When Tools Are The Limitation

I got a new bread machine over the holidays to replace our older, cheaper machine. The old machine was good - very inexpensive, and it made reasonably decent bread. It was our first bread machine, one of those inexpensive $50 models. We didn't invest heavily because frankly, I wasn't sure how much we'd use it. It turns out, my family liked it so much that we used it almost every other day.

After a year, I started to notice some of its more glaring limitations. If the water or milk wasn't pre-heated before being added to the machine, the bread didn't rise nearly as well (partly because I keep my house very cold in the winter). The non-stick coating on the pan wore off easily, making the bread more and more difficult to remove. The internals of the machine were very cramped, making it easy for the rising dough to make a mess all over the inside of the machine.

So I upgraded to a more expensive model. The new machine has none of the technical limitations of the old one: more space. A heavier pan (and one I can find replacements for!). Pre-heating ingredients. These features lead to better outcomes for me.

Am I displeased with the old machine? Not at all. For a long time, as I learned how to make bread, the limitations holding me back were my skills, my understanding of baking, to a degree my ingredients. The tools weren't the problem for a long time, until my skills were no longer the weakest link. Once my skills surpassed the machine, it was time to upgrade; I'd gotten everything out of the old machine that I could.

When it comes to our marketing, we have a tendency to buy more and more tools instead of improving our skills first, until we reach a point where our skills are no longer the main limitation. Vendors are complicit in this, of course - the more they convince you that their tools will make everything better, the more they sell. The reality is, you're probably not squeezing the greatest benefits out of the tools you already have.

For example, take email marketing service providers. Most providers are more or less the same, to be honest. I used to work in the field and despite what all the sales literature said, most of the companies have exactly the same core features - they send emails. The major limitation for most email marketers isn't the software - it's their skills, from creative to list growth to retention. Buying more, better software won't fix your email marketing if you're not skilled at email marketing.

Or take web analytics software. Some providers have made a killing upselling people off the free Google Analytics, when the reality is that most marketers don't have the quantitative skills to make the most of the data they already have. Google Analytics has 95% of the data and features you need to make good decisions about your marketing once you know how to read, extract, and interpret the data.

Or take your advertising software. Platforms like Google Ads, Facebook Ads, Bing Ads, etc. are packed to the gills with features and some of the most advanced AI in marketing. The tools aren't the limitation; our understanding of what the tools can do is. If we invest less money in buying new tools and more money in upleveling our skills, we'll drive far more impressive results.

So why don't we do this? Some companies are hesitant to invest in employees, fearing they'll leave once they're sufficiently skilled. Some people are unwilling to make the investment in themselves, either by setting time aside (and enforcing those boundaries), or lack the motivation to do so. And of course, many vendors prefer the narrative that more tools (theirs specifically) will make things better magically.

The workaround for companies that refuse to invest in you is to find better companies to work for, unfortunately. A company that refuses to invest in employees likely also has other severe problems.

The lack of motivation for investing in yourself is something only you can solve, first by understanding what motivates you, then tying investing in yourself to that motivation. And by investing, I don't mean money - 95% of the knowledge you need is out there on the Internet for free, when it comes to upleveling your skills with the tools you already have. So what will convince you to make the time for your own learning?

As for vendors... just understanding their motives clarifies their narratives and takes the bite out of their pitches that the tools are the problem. For some companies, yes, they've reached a level of competence where tools really are the limitation. But for many of us, myself included, the greatest upgrade we can make is to the software between our ears.

Upgrade tools only once your skills surpass them.


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