Category Archives: Consulting

Innovating On Top Of Imitating

Let’s start today with something written by someone significantly smarter about business than yours truly:

In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and new ways of doing things that we are witnessing today, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. A simple look around us will, I think, quickly show that imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.

Right? That wasn’t written recently, however. It’s from a piece written in 1966 for The Harvard Business Review by Theodore Levitt. If you’re a businessperson and you don’t know who he is you might want to do a little research. His classic piece Marketing Myopia has been one of the foundations upon which I base my business thinking. It argues that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Amen.

That’s not our topic today, however. What caught my eye was a piece about how What’sApp was imitating Snapchat‘s disappearing content feature that lets users share photos, videos, and GIFs that disappear after 24 hours. You might be aware that Instagram – also owned by Facebook – did the same copying last summer with Stories. Facebook itself is doing the same thing. In Snapchat it seems as if we have a company who innovates beautifully but does so in a way that simply blazes a trail that others follow shortly thereafter. Facebook, in this case, is the imitator. Apple is a classic imitator. They will let others innovate and learn from the success or failure of those innovations, refining them and making them better. One could argue that for a while, the entire Japanese manufacturing economy was based on that principle – innovative imitation.

As Professor Levitt wrote, there is nothing wrong with that. While every company needs to do some innovating, “no single company can afford even to try to be first in everything in its field. The costs are too great; and imagination, energy, and management know-how are too evenly distributed within industries.” The question for any of us is when do we need to dig deep and innovate vs. when should we be looking to what others are doing nicely and make it better? You might surprise yourself if you can put your business ego aside and focus on solving customers’ problems better than anyone else can, even if it’s just by doing innovating on top of imitating someone else. Clear?

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It Just Works

I’m old enough and digital enough to have used the first IBM PC and VisiCalc. It wasn’t the easiest thing to use but it pretty much was the only thing. DOS led to other operating systems, primarily Windows, that enabled all of us to work more efficiently. Well, that is, unless we were busy figuring out why we couldn’t print or why we were suddenly deluged with pop-up ads via malware.

English: IBM Personal Computer model 5150 with...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That was always the biggest appeal of Apple products to me. They just worked. My primary computer is a MacBook Air and the thought of going back to a Windows environment, no matter how good the reviews are on Windows 10, is dismaying. I’ve had to help friends with their Win10 issues and it certainly doesn’t “just work.” Then again, neither does my MacBook any longer. Sure, it’s nice that the OS upgrades every year (for free!) but I find myself diagnosing problems constantly now (wifi drops, SD cards being ejected at random, and more!).

My next computer will be a Chromebook; specifically a Chromebook with a touchscreen that can serve as a tablet. Chromebooks do just work. They are malware free. Think about how you work now. Most of it is probably via a web browser and in the cloud – my work certainly is for the most part. And they’re inexpensive – I can buy two decent Chromebooks for the price of a new MacBook or a touchscreen Windows machine. But what does this have to do with your business?

The bulk of customers wants that “it just works” experience no matter what you’re selling. They want their problems solved with the least hassle and for the best value. Notice I didn’t say for the lowest price. Just as there are high-end Chromebooks costing more than some Apple computers, so too is there a segment of buyer that want the high-end product and can afford to pay more if they perceive better quality, better service, or maybe a boost to their self-esteem (think luxury cars). But that’s not everyone.

If you want to brag about your computer’s specs then Chromebooks probably aren’t for you. Honestly, they’re not for everyone – you can’t do serious gaming or Photoshop or video editing. If you’re the type that likes to tweak your settings until they’re just right, you probably want to stick with something else. You need to think about your business in this context too. Are you for some very specialized, narrow audiences or are you for the bulk of the consumer base? If the latter, I’d suggest you focus on the “it just works” experience because history shows that’s how the best businesses succeed. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Contacts, Cost, and Value

A few months ago I installed a contact manager app on my phone. I was quite pleased with it; so much so that I also installed a desktop version of the software on my Mac. As you might gather from some of the stuff about which I rant here on the screed, I read fine print pretty carefully. When I did these installs there was no mention of a trial period nor a limit on the number of contacts. It was quite clear that the version I was using had a premium option with more features, but I was just fine with the basics I was getting for free.

Last week, after a few months of use, I got a message when I opened the app that I would have to upgrade since I had over 1,000 contacts. In fact, I have 2,325 and have had that many for nearly all of the time I’ve used the app. The app no longer performs the free basic stuff it did before. The premium version is $100. Per year. No thanks.

I checked out some other contact apps. Some are also $100 a year, some are $100 once, and some are $2. Based on reviews, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between many of them; certainly not a factor of 50 or 100 times with respect to usefulness. Putting aside my anger at my previous app’s misleading and dishonest app store copy which makes no mention of a contact limit, I started to think about one of the most basic business ratios: the cost/value relationship.

Customers assign value based on the benefit they receive – how well you solve their problem – in the context of what it costs them for the solution. Warren Buffett explained it as price being what you pay and value is what you get. Any of us in business need to do that in the context of what other solutions are available and what they charge. A new Lexus and a used Volkswagen but solve the transportation problem but they are only comparable solutions on the most basic level (they both get you from point A to point B). The mistake many of us make is that we look at our unique benefit from our own perspective rather than that of our potential buyer. While we may see the multitude of features our product or service provides, most customers don’t. They see a price tag, first and foremost, and while they might love to have the Lexus they aren’t willing to assign a sufficient enough value differential to the great customer service, the luxurious interior, or the better ride and handling to make up for the large price difference.

I’ll find another contact manager. I don’t even mind paying for one. Like most consumers, I do mind the bait and switch that happened here (and I’ll post a review to that effect in the store). Whatever value we believe justifies the cost we ask customers to incur, we need to be upfront about it as we try to justify the reasons why we’re worth it. Make sense?

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Eating At The Buffet

Our topic this Foodie Friday is buffets. Las Vegas is renowned for the lavish and enormous buffets but they can be found almost anywhere across this great land of ours. There are dedicated buffet restaurants, most hotels offer a buffet option for breakfast and many bbq joints offer something similar so you needn’t choose between the 4 or 5 varieties of meat and the 7 or 8 sides they serve. Grab a plate, pile it high, and it’s on!

A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United Stat...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One could make the argument that a traditional dim sum place is a buffet in reverse. Instead of you going to fill your plate from a variety of choices, the variety of choices are wheeled out to you and you choose as they go by. I don’t put salad bars into the buffet category since by definition they have a more limited focus.

My buffet strategy is to skip the “normal” foods (corn, mashed potatoes, cold cuts, etc.) and to focus on the more indigenous specialty items. I don’t want to fill up on food I could get anywhere while missing whatever makes this experience unique. After all, while I have a healthy appetite, I can’t eat everything, right?

That’s business point today. I remind many of my clients that they need to “step away from the buffet.” When you are a growing company and you have a smart, visionary leadership team, there is a tendency to want to try everything on the buffet table. In business, that means chasing down every apparent opportunity in an effort to grow. The reality is that no early- or mid-stage business can afford to do that. Resources are too precious and the time to get to profitability is ticking away. Stepping away from the buffet means having a business plan that’s focused on whatever problem it is that the business is solving for your market segment and sticking to it. Don’t take that to mean that you can’t adjust based on what you’ve discovering on your journey:  you must! But you also can’t keep changing direction as you spot another new hot plate being added to the buffet.

Like a large buffet, business can present an overwhelming number of choices. Our job as managers is to find the best of those choices that align with our business goals. It’s one thing to overeat at breakfast. It’s quite another to run out of resources before reaching sustained profitability. Step away from that buffet!

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The Stain On Your Back

I’m going to be a little self-serving today, but it’s based on a comment someone made to me the other day. You’ll probably be able to figure out what the comment was as you read on.

Imagine that on your way to an appointment a drop of something – coffee from someone’s cup, condensation from an air conditioner – spills onto your shirt. You’d see it and deal with it immediately if it was on the front of your shirt. If it spills onto the back, you’d probably not even notice it until some kind-hearted soul mentions it. That, dear readers, is why you need people like me.

When I grew up in the business world, I had a lot of people coaching me. My immediate boss and his boss were always ready to encourage me (and not always in the nicest of tones) and help me to grow. They let me know where the less-visible (to me) stains were. That situation is less common today in a world where there are a million corporations of one as opposed to a large company. Today’s smaller companies have much less institutional memory from which they can draw as well as less personal experience on the part of the founders and employees.

Part of what I do is to coach. I’ve run into some potential clients who tell me that they don’t need coaching, just more hands to do the work. While the latter half of that statement is assuredly true, they also need someone to point out the stains on their backs. Most consultants I know don’t have a political agenda. We’re not after your job nor are we burdened with your past or present. We are charged with helping you and your business to grow. No, you can’t do the latter without doing the former. A business is only as good as the people managing it. My peers and I are there to look at your situation and to help you reach your goals.

I’ve been doing “business” for almost 40 years (yikes!). In that time I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve seen a lot of others do the same. I’ve seen great managers and horrible managers. Part of what clients pay me for is an insurance policy of sorts. My experience ensures them that they won’t have to make the same mistakes I did. They get the benefit of the learning without the pain of the experience. What I and my peers bring is why football teams have coaches up high in the stadium – to get a broader perspective.

Most professional golfers have swing coaches. All sports teams do too. The coaches aren’t caught up in the second to second physical involvement that sport requires. They can see and protect your back. I can do that too, by seeing the parts of you and your business that you can’t or won’t see and by letting you know what’s going on in those blind spots. Call me?

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Filed under Reality checks, Consulting

Asked And Answered

I’m constantly advocating that we listen to our customers. One of the ways that we can do that is through surveys. The problem with many surveys is that we don’t ask the right questions, or we ask the right questions in the wrong way. Let me explain.

Suppose I were to ask about Obamacare. I might ask if you approve or disapprove of the law. Simple question, right? Unfortunately, wrong. To someone on the right, the “disapprove” answer might come from a disagreement with the mandate that we all have health insurance. To someone on the left, the “disapprove” response might come from feeling that the law doesn’t go far enough and a single payer system is what we need. Same answers, very different perspectives.

We often make that same mistake by not digging deeply enough. We’re told to avoid open-ended questions in survey design (they’re not computer friendly, after all), but in so doing we end up with data which is ambivalent at best and useless at worst. We also make the mistake of asking both new and returning customers the same things. Their perspectives are different and one group should have better, different insights from which we can learn.

Try to remember that consumers get hit up with surveys everywhere these days. You can’t make a customer service call without being prompted to stay on the line after you hang up to complete a survey. Many websites will pop up a user-experience survey while you’re in the midst of trying to find some important information. We need to survey but we need to be judicious. We need to be as personal as we can and to be respectful of our consumer’s time by not asking 30 questions (3 or 4 are optimal).

As with anything in business, put yourself in the customer’s position first. If what you’re asking is vague, repetitive, burdensome, or impersonal, you’ve already got your answer. It’s in your low response rates.

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Adding Umami To The Business

This Foodie Friday we’re going to talk about basic flavors. If you’ve done any cooking, you know that there are five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and something called “umami,” which is often mentioned as “savoriness.” It’s a Japanese word that means “delicious taste. It’s actually built on three types of amino acids:

japanese soy sauce, it contains more salt than...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some examples of the amino acids associated with umami are glutamates in kombu or soy sauce; iosinates found in fermented fish, shellfish and meats; and guanylates, which are present in mushrooms like shiitake.These different types of amino acids can be combined to increase the umami taste in your dishes.

Got it? As with all the flavors, the trick is to use umami to balance out and enhance the other flavors present in a dish. If you add soy sauce (umami), for example, you’d want to reduce the salt (salty). If you’re using fish sauce (an umami bomb often found in Asian food) you’d add acid to balance it out (citrus juice, for example.). Got it?

Let’s think about umami in business terms. You have the basic building “flavors” of solving a customer’s problem, the enterprise’s financial goals, customer service, producing the product or service, and supporting your team. What distinguishes great businesses from good businesses is the umami added to the mix of those building blocks. Just as adding a rind of parmesan cheese into a soup or stock boosts umami, teaching everyone in an organization to be customer-centric while pursuing clear goals boosts the coherence and performance of the team. It’s possible to offer decent customer service via email but the umami of a caring human to deal with customer issues makes a lot of difference.

A long time ago, someone told me to add red wine vinegar to the clarified butter into which I was dipping a lobster. I know now that the sour and pungent vinegar was balancing the fat of the butter and took the lobster to another level. Balancing all the elements of either a dish or your business and making sure that balance includes something that boosts umami is the key, both in the kitchen and in the boardroom. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints