Monthly Archives: July 2019

Symptoms, Diseases, And The Long Term

We’re into that time of the year when corporations are reporting their results for the last quarter. I tend to look at any single quarter’s results as a data point and since I’m a believer in watching things through the lens of the long-term, I mostly ignore anything strongly negative or positive unless it’s part of a long-term trend.

I’m sure it’s not a shock to any of you that the cable TV provider business is in a downward trend. I’ve written about this before and you might be one of the millions of folks who have cut their cable cord and gone pure streaming or supplement your streaming with an HD antenna to get your local TV over the air (everything old is new again!). Charter Communications is one of those cable TV providers who is watching their user base deteriorate. This last quarter, the company’s video customers sank by 150,000 subscribers, now totaling 15.8 million. At the same time, their Internet customers grew 221,000 to a total of 24.2 million, which also mirrors what’s going on elsewhere and the aforementioned trends. At the same time, these distributors are getting hit with increased costs for programming – what the cable networks charge the delivery guys to carry their programming (and in theory, the availability of which is why people pay for cable in the first place).

What the CEO said in making the results announcement, however, doesn’t mirror other CEO’s thinking and that’s what I want to highlight today:

Asked why the company doesn’t raise prices to cover increased programming costs, CEO Tom Rutledge said, “If you do a 10% programming price increase and lose 10% of your customers, you don’t really get anywhere and yet you’ve alienated a lot of people. In fact, that’s actually happening and has been happening. I expect continuous fighting for the foreseeable future.”

Mr. Rutledge gets it.  He is not confusing a symptom (customer loss amid increasing costs) with the disease (a rapidly changing business model reflecting consumer resentment at the high monthly out of pocket costs). Rasing prices would, in my opinion, accelerate the negative trend. It would stabilize earnings and make investors happy in the short term, but it’s not sustainable and would ultimately result in disaster.

More of us in business need to think that way. What’s a symptom and what’s the disease it reflects? What’s the right play for the long term even if it hurts in the short term? Does that make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks

Too Much Cabbage

I’m in South Florida this Foodie Friday celebrating my mom’s 90th birthday. While my mother is hardly a “foodie”, one food group that we both love is deli, and Jewish deli specifically. Living in North Carolina as I do has many wonderful food aspects but the availability of a good pastrami sandwich is NOT one of them. Because of that as well as my mom’s love of the genre, I’ve taken her (and my dad) out for lunch the last couple of days to get Jewish deli.

Yesterday I ordered a Reuben sandwich, having had my pastrami the day before. One thing really good deli is known for is overstuffed sandwiches. Even if you choose not to overeat and finish the thing, you always have something to bring home. The photo of the Reuben on the menu showed a typically large offering (the photo here is not the one from the menu since that’s probably copyrighted). What showed up reminded me of a great business point.

The photo isn’t my sandwich but it’s one from the same deli. As you can see, the Reuben was made by rolling the corned beef around the sauerkraut. The thing is served on toasted rye bread with Russian dressing. It’s hard to tell but when I picked the thing up it was immediately obvious that the bread was smaller than a typical loaf of rye which meant that there was less “there” there. More importantly, while rolling the meat around the sauerkraut like a meat and cabbage jelly roll was clever, it also meant quite a bit less meat was used in the sandwich. If you look closely at the photo you’ll see that unrolling the thing would yield about a half a dozen thin slices of corned beef, hardly something a proper deli would serve as an “overstuffed” sandwich. The meat in my sandwich didn’t fill the bread either – the roll stopped about halfway back on the bread. Most Reubens (or Rachels – a version of the sandwich made with pastrami) pile the sauerkraut on top of a stack of meat.  Is this presentation designed to hide the fact that there is far less meat than one would expect?

What does this have to do with your business? Customers do “unroll” the filling.  When they come up with too much cabbage and not enough meat they’ll find a competitor that really does deliver what they promise. I think overpromising and underdelivering is the biggest mistake any business can make. While this chain of delis does quite well (most of their other food is terrific and does deliver), they need to revisit the Reuben or delete the photo from the menu since it sets expectations that are not met. None of us can afford to do that, not if we want repeat business.

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Huh?

Why Doesn’t Everything Have An FDD?

Have you ever heard of a Franchise Disclosure Document? I hadn’t either until I became involved in matching people up with franchise opportunities. You can read about what the FDD entails here but in a nutshell, it’s meant to be a document that provides enough information to someone thinking about investing in a franchise so that that person can make an educated decision about the investment. It’s sort of like a prospectus you would receive before you invested in a mutual fund or a stock.

