Business Plan

Vet Your Next Business Idea Before You Launch

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The best time to start a business was yesterday, the second best time is today. So what’s stopping you? Before you can get to the fun bits around setting up a website, choosing your project management software and taking the perfect Instagram picture you have to decide what it is you’re business is going to do.

Yes, for the record I do indeed think it’s fun to evaluate and pick out project management software. No shame in my game.

Are you a service provider?

Selling a product you created?

Selling other people’s products?

Offering a subscription for access to content you’ve created?

Created a marketplace to help buyers and sellers find each other more easily?

Who are you serving?

How will your offer transform your customer’s life? Make it easier? Prevent stress?

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to asking the questions that will help you focus the idea you have right now into something that can be consumed, utilized and ultimately transform the life of your perfect customer.

In this post I’m going to teach you how to vet a business idea in six steps or less. The idea here is to help you move through and explore your business ideas quickly to ensure that you’re spending your time (and money) as efficiently as possible. What this post does not do is guarantee your success. You’re responsible for that one but I can help you figure out if the idea that’s rattling in your head now or scribbled on the back of that napkin is worth giving an honest try for at least the next twelve months.

1. Look around.

What does the current competitive landscape look like? Are there businesses that do exactly what you do? Are there businesses that offer a close enough solution to make the choice a little difficult to your target market? I would challenge you to look long and wide for all the existence of as many possible substitutes to your offer as possible. The exercise of looking at the competition has to be purely observational at first. It can be all too easy to work your way down the rabbit hole of your competitive advantage. I want you to save that energy for later. Right now it’s about piecing together a picture of who your competitors are, how big the market for your offering is and trying to figure out the perceived effectiveness of your competitors. That includes looking for reviews and evaluating the content those brands share. You’re not just going up against a bunch of businesses when you start from scratch, you are also competing for the attention of their (sometimes) pre-established tribes.

2. Who are you serving?

Truly understanding your target customer is critical. Lots of business coaches and gurus would advise you to create a persona or set of personas for your target customers. These are profiles you build that match the lives of the people you hope to serve. The goal is to use these profiles to help you better craft your marketing, brand and sales messages to this audience. It can also help to manage the expectations of the customer experience once they do buy from you. Building customer avatars is not bad advice at all. But, building your perfect customer isn’t always a luxury or a reality your starting your business into. Here’s how you can bridge the gap between building the hypothetical perfect customers and talking to the real people that exist right now that would make for your perfect customer. Talk to as many real people as you can. Talking to as many real people who are close to your ideal customer will help you get to know what they really care about, struggle with and spend money on. Having a Platonic idea of who your customer means nothing if that customer never puts their credit card information into your sales page. Real people spend real money every day. The rub is trying to understand what might motivate those real people to spend their real money on you. In the Lean Startup world they call this customer interviews.

3. Value Proposition.

There’s nothing worse than solving a problem that nobody has. When you’re veting your business idea the size and scope of the problem your solving matters. Why? Because it’s the people with that problem that will be buying your solution. Solving a problem that’s too narrow with a population of people that are too small might not be a sustainable business in the long run. I love the idea of you starting your business because you are “scratching your own itch”. It’s a great place to start! Just make sure you can be reasonably sure that you’re not the only one with that problem. You should have a pretty good idea about how to position the value you plan on delivering to people after you get through steps one and two here. This is also the place where you get to splash in some thoughts on how you’re going to differentiate yourself in your market.

4. Size Matters.

The size of your market matters because it will influence the model you choose and how you communicate with people. Are you a brick and mortar business only supporting your local community, like a restaurant? Or are you shipping your products internationally. Getting a handle on the size of your market affects how you price, the inventory or materials you need to deliver your value and who you expect to show up on as regular a basis as possible. Understanding the size of your market will also help you get a sense of the expectations around pricing and how to position yourself against existing competitors.

5. Competitive Advantage.

We can finally get to one of the things that feels like real work when you’re building a business. Competitive advantage is what makes you special or unique in the eyes of your customers. Competitive advantage are capabilities that allow you to deliver your value better than any of your competitors. It can be a proprietary recipe, maybe you have an exclusivity agreement with a supplier or the intellectual property that only you can deliver. It’s not just the stuff that allows you to charge lower than your competitors, I would recommend you stay away from just being the cheapest. It’s also not some generic statement like “we have the best customer service”. It’s specific, measurable and directly relates to the value you deliver and the problem you solve. It’s also not sustainable! One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear bad advisors talk about sustainable competitive advantage. Your customers tastes and expectations are going to change over time (just like yours do). Technology is going to get better. Industries are going to get disrupted. That means, in order for you to stay special you have to keep an eye on what’s going on around you and do the work to keep what makes you special growing and adapting to the times you’re in.

6. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Just because you don’t have the budget to bring on a full time staff doesn’t mean you don’t have a team. When you’re starting out it’s important to bring people on board who will help guide you and who you can get honest feedback from. It’s also a great litmus test for your value proposition. Getting your mentors on board or getting a few people to be on a board of advisors is a great buy-in test for your business model. As for any day to day support, look to the people that are closest to you to help spread the word, find resources or just to lend a helping hand. Be careful about managing expectations here though, lots of people will be totally willing to support you on your journey and it’s up to you to manage those relationships so they don’t feel used or abused. At the end of the day anyone that you can involve early on in the process will be invaluable advocates and evangelists for your business as it starts to grow.

The ideas around building a business is simple. You’re solving a problem for a big enough group of people that will allow you to keep solving that problem over time. It’s putting those ideas to work that’s tough which is why choosing the right idea, for the right market and with the right support is critical. The best part, you’re never really going to be sure it’s going to work. The best you can do is to keep good data and HONESTLY measure your progress regularly. Launching on a not great idea doesn’t make you a bad business builder - staying married to a bad idea for too long does. Use this post to help you think through your ideas so that when you do decide to launch, and give yourself that twelve month runway to try, it’s something that has the best possible chance at finding success.


Get 1% Better Every Day! Your Business Improvement Blueprint

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How are your Kanban boards looking this week?

Are you happy with the progress you shared at your 15 minute stand-up meeting?

Flexing your Kaizen prowess in this round of process remaps?

Get to the bottom of that root cause analysis yet?

If you’re not a student of all things business process improvement or project management those questions literally mean nothing to you. And that’s ok. Well, it’s ok and a little sad because when you get passed all the inclusive language and through the fevered tribes of religious devotees these schools of thought collect there’s a lot of good stuff for any small businesses here.

I’m guessing that you or anyone really could benefit from being a little better about understanding how you do business. When you take the time to really understand how you work you’re able to make a conscious effort to improve how you deliver value to the people that need you most.

In this post I want to take a stab at distilling a few key tips and tricks from the more popular schools of project management thought that you can put into action. Things you can do that will actually create momentum or clarity so you can move the needle in your business right now.

Kaizen

Let’s start with Kaizen. People lean on the wisdom of Kaizen when they have a known problem and it looks like the solution will be easy to implement. Kaizen at its core is about continuous improvement, it’s about getting a little better every time you try something. That goes for the quality of your offerings and for the processes that make your business go every day. How can you use Kaizen in your business right now? Try using the process outlined below to help you through a tough decision or to troubleshoot something when it doesn’t feel like it’s working.

PLAN

1. What’s the most important problem or biggest challenge right now? Be specific, be granular and be honest!

2. Based on the resources I have right now, what can I do to reduce this problem or challenge’s impact?

3. If I do that, how will I know it worked? What can I measure?

DO

4. Try your idea and track!

5. While you’re working, take a second to really see if what you’re doing now is actually different from before. Change is hard sometimes and it’s easier to want change and not actually do anything different.

CHECK

6. After the new work ask yourself if it made any difference. Any positive change, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant, is important to document.

ACT

7. Can I make that change a repeatable process in how I work?

8. Can I get a little better next time? If yes, repeat this process with new answers to the first few questions in this process and go from there.

Agile

Now that you’re an expert Kaizen facilitator let’s move on to one of the newest hottest project management systems on the block. We’re talking Agile now. Back in the early days of Agile Project Management things were simpler. It was developed by a handful of software developers at the turn of the 21st century who were just looking to get better at their craft and who were looking for better ways to work with each other. So they created a manifesto which is actually pretty interesting and it set the groundwork for people to get better about how they organized themselves when it came to building something (software) that was fluid, dynamic and sometimes without an actual end...kind of like building a business. Agile has grown a lot since the early 2000’s and is now applied to businesses of all sizes, across all industries and all over the world. On top of the Manifesto I’m going to share a tool from Agile that I really like that you can use right now to keep tabs on all the plates you’re spinning to keep your business growing.

First the Manifesto and remember, you can literally substitute the word software here for whatever your deliverables happen to be. The framework still applies.

1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.

3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.

8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

10. Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.

11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

That’s such a cool set of principles! Sorry (not sorry) if my management nerd is showing. So following that I want to flush out an idea that I kind of made fun of at the top of this post. It’s a Kanban board. Believe it or not, it’s actually a simple idea that most people use already that can be upleveled by putting a little more structure around it.

A Kanban board is just a way to visualize the work that you’re already doing.

Think of it like a to-do list on steroids that’s prettier to look at. At its core a Kanban board starts with three columns: Not Started, In Progress and Completed. You can grow from those three but let’s start here. Like with Kaizen, the devil is in the details. What you’re going to do is tear apart your to-do list so that everything on your list falls into one of the three columns. Then at the end of every week you’ll go back to the board and measure your progress. You’ll get to see which tasks moved along the board and which didn’t. It’ll give you an opportunity to visually reflect on the work for the week and help you plan how the next week will go. Most importantly it allows you the opportunity to start fresh every week. We’ve all felt the crushing weight of a to-do list that only seemed to grow. It can get downright demoralizing. This board will keep you on task and keep you from beating yourself up from that feeling of never having done enough.

As you’re filling in your columns the more details you can add to each task like: due dates, what success looks like, resources that are needed and who’s responsible the better it works for you. When you get to see everything on your to-do list in a format like this you’re able to see bottlenecks, manage stress levels and decide on how you’re doing to prioritize your energy for the day. I’m going to link to an Asana page here. It’s a project management tool (that I love and use everyday) that has a Kanban board template you can jump right into with great explanations and examples.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is the elder at the table here. It’s the tried and true. It’s project management system and the colored belt system a la karate is revered in the corporate world. It has the ability to make or break people, projects and entire business segments. You shouldn’t be scared of it though because at the end of the day it’s a lot of management ideas tucked in and around some statistical modeling. Without nerding out over the stats, like I actually want to, let’s just summarize six sigma as a system by which processes get evaluated. The closer to six standard deviations away (sigma) data can get from the mean the better. A process is said to be six sigma when there are no more than three mistakes or errors per one million data points. That means that a process is right 99.9997% of the time. That’s a big deal if you’re a manufacturer of cars, aluminum cans or pens but is it realistic for you?

You don’t need a Master Black Belt to get in on the Six Sigma love. In your business just remember the acronym D.O.W.N.T.I.M.E. This acronym actually comes from Lean processes but LEAN and Six Sigma are like peanut butter and jelly these days. So, to save you from another project management rabbit hole let’s just lump D.O.W.N.T.I.M.E in with the Six Sigma crowd because we’re talking about helping you get the most out of the work you’re doing on a daily basis here. This acronym will help you remember that you should be eliminating waste as much as possible when you’re building your business. Here are the eight wastes you should look for and suss out:

D - Defects - These are just mistakes that eat up extra time, materials, resources, energy and cost money to fix. Defects can be in things or processes. After you solve the problem, look back to see if you can make improvement so the same mistakes don’t happen in the future.

O - Overproduction - Just like it sounds, you’re making too many things. Well it can actually mean you’re doing too much work that isn’t actually producing value. You might be spending too much time in your inbox, social or actually making stuff. Check in every once and a while to make sure that you’re spending your time doing the work that really is providing the most value for you and your customers.

W - Waiting - Waiting happens when work has to stop. Might be because you’re waiting on a shipment of raw materials or for someone to get back to you because you asked a question earlier in the week. Anytime work stops for you, or there’s a bottleneck, it’s an opportunity to evaluate how you work. The less time you spend waiting the more productive you and your business can be.

