Monday, June 6, 2016

Go to War with the Army You Have, not the Army You Want

As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time. - Donald Rumsfeld (Source) 
I'm not a fan of Secretary Rumsfeld, as he led us into the worst military engagement since Viet Nam, but this quote is a great quote.

It is great because it is educational in two ways. First, it teaches you to focus on the problem at hand rather than what went wrong before. Second, it teaches that now is when you are acting, not some time in the future.

The Past is the Setting
On a recent episode of Open For Business on WBLQ, I interviewed my wife Amy, and one thing that we discussed is that a key to doing business with a spouse is the ability to deal with the situation that is before us rather than cast blame or fault. There is certainly a time for analyzing what errors were made, who made them, and how to avoid them in the future.

However, in the event, while the action is happening is not that time. At a certain point, the clock is running, the ball is in play, and worrying about the past is counter productive. The only thing that can be done at that time is to deal with the situation before us. Fight the war with the army you have, not the army you might wish to have.

How many times have planning teams wasted countless hours as the clock wound down to the event worrying about who did what wrong. I know I have certainly been guilty of this in the past. Knowing who is at fault does not fix the problem nor does it get you closer to your goal. Worse, not only does the process waste time and energy, it also creates animosity. It breaks down the team dynamic making the team even less effective going forward.

Unless we are talking about a solution serious enough to warrant eliminating someone from the team or a dramatic strategic shift, the thick of the action is not the time to deal with it. Deal with it in after action analysis.

The Future is Irrelevant
For most people, their response to challenging shift in circumstances is to batten down the hatches and hunker down, waiting for it to blow over. In an economic shift, either loss of job/loss of income or sudden increase in expenses, most people become more conservative. Holding tightly to what job they have and becoming completely unwilling to take any kind of risk, even to the extent of turning down a clearly better job for fear of losing their existing job.

Think of the character in the movie clinging to the branch on the side of a cliff, to terrified to let go in order to grab onto the rescuer hanging from the helicopter.

They are waiting for some time in the future when things are better to take their shot. "We can barely pay our bills now, how could I possibly take a chance on my project?"

And certainly, one should be sure to properly analyze the downside risk before taking any chance. If you are in debt to your eyeballs, it's probably not the time to quit your job and try something completely different. But, that may be the ideal moment to take on a side project, that is a smaller risk. Yes, it may take a small investment, and it may feel like you are betting the farm to invest $200 in something, but if it is a project that you have confidence in, then there is a credible chance it will earn that $200 back and more.

When I was 18, I took a shot with Vector selling Cutco knives. I needed to invest about $200 in the sample kit. I certainly didn't make a fortune, but I earned a bit over $1000 during the summer I sold and I got invaluable experience. Remember, if you invest $200 and you make back $201, not counting the value of your time, you have come out ahead. Just because you didn't make millions doesn't mean that the project was a failure.

Stupid Yesterday, Less Stupid Today, Do It Now Anyway
When I look back on things I did in my youth and things I thought in the past, I often find myself shaking my head and wondering how I could be so stupid, so ignorant. How could I not have known that. Well, I didn't know that then because I hadn't learned it yet. The world is complicated and there's a lot to learn.

One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I ever came into was about four years ago when I realized that if I was so dangerously ignorant five to ten years previous, then there must be thing today that I will look back on five years from now and be shocked by. Indeed, there are things I look back six months at and wonder at my foolishness.

Every day, ask yourself, "what am I doing and thinking today that I will look back on in the future and marvel at the idiocy of?" I guarantee you there is something. You will always make mistakes in life. Just make sure that they are different mistakes every time.

This fact can lead us to feel that we should hold off on doing something until we are more "ready." We don't know enough yet. We are not prepared yet. Guess what. You won't know enough or be prepared enough next month or next quarter or next year or next decade.

If you have specific milestones you are waiting for, that's another story. If, those milestones are actually relevant to the task.

Waiting to finish you degree to get started on your business? Do you really need you degree to start or is it just a reasonable sounding excuse for procrastination?

Waiting for your child to finish daycare so you'll have more available funds? What if new expenses appear in the future to replace day care expenses?

