Entrepreneur

Refreshing...

Refreshing...

Today, according to predictions, we will hit 112 degrees in Mesa, Arizona. The AC units are running, the kids are out of school, and the streets look like a ghost town. "Winter" is officially here. (you know that time when everyone stays indoors because of inclement weather?)

At this time of year the word "refreshing" is particularly meaningful. Whether it is a tall cool glass of lemonade or dip in a cool pool. Both bring relief from the ongoing stress of the heat.

It occurred to me recently that some people are "refreshing" as well. Just like the lemonade, they bring relief from the ongoing stress of making a business work.

These are people that just "get it". You know the ones? They seem to know what you know and you find yourself talking excitedly together and sharing ideas and experiences and just enjoying the conversation.

That's what happened when I met Adam Toren. We got together to discuss Promoterz, our online service that helps businesses give a megaphone to their happy customers, become aware of unhappy customers, and increase the happiness of all customers. As we talked it was as if we were partners working out how to help other businesses succeed. Turns out that is what Adam does.

Adam and his brother Matthew are serial entrepreneurs. Among the impressive list of their ventures is a website, YoungEntrepreneur.com. They initially created this site to help youth become entrepreneurs but over the years it has become more to mean those that are young or new at being an entrepreneur.

The site has tens of thousands of members actively participating in its forums (http://www.youngentrepreneur.com). They also have a "refreshing" blog (http://www.youngentrepreneur.com/blog) as well.

If you are a business owner sometimes what you need, besides more hours in every day, is just to be "refreshed" as you read of others shared experiences. Others who "get it". I guess it is a sort of therapy.

I enjoyed their "10 Mistakes People Make When Starting A Business" and an interview with an Ebay founder on persuing your passion. As you read you find yourself saying, yep, I remember how I learned that. But you also get reminded of things you might want to revisit and you feel more committed to succeeding.

In the end, just as you are refreshed and ready to go as you finish the last of the deliciously tart and cold lemonade, you will have some good ideas and the courage to succeed in this thing we call business.

Find your happy customers and put a megaphone in their hand. Learn more

Get Your Helmet Mounted Cueing System Now!

Get Your Helmet Mounted Cueing System Now!

The F35 is an amazing jet. It can reach mach 1.6 and then stop in midair and hover while landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in rough seas. You can see it in action here . For more than 50 years the Air Force has provided its pilots with "head up" displays so that the pilots can monitor key indicators they need without taking their view off the horizon. I guess when you are going mach 1.6 and dealing with an enemy it is pretty important not to take your eyes off the horizon. The Air Force is now testing new technology to replace the head up display specifically for pilots of the F35. According to a recent post on CNET, the new system uses infrared to actually let the pilot look right through the floor of the aircraft. It also displays the feedback that pilots need no matter which direction they are looking. The company that is developing the new technology calls it a "Helmet Mounted Cueing System."

So your business is moving along pretty fast, wouldn't it be nice to have a Helmet Mounted Cueing System to help you make better decisions? What information would you want on your cueing system? I don't think you'd want to clutter it up with important but not critical information. For example, I don't think I'd want to wander around with a copy of my latest balance sheet always in front of my eyes. The current cash balance in the bank, on the other hand, might be very useful. I don't know about you, but sometimes every second counts in getting a deposit to clear before payroll starts hitting! How about some indicator of how your customers are feeling? After all, everything we do as business owners is (or should be) about making customers happy so that they will buy from us again and again and tell their friends. Seems like knowing what they are thinking about our business and what they really want from our business should influence every decision we make. What else would you add to your HMBICS (Helmet Mounted Business Information Cueing System--got to have an acronym if we want to get any government funding!)

If you're not quite ready to pull on the Star Wars helmet (your customers might turn and run), you might check out our sponsor product, Promoterz. Right now--without government funding--you can keep a pulse on how your customers feel about your business. There is no head up display, but your customers' comments will go directly to your email so you will always be in touch and better able to take your business to mach 1.6!

Customers who feel that you are listening to them are more likely to recommend you to a friend. How do your customers know that you are listening? Learn more

Time to Pull a Few Heads?

Time to Pull a Few Heads?

I live in the arid southwestern region of the United States, Arizona, to be exact. I'm going on my third summer in my current home. The past two summers I have really struggled to keep my front lawn green. Yes, I have lawn. I know that some gravel and a few cacti would be more environmentally friendly, but a little patch of green lawn is more people friendly so I've kept it. Anyway, no matter what I did the sprinkler system for the front lawn never seemed to work right. The system uses little pop-up heads and they were constantly getting stuck, refusing to pop up and spray. Instead they would stay stuck in the down position, dribbling their water into a little puddle an d leaving the rest of the lawn to turn brown. I replaced many of them during the first two seasons thinking that they were just old and no longer worked. I also used my trimmer to shave the lawn directly around the heads thinking that maybe it was getting in the way. No good. The heads still refused to work.

