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Hit the autopilot

LV-AYE climbing
Creative Commons License photo credit: lrargerich

Like people and the seasons, businesses have many different stages of life.

Some are newborn babies.

Some are venerable old cowboys that at 86 can still take a strong 22 year old and stomp the crud out of ’em.

And some are working on that maturing thing.

Taking flight

One thing that a lot of folks tend to get stuck on (including me from time to time) is making your business scalable.

What if you got 10 new customers tomorrow?  It might not cause you any difficulty – unless you do a lot of one-on-one work.

What about 100 new customers? 1000? 10000?


Could you, your business, your family deal with that?  The income would be nice, but can you actually handle the work?

I know things are real slow for a lot of folks, but it’s definitely possible – even today.

One way to deal with this, depending on the kind of work you do, is to structure your business like an airliner.

No, I don’t mean an airline. That would require treating people poorly and, well, you know the drill. I mean like an airliner.

Takeoff, Climb, Cruise

Your business can be a lot like a plane climbing to cruising altitude: a lot of energy (and money) is consumed to reach that 35,000 ft cruising altitude.

But what happens at 35,000 ft? Fuel requirements shrink. The plane is easier to fly. Pilots can even hit the autopilot button and take a nap.

Your businesses – or product line(s) – can be the same way.

Once you get each line of work up to altitude, consider structuring it so you can hit cruise, in other words – delegate much of the work by designing a process that others can be trained to follow, making sure to set up a way to monitor quality, throughput etc.

Now that you’ve put that business line, product or service on autopilot, use your time, energy and expertise to build something else of value for your clientele.

A properly structured business is scalable. You aren’t.

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It’s tough to harvest if you don’t plant

Imagine how ridiculous it would sound if one of the farmers in America’s breadbasket said “How can I get a new crop of winter wheat to harvest tomorrow / next week / next month?”

Maybe someday the science of farming will allow such a thing, but these days, farmers still have to depend on planting, nourishing, weeding, sunshine, rain and especially – the passage of time – before thinking about enjoying the fruits of the harvest.

Consider all the planning, preparation and investment that has to go into that wheat crop. Even if all you do is lease the land to someone else and take part of the crop as your rent, it doesn’t reduce the effort necessary to produce a harvest.

*Someone* has to do the work.

The same is true in businesses outside of farming.

Despite this, I’m still surprised (not sure why) to find many small businesses running their “farm” without an essential component.

These businesses have no written marketing plan. Or worse, no marketing plan at all.

If they were farming, they wouldn’t expect to harvest without the planting. Yet they operate as if “Build it and they will come” is a viable strategy.

It’s easily the most disappointing situation I encounter when talking to business owners about what’s going on in their business. Fortunately, it is easily corrected. In fact, we’re going to do that today.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

In the worst of situations, someone’s marketing is driven which ad salesperson next walks in the door.

Yes, some of that is rationalized as “Well, that’s why I came to you”, but that isn’t good enough.

Not in this economy (not in any, really).

*Every single business* should have a marketing plan (presumably part of your business plan), even if it’s a very simple one – way before they get around to needing help from me or anyone else who provides business assistance.

Would you head into the wilderness on foot without a map and compass, or at least a GPS? Probably not.

Lewis and Clark may not have had a detailed map of the Northwest, but they had a plan. And Sacagawea.

Today, you can call me your marketing plan Sacagawea (yeah, I’ll probably take a few hits for saying *that*).

I want *every* business to have a marketing plan, even if it’s a simple one.

Let’s put together a basic one right here, right now.

Heading West

One of the things I do when I start working with folks is give them a questionnaire that helps me understand their business.

It asks them a ton of questions and gives them time to put some thought into their answers, rather than trying to hurriedly gather it during an initial consultation.

Here’s a very simple (and abbreviated) version of it:

What do you do?
Describe what you do in the length of a text message. I don’t want to hear four boring, meaningless paragraphs from the corporate buzzword generator. Even the people who read that stuff don’t know what it means.

Why should I get that from you instead of everyone else?
Not some namby-pamby “because we give great service” (so does everyone else – they think) and heaven forbid “because we have the best prices”. Give me a real, compelling argument to use you and no one else.

What are you doing now, marketing-wise?
Describe in detail your efforts to find new customers and bring back existing ones.

