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Not a nerd? Not a problem.


Creative Commons License photo credit: f_mafra

If you’ve been reading what’s going on in the economy, it seems like a fair percentage of the new jobs that are still out there are going to technical people.

Even today in Silicon Valley, the number of applicants in the job pool for a specific skill are roughly equal to the number of open jobs in that niche.

Meanwhile, local employers here in Montana are telling me they get 100-300 resumes/applications for every open job they post – which isn’t too many right now.

Every day, more and more jobs involve technical knowledge. Even tattoos are technical these days, as evidenced by the ink on this girl’s neck.

It’s html, the language used to create web pages.

Technical people

When I say “technical people”, I mean programmers, engineers and similar folks.

While some of the work these folks do can be outsourced, the work that isn’t tends to require local cultural context that isn’t often available to the technical person in another country.

Cultural context means a knowledge of the culture of the target market for the product you’re designing. Some products require it, some do not.

For example, an electrical engineer in almost any country or region of the world can design a cell phone component because “everyone” knows what a cell phone is and how it’s used.

The same isn’t always true when the design target is something in the cultural context of a particular area.

If you are in the U.S. or Canada, would you know the important aspects of designing a motorized trike designed for the streets of Delhi or Shanghai? Probably not, unless you have traveled extensively and spent time in those places.

That doesn’t mean you can’t learn those critical design points or someone from that region can’t learn those specific to work in the U.S. and Canada, but there is a learning curve.

Not all jobs require that context. Quite often, when you look at the jobs that have been outsourced, you’ll find that those jobs were lost because those jobs *can* be outsourced.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t technical. It simply means that they are technical but anyone with the skills can perform them – no matter what culture they grew up in.

Lots of people get really angry about that, just like they got angry at steam engines, the cotton gin and other advances that changed how our economy works. Meanwhile, that outsourced job went to some guy in somewhere who’s trying to feed his kids like everyone else. He might be making $1.10 a day doing that work, but it could be twice his previous pay.

Regardless of what the pay is, that’s a job that COULD be outsourced. Technical or not, it’s too general.

I received this (redacted) email from a friend today who has forgotten more enterprise network stuff than I’ll ever know.

So now I have another big contract.

These guys build big infrastructure for municipalities and large facilities. Perfect shovel ready stuff for millions of dollars and several years putting America back to work.

My job …. getting a working solution that allows them to move the technical work to a big city outside the US. Seems those folk need the work a LOT more than their counterparts who happen to be in, of all places, a city here in the US).

This is not the first time I have had a project where the purpose was to move American jobs overseas but it sucks more and more each time.

Add the that the fact that the Sr. Management team for this company is amazingly draconian with amazing bad morale and it proves that some people truly have just about sold out to the highest bidder.

The technical work being outsourced here is highly technical, but it is also generalized. It has no local context that matters, has nothing substantial to differentiate it, nothing to keep the work from being done elsewhere, whether elsewhere is Kansas or Kazakhstan.

Not a nerd

What if you aren’t “technical” in the context I’ve described here? Let’s say you’re a cabinet maker (which to me seems very technical).

Have you made the effort to determine what needs these specialized businesses have? Their success and their specialized needs might fuel yours.

Just an example, but worth some thought and perhaps, some effort.

Not being outsourced is as much your responsibility as anyone’s. Make the effort.

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attitude Business culture Business model Competition Creativity Customer relationships Economic Development Employees Entrepreneurs Leadership market research Marketing Positioning Small Business strategic planning The Slight Edge

Uncertainty and Starships

Today’s uncertainty has a tendency to freeze people’s behavior.

It makes us forget, even momentarily, that doing nothing or continuing to do the same old thing may be more risky than doing that next big thing on their strategic plan.

That doesn’t mean you have to take giant expensive steps like people did in 1999-2000 or in 2005-2006 when almost anyone could act big and get away with it.

When everyone else is hunkering down, even more opportunity is left available to the observant and aggressive – even if they are careful.

Are you looking at mergers, acquisitions, strategic partnerships, cross-marketing, new markets, derivatives of your existing products and services? Are you looking harder than ever for those things that can bridge you into your next big thing?

Those are all worthwhile things to consider, but have you considered your customers’ situation? What has today’s economy done for their needs? What’s the uncertainty done to them and their customers?

