Independence Day for CFalls

Last week, we talked about the plant closing in Columbia Falls, MT.

This week, I’d like to talk a little more about this part:

Even though we’ve been here before, that doesn’t make it any less scary, worrisome, or frustrating. The pressure to produce cash flow to feed the family and pay the bills is on everyone’s mind.

If you’re targeted for layoff, I’ll bet you have skills, experience and knowledge that you’ve taken for granted for years. They’ve become second nature to you. I could wake you up at 2:00 am and ask you something related to whatever you do or know and without having to think about it, you’d rattle off great advice about how to deal with it, fix it and/or do it.

This is an opportunity to take control, even though you probably don’t feel you have much of that right now. You might have a dream that was always delayed by the “golden handcuffs” of a long-term job. Can you pursue it now?

There is no better time than now to start your own business. There is no better motivation than to create some control over your family’s economic future. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be yours.

It won’t be easy for you…

That paragraph of words is easy to say, but make no mistake about it: It isn’t easy to implement. Something that might make it easier to stick with it during the toughest moments: Never having to face this again – or at least, never having it be someone else’s decision.

The easy part is having the skills. In fact, it’s an advantage over many who want to start a business but aren’t sure what they want to do. If you’re struggling with this despite having marketable skills, don’t let it stop you in your tracks. The business you start today doesn’t have to be the business you’re in next year. Don’t get stuck thinking that whatever you do must be what you do forever.

Who will your clientele be? Even if you pivot (ie: change what your business does) multiple times, the thing you must have a laser beam focus on is “Who is my customer and why do they pay for what I do?” Far too many businesses seem to be a little lost on this. Knowing them, knowing their needs, knowing what keeps them up at night, knowing what they worry about during the day and what relieves them – all of this is critical. The better you know them, the more likely you are to be able to create a marketing and sales message that gets them nodding their heads and opening their wallets.

You might be tempted to have the best price around. Be careful with this. You probably wouldn’t try to start a business based on competing with Wal-Mart on the price of generic motor oil. Discounts come out of your profit – your pocket. If you can’t make a profit on what you do, you do your clients the disservice of creating a business that they need, but that probably won’t survive. Never forget to show your clients a ladder – a series of steps (good, better, best) that allows them to get more from you, get better this or that, and take even more advantage of what you do.

…but make it easy for them

If you’ve ever struggled to do business with a company, you know where I’m coming from. Some businesses seem determined to make it hard to give them your money. Don’t be one of them. Make it easy to do business with you. Easy to pay. Easy to get what was purchased. Easy to get service. If you don’t make it easy, they will eventually find someone who IS easier to deal with.

Easy to pay is an interesting one. Some clients will prefer a credit or debit card, some a check. Some businesses may want 30, 60 or even 90 day terms and will use that as leverage when closing the deal. Be very careful with these, as some of them like to use small businesses as a free bank. Not a good thing.

Create your own Independence Day

If you do, a decade from now, I promise you that you’ll remember the day you made the decision to take control – no matter how hard you had to work to get there.

Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility

We’ve been here before.

We’ve listened to a major employer who for decades said one thing and often did another. We’ve heard whispers and listened to double talk about what’s in the ground (or isn’t) and about plans to reopen and what the future holds. Our future is not our past.

We’ve seen Plum Creek as a solid community supporter and employer for a long time. Yes, there have been layoffs and temporary closures, but the company continued to support local causes and invest in CFalls – such as the MDF plant and technology infrastructure.

Yet buyouts change things.

We’ve been here before.

No matter what a company says they’ll do after the buyout, companies have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders. No matter what they feel obligated to say, redundant facilities are ALWAYS on the short list for elimination. It’s common sense.

It’s unrealistic, if not wishful thinking to believe that a company says that “closure of (your local) facilities isn’t planned” after buying out a massive competitor.

