Book Review: Defy Gravity

November 22, 2010

In Defy Gravity: Propel Your Business to High-Velocity Growth, Rebel Brown shows business owners and executives how to shed the weight of legacy baggage, filter out the noise and focus on those opportunities which provide the best potential for profitable growth. This is a critical guidebook for any business faced with shrinking margins, flatlined revenue, or worse–that is in freefall and in need of a turnaround strategy for survival.

Defy Gravity by Rebel BrownTo illustrate her points throughout the book, Rebel metaphorically uses the language of flight—gravity, lift, thrust, waypoints, trim tabs—much as Tom Hayes employed terms from the old west in Maverick Marketing. In the book’s first section, “Sources of Gravity,” Rebel details how old practices and beliefs can weigh a company down, preventing it from reaching its potential altitude of profitability and speed of growth. Most of these will be familiar to anyone with a few years of business experience behind them: “it’s our biggest seller!” (even though it’s rapidly becoming yesterday’s technology), “They’re our biggest customer” (highest revenue doesn’t always equate to most profitable), “but the other guys have it” (the fallacy of chasing the competition) and more.

On one particularly sensitive topic in this section—the drag that can be created by long-time employees clinging to the status quo rather than evolving with the company—is handled graciously. Loyal employees shouldn’t be discarded cavalierly with every change in the wind. Their knowledge and opinions matter; if they are resisting a change in direction, listen to make sure what they’re saying really is status quo baggage thinking, and not a prescient warning of hidden dangers in the new course of action. If it is truly resistance to needed change, give them a chance to get on board with the new flight plan. At that point, if they continue to be a source of drag, and worse, make an effort to persuade others to sabotage efforts at changing direction, it’s time to gracefully help them find a seat on another plane.

This a high-level strategy book written for leaders of any sized business. Though Rebel provide guidance on tactics to identify value and evaluate markets, she flies well above the tree tops throughout the book.

At its most basic level, her guidance is: identify your true sources of value—not the ones you think you have, but the ones your best customers (and potential customers) attribute to your company and offerings—and then focus all of your efforts on the most profitable (even if not always the largest in revenue terms) segments. That’s oversimplifying her message, but gets to the heart of it. As she summarizes at the end of chapter 12, “There are two primary sources of sustainable growth: true value and market opportunity. You can’t have one without the other and expect to reach full business velocity.”

She reminds us throughout the book, however, that as obvious as these recommendations may seem, they often fail in practice for a multitude of reasons. The most common is managing based on historical results—expecting the future to be a continuation of the past. Though this is not actually unusual in the business world, Rebel equates it to a pilot trying to fly a plane by looking at what’s behind him to show how absurd this is; no one would want to be on that flight. We want a pilot whose eyes are on the horizon in front of us; businesses run best when managed the same way, looking forward at changing market conditions and needs.

Among Rebel’s insights:

  • • “Market leaders recognize that their best seller isn’t a specific product or approach. They identify their sustainable value as customer benefit, not a specific product.” Take Apple as an example; though the company has lots of outstanding products, it’s core value isn’t a single product but rather cool technology that works reliably.
  • • Every organization has three distinct types of value that it is critical to identify properly: company value (i.e., “the brand”), product value (why your customers buy your product or service) and market value (leadership, reputation, unique position). Company value is relatively unchanging, or at most slowly evolving, over time. Product value lasts only as long as product lifecycles.
  • • “Don’t be surprised if the sales reps are selling to a subset of what you believe are current market opportunities. Reps sell where they win, to, wherever they are winning, that’s your current market focus. You’ll find that your best sales reps do not waste time on the target markets you choose for them…Where they focus is your current market opportunity, whether you want to believe it or not. Pay attention.”
  • • While you need to understand the competition you’re up against, “don’t start doing deep competitive analysis. That’s not what you need. You need to know the market positions of established market leaders–if there are any…For all markets, understanding the competitive landscape is key to a decision about your strategic course and focus. Just don’t follow your competitors. Think for yourself!”
  • • “One of the biggest mistakes we make in our growth strategies is to assume that we can create demand in the markets we select. That takes big money and lots of time. We’re better off focusing on a market that already has demand, capturing a ready-made opportunity instead of attempting to create a new market space.”
  • • “Leaders, it’s really important that you let folks know that you want real-world estimates. Too many employees are trained to say they can do more than they can, in reality, to look good and to please their managers. Change this behavior if you want to succeed and grow.” The head of the agency I’m with refers to this as “setting proper expectations” and it’s critical for properly allocating budget and effort, and producing results everyone is pleased with.

Boston Consulting Group MatrixThe strategy section at the end of the book is bit reminiscent of the classic Boston Consulting Group matrix, though Rebels observations and recommendations are more nuanced and advanced. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to talk about airplanes, waypoints and flight decks than dogs and cows. She richly illustrates her points throughout with a variety of case studies from the B2B and consumer marketing realms.

If your business is growing more rapidly and profitably than you ever dreamed, you can afford to ignore this book (at least for now). But if it’s more like the other 98% of businesses—struggling to keep up with the pace of market change and maintain profitable growth—Rebel Brown’s Defy Gravity may very well provide your flight plan for resumed or continued growth and success.

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13 Responses


  1. Alex 

    “On one particularly sensitive topic in this section—the drag that can be created by long-time employees clinging to the status quo rather than evolving with the company—is handled graciously. ”

    This seems like the most intriguing part of the review. Change can hurt for some peopple. I will look into this publication. Thanks.


  2. Tom 

    Thanks Alex.


  3. Vivian 

    ““On one particularly sensitive topic in this section—the drag that can be created by long-time employees clinging to the status quo rather than evolving with the company—is handled graciously. ”

    This seems like the most intriguing part of the review. Change can hurt for some peopple.”

    Very true. Not a lot of people are willing to take the risk since most of them believe that what they’ve already been doing is already proven to ‘successfully’ work.


  4. Tom 

    Indeed. Rebel advocates doing one’s best to get everyone onboard with the new direction. But those who refuse and actively work to undermine it create “drag” and at some point must be encouraged to explore different opportunities.

  5. Coming from an Employee?s point of view, this book will be helpful. I had never thought that my fear of change could have such a negative effect on how the business is run and also cause possible problems for myself. I will definitely give this a go thanks.

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  6. Sounds like an intriguing read… I think I’m going to have to give it a read.

    I agree with the part about “long-time employees sticking to the status quo rather than evolving with the company.” Sometimes this is crucial for a business to be successful… especially with the rate things are changing these days. You have to stay ahead of the curve, and that applies to your employees as well.


  7. Tom 

    Thanks for the comment John. Change can be difficult. But it is essential.


  8. Ryan 

    “Market leaders recognize that their best seller isn’t a specific product or approach. They identify their sustainable value as customer benefit, not a specific product.”

    This is such a valuable insight, well worth the price of admission. I wish I had heard of this concept when I started my first business – it still might be around.

    Thanks for posting your review of this book I’m going to buy and devour.


  9. Tom 

    Glad t hear that Ryan, and good luck!

  10. This is great I am battling right now. It seems the battle cry of the elderly is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I’m trying to get our company to evolve and take a more aggressive approach on the Internet. Every time I try to get everyone involved on mobile and deep into the Internet they push back. Change for some is hard to come by. Thanks


  11. Tom 

    As the saying goes Joe – if you think change is hard, try not changing. Businesses that fail to adapt to the new social/mobile world will struggle against more agile competitors.

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