All That Glitters

We are all so consistently attracted to shiny objects that we miss the real story.

The #17 company on the 2011 Inc. 500, ClearCorrect, develops clear removable braces. They grew revenue from $100,000 to $8.7 million in 3 years.

Valuation Management Group, #22, provides real estate (Yes, real estate) appraisal services for banks and credit unions. They grew revenue from $317,000 to $25.4 million in the past 3 years.

Every state in the country (and across the globe) are filled with great companies like these and the Inc. 500 and 5000 are filled with them. Great because they are growing by making more revenue than they put out in expenses.  Business that should not only be admired, but should be studied. Their methods, determination and purpose should be what we all try to emulate.

But we don’t.

We talk endlessly about how much money the latest new idea raised their series A,B,C round of financing. We listen in the echo chamber of blogs and other media to the endless chants of social media and the cloud.

Twitter, for all the good it has done in the world, has not earned revenue that is anywhere near the huge sums that have been invested in it. And there is no clear path to show that it will.  Past web darling, Groupon, was nearly insolvent leading up to its IPO despite having raised hundreds of millions of dollars. These are the businesses that capture our attention and our lust.

Sorry to point out the obvious but, envying someone that raised a lot of Venture Capital money is not about building a business. When you consider that most VC’s average a 33% success rate, receiving that money does little to ensure any kind of success for the business.  They are bets, chips set out in front of a roulette wheel, waiting for the ball to drop on just a few so they get the returns they want for their funds.

What I propose… Let’s celebrate the operators. The business leaders that build businesses that endure. That use their profits to hire. That are driven to build a lifestyle for themselves and for those that work with them that would like to find a place where they can work for their entire career. That are not waiting for the company to be flipped like a speculative real estate investment. Who make the hard choices to make cuts so they can ensure the business survives in tough times. Who build relationships with customers instead of counting users. They have the lessons and skills you really can use. Today.

The best businesses in this country no longer fit into the ideal of what too many think is success in business and life. That needs to change.

 

eBook: Don’t Perfume The Pig

When you are ready to sell your business, will your business be ready to sell?

Selling my business 11 years ago taught me many lessons that I learned in the process and in the years since. Distance from “the hurricane” of running a business has many benefits.  I have tried to distill those lessons and what I see and hear while working with so many business owners over the course of my career. The result is this little eBook: Don’t Perfume The Pig. My hope is that, when you are ready to sell your business, you will be better prepared than I was.

As with my first book, I think it is important to deliver practical information in a quick read with as little “filler” as possible.  I hope you find it valuable, a good reference and something that will start your thinking about your own business and what you want it to do for you.  

I also hope you will share it with as many business owners as you can. 

Click here to download “Don’t Perfume The Pig” as a FREE PDF.

DPP_Final_Cover2_304kb

My special thanks to the great Kevin Cornell for the amazing cover design.

Yes, You Should Dumb It Down

Diad_v

UPS has over 94,000 delivery vehicles, 282 airplanes (the 8th largest fleet in the world) and over 425,000 employees across the globe. Over the years they have developed one of the most sophisticated hand held devices ever devised. There are well over 70,000 of them deployed worldwide. They call it the Delivery Information Acquisition Device, DIAD for short. The latest iteration has 3 different radio types and is the instant entry point for a tracking system that averages over 10 million tracking requests a day.

So how do you put a device that sophisticated in the hands of so many people without bringing the company to a crawl or opening a small university to train everyone? Make the interface dead simple.

Every time I see those DIAD devices in the hands of my UPS delivery person it reminds me of an experience I had with a UPS driver almost 8 years ago. As I watched him click clack away at the large array of buttons on this intimidating notebook sized device with such extraordinary speed and precision I had to ask him “How hard is that thing to use?” What he showed me has stuck with me ever since. On the small monochromatic screen, just above 2 sets of blue up/down arrows were the words “Hit the blue up.” — “It’s great” he said “totally dumbed down.”

