What I Learnt about Business Growing up in a Cult

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Wes Towers, owner of Omnific Design and author of The Simple Manifesto.

Most of us have read about the cult-like nature of brands like Apple. It’s mainly on a surface level and built around hype. What I want to know about are underground entrepreneurs who are pushing the boundaries a little harder than the big corporations do. Taking it into somewhat dangerous territory is what interests me most about the topic, given my own history. Let me explain…

Since publishing The Simple Manifesto I’ve had lots of feedback on the ideas shared in the book. Some loved it, others obviously hated it, and that’s great… it’s far better than indifference. What has surprised me is the number of people who want to talk about one short chapter titled “What I Learnt Growing up in a Cult”.

The curiosity on this topic seems to be driven by three reasons:

  1. By looking at business in unconventional ways and relating it to seemingly unrelated topics (like cults), we are able to create a fresh perspective and insights.
  2. People relate to us more easily when we are open and make ourselves vulnerable about our not-so-perfect pasts. It helps us show our authenticity.
  3. Our unique backgrounds, whether good or bad, can be harnessed and reshaped for our own benefit and the benefit of others.

It’s not my intention to rehash here what I’ve already shared in the book, but to expand upon it based on the many discussions I’ve had with people who have shared their own personal stories.

But first you’ll need to know a little about my history. I’m sure you will see the business similarities as we go (it’s parabolic)…

Yes, I really did grow up in a religious cult. It wasn’t a bad one as far as cults go – the leaders were sincere in their beliefs and their desire to help the members live what they saw as a righteous life. They didn’t practice deceit or use brainwashing techniques. Nevertheless, there were a lot of rules to be followed, a lot of systems in place for pretty much everything. That’s a common feature of most cults, and that’s because it works. When you have tried and tested systems and rules, you can create predictable results. That, of course, is something any entrepreneur will appreciate.

Influence is incredibly important in business – influence over your employees, your suppliers, your customers. When its for a positive cause we call it influence, when it’s negative we call it manipulation – but who is it that decides what’s positive or negative? From what I’ve observed, the manipulative approach can produce short-term results while influence tends to be long terms since its focus is to benefit others. Anyway, as an entrepreneur, you’re after profits, not Jonestown. You attract long-term profits by providing a real benefit to your customers – not by becoming a snake-oil salesman.

The more benign cults, like mine, excel at creating true vision-based influence. I experienced this firsthand growing up, so I have perhaps a more intuitive understanding of these systems. I’ve also studied cult theories and it’s become very clear businesses often operate by similar techniques. Just like a cult, your business needs to have a belief system. And as with cults, it doesn’t really matter what that is – it could be based on something you want to change in your industry or just about anything else, as long as it’s heartfelt.

Once you have a belief system, to grow your business you need to get other people to join it. Cults often develop a clearly defined process that occurs in stages. Figure out what people who don’t know anything about your organisation are likely to accept, give them something they can easily agree to without making too much of a commitment. After that, you can work on increasing their level of engagement. You see this a lot with Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses – there might be a free version to get people started, a basic version at a nominal cost, and then a fully-featured product priced accordingly. You’ll find when you get involved with a SaaS product that it’s easy to get started, and once your data is saved within the system, it’s often difficult to get out and keep your data in a useable format.

You’ll find a similar strategy in many membership websites. You get started easily, but they’ll drip-feed the resources to you or encourage you to stay on-board by telling you what additional resources are coming in the future. People don’t want to miss out. This is a compelling way to attract and hold interest. Cults do it by promising a better future; businesses do it by painting vivid pictures of the positive results that their products and services produce in the lives of their customers.

Think of those free seminars with a sales pitch at the end. They provide some useful information, and hey, they’re free, so it’s not much of a commitment to attend but the goal is to get you to buy into the system. While the platform speaker is telling the audience about the system and how it works, they will also be appealing to their emotions, speaking about their hopes for a better future. They will tell the audience what they’ll be able to do with the information given to them, how much time it will save, how much money it will make them, or how much better their lives will be. It’s taken straight from the cult playbook – get people in the door, rouse their emotions, and then push them to increase their commitment level.

Emotions don’t have to be positive to be effective behavioural motivators. Fear can be just as powerful, and cults are usually not shy about threatening their followers. So too in business, if you’re offering something truly unique, whether it’s service quality or a technological edge, you can use that fear to keep your competitors at bay. You become the only logical solution to buy your product or service from, making competitors irrelevant.

It’s important to be unique. Cults do this easily since, by their nature they’re outside the mainstream. It’s also a favourite strategy with extremist political parties all over the world. They position themselves against races, religions, and other nations creating a sense of superiority in their supporters. With such a clear divide between “them” and “us” it’s much easier to convince people not to compromise with the “other side”. In business that means customers don’t see you as interchangeable with other suppliers.

It’s unlikely your customers will get on-board with your vision which such zeal, like those in cults or of extremist political persuasions, however there will be a few that become raving fans – these few are your biggest asset. Cults understand the power of a few passionate people and surround themselves with an ‘inner-circle’. When it’s working well, others will want to be a part of that inner-circle and work towards it. In the same way you build a community for your business – and it’s your community.

When you establish a community that follows your belief system and your rules, you’re putting the power of relationships to work for your business. Cults realise that interpersonal relationships are one of the most potent influences on people’s decision-making processes and often manipulate them. Veteran cultists will befriend new members, who are then encouraged to sever pre-existing relationships with family and friends. Multi-level marketing, with its emphasis on recruitment of and sales to family and friends, is another often exploitative example.

If you’ve built your right, you won’t need to be deceptive – relationships are just as effective when prompted by honest, vision-inspired influence. That’s what I encourage every entrepreneur to learn from cult leaders.

Wes Towers’ mission is to empower a new breed of entrepreneurs with cutting-edge websites that attract more leads, graphic design that converts more sales and systems that multiply results affordably and fast. He is also the owner of Omnific Design and author of: The Simple Manifesto – Marketing principles to save you time, increase profit and create your dream business in a SNAP!

  • Krsnendu Knight

    When I was at Strategic Profits headquarters for the Profit Hacks event, Rich Schefren recommended this book to me: The Culting of Brands. It makes similar points to this article.

Pete Williams is an entrepreneur, author, and marketer from Melbourne, Australia.

Before being honored “Australia’s Richard Branson” in media publications all over the continent, Pete was just 21 years old when he sold Australia’s version of Yankee Stadium, The Melbourne Cricket Ground For Under $500! Don’t believe it? You will! Check out the story in the FAQ section (it really is our most asked question).

Since then, he’s done some cool stuff like write the international smash hit ‘How to Turn Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality’ (+ the upcoming ‘It’s Not About the Product‘) and he’s created a bunch of companies including Infiniti Telecommunications, On Hold Advertising, Simply Headsets and Preneur Group.

Lots of other people think he’s pretty good too! He’s been announced as the Global Runner-Up in the JCI Creative Young Entrepreneur Awards for 2009, the Southern Region Finalist in the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, and a member of SmartCompany’s Top 30 Under 30.

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