If the milestones you wait for are important, do you have a specific plan to achieve those milestones in a timely fashion or are you just waiting for the stars to align and the omens to be just right? Because if you don't have a specific plan to achieve the milestone that you are using as a reason to wait,then you don't have a valid reason to wait. You have an excuse to procrastinate.

The longest journey begins with a single step whether that step is an investment of resources or just selecting a reading list to educate yourself.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Are you taking steps to get there, or will your 5 year goal be the same 5 years from now as it is now?
Need help developing your goals and a road map to get there? Email me.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Fresh Fish for Sale Here: Are You Emphasizing the Wrong Thing?

I was linked to a fantastic article by Ryan Sauers that reminded me of a story I heard about a fishmonger's sign many years ago. One of Ryan's points in his article is that you should be able to tell someone in 17 seconds why your company is great without using the words "quality", "service", or "price," and I have a similar challenge for my own readers at the end of this article.

The fish story has made the rounds, but for those who are not familiar, I'll summarize it.
A man approaches a fishmonger's stall which has a sign out front that says "Fresh Fish for Sale Here". The man asks the fishmonger, "Do you think that sign is effective at selling more fish?"
"I guess so," the fishmonger replies.
"Well, it says 'here', but where else would you be selling the fish?"
"Good point," answers the fishmonger as he removes the word 'here' from the sign.
"And 'fresh'? Of course it's fresh. Would you sell old, bad fish?"
"Certainly not!" the fishmonger declared, reducing his sign to "Fish for Sale".
"You don't give it away do you? No one would expect that, so why say 'for sale'?"
"Good point." The fishmonger's sign now said 'Fish'.
"Your stall contains nothing but fish. I don't think you need a sign to explain that." And that was the end of the sign.
Every business tells you about their superior quality, excellent service, and best prices. You hear it all the time, and you believe absolutely none of it. You tune it out. I tune it out. Everyone tunes in out. Let's imagine a generic pitch that hits on those three concepts.
Dumcorp's best salesman.
Dumcorp offers you high quality products at the lowest prices. We promise to beat our competitor's price without sacrificing quality, and our service is second to none.
It sounds like copy written by a lazy copy writer that likely has no bearing on what the company actually does. Basically what you read when you see that is...
Dumcorp sells something.
"Quality", "Service", and "Price" are probably your "Fresh", "Fish", "For Sale", and "Here".

When I sell, I don't sell on quality, service or price. I sell on what sets me apart.

Minuteman is a good printer with great quality, but there are other good printers with great quality in our market. Is our quality better than most? Certainly, but can I prove that?

Minuteman has good, competitive prices, but their are other printers with comparable costs of doing business, equipment and quality, so the prices will be comparable. I can't promise ours will always be better, but they are competitive and fair. We take good care of our customers in terms of price, but can I prove that?

Minuteman has good service, but so do our competitors, so I cannot guarantee that our service will be better, and once you're at the top tier of service, what is "better" anyway? And how do I prove it?

Included free with every purchase.
So, when I sell printing, I sell on the greatest asset I have to offer: myself. I don't just print your stuff. I bring my experience and expertise in small business and marketing into the process. I don't just ask what you want to print. I ask why you need it so I can maximize the effectiveness of your printing dollar.

Here is a challenge for you. Can you describe your competitive advantage in 50 words or less without using the words "Price", "Quality", or "Service". For added challenge, let's also avoid the buzzwords of "Value", "Best", and "Competitive". Show us what you've got in the comments.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

On Superweapons and Overnight Success

In this article, I will discuss why superweapons in movies have taught you the wrong lessons about success. How has the Death Star made it harder for you to succeed? Read on.

In movies, TV, and comics, there is often a focus on "superweapons". The villain is building a laser that can destroy the earth. The Empire builds larger and larger planet destroying weapons. Why is that? Let's consider the Starkiller Base in Star Wars VII. If the same resources to make one super base were instead used to build a fleet of ships, those ships would have the power to bombard a planet into ruble. It would also avoid the single point of failure that destroyed both Death Stars and the Starkiller Base.

That is precisely why they don't do it in the movie. Major fleet/army engagements are complicated. Victory is determined by complex things like intelligence, logistics, and morale. Those are much messier to show on the screen or the page than our hero heroically performing acts of heroism as he flies in to destroy the single point of failure and save the day. It allows the writers to wrap up the story in an hour or two hours neat and clean. It is the action movie equivalent of the overnight success.

But here's the thing: every action movie does this. There has to be a single point of failure, a single target for the good guy or else the story is too complex. Thus, every action movie you've seen has taught you that there is a magic bullet or big red button or simple trick to win. The hero doesn't spend years training and many more years fighting. He has a training montage which is cut short by suddenly needing to go and blast the flashing red box on the superweapon.

Unfortunately, in real life, there's no single weak spot on the enemy. Whether you are fighting ISIS or building a business, it's about the long, hard work of building a campaign to victory, step by step and inch by inch.

Overnight success is the result of thousands of days of preparation. There is no secret trick and there is no single weak spot to hit. There's just long, hard work.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What's In It For Them?

“There is no human relationship that is not based on self-interest” 
Bangambiki Habyarimana, The Great Pearl of Wisdom

Have you ever done anything you didn't want to do? You may think that the answer is yes, but is it really. You may not have wanted to go to work today because you'd rather hang out at the beach, but you wanted to go to the beach less than you wanted to continue to have a job, so you went to work. On balance, you wanted to go to work. If a mugger points a gun at you and demands your money, you may not want to give him your money, but you want not to be shot more than you want your money, so there goes the money.

Everything that you or anyone else ever does is because they want to do that thing more than any
other option. Let that sink in for a moment.

Now, consider the last time you tried to convince someone to do what you wanted them to do. Were you thinking about what you wanted or what they wanted? Too often, when we are trying to persuade, we think of our own desires and not those of the audience.

Have you ever seen a social media post along these lines:
"Hey, guys. I just started selling BeachogenalucaWay, and I'm really excited. It's an awesome opportunity. I'm trying to build a team of 20 by the end of the year and really get the word out. Please attend my virtual party and learn about the products!"

Did you do what they asked? Probably not, unless it was a very close friend, maybe a spouse or family member, which I refer to as a "compersive relationshop." But otherwise? Probably not.

Why did you not help out? Because they didn't offer you anything you want. They spoke entirely in terms of what they wanted, not what you wanted. Thus you were not interested. There is nothing wrong with that. Your responsibility is primarily to yourself (and those you are responsible for like kids and family). I'm sure you'd be happy to hear that your friend was successful with BeachogenalucaWay, but only in the same way you are pleased to hear that the unemployment rate is down when you already have a job.

What if it was worded this way?
"Hey, guys. I know some people on my friends list have been really struggling to get their weight down and get healthier. I've been using BeachogenalucaWay for a few months, and the results have been very good. I've never felt better and I've lost twenty pounds. I would really like to share because I think it can really help some of my friends. I've got an online event coming up. There's no obligation, but I think that you might learn some really useful information."

If your friend posted this and you were trying to lose weight, you would be more inclined to log in to their event. The promise of "no obligation" reduces the apparent cost and the piece is in terms of solving a problem that you have, or, put another way, in terms of what you want.

In the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, he discusses the application of this concept with children. People so often tell children to do things because they want them to.

"Be quiet, because it's too loud in here."
"Eat your vegetables because I tell you to."
"Go to bed because I have things to do."

A toddler can even be convinced
to read a book on investments
if properly motivated.
Naturally that is ineffective. More effective is putting things in the child's terms. The example in the book is that a there is a child who refuses to eat wholesome foods and they cannot get the child to eat. However, the child also has a problem with a bully who keeps stealing his tricycle. Once they explain to the child that eating well will cause him to grow more rapidly and develop more muscle to be able to stand up to bullies, the child starts eating anything offered. He wouldn't eat one string bean because his parents wanted him to, but to grow strong enough to defend himself, he'd eat pickled herring if that's what it would take.

Next time you are seeking to convince and persuade, whether it is to make a sale, earn a vote, or even get some peace and quiet, think about what the other person wants, then put your request in terms that make it beneficial to your counterpart.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Past Glories or Between Glories

We all know that person whose best days are behind them, The high school sports hero. The failed entrepreneur. The divorcee who never got over it. You may yourself feel that all of your glory is in the past.

I once felt that way. Not long ago, I thought that all my best days were behind me.

Between 22 and 23, I graduated college, met a woman to whom I would become engaged, started a business. Over the next couple of years, that business, a store called Phoenix Games, became a great center of community for dozens of people, and I led it. I co-founded and helped to lead a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast called the Come Again Players that was a center for dozens more people. I co-founded and led Pi-Con, the primary sci-fi convention for the Western Massachusetts geek community.

How I saw myself in 2006.
It was a small mountain, but I was living on top of it.

During my 27th year, I broke up with that fiancee, I was involuntarily removed from leadership of the Come Again Players. I was convinced to step down from leading Pi-Con and subsequently entirely pushed out of the organization.

By my 28th birthday, most everything that was most important to me in my life was gone. It was gone because I failed to understand one thing, which is that without other people we are nothing. My power in that community was because other people made that community possible. I coordinated them into great organizations, and that was valuable, but those who worked with me were equally valuable. I got caught up in my own greatness and forgot that my greatness was only the result of my relationships with others, and I had not properly appreciated those relationships.

The next few years, I got by, struggling a bit financially and wondering what would be next. I tried a few endeavors like the ill-fated Nexus Faire, but I was clearly past my prime. At 29, I was washed up.

It was then that I had the opportunity to speak to Terrance Zdunich, the director and creator of Repo: The Genetic Opera, which was recently out and quite popular in certain circles. I was volunteering with Wicked Faire, and my task was to help Terrance with whatever he needed while was a guest. I
Terrance Zdunich played the role for me
that is usually reserved in movies
for grizzled old bartenders
and wise black janitors.
had a conversation with him in which I mentioned that I was approaching 30 and didn't feel I had accomplished much. He said something I will never forgot. He told me that when he was 30, he had not even thought of Repo: The Genetic Opera yet. When he was my age, the achievement that brought him fame was not even a twinkle in his eye.

That put things in perspective.

By 32, I had gotten into the car business and started making a decent living, discovering for the first time in my life what it was like not to struggle and count every penny.

Amazing wife Amy and
beautiful daughter Rowan.
By 33, I had met the woman who would become my amazing wife.

At 34, my daughter Rowan was born, and I knew that if I did nothing else in my life, raising her could provide all the purpose I would need.

At 35, the opportunity for my current job appeared, and I seized it. Working with Minuteman has given me the opportunity to work with a fantastic variety of people and organizations from Sofia Sees Hope and Fairview to having my show Open for Business on WBLQ to coordinating the Third Thursday New London Art event.

Life goes in cycles, up and down. When we are up, it is easy to believe that we can see the vast horizon and be fooled that it will go on forever. When we are down, it is easy to look back at the mountain behind us and see its glory, and it is easy to be fooled into thinking that the glory of the mountain behind us cannot be matched by anything in the future. That is merely a trick of perspective.

Every experience. Every challenge. Everything we do makes us wiser and stronger. As long as we do not give up and do not surrender to the fallacy that our best days are behind us, then the glories of the past will merely be foreshadowing of the glories of the future.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Who Are You? What Do You Want?

One of the greatest television series ever created aired in the 1990s and was called Babylon 5. While it took place in space, and had vast, sweeping storylines, it ultimately was a story about people dealing with a large and complex world. People just like you and me... but in space.

Throughout the first couple of seasons, there were two questions that were frequently asked, and the answers to which had profound impact on both the answerer and the world around them.

Two simple questions:
Who are you?
What do you want?
Simple and yet complex enough to build an entire five year story arc on. So, Who are you? What do you want?

Who Are You?

In Babylon 5, the Vorlon Kosh would often ask "Who are you?" He knew the identity of the person he was speaking to. He wanted a deeper answer. He wanted to know who the person really was. What was beneath the facade that he put up? What would he do when the chips were down and it was all on the line? 

So, who are you? I don't mean what is your name. I mean who are you? How do you describe yourself to yourself? What do you do? What do you offer that no one else does? What do you do when the time comes to lay it all on the line? Would you risk it all for an important cause or would you play it safe? Do you see yourself as one who sets their own course or do you drift with the current?

This is a foundational question, and if you cannot answer it then you may find it difficult to answer many other questions. It informs what you can offer, the tools you have to achieve your goals, how other perceive you and so much more.

What Do You Want?

A very interesting character named Mr. Morden comes to Babylon 5 and asks every key character this question. "What do you want?" he asks. Many laugh the question off initially as ridiculous, but he continues to insist until he gets an answer.

