Category: Mindset

What You Don’t Do

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” – Michael Porter

This week, in my Toastmasters club, we shrunk our meeting time from an hour-and-a-half to an hour. Covid caused the loss of almost 70% of the members and, in the years since, we haven’t been able to rebuild the membership. However, the club has still operated as if it were at its pre-Covid size. This has resulted in loyal members doing double duty with meeting and club roles for an extended period. Shrinking the meeting to an hour makes it easier to run with a smaller group. It’s the right size for where the club is at today.

The same thing happens with how businesses interact with the market. Because the owner wants to grow or is trying to survive a financial dip, they’ll take on projects that stretch the business too wide. For example, a small service business will try to look like a larger business by offering the same breadth of services as a larger firm. The further they reach, the more over-extended the team becomes, and the less productive the business becomes. Doing more makes things harder, not better.

This happens within a business too. I run a tiny business with just a few full time employees. Like many small business owner-operators, I wear multiple hats: marketing, sales, CEO, strategy, account management, HR, bookeeper, and etc. They’re mostly small slices of time, a few hours here and there, but there’s a limit on what I can do well. Because of this, I’m continually seeking the essence of what works for each of these roles and limiting the tasks I perform to that essence.

There is always more that you could do. There’s always more that your business could offer. But because your resources are so limited, it’s critical to be selective in what you do and, as important, what you don’t do.

A More Valuable Business

How do you make a business more valuable?

It seems like a simple question, with a simple answer: make it more profitable. Profit is a core measure of business health the same way your blood pressure is a core measure of your physical health.

However, profit is an objective measure and value is not objective, it’s subjective. The fancy coffee I buy from a friend of mine is valuable to me, but you might be happy drinking tea (heathen). What we value differs.

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Do Less & Be More

There’s a yin and yang aspect of running a  business. If your only experience of yin and yang is seeing the symbol on a poster on a dorm room wall, a simplified explanation is that yin is a passive force and yang is an active force.

In the context of business:

  • Yang might be setting and pursuing goals, hustling for sales, and building marketing campaigns.
  • Yin might be noticing changes in the market, feeling tension from a particular member of your team, or working on a side project with no planned value.

Entrepreneurs tend to play heavy into the yang side of the balance. We’re driven, type-A, make things happen kinds of people. This is why the Yin side of business is an opportunity.

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Sensitive to Anomalies

Last Tuesday, at my Rotary Club, we had a speaker, Doug Garnett, who presented on complexity in business. He said that there is a common perspective in business that deconstructs the business system into parts and pieces (sales, marketing, ops, etc). The underlying assumption is that if you can get the parts healthy, the business will do well.

Doug disagreed with this approach because businesses are complex systems. One of the ramifications of being a complex system is that businesses produce synergistic effects (positive and negative). The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Innocuous changes to the parts, like moving a weekly meeting to a different day, can have odd effects on how the entire system performs.

It’s an interesting perspective. What could it mean for your business though?

He said that you should still manage the parts of your business, but you should focus more on how the business operates as a whole. In particular, what you’re looking for is anomalies in profit (profit being the primary measure of the whole system.)

Changes may not have a clear rationale, like moving a meeting to a different day, but as long as your sensitive to the whole business system, you can still profit from them.

Revealing Sophistication

I’ve discovered something odd. If you have a meeting with four or more peers, you have to implement some form of discussion regulation. People need to raise their hands on Zoom or a talking stick needs to be passed around. If you don’t, a few people will take over the conversation and drive it off topic.

This tiny insight was gleaned from chairing my local Rotary membership committee the past nine months. Every two weeks we’ve met to discuss a membership related challenge. After having many of these meetings hijacked and trying a variety of solutions to keep them on track, I eventually landed on the hand raising method.

Leading a meeting is pretty simple. However, it’s interesting that there are deeper levels of sophistication in this simple task.

I’ve noticed the same hidden sophistication in many of the tactics that I employ in business. For example, I’ve used thought leadership and referral marketing this past year as our strategy to develop new business. Several times I’ve paused and intentionally iterated on improving these two marketing tactics. Each time I’ve done so, I’ve unearthed a deeper level of sophistication.

Focusing on just one area to improve and iterating on it, again and again, has a certain magic to it.

But the big question is what is deserving of that focus? And are you staying with that focus long enough to unlock its secrets?

Shooting Through Windows

There’s a software product in the association market called Prop Fuel. It delivers one question surveys via email. It’s doing well and I can tell that it’s growing from the regular referrals I hear for it. What’s interesting to me is that I built it eleven years ago.

