Eric Barker shares his non-intuitive, scientifically-backed insights on what does and doesn’t lead to success.
In my article on focusing your life around what you’re good at, what’s needed, what you love, and what’s scaleable, the “what’s scaleable” is a piece that’s new to me, and may be new to you. It’s worth talking about, though.
The Myth of Hard Work says that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. And if you work harder, you’ll get aheader. If you work super-hard, you’ll be Bill Gates. (And if you work hardest of them all, you’ll be Batman.) Sadly, that’s wrong.
The Industrial Revolution enabled fortunes to be made because it allowed scale. A lone blacksmith could only make a single horseshoe an hour. In a horseshoe factory, however, a lone machine operator can make dozens of horseshoes an hour. What makes the riches possible is that machines and technology allow us to scale.
Scaleability matters to whatever you do
When I’m working with a coaching client around any project that involves a lot of people (generally it’s a business), we often spend some time honing in on scaleability. The business buzzword “leverage” comes into play here. We look for ways they can scale their results without scaling the work and cost to the same degree.
Some businesses don’t scale well at all. To add one more diner’s worth of revenue, a restaurant needs more kitchen capacity, more food, more server capacity, and time to cook that diner’s meal. Some of those elements can be squeezed out. By offering a limited meal, cooking in advance, and dispensing with servers, fast food restaurants can serve more customers with fewer resources. But even so, scaling still requires a lot of effort and systems.
The internet allows unprecedented scale
The internet’s joys and woes come from the fact that it makes new kinds of scale possible. Craigslist, a single website, can handle all the classified ads. All of them.
How does your business scale? In non-information company, growing a business requires resources up front. If Ben and Jerry’s wants to add a new product like Oreo Ice Cream cake, they have to buy honkin’ truckloads of Oreos, then find customers for all that delicious Oreo goodness.
But in information businesses, growth happens by reaching more people.
How the internet enables scale
Before the internet, some people who sold information sold it in physical form, books and reports. Scaling required more physical resources. Other people sold it electronically, but charged for the access points. Bloomberg made his billions by renting out Bloomberg terminals, over which he was able to cheaply send his real product, the information.
The internet provides a common access point that anyone can use: the web. And everyone already has the physical stuff they need to read the information, monitors and computers. So internet businesses don’t require hard, upfront investment to scale.
That’s why, when revising our company strategy, we shifted from a coaching-driven model to an online course driven model. It fulfills that fourth circle. It scales better.
A 20-minute video about online businesses and scale
I’m helping my mentor Danny Iny achieve scale by introducing him and his products to my list. I happen to believe very strongly in him and what he has to say, so we’ve become affiliates. We introduce each others’ products and services to our audiences, allowing us to reach more people without the kind of investment that would be needed for a traditional business to scale. (WalMart, for instance, grows by having to buy or rent a new store location. Then they have to sweep it. And then hang curtains. And get the utilities connected… Who wants to work that much?)
Danny has a video that lays out the fundamentals of why online businesses are a good thing from a business perspective. Danny grew a seven figure business in just a couple of years, and I’ve found his grasp of business to be superb.
Danny’s video explains the fundamentals of online business. You can check it out here:
Entrepreneurship isn’t about taking risks
Entrepreneurship is all the rage these days, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me if they have “the right personality type” to be entrepreneurs. They think entrepreneurship is about risk-taking. Entrepreneurs must love risk, right? Since obviously, corporate employees love safety, and they’re the opposite of entrepreneurs. This sounds like a great story and a great rationale. It’s just wrong.
Entrepreneurs generally are not huge risk takers. Indeed, non-monetary considerations are often more important. In fact, many entrepreneurs try to minimize risk. What makes them different from corporate employees is that entrepreneurs maximize experimentation.
A business starts with an idea for a product or service that benefits some market: pink widgets. The business launches the widgets, trying to sell them to football players. No one buys. So they make some blue widgets. Some football players buy, but unexpectedly, many teenage goth girls buy. The next year, the company tries selling blue widgets to teenage goth girls in a different country. They sell tons. They’ve found their product (blue widgets) and their market (teenage goth girls). Now they expand into more and more countries, creating billions of the same products to sell to the same market.
In the early lifecycle, the startup is rapidly experimenting and testing the product idea and the market. Once they’ve found the combination that works, the mindset shifts from rapidly-experiment to scale-the-business. Scaling requires getting good at doing the same things over and over and over. Suddenly, it’s all about doing the same thing over and over, getting better as it goes.