Now, he did not say “dumbed down” in a negative way. He was clearly proud about his speed and proficiency on this complex piece of electronics that anyone would be overwhelmed by at first (or tenth) glance. The story has stuck in my mind because that phrase, “dumbed down,” continues to come up so often over the years.

When I tell this story to clients, audiences or prospects the response I often hear is:

“No, no… I don’t want to dumb it down. Our customers are smarter, more savvy, more…”

When we work on marketing, new products, business ideas, web sites, presentations,etc…  We spend a lot of time making sure that everything sounds as complicated as it can be. Complicated has come to equal uniqueness. Why? The more complex we can make our offerings (Or make them sound that way) the more differentiated we will be. I believe the opposite to be true. Now more than ever.

When we get worried about dumbing something down, whose intelligence are we worried about insulting? Do you think the UPS drivers think the IT group has dumbed things down for him or her? Or does the extreme simplification make the cumbersome manageable? When someone visits your web site and there is language that makes each move incredibly clear do you think the visitor feels insulted? When someone can understand what you are offering and why they should care without having to go through 68 slides, they will thank you.

The challenge we all face is to make something so incredibly powerful and complex, like the UPS DIAD, yet make it so extraordinarily accessible that it takes seconds for the user to put that power to use.

Whether it is a multi billion dollar global communication system or making it extraordinarily clear where someone can find something in your catalog, website or store you are not insulting their intelligence, you simply give them ones less thing they have to work through.

Not dumbing it down would have caused the tightest ship in the shipping business to sink just when they were trying to make a huge innovation leap. How many businesses do not embrace new technology because they fear that doing so would bring the company to a grinding halt? If the new way is more painful than the old way then the old way will always be too easy to fall back on.

How much did UPS save in training/support/complaint/re-training costs by dumbing it down? Hundreds of millions at least. How much did making the interface dead simple change the kind of real time information it wanted back from the devices? None.

Whatever it is you are offering, selling or trying to convey, no matter how complex it may be, how do you explain it as easily as Hit the blue up?

Your customers are busy. They no longer like to do a lot of reading (If they ever did) and they want to understand what is in it for them in as short a time as possible. Do yourself a favor and dumb it down for them.

Burgers, Fries and Shakes

The Diner in the somewhat sleepy town I passed through was painfully empty.  It is as painfully empty as too many of the stores and restaurants you walk by these days.  No doubt this causes incredible stress to the owner of each business leaving them way too much time to consider all the extra things they could do to try to change their fortunes. We have all been there or are worried we could find ourselves in our business version of that same predicament.

But let’s turn those thoughts around.  How could you do LESS to change your fortunes?  Consider that people actually do NOT want more from you and would welcome you giving them an amazingly great and simple moment.  If there ever was a time that the saying “Longing for simpler times” rings true it is now. I hope that fact remains long after the recession is over.

So why can’t that Diner end the stress that comes from maintaining that enormous menu that is trying to please everyone?  What if they just focused on making the PERFECT burger, fries and shake?  Every ounce of energy focused into a finite offering that will be extraordinary.

No more.  No less.

In the process, they will have reinvented their business.  They will have found a way to be different than their competitors.  They will have found a way to have people start talking about them again and spreading the word.  Not from that extra mailer or ugly banner with a “buy one get one free” offer.  Just connect to what people went to Diners for in simpler times and deliver it with perfection.

The Shake Shack in New York does just that and the lines run around the block….and back. It worked so well they are now a public company with a market cap of over $1 billion.

And it is true for every business.

What did “simpler times” in your industry look like?   What is the Burger, Fries and Shake of your industry? Of your specific business?  Are they the absolute best anyone could ever find?

Panhandler Marketing Strategy

Panhandlers. Beggars. People who spend their days asking the age old question “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Every big (and some small) city has them and their approach is always the same… “Excuse the interruption. I lost my job, have no place to live, have no food, have 8 kids and need any money you can spare.”??

They work the corners and ATM machines. On the subway, they move from the front car all the way to the back telling the same story over and over.?? They follow the exact same formula. It has become so commonplace that people don’t look up or even blink at some of the saddest stories you can imagine.

