The Three Secrets to Building a Beautiful Business and Life
Have you ever felt overwhelmed, frustrated or stuck in your business? My guess is that most of us have, and, if you haven’t, then you’re either knee-deep in denial or some kind of entrepreneurial unicorn. (If you fit into the latter category, feel free to move smugly on to another blog post… but not before you send me your secrets!)
When we first start out on our entrepreneurial journey, we’re told that success is all about the sensible, hardnosed principles and business buzzwords that you’ve likely heard a bazillion times: visioning, leadership, delegation, systems, planning, KPIs, and more. Of course, all of these things are crucially important, but there are three key principles that matter even more.
Three Unrecognised Factors for Success
I believe there are three undervalued and almost unrecognised factors for business success that are far more important than all those clichéd examples put together. These are the secrets to getting unstuck, stepping out of overwhelm and finally building the beautiful business and life that you deserve.
So, what must you learn?
Your time is your business’ most valuable asset.
It’s okay to say “no”, often.
Be kind to yourself.
And that, my friends, is it.
Simple, right? Too simple for some of your sceptical minds, I’m sure. In fact, I can feel the eye rolls and smirks burning through the screen, but don’t write my theory off just yet! Your beautiful business (and life) is on the other side of listening to, and applying, what I’m about to share.
Maximising Time: Your Most Valuable Asset
In my experience, most business owners believe their most valuable asset is their staff, customers, intellectual property, stock, equipment or buildings. All of these things (or people) are incredibly valuable, for sure, but time is the only asset that is truly limited. You can never get more time – no matter how much you try to beg, borrow, hire, buy or steal.
Your time – spent fully focused on the stuff that really matters – is an asset almost as rare as rocking horse droppings.
In order to build a beautiful business and life, you must learn to become greedy with your time. You need to repeatedly check in and ask yourself questions like:
Is this thing the best use of my time right now?
What would happen if I didn’t do this thing?
Is there someone else who could be doing this thing instead of me?
What would happen if I did this thing later?
If I do this thing now, what am I sacrificing?
Trust me: it pays to train yourself to ask these questions, often. Make it a habit. You will always have a “to do” list longer than your arm. You will always have more demands on your time than you can physically fit into a good day’s work. That is, of course, if you aren’t an aforementioned entrepreneurial unicorn (in which case, why are you still reading?!).
In short: learn to do only the stuff that matters most.
Saying “Yes” to Saying No
There is no more important skill for a business owner than knowing how and when to say “no”. Why? For starters, it will help you out immensely with achieving point 1 (maximising your time), but it will also pave the way for making your business stand out from the crowd.
Marketing 101 says that every business needs a unique selling point (USP). That’s why it pays to know your fortes and play to them by turning other opportunities down. After all, “a jack of all trades is the master of none”. Focus on your fortes and you’ll reap the rewards of presenting a highly differentiated brand.
Here’s some homework to get you started. Practice saying “no” in front of the mirror and then make a pact with yourself to say it for real at least once this week – or better yet, today! Remember, it is possible to say “no” respectfully, clearly, calmly and without feeling guilty. This brings me to my next point…
Less Guilt, More Kindness
Do you frequently beat yourself up for procrastinating? Believe you’re inherently disorganised, forgetful and lazy? Think your time management SUCKS? Does a cruel voice in your head frequently tell you that you’re not good enough?
You’re not alone. Absolutely everybody (except psychopaths!) has that critical inner voice. Everyone lets their worries, anxieties and irrational feelings of guilt get the best of them sometimes. However, us business owners are particularly hard on ourselves. In fact, I often jokingly say that small business owners are the most guilt-ridden people on the planet because I hear these kinds of self-deprecating words so often in my coaching practice.
That’s why I saved this particular pearl of wisdom for last, hoping you would remember and digest it well. In my humble opinion, being kind to yourself is not only the most powerful antidote to self-sabotage, but your fastest path back to JOY.
Being kind to yourself is not just the most effective way out of feeling stuck or overwhelmed in your business and your life – it’s the only way.
When we allow negativity and feelings of guilt to take hold, we give ourselves ever bigger burdens to carry. We set the bar impossibly high and then we punish ourselves when we don’t hit the mark. We lead ourselves to the paralysing place of overwhelm with too many tasks to complete in too little time and no plausible end in sight.
An overwhelmed brain is not pretty. It’s extremely inefficient, scientifically proven to underperform at every level and an enormous waste of your incredibly valuable time. And while the devil on your shoulder is, in fact, a protective mechanism designed to keep you safe, that doesn’t mean it ain’t a giant pain in the arse. So, how do we overcome it?