This spring I decided to try a different tactic. It occurred to me that maybe the issue wasn't with the individual heads (they were all good heads) but with the overall system. More specifically, maybe I had too many heads resulting in not enough water pressure for the heads to perform correctly. I decided there would be no harm in testing that theory. I was ready to pull the whole system and start over with some different heads anyway. So I pulled 10 of the 23 heads. I pulled the heads and put a plug where they had been. I didn't move any of the remaining 13 around. I just strategically pulled 10 out of the midst of them. My lawn looks better than it has for the past 3 years! The remaining 13 heads all pop-up strong and have more than enough coverage to fill in for the 10 that are now in an old box in my garage.

What is the lesson for business? There are several, but I think the main one for entrepreneurs is to stay focused. There are a lot of opportunities out there--a lot of good opportunities--but being successful sometimes requires saying "no" even to good opportunities. So how is your focus? Too many sprinkler heads and not enough water pressure? Think about doing less--you could end up with a lot more green.

Promoterz is the hands-free, word-of-mouth marketing service that takes care of the details so you can focus on business. Learn more

Failing to Succeed

Failing to Succeed

I'm convinced that starting a business in a free-market society is one of the best learning laboratories known to man. Where else does a person have the opportunity and the impetus to be constantly learning so many new things just to survive? In addition to the number and variety of learning opportunities, the "invisible" hand of the marketplace is a fair and consistent schoolmaster that doesn't play favorites and always responds with the appropriate "grade." Thus, while starting or running a business, you are never more than your bank statement or cash register away from knowing how well you are learning what the market wants. If you don't learn quickly enough, you will eventually fail--and many do.

There is a lot of discussion around small business failure statistics. Nobody knows for sure, but it is agreed that the number is large. The SBA says says 40% of new businesses go down in the first year. Eighty percent are gone within five years and another 80 percent of the remaining 20% are gone in the next five years. Given that 400,000 new ones start each year, that is a lot of failure. As I've thought about that (and yes, added to those failure statistics myself more than a few times) I've struggled some with exactly what is the right way to think about failure?

Let me say this straight up: I'm not looking to rationalize failure into some kind of moral success. My college football team, Brigham Young University, has had several rough years of late. This year they seem to have the tools to start consistently winning again. A few weeks into the season they took on Boston College, a ranked team at the time, and lost in overtime. We gained more yards, had more first downs and should have won. We didn't. Some called it a moral victory. Maybe--but it felt a whole lot like failure. A few weeks later we played TCU, another ranked team, this time the team got the job done and we won 31-17. It felt much better than losing. In any endeavor where the method of keeping score is known and agreed to in advance, not winning on the scoreboard is losing no matter how much you learn or how close you come. As one of my son's high school friends said the other day, "second place is just the first loser."

Having said that, there is much evidence to support the premise that failure can lead to success. Abraham Lincoln has to be the poster child for experiencing failure after failure before finally being elected President and masterfully leading the United States through it's most gut-wrenching experience. Were his failures a waste? He may have thought so at the time. In retrospect, it's clear that he was learning what he needed to learn in order to do his greatest work.

The innovation experts also encourage us to embrace failure as part of the creative process. Innovation Truth number 2 is apparently "pay people to fail" (if I wasn't having so much fun trying not to fail, I'd find me one of those jobs). And one of the things that makes Silicon Valley the hot bed of technology and business innovation is its willingness to forgive failures as long as one eventually succeeds.

Also intriguing to me, is the concept that those who don't do it for the money may be more innovative. Seth Godin did a post on the topic and named several individuals and companies as examples. He says, "when you try to make a profit from your innovation, you stop innovating too soon." Most of us have no option but to make a profit from our innovation because we have to support ourselves (those consistent market forces at work). But, if that weren't the case, would profit no longer be how we keep score? And would what we call business failure (lack of profit) no longer be a failure?

Final thought. If failure is so likely and there are valid benefits from it, why don't we plan for it?

"So how's work?"

"Well, I'm halfway through my failures. The first one was really something. We pulled out all the stops and completely 'crashed and burned' as they say. I'm hoping to get my second failure wrapped up by the end of next year so I can get on to my successful venture. This one is giving us some real trouble right now."

"Oh?"

"Well our customers keep telling others about us, so we're selling more and even worse--we're making a profit!"

"Ah, I wouldn't worry about it. I'm sure you'll figure out a way to turn it into a failure. Have you thought about bringing in a few consultants?"

It's ridiculous I know, but sport teams practice, doctors do internships, and entrepreneurs jump right into the real game--there is no practice. Sure you can work for someone else and learn, but until you actually jump in and start doing it yourself, it's not real. And here is the really interesting thing: what makes it "real?" The risk of failure. Take away the risk of failure-- of losing your resources, your livelihood, your dream--and I guarantee you that you won't learn as much, you won't try as hard and you likely won't accomplish anything great.

