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The irony of Lincoln’s inspiration for entrepreneurs

It’s been 209 years since the birth of one of the most famous people in history. It’s very likely that people in every developed country on the planet have heard the name Abraham Lincoln, even if they don’t know why.

As the 16th president of the United States of America, it’s generally accepted that Lincoln’s leadership genius made possible the ultimate resolution of one of the greatest conflicts in human history, the American Civil War. And as harsh, prolonged and contentious as that post-war “Reconstruction” was, it resulted in the successful reassembly of the United States, sans slavery. So when you combine all of this with the blessing that the re-United States became to the world for the past century and a half, it isn’t a leap of logic to recognize Lincoln as one of the top two or three individuals in the history of Western Civilization.

As a leader, Lincoln was a risk-taker. So his story is especially important for a special group of contemporary risk-takers, small business owners. Every day along the ownership continuum, from startup to locking up for the last time, Main Street businesses can draw strength and inspiration from the uncomplicated, honest and fierce witness of Lincoln’s character and leadership.

But ironically, as much as Lincoln’s accomplishments put him on a lofty pedestal, it’s his hard times that have also inspired generations of both leaders and followers. Indeed, when you consider just a partial list of painful personal tragedy and loss, plus numerous professional setbacks and failures through which Lincoln persevered, enormous respect and admiration can be the only result. For example:

• He failed in business in 1831 and again in 1833.
• He was defeated for state legislator in 1832.
• His fiancee died in 1835.
• He had a nervous breakdown in 1836.
• He ran for Congress in 1843 and ’48; lost both races.
• He ran for the Senate in 1855 and ’59; lost both races.
• He ran for Vice President in 1856 and lost.
• His wife, Mary Todd, was emotionally unstable.
• He buried two of his four beloved sons.
• He was elected President in 1860 as America’s house divided and dissolved into “a great civil war”.

Reading this list, one is overwhelmed in at least two ways:

1. Sadness - that any one person would experience so many unfortunate things;

2. Admiration - that in the face of such adversity, anyone could recover to accomplish so much.

As 2018 unfolds, if you’re ever tempted to whine because the marketplace licked the red off your candy, go back and reread Lincoln’s failures and setbacks. This time you might feel two other emotions:

1. Shame - that you allowed yourself to lapse into a self-involved pity party;

2. Renewed perseverance – now realizing that, like Lincoln, as long as you’re alive, every new day you show up to work on your business and life could be the day you turn the corner and win the war.
Lincoln taught us that the difference between bold accomplishment and painful setback is often the courage, character, and diligence to persevere.

Write this on a rock … There is no better model of courage, character, and perseverance than Abraham Lincoln. Let his life –the good and the unfortunate – inspire yours. And who knows? It might lead you to inspire others.

Three new reasons to expand your market horizons

More than ever, 21st century small businesses have reasons and resources to expand opportunities beyond local markets, including international trade, and specifically exporting. Yet even though 97% of all U.S. exporters are small companies, only a fraction of that sector are exporters.

But there’s good news that should cause the number of small exporters to increase. The convergence of new technology, a global “new economy” culture more inclusive of small businesses, and believe it or not, help from the government, are making it easier for small firms to expand their market reach. But easier doesn’t mean effortless, inexpensive or justified, which are three of the key factors of any export strategy.

Let’s take a look at the possibilities of creating a trade strategy by getting help with those three factors, with emphasis on help from the government.

Effort
For a long time, exporting was the domain of those large firms that could afford to have international professionals on payroll or contract. The education and prospecting process alone was daunting enough to dampen the ardor of even the most determined prospective small exporter, let alone the actual execution of doing business abroad.

But today, it’s hard to imagine something with so much potential being as easy as walking into one of the 100+ U.S. Commercial Service offices (a Department of Commerce division) around the U.S. and asking them to help you begin the education and prospecting process. They have the staff, information and resources to get you started, and will help you along your export strategy journey. And any associated costs are minimal.

Expense
It wasn’t so long ago that someone had to physically travel to foreign markets, establish relationships with agents and customers, and then demonstrate the goods in-country. For most small businesses, those steps were financially prohibitive.

Today, that same Commercial Service office will help you find foreign prospects, coordinate introductions and demonstrations, and bring the parties together in the early stages of a relationship without prohibitive expense. It’s all done by video conference meetings in the Commercial Service office, between you and a prospect they likely helped you find. So by the time you make a significant investment, it will be spent a lot closer to fulfilling a sale. And you’ll consider any associated fees a bargain.

Justification
How do you justify developing an international strategy? Why spend time and resources trying to sell your stuff on the other side of the planet when customers are right next door? Consider these reasons:

  • More than 96% of the world’s consumers live outside the United States.
  • This year millions of Earthlings will have a smartphone for the first time who’ve never before been on the Internet or owned a computer. Don’t wait until some of them find you online to begin your international export preparation.
  • There are many examples of small businesses that minimized a downturn in the U.S. economy because their international strategy took up the slack.