Of those things, what works? What doesn’t?
Self-explanatory. If you don’t know, why are you doing those things?

Who is your ideal customer?
The perfect customer. Describe them. What they do, where they live, what they read, demographics, income, business, you name it. Go deeper than you think you should and keep in mind – it won’t be deep enough. I’ll still have questions about them.

Where are these customers?
As I tell you often, it helps to fish where the fish are. Where are yours?

That’s a massive simplification, but for today, it’ll have to do.

The answers will help you form the core of your marketing plan. Get to work, you’ve got planting to do.

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Scoble, Secretariat and Mister Ed

A while back, Robert Scoble wrote a terrific post on Scobleizer about the worst things that startups do.

I suggest you hop over there and check it out even if you aren’t in the technology business. When you’re done, come back so we can apply Robert’s comments to your not-a-startup small business. (Psst…While you’re over there, I suggest you subscribe to his blog, even if you aren’t in the tech world. You’ll be glad you did.)

Now that you’re back, let’s look a little closer at Robert’s list because it isnt just startups that make these mistakes. Here’s a small business angle on his list of mistakes:

1. Have plush offices in the most expensive part of town.

I haven’t managed to make this mistake as yet. Haven’t used someone else’s money for a startup though, maybe that’s why.

On the other hand, there have been times when I should’ve kept my office at home and didn’t. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes not. Think hard about the reasons why. Cash flow is always a concern, and more often than not, a critical strategic piece.

2. You canâ??t tell me what you do in a single Tweet.

For those who don’t use Twitter, that means: “Describe your business in 140 characters.”

For me, the Twitter version is “I help small businesses get more customers, become more productive and make more profit. Guaranteed.”

I find myself tinkering with that now and then, but it always seems to come back to the basics. If you aren’t interested in getting / keeping more customers, becoming more productive and more profitable, we don’t have a lot in common to build to a business relationship on.

3. If I look around and donâ??t see programmers.

Scoble’s talking about tech startups, but his point hits home for you as well – no matter what you do.

In a tech startup, programmers mean product and service creation. Someone’s creating something. In your business, product and service creation are equally important.

For me, if I’m not marketing, creating products and services, or delivering them…you could say I’m wasting time.

4. You hire a PR firm. (4b: you donâ??t have a blog and a Twitter account)

Hilary will probably beat me up a little about this – but note Scoble’s criteria – *startups*. If you don’t have a product or service for sale yet, most companies don’t need a PR firm. There are exceptions, but your business likely isn’t one of them.

If you’re open for business, this one isn’t a mistake unless you’re doing it really badly.

Example mistake: Referring anyone and everyone with questions to sales or PR (or someone else) because they aren’t allowed to talk to the public, or the press, and so on.

I don’t mean questions about your top secret process, chemistry, electronics or whatever. I don’t want to know the “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you” stuff.

We want to know why we should care…and despite the secret sauce stuff that you can’t tell us, we also want to know why *you* care.

Every single person on your staff had better be able to tell your company’s story with passion (at least their part of it).

No one, including me, wants to be bored by you reading the 9 paragraph mission statement that no one – including the CEO – remembers.

Infect us with your enthusiasm for what you do, even if you’re a divorce or bankruptcy lawyer. Think about that for a minute.

I can tell you one thing – if you step into the room sometime when I’m speaking to a group, you’ll damned sure get infected with the idea that you can do better. Lots better.

5. They spend money on the wrong things.

In the programmer world, the bad chairs and lousy monitors Scoble talks about are right on the money. If you’re a programmer and you don’t have dual monitors (or more) on the computer where you write programs, you’re working with a dull axe.

In every business I’ve ever seen, there are resources that make people more productive, that make them feel valued, that make them happier to work harder.

No one likes being unproductive. Watching either the Windows hourglass or the little multicolored Mac spinning thing is *the most annoying thing in the world* to a computer user. How much of your staff’s day is spent doing that?

How’s that make them feel about the value and importance of their work?

Beyond that, what’s that time costing you?

6.  They donâ??t fire fast enough.

At almost every business, some of the best people leave because they aren’t being challenged or because others aren’t pulling their weight.

Just like Scoble said and it isn’t just startups.

