What does freedom mean to business people?

When you ask business owners why they started their company, you frequently hear these words: Freedom and opportunity.

Opportunity tends to have a narrow definition. Someone sees potential in a market and goes after it. Opportunity may also mean the ability to make more than they could make at a job.

Freedom’s meaning seems to vary a bit more from owner to owner, at least as it relates to “I started my business because I wanted more freedom“. Knowing exactly what it means to you is critical. Those specifics will impact on how your company takes shape, how it’s run and eventually, how it appears to potential buyers.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been in a number of conversations with owners who are planning or considering the sale of their business. Some haven’t made the “I want to sell” decision yet. Those who haven’t decided yet are still  focused on improving their business practices. These changes will make their businesses more attractive to potential buyers if and when that time comes.

Working toward a better freedom

When discussing what needs to be done to sell your company, there’s usually a long list of things that the owner wants to improve before looking for buyers. Since your company will benefit from a subset of these improvements even if you don’t sell the company, be sure to focus on those things first.

Why?

First – Anything that makes the company better also improves it for you between now and the time you do close a deal. If you never close a deal, you still benefit.

Second – Some of the things you’d to prepare will only benefit you in situations where an “investor-class” buyer is involved, such as a private equity group.

Selling your business to “someone in your town” is much different than selling it to investors. The more sophisticated the buyer, the more complicated, annoying, and costly the due diligence process will be. Be sure that the prospect is dead serious before venturing into this process because it won’t be fun, cheap or easy – and it’s possible their intentions won’t be honorable. Doing your homework is essential.

How does this relate to freedom? The improvements you make should improve the freedom your business provides – and these things are almost always the same things that make the business more attractive to buyers.

What does freedom mean to you?

Specifically, what freedom does your business provide – or what freedom do you want it to provide?

Whether you are looking at what happens after you sell your business, or simply what will happen once your business reaches the point of being able to support you – it’s critical that you know exactly where you want it to take you.

Does freedom mean more time? What’s that mean for you?

Working fewer hours than at your last job? Working at home vs. having to commute? Being home every weekend? Not having to travel 25-30 weeks per year? Having the ability to come and go at will? Having a more flexible schedule day to day than at your last 8-5 job?

Businesses that provide time freedom typically have a team doing the day to day work. At first, the owner might be managing the team. Over time, owners need to recruit and/or develop someone to manage their team.

Companies structured like this can be easier to sell because they aren’t as dependent on the owner to run them day to day, much less to create revenue. They also provide smoother continuity if the owner dies or is disabled.

Does freedom mean more money? What’s that mean for you?

Does it mean that your income is more secure? More resilient? More diverse? Less likely to be at the whim of someone else?

What aspects of the business protect that income, your pipeline, etc? How resilient is that income if you have to interrupt your work (as owner) to care for a family member for more than a day or two?

Companies where income freedom is more important than time freedom can be harder to sell if the owner is critical to day to day operations.

Either way, the important thing is knowing what you want & structuring your business to support that over the long term.

Photo by USAG-Humphreys

Quality management’s slow ROI

We talk about numbers, metrics, & dashboards from time to time. One of the more difficult things to measure, much less manage, is quality.

Is there a single measure?

Some might suggest Net Promoter Score as an ideal single measure. NPS ranges from -100 to 100. It represents the willingness of a company’s customers to recommend their products & services to others.

If your business makes / sells cars, what single measure indicates your overall quality? Number of recalls per model year? Number of cars returned under lemon laws? Annual average cost of warranty repairs? Repeat sales?

Quality management is difficult

What makes it so hard to manage & measure quality?

Cost: Quality management systems are expensive, at least they feel that way. If you manufacture things (including software), the investment necessary to measure & report quality can easily approach the cost of producing the product. Finding the ROI is difficult at best, while the price sticks out of your P&L like an ingrown toenail.

Time: Quality control isn’t easy, fast, or simple. Measuring & reporting quality either during or immediately after the manufacturing process is a complex, incrementally-built thing. It takes time to build. If your team’s culture is focused on speed above all else, quality management may not make your “projects to implement” list.

Quarterly expectations: Time-to-return-on-investment compounds the difficulty. Quality control feels like an expensive, plodding animal, making it easy to view as an extravagance rather than an investment.

Accountability: Quality measurement can feel like blame creation, rather than data collection. Accountability must extend beyond the head/hands of the worker to the team’s management, systems, and to the training & tools provided to that worker. Quality work is accountable by design, and rarely happens by accident. It’s resilient, running for days or weeks at a time without stopping. It’s ready for the edge cases that try to inject chaos into your customers’ world. Customers appreciate when the products they buy can take a punch.

Culture: Quality isn’t a job. It’s a value. If your team sees it as an incumbent part of their job, it will change their work, how they work, & how they think about their work. If someone doesn’t see quality as part of their job, they may need training. If training fails, they may fit in better elsewhere. People who value quality don’t want to work with those who don’t value it. Who would you rather lose?

Every job is a quality job

Years ago, a leadership instructor moped into the room after a break & started droning on in monotone. He sounded like he was having the worst day of his life. After a few minutes, he took a break. When he returned, his mood was positive & very happy to be there – despite being in the same room with the same people.

He stopped for a minute & asked if anyone wanted the old, depressing guy to return. No one did. His lesson from that little act was that “Every job is a sales job.” If you’ve ever been “greeted” by a sullen receptionist, the meaning of “every job is a sales job” is obvious.

The point? Every job is also a quality management job.

Like the sullen receptionist, it only takes one person, event or action to make us forget the good work a business has done. Similarly, when one department’s role in quality management fails, it devalues the work of the rest of the company.

Quality management systems help us monitor & correct these things before they cause reputation damage.

Forests, forest fires, and reputation

In a world dominated by short term views, quality management’s slow ROI & difficult to identify returns seem too expensive & time-consuming to invest in. Even for those who invest, a ROI search in their accounting system comes up empty.

As a result, a bad financial period makes it easy to cut what seems like an extravagance that isn’t contributing to the bottom line.

Think twice.

Quality & reputation can be both sturdy & fragile, like a forest. It takes decades to grow a healthy forest. Reputations grow similarly.

Like a random lightning strike, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt, or an abandoned campfire can destroy a decades-old forest in hours, a change in quality that goes undetected can cause reputation damage that takes months or years to recover.

Does your business have months or years of staying power? In a pinch, you can borrow to bridge a short-term cash flow gap.

You can’t borrow reputation.

Headspace, creativity & cartooning

As kids, I suspect most of us doodled in school notebooks, etc. My cartoon doodles were ink blot simple. At some point, I stopped. For decades, my only artistic-related creativity outlet was photography – which I first learned to do with a film camera when I was five.

That’s the backstory.

Enter the cartoon

Over the last few months, I’ve been taking a cartooning class. In the coming months, you’ll see why. Right now, what’s important is how cartooning helped me reach an epiphany re: “real work”.

The cartooning course starts simply by learning better hand / pencil control. You develop muscle memory as you would when running football drills or practicing dance moves. Next, we trace & hand copy – all intended to improve drawing mechanics, make you better at editing yourself, seeing how subtle details make a substantial difference in the impact & realism of a cartoon.

Up to this point, I’m doing fine. My cartoons are better than I expected them to be so far (low expectations), but I’m no Gary Larsen.

Then it happens. We’re asked to start adding a handful of doodles to our daily drawing tasks. This means I have to make up stuff. From scratch.

Result: I hit a wall.

My day was so scheduled with tasks, professional and personal responsibilities, etc (including the specific cartooning assignments) that by the time I was ready to doodle, I’d exhausted the creative juices that doodling requires. I was left with a painfully blank page.

A blank page is an awful thing. When writing this piece each week, I usually have a topic or experience that bubbled up as “topic of the week”. Occasionally, there’s something to discuss that takes a few weeks (like two pizza teams). When I start these pieces with a blank page rather than having a seed of an idea, you (the reader) can probably tell. Those weeks, my writing seems weaker, at least to me.

Blank page. Blank slate. Empty lot.

Back to the cartoons. I stared at the blank page & didn’t know what to doodle. Eventually I got them done, but they lacked creativity and felt uninspired. Something was wrong.

Then it hit me.

I’d been struggling with a similar problem on a greenfield project that’s moving too slowly (vs. my expectation). It isn’t that I wasn’t allocating focused time to it, but it was stuck.

