The Hardest Part

As I’ve written before, I work with a number of startup companies. As part of my consulting practice as well as throughout my career, I also have worked with some very large organizations too. What struck me the other day as I was listening to a discussion between a founder and some other folks on the team was that the hardest part of being a startup isn’t necessarily finding the resources to keep the venture afloat until it reaches sustained profitability. It’s actually having to make a lot of decisions without a lot of certainty. Let me explain.

When I became a manager at the ripe old age of 23 many years ago, I worked under a guy who gave me some input but also let me figure things out for myself. I was working with a net in case I fell off the wire. When I reached a point where I really wasn’t certain about the “right” call, I consulted him. He, in turn, had bosses with whom he could consult if he wasn’t certain either. Over time my decision-making skills became better and my areas of expertise broadened, although there were still times when I ran for the help that was usually available to me. By the time I was managing managers I could make decisions fairly rapidly and I generally only hesitated when I thought the decision would involve corporate politics affecting more than just my department.

Most founders don’t have that luxury. Oh sure – the smart ones have a board of advisors that they consult regularly and that can help with the big decisions. But if you’ve ever managed you know that your day involves a lot of little decisions too. Should I let employee A take a vacation with a big project looming? Why is employee B struggling with an assignment? What is the best was to  help employee C learn something? Even things like what font works in the newsletter or how big should a headline be in an ad often require the boss to decide. Those aren’t things that you ask your advisors and yet those decisions are the ones that take away your focus on the main business of the venture: customers, revenue, expenses, and profits.

There isn’t an easy answer here. Yes, hire people like me (or even better: hire me!) to provide the kind of on-going sounding board that one gets in a big organization until such time as your feet are on solid ground across many areas. When you do, be sure that the consultant you hire sees your world through your eyes and understands your point of view but also adds a broader perspective. I never try to make decisions for my clients but instead I try to guide them to a sound one themselves so they can understand the process, the factors involved, and all their options. If they’re heading down the wrong path I speak up. We often find a better path together and get through the hardest part as a team. You?

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Good Eggs

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week we’re having eggs. I love eggs. I also have a daughter who gags at the mere mention of them, so I’m well aware that my admiration of them isn’t universal. Too bad, because in addition to being part of many of the great dishes in the food world, eggs also provide a few insights into hiring.

Deviled Eggs shot during the Inaugural Portabl...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think for a second about the role an egg can play. A fried egg placed on a burger certainly isn’t meant to be the star of the show and often the burger is just fine without it. The egg, however, adds a richness and provides a secondary sauce, almost transforming mayo (if you use it) into a hollandaise. The egg is in a supporting role that makes the entire production better.

Then there are the dishes in which the egg is an equal player. A bacon, egg and cheese sandwich (one of the world’s great dishes, IMHO), plays the various flavors and textures off against one another and weaves them into a harmonious whole. No one flavor should dominate, and in this context we see the egg holding its own but playing nicely with the other components. Huevos Rancheros or Chilaquiles are other examples.

Finally, we have the egg as the star. Deviled eggs, egg salad, or some perfectly cooked scrambled eggs are dishes in which the egg must be front and center and in which lesser eggs means a lower quality dish. As it turns out, a few studies have found that it doesn’t really make a difference in taste or quality if you buy regular old supermarket eggs instead of from your local farm stand (but you should support your local folks anyway – it may not taste better but you’ll feel better).

What does this have to do with business? I want to hire employees who are good eggs, and I mean not just in temperament. I want people who can play any role from supporting to leading. I want people who work well with others. I want people who are versatile. I want them to be of high quality. In short, I want people who are as wonderful as an egg. Don’t you?

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Not As Pretty As A Picture

I used to have an occasional disagreement with a few of our sports TV producers back in the day. They were often reluctant to include certain sponsor things in the program, whether it was signage, a sponsored feature or adjusting the graphics to be sure the sponsor’s name and logo were a bit more prominent. Their complaint had to do with the aesthetics of the program and I certainly respected their point of view. That didn’t, however, prevent from reminding them that we were a commercial television entity and our jobs were to make commerce, not art.

I was reminded of that as I read some data on the importance of user experience. Clutch and Brave UX conducted a study of heavy Internet users – defined as those who use the Web for 4+ hours per day – to get a glimpse into how these Internet users interpret the user experience  of popular websites. They asked about why people use the sites and how user-friendly the sites were. What they found is interesting although not particularly surprising.

