Thursday, April 30, 2009

Spouse AND Business Partner

photo: Erica Marshall

This is going to be a series, I can tell.

Over these many years, I have worked with quite a few couples in business together. It's always been interesting, sometimes it's been great and on a few occasions it's been impossible. First, lets talk about how couples end up in business together:
  • The have a complimentary skill set
  • One person starts the business and the other finds themselves "helping out" all the time
  • There are two distinct parts to the business and each takes on a piece
  • An employee leaves and a spouse ends up taking on that role, unplanned
What makes it especially interesting to work together is:
  • You don't get the same amount of "alone" time
  • You have to decide how to appear to others: The Madison's vs Dick Madison and Ann Madison
  • You need to think about how you communicate in front of others
If we were to just take these three points they would probably feed into all the other possible issues and concerns that people have when they're in business together. Let's just start with the first point:

You don't get the same amount of "alone" time

I know many couples who love the idea of always being together and working towards a common goal. In a way, that's something that I, myself have grown up with. It makes sense to me in many ways. It really solidifies a relationship. But, if it's the only life you have, and you tend to not have many friends and interests as an individual, this can be problematic.

Men in fact have many more complaints about not having a life on their own in this situation. From my experience, they men have a harder time making friends outside of their professional life. It's not completely down gender lines. I think that when two people find themselves in business together, you can pretty much count on the fact that one is much more social than the other. That's the "normal" polarizing that happens in any intimate relationship. If you are the one who has more of a social life outside of the business and relationship, you may get a lot of resentment from your partner who does not. Instead of getting caught up in that, try and support then in having their own outlets, of their choice.

Without time alone for each partner, whatever personal conflicts you have will have no place to be worked out. We all need other people to talk to about what's going on. That's what a best friend is for!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Small Things

...That Get in The Way

I write all the time about how you cannot "see the forest for the trees" when you're right in the middle of the FOREST. Are you on a path or are you walking in a rut? There can be a rut, worn into your path by the way you do things. Some of these things you do well and they do well for you. Some of these things, not so much.

Most of the time, when I meet a new client they have some idea that "only if..." something were different, they'd be doing so much better. It could be postage costs, unruly suppliers, or an office space that's costing them too much. I can confidently say that I never agree with their assessment of what's wrong. Sure, what they identify as not working in their favor is probably not helping their situation, but it's not THE thing.

THE thing that's not working for them is something that is much more in their control. That's the good news. The bad news is that sometimes THAT thing is something they really had not seen an issue with. They feel blindsided and a little disoriented.

The most common: The message of who they are and what they do or sell is not well expressed to their market.

When you know what you do, and you tell people about it, chances are you're entering the conversation mid-sentence. It's because you do it all the time that you don't really know the starting point of your consumer. You may have identified who they are but perhaps you are trying to read their mind instead of just laying it all out there.

When I studied Art History, I learned about looking at a painting with the awareness of where the "entry point" was. What was the route that your gaze traveled as you looked at the canvas? Do you know where that "point of entry" is for your consumer? Do you know what it really looks like to them? Do you see what they see?

No. You cannot truly see what others see. You can however, work with people who see things differently than you, so that you can see more of the available choices. Every choice you make in building your business adds up to the sum. Many of those "small things" may carry more weight than you realize.

Life is a constellation of choices. Let's take a look at the choices you're making now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

But How do I Get There?

photo by Erica Marshall

For business owners who are about to hire me, this is generally where they are. Let me give you a look inside our process...

Step 1 Where are you now?
  • Take a full inventory of where exactly are you in your process.
  • Pull out your original business plan (hoping you have one)
  • Pull out your financial statements
Step 2 Clearly define where you think you want to go.
  • Make a list of changes to your current offerings
  • Define what elements have not worked for you as well of those that have
  • What are the new services or products you want to offer.
That should keep you busy for a while! Yes, those who do not learn from the past, will be doomed to repeat it. Starting with NOW before moving to TOMORROW may seem like a "no-brainer" but in our excitement to move to the next level it can be quite easy to gloss over some essential points like:
  • Did I ever reach my target audience?
  • Why not? Was it not the right audience?
  • Was my product not priced correctly?
  • Did the market change?
  • Was my cost structure flawed in some way?
Sometimes I see a product or service out there that is just slightly missing its mark. Is that you? Yes, even when someone is not my client, I do find myself asking some of these questions. I can think of clients from 15 years ago that I worked with at different times in their process. I would get them up and running and then 3 years down the line I'd step in again to help get them to that next place. That "middle place" of getting to where you want to go need not look like confusion to the outside world.

Every company goes through changes and needs to re evaluate. Do it fully informed, without assumptions. This will prove to be the most essential tool in getting you to that next level.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sentimentality and Business

Does it have a place?

I put this idea of "sentimentality" out there in Twitterland and I asked what people thought I might be blogging about. Most folks thought I would be talking about the value of respecting the past. I'm not going there.

I want to talk about how sometimes we hold onto parts of our business that aren't working for us, just because we really "like" those parts or they hold some personal significance for us. What are those parts of your business that you hold dear, that you would never give up?

  • Your business name?
  • The color scheme on your website?
  • Your pricing system as it related to what you see your competition charging?
  • What YOU do in the business?
  • What you DON'T do in the business?

I know of a store owner that spent a great deal of money on "the best" merchandise, beautiful remodeling, a killer staff and prime location. It was only 6 month after they opened that they realized the bulk of what they bought, what they thought would be the "hottest" thing, simply wasn't. They hit the back end of a trend it NONE of it was selling.

This very smart business owner sold all that stuff off, close to cost, in a huge sale. But, they didn't close. They took that money and bought new merchandise that (upon second thought) they believed would sell. They are now a VERY successful shop with the "best stuff" and loyal customers and in this economic downturn are still doing strong.

The lesson here? The business owner didn't take the first wrong choice as an ego blow. He did new research on his customer, changed it all up and didn't lose a beat. There was no sense of "failure" vibe coming through. All the customers were just thrilled with the changes.

I know it's really difficult to keep your ego out of the equation when your business is "your baby". When someone starts talking to you about really big change in your business and you feel like your head is about to explode, talk yourself down. If you really want to move forward, sometimes you need to toss stuff overboard to get that boat sailing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

View to an Entrepreneur-Volunteer

Lending a hand!

One of the most common questions I get from folks looking to start a career, change careers or add to their skill set is: How do I do it is I haven't done it?

Getting someone to give you the chance to learn something new, or prove yourself in a given field can be quite a challenge. The marketplace is competitive and taking a chance on someone who isn't showing their experience in a given field is more than most employers are willing to extend to a newcomer.

Volunteering is a great way to get your chops in a new field or to develop that new skill set. You may already have a degree in that area, but without "real world" experience possible employers may not give you the time of day.

Perhaps you may want to work for an employment agency or in HR. A possible connection would be any position where you are interviewing people, managing people or being a "group leader". In the business world, managing other people really puts you further up the ladder and takes you from the front desk or back office. In a non-profit, managing other volunteers is often a position you are find yourself in if you've been somewhere longer than 6 months.

This doesn't just apply to working onsite with a non-profit. If you are looking for work in website development, you probably already know that offering your skills up for free or small bucks to the kind of future clients you'd like will give you the portfolio of work to help you win those clients in the future.

It may take a while to find the perfect volunteering match, but take it from someone who's entire business was influenced by ONE volunteering experience 15 years ago, everything we do can be a learning experience. Go for it. Try some new skills of for size and help others on the way.

Some resources (not personally vetted by me)

Volunteer Match

Volunteers of America

Idealist/Action Without Borders


Network For Good

Do Something

Volunteer Solutions

Monday, April 6, 2009

Too Much Noice or in a Vacuum?

Photo by Mondomuse
I personally feel different about this question every day. I can be and feel both ways all the time. I chalk that up to technology for the most part. We spend our days on a computer, with information coming at us from all directions, but there we are in our own space, working alone or in a small group.

Other than the obvious suggestion of "we've gotta get out a bit more", I think the other best suggestion is to not just surround ourselves with people who are doing what we're doing. It's so easy for that to happen, in our desire to have and create community but there comes a point where it does become a vacuum. We validate each other: "Oh yeah! Things are really rough out there and no one appreciates what we're doing!" or "This is the next happening thing. Don't you see everyone on about this right now?"

The people who see trends coming from a distance are the Visionaries for a reason. They put together all the elements of what's going on in a particular market and blend it with the overall trends in lifestyles and consumerism. Visionaries have a place in our society and it is very often NOT creating new products and services, but inspiring them.

Whatever your business is, chances are, you're going to see the world through that 'lens'--the lens of YOUR world. That's fine, as long as you know that and see that there are other ways to see the world that will inevitability affect you as a business owner. It comes down to balancing your time every day, or every week with the kind of information you let into your stream. If you're on a social media marketing site, try and follow folks who are in very different businesses in other parts of the US and the world as a way to broaden your perspective.

You don't know what you don't know! Keep an open mind.

Who is My Competition?

Erica Marshall/

...And how am I different?

Someone asked me the other day if and how they should engage with their "competition". I'm putting that word in quotes, because when she wrote it, I tried to not make any assumptions about what she intended because what defines someone as our competition?
  • They sell the same thing we do
  • They provide the same service that we provide
  • They advertise something the customer views as similar
That last one is particularly interesting to me as a Business Mentor. In my case, folks may not even know what I do, but lump me together with folks providing a variety of small business services. This means that unless you differentiate yourself in the marketplace, you may not have an even be reaching your audience.

20 years ago, or even 10 years ago it took a lot of work to figure what you were up against in the market. Perhaps you "shopped" someone else's product or service. These days there's so much information available as internet marketing is everywhere. We can see the mission statement of almost any company within a matter of seconds. That's a great thing! If we are on a social media site we can see those other folks interacting, know when they are posting new items to their store or writing a new blog piece.

All of this information can benefit us in at least 3 different ways
  • We can see trends in real time
  • We can find clearer ways to differentiate ourselves
  • We can see other's "mistakes" and avoid them
One of the downfalls of having all of this information is that you assume that your customer has it too. Perhaps your marketing is starting "mid sentance" in a way, believing that they have the same knowledge base as you do. Chances are they don't.

When I work with a new client, I come to them and their product as a consumer. I look at it from the outside before I get to the inside. I take them at face value and then as a Mentor, unlike your average consumer, I don't walk away but walk towards them with this information. Even though after I look deeper I can see they have a great product, I let them know that perhaps I just wanted to walk away after opening their door (real or virtual). It's hard stuff to hear but it's also the answer to the query: I just don't know what's going on with my customers.

I started this with talking about your competition and have ended it with looking at yourself from the perspective of a consumer. That makes sense. That's exactly what your customer does as they see you and your competition in the marketplace!

Information is your friend, as long as you don't spend too much time looking to the left and the right. A balance of seeing your surroundings and seeing your way forward at all times is what you need.

Tipping Point

Photo/Erica Marshall
I talk to so many people who are a tipping point in their business:
They are working as hard as they can to fulfill the needs of their customers and they're really happy that things are going well. They just don't know how to get to the next level

What that next level looks like can vary:
  • Servicing more clients
  • Making and selling more product
  • Expanding to new markets
  • Selling higher price-point items/services
It's always an educated risk to try something new, moving to the next level. Of course the key word here is Education. You need to alter your original business plan to incorporate these changes.

Let's say that you're flat-out, doing what you do. You can only make as much money as there are hours in the day. That is, if you're the only one doing the work. But, if you have someone else help, you that means that you're going to take time out to train that person to help you. How can you do that??

If you re-evaluate your work-flow, perhaps you can get someone to help you get orders out at a reasonably low cost and that may be the same person that you train to assist you. We used to have a word for this and it was apprentice.

One of the biggest reasons people do not train someone new to help them move to the next level is TIME. How can they possibly take the time to do this, when they are already so tapped out? I know it's not easy, but it needs to happen. Re-working your plan on a weekly basis, a DAILY basis is what needs to happen to get your through this time to that next level. Even if you have a service-based business, look at all the things that are eating up your time and not bringing in income. If you have someone else do those things, you have a pretty good chance of moving forward.

In our heart of hearts we often doubt if we can really pull it off. If we no longer have the excuse of time and not enough help, will be really be able to build our businesses to that next level? The weight is suddenly all on you. It can kind of be like writer's block. The writer gets a grant to work on a book for an entire year and what if nothing comes to them? What if they can't produce?

In this place of tipping point, our success very much depends on what we believe we can or cannot do. That's natural. With a sensible plan to get to that next level you have a really great chance of getting there. And, there will new next levels after that and you will know from your experience of this one that it can be done. You will remember what it was like, talk yourself down from your fears and move forward with a bit more fortitude.

Like a child, a fledgling, we can all expect growing pains, and I think that's just part of the process. Pain doesn't mean that something's wrong, it may just mean that you're growing and changing.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cross Pollinating

For the first time since I've started this blog, I'm going to cross-post something from my knitting blog because I think it speaks so well to the entrepreneurial experience. So, instead of posting it here as well, I'm gonna just send you on over to meet
Brenda Dayne:

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