators. Second, I am shifting my business model from traditional consulting engagements designed to help businesses achieve goals of sales and profits to one that is built around published content and thought leadership. Initially, this will generate revenue in areas where I have experience—speeches, workshops, and research. Over time, we will look for revenue through collaborative work with governments and social organizations, and through grants from individuals supportive of our mission and contributions.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

Sadly, no. I say sadly because my passion for channels was enough to drive my personal gains from doing channels work, but it was not always enough to generate sustainable or profitable consulting business. The two are not the same and it took time for me to focus on building the skills to develop clients and turn around profitable engagements. If I had paid attention to the nuts and bolts of building a profitable consulting practice early in my career, I would have had doubts every day as the there was a mismatch between the innovative solutions I was driven to provide and the client’s willingness to pay. I amassed a deep knowledge of channels from multiple perspectives, including how to talk to customers about channel expectations, the economics of building a profitable channel, the realities of being a source that is both familiar and differentiated and ultimately, how to build competitive channels globally in cultures that differ wildly by their infrastructure for conducting business and their cultures for running them. Today, I am much more cognizant of the need to build a profitable business and working to do so as I channel my knowledge and passion into the Future of Channels.   

How did you get your first customer?

At Channelvation, I had my first customer on the first day I launched as I was conducting an ongoing series for leadership workshops for sales managers for a large global information services firm. The client wanted me to continue and did not consider the company I was leaving as capable of continuing the work. So, that’s how I found my first client. At the Future of Channels, my first customer is an industry trade association that is compensating me for writing articles on out-of-the-box channel business model options for distributors. This industry is experiencing real impact from disruptive channels and my writing is a natural extension of my focus and experience. My ability to think about market trends and disruptive threats created the opportunity for my engagement as a writer.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

As a consultant, I found that my ability to sell projects was directly correlated with my ability to solve problems. Clients hire consultants for their knowledge and processes, but only when the client’s own people can’t get the job done, or get it done fast enough to meet competitive challenges. I carry this philosophy forward to my work at my new initiative, the Future of Channels. When I write articles and blog posts, I strive to provide readers with new ideas and connect them to solutions they might actually implement.

In my workshops, I provide my own experience-based point of view but challenge the workshop participants to apply new ideas to their own challenges, and then to drive those to a decision. It is a challenge to push for a decision in a one or two-day workshop, but I find the pressure of making a decision makes the attendees participate more intensely. Similarly, when I write books and reports, I provide new ideas backed up by data. I give my suggested solutions and recommendations, but also include a large number of direct quotes and examples from business leaders. These inputs make the research real. It is not so much about what I say, but what innovators are doing.

All of these approaches to providing insights and ideas go directly to generating new business. Innovation is always about stretching the minds of leaders and the capabilities of businesses. But by showing how ideas can lead to results, I sell readers and clients on the idea that I can provide the spark or push that can move their business forward. I sell my work by helping clients succeed.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

I have had to stop selling my traditional consulting engagements through Channelvation in order to pursue my new work at the Future of Channels. This was a hard decision for two reasons. First, as a consultant, I am driven to solve problems and when a client asks for my help, I am inclined to accept. Second, doing consulting work generates income and I definitely need to support myself through my work. However, I found that I could not dedicate the mental focus and time commitment needed to launch my new initiative without walking away from my legacy work. Financially, it is difficult, and I am funding my business hand-to-mouth. I am definitely looking forward to building a stainable book of new business through new and long-standing relationships.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

As a channels expert, I offer something that is unique. In most organizations, channel expertise is mostly tactical. It’s about designing programs, solving problems and generating day-to-day sales. My approach is more strategic. I offer a passion for channels, a vast reservoir of examples, lots and lots of ideas, and a disciplined process for getting each client to get to a solution that is the correct solution for their business goals and market position. Years ago, I did my channels work with teams of consultants that included project managers, analysts, and researchers. Over time, I evolved to an approach that minimized consulting staff and maximized participation by the client’s team. Experienced consulting project teams are efficient because they have worked on similar issues many times, but their recommendations often fail to launch because the client’s leaders, managers, and employees do not grow by doing the suggested work. By working with teams, the client not only participates fully in the recommendations, but they also gain new capabilities and the engagement’s work transfers knowledge and processes.

