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Monday, September 19, 2016

The Myth of Being Busy

So I have been reading Drive by Daniel Pink over the past week (fair warning - the Amazon links are affiliate links if you buy it, it will add a few cents to my account). While the book focuses mostly on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation and what really drives us, I stumbled across a passage talking about the way we work and it made me think about how we're really busy nowadays.

For years, when people asked, "How are you doing?" the stock answer "Fine" would come back as a high percentage response. Lately, though, people tend to answer "Busy" instead almost as often. Articles have examined whether or not this phenomenon is good or bad, with our collective thinking that being busy says something positive about a person.

But I started thinking, when you say you have been busy, it can definitely convey some extremely negative characteristics as well. So be careful who your audience is. They might just be busier than you. Or they might ascribe one of these less-than-flattering traits to your "busy" response.

Busy Means Inefficient

I knew a guy several years ago who was always "busy" and proud of it, but when pressed on all of the things that he was working on, I discovered he was just very inefficient. Tasks that would take his peers hours to complete would take him almost a full day, and a week's worth of work might occupy his time for close to two.

This all created a tremendous sense of being busy to him, but it really meant his supervisor had assigned him equal work to his peers, and he was just unable to complete it in an appropriate window of time.

Busy Means Disorganized

Running hand in hand with inefficiency, disorganization also causes someone to feel busy. Not having a system to keep track of the things that you need to do can make every little task seem overwhelming. 

You can't keep work items in context with your total to do list or set priorities appropriately when you don't have them organized.

Disorganization also means that you don't know what to do with new requests, which can lead to the next perception.

Busy Means Overcommitted

You have an inability to say "no" to new requests, even though your plate is entirely full. That may be what you are conveying when you say you are busy. If you had great control and understanding of projects you have already pledged to complete and what level of effort you would spend on a new project, you could easily keep yourself from getting overcommitted.

Want to avoid this perception? Make sure you know how to say "no" when faced with a task that will overcommit your time. Then use that skill to avoid getting too busy.

Busy Means Lazy

You might be surprised, but your busyness could be perceived as laziness. If the person you are talking to feels like she is busier than you are, then your claim to be "busy" may give her the impression that you are lazy. Obviously, in her mind, if you are "busy" but you aren't as busy as she is, then you must be a slacker, complaining about your light workload.

Busy Means You Lie

Lack of communication could have your busy state perceived as a lie by others, meant to make yourself look more important. If you claim to be busy, but nobody ever sees what you are actually working on or completing, others may think you are lying about how much work you do.

In a world where some value being busy as a badge of honor and importance, claiming to be busy without any tangible proof looks like bragging, when you may or may not even have anything to brag about. 

Conclusion

If you typically answer "How are you?" with "Busy," perhaps you should rethink that stock answer. If you really are not that busy, don't act like you are. If you are busy, though, perhaps you could think about the root cause of why you let yourself get so swamped.

Then again, you could always think about how you actually are doing and answer appropriately. Communicate instead of reacting automatically to others, and you might manage to build a layer of trust between you and your coworkers.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Your Business Is Not Your Baby

I will start out here by telling you something that you need to hear. Your business (or product, or project, or work product) is not your baby. Nope, it's not. In fact, it's not a sentient being at all, because it's a business (or project or something like that). Shocking, eh?

When I phrase it that way, you probably think I am stating some obvious fact and being ridiculous. I am. But if as you read this, you start defending the position with statements like, "Well of course I would never mean that the business was a real baby," then you are exactly who needs to understand why this thing you work on isn't even a figurative baby.

You Made It, and You Still Are Making It

Sure, you make babies, too, but when it comes down to it, contribution of your genetic material is pretty much the "making" part on that end, and for the rest, the baby grows itself.

Your business, on the other hand, owes its entire existence to you. When you refer to your business as "your baby," you tell everyone that you are deeply connected to the inner workings of its growth. On the other hand, people who drop an idea for a business out there and let it organically grow without their heavy involvement don't refer to the business as their baby. 

What if you treated your business really like a baby, though? You would let it grow on its own. You would guide it and reward it when it does the right things, scold it when it doesn't, and foster the types of behaviors that lead towards independence. You would allow it room to make mistakes.

In the past few years, the term "helicopter parent" has come about to describe parents that continue to involve themselves in their children's lives in areas where the child (or young adult in some cases) should be making independent decisions. 

Similarly, small business owners and particularly passionate project leaders can have a difficult time separating their need for control from development of the teams into independent entities capable of making their own intelligent decisions.

You Can't Just Walk Away From It

Try leaving a baby on the sidewalk and walking away from it once you have decided it is not working out for you (OK, really don't try this, and if you were considering it, then I have more to worry about for you than just how you are running a business).

But seriously, you wouldn't leave a baby alone just based on how it affects you, because not only would that endanger the infant, but police and other would soon be after you, and you have an obligation and moral responsibility to the baby.

You don't have the same sort of obligation to your business. It is not a person who will starve if left unattended. It might cease to function, but you could start it back up again if you truly wanted. 

Too often, business owners stay in a business longer than they need to because they feel some sort of obligation to the business. A need to see it through to the finish or to continue to chase success no matter how much the real performance trends away from it.

You don't have a responsibility to stay on the sinking ship. You may have obligations that require you to close up shop or shut down a project in the appropriate way, but you actually are a person (who needs to eat and all of that), and you need to make sure that this inanimate business does not drag you down with the undertow. In the overquoted and always accurate words of Kenny Rogers (he's an old country singer from probably before my time if I am being honest, but throwing this description in here for anyone younger than me who is scratching their head), "Know when to walk away, know when to run." OK, go listen to it on YouTube or something. I'll wait.

It's More About You Than The Baby

When you are a parent, you are obligated to the child. You should sacrifice for yourself in order to get the child what he or she needs.

Again, a business is not a baby.

When you spend too much time sacrificing yourself for a business (particularly one that underperforms), the business does not necessarily benefit. In fact, it's more likely you are just grappling with one thing: pride. 

Sometimes pride as a business owner makes us deluded into thinking that we can't fail, or that if the business doesn't make us millions, that perhaps we, personally, are failures. Nonsense.

Some business revolve around a really crappy idea. Some businesses have no market for their product. Some businesses have bad luck with timing to market. Some businesses try to start in the wrong point of an economic cycle. Some businesses enter an overly saturated market. 

Businesses fail for hundreds of reasons. The blame does not always fall squarely on the owner, founder, or manager. So stop thinking it is a personal reflection and move along. Do things that benefit the business, but don't kill yourself trying to make something from nothing.

Know When To Let Go

You want to take care of your baby? Raise her up, teach her well, and send her off to college.

You want to take care of your business? Build it up, instill great business practices, and sell that puppy to someone who will scale it well.

Look at your business as something that you grow and sell and repeat. Learn from your mistakes. Granted, this doesn't work for all business models, but if it can work for yours, try it. Sell your business and build something else.

Have you ever been to a farmer's market? The guy selling tomatoes out of the truck does not put great personal investment in each red juicy tomato. He may focus on quality, and he may have pride in his work, but he is not personally invested in a single tomato. You know why? Because the intent is to sell that tomato so he can go grow more tomatoes the next week or next season.

This step particularly applies to those individuals that are heavily invested in their products. Stop and realize, the more time you spend tweaking and perfecting that product, the less time you have to come up with something completely new that may yield ten or a hundred times the performance of the current product. Finish it, sell it, repeat.

Conclusion

People often get caught up taking care of their "baby" projects or businesses. In reality, babies and businesses don't have a ton of similarities. And business owners should take advantage of those differences when they can. Learn to leave a failing business alone. Realize your pride and not the needs of a baby tie you down.

