What’s the most important question to ask yourself every day?
This is the fifth post in the series of The Ten Priorities: Laying the Foundations for a Great Business and Life. The fifth Priority is about Planning. The introduction to this series on The Ten Priorities is here.
Nothing of value was ever achieved by humans without a plan.
This is a fact
Yet planning is guessing, right? Nobody can know what tomorrow is actually going to look like, all we can do is guess.
That’s planning: We’re at point A, and we want to get to point B by date X. There are many routes to point B, so knowing what we know about today and given what we expect the world to look like tomorrow, what do we guess is the best route to get to point B by X?
Tomorrow the world changes
But tomorrow the world is a different place. Tomorrow it might snow along the route we’d planned to take to point B, and we must change the route.
That’s the secret about planning: Planning is something we must do again every day. When realities change, we must change our plans right along with them. (more about Planning here).
The most effective leaders have already thought about the possibility of snow along the chosen route, long before the snow actually appears, and they’ve already worked out how to change the route to point B in that eventuality.
Business owners who build great businesses, constantly ask themselves:
They ask themselves: “We’ve got a plan, based on certain assumptions… But… What if… any one of those assumptions turns out to be wrong, what do we do instead?”
When you learn to ask, “What if?”, all the time, you’ll respond quickly and appropriately to the changing realities and keep your business moving forward… I promise you
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
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.
From Pirates in the Bahamas to Danish women in Italian Piazzas
One of my favourite Facebook memes is:
“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”
We grow up and find that the world looks quite different when we’re 30, 40, 50 and beyond, than we thought it was going to look when we were young.
I thought I was going to be a modern day pirate like Long John Silver (a fantasy recently revived with the swashbuckling Netflix series “Blacksails”), but it turned out I got violently seasick on the oceans of the world. And besides my wife and I had our first child and children don’t go that well on pirate ships.
Then I thought I was going to be a journalist of world renown, but I didn’t have the patience to make it through the ranks.
I set my sights on a boatbuilding business on Sydney Harbour, but what I knew about running a business in those days could be written on the back of a beer coaster, and the business failed.
Next I started a building business in Sydney. I developed it and ran it for about 20 years. At times it did very well, at other times not so much, but in the end I had enough of the never ending struggle between contractors, homeowners and architects. I was very happy when a former employee of mine offered to buy the business.
More or less at the same time my personal life took a 180 degree turn and where I’d always thought I would grow old as one half of a happily married couple, I suddenly found myself single (by my own choice I hasten to add).
The rest of my life
I was 45, single, without home or business or any immediate responsibilities other than to work out what to do with the rest of my life.
And I had no idea. None.
I figured I needed to create a bit of space in which to work out what direction to head and I took myself off to Italy. The idea being, that if I were to sit myself down on a piazza in Italy for long enough, the universe might speak to me.
And it did.
I actually remember the precise moment that it did: I was having dinner with a bunch of friends in a little restaurant in Perugia in Umbria. I got talking to a Danish woman who was in Italy for a month long sabbatical and she told me about her life coach. My ears pricked up. I’d never heard of the term life coach and I was equally intrigued and sceptical. Long story short. I did some research and decided to do a foundation coach training course when I got back to Sydney. I loved it and in the next few years I enrolled in as many studies and trainings in coaching and related fields as I could.
Various coaching practices
I set about building Life coaching, Executive coaching, personal counselling practices and combinations of all of them. In the end I created the thing I do now, which is all about helping small business owners feel great about themselves and their business and about making business Fun (with a capital “F”).
I love what I do these days and by all accounts I am actually really good at it. Until quite recently, I saw myself growing old in the inner-city of Sydney together with my new spouse, doing what I do now, connected with the community and my kids, grandkids and extended family and friends. But another change is coming down the pike, heading straight for us. Life is going to take another 90 degree turn. I can’t tell you exactly which direction this 90 degree turn is going to take, but it seems quite clear that we’ll be leaving Sydney in the next year or so.
We’re upset and anxious about this prospect. It’s going to mean significant adjustment and changed circumstances, but really, the change is no greater than any of the changes I mentioned above, and those were just the tip of the iceberg.
There’s a good chance that the changes will turn out to be really positive in the long run and that we’ll look back and smile at the memories of our anxieties and dine out on the stories, just like I do now when thinking about the changes I mentioned before.
Life is indeed what happens when we’re making other plans. Planning is guessing. I’ve said it before when writing about goalsetting in business here, but it’s no different in life.
The one thing we can be sure of is change But us humans, it seems, are hardwired to resist change as much as we can. There’s a primal instinctive fear we feel in change, I believe.
But change is coming and In any case, I’m going to remind myself how positive the experience of change can be, especially in hindsight, even if it doesn’t quite feel that way now.
I talk to my clients about Big Hairy Audacious Goals and I say to them: A Business without a Plan achieves everything in it, and I tell them that business plans must be ‘live’ documents and that we must forever be Planning, because Planning is a verb. I quote the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, who says to Alice: “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will do”. And I explain that we must have a direction or we won’t know what decisions to make. And I have written articles stating that life is about journeys in which our goals are like our compass course and hence, without clear goals we’re doomed to sail around in circles on those journeys.
And until not long ago I also had myself one of them Big Hairy Audacious Goals myself, yessiree, and I felt I was “Walking the Talk”.
Now before I tell you about my BHAG and what happened with it, I have to give you a bit of the back story.
Getting from here to there
About 12 years ago, I started learning about coaching. At it’s most basic, coaching is the profession of helping people get from where they are now to where they’d like to be.
Typically, the process involves setting a Goal for where the client would like to be by a certain date and then developing a plan for getting there.
A simple but powerful process.
And over the past 12 years, I’ve of course set various Goals for myself. I practice what I preach after all. But none of the Goals I set ever really hit the mark and none of them ever really engaged me at a deep level, and consequently I never really achieved any of those actual Goals.
But 2 years ago, I hit upon a Goal that I thought ticked all the boxes.
I’d turned 5
5 by then and I’d published my third book, about Fun in Business and I decided that I wanted to get the ideas in the book to a wider audience; I wanted to step onto a bigger stage.
And so, I set a Goal to be delivering a TED-Talk about Fun in Business on an international stage before I turned 65.
Here finally was a goal I could get my teeth into. It met all the criteria for effective and engaging goals. It was big, scary, measurable, personal, time framed, inspiring… It ticked all the boxes.
Singing a solo in my choir
And for a while, maybe a year and a half, I started doing all the stuff I needed to do to make the BHAG come true in 10 years’ time. I joined Toastmasters and engaged a speaking coach. I started looking for opportunities to speak more and practice the craft. I took singing lessons and I put up my hand to sing a solo in my choir.
And it was fun, I stepped out of my comfort zone (especially that solo), I learned a lot, I became a better speaker, I honed my message and that’s all been good.
But now, two years later? I’ve lost all interest in becoming a speaker on global stages. It’s simply not important for me anymore. It was a great Goal for a while, but now I’ve let it go.
Other things have become more important.
There are those who read this and know me, who will be quite confused to hear me say I dropped the TED-Talk-Goal. They’ll wonder if I’m ok, if I’m depressed maybe, they’ll wonder if maybe I am afraid of failure, or they’ll wonder that maybe I don’t have what it takes to achieve big Goals.
I feeeeel good (cue James Brown)
To those I’d like to say: Don’t worry, I feel really good about dropping my Goal.
Setting the BHAG was useful for me two years ago. It got me out of a funk and got me moving. It meant I engaged with my business and my life in new ways. It renewed my enthusiasm. It meant I started having more Fun in Business again (boom boom… I couldn’t resist that one).
But now I have no need for that it anymore.
Things that are important to me at the moment (in no particular order) are:
My relationship with my wife
My grandkids (the girls… They are adorable… Honestly)
Doing great work with my clients
Being part of my communities
Developing my friendships
My family in Australia
My family in Holland
My sourdough starter (it’s my ‘preciousssss’)
So I am without BHAG at the moment. I have smaller goals such as baking a sourdough with more air bubbles in it, and getting my house in Holland ready for AirBnB, having the grandkids stay overnight at our place in the new year, and to ensure that I continue to have Fun in the work I do with my clients. But I really don’t feel the need to achieve anything Big and Hairy in the foreseeable future.
The TED-Talk-Goal got me moving a few years ago, when I needed to get moving. But once I got moving, I suddenly noticed the roses along the way and I started smelling them. Who wants to focus on Big Hairy Audacious things if you can smell some roses instead?
Getting off your ass
I think this is what Goal setting should be about.
Goals are meant to be about getting inspired to get off your ass, and about directions to get off your ass into. Goals are not destinations to be reached (well the airholes in my sourdough are pretty important, but other goals? Not so much).
And that gets us back to the beginning of this article and my confusion.
I’m a business coach, I make my living from helping business owners achieve their Goals. It’s quite challenging to tell potential customers to: “Hire me, pay me lots of money and we’ll wonder off into the woods and smell some roses”.
Something tells me that isn’t going to be my most effective marketing strategy yet.
I don’t know exactly where these thoughts are going to lead me. But what I do know is that asking the question is important for me right now.
I’d love to hear your thoughts too. How do you think about Goals? Have you set big Goals, and actually achieved them? And then what? Is life about moving from one Goal to the next?
Thanks for tuning in to my confusion, and I’ll let you know how my sourdough develops from time to time.