Back in 2013, I coded my first software product. It was a plugin for Joomla that I called “Mail in Vote.” I developed it for people that needed an easy mechanism to get consensus from a group and it did what Prop Fuel does now. I worked nights and evenings for nine months and made a few sales, but mostly I learned was that I had a lot to learn about building and marketing software products. Mail in Vote actually killed my career as a developer, because in the process of grinding away on it, I developed serious repetitive-stress injuries which forced me to build a team to do the work instead.

Eleven years ago Mail in Vote was a failure, today Prop Fuel is a success. The market context is different, a platform market versus a vertical market, but as big of a difference is that the time hadn’t come for the concept. Prop Fuel does well because associations have over-used survey tools in the past ten years and need a survey “lite” method to get information. Even if Mail in Vote was tightly tied to the association market eleven years ago, it would have had a similar ho-hum reception because there wasn’t the same “survey fatigue” then as there is now. Eventually, things will change enough in the market that even the one question survey won’t be desirable.

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Renewing Your Franchise

This weekend I read a 1978 Harvard Business Review article on strategy for service firms, “Strategy is Different in Service Businesses.” (Thomas)

It was an interesting read for a variety of reasons, but one of the lines that stuck out to me was, “Every company depends on an ability to renew its franchise in the marketplace.”

When I think back over my career, I remember many businesses that were the darlings of our conversations and that either no longer exist or have faded into shadows of their former selves.

That this is the natural state of the market fills me with both wariness and inspiration.

Wariness, because I have to be vigilant about creating new value to maintain our existing business. Inspiration, because there’s another opportunity emerging to build something great.

What Is Better?

I’m a “big” with Big Brothers Big Sisters. The kid that I spend time with is similar to me in many ways:

– He likes board and video games
– He likes to cook
– He enjoys adventures

But, he’s also very different from me in other ways. I workout most days, meditate twice a day, and relentlessly pursue personal growth. My “little” is instead very comfort oriented: he wants to eat rich food, watch TV, and sit by the fire. I doubt he’ll ever embrace challenge or regimen like I have.

And that’s okay- he’s not me. I have no interest in mentoring him onto my path. Instead, I see my role as creating opportunities for him to discover his own path.

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A Better Cactus

I’m back in not-so-sunny Portland after a month in Baja. Right before I left, I wrote this post on environmental change being a catalyst for new growth:

This morning, I woke and sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee, and feeling grateful for all the shifts in thinking that happened while I was experiencing the desert vistas.

One of those shifts was to re-think my goals. Last fall, I wrote about how the goals we pursue affect our experience and our outcomes, often in ways we don’t understand when we set the goal:

In behavioral psychology, there’s a phenomenon known as “goal contagion,” where others’ goals become our own, simply through our interactions. Your friend gets excited about Tae Bo, and the next thing you know, you’re hooking and jabbing in your living room to an old Billy Blanks VHS tape.

One of the goals that entrepreneurs get infected with is growth. It’s rare to encounter an entrepreneur that isn’t trying to figure out how to grow to “the next level.” Two years ago, when I visited Baja the first time, I decided to anchor my thinking around this challenge because it was so prevalent.

But as I enjoyed my morning coffees this past month, watching sunrises over the Sea of Cortez, I wondered if it’s not actually a good goal to pursue? With the benefit of two years of thinking about it, I wondered if pursuing growth can inhibit growth?

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What if your criteria for what objectives you would take on was that they were easy?

In the book Scaling Up, author Verne Harnish, uses a graphic to challenge the traditional mentality of entrepreneurship. He replaces the model of summiting a mountain with a river that flows downhill. His point is that nature chooses the easiest route and businesses should too.

Easy is an interesting criteria to play with because so many things in business are hard.

One of the consequences of using easy as a filter is that it curtails over-investment. If something doesn’t easily work, then it’s abandoned. More initiatives die because they ask too much, but the ones that remain are profitable.

Additionally, easy as a criteria engenders thinking because thinking is easier than doing. Thinking is often helpful in business because it anticipates problems and identifies opportunities. Both of which are missed when you’re heavily involved in doing.

Whether easy as a decision filter is right for you, it’s important to understand that we all have internal priorities that shape our decisions. Yet, we tend to be unaware of them.

Consciously choosing how you’ll make decisions, even for just a season, can help expose your inherent priorities and their impact on you and your business.