Have you visited your customers lately, even if you have to do so by phone, Skype or Facetime? What’s on their minds? What’s their biggest concern that didn’t exist a year (or 3) ago? How can you help?

Sometimes a quiet moment of thought yields ideas that your noisy day, week, month wouldn’t let through any other time.

Likewise, a quiet conversation with your smartest customer.

  • What can you show up with that would provoke an Aha! moment?
  • What can you do to tighten your relationship with your customers?
  • What would seal your reputation in their minds as as business that is all about making sure they are doing well?

People start businesses for a lot of reasons. They aren’t necessarily doing so for the comfort of a job but often for something else. Perhaps for the same reasons man will someday step onto the deck of a starship… because risk is our business.

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Put away the white shoes

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Creative Commons License photo credit: kikfoto

Back in my grandmother’s day, the day after Labor Day meant “Put away the white shoes.”

These days, we may not be quite so beholden to old school wardrobe rules, but we still tend to let a Roman emperor’s calendar decide when our business is going to take action.

With the exception of consumer retailers, some businesses are trying to wrap up their revenue goals before hunting season, before the holidays and so on.

Likewise, many will wait until “everyone is back” (from what, exactly?) in mid-January to ramp up next year’s business. Many of those haven’t even planned what they’ll be doing in the new year.

If you do trade shows, you already know you can’t do this. You have to have your booth setups, marketing materials, products and a litany of other things organized months in advance. You actually have to have your act together, at least as the show requires. You have to show up ready to deliver.

Whether you do trade shows or not, have you started planning what you’re going to get done next year and how you’re going to launch it?

The rest of the year will likely take care of itself. You should already have it planned. Execution should already be in motion. If you don’t even have that planned, maybe it’s time to start your new year right now.

What’s the point of waiting?

Show up for the rest of the year…ready to deliver.

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Borders and homemade apple pie

Recently, Borders book stores reported that they were closing their remaining 399 stores, including our local store here in Kalispell, Montana.

The store has about three months, enough time to liquidate their existing stock.

Survival of the fittest demands that some prosper, some get by and some die. Borders was not one of the fittest booksellers around, and few businesses have a chance of getting up after taking a one-two punch from Amazon and Apple.

Still, there are takeaways for the rest of us.

Homemade Apple Pie?

When you go to an online store, you KNOW when they’ve just tossed up a store so they can say they have one, kind of like how your mom knows when a local restaurant makes their own apple pie or serves a food service vendor pie.

In one case, it’s a labor of love. In the other, it seems like it’s just there because it has to be.

It’s not unlike Borders’ technology, eCommerce and eBook efforts. Once they got around to it, they served food service pie.

Who to blame?

They can’t blame Napster and peer-to-peer sharing. The music business can try, but you don’t see music acts starving. The same can’t be said for their the stuck-in-the-50-60-70s music management houses. Ask a Canadian or European about online music listening from US-based services. You won’t hear many kind words. Inertia and lack of vision killed many of them and took the local music store down with them. Napster was simply the messenger and peer-to-peer the medium. There’s no equivalent in the book business.

They can’t blame their store staff. In the Borders stores I’ve visited, the staff is well-trained and eager to help. Maybe reading fans self-select as Borders job applicants. Regardless of how their stores found their front-line employees, I can’t think of one who wasn’t helpful, knowledgeable etc. I can’t ever remember being tempted to write about them due to bizarre or off-kilter treatment there.

They can’t blame Amazon or Apple. Sure, they can point to the Kindle, the iPad, the Amazon and iBook store (and these two behemoth companies) as what killed them, but blame? Nope. Amazon and Apple offered a great example, partnering opportunities and millions of potential buyers.

Meanwhile, how many of your friends have a Kobo reader? Did you know Borders has an iPhone reader for their Kobo ebooks? Both are food service apple pie. When you’re competing with the likes of Kindle and iPad, you have to be easier, better or cheaper.

They CAN blame C-level management. Certainly Amazon and Apple were a major challenge, but without strategic vision and execution speed, the results were obvious and inevitable. As the Inc. article notes, they had a weak online retail presence and addressed technology change as if it was a chore, not a differentiator.

Management and strategic direction just happens to be your job. How are you addressing those two things?

Serve homemade pie

You may not have to worry about Amazon or Apple, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to worry about.