N - Not Utilizing Talent - Are you giving your team the right kinds of tasks to do? Are you giving yourself the right kinds of tasks? In your business there’s a real risk of wasting time and money doing work that doesn’t align with your best strengths. You might not have the money to hire but can you think of ways that technology might be able to help you streamline the work you have to do everyday. Stop loading those social posts one at a time, for example!

T - Transportation - This is wasting time moving things around for no reason or for bad reasons. Are you taking multiple trips to the bank, post office or are just getting up to get the stuff you just sent to the printer. Planning your day so that you’re optimizing how you move things, information and people around can really save you a ton of money and headache. This trap is the worst for entrepreneurs because you run around all day and feel like your busy only to realize you didn’t accomplish anything. But you did crush a handful of personal development podcasts so it’s not a total loss right?

I - Inventory Excess - Are you carrying too much inventory? Because that’s just money sitting on your shelves. If you’re a service provider inventory excess comes in the form of not actually understand your clients needs and spending too much time trying to figure it out. When things take too long to deliver it’s always a bad time for you and your business.

M - Motion Waste - Sounds silly but if you spend more time looking for paperwork than you actually do working you’re suffering from motion waste. Motion waste is excess or unnecessary motion caused by people, machines, deliverables and inventory. Clean up your workstation and organize your digital files. Your clients and customers will thank you for it.

E - Excess Reports - Think TPS reports from the movie “Office Space”. Using the data you collect in your business to help you make future decisions is fantastic. Using tools to help you visualize and keep track of everything you have going on is absolutely necessary. It gets to be a problem when all you do is generate reports for the sake of generating reports. Excess reports also covers the waste that comes with recreating the wheel every time you have to do something that should have a standard process for. Think about editing a podcast or style guide for your blog. Those are processes and instructions you should make once and then just refer to, not waste time recreating every time you sit down to do the edits or creative. You’re literally wasting your time.

Alright! Nearly 2200 words later and here we are. If you are still with me, you’re amazing. While I don’t have a fancy credential to award you or a colorful belt to honor you with I hope that you can still find value here. Project management is a big scary world and unfortunately knowing enough to keep you moving forward in your business is pretty important. In this post we covered some of the best bits of the biggest schools of thought and they were all things you can apply or think about right now. Use resources like Asana and don’t be afraid to ask yourself tough questions about how you do the work that you do. There’s no wrong answer here, there’s only the opportunity to get just a little bit better so that next time you show up a little stronger in your business.

Building a business is about the long game and I just want to make sure that you have a few tools that will keep you in the game as long as possible. So go get a white board, start looking for waste, and check in and out on your business every week for a bit. Then let me know how it went!


Looking to grow? Time to put on your business development hat!

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As a business owner, entrepreneur, and business builder you wear three hats every single day. On top of providing the people you serve with top notch products and services that solve their problems, you are also a media company, and a business developer. In business development? Do biz dev ops? Yeah, you get it.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. If you’re a solopreneur or run a small team you not only deliver awesome value but, you have to manage the functions of your business. Check. As a business owner in 2019 you’re also responsible for delivering content that keeps your brand relevant, trusted, and trafficked every day, that’s the media distribution hat. Check. But, are you taking your business development seriously? Check?!

Let’s start with getting a little clearer about the definition of business development. First, business development is not sales. Sales is what you are already doing in your business and it’s very transactional in nature. The goal of a sales interaction, piece of content/copy, or even some of your marketing is to convert someone from being interested to being a customer.

Business development is a little bigger picture. It’s less about the singular sale and more about flushing out bigger opportunities to move your business or brand forward. It can also be about building brand or capturing bigger pieces of the market in which you’re playing. They’re activities that support broader strategic goals, cultivate relationships, and help you look for new ways to serve current and potential markets. Business Development then is like the older brother or sister to Sales.

You’re probably thinking, “Why should I care about business development? It’s already something that I’m doing as a function of just being in business.”

Great question hypothetical heckler but, I’d argue that most people don’t spend the time or energy to do the deep work of building brand, platform, and trust in a community. Then, when the sales start to slow down it’s a mad dash to networking events, ValPak mailers, and poorly designed Facebook Ads to try to increase exposure and ask for the sale en masse. There’s no ROI positivity in any of that desperation mess.

As a business owner you have lots of responsibilities. You have to manage the expectations of your current (and recurring) customers as well as being on the hunt for your next ones. You have to produce original content regularly to build trust and referability in your community. It can be easy to push off the bigger picture and less direct outcome driven activities to a time when you have more time. Which is essentially never.

I’m going to share some tips that you can put into action right now to help you start building a healthier business development practice. These are just some ideas that you can use to start thinking more critically about what the long tail of your business looks like. You are going to essentially be digging the well before you’re thirsty here so that when a slowdown does inevitably happen for you it’ll be easier for you to recover. So here’s how you can build long term value for your business. (Also, no one likes seeing EVERY single social post from you advertising some free trial, direct ask for business, or to try some free program.)

1. A.B.G. (Always Be Giving)

Always be giving is an acronym I really love because it’s literally the opposite of the sleazy sales “always be closing”. I love it because it’s an idea that puts an emphasis on building relationships where you’re looking to be of service to people with no expectations on any kind of return. Remember business development is not sales. No one goes to a networking event actively looking for people to sell them anything. They go to interact with new people, socialize with colleagues, and support the people/causes/communities they care about. It shouldn’t be surprising that in your business development role you should be as visible in your community as possible, so definitely go to as many of these kinds of events that makes sense, but going with good intentions will set you apart from your first handshake. Plus think about all the content, pictures, ideas, and organic press that will just come naturally from showing up. Not to mention all the goodwill you earn as you become someone to create introductions and offer resources to the new people that you meet.

2. Make time for exploratory thinking.

I love #hustle porn just as much as the next entrepreneur but sometimes you have to pick your head up and look around. Checking in to make sure the people and the markets that you’re serving are still the best fits is important. Making time to do a bit of competitive research, revisit any kind of plans you put in place a while back, and doing some time/cost assessments on your own growing needs might impact the next decisions you have to make. It can also uncover opportunities and help you hone in on who you should be looking to connect with. Business growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it’s not a solo sport. Looking for people and businesses that you can bring value to that will also support your growth is critical to your long term sustainability.  

