Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Don't Get Too Busy to Be Successful

In my travels, many of the people I meet with are owners of small businesses, and I have found, both in my own experience, and theirs, that there is a common trap that many small business leaders fall into. That is the trap of thinking that anything I do myself is free.

On the surface, this makes sense. If you have someone else do it, you have to pay them, and that costs money out of your pocket. If you do it yourself, you don't have to fork over cash immediately. Thus, costs less, right? Wrong!

If you run a business, your business does something, and you probably have some skill in doing so. You should be building things, writing things, selling things, networking new opportunities, negotiating contracts. You should be doing all that stuff that owners do!

In economics, there is a concept known as opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the true cost of something. It is the highest value alternative. If you are offered free Red Sox tickets and free Nightwish tickets for events on the same night, and you can only go to one, then the cost of going to the Red Sox game is nothing, since the tickets are free. However, the opportunity cost of going to the game is missing the Nightwish concert.

So, if all calls into the office ring your phone, and you answer this phone and set all the appointments, confirm all the clients, and do all the other phone work, the cost is nothing, but the opportunity cost is all the other things you could be doing with that time, like training staff, developing advertising, attending networking events, not to mention the lack of focus that such interruptions may cause.

Every business is different, and every business is in a different place financially. Perhaps you are in the place where the money simply does not exist to hire a receptionist. That is another story altogether. In that case, bookmark this post and reread it when you have some cash flow.

However, if your business has cash flow, look at what the principals of your company do with their time. Are they spending their time turning their valuable skills into revenue for the company, or are they spending their time on tasks that could be performed just as well by a high school student looking for experience in the working world?

Not sure if the principals in your company are putting their time to the most effective use? I do offer free consultations, and that is time with a very low opportunity cost.

Thank you for reading. As always, I implore you to get out an talk to real people face to face, but only in the way that is the most effective use of your time and talents!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Adventures in Automotive Networking

Imagine, if you will, that you are a sales manager. Your income is mostly based on the sales that your dealership make, which is mostly dependent on the ability of your salesmen to make sales. Each and every sale that is made in your dealership is money in your pocket. Now, imagine that a man comes in and tells you that he works with people connecting them to quality salesmen and that he would like to bring some of his clients to your dealership. Not only that, but he will not expect you to pay him until after his client has signed on the dotted line and made a purchase. Perhaps, you might meet this proposition with excitement?

As I have been preparing to do professional problem solving work, I began to think about what the most common needs I might encounter would be. When I sold cars, I learned that the North American Dealer Association estimates that most drivers replace their vehicles approximately every three years. Not having any car salesmen in my network, I felt that this blind spot should be quickly remedied.

Car sales is an excellent area for me to develop the network because it is such a win-win for everyone. For the client, it is great because they don't need to wander from dealership to dealership. They can avoid pushy salesmen entirely, and not have to worry that they will not get a fair deal. They will know that the salesman I send them to will have an ongoing business relationship with me, and that the salesman would not want to jeopardize that relationship by mistreating one of my clients.

For the salesman, it is an equally fantastic arrangement. Most car salesmen, with integrity or otherwise, find a barrier of mistrust when they come into contact with customers. People are very anxious in the car buying process, and they are afraid of being taken advantage of. A customer that I send in to a salesman that I trust will have greater trust with the salesman, making the whole process easier for everyone.

It is a win for me because referral fees, known as "bird dogs", are common and understood in the car industry. Making it easier to arrange these kinds of win-win-win arrangements... usually.

So, the time comes to make contact with car salesmen (and saleswomen). I figure that I can go to reputable dealerships, talk to a sales manager and meet an experienced salesman. The theory is that a salesman who stays in the industry, probably understands a thing or two about the importance of relationships.

I was in for a rude awakening. Apparently, people who run car dealerships are not well versed in a little thing called networking, and I would like to share with you a few of the peculiar reactions I have received in my search.

The first dealership I visited, I thought I would play customer first. I am in the market for a car in the next few months, so it seemed a reasonable idea. I spoke to a salesman and explained that I was looking for a used car, but that I was not looking to buy for a month or so. At this point, in the conversation, when I was a salesman, I would have taken the customer out to the lot to show them a bit of what we have, with the understanding that the inventory will change over time. I at least would get the customer's information so I could call him later to follow up. This salesman had a different approach. With his biggest salesman smile, he said, "come on back when you are ready to buy."

