The myth of low-hanging fruit

Be careful when you use the word “easy” to describe other people’s jobs.

Illustration by Jason Zimdars

I bet you’ve muttered or heard at least one of these suggestions from someone else in your office:

  • “We’ve never had anyone in business development, so there must be a ton of low-hanging fruit she can go after with just a little bit of effort.”
  • “We’ve never done any social media outreach, so imagine how much new traffic” — low-hanging fruit — “we’ll get if we just start tweeting stuff out.”
  • “We’ve never followed up with customers who cancel to better understand why they left, so I’m certain there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to be had if we do those interviews.”

I’ll confess I’m definitely guilty of having thought in these terms. Why wouldn’t I? By definition, pursuing low-hanging fruit should be a no-brainer for any business. An easy opportunity simply waiting to be seized. Little sweat, all reward!

The problem, as I’ve learned over time, is that the notion of low-hanging fruit is often flawed. We assume that picking it will be easy only because we’ve never tried to do it before. You think you know, but actually you don’t.

In my mind, declaring that an unfamiliar task will yield low-hanging fruit is almost always an admission that you have little insight about what you’re setting out to do. And any estimate of how much work it’ll take to do something you’ve never tried before is likely to be off by degrees of magnitude.

What’s worse is when you load up these expectations on employees or new hires and assume they’ll meet them all, quickly. You’re basically setting them up to fail.

We recently found ourselves in this very position. We hired someone for the first time to run business development at Basecamp. We figured we would make a few calls, quickly line up a few partnerships, and see the results pour in. Since we’d never had anyone focus on this area previously, we counted on there being a load of treasure just inches beneath the surface. How hard could it be, right? Turns out, we’ve had to do quite a lot more digging than we realized to unearth the gold. In fact, we’re still looking!

The same thing happened when we decided to begin an email drip campaign — to increase conversions of Basecamp trial customers to paying ones — which we’d surprisingly never attempted before. Previously, we had been sending users an email when they signed up, and nothing much after that. So we decided that sending a few more follow-up emails over the next several days might quickly move the conversion numbers north.

Low-hanging fruit, right? Wrong.

Certainly, we can move the numbers . And we’ve already learned a ton from these new drip campaigns. But the idea that you’ll instantly move needles because you’ve never tried to move them until now is, well, delusional. Sometimes you get lucky and things are as easy as you had imagined, but that’s rarely the case. Most conversion work, most business-development work, most sales work is a grind — a lot of effort for a little movement. You pile those little movements into a big one eventually, but that fruit is way up at the top of the tree.

So the next time you call someone’s job easy — or tell an employee to go pick some low-hanging fruit — stop yourself. Respect the work that you’ve never done before. Remind yourself that other people’s jobs aren’t so simple. Results rarely come without effort. If momentum and experience is on your side, what is hard can masquerade as easy, but never forget that not having done something before doesn’t make it easy. It usually makes it hard.

This article also appears in the September 2016 issue of Inc. Magazine.

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