And maximize the similarities as well. Grow and teach your business to operate independently. Let it scale beyond you. Learn to be pleased when the business no longer needs you. Smile as you sell it off and start the journey again.

Maybe instead of calling it "my baby." try calling it "my teenager." It might put everything in a bit of perspective.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hooray! It's the First Day of School!

Do you remember the anticipation you had as a kid of the first day of school?

School started yesterday here in Texas, and parents the state over probably shouted for joy, either at the idea of getting the kids out of the house or (as is our case), settling back into a solid routine. Kids also exploded with excitement over what the new year would bring.

School to a kid always meant new opportunities, new clothes, new friends, new teachers, new things to learn, and a fresh slate to start the year. While I always lamented the end of summer, the adrenaline and freshness of a new experience usually won out.

We can learn a lot from how we felt as kids and look at the approach of Labor Day as an opportunity to reflect and refresh our outlook. It's a great annual reminder to take stock in where we are (like New Year's Day, birthdays, or other milestones).

New Opportunities

The new school year always offered new opportunities. What opportunities can you take for your business or career starting now? If you started your year now, looking forward to the next nine or ten months as the time to make an impact, what could you accomplish?

Take a few minutes today to think about what you could tackle this school year. Double your sales. Take the training class that you have been putting off. Crush that next project.

Challenge yourself to do something in the next sixty days that you have never done before. Remember when you learned something totally new in class? Doing new things keeps you moving and growing. Do something new. Then find something else you haven't done and go do that. Keep moving. Keep growing.

New Friends

When you walked in the first day of your new class, you most likely gravitated towards the few friends you already knew, but also looked around and found a few new faces that you could connect with. Sometimes, reaching out to the new kid in school could result in a lifelong friendship. One of my oldest friends was new to the school in fourth grade and we met in a reading group. A few decades later, we can still trade emails and reminisce.

As adults locked into our work environments, the opportunity for an entirely new crew of friends diminishes, but we still have several options for reaching out and building a network with new people. New employees, vendors, or customers all present opportunities to interact. 

I love a quote I stumbled on a few weeks ago from Bill Nye (the science guy) - "Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don't." Think about that for a minute. Every single human on the planet has a unique set of experiences and knowledge that contributes to who they are. What can you learn from them?

Engage people in conversation. See what you can learn. Respect their experiences. Sometimes it may be personal, sometimes academic. Whatever it is, connect. Truly connect with people.

Clean Slate

New school years also offer the ability to start over, in some respects. No matter how your prior year went, starting a new school year granted you a blank report card. The idea of starting fresh meant that your actions from the first day forward were the ones that would shape your future.

All too often as adults, we get caught up in our history. We relive our mistakes. We let our history with projects and people plague our interactions day to day. But what if we could start over?

Every day offers you the opportunity to start over, though. Just like a new school year, your actions from today forward shape the remainder of your future. Continuing to focus on the negatives of the past will only prevent your ability to move forward and move your business forward.

All of this amounts to little more than armchair psychology, but when you focus on the present day actions that can shape your future instead of worrying about how past events shaped your present, you can make a change. You can make a difference. You can wipe the slate clean.

Conclusion

It doesn't matter if it is the first day of school, the first day of June, or halfway through February. You can take any opportunity to reflect briefly and seize all of the opportunities you have to reboot your situation.

Look for opportunities to improve yourself, your career, and your business.

Meet new friends.

Take the opportunity to start fresh and focus on the future.

Whenever you decide to start your new year, take the opportunities that await you and jump on them. What are you going to do with your new year? Drop me a line and let me know.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Don't Put All Your Eggs In One Basket

We've all heard the expression about keeping our eggs in one basket. Don't do it. Diversification reduces risk to your portfolio.

But how do you know if your business has its eggs in the appropriate number of baskets? And what areas should you evaluate?

Customers

If you lost your biggest customer, what would happen to your business? For some businesses, they would completely shut down. Others would find themselves crippled and struggling to pay their bills. Still others might just shrug it off as business lost and continue running along with their other customers.

Which one looks more like your business? If you are too reliant on one or two customers, you certainly have a risky situation to deal with. Not only does your business hang on every dollar you bring in from those customers, but you also lose bargaining power when negotiating future business with them. 

As entrepreneurs, you welcome every customer. But if you find yourself reliant on one or two to keep eating, you may want to put a heavy bit of investment in customer acquisition efforts. Get your marketing machine in gear and work to become reliant on hundreds of customers instead of just a couple.

Vendors

I once ran a business that acted as a retail front for bands that wanted to sell their merchandise online, but didn't want to set up an entire storefront. Sales had massive peaks and valleys, though, and usually corresponded to new releases from just a couple of the artists. The survival of the business was wholly dependent on the product release schedule from just a couple of vendors.

Once again, this situation puts you in a weaker negotiating position with your vendors. But worse, being reliant on a single vendor really makes your business just a de facto employee of that vendor. Whatever service you provide, if your business totally rotates around the activities of one vendor, you become totally at their mercy. Your cease to control your business's direction and success.

The solution: take back your control where you can. Look to diversify suppliers, particularly if they offer commodity type products. If not, look at why certain vendors are succeeding and try to leverage that information to acquire new vendors with similar characteristics. Figure out if there are services you could offer that would reduce your reliance on particular vendors and increase your customer stickiness. Become more valuable to the vendor than they are to you.

Employees

You enter dangerous territory when you find yourself single-threaded on employees. Even the best and most loyal employees can often find themselves in personal situations that necessitate a job change. When that time comes, you may find yourself with a gaping hole in your organization where critical knowledge or certain tasks leave with the employee.

Sure, cross-training can help, but as an entrepreneur, you need to recognize these situations and take other steps to prevent it. For small businesses, often the boss knows how to perform everyone's job and can fill in in a pinch, but that role should quickly evolve into trainer as someone else comes up to speed in the area. Sometimes, niche knowledge falls through the cracks, though, and does not ever get effectively communicated to others in the organization.

Employee retention certainly plays a part here as well. Get to know your employees and coworkers well. Try to understand their motivations and make the workplace somewhere they want to be. Compensate people fairly. And while doing everything you can for the people of your business, make sure that you have ample backups and coverage for all critical items.

Products

How much do you rely on a single product or service to generate your revenue? What would happen if another business came in and blew that product away? Could you adapt in time to keep your business afloat?

This one seems obvious, but you would be amazed how many small businesses run out there on a single platform of a single product or service. Even at scale. Think of taxi companies. They provide a singular service - transportation. Introduce Uber to the market, and while taxis still exist, they certainly take a hit because of the additional technology and connectivity that Uber brings to the market. 

So here, you can minimize risk by adding products and services, but you can also future-proof your business by making yourself willing to adapt and stay ahead of technology and the industry. Your product portfolio needs an assessment and strategy and risk has to be part of that.

Conclusion

You can absorb risk much better the more diversified your business operates. Beyond even these categories, you should evaluate investments, real estate, technologies, industry and business model, and other areas of your business to identify where you are single-threaded or reliant on a very small number of alternatives. Once you know where your risks lie, work to eliminate them.

Do you have any other good stories about diversifying to reduce risk? Please post a comment or email me to let me know. I'd love to hear them.

Monday, July 25, 2016

How To Take Advantage of the Next Technological Disruption

Every so often, a technology change comes along that disrupts life as we know it. Sometimes, adopting the change costs so much that individuals cannot really capitalize on it without already having huge sums of wealth at their disposal. Take the first computers, for example. These giant monstrosities filled rooms and were substantially less powerful than today's mobile phones, but were so expensive that only governments and high end research facilities really had the funds to utilize them. Over time, though, additional technological developments made them ready to mass market, and the technology that allowed the personal computer to exist spawned several companies ready to take advantage of that breakthrough, such as Microsoft and Apple.

