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Updated: May 7, 2020

by Ulises Pabon

As soon as he stepped out of the cab, Bernard noticed it had started to get cold. It had stopped raining, but he could still breathe the moist air as he hurried into the side walk crowd. He picked up his pace to keep up with the swarm of people rushing down 1st Avenue. It was starting to get dark. He had gotten off on 10th Street, as instructed, and before he knew it, he was taking a left into St. Marks Place. Everything was unfolding as planned.

On St. Marks Place, the crowd waned but people seemed to keep the same pace. He was trying to spot the black and white sign he had committed to memory. Then, about half way through the block, he saw it: “Crif Dogs”. He stepped down the wet black stairs and noticed the red and blue beer neon sign on the window. The place wasn’t packed, but it was busy. A row of round vinyl stools faced the left brick wall. A long narrow stainless-steel shelf bolted into the wall served as a table. Ugly, but functional, he thought. He quickly scanned the place and noticed the vintage phone booth on his left. The worn down wooden door opened easily. Following his memorized script, he entered the booth, closed the door, and picked up the phone.

There was no need to dial. A voice on the other end asked a couple of questions. He knew how to answer. And then, without notice, a secret door inside the booth opened. Bernard stepped into another dimension; a sharp contrast from the hot-dog shop. The neatly laid wood-paneled ceiling decorated the dimly lit lounge. A U-shaped bar surrounded by yellow leather stools dominated the scene. He was greeted by a host who took his jacket and escorted him inside.

OK. I know I’m no Stephen King or John Grisham. You can’t deny, however, that the story above has the gist of a New York Times bestseller. Bernard, for sure, is a fictional character. But Crif Dogs, the phone booth modus operandi, and PDT (stands for Please Don’t Tell, the name of the lounge) do exist!

Please Don’t Tell is an excellent example of breaking the rules or following counter-intuitive advice. It doesn’t advertise; at least, not overtly. If you’re not into the “secret”, you will walk in and out of Crif Dogs never to imagine that there’s a hidden passage to a speakeasy-style cocktail bar. For the record, it operates legally, with all required licenses. It’s not only a great place for drinks but you can have Crif hot-dogs served as well!

While there is no denying that a weak economy affects us all, we’ve found that lack of imagination is frequently the true culprit behind lost business. A low tide may bring all boats down, but who said we all had to stay inside our boats? I’m not being rude or insensitive to the difficult economic environment that besieges us all; I’m just challenging the notion that there is nothing to do but to lament ourselves.

So how do you break the shackle of conventional thinking and start to imagine new options for growth? There is no one recipe but I can share some ideas.

First and foremost, stop thinking products and services and instead focus on designing behavior spaces. Behavior spaces are the platform or stage for new behaviors. Apple crushed Nokia – the world leader in the smartphone industry in 2007 – with the launch of the iPhone, not because the device had better ringtones, brighter colors or a sleeker design. Apple created a new behavior space. The iPhone, together with Apple’s ecosystem (iTunes, the App store, and the developer community) defined a new behavior space. While the device itself was revolutionary, the actual disruption occurred in the attitudes and expectations of the users. The iPhone became a stage for people to act in ways they had never thought of.

Second, stop thinking products and services and start thinking business models. Your business model defines how you create value, how you deliver value to your customers, and how you monetize the value and make a profit. One of my favorite exercises when consulting business leaders is to challenge them to think of their product as salt. Salt is a commodity. You can’t argue that your salt is saltier than my salt; it’s salt! The challenge I offer business owners is to create a new business model that uses salt as a platform but that blows away the competition. If you can think creatively about salt, for sure you can think creatively about your current product offerings and value proposition.

Finally, stop thinking products and services and start thinking customer. This may sound like a basic advice, but you would be surprised how business-centric business leaders become. In the process, they become myopic to customer shifts, behavior changes, and trends that promise to shatter commonly held beliefs and dogmas of how their industry operates.

You can create your own economy. It requires creativity, imagination, and the willingness to challenge the status quo and think counter intuitively. Remember: behavioral spaces, business models, and customer centric. That’s the language of reinvention and innovation. And it will be the language you will need to master if you want to prosper in the difficult times ahead.

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