The blank slate is a challenge. But why?

“Greenfield” projects start from an empty page, a blank slate, an empty lot. “Brownfield” projects work with existing assets / projects, like remodeling an existing house.

Looking in from the outside

Fenced-off focus time has always worked for me when I need to get serious work-in-the-business (skill) tasks & work-on-the-business (manager) tasks done.

Sometimes high level (executive / investor) work gets done there, but historically, I’ve needed more of that time – particularly as I see things today. It’s a classic operations trap  (too much working in, not enough working on) that focus time usually cures.

However, focus time wasn’t doing it this time.

Here’s where cartooning provided the epiphany: The cartooning instructor suggested that I use references from line art, even when doodling. Why? Our mind fills in the gaps when we see fast moving actions like dancing and sports. This makes it difficult to visualize & cartoon a moment in time. Meanwhile, remembering those things is easy, like a movie in our head.

During the next doodle session, I realized the trouble I was having with doodling creativity was the same problem slowing down the creative process on that greenfield project. Worse yet, I realized that this could also affect higher level work & thinking on executive & investor level tasks.

My takeaway: I wasn’t using enough reference info for the greenfield project.

Your takeaway: Blank page projects are easier get rolling when using reference info (like seeds) to germinate creativity & accelerate progress. Give it a try.

Bonus takeaway: I’ve learned the “uninspired / unimaginative” thing can be my opinion only (rest assured, sometimes it isn’t). When I look at a page of cartoons right after I’ve finished them, I see through eyes that still feel the frustration of being unable to draw what the mind conceives. My reaction? “These need a lot of improvement.” When I look the next day, or even an hour or so later, they usually look much better. Let your work percolate a bit, then review it. Fresh eyes have value.

Photo by UBC Learning Commons

Went to the gym once. Didn’t work.

You’ve probably heard about things that didn’t work in someone else’s business. The story probably included an assertion that whatever isn’t working for someone else also wouldn’t so won’t work in yours. The tool itself is generally irrelevant. More often than not, the problem is a lack of consistency.

Execution isn’t easy. We do the wrong things. We do the right things at the wrong time. We fail to prioritize, or prioritize poorly – often doing the urgent rather than than the important. Each of those things have their own solution, tactic, or cure. The challenge is executing every day, every hour, every appointment – as appropriate for the solution, tactic, or cure. To be as effective and efficient as possible, all of these things require consistent execution.

We all have a ton of things to do. It takes a systematic intent to consistently eliminate tasks of no / low value, making room for the high value work our peers and customers need most.

Consistency gives

Consistency has a number of benefits. If you are consistently good, people will depend on you / your company – and soon get to the point where their expectations are that you will always do, say, and deliver what they expect. This clientele will tell people. Some of them, the most rabid types, will tell lots of people. A small percentage of them will practically take it as an insult if one of their friends or colleagues don’t use their consistent vendor.

Consistency gives your clients something steady to latch onto at a time when many of them feel there is little they can depend on other than themselves. Outside of your spouse and perhaps a few others, do you have a vendor you can depend on no matter what? One that you would bet your business on? Think about the peace of mind that would give you if you had that kind of vendor (or vendors) in place.

Consistency is a quality you can sell, price higher, and use as leverage when competing for a new customer. Anyone can make a single sale. Consistent vendors make that sale while claiming an asset – a new, long term customer.

Consistency takes

Do you have vendors or places you do business with as a consumer where you always have to remind about delivery or deadlines? Do you frequently have to correct a vendor’s work or invoices / paperwork? Do their work habits force you to be the one who must consistently follow up about promises, on-time delivery, service windows, quality and completeness? Is that the exception or the rule?

How does that make you feel? What’s it feel like the next time you have to purchase or get service from a vendor like that? Do you dread it?

Are you repeatedly changing vendors in an attempt to find one that you can consistently depend on? How does that feel?

Does your business track churn?

Churn happens when a business gets X new customers and loses Y customers each month. If you have to track it, you’ve probably got a churn problem. Maybe it reflects the direction and growth of your MRR (monthly recurring revenue) due to your business model.

