Making sense of SWOT with customer-vendor loops

When brainstorming entries for a SWOT analysis, it might be useful to have a bit more structure. Let’s see if we can use the customer-vendor loop for that purpose.

To frame this exercise a bit, I am going to rely on the notion of stocks and flows in the loop. We have four stocks and four flows that connect these stocks. Each stock represents a value that we want the loop to compound, and each flow represents the means by which we could achieve that.

Through this lens, the strengths and weaknesses of an enterprise will be described by the state of the stocks. Similarly, the nature of the flows between these stocks will tell us about threats and opportunities. This gives us a recipe to start filling out a SWOT table. 

For each stock (Vendors, Products, Customers, Interactions), we can ask questions that produce strengths and weaknesses entries. Put very simply, high values are strengths and low values are weaknesses. Just like stocks, strengths and weaknesses are static qualities – these are the things we have or hold.

For each flow (Vendors build, Products attract, Customers engage in, Interactions attract), we ask questions that produce entries for opportunities and threats. Threats attenuate flows and opportunities accelerate them. Flows are dynamic, and so are the threats and opportunities. They increase or decrease the value of stocks over time.

In addition to producing SWOT entries, this exercise can be very useful for getting a better sense of the examined customer-vendor loop. If it produces nonsensical entries, chances are the loop doesn’t actually represent our aspirations. 

For example, one common mistake I kept making was failing to recognize that the notion of value is relative to the other components in the loop. To make this more concrete, let’s imagine that one of our friends (Vendor) made a really cool klaxon sound mobile app (Product) that has tons of Users (Customers) — who doesn’t want a klaxon on their phone?! — and these users mash the titular button multiple times per day (Interactions). We might conclude that the high number of Interactions signifies significant value of the corresponding stock. Unfortunately, this app is free, and so is its key interaction, which means that there’s no value attached to it. Any multiplier of zero is zero. Despite a large number of interactions intuitively seeming like a valuable thing, it is their relative value that matters within the loop.

In such cases, it might be worth looking into motivations and/or considering that maybe we’ve got some parts of the loop wrong. What if the main reason our friend made this app was to showcase their programming skills? In this case, the value of Interactions is primarily in the “shipped an app that has X million active users” line in their resume. Though the Klaxon app customer-vendor loop is unlikely to be compounding, it might get our friend a great next gig.

Such seemingly non-compounding loops are found quite often in the wild. They exist as tools, as flow accelerants or stock accumulators for some other loops. They may appear as useless or incomplete when viewed in isolation. However, when combined with another loop, they suddenly sparkle compounding magic. A large part of strategy is about discerning the combination of incomplete loops that form a thriving, symbiotic relationship. From this perspective, a business is a large collection of incomplete loops striving to form into a single something that generates value. Whether or not they succeed defines the viability of the business.

Zooming back into the local perspective, it might be helpful for a team to recognize when their customer-vendor loop is incomplete and stay conscious of it. Even if they are an effective tool for another loop, incompleteness is still a weakness and a source of potential future threats and opportunities. Loop dependencies are dynamic in nature. They shift and change.

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