Archive for October, 2012

Perspective – It Really Matters….

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

We know that growing a business is hard work, correct?

Long hours, low pay, taking risks that were unimaginable before we started, unfeeling lenders and employees who lack commitment – and I haven’t even mentioned difficult customers who take forever to pay!

But what if we had to deal with our homes being bombed – several times – and not by unhappy customers? Can you imagine?

Yet I read recently about a business owner to whom this actually happened. Oh – and she had to survive death threats and acid attacks.

There are some problems that most of us who live in North America simply don’t face. Can you imagine, as part of a SWOT analysis, doing an environmental scan and having the Taliban pop up? That would give a whole different meaning to Threats.

I spent some time – a long time ago – with the British services just outside Belfast during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. One of the things that struck me as being “unreal”, to use our vocabulary of the time, was that businesses continued to run despite bombs, shootings and riots.

In Afghanistan, life and business go on (as they did all those years ago in Belfast). Entrepreneurs and business owners in Greece and Spain face different challenges but which are just as hard for me to imagine.

Talking about imagination, one of the techniques we use when developing strategies with clients is to get them to build a picture of their company in 3 or 5 years’ time. We ask them to do this in quite a lot of detail.

We use the exercise for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the power of visualization. Most business owners find it different or odd at first but succeed with very little prompting.

But can you conceive of being in a situation where you simply cannot imagine or visualize an end result?

That’s because you’ve encountered years – not days, not months, not quarters – but years of failure. And you’re only 10 years old? Yet the kids pulled it off and moved on with their lives – I think that’s truly amazing.

While I’m sitting writing this the first effects of Hurricane Sandy are appearing outside. While it may be a challenge, we know that by the weekend, at worst, it will be over. For most people it will (hopefully) only be a disruption lasting a few days.

Even Sandy pales, in my opinion, when compared to the story of the Afghani woman who launched the news agency in her own country and children who have to struggle for years with learning difficulties.

So, to those who are busy with their planning and budgeting for 2013 I would say this. Take a second, step back and reflect. For no matter how hard the challenges of growing a business in a slow or no growth economy, maybe other people are dealing with different (bigger?) challenges every day of their lives.

And if they can do it – so can we.

It’s all a matter of perspective………

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy A Vision – Is It Worth Investing The Time?

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Persistence and Execution…..

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

This is a true story, it did happen.

A few years ago I was on a team that had to cross a river of fast-flowing, freezing cold water without anyone getting hypothermia. And it had to be done in a certain amount of time or there would be unpleasant consequences to face.

One of the team was appointed leader and quickly solicited input from the rest us before announcing his plan. We got to work and, for a while, things went well.

But then it began to look like the plan wasn’t going to deliver the outcome we needed – just as sometimes happens in business. The leader tried to adapt his plan several times and in several different ways. It still wouldn’t work.

By this point we were very short of time.

He continued trying to modify the plan. His team became more demotivated, and distinctly less supportive, as the minutes ticked away. As you’ve no doubt guessed…..

We didn’t make it – and there were unpleasant consequences.

The river crossing was a leadership exercise, part of our officer training program. The leader didn’t graduate. You can argue that it’s not the same as losing a company – or even losing money – but it was pretty traumatic for the guy.

Until then I’d always been taught that persistence was important. However, even though our leader persisted, we weren’t successful. Clearly, there was such a thing as too much persistence.

But how much is too much?

When do you call a halt without, in retrospect, wondering if you quit too soon, a question every business owner has to answer more than once? Like most entrepreneurs we work with, I’ve developed my own guidelines for dealing with the “persistence versus pigheaded” question.

But Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 12 Guidelines for Deciding When to Persist, When to Quit are really good and very useful.

I particularly like the “interim” measures she proposes – are there signs of progress; has there been concrete achievements; is resistance declining? Nothing happens as quickly as we think – and plan – it will. So it’s important to look for indications that we’re on the right path.

It’s always good to get some fresh insight………….

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy Bad Strategy – How To Spot It.