Churn happens because customers cannot depend upon multiple vendors in your market. Yes, others are part of this as well, otherwise new customers wouldn’t be filling YOUR bucket that’s also leaking customers every month. Some may be new to the market, but a reasonable percentage of those new customers are coming from other vendors who aren’t taking good care of them. How long will you keep them? Consistency is a factor.

If you ever ask a former customer who churned away from you, they will almost always say they left because of price. Price is an easy excuse to use and it’s one they know you will be least likely to argue about. However, churn is rarely about price. More often than not, it’s the last straw after a customer has lost patience in the consistency of your product / service quality. First they get frustrated, then the investment seems like a waste, and finally, they’ve had enough.

No one gets into business to intentionally be bad at something. It takes effort. Wasted motion. Lost focus. Lack of intent.

Process by process, employee by employee, consistent execution improves quality. Going to the gym once doesn’t produce ideal results. Neither does inconsistent execution.Photo by Dan Harrelson

Do towns benefit from building 2 pizza teams?

What’s the big deal about building an environment that creates the ideal conditions to form a two pizza team? Having startups to talk about at the Chamber lunch is exciting, but this isn’t about improving your cool factor. Improving the finances of your town’s families is important, but there are bigger benefits that affect everyone in town: economic diversification and risk reduction.

What risk?

When 100 families in a town depend on one employer, the current and future health of that town depends on that company, their management, the market they’re in, the market of raw materials they consume (if any), the owners, and so on. One mistake of the wrong kind can put the finances of 100 families at risk – all at once. When 100 (or 1000, or 10000) families in one town depend on one employer, the risk to the finances of that town is higher than the sum of the paychecks involved. All of us can probably cite an example where one of these companies failed, was forced out of business, or was bought out / divested, etc. The reasons don’t matter as we rarely have control over them. Diversifying your local economy is one defensive strategy against such events.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t seek big companies (no matter what “big” means to your town) or grow them locally. We should, but we have to do more than simply seek large employers to the exclusion of all other strategies. Expect that this won’t be what many are used to or expect. Be ready to defend those efforts with progress reports and outcomes, rather than “we know better than you” opinions. You should expect to be questioned about your efforts. The quality of your plans, your transparency, and the frequency and candor of your progress reports will all contribute to getting more people on board.

The economic diversification that comes from the creation of an annual two pizza team will surely be slow, but few lasting things of this nature happen quickly. The political (not necessarily election-related) pressure on economic development teams to bring 100 or 1000 jobs to town at one time is tempting, but in most cases, it isn’t realistic. Enabling and encouraging the entrepreneurs in your town to build new payrolls at a steady pace while other efforts continue is best. You aren’t creating a competition – you’re making your community’s interdependent economy more resilient for everyone.

Job security comes, in part, from economic diversification

Not everyone is going to be interested in taking the leap and creating one of these companies – and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, those who don’t take the leap still need work.

Finding a new job is not a fun experience. It’s sometimes easier not to change jobs and employees. Given the difficulty of hiring and being hired, it sometimes seems like neither employers nor candidates want to go through the hiring / interview process one more time. Despite the mix of sometimes unsightly job / employee seeking situations, there are companies out there who want to find good employees, pay them fairly and keep them. Likewise, there are employees who want to find a solid employer and stay with them for a long time.

The companies that start off as two pizza teams and stick around are likely to be able to do these things. That they’re working toward giving up whatever job security they have *and* creating something new leaves the impression that they want something better. You’d think that they will want something better for their staff as well.

Jobs at these kind of companies often go beyond “just a paycheck”. The motivation for these startups is frequently rooted in the founders’ previous financial / job hardship and/or insecurity, so creating that kind of security for employees is a high priority. The job insecure folks in your community have a job, or two, or maybe three. When those jobs are at risk, and/or seasonal, and/or part-time, the stress and related cognitive load on that family affects everyone.

The obvious benefits of adding new (hopefully stable) payrolls to your town’s families are positive, but the benefits go beyond a particular family’s new source of income. Spreading the creation and stability of family economies across different industries and companies creates a resilience more towns could use. Photo by checkyourhead90 Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read

Your town can fuel the rise of two pizza teams

Last time, I noted that Amazon received no HQ2 (second Amazon global headquarters location) proposals from communities in a number of rural states. At the time, I noted that the decision to pass on that opportunity was a well-considered choice.

More importantly, I asked the following question:

What would the impact be if your community had five new, active payrolls of that size five years from now? “Technology” could be software, wood products, water purification, medical research, etc.

Payrolls “of that size” refers to two pizza teams, ie: a team small enough that you can feed it with two pizzas.

I’d like to talk about what communities can do to encourage the formation of two pizza team. Every community can gain from the benefits these teams produce.

You’re not too rural for pizza

Rural communities can benefit from the kind of jobs HQ2 will bring, without bringing Amazon to town. If your community manages to do what’s necessary to help build only one new 300-400K payroll in town every year or two – the benefits are substantial.

The initial question to address is “What should communities do to create a local culture that encourages the formation of these teams?”

Your town already has an entrepreneurial petri dish, but in most cases, new business creation currently depends on:

1) the bullheaded optimism of entrepreneurs (and sometimes, their access to capital), or

2) Desperate situations demanding that the impacted family do something, anything to create an income.

In both cases, these creations tend to be tied to a short list of highly-motivated (internally or externally) individuals. Some families have always started businesses, so their kids learn to do the same. Others are forced into it. Both groups experience varying levels of success.

We want to create conditions that make your entrepreneurial petri dish a bit warmer and a bit more nutritious, making it easier to grow something in it. A stronger entrepreneurial culture is more likely to hatch a creation that can survive on its own when transplanted into the real world.

While funding is important for some businesses, most two pizza teams start off as knowledge-based businesses that don’t need large capital expenses to get started. Capital needs will likely appear during periods of fast growth.

Fuel for two pizza teams

Two pizza teams need:

  • ideas that serve a hungry market
  • people with the right skills and the spare time to devote to their “side hustle”
  • the confidence to adjust & keep trying when things aren’t going so well

Communities don’t need an inventory of unserved ideas to hand out to wanna-be entrepreneurs. Instead, create conditions that consistently produce ideas. These include Startup Weekends, makerspaces, meetups, & coworking spaces.

Almost any clean, empty warehouse / retail space will do. Dedicated, fancy areas aren’t required. Start with a library or business conference room. Meeting in a clean, safe, empty warehouse or retail space is an inexpensive way to get meeting space while raising awareness of a space looking for its next productive use.

The keys? Create a constructive environment for discussion, formation, & execution of ideas – and get the right mix of people there.

How can community leaders help?

Every community has people with the skills to create a side hustle. What they often lack is experience, confidence, a group to brainstorm with and to ask “Does this make any sense at all?”.

What encourages people to have the confidence to suffer through the rough times? Experience. Mentors. Sounding boards. A community of business owners / side-hustlers who are going through & have gone through that bramble of thorns and roses.

Community leaders can leverage their connections to experienced business owners / managers & local angel groups to get them involved and gain access to meeting space. Like-minded people with the right skills & spare time meet each other at these gatherings. When experienced business owners add their voice, their insight & mentoring builds confidence in those trying to figure it all out.

The confidence part is important. When a small group of people is dedicated to turning an idea into a side hustle & then a payroll, they need the self assurance to weather whatever storms come over the ridge. They need know that it’s OK to pivot (ie: adjust their business and business model to reality) rather than quit.

Every community has a meeting space, experienced business people & folks looking to start a business who need advice & critical mass. Get them together.

Photo by cote

Do rural communities need Amazon HQ2?

After Amazon announced they would be building a second headquarters somewhere in the U.S., they received a predictable flood of urban tax incentives and offers of “Take my community, please” (apologies to Mr. Youngman). 238 of them, in fact, because few companies can say they’ll bring 50,000 jobs to a community and back it up with action. Amazon is one of them.

Why rural didn’t apply

If you look at the map, you’ll notice that no community proposals came from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Hawaii, Arkansas, or Wyoming. If you live in one of those states, you might be frustrated by their failure to apply.

I don’t believe it was a failure. It was a well-considered choice. In the past, I have chided some rural communities for not applying for community-transforming projects like Google Fiber. This time, no application was the right call for these areas.

Speculation in the tech press stated that Amazon received no applications from these states for reasons that are “unclear” and that it might be “anti-corporate sentiment“, or because these states were “off-put by the company’s preference for government incentives“. The reasons for the lack of rural applications seem pretty obvious if you live in a rural area.

Some examples, and a few counterpoints to the speculation:

  • Amazon’s stated desire is to build HQ2 in an area with a population of at least a million people. Several of these states have barely a million people total, much less a metro area of that size.
  • An Amazon HQ2 building with 50,000 employees would be the second, third, or fourth largest city in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming.
  • No one in their right (ethical) mind would apply knowing that they can’t come close to filling 50,000 new Amazon jobs with local people. Amazon can build a successful data center here, but a new HQ? Nope.
  • These rural states don’t have the airport routes / seats / facilities that HQ2 will demand. We can build the facilities, but the seats and routes will take time. Upside: The additional routes and seats required to support HQ2 would benefit us as our low traffic numbers balloon our air travel costs to ridiculous levels.
  • These states already provide government incentives to other businesses, though not likely at the scale Amazon might be seeing. We have plenty of sizable corporations – even some multi-nationals.
  • Hawaii makes no sense due to massive amount of air travel required.
  • The ideal Arkansas metro area for Amazon HQ2 is in the northwest corner: arch-rival Wal-Mart’s back yard. No one in NWA is crazy enough to enrage WMT, even though the land availability, cost of living, and the necessary volume of in-context skill positions are available.

Yes, but we’re too rural for Amazon

Yes, you are – and it’s OK.

Even if Amazon lost its mind and came to your rural community – is that what your town really needs? Probably not.

While small, rural communities can’t get, don’t need and can’t handle hosting a facility the size of Amazon’s new headquarters, they’d still benefit from the kind of jobs HQ2 will bring. So what do you do to bring these jobs to rural communities?

The too-obvious choice is often to chase companies that are trying to move or expand from other areas. Rural communities don’t need tens of thousands of these jobs. In fact, they need fewer than they might think.

Suggestion: Think small.

Two pizzas

Jeff Bezos’ famous “two pizza rule” says if it takes more than two pizzas to feed a team, it’s too big. Figuring two or three slices per person, you’re looking at feeding a team of five to eight. Can your community do what’s necessary to help its people create just one new two-pizza-team each year?

You might be thinking “One team per year? Why bother?”

A team might be one administrative position, one founder / manager type, and three to five technical people (whatever “technical people” means). Figure a total annual payroll of somewhere between $300K and $450K. The total might be higher, but it probably shouldn’t be lower – unless you want to lose repeatedly lose people. Startups don’t need that.

What would the impact be if your community had five new, active payrolls of that size five years from now? “Technology” could be software, wood products, water purification, medical research, etc.

Next time, we’ll talk about what communities can do to encourage the formation of these teams.

Are you using comfortable tools?

Almost all work teams use tools. Sometimes these tools change over time, sometimes they don’t. Some tools have a long history and rarely change from their original form – other than perhaps the materials they’re made of. The pocket knife is a good example. While it was once wood, bone or stone, over centuries it evolved to steel and other metals. Today, you can buy a pocket knife in almost any form you want. If you have the right tools, you could make the knife yourself.

Comfortable tools, comfortable shoes

We can get so comfortable with a favorite tool that we don’t consider the use of alternatives. In some cases, we might be blind to alternatives or improvements. Either we don’t realize that everyone who generally does what we do has moved on to new, better, safer, or more productive tools, or we aren’t paying much attention to changes in our industry.

Tools become like comfortable shoes or a car that we’ve owned for a long time. They fit just right. They don’t give us blisters (real or mental). We become so adept at using them to perform our work that they become a part of us. We can use them to perform a task and find ourselves done with the task and realize that we performed the task without really thinking about it. At that point, work becomes much like muscle memory. We can do it inattentively or without focused thought.

While this sort of comfort and familiarity is a good thing, we need to be careful not to let ourselves be lulled into complacency.

Are your tools state of the art, or close?

When we don’t get outside of our comfort zone on tools – and this could be tools of any kind – things can happen to our work and our output that we never saw coming. If you still use a claw hammer for every nail you drive, the houses you build will be as sturdy as those built by someone with a modern tool like the pneumatic nail gun. The problem you might run into is your level of productivity would be the close to what it was 40 years ago. That might seem ok until your ability to complete a structure in a particular time frame is compared to builders who use nail guns.

The nail gun is an example and these issues aren’t limited to any single trade, skill, or career. Even if you love your industry’s equivalent of the claw hammer, it’s worth taking time to review the alternatives that have sprouted in the last year. Some industries experience tool changes quite frequently. In particular, software changes in many industries, but there are many other changes that occur frequently that you may not want to (or need to) switch to. Even so, stay aware of them.

Flavor of the month

Tools in some industries change so frequently that keeping up with them can put a serious dent in productivity. Thrashing around because you’re constantly changing to the “flavor of the month” tool-wise adds hidden burdens to your productivity and costs to the bottom line. This is one of those areas where you see software changes creating problems. This isn’t as much about the software industry as it is about the industry where the tools are used. The software business has plenty of challenges with flavor of the month technologies – but they aren’t alone.

If you feel like you are repeatedly tempted by the “bright, shiny object” tool-wise, stop to reflect a bit on what’s creating the desire to switch to another tool. Is it desire or need? Marketing tools frequently fall into this category, while proven, productive activities such as the manual labor of following up after a sales call are neglected.

Tool changes are often positioned as eliminating the need for a skilled craftsman (regardless of gender), or eliminating the need for a tool user with substantial training and experience. Safety is often a prime component in the introduction of newer tools. None of these things replace training, skill, and experience with a tool. Even with 3-D printing and similar technologies, there’s skill, experience and training at some point in the process.

Build a process with your team that evaluates new tools and gets people to stretch their comfort zone beyond the tools they’re familiar with. This tempers “random” tool changes & allows both experienced & novice staff to offer input & learn the business process for evaluating tools.

Photo by moonrat42

Selling someone else’s products

Have you ever thought about selling someone else’s products? When you sell someone else’s products,  parts of that vendor’s business obviously become a part of yours: their products and services. However, the reality is a good bit more complicated.

Be sure what business you’re in

When you consider selling someone else’s products, it’s critical to assess whether the product is germane to what you do.

For example, it isn’t hard to find stores selling fidget spinners. They’re an impulse buy that could add a small bump to daily sales, so grocery stores, convenience stores and the like could justify selling them back when they were hot.

However, it makes little sense to see these gadgets advertised on outdoor signage at pawn shops and musical instrument stores – which I’ve seen lately. The logic behind advertising out-of-context impulse items on a specialty retail store’s limited outdoor signage escapes me – particularly on high traffic streets.

Will it confuse their market? Will they lose their focus by selling a few $2.99 items? Doubtful. While they’re trying something to increase revenue, the emphasis on an out-of-context, low-priced impulse buy product is the reason I bring it up. It makes no sense for a specialty retailer.

When you start selling someone else’s product, there are questions you don’t want your clients and prospects asking. They include “Have their lost their focus?” and “What business is my vendor really in?”  These questions can make your clientele wonder if another vendor would serve them better.

Should you sell out of market?

I had this “Is it in context?” discussion with some software business owners this week.

One of the owners (not the tool vendor) is asking the group to sell the development tools they use to their customers & other markets. Ordinarily, this would be a head scratcher, since most software development tools generate their own momentum, and/or are marketed and sold with a reasonable amount of expertise. That isn’t the case with this tool vendor.

However, the discussion really isn’t about that tool vendor, even though they’re at the center of the discussion being had by these business owners. The important thing for you is the “Should we sell this product?” analysis.

Start the conversation by bluntly asking yourself if makes sense for your business to sell this product.

Adjacent space or different planet?

If your company sells to businesses that develop software internally or for sale to others, then you might consider selling a vendor’s software development tools to your customers. It might make sense if you sell into enterprise IT.

However, if you sell software to family-owned, local businesses like auto parts stores and bakeries, it makes no sense at all. You’re going to appear to be from another planet going to these customers to sell software development tools.

If you try to sell these tools in an unfamiliar market, then you’re starting fresh in a market your team probably isn’t used to selling and marketing into. The chance of losing focus is significant unless you’re leading your current market by a sizable margin and have plenty of extra resources.

Ideally, a new product line feels congruent to your team, clients and prospects. Even when it’s a good match, the work’s barely started as selling and supporting a ready-to-sell product requires a pile of prep work.

Your sales team needs training to sell the product and know how/when to integrate it into multi-product solutions. You need to include the product in your marketing and training mix. Your support team needs training to provide the level of support that your customers expect. Your infrastructure team needs to incorporate it into your CRM, accounting, website, and service management systems. Your deployment team may need training as well.

What if the new product’s vendor has problems?

Reputation damage is one of the biggest risks when selling someone else’s products, particularly if you have to depend on the other company to service and interact with your customers.

Does the product vendor provide support as good as yours? Do they communicate in a timely & appropriate manner? Do they service things promptly? Are they a good citizen in the developer community? These things are important in the software tools market. In your market, they may not matter.

The actions of the product’s creator reflect on you, since YOU sold the product to YOUR client. Carefully consider the risk/reward. Your entire clientele will be watching.

The ingredients of effective criticism

Today we’re going to use a common political event (and some football) to discuss the effective delivery of criticism.

Recently a new candidate joined a local political race. The new candidate’s campaign has spent plenty of time pointing out things that are broke, need attention, or didn’t go well. That doesn’t mean the candidate has nothing to say, nor that they have nothing valuable to add to the conversation about how their community is run. Even so, this “list” dominates their campaign while offering no specifics about their qualifications for office.

Criticism is not a qualifying skill

We all have the right to bring attention to things that aren’t working or need improvement. Even so, the ability to identify problems doesn’t qualify us to run the organization exhibiting those problems.

For example, my alma mater is (putting it politely) having a rough decade on the football field. It’s easy to note my team’s problems (or at least the symptoms), including their consistent inability to win a game after trailing at the half. When this doesn’t happen for six years, it stands out.

The ability to identify the team’s problems doesn’t qualify me to run a NCAA football program. That’s why I didn’t offer a solution. I might have theories, but management expertise doesn’t make you a coach.

The same kind of expectations exist for that political office. It’s real work. The ability to criticize isn’t enough. The job requires related experience.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a $25 million budget, people expect that you’d have a fair amount of experience successfully managing a budget of at least low seven figures. Criticizing your opponent’s handling of the budget is fair game. Likewise, so is the public’s desire to hear about your experience and specifics about what you’d do differently and why.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a team of ~900 employees, you should have experience successfully leading the management of a team of 100 or more. Tell us about your management successes, what you learned from your management struggles, and specifically how you’d make things better. Don’t think we won’t be taking notes and coming back to them to remind you of your suggestions if you win.

Criticism in the workplace has similar demands. If you provide context and propose specific solutions, great. If you’re simply complaining – does that help you, the company, or your target?

Embarrassing people isn’t criticism. It’s ego.

While I frequently discuss inept, unfortunate, or unproductive business behaviors I’ve experienced, I avoid mentioning the business. Why? Embarrassing an employee or business owner serves no purpose. It doesn’t improve the lesson / advice. It doesn’t positively serve the reader, or the business. It’s the kind of criticism that accomplishes nothing.

I prefer to shine a light on things a business can improve how they serve their customers. In turn, this gives the business a better chance of not just surviving – but thriving. It should also build job security for their team, and help the owner’s family benefit from the risk they took wh en opening a business.

To make your team’s feedback loop more valuable, teach them how to deliver effective criticism.

Criticism delivery determines the response

Whether running for office, grumbling about your team, or criticizing how you were treated in a local business, how you deliver that criticism says more about you than it does the recipient. It also plays a substantial part in how your criticism is received and the response you receive.

Criticism is not a bad thing. We all need it. It serves the recipient, not the one delivering it. Much of the criticism people given these days serves only the ego of the person doling it out – and does nothing for the person receiving it.

Ego-driven criticism looks like this: “(business / org / person) is terrible at (whatever). Fire them.

Effective criticism is intended and designed to help those receiving it, rather than drawing attention to the provider.

When delivering criticism, include specifics and where possible, suggestions for improvement. Describe the problem behavior / activity / outcome. Compare it to the desired behavior / activity / outcome. Discuss solutions. Ask how you can help. The outcome is usually what needs to be fixed, not the person.

Think about the best criticism you’ve received. What made it so valuable? Consider that when criticizing the work of others. You’re giving them a gift.

Photo by AutrementDit Toronto.