Many independent bookstores have failed in the shadow of Barnes and Noble, Borders (and later, Amazon and Apple). But NOT all of them. What makes those stores different? Why are they “immune”? The reality is, they weren’t and still aren’t immune.

The survivors didn’t stare at the door, wondering why more people aren’t randomly deciding to enter their store. They did something about it. They transformed their businesses into one that Amazon or the Apple iBook store will never be: A specialty store delivering amazing personalized service while delivering a product few others will “trouble themselves” with, within the bounds of a business plan that is designed to survive an Amazon/Apple book selling world.

Each one of them uses their online presence as a strategic advantage.

Even if you sell tractors, chainsaws and weed whackers, people are going to search online for info about you and your products. If your online presence offers them the equivalent of the food service apple pie, their next purchase might be at Chainsaws.Amazon.com.

Does your business leverage technology, or use it only when forced to?

Serve homemade apple pie.

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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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If I owned a fitness center

In the process of elliptical-ing across some wide open (virtual) spaces recently, I thought to myself, “What would I change if I owned this place?”

I might warm up the pool a couple of degrees, but that really isn’t the kind of change I meant.

The things that came to mind were in the spirit of “Be indispensable“.

So what would make that place the ONLY place to be a member?

When I have these conversations with a client, the first thing we often talk about are their clients.

We start simple. Who are they? What do they need?

A Day in the Life

To answer the “Who are they?” question, let’s look around at a day in the life of a fitness center and see how we can segment the members (customers) into groups based on gender, age, level of fitness, “Why they are there”, and so on.

I don’t mean a group like “People who need/want to work out.” Obviously, most people who join qualify for either need to or want to.

I’m thinking about a list like this, and I’m sure it’s far from complete:

  • Professional or semi-pro athletes, such as people who regularly marathon, triathlon and/or Ironman. You might include players for the local semi-pro teams. Around here, the Glacier Twins and/or Glacier Knights would be included.
  • Bodybuilders.
  • Post-partum moms who want to get their “pre-pregnancy body” back.
  • Pregnant women.
  • Men recovering from heart surgery.
  • Anyone newly diagnosed with diabetes.
  • People who are new to working out.
  • “Formerly disciplined workout people” who haven’t worked out in five, ten or more years.
  • People recovering from an injury, possibly under the direction of a physical therapist.

Within these groups, you’ll find breakdowns for gender and/or age group. Don’t underestimate those.

Everyone should be considering the sizable wave of Baby Boomers heading into their 60s-70s-80s might impact their business and what opportunities they suggest. Likewise, research has repeatedly shown that women control or influence 80% or more of household spending.

Is your business catering to these groups? If not, is your business even passingly friendly to these groups?

I Have Needs

The second question on my list was “What do they need?”

Until you create the list above, your needs list might be simpler than it should be because you might just be thinking “What do my members need?”.

Once we’ve gone through the customer (and prospect) identification and segmentation process, we’ll find more needs.

That’s why we go through this probably tedious, sometimes eye-rolling process that almost always helps you find new things that your customers need. The result should be obvious.

What do they need?

Now look back at that list of customer types from a “wants and needs” perspective. Consider the needs of body builders, post-partum moms, heart patients, and semi-pro athletes, for example. In some ways, they’re similar. In others, they have wildly different expectations.

They all need machines/weights, steam room, hot tub, pool, showers, restrooms and so on.

After that, the needs among the groups vary quite a bit:

  • Some would benefit most from instruction and/or working in groups.
  • Some prefer private facilities.
  • Some prefer gender-specific workout times/rooms.
  • Some prefer age-specific.
  • Some work evening or night shift.
  • Some would prefer to find a workout partner for motivation, spotting weights and/or accountability.
  • Some would like to be gently nagged if they don’t show up 3 times a week.

One example of many obvious ones: You wouldn’t necessarily have 20-somethings in a Yoga class with 60-somethings. Not because they can’t enjoy each other’s company, but because the instruction and goals for one group probably don’t parallel the other. That might drive you to have separate Yoga classes for singles, post-partums, “retirees”, physical therapy patients and so on. In each case, the instructor could be matched with attendees.

“What about me?”

If you don’t own a fitness center, you might be thinking this discussion isn’t much help.