Though we work like crazy to avoid it, the risk of failure is an integral part of being an entrepreneur and something that most of us will get a chance to face in one way or another. With that in mind, here are my 10 Tips to Deal with Failure:

  1. Avoid it--winning is so much funner than losing.
  2. Embrace it--when it does happen, quit avoiding it. You went through all the pain to get there, now accept the fact that it happened and learn everything you can from it so that you'll be in a better position to succeed at number 1.
  3. Never End on it--failure is only fatal to your career if you let it be.
  4. Uh...can't think of anymore. Rats--failed again!
The Happiest customers tell on average 8 other people. Who are your happiest customers? Promoterz knows. Learn more

The Original "Long Tail" Entrepreneur

The Original "Long Tail" Entrepreneur

Chris Anderson's recent book, The Long Tail, has gotten a lot of press over the last few months. His main premise is that with modern technology it is now financially feasible, and even rewarding, to focus not on the center of the bell curve by offering a general product that will appeal to the largest group, but to focus on the many well-defined, micro markets that exist in the "tail" of the curve with specialized niche products. The purpose of this post is not to agree or disagree with Chris's book--others are already doing that. This post is about the original "long tail" entrepreneur: Eli Whitney and what we can learn from him.

Eli didn't want to be in the long tail of the curve, but he lived there along with all the rest of the world in the late 1700's. Everything was one-of-a-kind and custom made. Eli's dream was to go up the curve into the center of the bell by creating a system that could produce identical, interchangeable parts. Because we take that capability for granted now, it's difficult to comprehend what a significant thing it was.

One of Eli's greatest moments came in 1801 when he went to the new capital, Washington D.C., and demonstrated the power of interchangeability for several dignitaries including President-elect Thomas Jefferson. The demonstration? Eli disassembled several firing mechanisms and mixed the parts, then he had those attending choose a part from each pile and he put together a musket with the parts they picked. The fact each part was identical and not custom fit was amazing to those in attendance. Several federal and state contracts followed.

The impact that Eli's interchangeability invention, or the "American System of Production" as it came to be known, had on the course of history would be hard to overstate. It wasn't Eli's first "history-changing" invention either. He is best known for inventing the cotton gin. In the years following the revolutionary war the south had no cash crop and thus no economy. While staying at the plantation of a friend, Catherine Greene (widow of Nathanael Greene, General in the Revolutionary War), Eli met many locals who lamented the need for a machine that could remove seeds from the cotton.

By early 1793 Eli had a working model that was simply described as "wire teeth which worked thro' slats and a brush." The result: southern cotton production went from nearly nothing to 200 million pounds a year by the time Eli died in 1825.

George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." With that in mind, here are a few learnings from the life of Eli Whitney, the entrepreneur:

  1. Eli seemed to have a knack for staying in touch with the market and delivering what it wanted. As a fourteen year old during the revolution he talked his dad into installing a forge at the family farm. Then he made nails and knife blades (sold enough to have to hire a worker). When the war ended and English nails became available at prices he couldn't compete with Eli quickly shifted production to hat pins and walking sticks. He was only eighteen at the time. He did the same thing later in life when he shifted from the production of gins to the production of fire arms.

  2. He understood the importance of connections. At the age of twenty-three he decided to go to Yale--not because he wanted to go into law or theology which were the main courses of study at the time, but because he wanted to "become a gentleman, accepted by other gentlemen." The connections he made at Yale served him well throughout his entrepreneurial career. It was Oliver Wolcott, a Yale alumnus and Secretary of the Treasury, that helped Eli get his first contract with the government to put his interchangeability ideas to the test making firearms.

  3. He failed. Eli made very little off his cotton gin invention even though he secured a patent on it. He spent a lot of time in court rooms trying to enforce that patent, but in the end he had very little to show for it. At one point he wrote to a friend, "Bankruptcy & ruin were staring me in the face & disappointment trip'd me up every step I attempted to take. I was miserable...loaded with a debt of 3 or 4,000 dollars, without resources and without any business that would ever furnish me a support."

  4. He learned and succeeded. At about that time things were heating up in Europe and the Federal government was looking to become self-sufficient in arms production. With his knack for delivering what the market needed, and his connections, Eli got a contract to supply 10,000 muskets to the government in 28 months and got an advance of $5,000 to get things started. Having learned from his cotton gin experience that patents guaranteed nothing, he determined the road to success lay in producing more, at a faster rate and better price than any competitor could. So he set out to create a factory that could produce interchangeable parts. Success wasn't immediate. It took him 8 to 10 years to produce all 10,000 muskets but in the process he invented the milling machine. in 1811 he got another order for 15,000 muskets and produced them all in 2 years.

To learn more about Eli Whitney check out the Eli Whitney Museum I also like the book American Made by Harold C. Livesay.

The growth of your business will be determined by what your customers say about it. Do you know what they are saying? Learn more
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