A short take on strategic planning

doingthingsFor a couple of days now I have been doing presentations in various universities and adult learning seminars about entrepreneurship and business development. In addition to those seminars I have of course been attending all the end of year Christmas business functions and events. So I have had the pleasure of roaming around and chatting with all kinds of other entrepreneurs and business folk.

In one of the classes I was in, a student raised his hand and asked me about strategic planning and business plans. He asked how important they were and before I could get a word in his professor (who has never ran a business in his life but does have a PhD in something) jumped up and said “most important thing a business can do. It is the back bone.” I’m not saying he is wrong. I think strategic plans and business plans have a certain place in business but my response was much simpler. My response was that business plans can only take place AFTER you have been in business for a period of time. Yes that is right, before you build a plan you must first test and do. I don’t think anyone can build a successful plan until  they truly understand the markets, themselves, their business, their customers, the ebbs and flows of business, and no matter how much you read or how much you write you will not understand any of this until you DO.

While at a Christmas function I told this story to a fellow serial entrepreneur (without telling him the answer I gave) and he jumped right in and said this, “yes of course they are important, if you need a bank loan, but who the hell does that any more.” This colleague of mine then proceeded to ask, “did you tell the students to get out there and just DO? Test the waters, be adventurous, don’t be shackled down by writing plans.” He then went even further by telling me a story about a partner of his that once wanted to start a business, that was 3 years ago. What is this fellow doing now? Just putting the final touches on a really great business plan.

My lesson is this: yes indeed plan, but don’t become so overwhelmed by the plan but rather become overwhelmed by doing things and analysing things. Put your efforts into trying to understand rather than planning to understand something that is always changing. Yes there are trends and some stick but sometimes there is a lot to be said for debunking the trends and beating your own path.

Of course this needn’t be said but this advice goes for both business and life. Get out  there and DO. Then when you have done, LEARN and do again.

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13 tips to growing business relationships

Today I had 3 clients give me a call about growing their business and they were looking for the BIG secret (dammit I hate the way society has interpreted that book) about how to make successful partnerships. Here is my advice:

  1. Be human.
  2. Love people (even if you have to pretend a little. *caution you are only allowed to do this for a little bit. See below for more on this topic).
  3. Look up people (businesses) you think are cool.
  4. Reach out with an email, a phone call, or my favourite a letter (you know with stamps and everything). Don’t be afraid if they say no, what do you have to lose? You don’t know them now anyway? Just makes room in your schedule to meet with other way cooler people.
  5. Stop being so damn stiff.
  6. Read as much about their stories before you meet them as you can. It is time well spent learning fun facts. It is also usually seen as someone really doing their homework.
  7. Have a meeting at an ice cream parlour, a bar, over some wine, at an art gallery, take them on a hike (aka be different. Show them part of your world or get to know their world a bit). My favourite meetings have been on the canal with some hot chocolate and beaver tails. And no this not some crazy younger generation thing. Last year I met with someone who I did work with on the canal and he was 56 years old and willing to try anything. Remember life and work can be fun if we choose to make it so. I mean all you have to do is ask (what’s the fear, they say no). Throw out the invite or ask them for an invite to a fun spot they love. Most of the clients I know are thrilled to get their butts out of the office.
  8. Listen to their stories.
  9. Ask questions.
  10. Tell a little bit of your story.
  11. Decide whether or not you want to spend more time working on something, anything with them or if you want to jump ship. Then proceed to go or no.
  12. Go away and brainstorm some cool projects and then throw them their way, see if they are interested.
  13. If they seem like good people then nurture that relationship and you just might find yourself beginning to love people, your work, and yourself a bit more.

My strategy all along in life (and it only keeps getting more and more engrained) is that I work with people who I love, who make me laugh, who I have a good time with. You know the saying ‘life is too damn short….well just don’t hang out with people you don’t get along with.

Of course sometimes this can be easier said than done because to be able to know the people you get along with you normally have to know yourself a little bit. If you follow along on here you will have probably figured out I don’t think too many people really do know themselves all that well. In fact I think part of us gets lost everyday when we aren’t doing the things we love. So maybe that is step 1. figure out who the hell you are and what you like first. Really think about it. What are some of your hobbies? When are the happiest, like really really happy? What are you doing? Who are you with? Inside or outside? Crowded or small group? What is something you could talk about all day long without ever knowing the time?

Back to my point, find the people that make you smile and harness all their energy. I have found so much power in reaching out and listening to their stories every day. Good or bad listen to what they have to say and you will learn lots, about them and about yourself. Who knows you follow this sage (hardy-hard) advice and you might just find some new friends along the way to building an amazing business.

ps. The biggest fear I hear all the time about reaching out is “well what if they don’t like me?” Well that is fine. Isn’t it? I mean if they don’t like you then you get to move on. Remember be yourself. I mean if you try to be funny, outgoing, and edgy but really you like being reserved and pretty calm then what is the point of putting on the fake personality? If they don’t like who you genuinely are then working together would probably only be a huge pain anyway.