Notably, these companies did not invent the personal computer. They also were not primarily responsible for the technological breakthrough that allowed the PC to exist on an engineering level. Rather, they positioned themselves with software and ideas that fit perfectly with the new technology to create new business models.

The internet exploded in the 90's dot com boom as a leveling of the playing field for all. Finally, anyone with a PC and web access could preach their message to the world. Eventually, that led to commerce, and worldwide household names such as Amazon, Google, and eBay. It also spawned new platforms with social media, like Facebook and Twitter.

Peer-to-peer commerce is the latest new development, with traditional business models being displaced by Uber and AirBnB, whose job consists primarily of connecting two interested parties to conduct commerce, all while taking a small cut off the top. You might argue that Paypal and eBay were doing this twenty years ago and these new companies are just porting the model to other businesses.

All of these companies came about due to technology shifts, some of which required nothing more than hard work and an idea to break through. The companies grew and morphed, but all of them are still around today. Several others didn't make it, even though the playing field was fairly level. So how do you adapt for the next technology change and capitalize on it?

Anticipate Disruptive Technology

You can guarantee that technology will change and develop. We have not yet hit a stagnation point, even though some of the developments of late may look quite similar to things we already have. Still, new developments keep coming month after month and year after year.

Keep updated on what might be coming down the pipeline through social media and tech articles. As you notice new technologies being introduced, you can start to brainstorm how your business could morph and capitalize on the new tech. Not every technology will present an opportunity for your business, of course, but you should anticipate that new tech trends will come and potentially affect your market. Take the time to reflect on these trends and try to identify how your business might utilize them.

Be Ready to Pivot

Knowing that a new technology is coming to shake up your business or industry prepares you, but does not create success for you. Your business needs to be ready to pivot and adapt in order to take advantage of that technology. Drag your feet and someone else may find ways to put the new technological trend to a use that may make your business model completely irrelevant.

Successful businesses find a way to move in the direction that makes them more successful. While, not directly impacted by a technological trend, Groupon found its roots as a totally different concept called The Point and morphed with feedback from their user community into a focus on saving money en masse. Their ability to move kept them from fading into oblivion.

Likewise, we have seen companies like Borders books and Barnes and Noble struggle at best to compete with Amazon once the technology changed. Part of the failure was their ill-preparedness to pivot with the new technology changes around them, and in part, they failed in executing.

Perform with Excellence

For every one of the companies that took a technological advancement and made it into an empire, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who tried but found themselves unable to capitalize on it. For some, timing got in the way. For others, inability to scale prevented success. Whatever the reason, some who take a leap on a technology thrive, while others cannot execute and end up fading out of existence.

Whether you jump at a new technology innovation or continue to operate your business the same way that you have been running it, perform with excellence in mind. Your customers will notice. New startups attempting to disrupt a market find their path more difficult if the existing players have a reputation for outstanding customer service. Customers might even be willing to give the incumbent a little more time to catch up, knowing that the product and service that come out in the end will be superior.

For someone trying to make a name for themselves in an industry, outstanding service and performance always differentiate one competitor from another. In new markets, particularly, a commitment to excellence and customer service drives repeat business.

Conclusion

What technology buzzword in articles today will completely radicalize your business market in the coming years? Some enhanced mobile technology, maybe 5G? Augmented Reality? Blockchain? 

Whatever it might be, you need to get ahead of the curve. Start reading about upcoming technology trends and determine how it might affect your business as well as what opportunities it may hold. 

Be ready to pivot and pivot fast. Get your team used to moving quickly and changing direction with whatever makes the most sense. Those who drag their feet will get left behind.

And once you set a course, execute it as well as you can. Set a course that forces you to push past your competition in a commitment to performance. Make your company the best at what it does in the world. Customers will come to you.

And whatever happens, don't worry. It will continue to change.