New technology, new attitudes, new resources, and yes, help from the government, are bringing the world closer to your business’s door step. But you have to make the effort to meet the world halfway. Take your first step here: www.export.gov.

Write this on a rock … Education, expense, justification – check, check and check.

Three important people you want to be close to you

Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you.

In 1970, the brother/sister act, The Carpenters, took these lyrics and the rest of the song, “Close To You” to the top of the charts. Velvet-voiced Karen sang lead, with brother Richard contributing lyrics and sweet harmony.

Out here on Main Street, small businesses should hum that tune every day to remind themselves about the three most important stakeholders they want to be close to.

Customers
Every business, large and small, longs to be close to its customers. But getting customers to return the favor is the challenge. Time was, when a business was a critical link to certain products and services for customers. Longing to be close to us, customers – and their loyalty – weren’t so illusive. Today, almost everything needed by customers can be purchased within a few miles of your business from competitors that didn’t exist when the Carpenters topped the charts. Throw in the Internet and e-commerce and what isn’t a commodity today?

The good news for Main Street is that small and nimble increasingly trumps big and strong. With few exceptions, we can’t compete with the big guys on price, selection, or brand intimidation. But we can make customers want to be close to us is by scratching an itch the big boxes can’t always reach: customization.

If you want customers to suddenly appear, find out what keeps them up at night. And don’t expect the answer to be a burning need for your product or service. If you deliver a customized solution, customers will long for your business because you added unique value they can use. And here’s the silver bullet of customer longing: Help your customers help their customers.

The other good news is that customization justifies higher margins than off-the-shelf offerings. If it’s truly focused on the customer’s solution, they’ll pay for it and come back for more.

Vendors
Once-upon-a-time, a vendor was a company from which you purchased inventory, raw materials, and operating supplies. Today, if a vendor isn’t longing to be your partner, you’ve got the wrong vendor.

Of course, we’re at once a customer to vendors and a vendor to customers. Consequently, we have to find vendor-partners as well as be one. In these roles, it’s important to understand a concept that has become part of the romance between 21st century vendors and customers: seamless.

In a world of outsourcing as a management strategy, the goal is not merely to reduce in-house staff. If outsourcing is to work, products and services MUST be delivered so seamlessly to us by our vendors, and by us to our customers, that operating efficiencies actually improve.

Small businesses have a greater opportunity today to accomplish the hand-in-glove level of closeness required for seamless delivery. And we can’t deliver seamlessly to customers unless vendors long to be seamlessly close to us.

Employees
Back when the Carpenters were belting out hits, the employer/employee relationship was based largely on the Dominator Management Model, which is to say, not much closeness. Employees longed for the perceived job security and benefits of a paternalistic employer. But in the 21st century, employees are drawn closer to leaders.

Today, employers must be able to show employees that we long for them. The best way to demonstrate our longing is to close the gap between what the company needs and what employees want. This means finding and keeping employees who become stakeholders.

If you want employees to long for you, you have to suddenly appear as a partner longing to support their professional and personal fulfillment. And no one can do this better than small business.

Write this on a rock … Find and keep customers, vendors, and employees who long to be close to you.

Six steps to grow your business with referrals

Do you have enough customers? Here’s a better question: Do you have enough of the right kind of customers?

Do you agonize and strategize over the marketing plan you’ve designed to position offerings in front of your profile prospect? What’s the right message, platform, frequency, etc.? And do you then pray that the precious cash you’ve commit to marketing crosses over that pivotal line from expense to investment?

Agony and prayer; not a great strategy, right? But if this sounds familiar, you’re in good company. Marketing legend, John Wanamaker (1838-1922) once lamented, “Half of my advertising budget is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” It’s true, marketing metrics have come a long way since Mr. Wanamaker’s time, but that emerging science has been somewhat marginalized by increasing pressure from the digital marketplace. Indeed, getting customers on the proverbial dotted line is still challenging in the 21st century, especially for small businesses.

Beyond marketing, perhaps the primary reason for our customer acquisition challenge can be attributed to a human trait that’s at once primordial and unfortunate: We make things harder than they have to be. There are many examples, but arguably one of the most dramatic is also one of the simplest to fix: failure to ask for referrals.

Business referrals are now, and have always been there for the picking. And they’re as old school fundamental as they are new school relevant. So why don’t more people take advantage of this low-hanging fruit? It’s that can’t-get-out-of-my-own-way thing. Too many salespeople and organizations don’t have a referral strategy and teach referral practices.

Even though getting referrals is fall-off-a-log easy, there are specific practices to follow. Here are six I recommend to help you get started with your strategy.

  1. Spend as much time developing a referral strategy as you do a marketing strategy. When you do, two things will happen very quickly: you’ll gain new customers you weren’t getting from marketing, which will take performance pressure off of your marketing plan.
  2. Identify existing customers who like what you do. Each one is that valuable asset called a center-of-influence (COI).
  3. Explain – in person – that you need their help and how they can help you. For example: “Mr. Smith, thank you for your business over the years. We’d like to have more customers like you. I’m sure you ask your customers for referrals, and would like to ask if I may do the same with you.”
  4. Ivan Misner, founder of Business Network International (BNI) furnishes the next critical question: “Who do you know who …has your high standards?” “…uses the products we offer?” “…you would like to help do business with good companies like ours?” (Your “Who do you who …” here.)
  5. When you get a referral, thank the COI profusely before, during and after the subsequent contact, especially if you get the business. One thing I always say to my COIs is, “If a referral is a friend (or customer) before I contact them, I promise they will still be after I talk with them.”
  6. For millennia, business referrers have been paying it forward. As Ivan Misner says, “Givers gain.” The best way to have a sustainable referral strategy is to be an active referrer yourself. It’s much easier to ask someone for a referral to whom you’ve just given a referral.

If you’re still not sold on referrals, look around and you’ll see many successful businesses that grow only by referrals – essentially no marketing. There’s one primal reason why referrals can be more productive than marketing: People are hard-wired to want to help other people when they’re asked.

Get out of your own way and make a full commitment to creating and executing a referral strategy.

Write this on a rock … Referrals are low-hanging fruit just waiting for you to harvest.

Online Poll: How do you feel about the future of America?

The Question: As you contemplate Independence Day, how do you feel about the future of America?

8% - America’s best days are still ahead.
6% - America’s best days are behind us.
83% - America’s in trouble, but we can still turn it around.
3% - Never mind America, the whole world is going to hell!

Jim’s Comments: As you will see in the results of our recent online poll above, more than eight of ten of our respondents have serious concerns about America’s condition and future, with only 8% who’re optimistic about how things are. By comparison, the national average reported by Real Clear Politics — which homogenizes seven large polls — reports two-thirds of Americans think we’re “on the wrong track.” Perhaps the reason our folks rank their concerns a little higher than other polls is because we’re responsible for making payroll every week or two, which, under the current regulatory and economic conditions, is getting more and more difficult.

The last time I saw this level of concern among Americans was almost 40 years ago, during the Carter Administration. In fact, President Jimmy gave the name to the general national feeling that was pervasive during the last half of his one and only term. In a television address, he actually said there seemed to be a kind of “malaise” in the country. He was right.

Jimmy Carter is a good man, but was a poor leader. Granted, he inherited some challenging issues, but he wasn’t a problem solver and didn’t inspire confidence. Does that sound familiar? Replace the name at the beginning of that sentence with Barack Obama and everything to follow fits, with one exception: Obama has had two terms to make a difference. Sadly, if you converted the polling numbers for our national condition under this president’s watch to letters they would spell: malaise.

And my criticism isn’t political — I worship at the throne of results. Two things cause Americans to have a positive outlook: feeling secure and feeling successful. Unfortunately, looking at the facts — and the polls — in front of our eyes, these two areas are not positive.

Here are four simple traits that I would like to see in our next president, and I don’t care which party the possessor of these comes from:

  • Proven leader who hates mediocrity
  • Passionate about America’s greatness
  • Politically incorrect about defending America
  • Believes economy can grow at more than 2%

    What does your list look like? If you’d like to tell me, leave a comment.

  • Celebrating American independence and entrepreneurship

    Seven score and 13 years ago, Abraham Lincoln’s inspired speech at the Gettysburg Cemetery dedication included these words: “…our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

    Four score and seven years earlier, one of those fathers, Thomas Jefferson, penned what is arguably the most important secular document in history, the Declaration of Independence, which included this passionate passage:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Having the spirit, courage, and vision to declare independence at a time when monarchy was the globally accepted model of government was unprecedented. To fight for those principles then, and defending them from within and without in the two centuries since, is impressive.

    To be sure, America has had lapses in the delivery of some of these tenets. Indeed, while Lincoln was trying to save his beloved country, he made this judgment: “We made the experiment; and the fruit is before us.”

    Even today, America is a work-in-progress. We’re on a journey of understanding that has many stations where new things are learned and past wrongs can be righted. But in terms of contribution to the world, Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill” has an incomparable record. Warts and all, the United States of America is still a benefactor nation like no other in history, with millions, if not billions of beneficiaries.

    Freedom to dream is found in other lands, as is freedom to pursue dreams. But no entrepreneurial soil is more fertile than in America, and it’s because of those who had the conviction to create our founding documents, the will to deliver them, and the courage to defend them.

    Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have been essential to millions of American small businesses. If you ask anyone anywhere on the planet where to go to start a business and have the greatest chance to succeed and accrue the fruits of that labor, the answer would be America. Like the Founders, generation after generation of American small business owners have demonstrated courage as they claimed and perpetuated the American dream.

    As we celebrate the blessings of another Independence Day in America, let’s hold fast to Lincoln’s closing prayer so beautifully conveyed in his 1st Inaugural Address. That the relationships we have with each other will be “touched by the better angels of our nature.”

    Write this on a rock … Happy Independence Day, America.




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