Today on the F train a man stood up and announced:

“The next stop is the 23rd street station. Connections can be made to the X,Y,Z trains. Up on the street you will find Barnes & Noble, Staples, Starbucks and The Container Store. Please be sure to pick up any newspapers you have left behind to help keep our subway system clean. Thank you and have a nice day.”

Every (now smiling) passenger was totally focused on him. He delivered a message that was concise, valuable and totally relevant. He did it with passion and a dose of fun.

His delighted audience paid him generously for it.

The Simplicity Of A Light Switch

Virtually every network we have, the water network, the telephone network and the electric power network has enormously complex components that are hidden from consumers. Consumers have rather simple devices that access these enormously complex networks. In the PC era, we had a complex devices connected to a complex network. With the Internet, this all started to change. We could take all of the complexity out of the end user devices and move that complexity back into the network and then supply consumers with a very, very simple device. 

-Larry Ellison, CEO, Oracle

The above commentary has stayed with me for some time as the impact of the core idea is enormous. Too often we look to show off the complexity of the network we are delivering to show how much we know about it. That may make us feel better, but it is exactly the opposite of what a consumer or business is really looking for. It is not what they value.

So the challenge for us all is to look for complex networks in what we do and begin a relentless mission to deliver it with the simplicty that rivals a basic telephone, water faucet and light switch.

 

The Power & Glory Of Asking For Help

Everyone talks about doing the right things to minimize the risks of their business. But here is the problem, owning a business is risky. And the risks that become real are never the ones that we plan for.

So, as they say, shit happens to businesses and it will happen to yours. Sometimes they are modest annoyances and other times they threaten the existence of your company. But more often they are a steady series of market changes that exert downward pressure on your business. And they do this so slowly that by the time you notice how far into the abyss you are, it feels like there is no way back.  And the reason we don’t realize it is because, as my favorite saying goes, “it is hard to read the label when you are stuck inside the bottle.”

So we grind along, alone, inside the “bottle” that is our business as our business becomes a lonely grind.  Worse, we business owners are external optimists as we feel it easier to say “it will all get better” in public while we worry in isolation over whether that will be true. “It is lonely at the top” is about as true a saying as there is.

There is another bad element at play here.  Business owners hate to ask for help. Somehow, asking for help means that they are not doing a good enough job or admitting that someone else may know something that they do not.  Or, they think, it is the same as admitting failure.  I know this because I have been there and have felt all of these emotions.  But, fortunately, I realized that one can’t do the heavy lifting that is needed to turn an organization of any size around all alone. It takes an outside perspective.  It takes someone that will tell you the unvarnished truth and “read the label” for you.  But most of all, it takes an outside person, or a team of them, to roll up their sleeves and get the hard,and sometimes ugly, work done that must to get done. And get it done with the  fanatical urgency it requires.

Because, here is the important point, asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. A lot of people are counting on you to do whatever is necessary to save the business and make it thrive again. I cannot think of anything more brave.

As with anything, there is a right way and a wrong way to get a business turned around. Done right, the business will feel like yours when it is done. Yours without the worry and stress of wondering if each week will be the last or what other “shoe will drop” when you answer the phone or open your inbox. No more driving to and/or from work frustrated that a lot was said and done but the business still feels stuck. That may sound familiar but you must decide you are done feeling that way.

And that is why I do what I do. I went through all of these pains and, it turns out, I did not have to.  I asked for help just before it was too late and am forever sorry I did not ask for it even sooner. I would have saved myself (and those around me) a year or two of extreme stress and worry.

And so I will continue to push against the conventional wisdom that business owners never ask for help until it is too late.  That they are afraid to admit they need some real help. Those that feel that they would rather “go down with the ship” can certainly choose to do so… with my condolences.

There are many who realize that having a set of helping hands and minds on their side is the bravest and smartest move they can make to realize their biggest hopes and dreams for themselves, their business and those that rely on it.  We should be spending more time celebrating this kind of business bravery and making it the badge of honor it is.