He is not in my network.

A little while later, I stopped at a local dealership and spoke to the sales manager. I explained the program with less polish than I do now as I was in transition between working for The Company and working as a professional problem solver. I also was still waiting for my new business cards to come. The sales manager I was speaking to, it turns out, had only been with the dealership for about three months, about the same amount of time I have been building the Stone Soup Network. He, however, told me to come back when I was "established;" an interesting sentiment from a manager who had yet to spend a winter in his current dealership.

A few days later, I was on my was back from central Massachusetts, and I stopped at a dealership on the way home. I spoke to the sales manager this time. I explained the whole concept, as I explained it to you above. At the end, he looked at me like a cow looks at an onrushing locomotive and asked, "I don't understand. Are you looking for a job or are you trying to sell me your service."

I explained again, and I think he got it this time. At this point, he seemed quite baffled as to which salesman to refer me to. I mean utterly dumbfounded. He finally settled on the salesman who happened to be right behind me. I spoke to him for a bit, and found him about as excited about the program as I was when I received socks for Christmas as a child.

He seems a fair enough salesman, but is not my first choice to send someone too.

There is a dealership which a couple of people had recommended to me, and I felt that they would be excellent for the network. I figured that a place that treats customers well must understand the importance of relationships. I went in the front door and found a bored looking woman behind the counter. I had the names of the owners, so I asked for them. She said that they were were not available, and, looking at me like something she had scraped off her shoe, she asked me what it was about. I started by saying that the dealership had been recommended to me and that they had a good reputation. "Yes, we do have a good reputation," she replied, as if I had commented that asphalt was black. I explained the program, to which she replied that they already get enough referrals from customers and that they do not need anymore.

That's right, this dealership is maxed out for referrals. They don't need anymore.

I will be calling back later when I can talk to an owner.

Fortunately, not all of my visits have turned out this way, and I have found a few excellent dealerships. The difficulty of my search drives home to me to value of what I am doing. I am spending dozens of hours driving from dealership to dealership so you don't have to. If you are looking for a car, don't drive around to a dozen dealerships and deal with people who don't get it. Just give me a call, and I'll point you in the right direction.

On the other side of the coin, if you have dealt with a salesman who treated you right, please send their info to me. Good car salesmen are rare, and they deserve to have more business sent their way.

Normally, I implore you to get up from your computer and deal with live people... unless those people are the salesmen who inspire the story above. Then you might better off just reading back issues of People I Meet.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Price Versus Value

What an amazing deal! It's 70% off!

Perhaps you have heard this sentiment. Perhaps you heard it from your own mouth. Sometimes, it is indeed the case, such as when Big Y has their very impressive Buy 1 Get 2 Free sales. However, sometimes something is not a deal just because it costs less than one might suggest it should.

I got started on this line of thinking when I met with Scott Alexander, a salesman for Teddy Bear Pools and Spas. We were discussing the difference between Teddy Bear and the discount pool places. There are discount pool places which will appear to cost thousands of dollars less than a local, established store. One might think that they will save a lot of money in this way, but this is where you discover the difference between price and value.

At the discount place, every summer, they contract with whichever east Asian manufacturer will offer them the cheapest price. For installation, they will hand you a list of private installers with whom they have no established relationship about whom they know very little. Once the pool is finally installed, God help you if anything breaks. The discounter does not have a parts department. They have an 800 number you can call. If you are lucky, the company that made your pool will still be in business when you try to replace the part. Either way, you are probably on your own the find the part.

If you go to a local place like Teddy Bear, it will certainly cost more up front, but, to start with, you will be buying from an experienced professional who knows about pools rather than some kid making minimum wage who doesn't know swimming pools from betting pools. Once the professional salesman has worked with you to get you the right equipment for your needs, the equipment will be installed by in house professionals, not contractors. If the pool has a problem, you can contact the repair department at the store who will draw parts from their own inventory, which includes parts going back all the way to the first pool model they sold.

The same is true in all kinds of other industries. There are places where you can get cut rate prices on cut rate products. Some of the products are just as good as the more expensive ones, but some of them are not, or perhaps the service or other intangibles are very different. Before you buy solely on price, consider what the true cost of your "discount" merchandise is.