The good news is that you are completely capable of dialling down the negative voice and freeing yourself of imposter syndrome (feeling inadequate despite your success). Our brains are surprisingly malleable, and it IS possible to break the habit of a lifetime. Begin by noticing it and catching yourself in the act. Be inquisitive about where the self-doubt could be coming from. Remain compassionate, judgement-free and patient with your perfectly imperfect self while you reframe those pesky misperceptions and then continue on your merry way feeling 10 stone lighter!
I promise you; this soft, cuddly kindness stuff is the most crucial and hard-hitting work of all. Silencing (or at least muting because it’s a work in progress for all of us, including me!) that inner critic provides the space for creativity to flourish and a new level of clarity and productivity to arise. Plus, as soppy as it sounds, you have every right and reason to give yourself a pat on the pack. You’ve made it this far. You’re alive. You’re learning. You’re growing.
Your Permission Slip
So, here’s your permission slip to stop, give yourself a break and smell the roses. Look at what you’ve already achieved. Tell that little voice in your head to kindly move along because you’ve got this, and you ARE good enough. Now, make a note of my TLDR summary below and then TAKE ACTION on the good stuff today.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, frustrated or stuck and you want to build a beautiful business and life, you must learn to:
Accept that your time is your business’ most valuable asset – and act accordingly.
Say “no” regularly, calmly, respectfully and clearly.
Be kind to yourself, above all else.
This shit works. I promise you.
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How to grow your business is the most enduring of The 7 Big Questions. All of us business owners have felt frustrated at some stage in our journey to building a Beautiful Business The business feels stuck at one level and we are not sure how to get it to the next level.
So many misunderstandings and myths about business growth:
I have written about the general topic of business growth in many different places. I think there are a number of misunderstandings about business growth that are not helping us, as business owners, to feel better about ourselves. The first article is about that (and you can also read about the misunderstandings about growth in my book: The Ten Truths for Making Business Fun):
I believe that to grow a Beautiful Business that Stands the Test of Time you must be able to answer the question: Why does your business exist and why would anybody care? Most business owners can’t answer that question succinctly and powerfully. That’s bad, because if you don’t know why your business exists, your customers certainly won’t be able to tell, and then all it comes down to is price. Competing on price is a dog’s game, unless you’re Aldi, where price is your Purpose. The second reason you need to be able to answer the question clearly is that if you can’t, you will never master the greatest skill of effective business owners, namely the ability to say “NO”.
We’ve all heard that to grow your business you must start with Goal setting. But effective Goal setting is more complicated than you might think. Most Goals we set for ourselves and for our businesses are at best ineffective and at worst actually hinder our progress. Goals are often arbitrary, unrealistic, and unrelated to what really matters in our lives. A Goal to make $2 million revenue is an arbitrary and meaningless number, why $2 million? why not $1,956,384.13, or $2,163,927.46 for example? And so what when you reach the goal? Will you be better off somehow? What if you fall short? By $100, or by $1,000, or by $100,000? Does that mean you are a failure? Goal setting really makes a difference, as long as you understand that Goals are like a compass, they provide a direction on your journey, they are not the destination.
Marketing is about creating opportunities to sell your stuff. As such, I fervently believe that:
Marketing is everything and everything is marketing
And it is. To grow your business you have to look at every aspect of your business. Marketing is about advertising campaigns, and social media and designing your logo and your website, but it’s also about how you answer the telephone, about your pricing policies, about ensuring that your customers are happy with what you sell them. It’s about how you dress and about how you present your quotes and about your Public Relations strategies and about your warranty return policies. One of the greatest marketing strategies is a relentless focus on quality in everything the business does, in order to “Create Raving Fans”, because if your customers are all Raving Fans, they will actually do your marketing for you.
I don’t mean to imply that online marketing is somehow something different from all other forms of marketing, it isn’t. But it is useful to pay special attention to online engagement and marketing to build and grow your business, because it has become such an important aspect of any marketing strategy. Whether your business is a cafe or a building company or a law practice, or it imports widgets or makes whatsits, you can not ignore a bunch of different forms of online marketing. Email marketing, content marketing, Search Engine Optimisation, Search Engine Marketing, Social Media Engagement, Social Media Marketing, online PR, online reputation management (The ubiquitous star ratings), video marketing. The list is near endless and constantly changing.
You could easily argue (and I have in one of the articles I refer to below), that the principles of marketing haven’t changed, we’ve just got a bunch of new tools to do it with. And at one level that’s true, people still want to get to know, like and trust you before they will do business with you. But on another level things have changed drastically. Ten years ago, you’d give someone a business card with your web address on it and they would immediately want to know if you also had a bricks and mortar store. These days they want to know you’ve got a high functioning web presence and that you’ve got a presence on Facebook and on Google local and ideally a bunch of 5 start ratings on Yelp and Trip Adviser. Whether or not you have a bricks and mortar presence, simply doesn’t matter anymore. Online engagement in all forms must be part of your marketing strategies or you will not be taken seriously.
That’s a quote I saw hanging on the wall at a big office once, many years ago. And it’s true. No business growth, no business, without sales. No matter how great your product is, how beautiful your logo is, how smart your website is, or how wonderful your employee conditions are, if you’re not selling, the business will cease to exist.
Sales is often seen as a subset of marketing, but I’m giving it it’s own section here, because I think of marketing as getting the customers to your door and sales as actually getting them to hand over money. Lead generation v lead conversion. Sales is about skill and it’s about mindset and systems and above all, it’s about making it easy for people. And this last word is the key to the whole shebang. It’s always about people. The old saying is:
People do business with people they know like and trust
You must always remember it’s about people first and foremost and in small business especially it’s about people in both directions: People do business with people. Your whole approach to sales, especially in small business, all aspects of it must be built on a people to people philosophy.
A business without a Plan achieves everything in it
business growth, planning, strategy
Nothing in other words. Your business growth depends on planning. No human endeavour ever amounted to anything without a plan. Yet planning is guessing. It can never be anything more than guessing, because we can not know the future. So if planning is guessing, why does it matter so much and how can we do it so it works? There are two important answers to those questions:
1) You must understand that there are two entirely different types of business plans: Internal Plans, and External Plans. External plans are designed to impress others about your business and form part of the documentation to obtain a loan or other form of funding or make a proposal to a third party of some sort.
Internal Plans are documents designed to help the business focus. They are combined with meaningful goals (see above) and they help people in their day to day decision making processes. Internal and external plans have different functions and are presented quite differently as well.
2) Planning is a verb. It’s not static, it’s an activity that never stops. As soon as one plan is created, we start again. John Lennon said: Life’s what happens when we’re making other plans. Planning is like that, we make a bunch of assumptions and plan our actions accordingly. Then we go ahead and check reality as it unfolds and make changes to our plans to suit the new realities, every day, every week, every month and every year. Business Plans that work, that make a difference, are living documents.
Customer service is also a subset of marketing of course, if done well it leads to more business from those customers, and as I said above, everything is marketing and marketing is everything, but it’s worth mentioning separately, because of the concept of Raving Fans. Ken Blanchard wrote a little book that said it best in the title: Create Raving Fans and have your customers do your marketing for you. It’s a great little book and there’s a link below to get yourself a copy of it.
The principle of Ken Blanchard’s book is that your business should always be working to do one better for your customers than they expect. If you do so, your customers will become your advocates (Raving Fans) and advocates will go out of their way to help your business grow. They will talk to their friends about you, they will drag their colleagues to your door. They will defend your business against the competition and best of all, they won’t quibble about price. If your business focuses on turning it’s customers into Raving Fans, you will be able to slash your marketing budget in half, over time, for a better result.
Grow your business with systems and quality improvement
My clients often ask me to help them grow their business, and I often tell them to stop worrying about that. Getting more customers is actually the easy part. The hard part of business is:
To deliver what you say you will
By the time you say you will
For the price you say you will
At the quality you say you will…
With a smile
If you can do that all the time, the customers will come flocking to your door and you won’t have to spend much money on marketing (for one thing because you’ll be creating Raving Fans, see the previous topic). And right now, you may well be doing all those things, with a smile, but the trick is to be able to keep doing that as the business starts to grow.
I can’t tell you how many businesses I have seen struggle and fail in my years in business who couldn’t maintain their product or service quality and dependability and price, at scale. Once the business starts to grow and you, yourself, are no longer in charge of every step in the process, things start going wrong. Quality becomes inconsistent, delivery times become unreliable, prices go up or profitability suffers and your smile starts to disappear. Once the rot sets in like that, your reputation starts to suffer and customers start to look elsewhere.
There are only two answers to this dilemma: Either, don’t grow, stay small, learn to say NO and say it all the time… Or systematise. Developing systems for all aspects of the operation is the only answer. Systems for how the phone is answered, systems for estimating, systems for quality checking, systems for calendar management, systems for inventory management, systems for callbacks and warranty repairs. Systems for marketing, systems for hiring and firing etc etc. Above all, systems allow you to create Continuous Improvement Loops into your organisation. And continuous improvement is the Holy Grail of business. It’s what made companies like Toyota great.
Inventory management is a big specialised topic, and it’s really a subset of the systems section above. There are whole management libraries written about the various philosophical approaches to managing stock when building and growing a Great business that Stands the Test of Time. My earliest lessons of inventory management came from the owner of a big hardware store I dealt with a lot in my days as a builder, Colin. One of the reasons I bought so much of my material from Colin was that he always had everything in stock. Colin clearly knew what it took to create business growth, because his business was booming.
