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Think Outside the Smores

Are you paying this much attention?

Are you putting this much thought into what your customers’ do with your product?

Are you then following it up by shipping what they need?

Yes, these stackers are a blatantly obvious invention to anyone who has made a smore at a campfire.

The important thing is that Kraft thought enough to make them.

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A gift for Bobby?

Yesterday, I was reading a comment from Bobby Rich about this small business (whaaaaa?) post on Hildy’s blog.

Bobby took Hildy’s idea, smooshed it around a little and decided to see if it would work for his business.

I like the idea, but I think we can put a cherry on top of that smooshed idea.

No doubt, it’s a nice giveback to the community to promote these local businesses.

In partnership with the local Chamber of Commerce, regional marketing co-op, etc; it might also be a way to promote that group and its members, introduce new members’ businesses, and maybe urge new businesses to join that group.

Even better for Bobby, I’m thinking it’d be a simple way to demonstrate to a small business owner how well radio/tv ads for that business would work on his stations, particularly the small local businesses who might not even consider advertising on radio/tv.

Imagine the reaction of a small business owner who previously balked at the investment of a radio ad, only to find that a free ad ended up generating 100 new customers in a few week’s time – especially if the ad was designed to make the results obvious and trackable to the ad.

Kinda makes a guy wonder…

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One way to create sustainable jobs

Recently, the Flathead Beacon published a story about a global tech-oriented business that continues to grow right here in rural Montana.

This business started from scratch and achieved critical mass…

  • Without tax breaks that often encourage unsustainable business models.
  • Without specially crafted laws that treat their industry or part of their industry “more fairly” than others. Rhetorical sidebar: What exactly is “more fairly”?
  • Without the work of half a dozen lobbyists in Helena or Washington.

In other words, they started just like your business likely did, probably using the same methods most small business owners use – the same thing that I suggested when we talked about the fitness center just a few days ago.

They found a need and they filled it.

Several years back, I remember sitting in a coffee shop next to someone interviewing a candidate for a job with what was then the startup roots of the company discussed in the article.

The discussion and the numbers I overheard told me they were serious, sustainable and positioned well. I’m really glad to see this business continue to grow.

In good economies and bad, your business model has to make sense on its own, no matter what’s going on in the state capitol and DC, and no matter who is in the White House.

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Execution, Ideas and why “I need a programmer”

Design Is
Creative Commons License photo credit: kasrak

Every programmer, much less anyone who does something that startups need, has had these discussions.

However, that isn’t why it’s today’s guest post.

The thought process from idea to creation. The value of execution.

That’s why it’s a worthwhile read.

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Groping for opportunity – a gift from the #TSA

Russet
Creative Commons License photo credit: Nicholas_T

Much noise has been made of the mess that has become airport security.

The recent introduction of TSA’s high resolution body scanners and the “pat downs” (formerly known as “getting to second base”) have stirred up a hornet’s nest of grass roots discontent.

As you might expect, there has been much hand-wringing in political circles over the issue.

Attempts have been made to position the changes as part of the political agenda of both parties, but anyone with a brain has watched these changes develop during the recent domain of each.

Flathead Beacon editor Kellyn Brown noted earlier this week that a recent New Yorker blog post revealing editorial cartoons dating back to the 1930’s predicted exactly what we’re seeing today.

You’ll find people on both sides of the aisle that aren’t too happy about the situation…but today’s post isn’t about politics.

It’s about opportunity.

Opportunity? What opportunity?

It’s a chance to say “look at me!” for the thousands of communities that you can visit and have a great time in with your family and/or friends – without getting groped by someone who has worn the same pair of gloves to check the last 42 people through the line.

I’m talking about every town whose hub airport doesn’t have the full body scanners and therefore doesn’t (currently) have the “pat down”.

It’s a silly little thing in some ways, but it’s at the top of the news these days – which is why I bring it up as a tool for your use.

Whether we’re talking about parents with young kids and/or teenagers, or those who aren’t so sure about the conflicting claims of doctors and Federal agencies regarding the radiation the scanners utilize, it’s a sticking point for a lot of folks.

If you want your beds filled, your restaurant tables turning twice as often, or your attraction filled to the gills, how you feel about the scanners and pat downs isn’t nearly as important as how your potential customers feel about them.

Yes, that goes for most things, but in this case, it’s an angle that big city tourism cannot use.

Getting started

So…open a map and a browser and a few airline and train schedules and make a list of the communities that can get to and from your place without encountering the latex glove – and without umpteen changes of planes and airlines.

Just because they can get there with planes, trains and automobiles doesn’t mean they want that kind of hassle.

Next, and this is the part a lot of folks will skip, look at your existing visitor history. I hope you already know this, but if you don’t, you should still have the data.

What are the top three, five, ten (whatever) most-visitors-from cities in your visitor history that are *also* on the list of “no-scan, no-grope” communities?

Do unto others

It’s becoming obvious now: Some cooperative advertising is in the cards.

Can your small town (or not) Chamber and/or tourism board contact theirs? You could do it on your own.

Trade out some tit-for-tat advertising.

For example, their chamber can send an email blast to their members and include an insert in their print newsletter about the fun stuff that you can do in your beautiful area. Your chamber can return the favor.

I hear the objections already. But they won’t cooperate. Or they have fewer members than we do so it isn’t fair.

Horse biscuits.

Chase down those dozen communities, even if you have to approach similar competition in those areas. Each of you have something to gain from adventures such as these.

Who knows, you might even find some synergy that outlasts the TSA ridiculousness and allows you to create an annual program for cross promotion.

It isn’t about egos. It’s about visitors.

Money loves speed

It’s also about speed. You can’t wait 90 days to make this happen.

TSA is top of the news now and on peoples’ minds now, so you must grab the train as it goes by and climb aboard.

Next month or next week, there might be something else you can latch onto. Perhaps what you learn from this exercise will make that effort even more successful.

Finally, you don’t need to wait for someone to make news. You can create your own, but it still requires lots of coordination and low egos to benefit.

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Playing Netflix Chess

I read publications, punditry and blogs focused on a number of different industries.

I hope you do as well. Reading only the trade publications from your industry is dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

For example, there’s an awesome blog post by Ken Doctor based on comments made by Netflix founder Reed Hastings“. Go read it (< 1000 words) and slide back here. The link will open in a new window.

I don’t have a digital business

Some of these things might be perceived as applicable only to a “digital business”. As you read “Savor the economics of digital distribution” or “presentation revolution is still to come”, you might wonder how these could impact your blacksmithing business.

I think if you look hard enough – every business probably has a digital (ie: tech-related or internet-enabled) component.  If yours doesn’t, maybe it should…

I see you out there bouncing up and down in your chair. You disagree.

If you’re a guy whose office is a F-250 full of tools, think a little about estimates, appointment scheduling, material ordering / delivery, drawings, invoices, training and safety.

Enough of that…Let’s discuss Reed’s lessons.

Spend your time on tomorrow, not today

This is all about being strategic. Delegate today, as much as possible. If you get bogged down in the “crisis of the urgent”, you’ll have a very difficult time focusing on the long-term strategic needs. You can’t (shouldn’t, at least) manage your business “paycheck to paycheck”, even if your cash flow currently feels that way.

Savor the economics of digital distribution

In All the President’s Men, it was “follow the money“. In your business, it’s “follow the paper”. As you read about the $600 million Netflix currently spends on postage and the labor involved in DVD quality control, consider the costs and labor you incur by shoveling paper around.

Even if you are legally obligated to keep that paper, you can make changes that allow you to handle it ONCE and thereafter refer to digital copies until the paper copies are (possibly) needed. Leroy Schulz suggested I get a ScanSnap several years ago. I finally did. UNREAL. If you deal with a lot of paper, just get one. That’s just one example of a small, but substantial change you can make to unchain yourself from the paper.

Don’t sweat the timeline

The time to be visionary about what your clients need is NOW. It is NOT when they (finally?) realize they need that great idea you had years ago.

That said, you should expect to have to educate your customers and your industry about why that visionary thing is so important. It will take time. Take advantage of the visionary advance while you can and sell it as soon as you can show value for it.

No one asked for an iPhone, yet Apple has sold millions, transforming their financials and leveraging what they’ve learned throughout their product line. Visionary. Again.

Everyone reading this is capable of being that visionary in some aspect of your industry. You just gotta put yourself in the customer’s place.

Play chess, not monopoly

Strategy, strategy, strategy. Sure, you can fill a lobbyist’s wallet and invent a monopoly, but eventually that advantage will somehow end. It’s tough (though not impossible) to legislate innovation out of business. I’m pretty confident that entrepreneurial innovation is smarter than the collective intelligence of Helena or DC. It’s certainly easy to move faster than any legislature.

If you put the customer and their wants/needs at the center of your strategic thought, you *will* succeed. Good chess players think 2-3-4 moves ahead. Great chess players are thinking a dozen or more ahead. Think about your business that way.

The best way to create what appears to be a monopoly (in the eyes of inferior competitors) is to deliver amazing every single day and improve with every interaction, every hour, every shipment, etc. Chess is no different. The best can play and innovate in their head, during the game.

The presentation revolution is still to come

For many of you, this is about mobile, mobile, mobile. Yes, kinda like “Location, location, location.”  But it isn’t just about that, so don’t think solely in that way.

How many ways can what you do be delivered? If your business seems immune, think about the overhead of doing business with you. Are you causing more of it? Do you invoice on paper or PDF? Do you mail a check (requiring a trip to the bank) or do you pay some other way? Do you invoice (or pay) manually every month when it could be automated? (ditto for payment) What about ordering? Stock inquiries? Appointment scheduling?

Do easier, faster, smarter. Without cutting quality.

Culture counts

Working in a place with people you want to work with and people who value excellence. It’s easy to slough off as “touchy-feely”, but if you’ve worked in an environment that values quality and improvement, you’ll never again feel comfortable in anything else (well, unless you’re a slacker).

And finally, Walmart.

Ken’s comment about Hastings’ response to why Walmart didn’t kill Netflix – and why it shouldn’t kill your business – speaks volumes: “Itâ??s not the stuff, itâ??s what you do with the stuff to please customers. Netflix isnâ??t about simply getting you a movie. Itâ??s the recommendation engine and lists, the customer-pleasing, no-late-fees (remember when this was a huge issue?), its easy-to-use interface and its social/sharing emphasis, among other features that let it distinguish itself in consumersâ?? minds.

If that quote doesn’t spawn thought processes to revolutionize your industry, then you just aren’t thinking hard enough.

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Profit vs. Market Share. You choose.

Today’s guest post is from Mark Sigal at O’Reilly, and speaks to your focus in your market.

Pay close attention to the comments about profit vs. market share.

I live in Verizon country. No AT&T here, at least not yet. All you hear and read is about how Android devices are outselling iPhone devices like crazy.

Read this for a different view of the same data.

You decide which is more important.

PS: Is it possible to lead a market by copying the current leader?

UPDATE: An alternative opinion or two.

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If I owned Amtrak

Some random thoughts that passed through my head during my recent Amtrak trip – which went fairly well.

I don’t warrant that they’ll all be winners, popular or successful. Just some brainstorming.

  • Showers. $5.
  • Real bathrooms, even if it means there are fewer of them. Despite being better than airliner bathrooms, women don’t really appreciate them in their current state – and neither do most men.
  • Way better facilities for disabled and less mobile persons. 24″ wide winding staircases and airline-style bathrooms at the bottom of those stairs say “Stay away” to a lot of people.
  • Add some family-friendly features. There are no diaper changing tables, no place for kids to mingle and play, no family-only cars where families could avoid things that they don’t want their kids to see at whatever age.
  • Rails. Man o man the continuous welded rail in the West smokes the rails elsewhere. Quieter, smoother, faster.
  • Add a middle business class. Right now, there’s coach and sleepers. There’s room for another tier in some areas I suspect.
  • Fix the low-end sleepers. Most people who have them comment about them being cramped and uncomfortable.
  • Text message the current train position, estimated arrival (relative to that position) to subscribed mobile devices.
  • Information stations on LCD panels in each car so you know where you are, what the next stop is, how long you’ll be there, what the dining car menu is, etc.
  • Wireless everywhere.
  • Electricity in the observation car and at every seat (currently, it tends to be one or the other. Very inconsistent.)
  • Business car? Meeting room?
  • High-speed solid rail in the interstate system’s median?

Net result?

When was the last time you brainstormed about your business? Or asked your customers to do so?

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Solve a problem

People I read, work with, overhear, listen to, casually encounter (etc) seem to fall into roughly three camps regarding the current economy’s job situation:

  • The President (Governor, Mayor, City, County, State, whatever) should give me a job or create one for me.
  • The President (etc) should stay out of it and let natural market forces fix the economy – letting the chips falls where they may.
  • The President (etc) has little or no power over my personal economy. Only I can determine and exert any control over its condition.

As you might guess, I tend to fall in the third camp. Mostly, I have no patience for the interminable (and often pointless) wait required for options one and two. The rest comes from personal experience.

Rather than try to move you to another camp and thus change your worldview (a rather impossible task not unlike teaching a pig to sing), I’m just going to focus today’s yammering on those in the “I can determine and exert control” camp (the last one on the list).

The entrepreneurs among you will understand that. The rest, maybe you could consider it an interim solution to use until economy changes and creates a situation that fits your worldview.

The solution is really kinda simple: Solve the biggest, toughest problem you can find.

But don’t just solve it and keep moving. Solve it madly. Passionately. Do so as if you are the only one with enough lead (and expertise) to neutralize the Kryptonite that weakens Superman.

The natural question

The next natural question you might ask is going to be “So…what problem should I solve?”

That’s the hard part, of course. On the other hand, how should I know what the big hairy audacious must-solve-problem is in your business?

In some businesses, I could toss some suggestions out there, but I don’t claim to be Mister Wizard of your-market.

Look at it this way… If I can point it out from afar (and without your experience in the market), I’d be surprised. Why? Because it shouldn’t be quite so obvious for a newbie in your market to spot the all-encompassing, why-didn’t-we-think-of-that solution to the mega-problem you somehow managed to ignore.

On the other hand, maybe you’re too close. Maybe you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Oh yeah, those customers of yours

Those customer type folks can help you with that. What, you say? Ask CUSTOMERS? Yes, I know. Sacrilege, but try it anyhow.

Here are some questions that might help you shine a light on the problem you need to solve.

  • What are we making too difficult?
  • What part of your business would be (wildly?) profitable if you could just get past one challenge?
  • What is that challenge?
  • Is there an area of your business that we aren’t doing anything to help you with? What challenges you in that division?
  • If you could knock off one big-ticket-achievement that would make you a superstar in your market (or at your company), what would it be? What part(s) of that achievement do you think are beyond your reach? What if they weren’t (what you think is) beyond your abilities or resources?

Deeper

Finally, don’t forget that customers quite often get stuck in that forest and trees situation as well.

They need help seeing that next big thing, or seeing past their current reality and into a whole different market or business. It’s common for me to find a business that has products or services that (could) reach well beyond their current market and existing customer base, they simply never considered those others. Likewise to find a business that has a business buried inside of it that’s just aching to get out and grow on its own.

Case in point: 3 million people didn’t write Apple and ask them to design the iPad. Likewise, Apple didn’t come up with the iPad by going to Best Buy and asking themselves what was missing from the shelves. They had to think hard about the retail customer they continually please. Just happened to turn out that the business customer likes it too.

What can you create that your customers never even considered, yet can’t do without? Thinking hard and asking way too many “What if” and “Why cant we” questions of yourselves, your market and your customers can yield the kind of answers that you might not trip over any other way. What would the leader in your market do?

And then…solve the problem(s) you find like nobody’s business.

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Is it right under your nose?

That product line. I mean.

It’s hiding in your community, right inside your business.

I’m talking about the product or service that you sell locally.

The same one that you can probably sell online (or elsewhere) and become known as a regional, national or global specialist with, rather than limiting yourself to local business and possibly constraining yourself to the local economy – good or bad.

What about the box?

You might think you do things that can’t be sold outside of your neighborhood.

In some cases, you might be right.

But have you really honestly looked?

Think of reasons why people/businesses elsewhere might need what you do rather than focusing on the reasons why it won’t work, why it’ll be a hassle (sales are a hassle? Hmmm) and why others will think you’re nuts (remembering that they probably thought you were nuts for starting your own business).

You might have to repackage something or deliver it in a vastly different form, but who cares?

I can guarantee you one thing….your deposit slip doesn’t.