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Attract More B2B Prospects with Content Marketing

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

This week’s guest is Paul Heron, CEO of Complex2Clear, a Toronto-based communications agency specializing in proposals, content marketing and websites for companies selling B2B services.

 

If you’re reading this post, chances are you think strategically and work at staying ahead of your competition in innovation, quality, delivery and client experience.

But who, besides your employees and your clients, appreciates how much value you deliver? Do outsiders generally know and admire your company ─ or do you often find yourself starting from scratch when explaining your key benefits and track record to new prospects?

If you’re in the “starting from scratch” category, consider content marketing, a powerful tool for building positive awareness about your business.

Content marketing is the practice of creating and sharing useful information prospects and others can read, listen to or watch via blogs, e-newsletters, white papers, research reports, magazine articles, industry presentations, webinars, case studies, podcasts, videos and others formats.

The idea is to demonstrate that your company is innovative and expert, but also generous in spirit ─ willing to share valuable knowledge freely with others. You gain recognition for being both smart and approachable and become the logical first stop for anyone shopping for your products.

Content marketing is among the fastest growing trends in marketing (to prove this, Google the phrase). Once available only to large consulting and financial services firms with research and printing budgets, it can now be practiced by anyone with a website.

Sound interesting? Here are some tips and a high-level schedule to help you get started.

CONTENT MARKETING TIPS

Start with research: Where is your community online? How can you best reach them? What kind of information would prospects find useful? What frequency makes sense ─ for you and your audiences?

Focus on your core message: Remember, this is a marketing initiative, not a creative writing exercise. It’s critical that each piece of content support your brand. Creating random blog posts about whatever’s on your mind is not content marketing.

Start small: Don’t overcommit. It’s better to publish monthly (or quarterly) and increase frequency, than to start weekly and burn out in a few months. Decide what resources you have and fit your campaign to your capabilities.

Set up your website to support content marketing: Use a contact manager and forms to begin building a list of people to whom you can push your content. Enable Google Analytics, so you can see which site pages attract and retain visitors to guide your content development. Here’s a video and free website audit tool to help you in this process.

Manage information quality: Make sure every item you publish is valuable. Your growing list of subscribers following your content is a business asset. Protect it with a process that ensures they receive consistent quality. Assign one person to review all content before publishing.

Avoid infomercials: This shouldn’t need to be said ─ but never stray into advertising in your content marketing. Along with poor quality (see above), it’s the fastest way to burn off your audience.

Set goals: Content marketing takes time and money. Set goals, track your costs and measure results to ensure it’s a good investment of your resources.

SCHEDULE

1. Confirm you have the appetite and resources for a content marketing initiative. Be realistic. A content marketing campaign is a long slow process. If you can afford to, consider using an outside agency to supplement your internal staff.

2. Brainstorm ideas for content to share. Use a facilitator and generate lots of topics. Plan to repeat this exercise every few months.

3. Rank each topic’s potential impact and time/effort to develop. Segment high-impact topics into several items to increase mileage. Identify your priorities and low-hanging fruit. Plan to revisit important topics every 6 months or so with an update.

4. Identify a subject matter expert for each topic. Who will be responsible for each item? This person may not be the writer; he or she could generate bullet points and review the draft for accuracy and completeness.

5. Set your priorities, channels and schedule. Frequency is important. When managing resources, consider publishing shorter items to increase frequency. The aim is to be top-of-mind when a prospect needs your services.

6. Document your plan, assign responsibilities and deploy. Manage your content marketing campaign like any other business process to enjoy maximum success.

You can contact Paul at 416-619-9208 or paul@complex2clear.com

It’s the Strategic Plan, Stupid

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

With a title like “The beating heart of the enterprise, it’s the strategic plan, stupid” there was no way I wasn’t going to read the article.

As an added incentive it was a Q&A with a Harvard professor published in the top magazine for entrepreneurs and business owners. (Call me odd but I think that combination just has to be fascinating.)

So what were the pearls of wisdom? Here are 6 of them.

• Working with corporate types the Prof had always viewed strategy as a set of mechanical tools, a series of frameworks and analysis. But she quickly realized that entrepreneurs are emotionally invested in their strategies – which impact their employees and companies very directly. And business owners feel responsible because, compared to corporations, that impact is felt very quickly.

• Strategy is not only about making your company different – it’s about making it different in a way that matters to your customers. For example, becoming a “one stop shop” is only worthwhile if you know why one stop shopping is important to the people you expect to pay for it. Otherwise, no one will care.

• Entrepreneurs and business owners are more likely to create strategies that reflect their own character. For example, Michael O’Leary the CEO of Ryanair is apparently blunt and in your face. So their bare bones strategy has an aspect of bluntness bordering on rudeness – think of wanting to charge passengers to use the washroom – to it as well.

• Don’t make the mistake of getting into “strategy creep”. That’s Cynthia Montgomery, the Harvard Prof’s, term for businesses that add more services and more technology to reach more customers – and lose sight of what made them different in the first place.

• Business owners should treat their strategies as a living, breathing process that they think about on an ongoing basis. Not as something that is pulled out and dusted off once a year. Why, because what worked last year may not work 3 years from now. The difference a company makes has to be relevant to customers today – and every day.

• A major benefit of seeing strategy as being fluid and dynamic is that it can be adapted as competitors catch up or as customers’ needs change. Montgomery gives the example of Ikea’s constant search for new ways to do things and to save their customers money. She contrasts that with Gucci who lost touch and stopped responding to their market. That required a much more painful – and risky – change to their business model.

I like it when magazines targeted at entrepreneurs deal with topics like strategy. It reinforces the point that every company has to have a strategic plan and a process for keeping it relevant.

It can be formal or informal – I don’t care. But it must exist.

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy 3 Ways to Test Your Strategy.

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Are You Growing Too Fast?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

We routinely tell business owners that a company can get into trouble when it’s growing just as easily as it can at any other time.

I’ve grown used to the looks of disbelief that come our way. And to the predictable question, “How can growing be a bad thing?”

The answer, of course, is that growth isn’t bad in concept. Like everything else, it’s the execution that is either good or bad; it’s how the owners manage what’s going on.

There was a good example of how things can go wrong – and how badly wrong they can go – in the HBR last month.

A family owned printing company saw sales hit an all-time high just as everything fell apart in 2008. The problem was that the bottom line wasn’t growing and they were eating into their line of credit because cash was tight.

All it takes is a decline in margins caused by price cutting – to drive an increase in sales – and a slowdown in customer payments because credit rules have been relaxed (also to bring on new customers) and cash becomes a problem.

In a mature industry like printing where the products have become commoditized, price cutting becomes a way of life.

It’s also a business in which you have to understand and watch costs carefully. Under-estimating a job can turn it into a loser quickly. And so can making a mistake and having to re-run the job.

How do you avoid getting into trouble while growing?

1. Don’t “buy” new business. Rather than compete on price, find ways to add value. Or offer “de-featured” versions of existing products and services at a lower price point.

2. Get a really good understanding of your operating costs and how they react when sales increase.

3. Keep a tight grip on inventory (if you have one) and Receivables (and most companies have those). Move quickly to get rid of customers that don’t pay on time.

4. Spend time getting to know your cash flow and how it is affected by growth. Remember – cash is king. A profit is good but you can’t take it to the bank. They only accept cash.

5. Don’t rely on your Income Statement to tell you what’s going on. It can tell you what has gone on – but it can’t give you a glimpse of the future. Only a cash flow forecast, your aged receivables, inventory turns and metrics like these will do that.

This is hardly an exhaustive list but it covers most of the basics.

One of the bosses I worked for never let us talk about sales; he insisted we talk about profitable sales. I thought he was nitpicking at the time but, in retrospect, I was young and foolish and he was much more seasoned and savvy.

Guess how we talk about sales now.

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy 5 Tips To Improve Margins and The Bottom Line…..

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