I asked Colin once if keeping such high stock levels of everything a builder such as myself might need from time to time was economical for him. I imagined that it was a very expensive way to run a business, having all that money tied up in timber and hardware and bits and bobs. His answer was:
If I don’t stock it I can’t sell it.
I have often thought about that statement in the years since, now that most operations run on the principle of “just in time”. Supermarkets have made an art form of stocking just enough and not a jar more than required, to minimise shelf apace and inventory cost.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that Colin got all my business for 20 years and most Sydney builders had an account with him, because everything we needed was always ready to be picked up.
Grow your business with hiring, firing and engaging people
Michael Gerber in his famous book “The E-Myth” wrote that it’s impossible to manage people and hence great businesses focus on systems, and manage those instead. And that’s certainly what grew McDonalds into the enormous business it is today, no argument. And as I’ve written elsewhere before, if you set out to make as much money as possible from selling restaurant food, it is undeniably the case that the McDonald’s model is the one to emulate. But, I can’t tell you how happy I am that not everyone in the restaurant industry wants to build McDonalds, because the world (and my palate) would be the poorer. The same philosophy can be applied to any industry.
If you’d like to build and grow a unique business, a business with an individual character, you’re going to have to manage people. You’re going to have to get good at putting the right people on the bus, sitting in the right seats, facing in the right direction and also know which people to get off the bus. If you don’t learn how to find and keep the right people and get them to do great work, your business will always struggle.
That means developing hiring policies, being prepared to hire people who might be better than you are at certain things, learning how to do great interviews, implementing induction and development training programs. It means learning how to coach your people, encourage them and hold them accountable. And it means learning about effective delegating. It means doing the HR admin and compliance effectively, writing job descriptions and doing performance reviews. It means learning what it takes to be a leader and it means being prepared to take the tough decisions when required, and take them quickly and respectfully.
To build and grow a Great business that Stands the Test of Time, you can’t afford to be left behind. The pace of change and innovation is relentless and what was ok even a few years ago is no longer ok now. Not long ago it was still fine for a cafe to have a sign saying “cash only”, but in 2018, you’ll lose a lot of business if you don’t accept cards in payment. Even in a business as simple as mine, people expect me to be able to accept online bookings. Cloud computing combined with smart phone technology and advanced GPS systems mean that customers now expect to be informed that their plumber is on its way and can be expected to pull up in front of their house in 13 minutes.
You don’t need to be Uber or AirBandB to implement new technology and come up with new ways of doing business. I just bought a house in a different state of Australia. The real estate agent gave me a private showing of the house via Skype. I engaged the conveyancer, the building inspector and a surveyor all without setting a foot in the house or the state.
A client of mine with a creative marketing agency has a team of designers and copywriters and marketing assistants all over the world and she rarely even meets her clients face to face. Another client with a small supermarket chain has technology in his stores that allow him to see what’s going on in any part of any store and to get live access to each of the store’s Point of Sale systems. He’s also just implement a bunch of tablet screens in his stores allowing people to find dinner recipes incorporating the fresh vegetables he has on special.
And all this stuff is only the beginning. It won’t be long before artificial intelligence is integrated in doctor’s surgeries and lawyer’s offices, and copywriting agencies. If you think that technology and innovation isn’t going to have a massive impact on the way you do business and how to create business growth, you are kidding yourself.
I’m often asked what the secret of small business is. I was recently asked this question by a new internet support service for micro and home based businesses called Brazzlebox . I told them there’s only one thing to get right and that is be able to answer the Big Question of Small Business, What’s the Purpose of your business?
It’s actually a really interesting question, and one that few business owners stop to think about before they get their business underway. I’ve also written about the Big Question here on Medium.com and in other pages on my website here as well as in this podcast for example. To be honest, I think that most business are started more or less by accident.
Of course there are startup entrepreneurs who plan the development of the next widget, they take a shared office space in some kind of incubator and plan to sell their widget to Facebook for 25 trazillion dollars one day, but I believe that those business owners are in a tiny minority.
The small business owners I meet everywhere (and the ones I support) start their business when an ever increasing level of frustration with their job or career to date simply overflows the bucket and they decide to take control of their life in their own hand.
And when that moment arrives they run around doing the practical logistical things; bank accounts, business names, email addresses, business cards… the basics, but the really important questions are not usually addressed until much later, sometimes never.
The really important questions that we should all attempt to answer right from the word go are the questions about the strategic direction of the business, the Goals (short, medium and long term) and the biggest question of all:
Why does your business exists; What’s it on this earth for, and why would anybody care?
Whenever I am at a networking function talking to business owners I always ask them what is special, or different about their business, why I would want to do business with them and how I could refer business to them. It’s actually surprising how difficult most business owners find it to a give a clear answer to those questions. Mostly people try and tell me that they have a Great product (Our widget comes in 23 different colours) and they give Great customer service (We re smaller than the competition so we care more about our customers) and their prices are Great too (we’re really efficient and run a tight ship and we have few overheads and we’re committed to “adding value”).
These days I have hardened up a bit so I don’t feel the pain so much anymore and mostly I remain polite and nod with interest and make engaged noises, but deep down I think to myself: “Oh Please… not another one!”
Of course you have a great product with a great price and great customer service, “D’OH” as Homer Simpson would say… I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a business owner who told me their product was average, their prices were average and they kind of looked after their customers in an average manner either. The competition has those three covered as well as you do (otherwise they wouldn’t be your competition in the first place) and your potential customers assume you will deliver them those three as a minimum, otherwise they wouldn’t be talking to you.
You have to find what sets you apart, what makes you different, because if you don’t, your customers only have one way to decide who they’ll use and that is by comparing your price and competing on price is a dog’s game, it might work for Walmart and Ikea but few others.
So… Why does your business exist, what’s it on this earth for, and why would anybody care about that?
I have a client who is an architect, he defined the purpose of his business as “Architecture that Inspires”
I have a client who owns a gym and he defined the purpose of his business as: “To build the finest resistance training community in the world”
I have a client who has a video production business and the Purpose of his business is: “It’s a joy to work with us”
When I meet someone at a networking function and I ask them what’s special about their business and they give me a powerful short statement like that, I sit up and take note and I’ll remember them and I will be able to introduce them to potential clients.
Also when your business rests on such a strong statement, it suddenly makes everything so much easier:
It’s suddenly easy to make decisions about which jobs to bid for and which opportunities to say No to
It’s suddenly clear which employees to hire
It’s suddenly clear what prices you should be charging
Finding the Purpose of your business and being able to express it with complete clarity is absolutely the biggest step you can take to building a sustainable, fun and rewarding business.
This is the first is a series of 12 posts on Change (with a capital “C”) and laying the foundations for building a Great Business that Stands the Test of Time. The following 11 weeks will see one post each week. Please also read last week’s post about Entrepreneurial Types, here.
The very strongest foundation for a great business
To become the very strongest foundation for your business, I believe you must learn to focus on 10 Priorities. They are:
Asking for Help
Over the next 10 posts I’m going to explain each of the priorities in more detail. The 10 posts are quite short (about 200 to 250 words each) and practical. I hope you’ll take the simple messages of each one to heart and experiment with them in your own life as a business owner. You can do a simple search and read all of the Priority posts at once, by clicking on the category: “Ten Priorities” in the category box in the right hand column.
The life of the harried business owner
First, let me sketch a picture of the life of a typical small business owner for you (BTW, I’d love to hear if you recognise yourself in any part of the picture):
You’re the first one in the door in the morning and the last one out at night. You run around from crisis to crisis, extinguishing brush fires all day long. You feel guilty that you don’t do the stuff you know you ought to do to develop the business. Your staff don’t seem able to tie their own shoe laces without your supervision. Customers expect you, not your staff, to be the one who personally does all their work for them, yourself. You actually made more money before you started employing all those people anyway. And finally, you have to do your admin and catch up on your email after the kids have gone to bed.
Sucked into a sea of mud
Recognise any of that picture at all? Even if you only recognise 25% of that picture, you’re most likely on first name terms with overwhelm. Overwhelm is no fun anyway, but worse is that human brains in overwhelm are ineffective, they focus on the wrong things and make the wrong decisions and that leads to more stress and overwhelm and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle. Overwhelm affects your health and well-being and that of your families and besides, your business gets sucked into a sea of mud as well.
That’s the general state of things for many small business owners in my experience and some of the reasons many small businesses never develop to their potential.
The power of saying No
Hence I’ve written The 10 Priorities. Accompanying the 10 Priorities are also a series of videos as as seen on Kochie’s Business Builders on national TV, Channel 7 in Australia, the first video can be seen here and others will follow as they are broadcast. I have also created a survey tool to help you find your own Entrepreneurial Type, you can complete the survey here and you will receive a report with your Type and an explanation of the Types and your strengths and challenges as an Eentrepreneur, by email in 24 to 48 hrs emailed to you.
If you make it your absolute commitment to focus on The 10 Priorities in the coming year, you will create a foundation on which you truly can build a Great Business that Stands the Test of Time, and your life will never be the same either… I promise you.