If you’re someone who is looking at franchises, putting the FDD’s of a couple of brands in which you’re interested side by side can be enlightening. You will see the differences in the ongoing fees you’re going to be paying as well as the estimated start-up costs you’ll incur. You can look at how many franchisees have joined the system over the years and where they’re located. You can see if any have left the system as well as if there are any bankruptcies or legal actions. You’ll see any differences in how they define the territory to which you’re getting exclusive rights (and if the rights you’re getting are, in fact, exclusive). In short, you’re being given a document that provides the bulk of the information you would probably have to spend weeks researching on your own if you could even find it.  In fact, the FDD even gives you a list of current franchisee so you can “validate” the franchise by calling them and asking them to tell you even more information.

My first thought when I read my first FDD was “wouldn’t it be nice if EVERYTHING had an FDD?” I mean, who wouldn’t want to be handed this kind of information by law? Not only that, once you get the FDD there is a mandatory waiting period before the franchisor can take your money, even if you’re ready to sign up on the spot. Wouldn’t THAT be nice when you’re being pressured into making a quick decision about a big purchase such as a car or a house?

Come to think of it, if you’ve ever bought a car or a house, have you remotely thought that you had complete information? Maybe you got a mechanic or a building inspector to look at them but wouldn’t it be great to have an FDD?

That’s something any business should keep in mind. While we might not want to make up a 250+ page document, we should strive to disclose as much important information as we can throughout the decision-making process to potential customers and partners. Not only does it make them feel more secure in their decision to sign up with you but it also prevents a lot of surprises down the road. Just because we’re not legally obligated to provide something that’s the equivalent of an FDD doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, don’t you think?

And if you’re ready to change your life and look at a new opportunity, click here and I’ll help you make that happen. With an FDD too!

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Filed under Consulting, Franchises, Thinking Aloud

Foreign Flavors

This Foodie Friday, let’s think about the Black Cheese donut. Yes, there is such a thing although unless you live in Jakarta you’ve probably not sampled one. It’s a donut that’s glazed in chocolate icing and then rolled in parmesan cheese. No, I’m not making this up – you can find them at Dunkin’ outlets in Indonesia.

Then there is the Thai snack food of BBQ-flavored fish. They’re bite-sized – yum! You can buy a creamed corn pie (think apple pie but creamed corn) at KFC outlets in Japan or haggis-flavored potato chips in Scotland. If you want a brief around the world tour of some odd food products that will probably seem strange to those of us with American palates, click here and scroll through 46 of them.

The thing is that they’re not odd, not to the people in the areas where they’re made and distributed. As with most things, if there wasn’t demand the product wouldn’t continue to exist. The fact that they got made in the first place is a tribute to anyone who was involved in the process but for whom the product has no appeal. Ignoring our own prejudices is something that helps us succeed in business. Most of us aren’t the typical consumer of our product and, therefore, must keep an open mind where research or other data tells us that there is a market opportunity.

You might not need to be reminded that not everyone sees the world in the same way. One glance at the evening news or even your own social media stream will confirm that for you. Not everyone will love a Black Cheese donut but apparently, enough people do to justify their continued presence on Dunkin’s shelves. We need to try some flavors that are foreign and, even if we don’t like them, remind ourselves that others do.  Crab flavored Pringles might not be your thing. Maybe you prefer the Iberian ham chips. I had my first ketchup flavored chips when I was in Canada. They seemed like a good idea – ketchup goes on french fries which are potatoes, so… Well, they weren’t, but I don’t think any less of our Canadian brethren for making them popular.

Want to keep your business open? Keep your mind open as well. The flavor might only be foreign to you!

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Becoming An Icon

What do you think of when you hear the word “icon”? You might think of those little squares on your smartphone screen that link you into an app. You might think of some other graphic that has meaning in the way that it looks. Or you might think about someone or something that is a symbol and is the object of uncritical devotion, as the dictionary defines it. It’s this last meaning that I want to address today.

Photo by Agnieszka Kowalczyk

You can probably think of several iconic brands – companies that are market leaders and offer great (read that as high-value even if they’re not high-cost) products to their customers. Disney, Apple, and others would qualify here. They have a lot of things in common despite their very different business sectors. They have strong branding that is unique in the consumers’ mind. The brand itself has a clearly defined meaning in those minds as well. Customers know what to expect and the reality of the product they receive usually beats those expectations.

Icons offer high value. Customers get their problems solved at what they perceive to be a fair investment of time and money. Icons are also very consistent – it’s a repeatable brand experience. Lastly, their positions are highly-defensible. It will be very hard for another brand to take its place. None of that is news to you, right?

The question I have is why don’t we think of our personal brands in the same way? Do we think about becoming an iconic business person, one that has a strong, unique branding in the business world? Are we consistent, offering all of those with whom we interact the same, high-quality experience? When people deal with us, whether they are partners, clients, suppliers, peers or employees, do they know what to expect? Are they excited about that prospect because they know a positive experience awaits?

In a world where we’re heading for a million corporations of one, your personal brand is becoming your corporate brand. Why not make it as iconic as you can?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

The Fear Barrier

I spent last week at a conference of franchise consultants and franchisors. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that one of the recurring themes is the need to be learning constantly and going to meetings like that one is one of the best ways to educate yourself. After all, who knows more about that challenges that you face in your business than other folks who are dealing with the same issues?

One issue that came up a lot in my conversations with my peers is the issue of fear. We’re in the business of helping people realize their dream of business ownership. We find out their “why” and then find businesses – franchises – that match their goals and their budgets. In the process, we end up sending them a lot of very specific information about potential investments and it’s at that point that the fear barrier sometimes kicks in.

Imagine that you’re looking at several opportunities that could make your dream come true. You have the resources to make it happen. The next step is for you to speak directly to the development people at the brand and to continue your investigation. What often happens at this point is that people “go dark.” They don’t respond to phone calls or emails. I suspect that it isn’t that they’re not interested but, rather, that they’re TOO interested and suddenly things are VERY real. The notion of quitting your job and investing your savings in something completely new can be terrifying.

The people with whom we’re having these discussions identified themselves. They filled out a request to chat with someone about franchise opportunities. They WANT to make this happen, or at least they want enough information to see if that’s what they want. I’ve had people say they’ve reviewed the information and a company I’ve found for them isn’t quite right. That’s fine: we keep looking (I represent over 500 different brands). They’re not unafraid but they’re not letting the fear paralyze them. They use it as motivation. They believe that they can change their lives for the better and 94% of the time they will be right (that’s the percentage of franchisees that consider themselves successful).

No matter whether you’re looking at franchises or at changing companies or jobs or careers, the fear barrier will be there. The people who are truly successful – the ones who realize their dream and find self-fulfillment – are the ones that break through the fear barrier, not waiting for the “right time” or accepting the things in their lives that are really unacceptable to them when they step back and think about it. Is that person you?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Harder Than It Looks

It’s Foodie Friday and yesterday I took my old beast of a smoker out for a July 4th spin. Of all the things I transported from the wilds of Connecticut to sunny (read that as hotter than blazes) North Carolina, The Beast was probably the most difficult thing to move. It was the subject of a Foodie Friday post all on its own a couple of years back. As I described it at the time:

Photo by Jaden Hatch

The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move.

Yesterday I fired it up and did some racks of ribs, some chicken and some sausage. They came out quite well, thanks. What also came out was a reminder that something so simple – putting meat into a box and letting it cook slowly – is way harder and less simple than it looks.

First, prepping the meat. One might just salt and pepper the ribs and toss them in. Yes, one COULD do that, but it would be a disservice to the ribs and your palate. What’s less easy is removing the membrane and assembling a nice dry rub of several spices to bring out the flavor of the wood smoke and the pork. Similarly, you COULD just plop the whole chicken on a rack and let it smoke or you could halve it, brine it, season it properly and then proceed.

Next is cooking. Good BBQ is NOT a passive activity. Don’t let the guy sitting next to his cooker sucking down a beer mislead you. He’s there to keep a watchful eye on the on temperature, adjusting the air intake to raise or lower the temperature in the box and to add fuel when needed. I find that checking every 30 minutes or so at a minimum is critical.

Wood chips are a must. You can’t toss them on the fire – they won’t smoke, they’ll burn. You need to soak them after you think about what kind of wood chips to use. Hickory? Mesquite? Fruitwood like apple or peach?

The point I’m trying to make here is that something as simple as smoking a piece of meat is much harder than it looks if you’re going to do it right. So are many things in business. Assembling a team and keeping it functioning at a high level. Handling customer service issues.  Managing capital and cash flow. Every one of those things as well as many others as much harder than they might appear. What each of us needs to do is never underestimate the difficulty of anything until we’ve mastered it. That mindset makes us read, learn, and stay humble.

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Filed under food, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud