Category Archives: Planning

More Lessons Learned Starting a Business

A while ago I wrote about starting my own small business. It’s a really small business. Just me in the garage evenings and occasionally on the weekend. It’s now about eight weeks in and it might be a good time to go through some of the simple lessons that I have learned and, in some cases, relearned during this process. I have to admit that many things I knew, learned before and even suspected, still hold true.

The first thing that was reinforced was the decision as to whether or not this was to be a real business, or what I would call a “hobby”. The baseline for this decision is how Cash Flow is treated. A hobby is something where you are aware of your expenses, but do not fully track them, as the difference between personal and business expenses can be somewhat blurry. In a hobby you know you are spending the money, but you’re not so worried about it as it has an entertainment value as opposed to a baseline for profitability.

For the business, I chose the tactic of keeping all receipts and tracking them (and revenues) via a spreadsheet. I set aside my initial cash investment for equipment (saws, sanders, grinders, etc.), as well as the initial payments for the raw materials that I would need to make the product. I viewed this as my Class “A” funding, to use entrepreneurial lingo. I didn’t want to have to go back to my investor (me) and explain to myself how my initial business case was flawed, if I in fact ran out of cash.

Fortunately, actually not fortunately, it was according to plan – orders did start to come in quickly.

Now came the balancing act of trying to grow. That meant ramping up production, which in this case meant making a couple more game boards than I actually needed each week, in order to build a little inventory. It is October, and the gift giving season will be here soon. It does take some time to build the products, and I am planning on a continued sales ramp through the end of the quarter. I would like to have some products on hand to turn into revenue as quickly as possible.

I don’t however have the ready cash, as part of my plan, to be able to just start producing fully in anticipation of such demand. Such is the balancing associated with cash flow. How much can you spend and how quickly can you get it back.

Another topic was quality. As I continue to produce the boards, I get better at it. I not only get better, I also get faster. I have gained confidence. I began to think I had it figured out. It took one inferior product produced to bring me back down to reality.

I am my own best, or in this case worst critic when it comes to what I produce. If it is not good enough for me, then it doesn’t get sold or shipped to a customer. Those resources, time and materials spent on making that inferior product were wasted. I will not get them back. It brought home the cost of quality, or in this case non-quality very quickly.

Speaking of manufacturing, as I mentioned I continue to learn how to manufacture better and faster. The old adage “practice makes perfect” does have some application here. I have gotten faster and more accurate at the measurement and cutting aspects of the process. I have learned that it is faster and easier to cut, and recut a straight line, than it is to try and sand a straight line. I have refined, changed and in some cased reduced the amount of raw materials required to manufacture. As might be expected it has had a beneficial effect on my bottom line.

As an aside, I have also learned that as soon as you bend what was once a straight piece of metal, it will never be straight again, no matter how long or hard you work at straightening it. Just a tip for those who may also decide to try and work with metals.

The value of having some inventory, as opposed to only starting to build when an order came in has shown its value. I have already mentioned the balancing act between tying up a lot of cash in inventory versus having it available for other expenditures. But it turns out that customers are actually pleased when they get their desired product faster than when it is promised to them. I recently had my first return customer (he originally bought a small board, and he came back to buy a large one). He mentioned that it was both product quality and the fast shipment that brought him back.

Imagine that.

Next comes looking for opportunities to expand both the market for the existing products and looking for new types of products to create. As I said, I am making metal game boards (and game pieces) for Chess, Checkers, Go, Pente and the like games. They seem to be pretty well accepted, at least initially by my go to market channels (in this case on-line purchasing sites eBay and Etsy).

The questions are:

Are there other board games that may be readily adapted to a metal platform?


Are there other channels to market for the existing and potentially new metal boards?

I am currently working on a potential backgammon board as a product platform expansion. Backgammon is an older and widely played game. I will not make many boards to start as it will be a much more involved manufacturing process (involving much more difficult angle cuts as opposed to the current right angles I use now). It may actually require outsourcing to a machine or cutting shop, at least initially to get it done. I will see how this goes.

As to expanding channels to market, on-line still appears the way to go for now. It continues to provide the broadest market coverage, while still providing the lowest investment associated with merchant systems and the like. I will continue to look at other artisan and mercantile type sites to see what it may cost to put my products up on those sites. That way I will be able (hopefully) to continue to expand the number of people who can see and purchase my products.

I have looked into attending trade and other types of craft shows, as another channel to market. These may be viable channels in the future, but I am not so sure right now. Almost all of these events require a registration fee of some type. Applying this fee against the margin I get from each product sale tells me how many boards I must sell during the course of the show (usually two days over a weekend) in order to just break even. It also means that I would have to probably invest a little more heavily in inventory as customers who attend these shows normally like to go home with the products that they buy at these shows. Not having available product to deliver would probably limit sales success here.

Most importantly, the weather is still nice, and I would like to golf at least once on the weekends as I continue to work at my chosen career during the week. Once the weather changes and it begins to get a little colder and a little less desirable to play golf, I will probably revisit the trade and craft show decision.

Did I mention that priorities are a must when starting your own business?

Finally, I come to marketing. I have the website up. It can be viewed at I have the purchase and merchant systems working on Etsy at I have started to get customer reviews (all positive so far) and am making sure that they are visible on both sites.

The next step was to create a site and presence on Facebook. It seems to be the granddaddy of all social networks at this point. Again, this is a relatively simple process. Facebook has all the required information to quickly lead you through how to set up a page for a business. Mine can be viewed at It seems that “Metal Games” was already taken by someone. Such is life.

I am looking into other media sites such as pinterest. I was actually just out there looking and trying to quickly understand their process and methodologies for getting “pins” out there. I will see if I can get that social media capability up and working in the next day or so.

Several things are similar for a one-person garage shop and a ten-thousand-person multi-national company. Knowing where your cash is and how quickly you can get back what you have spent dictates what your cash flow is. Profitability is great and will ultimately dictate longer term success, but cash flow is what allows you to keep the doors open. Product quality is a premium. “Good Enough” is not anywhere near good enough. Set your personal thresholds high and do not compromise. It matters. Continuing to seek out new customers and being as responsive as is possible to those you find will always be the keystone for business success.

And, as is the case for me at Metal Games (as in most of the work I do) have fun.

Careers and Gigs

A new year has started and that has got me thinking again. Always a dangerous pastime for me. I watched my dad go through his career. He was and still is a scientist. One of those guys who actually conceptualized and then created things. A PhD in physics. He worked at Bell Labs and got put on permanent loan to the United States federal government for research. Later in life he went on and did some other interesting stuff. He created some forecasting capabilities to predict price movements in the commodities markets. Most recently he started to lose some of his hearing, so he created a new type of hearing aid (which he and my mom sell), and from that technology he is working on the creation of true High-Fidelity ear-buds for listening to music.

That to me was, and still is an amazing career. He will be eighty-nine next month. He is still having fun. I hear it in his voice when I talk to him.

I bring this up because I believe for the most part, that the age of the career in business as we have known it, is just about over. Most people in the workforce, and certainly those that are just entering the workforce are probably not going to be able to enjoy what has in the past been described as a career. Like everything else, the definition, and expectation of a career is changing.

It used to be that a career was built on what you learned and then how you applied it to the next opportunity or situation. You learned, you internalized, you synthesized, and you applied it elsewhere. You built, and you grew. There was an investment in you and you were vested in them.

I’m going to change gears here a little bit and talk about music, one of my other advocations. I like to play in some of the Jazz bands located around here. It has been a long road to get there. I had to learn, practice and apply what I had learned in order to get to the capability to play with some of the musicians in the area. Even then I feel as though I am barely able to keep up. I enjoy that challenge.

However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of demand for Jazz bands. There is some, but it is a decidedly niche type of audience. What this means is that the opportunities to play for people, particularly people who specifically like and appreciate Jazz are somewhat limited. The opportunity to be a “house band” or have steady employment as a Jazz musician is pretty limited.

The opportunities to play for an audience are usually referred to as “gigs”. defines “gig” as:

a single professional engagement, usually of short duration, as of jazz or rock musicians.

So, as a Jazz musician, you are usually always looking for the next opportunity to play, or gig. Even if you currently have one, you are looking for the next one because you know that in a reasonably short period your current gig will be over, and you will need to find the next one.

I think you can see where I am going with this. also defines “gig” in the following way:

any job, especially one of short or uncertain duration

I looked back over my career and realized that I have had the opportunity to work for no less than eight major corporations. Some of the moves and changes were of my own volition. Some of the changes were due to corporate mergers and acquisitions. Some were due to corporate downsizings and changes in strategic direction.

The point I make here is that my dad worked for basically one company (Bell Labs, even while on loan to the Federal Government) for the vast majority of his career. I have considered myself nominally stably employed for the majority of my career, but even so I have worked for eight companies. I think that going forward that corporate tenures are going to continue to become shorter and shorter, either through the individual’s own volition, or the company’s.

In short, it would seem to me that business employment is going to take on many of the characteristics associated with gigs. Opportunities are going to be shorter term as both the employee and the employer begin to expect and react to the gig environment. It does not appear that there will be the longer-term commitment or investment by either the company or the employee going forward.

In other words, don’t expect a career. It will be a job. And as time goes by, it will probably be best described as a gig. You sign up, work and then sign off.

A side benefit to the company with the new gig business structure will be the corporation’s ability to better control their labor costs. Due to the fluidity and replaceability of labor associated with the gig structure, annual, merit, seniority and cost of living raises will probably become things of the past. Instead of increasing someone’s pay to perform the same gig, it will be cheaper to just hire someone else to do the work.

In the past it was sometimes viewed as a sign of instability if there were too many different positions and companies on one’s resume. I think that will obviously change. In fact, I think in the future having multiple assignments, or gigs, with various companies will be seen as a strength. If you don’t have enough, varied assignments with different companies, employers will wonder why.

Employees should no longer look to or expect to matriculate upwards into management, in a single company. As the horizon continues to shorten, each gig will be viewed as just a step in an overall body of work. (Very similarly to each album is an increment to the musician’s bodies of work.) If you don’t change your direction and content often enough you will run the risk of being type-cast or worse, thought of as lacking in aggression or creativity.

As companies continue the drive toward being process driven, the gig will continue to be defined and refined into smaller and smaller, discrete functions. The only way to get broader experience will be to have multiple, different gigs. The best way to get that will be to go to different companies.

This could have a disillusioning effect on those that are coming into the workforce with expectations that may be unaligned with the current corporate directions and trends. Simon Sinek, the British-American author on business and organizations, had a very interesting video discussion where he addresses the millennial in the workplace topic.

In it he discusses how he believes that organizations are going to have to change and adapt to this new millennial force in the workforce. I think he is partially correct in that there is a mismatch between the millennial generation’s expectations and the direction that business is moving. As business moves to contractor / gig / low-cost labor model, the new employees are going to have less and less of an opportunity to have an effect on the corporation. This is the direction that companies appear to be moving, of their own volition. There is a drive for this inter-changeability.

Just as when a musician becomes unhappy with the band he may be in and leaves, the ability to replace them with another musician becomes paramount. So it will be in business. The process will define your gig. The way to move forward will be to have multiple gigs. The way to get multiple gigs will be to move from organization to organization.

As with any new organizational or employment structure, there will be ways for people to prosper. Just as good musicians are always in demand for bands and gigs, so will competent and capable employees be in demand. It will however change the dynamic between employees and employers in the extreme. Employees will be more and more apt to leave at any time. Employers will more and more structure employment around gig concepts and temporary assignments. When the assignment is up, it will be incumbent on the employee to find something else, either internally or externally to the company.

Just as all musicians, even those with a current gig, are always looking for the next gig, employees will also have to start preparing for their next gig, even when they have one. Times are changing. Cycle times are getting shorter, and so are the horizons that companies are willing to invest in research and development, new products, new markets and employees. The returns will need to be seen almost immediately or they will move on to something, or someone else quickly.

Just as a musician likes to have his next gig lined up even before he is done playing the current one, I think in the coming environment it will be almost a necessity to line up your next business gig before the one you are on is over. No one likes to be waiting on, or without a gig.

Staying Relevant

It’s hard to think of really where to start here. Everyone everywhere has already talked about the ongoing, continuous change that is constantly occurring in business. Even I have written about it, and I actually do try to stay away from those ubiquitous, and somewhat trite types of topics. As they say, no good can come of that.

However, those of us that have had either the good, or bad fortune to inhabit one of those industries that are subject to the technological whims of change, have an added issue with which to cope. In an environment where the “next thing” is always perceived as the now “best thing”, how do you fight what can best be described as career inertia, and remain relevant in your organization, and to a larger extent, your industry?

Charles Holland Duell, was the commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901. Duell has become famous for, during his tenure as United States Commissioner of Patents, purportedly saying “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” However, this has been debunked as apocryphal by librarian Samuel Sass who traced the quote back to a 1981 book titled “The Book of Facts and Fallacies” by Chris Morgan and David Langford. In fact, Duell said in 1902:

“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

I bring up this often mis-cited tidbit for a couple of reasons: the first is that even more than a century ago the speed and relevance of change was already being anticipated, and the second, is that relevance seems to be in the eye of the beholder. It is not so much what you think about your relevance to various opportunities, but what others think of it.

For the most part now, Duell is thought of as an out of step, foolish curmudgeon that had the audacity to state that nothing new was ever going to be developed or patented, when in reality he foresaw that both the magnitude and rate of future changes was going to be unprecedented.

An interesting urban myth, but I have digressed.
I think I’ll look at how both time, and technology work against just about everyone in business. I think this is a position that is somewhat out of step with some of the current thinking.

There is a school of thought that says experience is a good thing. But in order to gain experience you have to have been around either a company, or an industry for a while. The up side of experience is that in order to have remained around for a while you probably had to learn a few things. The down side is that time has passed, and that you may have been pigeon-holed into a role which is defined by your experience.

Robert Heinlein is an author of many famous books and multiple great quotes. I have read most of his catalog, and I have cited him often in many of my quotes. One of his most famous, and one of my favorites is:

“Live and learn, or you don’t live long.”

This is especially true in business. If you haven’t learned from your previous experiences, you probably aren’t going to get the chance to have any experiences in the future.

But how much is that experience worth in business? By just being around for a while, chances are that you are also going to experience salary growth. Yearly reviews, pay raises and inflation are an ingrained part of the business compensation structure. The longer that you are around, usually the more you end up costing the company.

Also, in today’s organizations it is reasonably well documented that management would prefer specific subject matter experts as opposed to very broad experiential histories. Again, that means that the longer you are around, the higher the probability that you are going to be associated with a specific business, technology, and capability set.

But what happens when the baseline business or technology changes? Strategic directions change. Digital has replaced analog. Wireless has replaced wire. Optical has replaced copper. Unleaded has replaced leaded. Transistors have replaced tubes. Fuel injection has replaced carburetors. The list obviously goes on and on.

It is not uncommon for relatively more experienced, and expensive people to be associated with what was once but may no longer be viewed as strategic businesses within an organization. In instances such as this, the opportunities for advancement can dwindle, and in the longer term so can the opportunity for employment.

So, what can be done to prepare and avoid such issues? How do you stay relevant in the face of ongoing change?

My suggestion for the first step in maintaining relevance is to understand the current environment. Employment is now a cost – benefit, or value proposition. As long as it is perceived that you are delivering more value to the business than you are costing it, chances are that things will continue.

That would mean that the correlation to the idea that the longer you are around, the more you probably will be making, is that as time passes it is probably expected that you need to be generating greater value. This is usually much easier said than done. It also means that if time is passing, and you are remaining in the same role, that it becomes more and more difficult to be perceived as generating greater value.

Value is normally associated with orders, revenue, costs and earnings. Understanding your relationship with, and ability to quantify your effect on these topics will go a long way toward defining your value. The weaker your relationship with these key metrics, the more tenuous your value proposition may be viewed.

The second step is to align more with a specific business function or discipline, and not so much with a specific business unit or specific product set or technology. Accountants, Financial Managers, Sales Staff, Project Managers, etc., can usually ply their trades across different industries and business units. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to move from one industry to another. It merely reduces some of the perceived barriers that will normally be erected when someone is experienced in one industry and not another.

Next, as Heinlein said, if you are not learning, you are probably not going to be around for long. Take courses. Take training. Most companies have training programs to help increase both the depth of knowledge in specific disciplines, as well as programs to support external trainings and certifications. Use them.

If you are planning on being around for a while, it will be expected that you will have to know more in order to maintain your employment value proposition. Learn about other technologies and disciplines. Understand and become more conversant in the process and project orientation that most businesses are currently in.

Finally, it is incumbent on you to challenge both yourself and the organization by demonstrating your willingness and ability to move out of your comfort zone, or area of expertise, and take on new roles. Most of the time no one will come looking for you to take on a new role. You must step up, and out on that proverbial limb and make the first move.

Otherwise it will probably be assumed that you are content where you are, and there you will get to stay. Until something changes.

This approach requires an active awareness and participation. Businesses will normally present you with the opportunity to learn many diverse topics, disciplines and technologies. They will also usually present you with the opportunity to at least try to move into something else. It is up to you to search them out and take advantage of them. Very few companies require you to take courses to stay abreast of new trends within business. Fewer still will actively try to reposition you into new strategic product and businesses.

These are some things that you have to do.

It takes extra time. It involves extra effort. It requires your own initiative.

Otherwise you may be risking your relevance expecting the things you have been doing to be as important, and relevant, to the business in the future as they are today.

The “Hail Mary” Career Strategy

I was riffing through the Yahoo! Finance page the other day and saw what I thought might be an interesting article: “The Real World Is Increasingly Rough For 30-Year-Old Americans”, by Katie Krzaczek.
So, I clicked on it, hoping it was not the obligatory “click-bait” that we have all come to love. To my surprise it wasn’t. But it did send me to “The Huffington Post” page. Before I went any further, I did a little research on just who the Huffington Post is. I didn’t want to be responsible for furthering some Russian troll’s agenda.

It turns out that Wikipedia has this to say about the Huffington Post:

“HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post and sometimes abbreviated HuffPo) is a liberal American news and opinion website and blog that has localized and international editions.”

With that out of the way, and despite the fact that am probably far from being considered either a thirty-year-old, or a liberal, I read on.

The article dealt with the idea that despite the fact that all the available empirical evidence that that should logically lead to a different conclusion, this age group demographic was by and large positive about their earning potential.

The article cited the available data that the current percentage of thirty-year-olds earning more than their parents was at an all-time low: approximately fifty percent as opposed to almost ninety percent fifty years ago. It brought up these additional facts:

“Bloomberg recently used Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data to highlight how today’s young people “are weighed down by student debt and stagnant wages”, and

“Axios published several charts to show how more of today’s 30-year-olds are living with their parents, paying higher college tuition, taking on significant debt, and buying fewer homes than 30-year-olds four decades ago.”

In short it was painting a pretty bleak picture for what has been termed Generation Y, but was noting that they were still positive about their earnings prospects. In fact, it pointed out that more than half the people in this demographic expected to be millionaires.

Now, perhaps with inflation a million dollars neither goes as far, nor is as difficult to obtain as when I was in this age group, but even so, this seemed pretty amazing to me. What was even more amazing to me was the way they thought that they would get there.

Ethan Wolff-Mann and Melody Hamm of Yahoo Finance noted in the article:

“I’m not exactly sure where all of this positive sentiment is coming from… I’m not sure whether the stagnant wages are contributing to this or anything like that. I do think … people [are] just hoping that something comes along that they walk into luck.”

“… some young people “think they can become influencers or they can sort of get a following, perhaps have a YouTube channel, perhaps be on Instagram and get $5,000 to pose with a bag or a beauty product.”

“Unfortunately, the power of social media, and the “Hail Mary shot” it presents …. works for only a fraction of those hoping to get rich quick.”

Oh, my goodness…

This approach strikes me as betting your future on winning the lottery, or the Readers Digest Sweepstakes, or some such equivalent opportunity. Yes, it is true that someone usually wins, but as noted above, it is usually a small fraction of those that are playing. However, planning on being “lucky” does not strike me as either a good or intelligent strategy for making money, or prospering in business.

If you don’t believe me, just walk into any casino on the planet. When inside, look around. Notice all the nice employees, luxurious prizes, and very nice crystal, wood and marble appointments. Then look at all the people in there gambling. Understand that those are the people paying for all those nice things in that casino. Yes, there may be a very small percentage of them that actually win and are held up as examples to all the rest, but by and large, the vast majority of people that enter a casino leave it with less money than when they entered it. That’s how casinos stay in business and pay for all the nice appointments.

It seems that many may now have the opinion that you no longer have to work hard and excel at something to be successful. Perhaps it is the constant bombardment from the media depicting reality “stars” who seem to only excel at being famous as opposed to being talented, that is influencing this generation as to what success is. Perhaps it is the commercials only showing the Publishers Clearing House winners, and not the millions who don’t win.

Rightly or wrongly I have learned to associate success with hard work. Yes, there has to be some innate ability, but it is the drive and hard work to make something of that ability that leads to success. It seems that too often we attribute success to “luck”. Perhaps that is why so many now are relying on this Hail Mary approach to success. They just expect to get lucky.

The Roman philosopher Seneca is attributed as being the source of the following quote on luck:

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”

But we now depict the successful as not being prepared to be anything other than famous and successful. They are no longer famous because they were successful, they were successful because they were famous.

Too often we see the successful after they have “paid their dues”. Gates, Bezos, Jobs, Buffet and the others all worked long hours and were driven to be successful. I guess watching people work hard doesn’t make for good television, although the “Jobs vs. Gates” episode of the “American Genius” series on The National Geographic channel was an outstanding depiction of what hard work looked like.

It was also condensed down into a one-hour time frame and put together thirty years after the actual events. It seems today that people want to know and see who will be kicked off the island, or out of the house, tonight.

In business there are very few opportunities for the Hail Mary approach to success. I am sure that they happen occasionally. I just have never seen one, let alone had the opportunity to participate in one. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Just that they appear to be very rare opportunities and events.

As an example, when discussing the rarity of events, for the longest time people thought that the only type of swan that existed was a white one. There was even an old proverb relating to them (“A rare bird in the land”, first attributed to the Roman satirist Juvenal.)

It was not until relatively recent times that it was found that black swans do actually exist (in western Australia). This idea of “The Highly Improbable” was then put into a theory by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, present day scholar and statistician, to explain the rarity of certain events:

“The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist – a saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.”

Furthering the idea of the rarity of the business Hail Mary, or Black Swan event, is the continued relative drift away from critical thinking business opportunities in favor of process expansion and edification. Simply put, the business structure of today does not lend itself to many Hail Mary opportunities for success.

Instead business presents the opportunity for focused and hard work, and the potential opportunity for advancement and increased responsibility. “Potential” being the key word. In business today, many have the ability and intellect for advancement, but few have the focus and drive that Gates, Jobs, Bezos and others have demonstrated as a requisite for their levels of success.

The opportunity for success in business is still there, as shown by those that do rise to the most senior levels of leaders in it. It seems it is more the internal drive (and hard work) that separates the successful in business as opposed to them planning on being lucky.

This idea does not play as well when stacked against reality TV, or YouTube channel auteurs who are seemingly being successful at being famous – although I am sure that being famous is probably hard work as well.

What is interesting to me is the way Krzaczek ends her article on thirty-year old’s plans and methodologies for success and getting rich, in a seemingly “liberal” publication. She cites Andy Sewer, Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief, who said:

“Get real, work hard, and don’t spend money. The best way to get rich in America is not to spend money.”

That sounds like a pretty conservative, but smart approach to success to both getting rich, and being successful in business to me.

Looking a Little Farther Ahead

I almost got hit by a truck the other day driving home from golf. Now a lot of you may be wondering what that kind of statement has to do with the nominal topics of business management and sales that I usually deal with here. I’ll get to that in a minute. For those of you that live here in Texas, you know that the word “truck” can cover a lot of territory. Everything from a go-kart with a toy wagon bed welded on, to a Peterbilt cab-over semi tractor-trailer. In this case I’m pretty sure that it was a Dodge Ram 2500 Crew Cab since the badging was at eye height as I looked out the window at it. In Texas, this qualifies as a “standard” sized truck. Anything smaller and you’re considered either a poser or a city-boy. Still, it outweighed my full-sized car by close to a ton.

Driving on the freeways in Dallas can usually best be described as a cross between bumper cars and playing a game of “chicken” at seventy miles an hour. As long as everybody abides by the same rules and speed, traffic seems to flow along reasonably, bumper to bumper at seventy miles an hour with a minimum of bad language and hand gestures.

However, occasionally there are those that appear to be unfamiliar with the freeway rules of the road, and opt for what I am sure they feel is a little more intelligently safer speed when changing lanes or taking exit ramps, and other such things. They also usually use their turn signals when performing these maneuvers, and equally importantly, turn off their turn signals when they are done. These people are easy to identify in that they usually have a very long line of impatient drivers behind them.

In this case, I was the then last car in such a line of several cars behind one of these drivers, as we all were taking an off-ramp which connected one high-speed freeway to another.

This position is the most feared position in all of Texas driving. You are going slower than everyone behind you, with little to no options of avoidance in front of, or to the side of you. You have a tendency to watch your rear-view mirror rather closely in such situations.

The SUV immediately behind me was a little slow on the recognition of the situation, but was still able to slow down and pull over to the left side of the ramp, but remained behind me. This maneuver on their part took them out of harm’s way and still left me fully exposed. The truck in question behind them however, did not seem to be as alert to the situation.

Did you know that even though they do not cause the loud, wailing skids that we are all accustomed to on television, you can still hear anti-lock brakes as they try to stop a large truck coming toward you? It’s sort of a staccato noise as the brakes bite and release as they avoid the skid. It is not something you really want to hear as it gets louder or closer.

At the last moment before hitting me, the driver of the truck swerved up over the curb on the ramp to the right of me. His truck came to a stop alongside my car, where as I noted earlier, I could very clearly see its name and size outside my passenger side window.

As traffic started to resume speed, I went ahead and let him pass me on the right. This is not usual protocol for Texas driving, but in light of the circumstances, I felt an exception might be in order. After a moment’s hesitation, the truck drove off and my journey home resumed.

So, here is where the business lesson for this event comes into play.

Most of the time we are all focused on what we are doing at that particular time. We are minding our own business. We are focused on our deliverables. We are paying attention to our deadlines. We have our own worries.

Occasionally we look up to see what the next step is. We have a process. We are preparing for what we must do next. We are looking ahead, but only at what comes next. We are aware that there are other factors that are coming into play. We are in effect checking the car in front of us.

For the most part, this approach will keep you out of most of the trouble that is out there. However, there will come a time when the expected events will not occur. The situation will present itself with alarming speed.

In other words, you could find yourself driving along in your big Texas truck, minding your own business, when suddenly the car directly in front of you dodges out of the way and you find yourself presented with the opportunity to smash into me from behind.

It’s not enough to only be aware of what you are doing and what those immediately around you are doing. On occasion, you need to be looking up and checking the horizon. What is coming into view? What are the competitors doing? Are they adding or deleting resources? What are the customers doing? Are they buying and spending, or are they delaying purchases? What are the analysts saying about the market in general and the company in particular?

Are there multiple cars up ahead with their brake lights on, and should you be prepared to, or possibly already be in the process of slowing down?

The combination of the increased reliance on process, along with the seemingly continuous growth in the reverence for the corporate fire fighter when the process fails, does not seem to mesh with this anticipatory approach to things. Processes have been implemented for the most part to reduce the reliance on this kind of judgement. It almost seems that the corporate fire fighter has been integrated into the process for those times when the process breaks down.

Sort of a “In case of Fire, Break Glass” kind of thing.

The lanes in business continue to be further refined by process. Dotted lines become solid lines, become multiple solid lines, become fixed dividers. If you don’t believe this to be the case, just look at any inter-organizational process flow chart.

It is very easy to focus solely on what you are doing. To perform your function in the process. The organizational structure and incentives now focus on that type of professional behavior. And for the most part, things can and do go relatively smoothly. Until they don’t.

Inevitably someone will miss a step, or improperly hand-off an incomplete work project, and things will unexpectedly slow down. Customers may decide to postpone their next purchase and wait for the next generation of product. Competitors may introduce new technology ahead of when it was expected. Foreign competitors may decide to instigate a new competitive approach based on price.

Processes are resistant to change, and will take time to adapt. They don’t come with anti-lock brakes. They have an inherent amount of momentum associated with them. Just like a speeding full sized, crew cab Texas truck. It’s not enough to be performing your operational duties in a vacuum. You need to be looking forward at the traffic and events in front of you.

Markets don’t provide plenty of warning when they are going to change. Customers rarely tell you when they are going to slow down or stop buying altogether. Companies usually don’t give you a pre-notice when they are going to have to react to the changes in customer and market status.

Looking out, looking forward, anticipating the changes in the business environment are still key to navigating in business. Processes are helpful in simplifying the immediate and making it somewhat more predictable, but it is still your responsibility to be anticipating those future needs and directions that the business environment will present you.

Now if I could just get the people in those large trucks when they following me to do that a little better.

Do Your Homework

I don’t know how many others out there have experienced the joy (ahem…) of looking for a new position, but I know I have in the past. It is never really any fun. It is an effort. The uncertainty creates discomfort. I have noted in the past that I am not especially good at asking others for help. I have met several other people who seem to be very good at asking for help and it would seem that they almost prefer others to do their work for them, but me not so much. I have tried to compensate for this by trying to freely offer help and thus enabling others to avoid the issue of having to ask me for help. On several occasions this willingness to offer help to others in their job searches has caused some unexpected problems.

I think the basic equilibrium point for most of us is to be a contributing member of an organization, a business and society in general. That simply means that most of us like to work and be employed. When we are not employed, or face the prospect of not being employed we are well out of our comfort zone. After all, just because we may not be currently employed doesn’t mean the bills and expenses associated with our lives will stop or be put on hold.

Much has been written regarding the requirement of people to be flexible and able to change when it comes to employment. On a conceptual level this is an admirable goal. When it comes to forced practical application for specific individuals it may be a whole other story. It is difficult to maintain a professional equilibrium when you are both figuratively and literally out of your employment comfort zone. How people handle this discomfort varies. I have found that there are a few factors that affect an individual’s performance during these times.

The first is experience. Have they been in this situation or position before? Knowing how the process works and how to both ask for and accept help is important. The second is duration. The longer people are looking the longer the twin (and opposing) factors of the (calming) understanding the situation and the (stressing) desire to return to employment equilibrium have the opportunity to take effect. The final and for me most important factor is preparation. How prepared were they for this situation, and how prepared are they to be able to deal with it?

The effects of the experience and duration factors, as one would expect, can only be learned with time. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. The only way you get it is to actually go through it. I think it is the preparation factor that everyone to one level or another can affect. With a little preparation and homework, it may be in fact possible to at least partially mitigate the effects of the other two factors.

I have also noted in the past that with the possible exception of sales, which is has a performance rating that is primarily quantifiable (i.e., how much was actually sold, or the amount of orders received) almost all other disciplines have a qualitative aspect to their measurement. That means that an individual’s performance perception will at least partially be opinion based.

And as we all know, opinions do vary.

Just ask western figure skaters when it comes to eastern bloc judges.

We all must understand that while we all may feel we are operating at the peak of efficiency and performance, there are potentially always eastern bloc judges in management that may not agree.

We must also understand that companies are always under cost reduction and performance pressures. Market and competitive fluctuations may also drive corporate employment decisions that may not be based on performance, but rather on financial necessity.

There is the doing of your homework and being prepared for the potentiality of needing to find a new role, and then there is also the doing your homework in the actual search. As I said I like to try and offer my help, such as it may be, to those that may be in the search mode.

Something about “There but for the grace…go I” sort of comes to mind, meaning if I were in a similar position I would definitely appreciate those that freely offered their help.

There have been many times where I have met people, networked and asked how I may be able to help, when I have had some variation of the following conversation:

“Get me a job in your company.”

Really? I am here to try and help you get a job, not get one for you. What do you do?

“I can do anything.”

Really? Do you have a resume?

“Not with me. It’s a few years out of date and a little long, but I’ll be glad to send it to you. When do you think I can start?”

Here is a simple rule for networking or meeting with someone who might able or willing to help you in a job search: Do your homework. Help them help you.

Be concise. Do a little self-analysis and understand what it is you do and are good at. Accountants normally don’t make good sales people, and vice-versa. They normally have significantly different skill sets involved in their roles. Don’t tell anyone you can do anything. It makes you sound like either an egotistical braggart, or at the end of your rope desperate. Neither is a good image to portray.

Have an up to date resume ready. It should be two pages, no more. It doesn’t matter how many years you have worked. It doesn’t matter what you think you have done. Most people or companies are really only interested in your roles over the last fifteen or so years. Adding much on your accomplishments and positions before that doesn’t add to your value as they may be considered somewhat dated. If you have won a Nobel Prize or a Congressional Medal of Honor, it may be acceptable to extend the length of your resume to two and a half pages, but only if you have one, or both of those awards to document and explain. There really are no other excuses for a resume of greater length.

Do some homework on the company that the person you are meeting works for. All companies post many of their open positions on their websites. Have an idea what might be available. Be knowledgeable about what they do and where some of their openings are. Give the person you are meeting something to work with.

Many industries may be big, but the business world can be surprisingly small. Look up who the company’s competitors might be and check their sites for potential openings. It’s called “Networking” for a reason. People know other people in the industry and may be able to give you a referral if you can articulate what it is that you want, where it might be, and why you think that.

Many times when networking we forget just how many different people we know and the various companies that they work for. Providing this type of information does wonders in jogging memories and getting things moving.

It’s been said that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. This is especially important in the somewhat higher stressed environment of a job search. Coming to a networking meeting unprepared does not help with the first impression. You will be asking someone to give you some of their most valuable resource: time. Don’t make them feel that you, or they may have wasted it.

Take some of your time first and do some homework. Anticipate what questions you may be asked, and prepare your answers ahead of time. Do your research on companies and positions so that when asked you can identify the opportunities that are a good fit for you, and minimize the time that you are actually requesting. Document who you are and what you can do. Provide it. Don’t make them ask for it.

People understand that when you are out looking for a position that you are also looking for help. Make it easy for them to help you. It is all about time. Don’t expect that everyone will have all the time you need in order to be helped.

Please reread that last sentence just to make sure you get the meaning. People will be willing to help you, but they probably won’t attribute the same priority to it that you will. Time is of the essence and will be the medium of exchange. Spend a little of your time doing some homework so that you make it that much easier (and that much less time involved) for them to help you.

It will be time well spent.

When to Network

I think we have all seen the statistics that say when we are out looking for a new position that it will be the people you know that are going to be the most valuable resources when in comes to identifying and landing that new role. For those of you who may not have seen the statistics, they show that between seventy and eighty percent of all new positions are found via networking. With estimates of up to seventy percent of all positions no longer being advertized, whether you are currently in a role and looking to move, or are already between positions and are looking for your next assignment, it is going to be your business associates, friends and acquaintances that will probably be responsible for your next role. I think that this sort of information clearly demonstrates that while what you may know is important, it will be who you know that will help you identify your next position.

Most of us have a tendency to think about our networks only when it comes time for us to start looking for a new assignment. While this might be the necessary time to exercise a network, is it the optimum time to be exercising the network?

I personally have been through multiple business changes. My son thinks my biggest change probably occurred when the Chicxulub meteor struck and wiped out my first cretaceous network. That fact did not however dissuade him from asking for help with his physics home work last night.

Meteors notwithstanding, I have found that for me the best time to network is not when I am in a search mode but rather when other people are in a search mode. When others are in a search mode they are already reaching out. In any network there will be those that respond and those that for whatever reason (to busy, not interested, etc.) that will not. I have made it a policy to always respond. I have found that it not only puts me in touch with my own network, it puts me in touch with the networks of others.

Networking is about creating links with others that may be two or three times (or more) removed from our own spheres of relationships. We already know who we know. It is by helping them that we get connected to the people that they know. By helping someone you not only confirm an existing relationship directly with that person, you establish a relationship with all the other people that person knows.

My dad, who I seem to give an increasing amount of attributions to, used to tell me:

“Never miss an opportunity to put the universe in your debt.”

I think this is his spin on the older version of:

“What goes around comes around.”

The latter phrase has a decidedly negative connotation associated with revenge or retribution for a previous bad behavior done against someone, whereas the former phrase is more associated with doing the first good deed for someone in the expectation that future good deeds will be done for you. In other words the best networking can be done in a “pay it forward” sort of mode.

Such is the essence of networking. Doing the first good deed is an excellent way to get and keep your network engaged. It gets to the point where the consideration of future good deeds coming back your way becomes secondary. I personally am not the best at asking for help, but I try to be pretty good at offering it. If you only network when you need something from your network, then that is the type of behavior that will quickly become associated with you.

The value of a network comes from being able to access it. The best way to access it is to be bringing something to it. Passing along position leads to others, or potential candidates for positions to recruiters, or just responding to general questions and requests for information rapidly generates a good receptivity when it is “your turn” to ask for help. Not everyone will reciprocate. That is human nature. But there will be many who feel and operate the way you do who will respond.

I have read several articles where successful business leaders have looked at themselves as the stewards of their business. Not surprisingly many of the leaders that I have had the opportunity to network with have looked at their networks the same way. They focus on the value that they bring to the system by enabling others to connect.

I guess it is appropriate to note that the network does not owe you a new position. You have to earn that. That is where the “what you know” part of the adage comes into play. You should not impose on your network to provide you with a new position, but rather look at it as connecting you with the opportunity to compete for a new position, as there will undoubtedly be others who are also in the market for something new.

Jerry Goldstein, the former CEO at Scott’s Liquid Gold is attributed as the author of the quote:

“Good fortune is when preparation meets opportunity.”

An active network, or better, a network that you are active in is one of the best ways to get connected to or “meet” an opportunity. It is obviously up to us to be prepared for such an event.

Put it on Paper

Here I go again, demonstrating to the world just exactly what sort of a business dinosaur I am. That’s ok. I don’t really mind. For those of you not exactly following what I am saying here, I would refer you to the title. I refer to paper. You know, that old technology, tactile foldable thing; paper. Most people don’t use paper anymore. If they want to take a note they usually type it into their omnipresent laptop or tablet, or if really pressed they will use their thumbs and try to tap it into their smart phone.

I remember attending a sales conference some time ago. For those of you who may not be familiar with sales conferences, these are events where the sales team goes to celebrate their previous year performance while also receiving their next year targets and objectives. I also understand that each day of the sales conference has a two drink minimum.

I am not going to discuss paper and its relationship to a sales team’s past performance. The paper that is normally associated with that is green, has pictures of past presidents (and others – Ben Franklin wasn’t a president, at least I don’t think he was) and is recognized as legal tender. In this case I am going to talk about paper and how it was used in relationship to the future targets.

Success in sales is a double edged sword. Do well and you are rewarded handsomely with commissions and recognition. On the other hand, do well and your next year’s targets will be raised so as to reflect your past success. They will usually be significantly increased. It is one of the basics of target setting. Beat them one year, expect them to be significantly increased the next. Such is the life and continuous challenge of being a top flight sales person.

At the sales meeting I was at, the Senior Vice President of sales had just finished congratulating the team on their past performance, when he turned everyone’s attention to the future. It was if he simultaneously and collectively hashed everyone’s “mellow”. He told them what their targets were for the next year.

The air left the room. There was an audible whooshing sound as the blood drained from the various sales leaders’ heads. What had been a celebration now sat precariously on the precipice of becoming an insurrection. The demanded growth was that large. It was impossible to achieve. It looked like it was going to get ugly.

This was when the wily sale vice president stood up and said.

“I don’t know how we are going to get to the number either, but the first thing we need to do is to put it on paper so that we can start working on it.”

He understood that while the goal sounded outrageous and unattainable, that the first step in generating success was to make the target real. Putting it on paper demystified it. It made the number real. And making the goal real, regardless of the perceived difficulty in attaining it is the first step in attaining it.

By putting it on paper you take something that may seem out of reach and reduce it to a number, or words on a piece of paper. Think about that for a minute. When it is on paper it is both bound and defined. It is no longer unbounded and undefined. It is real.

I thought this was a pretty spectacular way to regain control of the room. Sales people are not renowned for being the most forward thinking of strategists. Some of the really good ones that I have known are, but for the most part, maybe not so much. In any event, by telling the team members to write it down, and then taking a moment to pause in his presentation, which had the effect of adding more impetus to the request, he slowed the runaway new quota riot train before it could fully leave the last year’s performance station.

It took me a while to come up with that allegory. I am not sure that I fully like it, but I think I will leave it for now.

The simple fact of writing something down starts the planning and strategy process. Putting pen to paper. Once something is written invariably something else will be written next to it, or below it. Once the thought process starts other ideas will begin to evolve. Eventually plans and strategies will emerge. It won’t happen all at once. It will take time. But it all starts with just writing down the goal on a piece of paper.

Arguing and Negotiating

When two people are have a discussion with opposing points of view it is usually called an argument. Webster’s Dictionary (an all time favorite of mine) defines an argument as: “An argument usually arises from a disagreement between two persons, each of whom advances facts supporting his or her own point of view.” This is a great description for what goes on between two friends when they are arguing if the beer does in fact taste great or is in fact less filling. I don’t drink that particular beer so it doesn’t matter to me.

However, if these two individuals are no longer representing themselves in the beer argument, but are now representing their respective different companies with opposing points of view, they are no longer arguing. They are negotiating. Going back to Webster’s we find the following definition for a negotiation: “a discussion set up or intended to produce a settlement or agreement”. To me these two descriptions appear to be the two sides of the same coin. There are many reasons to have an agreement, one of which is to avoid future disagreements. Once there is a disagreement you definitely want to have a negotiation to resolve it as an argument probably won’t provide a solution.

Now we are getting somewhere. When two people disagree, they have a discussion called an argument. When two companies disagree, they send people to have a discussion called a negotiation.

One of the key points required for both arguing and negotiating is to clearly establish what each participant’s starting positions are. Who is claiming what, and who is denying what? Who says “yes” and who says “no”. Who says “up” and who says “down”. Who thinks they should be paid a lot of money and who thinks they shouldn’t have to pay any money at all. That sort of thing. This is a very important point in the process.

If the two parties find that their initial positions are similar, or even the same, then it will be difficult to have a meaningful argument, and the negotiation will consist mainly of nodding heads and the shaking of hands. This type of premature negotiation has a tendency to leave both parties vaguely unfulfilled from the negotiation process.

The next part of the process should be the justification and validation of the respective initial positions. I think this is the key part to many arguments and is critical to any negotiation, or argument for that matter. The respective positions on the topic in question need to be defined and justified. Why does each participant believe that they are correct, and why do they believe the other party is not?

In a recent discussion with my wife (it was a discussion not an argument as she does not allow me to argue with her) she put forth the position that “I should have fed the dogs”. I never feed the dogs unless I am specifically asked to feed the dogs because she always feeds the dogs and if I also fed them we would very quickly have obese Chihuahuas. Hence my position was that I do not feed the dogs unless asked to feed them. We therefore started out with very well defined positions for the ensuing discussion with our differing points of view (argument).

As you might guess this was a discussion that I was not going to win.

Fast forwarding to the end of the discussion, it was decided (by her) that either I was asked to feed the dogs and forgot, or I was asked to feed the dogs and did not hear the request. The fact that I was at work in my office in another building in another part of town when this request was made was inadmissible evidence. So I went and fed the dogs.

In business, depending on who has made the claim or demand, there may be a similar tendency to accept the same type of behavior and response when it comes to requesting positional justification prior to a negotiation. Why does on party feel that they are due a large sum of money from the other party? What specifically justifies the claim? What specifically validates the amount? In too many instances businesses seem to rush to try and deal directly with the claim, regardless how potentially outrageous it may be, before they understand the basis for the claim itself.

Please do not misunderstand me. For the most part most businesses perform and act in a reasonably appropriate and logical manner. They usually only make claims requiring a negotiation when there is a justifiable cause for such behavior. I think that part of the reason for this general behavior is that businesses are usually made up of honorable and logical people. Those types of people are prone to logical and honorable behavior.

I also think that logical people fully expect to have to be able to justify and defend any claim that they may make. If in general the first response to any claim being made is to ask for a justification of why the claim was made, then there is a certain amount of preparatory work that should be expected.

When it comes to customers, sometimes this check and balance claim expectation validation can break down. In today’s hyper-competitive world, where the customer is always right and vendors strive to be identified as “partners” instead of just “vendors”, customer service is sometimes the only differentiating factor available in the market. In this new commercial world where the speed with which you respond to a customer request or demand can be the difference between keeping that customer and losing them to the more responsive competition, jumping when the customer says jump is rapidly becoming the expectation.

In this type of environment, where “partners” are working together to achieve a mutually beneficial solution (It’s true. That’s what it now says on every sales presentation I have seen, and they wouldn’t be exaggerating, would they?) it is sometimes easy to forget to ask why partners are making any specific demand, or making the claim that they are making.

Vendors and customers ask these sorts of questions of each other. Just as good fences make for good neighbors; these good questions make for good contracts and relationships. Sometimes partners can forget or neglect to ask these questions. Those exclusions can eventually make for some significantly misplaced expectations, expenditures and possible difficulties in the partnership relationship when the necessary reset on the expected demand response occurs.

Good customer service and customer relationships require vendors to not only understand what is wanted, but why it is expected. Asking for this justification of demands and claims is not the sign of a weak partnership. It is more the sign of an engaged relationship. To blindly respond to any customer generated stimulus will create an unbalanced and unsustainable situation. In this event the desire for a partnership will devolve into more of a master and servant arrangement where one party makes demands and the other fulfills them.

Asking for the justification of expectations, demands and claims is probably the best way to validate what the other party actual desires. Are they looking for a problem to be rectified, or is it something else? Are they testing your responsiveness, or do they have a genuine need? Is there something that they actually want, or are they just seeing what they can get? It is not the sign of distrust in the partnership. It is more the sign of parity in the relationship.

Or as in the case with my wife, it was probably just my turn to feed the dogs.

Swiss Army Knives

I remember when I was a kid that one of the things that I really, really wanted was a Swiss Army Knife. I liked the idea of having a one size fits all kind of knife. If I wanted to whittle something I would have a small knife blade that I could fold out and whittle with. Likewise if I wanted to saw something I could fold out the saw blade and start sawing. The fact that it was a three inch blade with a non-locking mechanism wouldn’t stop me. If there was a two by four that needed some sawing on it I would be ready.

The same could be said for cork screw despite the fact that it would be more than a decade before I would be old enough to drink wine, however if my mom needed any help I would stand ready. There were also blade and Phillips head screw drivers for all the things I would build or repair while in the wilderness, awls for working the leather I would take with me camping, tweezers for removing all the splinters I would amass while roughing it and even a smaller back-up knife blade in case I broke the first one from too much use while in the woods whittling.

In short I guess it could be said that the Swiss Army Knife could do just about anything. This idea of being able to do just about anything had a significant coolness factor. The kid who had the knife that could do the most things that he would never use it for was obviously the coolest kid.

I have grown older (I don’t know of anyone who would be so foolish as to say that I have grown up) and I no longer have the same affinity for Swiss Army Knives that I did when I was younger. Like most guys I am now preoccupied with the number of functions that my favorite Multi-Tool can perform, that I will never use. The primary difference between then and now is that I can now afford a far more complex Multi-Tool than I could ever afford Swiss Army Knife then.

So what has all this got to do with business? Good question.

Reminiscing about my favorite old Swiss Army Knife got me to thinking about optimization for purpose and use. Those knives (and today’s Multi-Tools) are capable of doing just about everything. The problem is that they are not optimized, or really good at anything. The knife blade can be used to whittle, the screw drivers can drive screws, I wouldn’t know about the awl for working leather as I never had the opportunity to really try it, and the corkscrew will in fact remove a cork from a wine bottle. The problem is that it really doesn’t do any of those things very well. The functions are all there, but they are not optimized for their respective applications.

In business it is not about being able to do everything. It is about being the very best at what you do. You usually don’t ask your Finance and Accounting people to go out and sell your good or service. Marketers normally can’t count well enough to have them keep the business’ books. Sales people aren’t normally any good at anything else other than sales. You don’t ask people to do something that they may be able to do, but that they are not at their best at.

This is the same principle that governs the applicability of Swiss Army Knives in functional applications. Professional mechanics do not use them to work on engines. If they need a screw tightened they go and get the appropriate and specific screw driver that meets their specific need. Have you ever looked in the hardware store at the number of different types of screw drivers that there are? There is a reason for that. Each one is optimized for a specific screw tightening application.

My wife has never ever asked me for, nor asked me to buy her a Swiss Army Knife or Multi-Tool with a cork screw so she could open a bottle of wine. In fact I think she has at least two designer cork screws, one of which has an electric motor, whose sole purpose for existence is to only remove corks from wine bottles as quickly and stylishly as possible. The fact that a Swiss Army Knife or Multi-Tool could do so much more than just opening the wine seems to hold no allure to her.

This optimization for purpose and use should be applied throughout the business. Products should focus on being the best at what they are used for. Look at the screw driver example I used before. I’ll also illustrate this precept by using a hi-tech example from my past. I worked for a company that essentially made a chassis that would house a variety of application specific boards and blades (sounds like a Swiss Army Knife). Each blade was optimized for a specific application, and there were a lot of them to choose from.

Customers said that the number of different application blades could be confusing and suggested that the company undertake the development of a “universal” blade that would enable the customers to do several different applications instead of the usually capable and provisioned one. The universal blade came out … and it was a failure.

The resulting universal blade was much more complex, much more expensive and less functional on every application that it addressed even though it addressed far more applications than the single blade – single application counterparts. In short it could do just about everything, but it couldn’t do anything as well as each of the specific application blades could do it, and due to its complexity it was much more expensive to boot. Less optimized and more expensive is not a good business proposition for success.

The same would go for business processes. Processes are supposed to be a simplified, streamlined, consistent way of doing things that will optimize your efficiency. However when you try to create the “universal” process, much like the universal application blade, they end up not being optimized for anything and hence reduce efficiency in everything.

As an example, suppose you are addressing two markets, the North and South Poles. On the surface both are similar in that they are cold and have snow. But the North Pole is populated by Santa’s elves and they are primarily interested in candy and toys. The South Pole is populated by penguins who are primarily interested in fish and not being eaten by sea lions.

If you were to create a global process that addresses the needs of both the North Pole and South Pole markets it would have to take into account the specific and disparate needs associated with serving both elves and penguins. By the very nature of your markets at least half (and probably more) of your process would not be applicable to one or the other market. If you were to complicate things further by adding third market, say the Himalayas (again cold with snow) you would then have to add the processes associated with serving the populations of Sherpa and Yetis in the area. As we all know Sherpa are primarily interested in climbing and Yeti are primarily interested in leaving foot prints and not being seen.

Sherpa and Yeti, elves and penguins all live in similar markets (cold and snow) but I don’t think that a universal process can be put together to efficiently address each of these markets’ specific needs. It would seem to be much more efficient to create and optimize a process for use in each specific area.

Business is about addressing specific markets and even more specifically, specific customers and their specific needs. The better that you can do that, the better your chances of success both with that customer and in that market. Swiss Army knives and Multi-Tools are cool, but people, and customers, who have a specific need are not looking for all the other functionality that comes with the more complicated or diverse solution. When you start to hear the siren song of the universal product or the universal process it may be best to emulate Odysseus and find a way to maintain your direction and focus on the optimization for purpose and use that your customer really wants, and that has been the cornerstone of business success.