Why scraping nasty chemicals from the bottom of boats beats working for a living
In 1984 I arrived in Sydney as a corporate refugee with my wife and daughter. Until that time, I’d trained and worked as a journalist on various newspapers in Holland. But it was time to change the corporate Smoke-filled, Alcohol-fuelled offices of a daily newspaper in Holland for the Sun-filled, Wholesome Great Outdoors of Australia. Specifically, I wanted to work on and around sailing boats on Sydney Harbour.
We had very little money when we got here (The Dutch money we brought with us, converted to Australian dollars, was precisely enough to buy an old Ford Cortina and pay the rental bond on a grotty little terrace house in Redfern, and that was just about it) and I needed to make sure I got a job quickly. So I jumped on the first thing I could and got a job at the old Dairy Farmers Factory in Ultimo, packing yoghurt beakers into cartons.
I worked there for a couple of months, and some of the gloss had started to come off our big immigration adventure, when I met up with an old friend at a typical Sydney backyard barbeque. I’ll never forget his words, he said: What are you doing working in that factory? Right now, while you’re not fully settled in yet, is the best opportunity you’ll ever have to create the future you’ve been dreaming of and the longer you keep working in that factory, the harder you’ll find it to get moving.
Walking on the dock of the Bay
He was right, the next day I walked out of the factory. I went down to the big yacht-marina in Rushcutters Bay, and simply asked anyone I saw around the docks if there was any work going.
I’ve not worked regular hours, taken home a regular wage, or been told what to do by a boss since.
I won’t sit here and tell you it’s all been plain sailing (!!). Far from it. I’ve had to do some pretty unpleasant work from time to time (Scraping old antifoul paint (nasty chemical stuff that stops algae from growing on the bottom of boats) from the hulls of old trawlers in 40 degree Sydney heat is not one of my fondest memories), and I’ve stuffed up various contracts in those early years (The look of horror on the face of the owner of a boat I’d painted in entirely the wrong colour, still comes to mind from time to time), and I’ve naively been taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous customers at other times, but I’ve somehow managed to make a living, pay various mortgages and send the kids to school from 1984 to now.
Wild rollercoaster rides
Slowly but surely my work became a business and the business evolved away from boats to houses, it grew steadily and 20 years later I sold the building business to a junior partner. And in 2004 I started this thing I do now called business coaching and mentoring. And I feel good about myself and my life to date. It’s been a wild rollercoaster ride at times, but I am forever grateful to my old friend who shook me up at that barbeque in 1984. I am basically a happy chap.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, you see, I meet all kinds of people, those who work for The Man and those who work for themselves. And it’s become clear to me that people who work for themselves are nearly always happier than those who are employees, especially those who work for big companies. I believe this is because people are happiest when they feel they have agency, when they feel they are in control of their own lives.
As a business owner. when things go well you can pat yourself on the back for making that happen and when things go badly you know that the buck stops with you just as much, and that they have it in their hands to turn things around again. Business owners know they are largely responsible for the outcomes of their lives.
Dogs and electric shocks
I read a book by Prof Martin Seligman a few years ago. Prof Seligman is the father of “Positive Psychology”. In the book Seligman describes a set of experiments run with dogs in the sixties. In the experiments dog A is given a light electrical shock every time a bell rings. The dog learns to associate the bell with the electrical shock, and knows the shocks cannot be escaped, it’s a fact of life. Then the dog is placed in a large crate that is divided in half. Half the floor is electrified and the bell is rung and the shock is applied. The dog could easily move to the other half of the floor to get away from the shock, but doesn’t and lies down on the floor shivering in fear.
Dog B is not conditioned beforehand and is also placed in the crate. The floor is electrified and the dog immediately moves to escape the shock.
The second dog has a sense of control over his life that the first one doesn’t anymore. Dog A has become depressed (if there is such a thing in dogs) and Dog B is full of vitality. Seligman referred to the condition of Dog A as “Learned Helplessness”.
I believe as humans working for large organisations we are also prone to “Learned Helplessness”. I am not saying that all people working for all companies have learned that they are helpless and are all depressed or that all depression comes as a result of having a job for a company. Obviously not. There are many different circumstances and many different strategies that people employ to maintain their vitality and sense of agency at work and in life.
There is an enormous sense of reward and satisfaction that flows from building something you created yourself and that you are entirely responsible for. There is a wonderful sense of freedom in knowing that you can simply take the rest of today off if you choose to do so, but that you may actually choose not to do so, for whatever reason. You might be tired and grumpy and overworked and you’d love nothing better than go to the beach and veg out for the rest of the day, but you choose not to, because something else is at this moment more important to you.