Now get outta here and go reach out to someone you think is cool (this isn’t high school anymore, even though sometimes it might feel like it, you can talk to anyone. The playground is HUGE).

Word of mouth is social media

Lately I have been hearing a lot of the same comments be it in a training I am offering, a conference I am speaking at or attending, and/or a client I am working with, “I just don’t have the time to do social media.” This is usually followed by, “plus my business really runs on word of mouth advertising so social media isn’t really that big for me.” To all of that I sincerely say “bullshit!” I’m not sure if people have realized this or not yet but social media is word-of-mouth. I mean you are literally taking your word-of-mouth and exploding it’s reach. Therefore making time for social media is not something people should be scared of. I say scared quite deliberately because honestly I know what that feels like. “I won’t have anything to share”, “who will follow me?”, “what social media tools should I use?”, “couldn’t I spend a whole day on those sites not really being productive with my time?” These are all questions that flood people’s minds and I know this because they have all been a part of my thoughts as well at one point or another. All of this to say I am not touting social media as the ultimate solution to any business or even that social media should be king of all. What I mean to say is that social media is what it is. It is a way to build relationships and get to know others who you may never otherwise have the chance to meet (hi Gary Vaynerchuk and Sir Richard Branson). Social media is simply a tool. It is not something to be feared and it is not something to be overwhelmed by.

Of course not being feared and not being overwhelmed by it is easier said than done. My advice has always been for people to learn, to watch how others are using various platforms, to play with various platforms, to really take the time to understand how each of them operates and then and only then decide which one (or few) suits them. There is a social media platform to help just about anyone get more engaged with current clients, colleagues, future clients, and just people in general so you need to learn which one is best suited to your needs and capabilities. And yes it is going to take time. If you put the time in learning how to use Twitter properly and not just dismissing (without ever really seeing how people are using it productively) it as a 140 character narration of people’s useless lives with minute details then the benefits will be there. Social media is like anything else in your business it takes time to learn it but it can add great value.

One other thought on all of this, don’t ever let social media be all about you and what you are doing. While you are great and your services are amazing I don’t know how many times I visit a facebook page or a twitterfeed or anything for that matter only to see a sale notice or a discount notice or a new product being featured. Social media is an opportunity. It is an opportunity for others to get to know you. Interact with others, give opinions, take a stand, say what you are thinking and for goodness sakes be honest! Also just like real world interactions with business partners and clients social media is about relationships and conversations. Who do you trust? who do you listen to? who do you talk with? why? All of this translates directly into the world of social media.

Finally I must revisit the statement I am hearing over and over “I don’t have the time to do social media.” Fuck! if I hear that one more time from an entrepreneur who is struggling with customer engagement I’m going to pack up my bags and move into the woods (might do that anyway, still dreaming and scheming). Hello, Einstein can you say your famous line one more time? “by definition insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I mean holy crap people if you have been doing newspaper ads for hundreds of years and all of sudden they aren’t working like they used to (a very overused statement that I hear often, “oh but for years and years this has always worked”) isn’t it time to invest in learning a new form of communication and to try something a little different.

All of this to say I would never advocate ditching all the old methods because some of them are about who you are as a person and what the company’s character (do you think your company has character? what does it look like?) is all about. I still send old fashioned hand written letters to clients, prospects, and partners and I LOVE receiving them in the mail.

I guess the end result of this really long rant has been don’t be afraid to try new things and don’t forget all marketing or any selling is about RELATIONSHIPS. It is about having an open and honest conversation. So please go out and play, listen, learn, watch, and have a good time figuring out how best to connect with whomever it is you are trying to connect with (answering who you are trying to connect with is a great question and a much longer post at another time. Because believe me your business, even though you think it is, is NOT for everyone.)

Small things matter

For a few days now no matter where I seem to be looking or what I seem to be reading (Airbnb: From Stars to Hearts) I am reminded, overwhelmingly I might add, that the small things matter. I always love this message. I mean it sounds obvious. But it is something that I think we often forget as our world moves faster and faster hurdling forward.

When businesses start ‘the small things matter’ seems to be a philosophy that we all understand and follow instinctively. You send thank you notes, you take those out that have supported you for drinks, you spend extra time with your staff, you certainly never released any products or services without testing them to death, you looked after all the small things. Somehow though as we begin to grow we forget the small things. Two of the best (worst?) industry examples of this is how telecommunications companies (Bell, Telus…)  along with the banking world (RBC, BMO…) all have special, ongoing promotions for NEW customers. It is nice to get a special discount or a welcome note. But to this I ask why not a loyalty discount that wants to make me stay (yes a $2 discount coupon is nice but you just gave my friend $500 for switching)? What about a thank you note for being such a loyal customer for over 10 years, perhaps even hand written if you truly care. Perhaps a free month after a year of service wouldn’t kill you? Perhaps even having technical support that seems to want to help me would be nice, is that too much to ask for? Where in all of our business dealings did we forget that we are human beings? Where did we forget about relationship building?

Funny how changing something as simple as the stars on Airbnb to hearts made such a big difference to their business. This is the kind of minute detail work that is needed if you wish to succeed in your business. Almost all of the clients that come to me are looking at the bigger picture and are looking for a re-brand or an overhaul and sometimes that just doesn’t have to be the case. If you take the time to get to know your audience and you understand what matters to them, at the moment (because boy o’ boy can it switch), then making small changes can mean a big difference for you.

Appreciate your customers, appreciate those who supported you early on, make them feel special (because they are), and never stop thinking about the little things (of course don’t sweat them either, but pay attention to them).

So what small things can you think of that might make a big difference?  What small things matter to your customers? To your audience? What small things matter to you?

Getting your groove back

What happens when you are sitting at a desk or in an office and all of a sudden you begin to feel the energy drain from you? You are stuck at work and the clock just isn’t ticking awey fast enough.

If you’re an entrepreneur it’s simple, get up, get outside and go for a walk, go to the gym, play a game, spend time with your kids. Getting your mind off a task while doing something else is always the easiest way to regain some energy. I mean how many times have so many of us lost something (anything) then spent almost 10 minutes (or more) searching for them before deciding to just go ahead and do something else. Then 5 or 10 seconds pass while you are doing something else and seemingly by magic your brain all of a sudden becomes clear, you retrace all of your steps and BOOM there are the keys, the tickets to the show, or whatever else you might have been looking for. The power of distraction is quite useful and often quite underutilized. If you think real hard I know that you can think of many times when distractions have been very useful in your life.

So what happens when we are at work and we just don’t seem to be getting any work done? What happens when we lose our inspiration to move forward? Why do we all treat work like it is different? We have to get things done, even if we are drained, we have to clock in and clock out.

I won’t pretend to have the answer to everyone’s situation about their relationship with time and losing energy at work but what I do know about all of this is that for me I have developed a whole lot of respect for someone like Stefan Sagmeister. Stefan is someone who I think has figured “it” out.

How many of you are counting down the days until retirement? Well Stefan (and me by association) would say what the heck are you waiting for? Retire today. Retire again in 7 years. Then repeat that until you are ready to retire forever. Stefan has discovered the greatest distraction of all-an entire year free of work away from all things. Stefan’s argument (and yes I know he is self employed and obviously doing well for himself so it might be easier to say for him but I agree with the premise) is that if we could just step away for a while then our batteries will be refreshed. His case is specific to design in that he says his designs begin to merge together after 7 years of constant work (of course this happens without him even knowing). He noted that when his designs got too similar that it was time for him to simply shut down the shop and walk away. He needed to walk away for his brain to percolate, to grow new ideas, to become fresh once again. Watch what else he has to say about how we work and energize ourselves:

We are trained our whole lives to value time, that time is the most precious thing any of us have. Being on time is important, getting things done is important. But if time is really important to us then we must not ever forget that we are owed time as well. Time can be your friend or time can be your enemy.

How do you treat time? How does your work treat time? Is this a discussion we need to have more vigorously with those that we work with and those we work for?

Lesson Learned from Undercover Boss: Employees are Good

I usually make time in my week to catch up on Undercover Boss and I have to say for all the shows I have watched I’m always surprised at how sincerely effected and astounded the bosses are at the abilities of their employees. For those that don’t know, Undercover Boss is a show that, just like it’s name suggests, sends Chief Executive Officers (CEO’s) of large companies undercover to join the ranks of their front line employees.

For years now I have had the chance to work with all kinds of companies, big and small, diverse and narrow in function and one consistent thing I have always found is that employees, the real front line ones that interact with customers everyday, are generally the ones that know almost everything about the company. I also have found that they are often times, if managed properly and allowed to dream a little bit, the ones who have the best vision for the company and the best suggestions. However, as the show exhibits time and time again for reason the higher-ups in just about every company always seem to look to their immediate peers or usually to small customer groups to define and redefine their companies missions, visions, and processes. More often than not employees are never consulted and are rarely listened to when companies are looking to make a change. But as the end of each show comes together it always seems to smack the boss in the head that ‘WOW our employees know a whole lot about our company and since they are in the front lines they deal with the biggest focus groups a company could ask for.’ Then generally in almost every single show a boss decides to change something about the company or to implement some kind of new program that 1 singular employee has suggested. Continue reading