Personally, I would generally rather work with a professional salesman than an untrained clerk or a web site. A professional can offer solutions that I might not have previously been aware of. Sure, these solutions may result in additional purchases, but if it is something of value to me, I am happier for the purchase.

Looking for something and want to be introduced to a trustworthy professional? Let me know. Those kinds of connections are what I do all day.

Thank you for reading. Now go out and learn from a quality professional face to face.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Will You Be Able to Trigger?

I have expanded and shifted the focus of my career. Where previously I had been an agent of The Company, who sold The Product as well as doing a little problem solving for clients on the side, I am now a professional problem solver. This change has occurred for two reasons.

I had found in all my networking that the world is full of fantastic opportunities, and by being with The Company, I was forced to let them pass unnoticed. In a more freelance problem solver capacity, I would still be able to independently sell The Product, but I would have the option to seize other opportunities as they came along as well.

The first reason is a good one, but, on its own would not have been enough to convince me to make that shift. The other issue is that The Company does not pay commissions until one has reached a certain level of sales and fulfilled some other requirements to "trigger full time." One of these requirements for me was wrapping up some issues with a previous business I used to run. Unfortunately, said wrapping would cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. This is quite difficult to do if it is the condition for receiving my commissions.

This condition had been mentioned when I first started with The Company, but I was told that it would all work out, so I should not worry about it. As time went on, and things became more challenging in terms of personal finance, I remembered that little obstacle that I had been told not to worry about. When I spoke to my manager about it again and pressed him a bit, it became clear that this was not merely a small obstacle, but an insurmountable one.

At that point, the choice became very clear. It was time to go. Then I wondered, how many other people are in that same position. Not precisely the same place, but something comparable. We often advise people to give something their all and focus on success, but how many people are giving 110% to a project in which they will never be able to trigger.

Not every dead end is a failure. My work with The Company was a fantastic opportunity which led me to everything else I am now doing. All the networking I have done so far was because I was developing my career with The Company. They taught me a great deal about sales, time management, goal setting and many other things, and I look forward to working with The Company in a freelance capacity. Had I stayed on what had been a highly productive path, however, I would have found myself in a dead end.

It is important to focus on success, but, every now and then, raise your eyes to the horizon and make sure that the road you are running so hard on actually goes somewhere.

Now, take your road out into the world and meet someone interesting today!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know

I'm sure that you have heard the old saying, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." There are generally two kinds of people who say this. Some people say it as an excuse for why they cannot get ahead in life. This kind of person will say it in this context:

Well, you know, I got a degree, and I got a great resume and I've done this and that, and even the other thing, but I didn't get that great job. I've just got this dead end thing. I don't know why I even bother. After all, it's not what you know, it's who you know. If I was born rich, I'd know the right people, but I wasn't so I'm out of luck.
Ever heard someone talk like that? That is the more common use of this saying. However, the other kind of person who says it is someone like me. I completely agree that having the right contacts is absolutely vital in getting where you want to go in the world. The difference between me and our friend quoted above is that I have come to discover one very important secret.

Ready to learn the secret?

OK, here it is...

You can meet people. Let's say that you feel like our friend quoted above. You are stuck and don't know where to turn because you do not know the right people. What do you do?

The first step is to believe that you can get what you want. If you don't believe that you can get ahead, then you will never get ahead, no matter what you do.

The next step is to figure out what you want and ask for it. When I decided to create a network, I knew I would need to meet with a lot of people to set it up. The way I met with them was very simple. I called them on the phone, explained what I was doing and said that I would like to meet with them. What do you think they said when I asked to meet with them? Every single person I spoke to agreed to meet with me. Every single one.

The original concept was that I would sit down with them, learn about what they did and tell them a bit about what I did for the Company. It went something like that, except for the fact that I would usually find listening to them talk about what they did so interesting that I would have to force myself to remember to mention my own work. I have learned more about the world in the last three weeks than I did in a year of college, and it is only just starting.

Something else happened when I sat down to meet with these people. Opportunities came to light. When you take two motivated, enthusiastic, creative people and put them together, you would be amazed at the ideas that can come out. From talking to Tom Gilliam (@Tom_Gilliam on Twitter) came the idea of Stone Soup Network Meetups. After talking to Val Nelson, I realized the need for a LinkedIn Group. There are all kinds of other things which may be developing from the contacts that I am not even at liberty to discuss here.

Ultimately, my point is that if you want something, go for it. Don't just wait for something to happen, make something happen. Even if you don't know what the proper first step is, take an action, see where it leads. Wash, rinse, repeat. It may not get you where you thought you wanted to go, but it will certainly get you somewhere.

Here is a link to Business By Referral, the book that got me started on the road to the Stone Soup Network.
Additionally, another book you might like is Never Eat Alone, a book about building a personal network even if you don't think you know anyone of consequence.

Not sure where to start getting into the world of networking? Drop me a line. I'll help you out.

Hint: It must happen face to face. The Internet doesn't count. Go meet live people.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Can't I Do That Myself? The Value of Copywriters

In developing the Stone Soup List, I have met with quite a few copywriters. One of the greatest challenges that they face is that many people in business do not understand why they should hire someone to do something that they think they can do just fine themselves.

In the last week, I have met with three excellent writers: Christine Parizo, Bill Sweet, and Shel Horowitz. Christine's experience in the legal field makes her excellent at translating 'legalise' to English, making complex technical concepts understandable to the general public. Bill has extensive background as a print journalist, experience that he puts to great use by interviewing clients to gather the information that he needs to create the client's image in words. Shel has been writing for many years about making business green, ethical, and community oriented, and has an extensive resume in some very impressive circles.

The challenge that all these professionals face is that many people, not wanting think themselves poor writers, think that they can do it themselves. The result is too often businesses with beautifully laid out documents that contain text which is uninformative, unconvincing, or just plain uninteresting.

I well understand this mindset because I have been known to hold it myself. I, however, have a very valid excuse. When I ran Phoenix Games, I ran it for the benefit of the community, without the benefit of profit. Thus, the cost-benefit analysis really did say that I should do it myself, since the company was so tiny that it would have taken a 100% increase in sales to justify any professional. I also happen to be a natural born writing genius to make up for my lack of good sense, but that is neither here nor there.

So, if your company is like Phoenix Games, a financially inviable company that you are keeping going because of its vital value to the community, I can accept the decision to do everything yourself. If, however, your business is profitable, hire the professionals. Why? Because success in business is caused by specialization. If you have someone who is very good at sales, you want them out selling as much as possible. If you have someone who is a great chef, you want them cooking as much as possible. If you are running a business, I suspect that your greatest skills are in areas like planning, networking, sales, etc, thus those are the most profitable uses of your time. So, if that is the most profitable way to use your time, why would you spend that time on something like writing copy, which you only do once in a while? Wouldn't it make more sense to hire someone whose greatest skill after years of experience is writing, freeing you to use your best skills to keep the revenues flowing into your company?

I can pick up a baseball and throw it, but that doesn't make me a pitcher. Likewise, you can string words together, likely in a fairly clear and legible way, but are you sure that the what you are putting down is what you want your customers to pick up when they read it?

In this last paragraph, I am putting down my appreciation for you reading this post, and hope that you will soon pick up and go have some face to face human contact.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are You Prepared?

Today I met with Jennifer Snyder, a lawyer in Hadley who works specifically in areas of end of life issues. She works a great deal with elders around passing on their estates and setting up their long term care plans, and that is pretty interesting stuff, but that is not what this post is about today. Today we are talking about the rest of her work with us young folks who think nothing bad will ever happen.

It is common and fairly reasonable for a young person such as myself to simply assume that life will continue on for many decades into the future without major incident. For the vast majority of 30-somethings, indeed, death is a far off concept. However, the unexpected can happen, and there are very important legal documents that a person should have in place in the event of catastrophe.

Before I go on, I should make it clear that I am not, in fact, a lawyer myself. I did not even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I am simply sharing with you what I have learned from various sources, including a chat this afternoon. This post should not be considered legal advice, and if you are in the habit of taking legal advice from bloggers who do not even specify their industry of profession, I advise you (as a non-lawyer) to reconsider your legal advice strategy.

I will briefly explain what each of these documents is and what terrible thing could happen if you do not have them. For each of these, there are defaults, more or less, in the law, but some of the defaults are complex, and some are expensive, while most are not what you want them to be. These three documents are a "Health Care Proxy", "Durable Power of Attorney", and a will.

A Health Care Proxy is a document that specifies who is allowed to make health care decisions for you if you are incapacitated. There is probably someone that you would like to have this power. This person may not be you mother, and if you do not have a health care proxy, it could be your mother, or perhaps your father, or maybe your son, or it could be someone else. When you are in a coma is a bad time to be haggling over legal vagaries of who has the authority to decide if they should try to risky surgery, give you an Aspirin or just pray and hope for the best.

A Durable Power of Attorney gives someone the authority to make financial decisions for you in the event that you are incapacitated. Why would this be important? Let's imagine that you, in your excellent foresight, have disability insurance, which is sufficient to take care of the needs of your family, should you become disabled. Your chosen disability is that of a coma. Your husband goes to the bank to take out money to pay the mortgage, electric bill, etc with the money that is coming from the insurance policy that you had the wisdom to set up. The teller will politely explain, "I'm sorry sir, only your spouse has access to this account. If you want to access to it, you will have to hire a lawyer for $2500-$5000 and go to court to get a ruling that you can access this money." This assumes a very well educated teller, I suspect, but this whole interaction would go much better if your husband could show a document showing that he has Durable Power of Attorney, which would give him access to the money.

Finally, the will. You probably are familiar with the concept of a will. I specifies how your estate would be split in the event of your death. If you think that you don't have a will, you are mistaken. You do have a will, but the will is not written by you. It is written by the state in which you reside. Perhaps you trust the legislature in your particular state to plan your estate for you. Personally, I do not trust the folks in Boston to plan a lunch at McDonald's for me, but it's up to you.

Most specifically, if you have children, you want to have a will. Depending on your state's laws, if both you and your spouse die, your children could end up with your parents, or they could end up with your spouse's parents. They could end up in state custody while a fight occurs in the courts over who gets them. They could end up somewhere else. Wouldn't you rather be sure instead of trusting that things will hopefully turn out alright for everyone.

If you have these documents in place, good for you. You are well prepared. If you do not, I strongly suggest you consider getting them into place. There are many great lawyers out there, including Jennifer Snyder whom I met today. You could work with one of them. Have an allergy to lawyers that causes you to tear up and develop blotchy skin, at least find something online. I can't vouch for how good online forms are, but I can guarantee you that they are better than no form at all.

Thank you for reading my blog. Perhaps you found it informative. Perhaps you did not. Either way, don't forget to get up from your computer from time to time to go out and meet with other live human beings!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Welcome Readers

In my work for The Company, I do a great deal of networking. It all started when I was talking to the person who first got me into The Industry. His name is Bob, and he told me that he likes to keep a list of good professionals that he can refer his clients to as an additional service to them. It's one thing to be able to help someone in your own field, but once you help them by referring them to a good computer repair guy or a trustworthy mechanic, they realize that you think of them as a client rather than a walking commission.

I then read a great book called Business By Referral by Ivan R. Misner (the founder of BNI). He talks about forming a network of people so that you have access to the resources and information you need before you need them.

This got me thinking that it is great to keep track of people I can refer as I encounter them, but why stop there? Why be satisfied with only the people that I already happen to knew. Rather, I would go out an actively seek out professionals, sales people, business owners and artisans. The goal: create a referral network so comprehensive that I would know someone to refer for any possible problem that someone might have.

The project really started moving when Kiernan Gulick-Sherrill, a good friend of mine of many years, and the talent behind Green Earth Computers, invited me to come as his guest to the Mill River Chapter of BNI. I met a bunch of really interesting people there and met with a number of them one on one (a process that I discovered is known as a "One to One" in BNI) to get to know them and see if I would feel comfortable adding them to my referral list.

As I started meeting with people, I found that everyday, I would go home having learned fantastic new things about all that is available in the Valley, and I wanted to tell everyone.

With plans to meet with over 10 people in the next week, I realized that I will have fascinating things that I want to share for a long time to come, so I thought that now is the time to enter the world of blogs and share what I learn.

Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, "Michael, I do something that is awesome and interesting, and you should refer me to people you know."

If that is the case, I would love to meet with you, because meeting face to face is the only way that I will add someone to my list. All the tweets and blogs and instant messages in the world do not give me a feel for a person, and I do not want to have to say "Go talk to Frank. I've never actually met him, but he sure does Tweet well!"

I have reached the length that the attention span on the Internet allows, so I will conclude here. Thank you for reading. I appreciate your time reading this. Now that you are done, make sure you get out and meet someone face to face today as well.