Archive for the 'Entrepreneurship' Category

The wonderful world of small business niches

One of the things Sears Roebuck is famous for is their Craftsmen tools, especially their mechanical socket wrenches. Once, while buying one of these, I was confronted with the options of “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” a strategy for which Sears is also famous. Asking about the difference, I was told that the Best model had more notches, or teeth, inside the mechanism, allowing for finer adjustments when tightening a bolt or nut.

For the past 30 years, the marketplace has increasingly become like that “Best” socket wrench: every year, it acquires more notches, except in the marketplace, notches are called niches (I prefer “nitch,” but some say “neesh” – tomato, tomahto). And just as more notches in a mechanical wrench allow for finer adjustments, niches create finer and more elegant ways to serve customers, which they like – a lot.

Webster (and Wikipedia) defines a niche as, “a place or position perfectly suited for the person or thing in it.” If ever a concept was perfectly suited for something, it is the niche and small business. Indeed, as one small business owner creates a new niche, another is creating a niche within a niche. It’s a beautiful thing.

Rebecca Boenigk is the president of Neutral Posture, Inc., a Texas company she and her mother founded in 1989. This small business manufactures REALLY comfortable and ergonomically correct office chairs. As a guest on my radio program, she told me they attribute their success to filling a niche: Their chairs aren’t for everyone, just those who are willing to pay a little more for a chair that promotes the best posture at work. Many small business fortunes have been made with the Neutral Posture model of being the best-in-niche, rather than trying to conquer the world.

The mother of niches is what Adam Smith called “the division of labor,” which today often manifests as outsourcing. Outsourcing is when individuals and businesses spend more time focusing on their core competencies and contract for the other stuff. For example, there are more professional lawn businesses today because folks are increasingly realizing they can earn more by sticking to their professional knitting, than it costs to hire their grass cut.

And across the marketplace, it’s become an article of faith that the best way to stay on track is by outsourcing non-core tasks to a contractor – often operating in a niche – whose core competency is that task. I’ve long said that the best thing that ever happened to small business – after the personal computer – is outsourcing, because it manufactures niches, which are pretty much the domain of small business.

As niches have increased in number, so have entrepreneurial opportunities, resulting in the most dramatic expansion of the small business sector in history. It’s difficult to say which one is the egg and which is the chicken: Have entrepreneurs taken advantage of niche opportunities presented to them, or have they carved out niches while pushing the envelope of an industry? The answer is not either/or, it’s both/and.

In the future, there won’t be more mass marketing, mass media or mass distribution, but there will be more niches – lots of new niches. Even niches of niches. And that’s good news, because more niches means a healthier small business sector, which I happen to believe is good for the world.

Write this on a rock … Most small businesses will find more success by creating and serving niches.

Can you sell your leadership product?

What is a leader? A mentor once told me a leader is someone who can find others who will follow him (or her).

But as we all know, followers can be high-maintenance folks, requiring constant tending to whatever it is that attracts them; most of the time “it” is something intangible. Napoleon is reputed to have said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Intangible.

Leadership, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So we asked our radio and online audience which of five characteristics is THE most important to being a successful leader. Two of the leadership traits we offered, courage and perseverance, got the lowest ranking, each in single digits.  The highest ranking went to “ability to communicate,” with about 40% choosing this one, followed by “ethical behavior,” chosen by almost one-third of respondents,  and “vision” selected by a little more than one out of four.

At first, I was surprised that courage and perseverance didn’t rank higher, because it’s my belief that both of these are defining traits of a successful leader. But surprise turned to clarity when I realized that our poll had revealed what we all know but don’t always remember: There are two faces of a leader. One is the face leaders see when looking in a mirror, and the other is the one followers see. When seeking the definition of a leader, we have to be clear about which point-of-view is being sought: leadership traits we seek in ourselves or those that attract followers.

The face in the mirror knows courage and perseverance are definitely among the imperatives for leadership success. But to followers, these are merely raw materials used to manufacture the product they demand of leaders - that intangible “bit of colored ribbon” delivered by communicating a vision that is executed based on mutually held values.

Turns out, being a leader is a lot like being a business owner. To be successful in business, it’s not enough to offer quality products you’re proud of - customers drop the gavel on that judgment. Similarly, it’s not enough for leaders just to please the mirror - followers are the customers of your leadership product.

In order to get others to follow you, both faces of leadership must be in evidence. Nurture those traits that success requires of you personally, like courage, perseverance, faith, commitment, etc., while simultaneously delivering what followers expect: ethics, communication, vision and performance.

Write this on a rock … Are you finding followers for your “bit of colored ribbon?”

When trust is a best practice, profit margins increase

Few contemporary prophecies have stood the test of time better than this one by John Naisbitt, from his 1982 watershed book, Megatrends: “The more high-tech, the more high-touch.” I call that, “Naisbitt’s Razor.”

The reason for Naisbitt’s accuracy is simple: High tech, by definition, means digital. But you and I are not the least bit digital; we’re 100% analog. And our analog nature manifests as a desire to connect with - or as Naisbitt says, “touch” - other humans. So the value of touch increases proportionally with the increase in the velocity of our lives.

Digital is fast; analog is not. We may transport ourselves virtually at the speed of digital, but once there, we touch -eye, ear, hand - at the speed of analog. So how do we reconcile the fact that as high-tech consumers who desire and eagerly adopt each new generation of digital, we’re still, and will always be, analog beings? One word: trust.

Nothing is more capable of accelerating with high-tech while simultaneously governing down to high-touch than trust. Naisbitt didn’t directly address the concept of trust in his book. But I interviewed him twice on my radio program and I think he wouldn’t mind if I expanded his razor to: The more high-tech we have, the more imperative trust becomes.

In another of my favorite books, Built On Trust, by co-author and frequent guest on my radio program, Arky Ciancutti, M.D., I found this: “We are a society in search of trust. The less we find it, the more precious it becomes.” For millennia, customers did business with the same businesses because they wanted to deal with the same people. We trusted the people first and the company second. In an era where erosion of the high touch of trust is often lamented by customers and employees, there are still places where it not only exists, but was actually born. Where, in contrast to the rest of the contemporary marketplace, trust is still found in abundance. Those places are almost all on Main Street in the form of small businesses.

With trust now more precious than ever, build the foundation of your small business’s culture on it. And when you can deliver on trust as your North Star, you’ve earned the right to go to market with it. Here’s an example:  Reveal the combined industry tenures of your leadership team (101 years), or the average tenure of your staff (18 years). When prospects see those numbers, they hear T-R-U-S-T.

In one interview on my show, Arky said, “An organization in which people earn one another’s trust, and commands trust from customers, has an advantage.” Since contemplating that, I’ve maintained that being devoted to trust is not only the right thing to do, it’s a business best practice. Let me explain.

As the velocity of the digital marketplace increases, our business has to move faster, and our stakeholders - employees, vendors, etc. - have to keep up. As one of my vendors, if I can trust you to keep up, that’s a relevance value worth more to me than the competitive price of a low-bidder I don’t know. You just converted trust into higher margins.

In the greater marketplace, where devotion to trust is no longer ubiquitous, small businesses have been handed a rare gift. And all they have to do to claim it is create and leverage the relevance advantage Arky means when he says, “The advantage trust gives your organization is there for the taking, waiting to be harvested. It’s not even low-hanging fruit. It’s lying on the ground.”

You may have heard me say that the Price War is over and small business lost. Well, the Trust War is on, and small business is winning.

Write this on a rock … To claim that victory you must operate at the speed of trust.

Can you make teleworking work for you?

Here’s a scenario that every small business owner fears: A key employee resigns because he or she cannot continue to come to your place of business to work for reasons out of their control, such as an illness or a family issue. Is there another answer besides accepting the resignation?

With the exciting recruiting resources available today, you might discover that the best prospect for a job opening you have lives in another state, or even another country. What if they don’t want to move? What’s your next move?

One word answers both questions: Teleworking.

New technology and evolving management paradigms make stories like these have happy and productive endings through teleworking.

A marker of the 21st century workplace, teleworking is where an employee works off-site full or part-time (aka tele-commuting), most often from home. But in order for such an arrangement to be successful, two things must happen:

First the easy part: You must have the necessary technology and tools, which you will have to provide your teleworker.

  • Computer capability and Internet connection are the minimum.
  • Your teleworker will need the right set up, like office furniture, etc., to make their off-site working environment as productive as possible. And it’s not unreasonable to ask to see how the space is organized.

Now the hard part: Can you handle such a management relationship? Consider these four ground rules to execute a teleworking relationship.

  • Find out if, and what work can realistically be done off-site.
  • Determine how to coordinate all work, off or on-site.
  • Establish expectations for scheduled communication, plus production, execution and delivery of work.
  • Talk with other employees about why this employee is being allowed to work remotely, so they can support the new plan. If handled properly, you’ll get major points for being such a cool, 21st century manager.

Execute your teleworking plan with the expectation that adjustments will almost certainly have to be made. So schedule periodic reviews with your teleworker to discuss how things are going.

By the way, if you’re still having trouble imagining having an employee who’s not sitting under your roof, add up how many hours in-house employees work and communicate without actually seeing each other. I’ll bet that number will surprise you.

It might make you feel better knowing that the teleworking model is now being implemented by thousands of small businesses like yours every day.

Write this on a rock … Teleworking can work. Can you make it work for you?

Four IP questions to tell if you get it

One of the most interesting aspects of the marketplace is the evolution of how businesses leverage assets. For most of history, business leverage came from these three categories in this order:

1. Muscle power (human or animal);

2. Tangible stuff (raw material, inventory, tools, etc.);

3. Information (intellectual property, or IP).

Historically, the strongest cavemen, the biggest horses, the fastest ships, the largest factories, all had an advantage over lesser competitors. We’ve all seen this: “Largest inventory in the region.”

But here’s the interesting part: As the marketplace has evolved, the order of importance and the value of assets has inverted. Studies show increasing emphasis is being placed on IP and the ability to leverage it with less emphasis on leveraging tangible assets.

And what about muscles? Increasingly in the global marketplace, human brawn is number four on a list of three.

The good news is small businesses are joining this global trend of leveraging IP more and tangible assets less. They’re increasingly using technology in exciting new ways, doing more virtual business and are as likely to develop a strategy for doing business across an ocean today as they did across town 20 years ago.

Regarding how essential IP is to a small business’s 21st century competitiveness, more and more small businesses get it.  The bad news is there still are far too many who don’t. As an example, incredibly, almost half of small businesses still don’t even have a website.

To see if you “get it,” consider these four questions:

1. If I gave you for free (a) a truckload of inventory or (b) a special technology that would help you serve customers better, which would you choose?

2. Do you spend more time (a) thinking about products and services or (b) finding technology to more effectively serve new customer expectations?

3. Do your employees (a) use the same technology in the direct performance of their jobs today that they did 5 years ago or (b) different technology (not just new machines)?

4. If you purchased another business, which would be more valuable to you: (a) the inventory and equipment, or (b) the digital records of their customers: names; contact info, including email; what they buy; when they want it; why they buy it; and how they use it?

If you chose (a) for any of these questions, it’s likely your business’s performance is on a declining trajectory. But if you chose the (b) options, congratulations, you get it about IP.

Write this on a rock … In the 21st century, leverage intellectual property more and tangible assets less.

An official day for small business owners

Labor Day began as an idea in the mind of a 19th century labor leader — some say Matthew Maguire, others say Peter McGuire — who cared greatly for a very important segment of the marketplace, its workers.

Regardless of paternity, such a day was first celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, when members of the CLU took an unpaid day off to demonstrate solidarity and, of course, have picnics. And ever since 1984, when President Grover Cleveland’s signature designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day, it’s been an official federal holiday.

In 1898, Samuel Gompers, then head of the American Federation of Labor, called Labor Day, “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed … that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

Alas, entrepreneurs aren’t organized like our union brethren — probably because we’re too busy making payroll. There is no single Small Business Day officially decreed by the U.S. Government. No Entrepreneur’s Day set aside to honor the few who do so much for so many; a day to picnic and party down in honor of the real heroes of the marketplace, small business owners.

There actually is a small business week when the U.S. Small Business Administration recognizes the “creme de la creme” of entrepreneurs in America. But it’s not an official “Day” and it’s not always the same week each year.

Small businesses represent over 98% of all U.S. businesses and produce over half of the U.S. $17 trillion GDP.  Plus, we sign the FRONT of the paychecks of over half (70 million) of all U.S. workers.

Let’s see: Big deal on Labor Day — no Small Business Day. What’s wrong with this picture?

So, what’s the answer? Let’s celebrate Small Business Day in a way no other national holiday has been established: on a Sunday — actually, the second Sunday in August.

Sunday is preferred because that would create the least payroll expense. August is the month-of-choice because that’s when politicians are home on recess. This way they can practice casting their pearls before we small business owners in preparation for eating barbeque and sucking up to unions on Labor Day.

To paraphrase Samuel Gompers, small business owners deserve a day for which these signers-of-the-front-of-paychecks can look forward to when their rights and wrongs would be discussed; that the small employers of our day may not only lay down their challenges for a holiday, but during which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.

Write this on a rock … Entrepreneurs unite!  It’s time we had a day to honor small business owners.




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