This is a profound shift. Experimentation needs quick decision-making, creative thinking, and a willingness to cut corners as long as you get the learning you need. Scale requires rigor, process improvement, and a willingness to have single-minded focus, and tweak the details so you can be as efficient at mass-production as possible.
That is what you need to assess when deciding whether to pursue something entrepreneurial. Yeah, it’s risky if you don’t control your costs. But that’s only part of the equation. Think less about taking risks, and more about doing experiments. Because at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about minimizing your risk while maximizing the learning you get from rapid experiments with your product and market.
It’s January, and we all know what that means: time to set New Years resolutions that we’re going to break! The main things resolutions are good for is causing the gym to get way too crowded for the first six weeks of the year. You have a tool at your finger tips that will do far more for you than simply setting resolutions.
Skip your resolutions and set strategy, instead.
A strategy is a 50,000-foot view of your life or business. A good strategic plan gives you a roadmap for where to put your time and effort this year. It tells you what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.
As you know from my article on how vision and mission relate to strategy, your strategy for a year answers the question, “How can we further the company vision, given the realities of the markets, customers, and resources under our control right now?” Strategy is how vision plays out in today’s real world context.
But when you’re setting your strategy, make sure to approach it from both the outside and the inside.
Look Outside to Set Strategy
Your strategy depends on what’s going on outside your company walls. You need to develop a plan that makes you more desirable to customers than any of your competitors. That means knowing:
- How do your customers think of you? What product category do they put you in? (Don’t assume you know. A yacht isn’t necessarily a vehicle. Rather, it may be a status symbol.)
- Who else is in that product category? If you’re a yacht, are you competing against Toyota and JetBlue (transportation) or are you competing against Jetstream and Sotheby’s (status symbols)?
- What advantage do you have over your competitors?
- How can you best communicate that advantage to the market?
- Who has the power in your ecosystem, and how can you increase your power?
One of my favorite books on external strategy is Co-opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. If you’ve ever heard of Michael Porter’s “Five Forces,” Co-opetition goes one step further and deepens the model. Just the way Brandenburger and Nalebuff define competitive and complementary relationships is worth the cost of the book.
Strategy Looks Inside
Looking outside is only half of the equation. You also need to look inside when you formulate your strategy. If strategy is vision made real now, part of “now” is the resources you have under your control. You need to take stock of your resources and decide which resources will form the foundation of your strategy.
When you make ultra-yachts, two of your assets are your customer list (oodles and oodles of rich people), and your yacht design capabilities. If you base your strategy off your customer list, you will expand into other products and services that your current customers might want. Like platinum dinner place settings. If, however, you base your strategy off your design capabilities, you might instead expand into other kinds of yachts, or other sea-faring vessels.
My favorite book on internal strategy is Top Management Strategy by Tregoe et al. The book is 30 years old, but is pretty much just as relevant today as when it was written.
Treat yourself to a 3-martini lunch
If you don’t have a formal strategy session planned, then at least take a long lunch. And over lunch, review the vision/mission for your venture. Why are you in the game in the first place? Then ask yourself how that gets expressed in the world of 2017. Review your external factors—competitors, customers, suppliers, and so on. Review your internal resources, and decide which you plan to base your strategy on.
Then go for it. Give shape to your plans for the next year. Make sure to build in time to review and course correct, and get your year off to a good start. A New Years resolution might only last a couple of weeks, but a good strategy will support you for a year.
It’s a common refrain among my executive clients. Life at the top would be so much easier, if only “they” would “get it.”
In fact, your employees probably _are _doing what you say. You just may be saying things you don’t intend. It’s often not your broad proclamations that give direction; it’s the little things you do that have the biggest impact.
Your actions encourage and discourage behavior
Remember when you were a front-line employee. Executives’ actions were relentlessly scrutinized. A late arrival, a smile, or a nod could introduce chaos. A CEO I worked with was looking over his marketing department’s latest campaign. He frowned at a storyboard before strolling away.
Unknown to him, the team saw the frown, scrapped the campaign, and spent the weekend reworking everything from the ground up. When he found out, he was flabbergasted. He never thought a simple frown would change the team’s direction.
Your reactions to employees and their work will send signals. Remember this! If you notice yourself frowning or smiling, nodding or shaking your head when it may send the wrong message, stop. Think about the message you may have sent, and say or do whatever it takes to make sure your audience knows your intent.
Watch your words, too. A joke may not be a joke. A consulting firm’s Managing Director smiled and quipped “Remember, if you’re not here Sunday, don’t bother coming in Monday.” He was smiling. Everyone knew he was joking. And as one team member later told me, “I felt like I had to come in Sunday. Sure, he was joking. But he’s the Managing Director. Maybe it’s not 100% a joke.”
You lead by demonstration
Of course, the Managing Director was there Sunday, thus insuring everyone would know weekend appearances are mandatory. Your actions will, by demonstration, always be the most significant way you communicate standards of behavior and priorities to your company. The Managing Director cared deeply that his people have an outside life, and said so on many occasions. But his coming in on weekends spoke louder than his words in signaling acceptable behavior.
What you don’t do also matters
What you don’t say out loud, the actions you don’t acknowledge, and the signs you don’t show send powerful messages, as well. The messages sent by omission are harder to detect. After all, theres nothing there to examine! But there are things your employees might expect that aren’t forthcoming.
If you don’t acknowledge people, it can send a message that you don’t value their contribution. Different people need different acknowledgment. For some, it’s public recognition. For others, it may simply be mentioning “Hey, you did a really great job.”
If you don’t give feedback when someone does a poor job, you send the message that their performance is fine. If someone is screwing up, they deserve to know as early as possible. Otherwise, they’ll walk away with a message that does neither of you any good.
Common courtesy is increasingly rare, and its absence communicates a subtle lack of respect or lack of individual concern. A simple “Please,” or “Thank you” with a smile and direct eye contact takes only a couple of seconds. If you don’t have time even for that, then people will (rightly!) conclude they aren’t important enough to warrant your attention.
Making decisions in isolation quickly lets people know you don’t trust them. I have worked with companies in which the senior managers are very open with their big decisions, and other companies in which “we can’t tell them that” is a common refrain. As far as I can tell, involvement signals faith that your employees have something of value to contribute. When that involvement is missing, the message of distrust is loud and clear.
Not sharing bad news sends the message that everything is fine. It’s easy to keep bad news quiet, for fear of hurting morale. But framing bad news as a reason to rally builds a team instead of breaking it down. Shared challenge is the stuff of bonding. Use it!
A Great Business Leader Knows His Impact
Matsushita, one of history’s most successful businessmen, knew the impact he had on everyone around him. As this story shows1, he even appreciated the messages conveyed by what he didn’t do.
The father of $75 billion empire, Matsushita was revered in Japan with nearly as much respect and reverence as was the Emperor. And he was just as busy.
One day, Matsushita was to eat lunch with his executives at a local Osaka restaurant (Matsushita Leadership by John Kotter). Upon his entrance, people stopped to bow and acknowledge this great man. Matsushita honored the welcome and sat at a table selected by the manager.
Matsushita ate only half of his meal. He asked for the chef, who appeared in an instant, shaken and upset. The Great One nodded and spoke: “I felt that if you saw I had only eaten half of my meal, you would think I did not like the food or its preparation. Nothing could be less true. The food and your preparation of it were excellent. I am just old and can not eat as much as I used to. I wanted you to know that and to thank you personally.”
Concrete next steps
If you find yourself under the magnifying glass, here are ways of mastering the situation.
Don’t get caught off guard. Schedule five minutes at the end of the day to review your day, note who you came in contact with, and simply ask yourself what messages you sent.
Use the magnifying glass deliberately. At the start of the week, choose a message you want to communicate by example. Spend a moment or two identifying exactly where you can send the message, and how you have to behave to send it. Then do it.
Check for messages of omission. During your daily review, ask yourself who you didn’t contact, but who might have expected it (you may not know who at first, but over time, you’ll learn). What message does the lack of contact send? What message will rumors of what you did do send to those who didn’t see/talk to you?
Review company systems. To make sure you’re sending the same message as your company, review the systems once a year or so. Review your compensation plan: what does it communicate about company goals? What behavior does it encourage? Discourage? Review your decision making and feedback processes. Ask yourself if you’re omitting anyone or anything in those areas.
Creating a strategy
My friend Carey’s business had stalled. Since I’m one of those people who loves to offer unasked-for advice (knowing the recipient will be eternally grateful), I offered some. “You need an overarching strategy,” I intoned, sagely. The unfathomable response, “Thanks, but no thanks. I already have lots of strategies.”
Lots of strategies? Hmm. You can’t have multiple overarching strategies at once. But Carey wouldn’t know that, because we’re never taught what a strategy is, or how to make sure you have a good one.
Do you have a strategy? For business? For life? Do you even need one? What is one?
Strategies Aren’t Tactics
People use “strategy” to mean a to-do item, but that’s not a strategy. That’s a tactic. Carey has 16 different products under development at once. Those aren’t 16 strategies; they’re 16 tactics.
A strategy is a directed plan you use to commit your time and action in a single direction. By aligning how you spend your time, your money, your resources, and your communication, you greatly increase your chances for success.
If Carey’s projects include designing a high-fashion clothing line for the Milan runway and opening a Veterinary Pet Grooming franchise, those will compete for time, attention, and dollars. When the clothing line needs another 5-gallon tub of sequins (I never said Carey had taste), that’s money that could have been spent on tick sponge-on. Neither business gets the full resources needed to insure success.
Set a Vision that Drives Your Work
Before you can create your strategy, you need to know where you want to end up. What’s the result the strategy is designed to produce? That’s the vision that drives your work.
Start your strategy by setting a compelling, substantive vision. A vision needs to be specific enough to use to make decisions. It needs to be general enough to allow flexibility in what you choose to do.
My friend Rowan’s vision is “to build a business.” That’s so vague that it could cover everything from fashion design to tick removal… and so it does.
But make it more specific, and it becomes a powerful guide. In an alternate universe where Rowan is capable of focus, the vision could become:
A business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy 365 days a year.
This vision can be used to decide which product lines to enter, and to allow a range of options: tick treatment and nutritional consultation both fit. It can also be used to decide which product lines notto enter: high fashion that features too many sequins. It’s just specific enough to guide a good strategy.
Create a Strategy Linking Your Goal to Your Reality
Now you have a vision. But while visions are great, they’re still too abstract for action. If a new Puppies R Us (We Sell ‘Em, You Care For ‘Em™) opened down the street from Rowan’s storefront, concentrating the business on dog care could be Rowan’s ticket to mansions and private planes. But if the new store is Spiders Galore: Unusual Pets for Unusual People, concentrating on the care and grooming of Brachypelma emilia might make the most sense.
Begin crafting your strategy by linking the vision to your current reality. Assess your resources — what you have a lot of, and what you’re short on. Assess your situation — outside forces that might help or hinder different courses of action. Create a high-level plan that uses your resources to move towards some way to realize your vision, given your current environment.
Rowan can take the pet health business vision, and link it to the things in real life that will make it happen.
Point tactics towards a vision to get the job done right. Then link it to reality.
If Rowan has home office space, an email list of pet owners, and a vast network of veterinarians, Rowan’s strategy could be to form an online pet care referral network. There could be an app, and a website, and a huge campaign to sign up hundreds of veterinarians from around the world.
If Rowan has a retail storefront near Puppies R Us, but no mailing list, the strategy could be to create in-person care for dogs and dog-related issues. Rowan could even propose a collaboration with Puppies R Us where Puppies promotes Rowan’s business and gets a referral fee.
These are two different strategies. Both lead towards the vision of “a business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy year-round.”
Being in possession of the retail storefront, Rowan chooses the strategy of providing in-person dog-related care.
Keep Your Strategy Clear
Lastly, keep your chosen strategy clear and singular. You might have many tactics that comprise the strategy. Rowan can get the word out in many different ways: online banner ads, leaflets in the local community, and a Puppies R Us partnership. These are pretty different activities, but make no mistake: these aren’t strategies, they’re separate tactics supporting a single strategy.
By having only this one strategy, Rowan can now concentrate all resources on the storefront. If the opportunity comes up to run a nationwide banner ad, the explicit strategy tells Rowan what to do: say “no” to the ad; advertising a Springfield puppy health service in Skokie makes no sense.
Think Strategically Throughout Your Life
A strategy helps you make decisions about where to put your time, money, and attention. We’ve been exploring strategy in business, but you can apply strategic thinking to other areas of your life.
What is your vision for your life? For your family? Your Career? Spend some time forming your vision. Then look at today’s reality, and choose a strategy that will realize that vision as possible in your life today. You’ll get a lot more of what you want in life, and a lot less of whatever random the world throws at you. Then you can put your efforts into tactics that support your strategy.
A scattershot approach to success is a recipe for staying stuck. Avoid this by organizing your tactics and resources using a well-chosen strategy. Align it all in pursuit of the vision that inspires and energizes you, and you’ll soon be enjoying plenty of success, while still having time to stop and pet the puppies.