Robbie Kellman Baxter is the author of The Membership Economy and new book The Forever Transaction (subtitled How to Build a Subscription Model So Compelling, Your Customers Will Never Want to Leave). Here, the former strategy consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton discusses Netflix, her influences and the best business advice she’s ever received.
I was always a huge reader. I was one of those people who read while walking. I obsessed about television, too. My favourite shows were The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. It was a big reason why I did a lot of babysitting – it was the only place I could watch a lot of TV!
The most influential people in my career were, initially, my parents, who told me if I did really well in school I’d be fine, which gave me the freedom to concentrate on the liberal arts and study poetry, which has come in handy in the business world. Later, I got a fellowship to work in urban government and my boss, MaryAnne Gilmartin, was fantastic. She had the ability to get a lot done in a short period. She was a real-estate investor and developer, yet left every day at 6pm to teach aerobics. She also told me I should only work for people who believed in me; that’s really stuck with me.
The advice I always give young people is that if your manager does not think you’re a rock star, start looking for another job. If you’re ambitious and care about your career, you want a boss who thinks you’re great and expects you to be great. I once had a boss who told me I should be happy he thought I was a solid B+ player. I put my résumé on the street the next day.
I met my husband on my first day at Harvard. In my first week of college, my bunkmate said, “If you had to marry someone in our entryway of 27 people, who would you marry?” I gave a name, she said, “No, I think you’re going to marry Bob Baxter,” and, sure enough, I did.
The gender balance has come a long way from the days I was briefly the most senior woman in my organisation. A lot of my business school alumni are now running companies. YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki was in my class and Sheryl Sandberg was a year behind us in college. But there’s still a long way to go. One of the biggest challenges is maternity: it makes women stop out, and then they never catch up. So, there’s lot of really interesting things going on in that space to rethink it, to give women more flexibility or work from home.
The current corona crisis has added a new tool to a manager’s toolbox. They’re learning how to get the most out of remote meetings, they’re learning about the pitfalls, they’re learning how hard it can be to be on Zoom all day, and at the same time they’re seeing the productivity of their team. So, while I don’t predict a world where everybody works remotely, I do think there’s potential for that tool being brought out when appropriate.
I loved being a strategy consultant at Booz. I learned a huge amount about precision and being able to explain a point of view. The biggest thing I learned from my managers was they always said, “Don’t ask me for help until you have an answer.” And so, if I were to ask them, “Hey, should I do this or that?” they’d always ask me, “Well, what would you do if I weren’t here?” That made me very resourceful and independent.
The thinking behind The Membership Economy was initially just about paying the mortgage. I learned pretty quickly that if I wanted to thrive as a consultant, I really needed an area of expertise. With each new client, I was looking for something I could really go deep on. My fifth client was Netflix; I’d already fallen in love with them as a consumer, but I fell in love with their business model and their focus on doing one thing really well that justified subscription pricing. They were closer to the customer, and able to generate a community which created stickiness. But people weren’t seeing it. So, I wrote The Membership Economy to explain what I was seeing.
I admire the Netflix leadership hugely. They’re not the first subscription business, but they forged the path; they’ve been the bright beacon in this space. They’re also so deliberate in how they do things. They’re so ethical: you can cancel at any time. Recently, they took it a step further and said, “If you haven’t used your Netflix subscription in 12 months, we’ll cancel it for you, we don’t want your zombie money.”
My new book, The Forever Transaction, is based on my work around the subscription business. Five years ago, people didn’t understand this massive transformation that was happening. And now almost every organisation is either experimenting with subscription, trying to expand it, or thinking, “Gosh, we’re behind the times, we really need to incorporate subscription into our business model.” It’s no longer a question of why this matters. Now, the question is: How do you do it? The Forever Transaction explores how you launch a subscription business, how you scale it, and what the pitfalls are to avoid, in order to maintain your leadership position over time.
I’m really interested in the intersection or the hybridisation of content and commerce: how we’re seeing big media titles introducing commerce. And on the other side, commerce companies creating content as a way of branding themselves and building connection with their customers. If a lipstick company can help me with inspiration and ideas to look a certain way, I’m probably more likely to buy their lipstick, stick with them longer and not look for alternatives.
I think [LinkedIn co-founder] Reid Hoffman and [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella are extraordinary leaders. There are so many reasons why I admire them – particularly for what Reid Hoffman is doing at LinkedIn; building a media empire, and layering value into their model. They have lifestyle shows now on LinkedIn Live, and are helping people thrive in their professional career, which is their forever promise. And now it’s owned by Microsoft, the possibilities for integrating all the information about your professional network with your professional toolset… It’s mind-boggling what’s possible.
The best advice I’ve ever been given in business is: Go big. I’m a toe-dipper, I’m very cautious and careful, and the advice I’ve gotten to take more risks and aim higher has been the most helpful to me. To ask yourself, “What would it be like to be really successful, and what would it take to get there? That’s really stuck with me.
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