3. Products, vendors, and costs oh my!

I have two borderline intolerable pet peeves. First, loud chewers literally trigger a fight or flight response in me (Thanks 23andMe for verifying my misophonia.) and second when business owners tell me they do things because it’s “always the way they’ve done it”. I’m working on taming the adrenaline dump my brain delivers when someone’s chewing grossly a little too close to me and there’s absolutely NO REASON why you should do anything just because you’ve always done it in your business. Time passes, technology gets better, solutions are invented, and industries are disrupted. That means now more than ever as a business builder you are spoiled for choice when it comes to the products and services you use every day. Business development is as much about effectively managing your own internal projects and costs as it is developing new opportunities. Why? Because dealing with vendors is another opportunity to develop long standings and mutually beneficial relationships. And, reducing costs is as important to profitability as is increasing gross revenue, so there’s that.

Those three concepts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work you should be doing “on” your business. You can see how easy it is to push it aside because right now you’re worrying about managing schedules, keeping customers happy, and how your next Instagram post’s copy is going to read. It’s also easy to just lump this stuff into the work you should be doing as a business owner any way. That is dangerous thinking. It’s dangerous because you run the risk of being too biased towards the outcomes of today that you aren’t thinking about what your tomorrow is going to look like. And if you’re like me, you’re planning on also having a business tomorrow. This is why I like separating out business development activities as their own silo when it comes to how you’re building your business. When you separate these activities you’re shining a new light on them that allows you to compartmentalize them separately away from the day to day operations of your business. Just like being a media distributor/company it’s almost like another identity you have to dawn. That’s a good thing!

So I challenge you to create a new calendar in your scheduling app of choice, pick a bright color, and start building in business development activities today. You might surprise yourself when it comes to the conversations you have that lead to interesting opportunities that weren’t even on your radar. Don’t forget to let me know how it goes!

Thinking In Straight Lines To Grow Your Business

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You don’t have to have an advanced math degree to know that the shortest distance between any two points is typically a straight line. I bet you didn’t know that this little Pythagorean throwback also applies to growing your business too. In today’s post I’m going to challenge you to start thinking in straight lines when it comes to figuring out what to do next or how you’re going to grow.

First we have to break down what I mean when I’m challenging you to think in straight lines for your business.

Thinking in straight lines is to always be looking for the shortest actionable distance between where you are at any given moment and where you want to be. It means working out the next immediate thing you can actually do right then to get closer to a desired outcome based on your immediate constraints, access to resources, clutter on your calendar, and even emotional capacity.

The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.

Need more clients? What can you do right now to proactively have real conversations with people who might be willing or able to buy from you?

Not getting the engagement you want on social? What are you doing right now to interact with people online? It’s more than listing where you’re showing up. Who are you mixing it up with in the hand-to-hand-combat that is leaving comments, feedback, etc?

Wondering why you’re website is getting the traffic you hoped it would even with all the SEO ninja tactics you put in place? What are you doing to give people a compelling reason to show up? Is your content/creative consistent enough? Good enough?

When you’re building a business it can be disarmingly easy to fill up your todo list and calendar with things that will keep you busy. The question I want you to ask yourself is - which one of those things/activities/tasks are going to push you closer to an outcome that you actually care about? Which ones are the straightest lines to getting you in front of the people that really need you? That would buy from you?

Easier said than done right? Everything feels like it’s important!

I get it.

But, you can only “fake it” as a business owner for so long. You can only be building, learning, and tinkering with your website for so long. Every moment that passes where you aren’t in direct service of solving the problems you started the business to solve is just time, money, and personal bandwidth burned away.

You don’t have a business unless you’re serving your customers. If you never help anyone then you just have a business operations hobby, which is cool don’t get me wrong but it’s not a business. So, what can you do to start thinking in straight lines? I have some tips to help.

1. Relax. Building a business is a marathon not a sprint. Well it’s really a combination of marathons and sprints but the idea is that trying to get everything done all the time will just burn you out. This leads me into my second tip, start setting better goals.

2. Use the GROW method to set your goals. This works for everything from building your website, creating a repeatable sales process, and even for the work that doesn’t scale (which is sometimes the most important work). Grow stands for:

G - Set a goal that has a clear and easily identifiable end point. Think I want to run the next 5k, not I want to run more.

R - What's your reality look like right now? What are the issues, the challenges, how far are you away from your goal?

O - There are going to be obstacles. Some you can anticipate and some you can't. Work on the options you have for overcoming the obstacles you can see to increase your chances of working through the ones you can't.

W - What are the small actions you will have to take everyday to make your way forward? Through the obstacles, the time constraints, and everything else you have to deal with on your way to your goal.

3. Now that you are relaxed and have some new goals, get focused in on the results. Laser focused. Every choice you make in your business will result in some kind of outcome - some are big and important and others not so much. Thinking in terms of potential outcomes will help you better prioritize how and where you spend your time so that the next actions you take are the ones that really matter.

4. Put sticky notes up everywhere that read - 80/20. Then every time you walk by them remind yourself that with anything that you do, 80% of the results come from 20% of the actions. This will help you mitigate the pull of needing to learn just a little more, tinker with your design just a little more, and edit that next blog post just a little more. That “little more” is leading you down the path of diminishing marginal returns. Let’s avoid that.

5. Be decisive, but not over active. Things aren’t always going to go your way. You can’t control what the decisions that your customers, audience, or stakeholders make. That’s ok. Being accountable is healthy because when things don’t go your way you’ll be able to learn from them and adjust. Snap reactions and the urge to instantly change everything because you got one less than ideal outcome is the quickest way to lose the trust of your market.

6. Understand, truly and intrinsically, that building a business will take hard work. You are going to have to put real time and energy into building a business. There are no shortcuts, sales funnels, or platforms that will do it for you. You have to show up everyday so spend less time planning, thinking, and talking about what you’re going to do and just do it. Feel free to visit last week’s post for a little inspiration from the internet’s best friend, Mr. Shia LaBeouf.