On the surface it is a simple question. What do you want? In other words: What is your goal? What is your motivation?

But it reveals another piece of information:

What is your weakness?

That which you want is also that which you lack. How much do you want it? What would you give up to get it? Your time? Your money? Your integrity? Your family? Your country?

Londo Molari is
slave to his own
If I know what you want, what you truly want more than anything else, then I know how to control you, especially if I understand it better than you do. So, do you know the answer to that question. What do you want? How far are you willing to go to get it?

In the series, Lando Molari deeply desires to see his people, the Centauri, once again lead a great empire. He believes he would do anything for this. However, he does not understand what price he is and is not willing to pay for a return to greatness.

His lack of self knowledge, and Morden's superior understanding of his mind, lead to great strife and suffering for many before the story ends.

Know Thyself

Ultimately, this all comes down to understanding yourself. Too often, people find themselves too busy to stop and find the quiet space where they can understand their own mind and their own soul. Take that time. Understand yourself. Sometimes your ego will prevent you from seeing you flaws, while other times a lack of confidence may prevent you from seeing your strengths. Both are equally dangerous. Find a way to set aside both tendencies, and learn to discover your true self.

The alternative is to never achieve your potential while leaving yourself vulnerable to your desires being exploited by those who might manipulate you.
Know yourself, or else.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Adapt or Complain

Who is responsible for the success of your business. Hopefully you know that the answer I am looking for is that you are responsible for your own success. Most people know how to answer that question, but do you know how to live that answer? Day to day, you are responsible for your success.

But, what if the big box stores are offering really awesome sales? You’re still responsible. What if there’s a huge snow storm? Still you. What if you employees are letting you down? You guessed it. Still you.

Black Friday sales: making down merchandise that they
have been marking up since July.
I was speaking to a woman who owned a small consignment shop a few weeks after Christmas. She was not interested in doing any kind of marking because she was very tight on cash. The Christmas season had not been kind to her. Of course such things happen, but she said some things to make me things that there may be more underlying issues.

She said that her December had been bad because the “Black Friday Sales” had been especially good that year, and “Cyber Monday” seemed to stretch on all month. This was not her first year of operation, or even her second. She had been in business over four years, and it all that time, I am fairly confident that the big box stores have been having big holiday sales each of those years. I am also pretty sure that the big online stores had been doing Cyber Monday for all those years as well.

So, I asked her what kind of sales she did during the season. Other than the usual clearing of older items, she did nothing. No special discounts. No special programs. No special marketing. Just a dedicated campaign of grumbling about how awful the market was for the little guys.

What face are you showing your customers?
This meant that she was doing two things wrong. First, she was not responding to the conditions of the market in any way. Second, she was probably making worse by carrying this discouragement around with her. She personally runs her store most of the time, so when customers would come in, it is quite possible that she would express to them how tough it was. She may have thought that she was innocently grumbling, but she was really telling her customers that there were some awesome sales to be had… somewhere else.

There is some light down the tunnel for her. In February, she always runs a big sale to clear out the winter inventory and make room for summer. However, I spoke to her in mid January. I asked her what she was going to do in January to catch up. She said that she would be doing nothing because no one wants to spend any money in January.

I took the liberty of getting this data from the U.S. Census that tracks, among other things, total retail sales in America.
December 2014
$499 Billion
January 2015
$396 Billion
December 2013
$477 Billion
January 2014
$383 Billion
December 2012
$462 Billion
January 2013
$376 Billion
December 2011
$451 Billion
January 2012
$355 Billion

$396,000,000,000 is a whole lot of money to spend at a time when “people aren’t spending money.”

There is a reason that store owners don’t pack up and go on vacation for a month in January. It’s because there is still money to be made. So, if you find yourself in a situation where you are thinking that no one is spending money in a certain month or the competition seems to be stronger or any other situation in which you are ascribing your own poor performance on a global factor, ask yourself this: Is this really something in the market or is it something I am doing. The business owner I spoke to thinks no one is buying in January, but another consignment shop owner two towns over is having a great January.

Is it that no one is buying, or just that no one is buying from you? And if they are buying something somewhere, then what can you do to make sure that your business is getting a piece of it?