My new work with the Future of Channels continues this commitment even as my work shifts away from traditional consulting engagements and towards mentoring, workshops and research. My goal is to provide new ideas and insights, backed up by facts, with examples and encouragements about how companies can act on them. Having worked with clients for many years to jointly develop solutions, I have a gained the experience and empathy to help them move forward, even if I am not fully engaged in a project mode.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

My satisfaction always comes from helping someone realize that new innovative solutions are possible. This is about helping people and teams realize that ideas can lead to realities, and that doing so is professionally and personally rewarding. I have achieved this outcome many times over the years, in North American markets and globally—especially in developing nations. When it comes to channels, change is always a risk. Doing business, the way it has always been done carries a momentum that works against change. Change is risky because customers may not accept it and an organization’s team may reject it. So, the jump from accepting new ideas or innovations as an acceptable path to a reality that yields required business goals is significant, and every time I help a business make the jump, I take immense personal satisfaction.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

I am going to conduct as many interviews as I can with channel innovators and post their stories and analysis on my new blog, the Future of Channels. I am very interested in how technology and globalization are driving channel transformations, but also how incumbent business and new startups are driving innovation in their own right. For now, I am researching and writing about business, craft and artisanal and human channels. In fact, I am launching a study of craft and artisanal businesses where I live in Colorado Springs. I will explore how entrepreneurial coffee shops, breweries, health food restaurants, and bread shops are driving channel innovations around products, services, and their physical space. More than that, I am interested in the contribution that these channel innovators are making to our community and social movements. I am on a mission to raise awareness of channel innovation and to share ideas and best practices. Over time, my work will expand to include coaching, workshops, speeches, research, city exchanges, and more.

What business books have inspired you?

I am inspired by the work of Professor Robert Wolcott at the Kellogg Management School of Innovation at Northwestern University. In addition to his books, Professor Wolcott has launched a video interview series at 3BillionSeconds. More than that, he promotes sharing innovation ideas at an annual meeting of the Kellogg Innovation Network, where I have found inspiration from the speakers and participants.

What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?

I have engaged a digital marketing and public relations firm, Status Labs, to help overhaul my website, launch my new blog and conduct a social media campaign. Their work is essential in getting the word out on my channel innovation mission and, in doing so, putting me in touch with channel innovators and other businesses and social organization with overlapping objectives. Status Labs is helping me turbocharge my efforts and get results.

I’ve also purchased a very off-road ready Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and a yellow Labrador Retriever. My other passion is about hiking and landscape photography in Colorado. My time in the outdoors helps me balance my passion and work for channel innovation and is a source of inspiration, too!

Through your work as a research and author as a Fellow for the NAW Institute of Distribution Research, you explore digital technologies and channel innovation. What is the most important finding you can share with leaders?

The biggest barrier to adopting and using digital technology is not a leader’s poor understanding of the tools, or a company’s ability to cover the required investments. Rather, the one thing that holds most leaders back is their own mindset. Competing in the digital age is about going on offense. It’s about finding new opportunities enabled by digital technology and changing social value. This requires leaders to develop strong skills around foresight and vision. From a channel innovation perspective, foresight is the ability to tell a story about where markets are heading, including how customers are buying and how channels are changing their customer experiences and services. Visions are about how a leader’s company is going to change their business model to survive, compete and prosper. The test of a leader’s foresight and vision is their ability to share it with customers, suppliers, and employees in a way that is interesting, engaging and motivating … and then to drive their company forward in ways that are consistent with their vision and foresight. These are skills that can be learned and honed, and all leaders should be working to gain or strengthen their competence. Their company’s future depends on it!

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