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In Praise of Proper Problem Precision

Some people like to be given step-by-step instructions to follow at work.  Others thrive when given an opportunity to marshal and organize (and beg for) the resources available to them.  I thrive on taking ambiguous clouds of…stuff…and making sense of it all.  The research behind any initiative is as important to me as the end result, the action plan.  More important, in fact, because I like to develop action plans that bring about the results my client wants.

Something that has been bothering me lately is how anxious my staffers and customers are to get started on something.  But not just any something.  The something that looks like something is really happening.  Designing a website.  Writing copy.  Shooting some video.  The something that is often an integral part of the solution.

The rub, then, is the question, the solution to what? A vast super majority of my meetings with internal and external customers begins with the dreaded, “I think we should [fill in the blank].”  Why is this dreaded?  Because it presupposes that the actual problem being solved has been correctly identified, and that the action suggested is the best solution to the problem.  The problem is that this is not always the case.

A meeting about the performance of a website designed and maintained by my firm began something like this, “Traffic is down and the bounce rate is rising.  People are bored with our site.  We need to update the visual elements.”  Prima facie the request is logical, and in the past I would have jumped right in doing exactly what the customer asked of me. However, experience has shown me that while solutions to Internet marketing are not necessarily overly complex, visual elements do not impact organic site visits e.g. visits resulting from a Google or Yahoo! search.  So I pushed back saying, “I want to look at the analytics before deciding what to do.  I don’t think that what you are suggesting is going to do what you want, so why don’t we let me look into it?  We can always go back and try it your way if what I come up with doesn’t work.”  In this case I was working with someone with whom I had a good decade-plus long working and personal relationship with, so I didn’t need to spend too much time sugar coating my response.  In the end the solution was to add “breadcrumbs” to some of the interior pages and tweak how search engines were allowed to index the content database, which ultimately cost the customer substantially less than the other options on the table.  It also had the unique quality of actually solving the underlying problem, which tweaking visual elements would have been unable to deliver.

For all my ranting, I, too, am guilty of skipping the first and most important phase of any project — defining the “problem” — and jumping right into beginning work on something. The challenge for leaders at all levels, from first line supervisors to c-level executives, is to pause long enough to properly define and research the problem at hand.  As the late inventor and entrepreneur Charles Kettering shared so long ago, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”  This tidbit comes from a man who invented the electric starter for automobiles and freon for air conditioning units, and holds 140 patents in total.  When he set off to work, his labor brought results. With fewer staffers and tighter budgets, I can’t think of too many firms that can afford to waste time and money on the wrong solutions to the wrong problems.  Can yours?

If your organization is spinning its wheels or just needs some outside expertise and experience on a current project, contact our office.  We can help.

Web Marketing Boosts Artist Development in Rising Sun

Nearly three years have passed since a Rural Entrepreneurial Support grant from the Indiana Office of Community & Rural Affairs (OCRA) helped Rising Sun, Indiana, establish itself as a blossoming artists’ colony.  During the 18 month program, 150 students attended the Rising Sun Art Academy, an “artist in residence” program was launched in the local school to provide resources for art enrichment in the classroom, and over 300 adult learners from throughout the nation attended workshops lead by local instructors and national figures such as Eric Maisel and Becky Anderson.

What’s even more impressive is that the programs started by the grant are continuing 18 months after the OCRA grant cycle ended.

Entering its second year following the conclusion of the grant, the Rising Sun / Ohio County Tourism Commission has secured additional funding to continue the youth and school programs started by the initial OCRA grant.  Professional development workshops, 10 of which have been held in the past 18 months, have become nationally renowned and self-sustaining.  “With the exception of a nominal level of promotional support from Tourism, these programs have become self-sustaining,” explains Sherry Timms, Executive Director of the Tourism Commission.

What has helped Rising Sun to develop and promote its programs has been its use of Web 2.0 technologies.  A dedicated website, http://www.artsinrisingsun.com, was launched to provide broader access to the content of the training programs and seminars offered over the course of the OCRA grant program.  In the year after the site was launched, it logged nearly 6400 visitors, of which over 1100 accessed videos and PDFs of the seminars and workshops.  “What we were trying to do was make it possible to extend the benefits of the OCRA grant indefinitely,” explains Brett Stowell, Project Manager for the web initiative at Bretzel Enterprises.  “It seemed to us that we could help artists everywhere and build the brand equity of Rising Sun at the same time by sharing our materials with the greater community of artists.”

“Now we are engaging in a number of web marketing initiatives,” explains Timms.  So far results have been favorable.  Nearly as many event registrations were received from email marketing as by direct mail for the 2009 fall workshop series.  “The only difference,” explains Stowell, “is that a registration from a direct mail campaign costs our customer over eight times what a registration from a web campaign costs.”  Once the response data is mined and direct mail lists optimized, Stowell expects the artist development programs to be completely self-sufficient.  “We started the first artist development program in Southeastern Indiana, and we are excited that three years in it is nearly self-sufficient” notes Timms.

Toot Your Own Horn

Dilbert.comSomething that I believe many small businesses (and individuals) struggle with is self-promotion.  Small businesses either fail to promote at all, assuming that people already know what the business can do or that what it does is not unique / valuable / interesting, or the copywriter makes some silly comment about being “the best” at whatever.  Something I tend to look for when hiring a business or an individual is experience: Does this firm/individual have what it takes to get the job done?  Whether you are promoting a business, or simply updating your resume to promote yourself, here are three points to remember to make yourself stand out from the crowd.

  • Use Numbers.  (Quantify your results.)  There is a huge difference between managing a project that “cut costs” and managing a project that “reduced ongoing maintenance expenses by 30% per year, saving an estimated $60,000 over the course of the contract.”  Sometimes it may seem like your contributions are not large enough to be worth mentioning, but diligence in handling smaller affairs may demonstrate that you are ready to handle larger affairs.
  • Be Specific.  There is a huge difference between someone who has 20 years of experience as an iron worker and someone who learned to weld in shop class.  There is also a huge difference between the manager of a fast food franchise and the manager of a division of a Fortune 500 company.  Don’t sell yourself short by leaving out the details of what you have demonstrated you can handle.  Many small businesses are prepared to provide a greater value than larger rivals, but fail to let the public know that it has the capacity to tackle the work.
  • Be Bold.  Some of the best hires I have ever made have been individuals who were barely qualified or slightly under-qualified for a position, but who have a passion for the work that needs to be done, and demonstrated they would do whatever it takes to earn the right to have the position they wanted.  If you want your business to start operating in another arena, try it out.  Nobody will hire your firm?  Find a not-for-profit that is willing to risk accepting your services — even if the services are provided for free. 

My Business Is New / I Don’t Have Any Experience

Everybody loves to create a good excuse — that is why the Internet is full of excuse jokes!  Seriously.  If you or your business does not have the experience to be able to detail to a (potential) employer or client the points outlined above, you need to get to work — on yourself or your business.  You can obtain a certification, take a course, volunteer, or become an apprentice.  Your business can hire outside talent, partner with another firm, or even experiment with doing other work.

I got my start in business consulting helping a not-for-profit job skills training program for the developmentally challenged launch a business for their clients to work, earn, and (hopefully) gain the skills and confidence necessary to obtain a job in the private sector.  Not only was it a successful program, one which had the added benefit of helping a great many people, I received numerous awards and recognition for my efforts and the efforts our launch team.  I had a lot of fun, became more confident in my abilities, and I got a good education at the school of hard knocks, too. 

I also gained a story of successfully facilitating a business startup, and started pursuing the sort of work I now enjoy.  Now I have plenty of (true) stories about my firm and its work.  Success stories sell.

Get FREE from Strongholds in your Business

Some days I amaze even myself with my own stubbornness.  I latch on to some idea, some concept, or some framework for understanding a problem, situation, or relationship, and get so caught up “my” solution that I fail to address the underlying issue.  These sorts of mental constructs range from making simple tasks harder, like spending time and energy trying to repair a component attached to a machine when the piece in question can be easily removed and taken to the workbench, to believing that the composition of my staff is perfect, and if there is any change, if anyone leaves, things will just fall apart.  Whether a stronghold just wastes a bit of time and makes things harder or fuels irrational and intractable fears, it does not serve any good purpose, and needs to be examined and conquered.

Brian Tome, pastor of Crossroads in Cincinnati, recently released Free Book and companion workbook, Free Guide, to assist you and I with breaking free of strongholds in our lives.  Now I know that for a lot of people, faith and business do not necessarily mix.  Some people reading this may not be Christian, others may be atheists or agnostics.  Irrespective of your belief system, there is a great deal of truth and much to consider in the text.

A common theme amongst small business owners I see is bitterness toward employees.  There is almost always at least one person who is regarded as lazy, stupid, irresponsible, senseless, or useless by the owners or managers.  Stop and think for a moment about just how much that mental construct is costing you as a manager, owner, or even coworker.  For starters, you are wasting mental energy feeling bitter about the situation.  This takes time and energy from more productive pursuits.  Then, whether or not your are aware of it, your actions toward the person in question are going to engender more of the behavior you abhor because bad thoughts about the person have been on your mind. The simple, yet difficult, solution is to either accept the person as they are and get over it, or fire them.  To do anything else is sapping your strength.

Tome likens fixating on perceived wrongs  to chowing down on rat poison.  He n0tes, “you’ll spiritually die if you continue to munch on the bitterness of your perceived wrongs.”  Even for those of us who are not quite sure about this whole “spiritual realm” thing, there is no denying that your beliefs are reflected in your everyday life.  Here are some other common beliefs that might be keeping your business from flourishing:

  • I don’t have enough customers. No, you have all the customers you are equipped to support.  Focus on making it easier to do business with your company.  Maybe your hours need to be adjusted, your product mix reevaluated, or your business relocated.  A lack of customers is a symptom, not a problem.
  • Advertising does not work for us. Are you saying anything your (potential) customers want to hear?  Although you may have the wrong media (newspaper/twitter/email/direct mail/magazine/etc), it is even more likely that you have the wrong message.
  • I would do ___ if only ___. Do it anyway.  There is tangible truth in the Biblical story of the Talents:
  • The Story About Investment

    14-18“It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
    19-21“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
    22-23“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
    24-25“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
    26-27“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
    28-30“‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’ (Matthew 25:14-30, The Message)

    The moral of the story is that you have to make the best of what you have in order to get more.  Just like a worker who dreams of retirement yet spends more than he or she earns on frivolous purchases, a businessperson who waits until everything is perfect to get started on something important goes nowhere.

If any of the above applies to you, your bondage to those belief(s) is holding you back.  These beliefs are costing you sales.  They are costing mental energy.  They are costing relationships.  They may even be costing health.  Do something today to free yourself.

3 Steps to Get Back On Track This Spring

Over the holidays I saw an old friend of mine at a Christmas party.  Or more specifically, I saw 2/3 of him, since in the last year he dropped from over 300 pounds to under 200.  So I asked him what the secret was to his amazing dieting success.  I was expecting maybe some sort of surgery, or a pill, or an all liquid diet – something crazy or extreme, or possibly straight out of science fiction.  All he said to me, rather matter-of-factly, was, “You know all that stuff doctors say about diet and exercise – it really works.  And they have been giving that advice away for free!”  A simple goal, losing weight, a simple action plan, cutting food portions and walking daily, and a relatively short period of time, about one year, resulted in an astounding loss of over 100 pounds.

As a nasty winter and nastier consumer sentiment figures translate into weak sales and dim prospects, I am seeing more and more small business owners flitter about in a panic as to how to stay afloat.  Some take on the persona of “Camping Carl” from Scott Adams’ Dilbert, wasting time telling everyone who can’t get away from them just how bad off they are.  Others lose sleep tossing and turning as visions of failure and embarrassment plague their existence.  Still others just hang it up and go home.

Dilbert Camping Carl

Then there are the ones who survive and thrive.

These are the folks that see the mess before them, and they get to work!

It turns out that there are three deceptively simple things any owner or manager can do to pick up business in any economy – up, down, or sideways.

1)  Pick your top five customers and ask them why they buy from you. To any MBAs in the room, this is a simplified form of market research.  Listen to the responses and note recurring keywords – these are the areas you need to showcase in your marketing efforts to attract and cultivate more customers.

2)  Write about your business successes. The act of writing about things that your business has done well, such as a developing a product for a customer or refining a manufacturing process, provides you with two invaluable resources.  First of all, it focuses your mind on what you do well instead of worrying about things outside of your control.  Second, and most importantly, it provides you with a catalog of material for generating web site content, ad copy, sales letters – you name it.  Use the material you generate to promote your business.

3)  Put your research to work. Create a newspaper ad that reflects the expertise of your business as it relates to why your existing customers buy from you.  Update your brochures and website to showcase the features and benefits that sold your product or service to your existing top customers.  DO NOT FOLLOW STEPS 1 & 2 AND THEN SKIP THIS PART!  Knowledge and insight without action is useless.

Then, of course, repeat.  This is an iterative process, not a one shot wonder.  When you build awareness about your business using the (positive) terms your existing (good) customers use to describe you now, you stand to attract even more good customers.