Your best performers have little tolerance for those who aren’t performing, much less for poor tools. The situations that businesses put them in often are what force them to go out on their own. If you’d like to avoid competing against your best performer(s), provide your racehorses with the best possible environment and when you hire – hire the best possible folks to accompany them.

Don’t make Secretariat share a stall with Mister Ed, (no matter how cool he was).

7. You picked the wrong infrastructure.

Most of us have hitched our wagon to the wrong horse at one time or another.

Next time, choose better. Choose for the right reasons.

Is your web host critical? Is a steady supply of large amounts of electricity critical? If you start to grow, are there enough skilled employees available in the area?

We got lucky on this one – there was a call center nearby with *excellent*, well-trained people – and we hired some of the best folks in the valley.

8. You let VCs control your management team and strategy too early.

Most of you won’t ever deal with a venture capitalist, but the same kind of issues can hamper your growth and stability.

Does your ability to access capital control your strategy? Does the size of your American Express bill?

Cash flow is as strategic as any other aspect of your business, sometimes more so.

9. You have a too cool name and logo.

There’s nothing wrong with a great name and logo, but there had better be some meat on the bone.

10. You say yes too often, particularly in engineering decisions.

This is the one that used to get me, and it was a hard lesson to learn. One of my business partners used to ride me now and then about “building end tables when we needed coffee tables”.

In other words, “Give me the big stuff, the little stuff can wait”.

I’ll quote Jim Rohn as usual on this topic: “Saying no means you can say yes to something more important.”

This isn’t just about software. Everyone has decisions to make about what to do, not to do, whether you’re an attorney, a programmer, a car wash or a restaurant.

11. Startups pick old technology because itâ??s familiar.

In his post, Scoble said “…going with the same stuff your dadâ??s company used?”

Technology can be as strategically important as (almost) every hire you make.

Maybe not your choice of operating system or spreadsheet, but how you use technology to gain edge after edge.

This is one of the reasons why I bought a Mac last year. Most of my tech-related work is still on Windows, but for me to help myself and clients reach even higher, I needed to be able to explore custom iPhone/iTouch apps. That requires a Mac.

How have you stretched your technology-related capabilities lately?

12. You donâ??t change direction fast enough.

You’re either setting the tone or singing along.

If you’re echoing the moves of someone else, you’ll always be behind unless they misstep badly, not to mention that it’s pretty hard to lead a market in wait and see.

If that new thing is *the* next big thing or the next big flop, wouldn’t you rather know before everyone else? Wouldn’t you want to be the one taking your clients that direction first – or knowing first not to take your clients there?

Going to the moon isn’t about planting a flag and taking a picture. It’s about the challenges you face and the lessons you learn on the way to liftoff.

Think about Robert’s list. Where can you improve?

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Strategic planning or not?

Is your business activity planned this far ahead?

This commercial screams Covey’s “Begin with the End in mind”.

Where do you begin?

And how far out is the End that you plan from? (not for, *from*)

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Happy New Year! Take the next six weeks off

Happy New Year in November?

I don’t mean the Chinese New Year, the Jewish New Year or the new Federal fiscal year. I’m talking about the regular old New Year that happens on January first.

Are you ready for 2010? Or will you start getting ready for it on January second like a lot of businesses do?

I know some that simply don’t do much of *anything* in December. Their business is open, but strategically, it may as well be closed till 2010.

If your business is struggling, I suggest you reconsider that strategy. In fact, I think you’re nuts to wait 6 more weeks to start your business’ new year.

Why? Sorry, I thought you were serious about your business.

From all I’m hearing on the street, some businesses are having a pretty good year (really!), but others are struggling a little and some are struggling mightily.

It’s pretty much like any other time except that the definitions of “struggling a little” and “struggling mightily” have changed substantially for a lot of folks.

So in order to help you have a Happy New Year, I want you to start your own stimulus plan by start the New Year today in your business.

Do it right now.

Did I just outlaw December? Nah.

BUTâ?¦You have about six weeks until January first. I suggest you put them to very good, very strategic use.

With the exception of retailers and a few others, right about now it’s very common for lots of businesses to start mentally winding down for the year.

I understand that the temptation to join them is strong. I also understand that for many, your business is sucking wind. If that’s the situation at your place, you just can’t wait six weeks to get serious again.

I don’t mean that you should skip all the family stuff you do for the holidays and work late on Christmas Eve. However, I do suggest that you get very strategic, very focused about how you use the valuable time left in the year rather than coasting through it like most everybody else.

Rather than not hiring, interviewing, or starting new projects because it’s the holiday season, I suggest you do just the opposite: Start / continue the process today.

Whatever it is, do it TODAY.

Get up an hour earlier on Thanksgiving (if you’re not in the US, get up early anyhow). Get up an hour earlier on Black Friday. Keep that up for the rest of the year. If nothing else, your area’s coffee business will improve (yes, that was a joke).

For every hour of work, ask yourself: “Is this getting me closer to where I need to be, or is it just busy work that I can delegate or not do at all?”

If you have new projects planned for 2010, think of the project as a fully loaded semi-truck (80,000 pounds of in-your-market coolness) and use the next six weeks as the acceleration lane to get that semi up to highway speeds, business-wise.

Finally, be ruthless with yourself and your time. Focus like your next meal is on the line cuz it might be.

Remember Jim Rohn‘s comeuppance? (see below)

He couldn’t even afford to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies from the cute little Girl Scout at his door. A grown man with kids, working at an executive position.

That’ll focus you in a hurry. Are you that focused?

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Planning ahead: 700 year old trees

There’s a story told during the early parts of Wood Badge for the 21st Century (a week-long leadership course for Scout leaders) about an old cathedral somewhere in the UK or Europe.

The story goes that the builders of this 700 year old building planned ahead for the maintenance of that building and a prime concern was replacing the beams in their building.

The beams in buildings of this period came from massive trees.

Presumably, the builders of the cathedral were concerned that future builders wouldn’t have the resources to maintain / repair the cathedral so they planted trees on the cathedral’s courtyard with the intent of using them in the future.

Or maybe they figured the cost would be beyond the budget of those doing the work.

Honestly, we don’t really know what drove their thought process, but it speaks well of them that they were thinking about it even during construction, despite it being so many years ago.

Naturally, the story continues with these massive trees on the property that are the only ones suitable for replacing beams in the building.

Similar stories can be found about the Tower of London’s trees, but no one is really sure if the trees were planted for this use or not.

Sharpen the chainsaw?

Now, we all know that you’d probably get strung up on one of those trees 700 years later if you proposed to cut them down to replace a failing beam in one of these structures, but that isn’t the point.

Nor is it the point that these days, engineered wood beams (made from laminated wood, resins and other products) would likely be the material of choice.

I hope it is obvious that the point of this discussion (and the reason it is used in the Wood Badge course) is the plan, the vision and the attention to detail in both.

Imagine if your business’ “What If” thought process didn’t end right after the New Year’s Eve party, but instead went 5, 10 or 25 years in advance?

If you’re thinking about your customers’ needs that far out, isn’t it more likely that your vision will be better than someone whose planning only considers what’s going on now – or maybe what might happen in the next year?


Are you strategic about something 5 years out? Or – like much of Wall Street – are you simply thinking 90-120 days in advance?

If you can see far into the future, obviously you would make better decisions now. Given that, how far forward are you looking?

Even if your vision of what your market will be and what your clients will need 10 years from now is inaccurate, that’s OK.

The process, research and examination of your market, your customers and your own business will yield much better short-term decision making than a short-term view would.

You’ll consider things you might never have considered, or you’ll do so far earlier than you would in an almost-reaction-driven (so-called) strategic mode that can’t even see over the next hill.
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What success looks like

What does it look like to YOU, that is?

To get where you are going most efficiently, with the least amount of distractions and dead end side trips, a detailed plan is essential.

But it isn’t just about the plan. You have to be able to see the destination in your mind. You have to think through the nuances as well as what impact they have on your journey to get there.

For example, if a made-over store is one of your goals, what does it look like? How is it merchandised? How big is it? What sort of facilities does it have? Where is it? Same place as your current location, or different?

Drilling down beyond that, what will it take to make all those things happen? What specific level of revenue? What staff positions are needed to make this happen? What expertise do you need to learn or pick up via new or newly-trained staff members? Are there new product lines, services or directions that your products/services need to address in order to make all of this happen?

Think about it. Get it down on paper or on your computer – whatever you use to plan projects.

Knowing what success looks like in extraordinary detail will help you build and execute a better plan for getting there.