Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Most Important Thing I Learned This Year

Sometimes things that are very personal can also be important to a much wider sphere. Today is one of those things, I hope, and it’s a good one with which to end 2012.
As my brother lay dying a month or so ago, he said something that really stuck. He had a very rare form of cancer, one which even if it had been caught very early might not have been curable. While Mike was never one for much (if any) self-pity, on this occasion he indulged himself just a bit. What he had to say was a very important thing for your business life and that’s what I’d like to share.

“Why didn’t I take a day off and go to the doctor? Why didn’t I tell a client I can’t meet? Why did I keep going to the office?”

He knew – long before it was obvious to any of the rest of us – that something was wrong yet he felt a responsibility to his job and to his clients to put them first.  Obviously, I’m a big believer in that – I write often about a customer-centric focus.  However, what I learned this year was that if you’re going to serve your clients well you also need to be in sound enough shape physically and mentally to do so.  That requires that we take some time away.  Shut down the email, turn off the cellphone.  Go play a video game or golf or cook or read a non-business book.  Treat yourself as you would a client – they deserve some focused, uninterrupted time and so do you.

As I said, even if he had gone to the doctor the outcome might have been the same.  What might not have been, however, was how he used the time he had left and how he was treated to determine that time.  Mike’s lesson wasn’t exactly something I learned for the first time this year but this time it’s stuck.  I hope he can help it stick with you as well.

Enjoy a day or two off – on to a great 2013!

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Most Read Posts Of The Year – 3

Since it’s Foodie Friday I thought I’d add the most read food-related post to our list.  This one comes from the Friday before the Super Bowl and it’s not surprising that like most things Super Bowl it was widely viewed.  I’m not sure too many other writers put together food, business, and football but this was my take last February.

Many of you will be cooking something for Sunday’s big game and so this Foodie Friday we’ll think a little bit about what recipes to follow.  Actually, it’s more about how one follows any recipe, and what that has in common with business.

An example recipe, printed from the Wikibooks ...

Image via Wikipedia

As I think you might know, my feeling about cooking is that it’s more like jazz while baking is more Baroque music– far more structured and precise.  Given that, the way I see recipes might differ from how you see them and how that perspective carries into business.  Let’s see.

A recipe is a guide, not an edict.  I look at them as outlines of the dish, but it’s up to me as the cook to insert the flavors I want to present.  For example, if I’m making chili for Sunday’s game, I know that most of the folks who will be at the party enjoy fairly hot food so I might change the spice mix accordingly.  Cooking veal cutlets for 20 can be expensive but turkey cutlets in the same recipe can be just as tasty.  With a vegan and a vegetarian as members of the household here, I often modify recipes to accommodate their eating styles too.  I have a sense of the destination and the recipe is the map, but there are often many routes to get to where I’m trying to go.

Business is the same.  There are some basic road maps – take in more than you spend, treat customers and employees well – but every business is different.  Sticking to the recipe isn’t always possible, and sometimes the road we wish to take is closed, but with a good understanding of fundamental techniques and enough knowledge of the building blocks (ingredients), one can cope with changing market conditions and take advantage of opportunities (I was going to make snapper but look at the fresh grouper on sale!) that might arise.

So as you’re whipping up that pot of gumbo, maybe try thickening it with okra instead of your usual file powder.  If you’re not having much luck using SEM for online commerce, maybe social media can be more efficient.  It’s jazz – learn to improvise – oh, and Go Big Blue!

 

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Most Read Posts Of The Year – 2

One of the posts you all read and shard the most this year was a recent one from October.  It was a response to an article about how some charlatan was passing himself off as a social media consultant and taking his clients’ money while providing almost nothing in the way of value.  The screed was an extended invitation for he and those like him to go away.  It was called “Crappy Consultants” and is all about everything I certainly don’t want to be.

The screed today hits close to home since I want to throw a little sunlight on something going on in the consulting world.  While it’s been on my mind for a bit I read a piece this morning called How Social Media Consultants Dupe Their Corporate Clients from Dave Copeland of ReadWriteWeb that brought it front and center.  The piece talks about how a friend of Dave’s was underwhelmed by a consultant brought in to get the company up to speed with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and the rest.  Not only was the presentation the consultant made stunningly simplistic, but it may have been wrong.  As the article put it:

…the company has little digital expertise. That leaves it open to exploitation by so-called social media experts who take a one-size-fits-all approach to every client. These consultants often bill tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars before anyone realizes there is little or no return on the investment.

Amen.  As I’m out meeting with potential clients I often run into the work of some “consultant” who knows how to post on Facebook but doesn’t understand how Facebook is used as part of a business.  Forget knowing about the social graph – these folks don’t have a clue about asking the most important question – why social media in the first place?  After all, it’s not right for every business and there certainly is no standard implementation that’s going to work across the board.

I’ve had prospective clients hand me the “white paper” some other consultant did that was nothing more than a document grabbed off the web.  I’ve had another client think that someone had built them a solution when all they were doing was using a white-label provider and marking up the cost.  In each case the warning signs were there – the person they’d hired didn’t have a lot of business experience (it’s hard to claim a ton of social media experience – it’s s new medium!) and treated social as just another marketing megaphone.

It’s hard to convince anyone that there is an ROI to social, especially since it’s very resource intensive if done well.  It requires someone who can digest a 360 degree view of the business and align social with other marketing efforts, including the analytics to evaluate it all.  The charlatans identified in the article hurt clients.  They hurt folks like me who have to battle against their failures to get hired (usually to clean up a mess).  They hurt the industry.  I wish they’d go away – maybe a little sunlight will scare them off.

Have you had an experience with someone like this?

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Most Read Posts Of The Year – 1

While I’m too lazy (or burnt) to write a few new screeds this week, as has become our tradition we’ll look back at the posts you guys read and shared the most over the past 12 months.  This first one was also one of my favorites because it’s a good example of what I’m trying to do here most days.  That is, of course, to take the things that go on around us all the time and find actionable business lessons among all the other stuff.  This was from last April 10.  Enjoy!

Suppose you have a small but very popular business. You began as a handful of people, most of whom are still with you after you kicked out a couple of uneven performers. While you’ve added some staff as the business grew, every employee is a key employee since there really aren’t any overlapping roles.

Thirty five years go by, the business grows, and while there are good years and bad, the product mix is generally well-received by customers and reviewers. In an industry where products come and go very quickly, this one endures, even though it went through a period where everyone wondering if it had lost its way.  The product focus changes with each release cycle to match the times – no one has ever called your business stagnant even though its product sector has gone through some very rough times. In fact, there is an entire secondary business of add-ons and information providers that has grown up around your business. Not a bad place to be.

One day, you learn that a key employee is sick and several months later he dies. You adjust by hiring someone who can do what he did albeit without the strong emotional bond to the team as the late employee.  A few years later, another key member – your right hand – passes away suddenly.  The team is devastated and there are real questions about  the ability of the business to continue.  The emotional toll on you is palpable and the business community wonders if you’ll retire and shut it down.

Instead, you decide to replace the man who everyone thought was irreplaceable. You let customers know that it will be different, and while you will make best efforts to minimize the differences, you are up front about it being different and don’t try to pretend as if nothing had changed.  You bring on more employees to reinforce some of the differences, creating a transformed product in the process.  You release new product – one developed primarily with an outside team for a fresh perspective.  It’s very well received, and breathes life into the older products, and customers continue to buy it in droves.  The business remains true to its core values and it’s obvious that the old and new employees are on the same page thanks to excellent leadership.

It’s really a textbook case on managing business transformation in difficult times.  I was privileged to witness it myself last night.  Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

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Seven More Fishes

I started to write our Foodie Friday post and got part way through it when I realized that I had written it before.  Seriously – I had written a nearly identical post a few years ago.  Maybe it’s a sign that it’s the end of the year and the creativity tank is almost empty.  Fortunately, the holidays always fill it back up.

Thanks Saveur!

In any event, this is the last new post before Christmas (I’ll post Monday but I’ll probably begin the “Best Of The Year” series) and I wanted to touch upon the Christmas Eve tradition of the Seven Fishes.  The earlier post is below – after reading it again I thought I got it right the first time (funny how that saves you work later on!).  To those of you celebrating, Merry Christmas.  Whether we observe the day or not, we should enjoy its culinary gift!  To wit:

Our Foodie Friday theme today is La Vigilia, the Christmas Eve tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  Now what, you might ask, does a nice Jewish boy know about such things?  Well, having spent a great deal of my youth around my best friend’s Italian mother and grandmother while they cooked, I know quite a bit.  I know that they started to prepare this feast several days in advance, as they put salt cod into water to hydrate it (there was a running battle about using milk to do that).  I know that they spent many hours over the subsequent days preparing all manner of seafood – fried, broiled, and baked.  And I know that it all was mind-blowingly good.

There’s one thing I didn’t know, and still don’t, about the Feast:  what does it represent?  Everyone knows it came as a southern Italian tradition and there are lots of theories about the number 7.  But apparently no one knows for sure and that’s the business point to end the week.

All too often in business, we do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done.  When we ask why or what does it mean, there is much head-scratching and often there’s uncertainty but both are generally followed with a shrug of the shoulders and a supposition that someone higher up wanted it that way.  I used to tell new employees that they possessed a rare commodity: fresh eyes with which to examine all of our business traditions.  They were not supposed to take “because that’s how we’ve always done it” as a satisfactory answer if something didn’t make sense to them.  Sometimes as we dug down into the “why” we figured out a better “how.”

I’m not sure it’s important that we understand the “why” of La Vigilia, but that’s an exception.  In business, everything changes pretty rapidly and the traditional ways may no longer work.  Questioning the reasons why we do certain things is a critical item on the path to success and we should encourage it.

And now, it’s off to go find some fresh fish.  Buon Natale!

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Who Is Working For Whom?

Have you ever been in a clothing store where the customers were busy stitching together the goods?  Maybe there is a guy in the corner screening designs on to T-shirts or a grandmother doing embroidery on a scarf.  How about a restaurant where the customers cook the food (OK – I have been to one of those – many Korean places let you grill at the table but still…)?

I ask this because it’s something pretty common in the digital world.  After all, what would Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Quora, and dozens of other sites be without the user-generated content that makes them worth a visit?  Sure, each of those sites provides the platform and the tools with which to interact, but if no one ever posted anything what would they be?

What’s triggering this are a couple of things.  First, the Instagram fracas I discussed yesterday.  Second, Twitter is deigning to let users download all of their tweets as if Twitter had anything at all to do with the content itself.  It got me thinking of all the crappy students who got paired up with smart kids in school and got an “A” because the smart kid did all the work and wouldn’t let the team fail.  The least one can do is to have an appreciation of and respect for the horse that got you here.  The platform is a “C” student – it’s along for the ride in most cases.  The importance of the content to those sending and receiving it doesn’t change based on the platform although the platform can help get it into a form that makes it more digestible.

When any of us who run businesses start minimizing the contributions our customers make to us, we’re in trouble.  In the case of many digital businesses, where the customers literally make the stuff on which the business depends, we should be thinking of as many ways to reward those folks and how to say “thank you” each and every day.  Screwing around with privacy or your data use policy or being obnoxious about using your customers as currency (even though we all know we’re being sold) is a sure way to blow up the business.  You with me?

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Wiggle Room

Maybe you’ve been playing along with the home version of Instagram‘s TOS controversy.  The interwebs have been buzzing about it for the last couple of days and since I hate to miss a party I’d like to pile on.  However, I have a bit of a different take here, so before you turn away in disgust at my blatant attempt at link bait, please read on.

Via Crunchbase

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention (or who aren’t Instagram users), the basic facts are these.  Instagram, a widely used photo-sharing application, announced it was modifying their Terms Of Service to include this language:

“…you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

Pretty clear what it means in my mind but I’m not a lawyer.  Actually, since these are for users to read and understand, I shouldn’t have to be.  In any event, many users were distressed that their images could be used without their permission in commercial ventures.  As one might expect, since there are quite a few professional photographers on the service, they were among the most alarmed, and posted that they were deleting their accounts.  So did many users.

The CEO of Instagram stated the following:

“To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.”

Intention?  Hmm.  Here is my take on the whole thing.  If you’re not going to do something, say so.  Don’t use careful, lawyer-like language – “not our intention”.  It makes you seem like you’re lying.  If your kid was dressing up on a school night and says “it’s my intention to stay home and do my homework”, you wouldn’t just leave it at that.  We need to be clear and honest with our customers and partners.  Wiggle room isn’t part of that.

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