In response to a question about how important certain factors are in the decision to keep using the site, the top factor was the site’s content. 94% said that they kept using the site because they found the content valuable. Right behind it, however, was the site’s ease of use. 93% of users cited that as important. Far fewer – 66% – cited how the site looked (the website is beautiful or attractive). It’s a good reminder that we’re making commerce and not art. A pretty website that’s unusable is a waste of money. Moreover, in my mind, a site that’s not designed with a great analytics implementation behind the world-class user experience is also a waste.

I’ve had clients who have spent hundred of thousands of dollars on a great looking site that’s fairly useless from a business perspective. Purchase funnels that can’t be tracked properly, no site search and the use of multiple subdomains were all wrapped in a gorgeous – but useless – package. We don’t need everything to be pretty as a picture. We need it to be valuable content presented in a highly usable manner, one that can be measured and improved upon. Make sense?

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Negative Campaigning

It’s that time of the year when it seems that the vast majority of the ads we see are for some politician. I don’t know anyone who isn’t quite tired of all of the political noise by election day and I suspect that has a lot to do with the content of the ads themselves as much as it has to do with the length of the campaign. There is a lesson for all of us who do marketing contained in our politics (OK, given the number of posts in which I draw learnings from politics, maybe more than “a” lesson). To understand it, let’s pretend we’re a candidate.

You have one opportunity every 2-4 years to sell your product. If you don’t close the sale by a date certain, your window to make the sale disappears for years. No pressure, right? Given that, would you spend the time badmouthing your competitors? I sure wouldn’t. I’d focus like a laser beam on my customers’ needs and how I was going to meet them. I’d be as specific as possible and explain all the facts I could compile about the customer’s situation and deliver a well-reasoned solution that solves their problem(s).

Compare that with what we’ll see in watching any evening’s worth of political ads. The consumer – the electorate – is hardly found in any of them. Instead, we hear about criminals, liars, or worse. The tone is generally negative but often veers into the threatening. “Facts” are things seemingly found on the internet (where we know everything is true). Have studies shown that we treat our politics differently from our products as we make purchase decisions? This is from Scientific American:

A comprehensive literature analysis published in 2007 in the Journal of Politics examined the effects of political ads. The authors reported that negative ads tended to be more memorable than positive ones but that they did not affect voter choice. People were no less likely to turn out to the polls or to decide against voting for a candidate who was attacked in an ad.

The lesson is pretty obvious in my mind. Saying negative things about a competitor doesn’t work to influence a sale although it does stick in the consumer’s mind. It’s funny how we prohibit the kind of unsubstantiated mudslinging we routinely see from campaigns in every form of comparative product advertising but politics. I think that if we are to be the world’s model for democracy we should do at least as good a job in marketing our leaders to “buyers” as we do in selling soap and cars, don’t you?

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Why Supermarkets Aren’t So Super

This Foodie Friday is all about shopping. After all, with the weekend upon us who isn’t going to head to the market to purchase small things such as snacks and refreshments or larger things such as meats and produce for a late season cookout? I got to thinking about how we all do our shopping and how it differs from how our parents or grandparents did theirs and what those differences have meant to the industry. As it turns out, it may have something of relevance to you no matter what your business sector as well.

Supermarkets were less common many years ago. There was a local butcher, a fish monger, maybe a dairy store, a bakery, a vegetable stand or two, and a general store that was mostly about canned goods but often has some of the items found in the other places as well. In some bigger cities, those purveyors were aggregated under one roof, as in the Arthur Avenue Market in the Bronx, which is still in existence today. Each piece of the market was an independent operation and although shopping had been made more convenient by not having to travel from place to place, the personal experience remained. Each vendor was there to listen, to suggest, and to serve.

Fast forward to today. According to a study by Ipsos Marketing, shoppers who shop at only one grocery store are in the minority, as only a quarter of the population shop at one grocery store. 45% of grocery shoppers shop at two or three grocery stores and the remaining 30% shop at four or more stores for groceries. In theory, this is backward, since today’s stores have all of the goods that used to be spread out among many retailers.

As it turns out, not all stores are equally “susceptible” to this multi-store phenomenon. There appear to be some retailers that are more likely to be the only store that a consumer shops at for groceries, and obviously the key is to figure out why some stores are better at fulfilling all of a shoppers’ needs than others will help retailers compete better. We can put aside geography for a second since it’s equally obvious that if there aren’t any other shopping options nearby that would change a shopper’s behavior. I’d suggest it’s service as well as the quality of the product.

Club stores and deep discount stores had almost no loyalty nor any exclusivity even though they contain many of the same food items at better prices. What’s faded from the markets of old has been the personal attention given to each customer. Meat is mostly pre-cut and pre-wrapped. We can’t usually see the whole fish from which a filet is cut. Moreover, it’s hard to expand our eating vocabulary without someone who knows our usual shopping habits making suggestions of new things based on our past preferences.

Maybe by spending more on service a store can cut a competitor out of the three or four store mix. I know how thin margins are in the grocery business but I also beleive, given that the lowest rung and last stop in consumers shopping are the club or discount stores, that better service can negate slightly higher prices. Maybe that’s true in your business too. Maybe?

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Can You Pass The Dylan Test?

I wasn’t going to post anything today, but with Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (yay!), I couldn’t let the day pass without putting up this post again. Whether you love Dylan’s music or hate it (although many people love the music and hate his voice), you can’t deny Dylan’s importance in music history. Here is why and what he just might mean to your business.

Yesterday marked an anniversary that I could not let pass without comment.  On March 19, 1962, 50 years ago yesterday, Bob Dylan released his first album, or LP (to signify a long-playing record rather than a single) as they were called at the time.

Bob Dylan performing in Rotterdam, June 23 1978

Bob Dylan performing in Rotterdam, June 23 1978 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This piece from Rolling Stone does a nice job of summing up the album and how it got made.  I’m a long-time fan of the man and his music and while I can’t say I love everything he’s ever done, it’s all really interesting and in many cases, his music went beyond popular culture to become transformative (start with “Blowin’ In The Wind“) for an entire generation and country.  I’ve heard so many people dismiss his music and yet when I give them the Dylan Test, they can’t deny his impact.  What, you ask, is the Dylan Test?  Something I think we should apply to way more stuff than Bob’s music – any business could benefit.  Let me explain.

The Dylan test is simple:  I know my grandchildren will hear the music of Bob Dylan.  They may not like it, they might not ever buy it, but they’ll hear it and they’ll know who the guy was that recorded it.  Not because I’m going to ram it down their throats:  I’d make the same statement about my great-grandchildren.  It’s because Dylan’s music is that important, just like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Springsteen and The Beatles.  And that’s the test.  Can you make that same statement about whatever music you believe to be “great?”  That ought to be our business objective.  To pass the Dylan Test.

I wrote in this piece a while back that we ought to be creating things that are built to last.  While the tools are temporary – Dylan’s first disc was pressed in vinyl – the content and the core of the business endures, or we should hope it will.  So ask yourself the Dylan Test question as you’re contemplating investing your time, effort, and money on a project.  While very few things pass, it’s not a bad standard to keep in mind.

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It’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  This was a post from several years ago which I also re-posted last year.  In reading it over I realize that I hit on many of these same themes yesterday but a little repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to thoughts that might be important. Those of you who celebrate the holiday are probably not reading this until sundown (I scheduled this yesterday in keeping with the spirit of not working on the day). Whether you do or don’t celebrate, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect.

Shofar (by Alphonse Lévy) Caption says: "...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. For those of you unfamiliar with the holiday, it concludes the 10 day period at the start of the Jewish calendarRosh Hashanah – head of the year – during which all Jews are supposed to reflect upon the past year and examine how they’re going to change their lives going forward. One also seeks forgiveness from those against whom he has transgressed – both those of this earth and higher powers. There is a lot of other imagery connected with the period – inscription in the Book of Life being a big one – but I think there’s something each of us can take as a business lesson in a non-denominational way.

We all get off track.  Sometimes it’s in little ways like eating badly or drinking too much.  Sometimes it’s in big ways like alienating our families or hurting friends who love us.  The concept in Judaism of repentance is called Teshuva  which means “return”.  I love the notion of coming back to one’s self as well as to the basic human tenets that are common to all religions and peoples.

We can take a period of reflection and “return” in our business lives as well.  The most obvious way is for us as individuals   Who have we alienated this year?  What client have we taken for granted?  But it a bigger opportunity.  How has the business diverged from the mission?  Why have we stopped getting better and are just marching in place?  What can we be doing to grow our people but are ignoring?

We ask those kinds of questions from time to time, but I guess I’m suggesting that it become a more formal process.  Set aside a period every year for “return” thinking.  A period of repentance?  Maybe, in some cases.  But in all cases a chance to change.  A chance to regret past bad actions and to vow not to repeat them.  Most importantly (this is true in the religious sense as well), to correct the transgression.  To apologize.   To make restitution.  Whatever is right and lets everyone move forward with a clear conscious and a vow to do better.

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