Columbia Falls knew better. We understand companies have to say those things. The officers have a responsibility to protect the company. That includes not inciting panic, drama or worse by telling staff in that area that “closures are possible but we don’t anticipate closing anything here”.

In this situation, a company’s thought process has to include something like “If we tell them what’s planned (or what we think will happen), people will leave (including some we want to stay), and those who stay will be distracted (or worse). The speculation will negatively impact the attitude and performance of the CFalls team.

When buyouts happen, people worry about feeding their family, much less being able to take care of a house payment, the bills, college expenses, etc. You expect that. Professionals take care of business, even when worried about their families – no matter what the press release said.

I’m losing my job, now what?

Even though we’ve been here before, that doesn’t make it any less scary, worrisome, or frustrating. The pressure to produce cash flow to feed the family and pay the bills is on everyone’s mind.

If you’re targeted for layoff, I’ll bet you have skills, experience and knowledge that you’ve taken for granted for years. They’ve become second nature to you. I could wake you up at 2:00 am and ask you something related to whatever you do or know and without having to think about it, you’d rattle off great advice about how to deal with it, fix it and/or do it.

This is an opportunity to take control, even though you probably don’t feel you have much of that right now. You might have a dream that was always delayed by the “golden handcuffs” of a long-term job. Can you pursue it now?

There is no better time than now to start your own business. There is no better motivation than to create some control over your family’s economic future. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be yours.

Redundant Facilities?

It’s easy to say the phrase “redundant facilities“, isn’t it? Who would want such a thing? Sounds wasteful.

When you say “redundant facilities“, you don’t have to think about 200 families who are wondering how they’ll pay their bills. It lets you sidestep the economic effect the job losses could have on the community. Say it, and you don’t have to wonder about the impact of families who leave the valley in order to meet their employment / financial needs. Saying “redundant facilities” allows you to ignore the impact on the CFalls real estate market, schools, charities and businesses.

If you’re wondering who will come riding into town on a white horse and rescue Columbia Falls, don’t. We know that no one will do that, and that’s OK. Columbia Falls doesn’t need someone to rescue it.

Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility.

As always, the people of Columbia Falls will make do, find or create new careers, recognize market opportunities, and find a way to manage the economic risks we all face. When you see a new business pop up in town, take a chance on them – and keep visiting our existing businesses. They feed Montana families right here in town.

Columbia Falls is open for business. It’s a great community with awesome, welcoming, kind people and to me, the only place that feels like home. Come see us.

Are you battling complacency?

One of the most serious challenges that a company can face is complacency. Whether it takes root among the leadership, the team or even their clientele, it can create permanent damage.

Complacency in leadership

You may have heard comments like these if your company’s leaders have become complacent:

  • We’re doing ok. I don’t see any need to change anything.
  • Our competition will never catch us.
  • We don’t need to invest in new tooling.
  • That new startup in our market is doomed. I’m not worried about them.
  • Our staff doesn’t need training.

Complacent leadership can produce fear, a lack of confidence and complacency among the staff. Fixing your company’s leadership, including their complacency, is part of your job as a business owner – and that includes your own leadership.

Complacency among the staff

There are at least two kinds of complacency that can creep in here: career complacency and job complacency. They’re often interconnected since someone complacent about the job may also all but given up on career growth. Not everyone has big plans for their career, so don’t assume that someone who isn’t pushing, pushing, pushing isn’t doing a good job – they may simply lack the drive, ambition or need to be your next senior leader.

If someone used to have that drive and ambition and no longer seems to, it’s possible that they’ve checked out and have succumbed to job complacency, which has more context with performance, much less with going the extra mile.

Job complacency, as noted previously, may relate back to leadership, but it may also be the person’s day to day mindset and overall quality of life will affect these things. The conditions of their life and lifestyle affect how they view life, how they work and the nature of their career aspirations. Your staff don’t become new people when they walk in the door.

Anything you can do to help them restore confidence in themselves will impact their job performance. Likewise, fixing things related to their job duties, environment, accountability and responsibility is likely to raise their self-worth outside your walls, not just inside them.

Many people take their jobs quite personally. When they’re in a situation where they don’t have the authority to do their job, or the environment works against them, it can infect their entire lives – enough to make them feel the need to move on, even though the thing you can fix seems trivial.

Complacent service

We’ve all seen it. Someone waiting on you, helping you in a store, helping you over the phone, or even on Twitter. They’re going through the motions. “Your call is important to us“, right?

What creates the complacency that gets a customer support team to that point? Their leadership, certainly. What’s the focus of the customer support manager? What metrics are important? What tools and authority to “make things right” does the team have? These are the things that make a support team vested in the solutions they provide.

A lack of these things can create a seed of cynicism, doubt or negativity that complacency can grab onto. In your service department, you simply can’t afford that.

Complacent products

It’s impossible for a product to be complacent – it doesn’t have a soul of its own.

That said, if those who design and build your products are infected with complacency, your products are quite likely to have it designed and/or built in.

This can happen whether they are “knowledge workers” or the folks in your wood or metal shop. What they design and create isn’t the point – that they have a customer-centric, long-term viability mindset when designing and building things is the key.

Leadership can affect this as well, since products might be designed and built with a strategic goal as well as a revenue goal. Cash flow and sales are important, but does that new product target a new market, a new lead source or does it increase your conversion rate? Does it serve a new tier of customers? Does it encourage the sale of services or increase the lifetime investment of the client?

Products that are not conceived, designed and built with a strategic purpose can create complacency if those who design and build them wonder “Why are we doing this?

As a leader, your job is to root out complacency at all levels.

Senate may drop the soap (maker)

About six years ago, there was a big fuss about the CPSIA, a law that was written to sharply reduce lead in clothing, toys and other items made for children under 12. Why lead? Lead poisoning causes developmental and neurological damage in young children, including by breathing dust from peeling lead paint.

I made some noise about the law as originally passed because it would force the makers of handmade childrens’ items out of business – and a lot of those businesses exist here in Montana. It wouldn’t have put them out of business because their products contained lead, but because of the costs of per-batch independent lab testing to prove they were lead-free.

The law passed unanimously. Imagine that happening today.

It passed in response to the recall of millions of lead-tainted toys in 2007-2008. However, there was an uproar from makers of small motorcycles and bikes. Lead appears in tire valve stems and other unlikely contact areas, which left them subject to the law.

The publicity resulted in a number of public forums with elected officials. In a response to my question during the Kalispell MT forum, my U.S. Representative lied to my face that he didn’t vote for the bill (the link shows otherwise). He then took the side of the youth motorcycle manufacturers (rightly so, I think) and said he’d fix the poorly-written law he’d voted for.

The law eventually got fixed, mostly, via an amendment exempting both small volume (often handmade) manufacturers – the ones who couldn’t possibly afford the testing requirements of the original law – and those reselling items they didn’t manufacture. While it didn’t save thousands of small handmade manufacturers from their losses prior to this amendment, it did stop the bleeding.

I say “fixed, mostly” because the law was amended to allow Mattel to perform their own lead testing rather than use independent labs other manufacturers must use by law. The irony? The slew of lead problems that provoked Congress to act involved millions of toys manufactured by Mattel and their subsidiaries.

What’s this got to do with soap?

I share all of that for a couple of reasons.

One, there are parallels in the CPSIA story to a new bill that could affect manufacturers of handmade soaps, lotions and the like, Senate Bill S.1014, the Personal Care Products Safety Act.

Two, there are a large number of handmade manufacturers of soap, lotions, creams, lip balms and scrubs in Montana, including my wife’s business.

Three, when the press microphones are on, there’s a high likelihood of horse biscuits along the lines of “I voted for it before I voted against it” or “My vote was a shot across the bow“, so have your biscuit filter ready.

S1014 is on the agenda of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which is full of high-profile personalities, including two Presidential candidates. The needs of your small business or your employer may not mean squat in the context of Presidential candidate image makers advising these people.

Handmade manufacturers on alert

As in the CPSIA situation, an industry group has worked to provide exemptions for small handmade manufacturers. The Handmade Cosmetic Alliance (HCA) has for months tried to educate and reason with the bill’s authors and suggest that they include small manufacturer exemptions like those found in the 2011 Food Modernization Safety Act (FSMA). Despite that, these small handmade soap, lotion and cosmetic manufacturers will be held to the same standards that makers of prescription drugs and medical devices meet.

Most of these 300,000 (!) small manufacturers use food ingredients found in grocery stores, even though customers don’t eat them or use them to treat a medical condition. We’re talking about olive oil, oatmeal, sugar, coconut oil, etc. My wife buys olive oil for her creams off the shelf at Costco.

This law will force them to pay user fees that will result in higher consumer prices, plus it will add more paperwork burden by requiring them to file per-batch (10-50 units) reports. For the more successful homemade product makers, this could result in 100 or more FDA filings per month. Everyone has time to do that, right?

It’s almost tourist season. Many of the products tourists buy and take home are made and sold locally, and thus feed local families in your area. Speak now or …

You aren’t the business owner you need to be

A while back, I had a conversation with the CEO of a $60 million software company that hit me pretty hard – and the lesson is one that all business owners need to keep in mind.

This CEO was talking about how he feels constant pressure to improve himself so that he can be ready to run the company that will be waiting for him in six months or so. Given their growth rate, he fully expects the business to be 20 to 30 million larger a year from now.

Despite the proven skills he’s demonstrated for years – and used to get his company to where it is today, he still feels intense pressure to be ready to run the company his company will soon become.

What hit me hard is that despite the fact that I regularly invest a fair amount of time and cash to expand my education, I was talking with a guy who also spends a lot of time and money improving his skills and education – and he still doesn’t feel ready.

Are you ready?

Think about that for a minute. Are you preparing yourself so that you’re ready to lead the company your business will be in six, nine or 12 months? Are you learning enough to be ready to manage your own company’s needs?

This isn’t just about software companies and it isn’t limited to companies with double-digit millions in revenue. Every business owner will face this challenge. Every business will push us to improve or it (and we) will pay a dear price for that.

Imagine how your staff, family and others will react if your company is being run by someone who doesn’t have the skills to run it. It’ll be patently obvious – even if you own every single penny of it.

What would happen if you weren’t ready?

It’s particularly serious for companies experiencing serious growth, or for those whose growth suddenly stopped, regardless of the reason.

Our businesses change rapidly. Other people, our own people, the market, clients, competitors and our own growth (or lack of it) all have a way of “moving our cheese“.

Be there to meet the cheese

Years ago, Wayne Gretzky was asked about the difference between a good hockey player and a great one. He replied that “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.

Somehow or another, Gretzky would often be where the puck was going to be, ready to do something others could only observe. Some may never have figured out that Gretzky was like a great chess player who visualized the next umpteen moves in his head and as such, knew where to be on the ice.

Running a business isn’t much different. If you aren’t ready for your business when it arrives at that future spot, it could slide right by – just like opportunities (and the puck).

What areas need attention?

You may have run your small business for years, nurturing it from the time when you did everything with nothing and slowly built it to the stable, if not growing, situation you enjoy (I hope) today.

So what do you change to be ready for the company yours will become next year? What do you learn? What do you need help with?

For large companies like the one discussed earlier, finance is where the learning usually needs to occur. But not everyone is looking to create a business that large.

What if you’re not planning to be that big?

The things I see that hold businesses back, or keep them from being able to take advantage of opportunities zipping by are the ones I frequently talk about here: sales, marketing and operations – and things that cause big, sudden changes in any one of those.

Do you have a sales staff? If so, do they have a process for working leads? How would your process hold up to a 20% increase in leads? How about a 20% decrease?

Is your marketing planned, consistent and strategically thought out or does it happen at random?

Are your operations ready for a 20% change in volume? If your best salesperson got a massive multiple location deal tomorrow, how would that affect your ability to deliver?

These are the things a business owner needs to be ready for.

 

 

X-Ray glasses and other fundamental secret weapons

When I’m working with people, it’s not unusual to get a fair number of questions from people asking me about tools, techniques and ‘where I got or learned about <whatever>’.

5 things/people jump out at me, in no particular order:

Mindmapping (I use MindManager from MindJet.)
Great for organizing a wide range of seemingly unrelated information, and more importantly, for brainstorming during the design phases of a project.

I listen to Jim Rohn’s advice.
Don’t be fooled by the “Man, he’s old. He could be John McCain’s brother” thing. Rohn calls himself “America’s Business Philosopher” (and he is), and is in the same league with Zig Ziglar. It’s not just about business or sales with Jim. It’s about all aspects of your life, including your business. His One Year plan is a great framework for getting your act together, 360 degrees-wise.

I listen to Dan Kennedy’s advice.
Absorbing Dan’s stuff is like getting a pair of X-Ray Business Goggles. So much of the crap that you’ve been taught, or that you might have learned the wrong way, gets fixed with a pair of Planet Dan X-Ray glasses. I know, sounds kinda stupid, maybe even pegs your hype-o-meter. When it comes to direct mail, direct response marketing, strategic thinking and seeing what others aren’t seeing, Dan has a unique way of getting inside your head.

I listen to KenMcCarthy’s advice. 
Who listens to an older (than me<g>) balding guy about business on the internet? I do. Success leaves clues, as Dan says. If you are a newbie at doing business on the internet (Its ok if you are) and don’t know the techno stuff – Ken’s Smart Beginners program is really well done. No assumptions about what you do and don’t know. Even if you don’t want to be the geek, Smart Beginners teaches you enough to be coherent when you to go get help from a contract programmer or webmaster. Few people can pull off a “101” class, but Ken does. If you’re more advanced, there’s plenty more. Ever heard of Yanik Silver or Perry Marshall? Both of them started off as Ken’s students, and those are just 2 examples.

The School of Hard Knocks.
Master’s degree, working on my Doctorate 🙂 The prior 2 links have made that road substantially shorter, but you still have to take it to some extent. Don’t take the long road, it’s got ruts.

How this might apply to you
One thought about the names I noted above. Jim, Dan and Ken are a powerful combination, and yeah, they aren’t 20 something. Don’t underestimate them. Jim’s an older guy. Dan’s style isn’t for everyone. Ken’s a bit soft spoken. 20-somethings may not be able to relate to Jim – though I think that’s a pre-conceived blindness issue. Dan can come off as a bit abrasive or edgy or something. Ken is so soft-spoken and so different than most “internet experts” that some might dismiss him. That’d be a mistake.

Your names might be different and that’s ok. Finding the ones that make sense for you is what is important,  but not as important as implementing instead of sitting around on your hands fretting about “What if”.

Unintended consequences – European style

As we discussed during a Montana rep’s brief-but-misguided Do-Not-Mail campaign, unintended consequences have a nasty habit of being rather expensive.

Today’s unintended consequences come all the way from the UK, where news surfaced about 2 weeks ago that Chris Davies, a British member of the European Union Parliament, has decided that cars that travel over 160kph (about 100 mph) should be outlawed due to their excessive hydrocarbon emissions.

His contention is that cars that can go fast must be made heavier and thus give off more emissions. Anyone with the slightest bit of engineering or automobile knowledge knows that these 2 things are not always directly connected, but let’s ignore reality for a few minutes and look at the numbers.

As usual, the little guy is the one who will pay for this, so let’s examine the fallout of the proposal.

Continue reading Unintended consequences – European style

Restaurant Euthanasia

Lately, I’ve had a few interesting conversations with restaurant management and heard of a couple other conversations from those experiencing what I’ll call “restaurant euthanasia”.

The most bizarre conversations seem to occur with quality employees who can’t fathom what is going on at their store, so I’ll share those rather than private conversations (even though they are meatier<g>).

The common theme: It’s as if management is trying to off their store.

Continue reading Restaurant Euthanasia

Hunger, and advice about giving advice

One of the things I spend a lot of time doing is giving advice to business owners and entrepreneurs of various flavors.

A few observations about that:

Smart people listen and take action. Not necessarily doing exactly what I suggest, but SOME sort of action on the problem that they asked about. They dont get themselves bound up in thoughts like “well, you said that worked for the carpet cleaning company, but I write software, so it wont work for me”. There are any number of reasons you can find not to try something. How about this: What if it gets you 1 life-long customer per week? Per month? What’s that worth over time? Presumably that’s a number you know already.

Free advice is almost always worth what you pay for it. Not necessarily because it’s bad advice, but because human nature seems to indicate that if it’s free, we don’t value it as much as “real” advice that we paid for. If we don’t value it, we tend to not heed it.

It’s one of the reasons why I price my work the way I do, and it’s also one of the reasons I am very careful about giving out free advice. It’s not that I don’t want to help people, but the unseen consequences are out there. If I give someone advice and they don’t use it, that hurts no one but them. On the other hand, if they tell someone else “well, Mark suggested I do this, but I didn’t do it” or “…but it didn’t work” (because they didn’t do it), then that reflects on me.

It’s easy to slough off free advice. When you have a skin in the game, suddenly there’s some mysterious reason why you want a positive ROI:) It’s one of the reasons you should think hard about what and how you charge for what you do. On that note: No one asks for the cheapest brain surgeon. No one asks who the cheapest cancer doctor (oncologist) is. They want the best. They want someone who has swooped in and made “miracles” happen. How do you make miracles?

Speaking of miracles..I think back to a couple of chiropractors that I know. I’ve never been to one professionally, but a good many of them talk about fixing back pain. I’ve had a few periods in my life where I had some back pain (actually back muscle spasms). Quite frankly, I’d almost rather spend the night in Mike Tyson’s jail cell than deal with that stuff again. NOTE: I said “ALMOST”, Mike.

I’m guessing that very few, if any, chiropractors have ever experienced back pain, because if they did, their marketing would be far more emotional and personal. And a heck of a lot more effective. Again…what miracles do you create?

Excuses abound.  “A close relative died” is an excuse (well, really more of a reason). “My brakes squeak”, “I have a stuffy nose today” or “I didn’t have time” are not. Choices.

Be prolific. One of Dan’s common comments is “A buyer is a buyer is a buyer”. What he means is that there is a small portion of your clientèle that will invest in everything you offer simply because they believe in you and the impact you have on their business or personal life (depending on what you do). That portion of your clientèle actually EXPECTS more products and services from you.  That doesn’t mean “Make up new crap to sell people”. It means you must be constantly innovating. That “slight edge” thing I talk about isn’t just claptrap to get you to read the next post. It’s something you should expect of yourself because your buyer-buyer-buyers expect “what’s next”. Doesn’t matter whether you sell advice or lawn mowers.

Be selective about the destination of your advice. One of the comments I make to people is that “I don’t save souls.” What I mean by that is that I help those who want to be helped. There is little reward for me in helping someone who is just going to sit there in the puddle and complain about sitting in the puddle, so to speak. Those who ask, those who listen, those who take action – those are the ones I enjoy helping. I really do mean enjoy. It’s very rewarding (and I don’t mean solely from a financial point of view) to help a business owner who WANTS help.

On the other hand, I really avoid spending time and effort offering advice to business owners who never take any action, heed any advice, etc. The hungry business owner who wants to see improvement might be making $100 a month or $100,000 a month, but they’re still hungry and seeking ways to make themselves and their business better every day.

Are you hungry?