Clearly I am biased, I’ve worked for myself for more than 30 years and for the last 12 years supported those who do work for themselves. I can’t even remember anymore what it was like to be a journalist working for an editor in the hierarchy of a big corporate office. But I do know for a fact that none of the small business owners I’ve ever met show any of the symptoms of Learned Helplessness.
Why some business grow, hum along and make money and others don’t
The most successful growth strategy for your small business is found between your ears.
Owning your own business can be a lot of fun and it can be rewarding at many levels. But for many small business owners, the experience is one of frustration and confusion. You’re the first one in the door in the morning and the last one out the door at night, often you’re back at it after the kids have gone to bed and most weekends there is some admin or quoting that needs to be caught up on. The kids are growing up and not getting the attention you want to give them and money remains as tight as ever.
I know the feeling. I’ve been a small business owner for over 30 years now and since 2004 I’ve been a business coach supporting business owners to build Great Small Businesses, what I refer to as a Fun Business (with a capital “F”), you can read more about what a Fun Business is in my books and also in a number of articles on my blog such as this one here.
But some business owners break through that stage and actually build Fun Businesses. Their growth strategy works, they make money, their staff are engaged and motivated, their customers love them and they find the kind of balance in their lives that is important to them.
What’s their secret?
Over the years, I’ve met those who have broken through and those who don’t, and I’ve learnt to spot what sets them apart.
The Big 7
The business owners I’ve met who do break through and do build Fun Small Businesses, all have these 7 things in common:
1. They’ve come to understand that their own time is the most precious resource of their business. They constantly ask themselves: Is what I am about to spend time doing, the most important thing for me to be doing right now, or should I be looking for someone else to be doing it instead of me?
2. They’ve learnt that being a great plumber/ architect/ florist/ software developer/ shopkeeper is only a very small part of what it takes to build a great business based on those professions. It can help and smooth the path in the early days, but to build a Great Small Business, the owner must learn to focus on the work of the business owner, rather than the work of the business. (Business development work in other words)
3. They have found the answer to the question: Why does your business exist, what is it on this earth for and why would anybody care? And then they are 100% committed to the answer; it drives their decisions and actions every day.
4. They’ve learnt to understand and even love their numbers. If you don’t understand and love your numbers as a business owner, you’re managing your business by keeping your fingers crossed, and that is not one of the recognised management techniques. (When I talk about The Numbers, I refer to many other numbers besides the financial numbers alone. There are sales numbers and productivity numbers and quality numbers and customer satisfaction numbers, etc. The trick is to find the key numbers of the health of your business and learn to manage your business by those numbers).
5. They hire the best people they can possibly afford and they learn how to give those people every opportunity to love coming to work and to get ever better at doing their work. There is not much as silly as penny-pinching on staff. The only thing sillier is not making it your absolute focus to ensure that your people love coming to work and do great work every day.
6. They constantly ask themselves where the opportunities are for systemisation. Whatever can be systemised, is… That doesn’t mean every restaurant must aim to be a McDonalds, but if something can be systemised… Do so.
7. They know they can’t do it on their own. They find great advisers and they ask them for help. Just because you are a business owner doesn’t mean you will be an expert at all aspects of business. You can find great consultants, advisers, coaches and mentors to help you in tax and financial management, leadership, marketing, HR, IT, staff management, sales and every other aspect of business you are not 100% confident with. Great sports people all have great coaches on board.
Those are “The 7 Secrets”, that all business owners who build a Great Small Business have come to understand and strive to apply in their lives every day.
Salvation wears running shoes
Now, just so we understand each other. Accepting these statements as true, doesn’t mean you will somehow automatically build a Great Small Business yourself.
To quote a religious friend of mine: “Salvation wears running shoes.”
In other words, it’s all about what we do with our insights.
But if you do print out those 7 Secrets as your growth strategy, laminate them, hang them above your desk and make it your mission to apply them to your life as a business owner, every day, you will start to build a Great Small Business, that sustains you for years to come…
Sarah talks about the curve balls and the changes in direction she had to work through during the time she worked with me and how where she is now is a totally different place than she imagined herself when she started the business 3 years previously.
Business journeys are interviews and stories of business owners about what it’s like to be going on big journeys of change with Roland Hanekroot from New Perspectives Business Coaching and Mentoring
Nobody teaches you about Fun in business at an MBA
Ask any business owner, accountant, management consultant, business coach or other business guru what matters most in business, and you’re likely to be told about the importance of profit, cash, sales, customer retention, staff, leadership, or maybe you’ll be regaled with the importance of quality, systems, innovation or maybe planning and strategic thinking (not a complete list nor necessarily in the right order).
Obviously, those are all important. Without sales, there is no business. If you don’t generate enough cash, your business will fall over in no time as well but there is one factor that’s much more important than all of those. I refer to that factor as Fun in Business.