Oh, and never forget that the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.

Get Your Customers To Choose You (Again And Again)

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If you’ve spent any time trying to work out your business’s strategy you’ve probably come across a few resources. Probably more than a few, the internet is littered with all kinds of business building nonsense. Thank your lucky holiday stars you ended up here because there’s no quality standard on what someone can call “business strategy” these days. So before you download someone’s (who maybe isn’t super qualified to offer anyone any advice because they’ve never done anything ever when it comes to growing a business) free 87 page growth strategy guide, carve out a few minutes to make your way through this post.

Ohh, I’m feeling a kind of way already. I like it.

When it comes to moving the levers in your business there are the old favorites like the SWOT analysis, that no one really knows what to do with after you fill it out, and then there are frameworks like Porter’s 5 Forces Model. These frameworks are designed to help you organize your thoughts around what’s happening in your business and helping to illustrate why people should care. Something like Porter’s model is an amazing tool but it should be one piece of how you are evaluating what your business' strategy and subsequent hunt for competitive advantage will look like. Oh, and we can’t forget the most important business building faux pas, these tools aren’t going to tell you what you need to do next in your business...most of the time.

One resource that I really like and I’m guessing you haven’t seen is Mintzberg's Emergent Strategy framework. If you are a recent MBA graduate or have taken one of Mintzberg’s courses you will of course be one of the select few who have had the opportunity to dive into one of my favorite approaches. And if that description isn’t you like 99% of the world's population, you are in for a treat!

Mintzberg is responsible for Emergent Strategy. He’s the guy that made it cool to think about business decisions from a human perspective. He coined this way to think about business that weighed getting to the heart of why people make the decisions they do over time. I made reference to him and Emergent Strategy way back in the day, somewhere in the middle of 2016 and I wanted to break it down a bit more with this post. Took a few years but we’re full circle.

Emergent Strategy approaches strategy from a very human point perspective.

I love it because makes one really simple thing the contextual heart of deciding what to do next in your business. At the end of the day businesses succeed because people are choosing to engage with them. Sounds almost too simple but let’s break it down. Consumer’s choose how to spend their money for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s price driven and sometimes it’s not. It can be about values, mission, and the intentions guiding how your consumer makes their decisions over time.

Did you solve their problem and are they coming back every time they needed that problem solved again. If you’re a restaurant, for example, are they coming back week after week to try something new on your menu? This way of thinking frames the choices your consumers make in terms of the outcomes desired/achieved. Notice I said outcomes and not goals because you need to think about your business in terms of the resources you have available to allocate to try to create an environment for success. As a business owner you should be all about doing the best thing you can and about making it easy for people to get that value from you - the latter is an outcome.

Figuring out what makes people tick fills lifetimes of work for the professionals in the fields of behavioral economics, psychology, strategy, etc. You don’t have that kind of time in your business. Let’s see if we can fast track your development of a systematic approach to making choices and getting human-people to identify the important choices to make when it comes to buying from you. Here are 5 things you can do now that will get you thinking like an Emergent Strategist:

1. Strategic Planning - Planning is not the be all and end all of business growth.

There are a four other points below this one that support Mintzberg’s framework. Planning is important because you have to take stock of the resources, capital, equipment, and people you have (or will need) in making your business work. Planning also means you need to be thinking about how your rivals are going to react to whatever you do in your market. Anticipating possible outcomes will help you get the most out of your resources!

2. Manipulation and Strategic Ploys.

Emergent Strategy is a more holistic approach and that means there’s a lot more grey area because people are not cut and dry (or rational). What can you do to better position yourself ahead of your competition? Nothing like good ole tricannery and manipulation! Kidding, maybe. Please, don’t be unethical here. But, you can use information to disrupt, dissuade or even discourage customers from engaging with competitors because they’d be making an inferior choice. That’s literally a big part of what marketing does. Slinging proverbial mud probably isn’t the best approach but communicating your value or worth over your competition’s is what you want. It’s all about triggering that FOMO.

3. Work on your patterns!

Remember building a business is about making good choices. Even if you are an organization of one, that doesn’t mean you are absolved from cultivating good organizational behavior. What are you doing every day to push your business forward? This is everything from your work routines and daily systems all the way to making the big risky choices. When you are on the clock, everything you should be working on should be in an effort to move your business forward.

4. Positioning.

In order for your business to work you have to have a really good understanding of the market or industry you belong to. This is where something like Porter’s 5 Forces comes in handy because through Porter’s model you’ll be able to figure out how you can best differentiate and offer value in your market. You will get to being profitable when you are offering something so awesome that your customers never use a competitor again. This is also a great place to be thinking about your core competencies and how you really differ from everyone else in your market space. Tastes, expectations, and a customer’s willingness to pay all change over time so make sure you are constantly checking in on your competitors and your market.

5. Perspective.

Perspective directly relates to the culture you are building in your business. Again this counts for you even if you are a one person show. What’s the environment you are building? Are you consistent with how you engage with customers? Your online presence? Do you encourage risk taking or innovation? These things shape culture and help you to build perspective. Remember, people are a big part of this strategy and how they perceive your brand counts just as much as them enjoying your products or services. Get your customers on board with how you do business!

Thinking in broader terms - in more humanistic terms is one of my favorite ways to approach to growing a business. Analysis and deciding on how to best allocate resources are important but anticipating the reactions of your competitors and the people you want to engage with shouldn’t be pushed to the end of your to do list. The world of business is kind of like the wild west at the moment. The internet makes it free to start a business but the other side of the coin is that anyone can do it. There are also lots of resources and tools and no one “right” way to find success. Don’t get stuck on just one way and take advantage of all of the resources that are available to help you move the needle in your business. Just maybe not that 87 free guide from someone who’s never done anything..just saying, check your sources.

5 Things To Think About When Starting A Business

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Happy Monday!

I get asked a lot of questions about starting a new business. I love it because as soon as I hear someone’s inflection start to shift to a question-asking pitch, the professor switch flips on in my brain. I can’t help it. It’s like a Pavlovian Response...minus the drool. Ok, maybe a little drool. That’s only because I get excited for people when you with start to express your entrepreneurial tendencies.

Today I want to cover the first critical steps to getting your business idea out of your brain and into the real world.

This post is my response when you ask me what you should do FIRST when thinking about starting a business. It’s not an all inclusive answer, just the literal first things you should do. Ideally I would’ve got to you before you started soliciting advice from the near infinite places online spouting business growing advice. This would literally be the conversation I would have with someone over an adult beverage at the bar after they found out what I do.

If you did start Google’ing then you’ve probably seen that some entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants wave their fingers in the air and proclaim that you work as hard (and as fast) as you can on getting to your Minimum Viable Product out the door. Then once you’re bought in on that idea these “experts” proceed to do a not-great job of explaining what a Minimum Viable Product is because they are only vaguely familiar with the LEAN Startup Model. (Fun fact: The LEAN idea came from Toyota factories in Japan in the 1980’s. It was designed to smooth out processes and reduce waste on auto manufacturing lines. Sorry, I thought it was fun.)  

Can’t iterate if you don’t ship, right?!

While I agree with that I tend to shy away from fancy startup buzzwords and break things down into actionable chunks that you can put into practice without needing a crash course in the Lean Startup Model. This post is about doing something today to move the needle on your business idea….today.

Ok so below are the literal first things you should do if you’re planning on giving your business a fair shake. A few these may seem administrative in nature and by extension not as sexy as other things on your to-do list but they are important. You need a solid foundation before you build literally anything and going through the motions here will force you to really think through how you want to be branded, viewed, and even how you’re going to deliver on your value proposition.  

1. There is no such thing as the perfect business name.

Seriously, I can’t tell you how many chats I’ve had over coffee where there was no forward progress being made in starting a business because of a naming issue. My advice is to pick something simple, something you like, and something that can translate to a domain name pretty easily. Then pull the trigger. Clear over clever always wins. Even come up with a few options because after you settle on a name or two you’re going to need to try to pick up your domain name. If your business name changes, after you have give your company a name, over time that’s fine, you can always add domains or run your business under a different name than your company. “Doing Business As” accounts are easy to fill out and your bank will still cash the checks - which is the important part. Also, it’s really easy to forward lots of domains to a single site so don’t worry about wondering if your audience or customers will be able to find you after a while.  

2. Get separate bank accounts ASAP.

If you think you don’t need a separate account for your business because you haven’t made any money you’re wrong. I’m willing to bet that the business you are starting is planning on making money. It can get really tricky to keep business money and personal money separate when you are a solopreneur or brand new business. The IRS doesn’t care how big or small you are, they will always find a way to get their cut. While you can get your accounts (PayPal included) set up with your personal Social Security Number you would be better off applying for an EIN number. That’s the tax identification number you’ll assign to your business name. Applying for the EIN, Employer Identification Number, is easy and you get the results right there online through the IRS website.

3. Work on your Minimum Viable Audience. (This is a big big big topic so here’s the high level overview.)

Up to this step you have an idea for a business, you have a name (even if it’s going to change) and you have set up a separate account. Now is the time to start working on your audience. Start building your little piece of the interweb because that’s where most people are going to look for you. Defining your audience, creating content, and developing relationships with your audience is critical to building relationships with people. It’s not going to happen overnight so the key here is to be as consistent as possible with what/how you share and the value you deliver to people.


Most of the time people don’t really know what they want or what to expect from you. In developing your audience you will get to know their pains and how you can better deliver value to them - in turn building a better product out of the gate. Another benefit to building an audience is that you will have a group of people to share your business journey with. They can’t buy if they don’t know that you exist and they won’t buy if they don’t know, like, and trust you. The trick here is that there is no perfect number for the audience. You don’t have to wait until you have an email list with thousands of people on it. Just get a few people involved in a conversation and leverage the places you already interact online. My recommendation for you is to think about your content distribution like a tree. Your website is your trunk and in the beginning pick one or two branches to really invest in - think Facebook and Instagram. You’re going to want to go where people already are and create/share content with the goal of getting people to care enough to follow you back to your site to learn more.

4. “Perfect is the enemy of good” - Voltaire.

Your business is brand new and your audience and stakeholders know that. You can’t know what works and what doesn’t if you don’t have a feedback loop. You get to having a feedback loop by actually selling something. So start (trying to) selling. Call it a Beta, give away a few for free, or just let people know it’s Version 1.0. How ever you want to handle getting your work into the hands of the people that need it is good enough - just make sure it ships! This is definitely going to take some dedicated business development work because you are making and selling first and then asking questions later. If audience development is your inbound marketing, working on your sales game is your outbound marketing. You can also start interviewing if you’re really stuck wondering how to solve the problem you’ve identified. The challenge with interviewing is that you won’t know what people actually want or get really honest answers until you ask them to take their wallets out and buy right then and there. This step has a lot of potential for decision/analysis paralysis. Up until know you are playing business. Selling something crosses the threshold of actually putting your work on the line and delivering. So don’t dwell over perfect and just get something out in the world.

4 Continued. Keep iterating and keep selling.

As you start to build a community around your brand and your work there will be more opportunities to get your stuff in the hands of people that need it. Work on building momentum and work on asking lots of questions for more feedback.

5. Get your paperwork and documentation in shape.

This may or may not happen right away, it really depends on how fast or slow you grow. When you are starting a business there are a lot of things that can pull your attention away from building a business. My advice is to focus on doing just enough business development to communicate your business’s value and to get something to market so that you get to your first payments or sales. Once you start to get a few paying customers in the door you can parlay those funds to deal with all the application and license fees your city or town will need for you to do business where you live. Check your City or Town Halls for sure but most likely you will eventually need a business certificate or permits to operate your business. After you officially exist in the eyes of the government you can go on and work on getting the appropriate insurances, etc. My approach is to get your business making money first and use that money to grow and cover the costs of being a business. It’s a little “building the plane while it’s flying” but validation is better than sunk costs in my book.

I need to reiterate that these are not the only things you should be doing when you’re starting a business. I’ve glossed over a ton but like I said, if we were having a drink at a bar and you asked me what you should be doing - this is where I’d tell you start. This list is also a great test to see if you’re as serious as you think you are when it comes to building a business. While few in number things like taking the time to build even a minimum viable website and brand presence can take some real time. If you’re really ready to try to build a business then it’s time to roll up your sleeves, solve a real problem, tell some good stories, and see if you can get someone to pay you to help them through a transformation.


Nail Down Your Business Plan And Elevator Pitch Now!

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Business plans and crafting pitches are a few of my favorite things to talk about. When executed well they are tools that can really support you as you’re working to grow your business. Your plan acts as a bit of a roadmap and your pitch, how you’re getting down the road. I also really like to talk about them because they’re so amorphic. Depending on who you’re presenting to, the presentation style, organization of information, and even some of the business details can change dramatically. 

I know, I’m weird because I think all that uncertainty is really fun. You, dear business builder, shouldn’t be scared though. Because at the end of the day the least common denominator of every business plan is just answering the “how” and “what” questions in your business and your pitch answers the “why”. Here’s an analogy I like to use - your business is like an arcade machine. In the sea of classic arcade games, skee ball lanes, and pinball machines your job is to be entertaining enough to get someone to wander over to you and then engaging enough for you to get them to put their quarters in. Then, once they pay all you have to do is deliver on the experience you promised. 

That’s it! 

So in this post, I’m going to give you two quick frameworks. One to help you nail down a simple business plan and the second framework is a crash course in perfecting your pitch. 

Let’s get into the business planning. 

Now, this framework is designed to help you rough sketch your business plan. Knowing that different audiences will need to see different things in different formats means you’ll need a foundation to draw from. That’s where my 5 Minute Business Plan comes in. It’s designed to help you get refocused on the days that have you wondering if what you are doing actually matters. (You don’t even have to be an entrepreneur to understand that feeling.) Forcing yourself to do something like this every once and a while helps to keep you connected to what you are doing - more than just reading your mission statement over again. It can also help to reveal any changes in how you feel about what you’re doing or if the needs of your market have changed since you’ve started. This can lead to a pivot in your service/product outcome and can keep you relevant. 

This business plan is only five questions long and ideally should have you only thinking about a minute or two for each question. You aren’t trying to create some be-all-end-all plan you are connecting to how what you are doing now matters. My advice is to just copy and paste these questions and then do some free writing for the answers. After you are done you can take those answers and match them against your current list of business activities or mission that you have. If the new answers are different from what you’ve been doing, you know that you have some more exploring to do. 

1. Who are you, what’s your story, and why should I be interested in what you are doing? (Think Mission and Values.)

2. What is the problem you are solving? What are the real pain points for people you are addressing? How is your solution better than your competitors? (Do you know if competitors actually exist?) 

3. What is your solution? How do you bring that solution to the market? What are your factors of production and distribution? How are you organized or structured? 

4. How are you financed? Where do your sales come from? What do your cash flows look like? Are you P/L profitable but don’t have enough cash to pay fixed expenses - if so why? Is your margin high enough to cover expenses? What is your burnout rate? 

5. How are you attracting people to you? How are they hearing about who you are and what you do? Where does your engagement come from? What is your platform or Do you have a platform? Are you tracking your marketing efforts for efficiency?  

If you find your answers changing over time that’s ok - just make sure you are monitoring those changes. Changes that foster an environment for growth are great! I think it’s really important to write these out every once and awhile. Thinking about them is good but you won’t be able to track how your thoughts about your business change because our thoughts are always so fluid. Plus, it’s good to have a standard foundation to build future plans from. Also, in terms of economic players, people, in general, are amazing at rationalizing and you won’t be able to get any real information from the stories you tell yourself on a daily basis about your business. 

One down. One to go. 

Now we’re getting into the pitch framework. 

First I wanted to talk briefly about how important your 90 Second Elevator Pitch is for everyday life. This is not just a skill to have refined but a resource you should have at the ready and it won’t matter where you are: networking events, social events, family events or even professional events. Whenever you meet someone new one of the questions you are probably always going to get asked is “What do you do?” Are you prepared for that answer? As a business builder, how are you going to possibly create enough impact with that person that they might actually want to continue to engage with you? Which can include buying from you, collaborating with you, or referring to you? 

The web and social media make great support tools but you have to be able to confidently convey your mission, values, and efficacy face to face at some point in the transaction - or at least face to video screen. So here is a framework to ensure that your elevator pitch is effective, entertaining, and ideally profitable. 

1. Practice. Developing a pitch takes work.

There is no getting around that. You may know how great you or your products are but you need to be able to tell other people that in a succinct way. Rehearsals, rewrites, and even peer reviews are a great way to sharpen your pitch. Remember most of the time you are going to be talking to your stakeholders and not banks or venture capitalists. So make sure the language you choose is appropriate for the right audience. You should definitely have a few versions so that you can always land right where your listeners are. Practice also means you will have a basic core of information that you know you are constantly giving out each time you present. This makes it easier for people to remember, refer, and talk about you later because it’s the same type of story each time. 

2. Identify the pain points your product or services addresses early on.

Odds are your audience won’t have a lot of time or even interest if you start droning on about how special or unique your process is - worse off how great it will be for them if they try it. So avoid that by asking about an experience that anyone can relate to, the more uncomfortable and universal the better. Don’t be afraid to ask a few well-prepared questions to get a handle on your current landscape. You can get creative here as long as you tie it back to how what you do addresses either the feelings of a situation you described or the problem itself. 

3. Identify what makes you unique (read: better than the rest) and positioned as the best solution to those pain points in the second tip.

This will also give you the opportunity to expand on the needs you satisfy in your market as well as the scale of that market. You should also be mentioning the types of clients/customers you serve as well as how you bring your solution to market. You have to remember though this pitch isn’t really about you. It’s about getting those around you invested in what you do - dropping emotional and even rational anchors on those listening in. 

4. Really avoid filler, buzzwords, and truisms.

Truisms happen when you get too invested and believe your own marketing and hype. That might work for you but your listener might not consider those things entirely true at all or even share the same point of view - think about the last time you heard a financial advisor speak about something with absolute certainty...Yeah, odds are those were personalized truisms based on some nugget of information that might have been factual at the start but by the time you hear the pitch that information was mutilated and has been taken astray. As for filler and buzzwords, they are never good. You want to craft your pitch as though you were talking to a 6-year-old. Not because people aren’t smart but because you want to make sure that all of your audience understands you and what you do. All that extra stuff carries a chance of making people feel left out and distracting from your actual message. 

5. Calls to action are great and hard unreasonable closes are the opposite of great.

When deciding what your calls to action are going to be you really have to think about your goals. Are you looking for referrals, for someone not to throw away your business card, or just information and an introduction? All those things mean you have to build trust in a very short amount of time. Unless you are on the TV show Shark Tank you probably won’t be asking for an instantly massive hard close or sale. Remember you are talking to people and they are the ones who will ultimately decide whether you have proven yourself enough to be engaged with. Be very careful with how you ask someone to take action. If you say you are going to follow up, you better follow up! 

There you have it. 

I know that this post was a bit long and dense but it had to be done. These two concepts are really two sides of the same business development coin. You can’t sell if you aren’t really connected to what you do. My challenge to you is to try to use each of these frameworks earnestly and trust that process will make you a more focused business builder on the other side. 
 

Use Strategy To Focus Your Business Planning

Continuing to deliver your value better than any/all of your competitors can be one of the hardest ongoing challenges any business owner can face.

That’s competitive advantage and it’s one of my favorite parts of strategy. It’s one of my favorite because it forces you to consciously decide what you’re going to do in your business and more importantly what you are NOT going to do. If you think about strategy in terms of a set of boundaries for your company it will help you focus all of your business planning and business actions to make sure you are doing your best to keep your business growing.

I know what you’re thinking (some of you anyway): “I’m too small to think about strategy.” “Strategy is too broad a topic and it’s not worth thinking about.” “I’m too busy to think about changing my business plan.” “My business is running fine.” And my favorite, “I have a strategy in my head that I’m working on”.

If you thought or are thinking of anything along those lines I’m going to just straight up tell you; you're wrong. Wrong and probably wasting time, money, and burning yourself out.

I want to outline three big questions that you can use in your business planning process to help you fight off the temptation to do “everything” just because you think it’ll bring in some extra revenue. These aren’t questions that you just answer once and then your done either. It’s important to check in every once and a while to make sure that you are keeping up with the tastes and expectations of your customers as well as what your competitive environment looks like. Remember, competitive advantage has to be actively worked for because the your market will constantly be evolving.

1. Where are you competing?

This question is tackling what market opportunity or opportunities are worth working towards. Another way to think about it is to think about the pain that your business is offering a solution for. It’s important to ground your thinking around how you can better serve that market over your competitors. To do that you need to make sure you have the appropriate resources and abilities. You might have the best and most profitable market opportunity in your head but if you can’t get it to market effectively then you need to keep distilling that idea down to a scale or scope that makes sense for you.

2. How do you compete?

After you have identified a pain you are going to solve better than anyone else (market opportunity) you need to work on how you are going to compete. Are you going to offer the best customer service, the cheapest price, or just crush-it with value. I hope it’s the value part. To engage your customers they are also going to need to like and trust you, at least enough to give you a shot in the first place. How and what you communicate is just as important to the customer as the solution they are buying from you. You are looking for capabilities and resources (also read: knowledge or specialization) that will give you an advantage in serving your very specific market opportunity better than anyone else.

PRO-TIP: Better doesn’t mean cheaper necessarily - working for a cost/price advantage is a very specific way to build a business. If you aren’t sure of the best way to price I wrote an epic pricing post here to help you through specific pricing strategies.

Ok, so the first two questions are centered around Strategy Formulation. You flushed out the pain you are attempting to solve along with how you are going to do it better than anyone else. Strategy Formulation is not all there is to strategy and this is where most people stop or get stuck. It’s why strategies don’t work out or business plans start to become more of a burden to maintain instead of an actual resource to help you keep building your business.

3. How are you going to execute?

This is how you are going to organize your time, money, people, and resources to take the strategy you’ve developed and bring it to life. The business buzzword here is - implementation. Here is where you try to map out and identify your motivations, incentives, how you are going to organize your business (processes) and even what leadership in your business looks like. This applies for big businesses and probably applies best to the solo entrepreneur because it’s this implementation that will keep you accountable to your customers and yourself. This is the nitty-gritty. You are going to be working on the processes that will push you business forward. The best advice I can give here is to keep it as simple as possible. Take a look at your business and build the action plans or lists for all the functions of your business. This even includes something like an editorial calendar for your content marketing. A simple editorial calendar is a brilliant system that will help you manage your time and stress so that you don’t have to worry about what to produce next.

Now that you have an idea of the three fundamental questions let’s cover a few traps that businesses can fall in when they are working on strategy.

  1. Bad Strategy + Good Implementation = Doing the wrong thing really well. = Wasting Time and Money

  2. Good Strategy + Bad Implementation = Doing the right thing poorly. = No to Slow Growth

  3. Good Strategy + Good Implementation = Doing the right thing really well. = Sustainable Growth and Profitability  

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in business for years or are just starting out. Taking the time to really think about strategy is important. You need to work out how you are going to take what you have access right now and use it to deliver more value than anyone else. Here’s the kicker: It will all change. Understanding your customers motivations and pains will help you to keep your strategy growing as your consumers are growing. Business plans and strategic plans are living breathing resources - not just stuffy documents voted on at board meeting. Get specific on how you allocate your resources and how you are serving your market.

Oh and for the love of Mike you should be writing this all down! Think of these processes and action plans like a recipe to your most favorite meal. You want to make sure that every time you step into the kitchen you are making your favorite dish just the way you like it - every time. Consistency matters when you are trying to get an audience to know, like and trust you. More on that later.

Then, rinse and repeat.

If you are still feeling like you don’t know where to start you can download my Disruptive Decision Framework free! It’s a resource to help you visualize your strategy and give the strategic part of your brain a little jumpstart. You’ll also get access to the Strategy School Newsletter that’s full of extra strategy action nuggets every week.