Use what you can after adjusting it for your business. Can you take any idea here and make it work for you?

Finally, take a hard look at the thought process itself (“Who are my customers, what are their unique needs”) and see what you can come up with for your business. Even if you’ve done this five, ten or fifteen years back, I suggest doing it again. You might find yourself in new markets, focusing on a particular type of customer that you’d previously ignored, etc.

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Transparency. Real transparency.

Hildy and Dimitri’s efforts have always been pretty transparent.

But a few months ago, they made a big decision to basically reboot their entire business.

Many business owners have done that. But not like this.

Instead of doing it all in the cones of silence, they decided that every step of the way, they would make this transition in full view of their friends, family, competition, clients, prospects and anyone else willing to look.

It’s much more interesting than anything Charlie Sheen’s doing.

But the discussion there really isn’t why I mention this. Sure, it’s instructive because they listen as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with.

That’s not the takeaway. What you should take away from the process they’re going through is the idea of being willing to completely redesign your business – even if it doesn’t need it right this minute.

I suspect there are some in the nuclear energy business who are mulling that over right now.

You don’t have to do it in full view of the public like Hildy and Dimitri have, but everyone ought to do it once in a while.

Like Harvey Mackay says, “Dig the well before you’re thirsty.”

 

 

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Empowerment and the Silent Cell Phone

Henry Ford, despite his success with the assembly line at Ford Motor Company, made a mistake that many business owners still make today.

He didn’t delegate.

Most business owners delegate at least a little. Not Ford.

According to Peter Drucker, the senior Ford didn’t believe in delegation or floor management and it cost him plenty. Fortunately, he had the millions, if not billions, to backup what is now commonly considered a sizable error in judgment. We do, of course, have the benefit of a century of hindsight.

Ford’s son, Henry II, felt differently about the delegation of management. He believed that having management on the factory floor was critical. That decision was one of the keys to turning their family business around from a financially perspective.

Delegation is Efficient, Strategic

Ford II understood that leadership had a place in the assembly line factory floor back then as much as it does now in any business that has employees.

He discovered that empowering factory floor managers with the power to make decisions within the authority granted to them resulted in a savings of time and money. I suspect it also resulted in a safer factory floor in an era that isn’t known for having safe manufacturing workplaces. It’s also likely that the decisions made were better than (or the same) as those Mr. Ford might have made, since they were made based on those managers’ day to day experience on the factory floor.

That has several benefits we’ll talk about shortly, but it isn’t the number one reason to delegate. Your time is the biggest reason.

If you are focused on making the small decisions, every minute you spend on them is taken from the time available to research and make big decisions.

If the big decisions that affect your business long-term aren’t getting the proper amount of analysis, what problems could you miss? More importantly, what opportunities could you miss the importance of, if not miss completely?

Return on You

I can’t sit here and tell you exactly what to delegate and what to do yourself. What I can suggest is that you consider if something can be delegated to another person when you put that task on your todo list or schedule. You could do this daily, as you add things to the list, as you finish the task or whatever works for you. The key is that you actually do it.

Maybe you have to do it yourself this time, but make another todo to prepare as necessary to delegate that task next time. That way, when it comes up, you’re prepared to delegate without delay.

I’ve already made note of the value of being able to focus on the important stuff. Yes, this is the Department of Obvious Obviousness stuff, but I see enough of it that it’s worth repeating.

An additional benefit is that you might be the highest paid person at your business. If so, do you want to be doing things, management or otherwise, that someone who makes less than you *could* do? Being willing to mop the floor is essential. Doing it yourself, when you could outsource it or delegate it, allows you to focus on and work on valuable work that grows your business.

You wouldn’t hire someone to mop the floor and pay them $75 an hour. Yet that’s exactly what doing it yourself might be, effectively.

Fertilize Your Garden

One of the other benefits of empowering people on the floor (in the cubicle, on the road, whatever) is that you make that person more valuable.

Just like compost or fertilizer strengthens the plants in a garden, empowering your staff has a similar impact.

It engages them more closely in your business, makes them worth more in the marketplace (and thus to your business) and allows them to gain more skill in making decisions. The better they get, the less time you spend on those decisions, giving you more time to focus on the big picture.

Failure to “fertilize your garden” leads to the next topic…

Vacationus Interruptus

Once in a great while, you probably like to take a day off.

You’d love to leave for a week and come back to a business without 100 emails about decisions that “couldn’t be made while you were gone”.

You’d probably love to take a vacation and not have your cell ring every hour with a question about a decision that, now that you’re on vacation, seems like an annoying interruption.

Empower. Delegate. And enjoy that vacation.

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Don’t Listen to these Creativity Killers

Green Elephants Garden Sculptures
Creative Commons License photo credit: epSos.de

I‘ve been reading John Maxwell’s “How Successful People Think” recently.

This list of creativity killing comments from John’s book reminded me of so many things going on in the world these days that I simply had to make it a guest post.

How many times have you heard these comments when you shared an idea?

  • Follow the rules.
  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Don’t be different.
  • Stay within the lines.
  • There is only one way.
  • Don’t be foolish.
  • Be practical.
  • Be serious.
  • Think of your image.
  • That’s not logical.
  • It’s not practical.
  • It’s never been done.
  • It can’t be done.
  • It didn’t work for them.
  • We tried that before.
  • It’s too much work.
  • We can’t afford to make a mistake.
  • It will be too hard to administer.
  • We don’t have the time.
  • We don’t have the money.
  • Yes, but …
  • Failure is final.

While some of them might be worth a discussion somewhere down the road, they’re guaranteed to kill creative thought during idea formation.

This is just a sliver of the riches in this compact, valuable read: Buy and READ John’s book.

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Be indispensable

Sossusvlei Landscape
Are you indispensable to your customers?

The question that you have to ask yourself – daily, rather than once – is “What can you do to make yourself indispensable to your customers?”

A few examples to get the juices flowing:

  • If you sell coffee, how can you help your customers wade through the coffee buzzword maze and enjoy *better* coffee? What’s fair trade? Is it really fair trade, or is it just another marketing buzzword?
  • If you sell cars, how can you help your customers make better decisions, get more from their investment, and save time and money on repairs? How can you help them remember to perform the regular maintenance that allows them to depend on their vehicle regardless of the weather?
  • If you repair lawn mowers, how can you help your customers get a better looking yard, without injury, cheaper, safer and faster? How can you save them time and money on upkeep and repairs? How can you help them remember to change their oil, sharpen their blades and make their mower perform better and longer?
  • If you help people deal with (and prevent) legal problems, how can you help your customers avoid rushing into your office with a problem that has to be solved NOW? Ounce of prevention, pound of cure kinda stuff. Be their lawyer every day or every week, just a little vs. being their rescue squad every 5 years.
  • If you treat people’s injuries and diseases, how can you help them be safer at home and at work? How can you help them by advising them on nutrition and other preventative care, without becoming a nag? Knowing that these things require lifestyle / habit changes, how can you help your customers/patients make that happen? How can you help your patients make sense of the constant flow of health, nutrition and prescription information placed in front of them each day? How can you help them prevent injuries and disease, rather than waiting until they occur so you can treat them?
  • If you sell building materials to professional contractors, how can you help them find more business so they can buy more building materials? Can you help keep them informed about industry promos, tax incentives and other things to help them be more competitive?
  • If you sell advertising (better sit down), how can you help your clients track the effectiveness of all their advertising? How can you help them calculate the ROI on the advertising? Not guesswork, but real numbers based on the foot/internet traffic, revenue and profit each advertising source generates. Who is indispensable, the ad salesperson or the ad salesperson who is also a partner in profitability?
  • If you sell computers, ANSWER YOUR PHONE. Those people on the other end of the phone who don’t know as much as you’ve forgotten about a computer are the ones with all the money. They’d like to give it to you, if only you’ll help them. Yes, to be indispensable in the computer business, quite often it’s as simple as answering your phone and helping them with their problem without being arrogant. In fact, just answering your phone will be a huge first step.

If I didn’t mention the business you’re in, use these things as inspiration to do what makes your business indispensable to your customers. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that because your specific type of business wasn’t mentioned, it won’t work for you. Likewise, if you’re thinking to yourself that “my business is different, it won’t work for me”, you’re right. If you don’t do these things – they won’t work for you.

The goal in doing all of these things is to position yourself and your business as the only place that your clients will consider doing business. Arrive at that position by doing this kind of stuff and both your checkbook and your customers will thank you.

Take care of them like no one else is willing to.