Fun in Business management is not one of the success factors we learn about in MBA schools, but I can assure you it matters more than anything else. (Read here on Inc.com about the traditional success factors in business)
You see, if you focus on profit as the greatest success factor of your business. It means you’ll never be able to achieve anything beyond profit, and that’s like saying that the greatest measure of success of human beings is how much food we get to eat. Obviously we need to eat food, but we do so in order to achieve what we want to achieve in life. It’s the same with Business and money as well as any of the other success factors mentioned above. We need to make profit and we need to make sales and we need to make our customers happy, but those things are not an end in themselves. Our business needs to do these things, so that it gets to achieve what it wants to achieve in this world.
Think differently about business
It’s time we started to think differently about business than we traditionally have and learn to accept that there is something greater for us to achieve than make sales, improve our systems and generate cash.
A really interesting place to start, I believe, is to focus on the concept of Fun in Business and management. You see when business is Fun, it means everything is working. When business itself is Fun it means that:
You are making money and generating cash flow
You’re making sales
You’re getting better all the time
You know where you’re going
Your staff are highly engaged
Your customers love you
You’re proud of the stuff your business produces
You creating the kind of balance in your life that is important to you.
Focusing on Fun in Business as the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) of the health of your business and understanding that all the other KPI’s we are used to measuring and thinking about are merely drivers to the main KPI of Fun in Business, will change your business and your life.
“Sounds lovely and all warm and fuzzy, but in the here and now, as the owner of a business I have all these responsibilities and if I don’t focus on money, every day, people are going to start losing their jobs and that’s the end of everything. I need to look at a couple of numbers in the morning and see whether we are achieving our targets and I can’t even begin to measure Fun!”
That’s an objection I am often given. You can’t measure “soft” concepts like Fun in business anymore than you can measure Love or Kindness or Frustration in business or anywhere in life, can you?
But it turns out you can measure Fun in Business in a useful manner, quite easily actually.
In the same way you can measure happiness for example. Imagine I asked you to think of a scale from 0 to 10. 10 on the scale means that you are the happiest you’ve ever been in your life and 0 means the opposite, you are totally depressed; I have no doubt that if I asked you that question right at this moment, you’d have no trouble giving me a number, like 7.3 for example. now if I asked you that same question again tomorrow, you’d probably give me a different number, say 8.1 for example and that would tell us that you are feeling a little happier than you did today when I asked the question for the first time. This way of measurement is referred to as relative scaling. The technique is well established in various forms of psychology.
We can apply the same system of measurement to measuring Fun in business in our business and you can even choose to involve your team with this measurement system as well. I have helped many clients implement such a measurement system in their business and the impact of doing so consistently has been nothing short of amazing.
Obviously, just knowing how much Fun in Business we had last week is not going to change anything on it’s own. The old saying is: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”. The point of measuring something is that we want to manage (and improve) that operation or section of the business. This principle goes for managing (and therefore measuring) Fun as it is for managing and measuring any other KPI in business, such as how many widgets we produce in an hour.
Fun in Business Management system
Measuring Fun in Business with the scaling question I described is therefore merely the first step in the Fun in Business management system. The next steps are all about the follow up questions.
After establishing what the relative Fun in Business number was for last week, we have to ask what would make next week a better week, how can we ensure we move the Fun in Business number from 5.7 to 6.1 this coming week for example? What do we have to do to make that happen?
The conversation that follows is where the rubber hits the road. It may be for example that you decide that one of the things that causes the Fun number to be lower than you’d like it to be, is that every second phone call into the office is from a supplier who wants to be paid. The reason those phone calls are uncomfortable is that you are always ‘robbing Peter to pay PAul’ because you yourself have an excessively large Aged Debtors list, in other words people haven’t been paying you on time. You are owed too much money in other words and what you need to do this coming week is to dedicate a full hour on Monday to debt collecting. If you reduce your aged debtors from $70,000 to $35,000 in the next couple of weeks, you can pay all your suppliers and suddenly you don’t have to feel so uncomfortable answering the phone every time it rings.
Or maybe you and your team decide that the business would be more fun to work at if people could work to a more flexible time schedule. Start earlier, finish earlier. Work on Saturday instead of Monday and maybe it is conceivable that you can reorganise life to suit such flexibility. There are any number of issues that can and will come up when you start having these kind of focused discussions in your business
That’s called ‘managing by the numbers’ and that’s why Fun is all that matters in business.
The process of asking: “What is one thing we can do next week, that will mean that we move one increment up our ‘Fun in Business Scale’ will flush out the most important small steps to take to move the business forward and start to make business fun again like it was when you first started it… I promise you!
More reading and resources about Fun in Business management: