What Drives Your Business

A lot of businesses now are run on faulty models. Things that worked in the past no longer work – they’re broken.

Newspapers run on advertising profit. The length of the papers aren’t dictated by news, or what people want to read about, but by how many pages need to get published for advertising revenue. Virtually all television programming, from the news, to sports and sitcoms, are set to cover certain amount of times to allow for commercial breaks. Guess what – these systems are failing.

Newspapers and Magazines are being bypassed for internet sources, which gives content faster and allows for interaction. Television commercials have become noise that we’ve learned to block out. Not only are people no longer listening, but with the advent of TiVo, DVR, and Internet Streams, commercials can be bypassed completely.

Probably the most interesting commercials I have seen lately have come from Bank of America, and it was with the series ‘America: The Story of Us’ on the History Channel. As the commercial break starts, Bank of America tells its own documentary style story that fits in with the theme of the program. I was really impressed with the quality and how well it fit in. Why did it fit in so well? An article in the NY Times explains that it’s because the first half of the 2-minute commercial was produced by the History Channel. Each of the 12 commercials begin in the same era as the episode it corresponds to, with the 2nd half fast forwarding to modern day and how the bank still follows those same principles.

Interestingly enough, they are not being called commercials, but mini-documentaries, or interstitial content. This type of marketing holds the biggest hope for commercials and advertising because it targets the viewers of the show, preaching to the niche.

Who is your niche? What do your customers care about? Find out what they want, what drives them to your product, and then find ways to market that. Marketing to the masses doesn’t work – think forward and be progressive. The businesses that dont are the ones that are boring and will slowly fall into obscurity.

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Think Before Changing Your Logo

I am not an expert on logo’s, but I’ll give myself a nice pat on the back on understanding the remarkable and what people are drawn to. It seems a lot of companies have been changing or tweaking their company logo’s as of late, so here are my thoughts on the most recent change I read about:

Recently Seattle’s Best Coffee, which was acquired by Starbucks in 2003, has changed their logo. The reason for the redesign – they hope to be a symbol of universally “good coffee someday”. A logo doesn’t give you good coffee. High quality beans, a great brewing process, barista’s who know their trade, customer experience give you good coffee. The logo is an after-thought, an association.

Part of the idea behind this probably stems from company growth. Currently Seattle’s Best is very limited, situated in roughly 3,000 locations. Starbucks is looking to grow the brand dramatically to 30,000 by the end of next year.

Is this a good move from the company? Most likely not. The company already has a set image that has been established. A rebrand of a company logo is hard to accomplish – and most importantly, what is the reason why? It would have been better to spin off a group of products with the newer logo (if the decision was based around being generic, sustainable, low cost) instead of trying to rebrand a whole company.
Some great logo failures

Tropicana

Possible Success
Dodge might have done it right, using the Ram symbol for the Trucks, and a different symbol for their regular cars. If they aren’t doing anything else besides changing a logo, it’s a failure.

People don’t like change. They don’t like things being taken away, even they are replaced by something that is superior. Here is a great short blogpost by 37signals on the Art of Taking Things Away

Bottom line – understand your goal and work on the things that really matter. If the logo is part of the rebranding process, then fine, but it’s not your logo that makes your brand. Also, be wary of trends … most of the logo’s I’ve been seeing lately are really poppy – rounded, flatter colors, not a ton of detail, and from a non-graphic artist perspective – lack character. Does this mean you’ll have to change your logo again in 20 years to go with a new trend? Just some food for thought.

Tired Business Sayings

I’ve already touched on this in a previous post, but I came across two articles lately that has me revisiting this. Some business terms are great – they describe longer ideas succinctly, such as using the word ‘leveraged’. Instead of having to go into the definition of what that means, you can say the word and people know. There are also some great business phrases that help to add some color to an idea or thought and helps to pull things together. A few that come to mind are ‘dropping the ball’, ‘gaining traction’, and ‘dont throw the baby out with the bath water’.

The problem comes when companies, and individuals, use sayings for the sake of using them. Here are a few that bother me:

– World Class

– Putting Customers First

– Innovative

– Best Practices

– Giving 110%

If you want to see a list of more, check out this Business Insider article, and this article on Squidoo

These phrases get overused and corrupted, essentially destroying their essence since people and companies are afraid. They are afraid to be different, so instead they opt to be the same. To use the same words as the market leaders, but by not changing their business practices.

You cant tell me that you value your customers when your customer service is fully automated, or even worse – outsourced to a foreign country. You cant say that your company is innovative when they are following what everyone else is doing, rehashing the same tired business speak. As the saying goes “If you have to say it, it’s probably untrue”. Apple is a highly innovative company, focused on easy usability and beautiful design … yet they dont say that on their website. The product say’s it all on its own.

Think about what your saying, either personally or with your company. Are you being different, saying what really matters – or are you saying what you think others want to hear, in which case, what others will ignore? I’m not saying it’s easy to do, it takes a lot of digging, but its worth it.

Edit: After I wrote this I found a great article by Jason Fried in Inc.com about bad business writing. Great article, give it a read. I may follow up on that in another post.

Be An Expert – part 2

In Part 1 I discussed a bit on understanding your strengths and what it takes to reach ‘expert’ or mastery level. Part 2 will cover how to identify your strengths, the importance of knowing them, and traps to watch out for.

Individual Strengths

There are plenty of ways to figure out what your strengths are. I mentioned in an earlier post on StrengthsFinder 2.0 – while this is a great test to take, it’s more to help you reaffirm what you should already know about yourself.

Take a moment to write down things you enjoy to do, how you react to certain situations, and what people say about you. For example – I like to read any new and interesting ideas – whether they are products or how companies do business. I am always curious on what the future is like. I’m impatient and like to get started on things right away. If I buy something I need to assemble I’ll throw everything on the ground and get started and will get to the instructions once I get stuck. It’s easy for people to open up to me, and when they come for advice I get right to the heart of the matter. I’m alway thinking about how to improve things, what can be tweaked to make it better.

From that list we can take away that my strengths are: Ideation, Strategizing, Futuristic, Leading, Listening, Activating (getting started), Big Picture, and Personable.

Now the problem that most people fall into is that they describe themselves by their job description instead of what they really do. In one of my previous jobs I was a Physiologist in Cardiac Rehab. I could easily say that I “Monitored patients vitals, took EKG recordings, and assessed progress.” While that’s all true, it says nothing about my strengths or what I really brought to that position. Think about what you’re good at, and what you enjoyed about that job – what extra pizzazz did you bring to it?

Business Strengths

For businesses, understanding your strengths is critical. If you don’t know what makes you unique, what makes you different from your primary competitors, and especially secondary competitors, then you’re in rough shape and on slow path of dying.

While individual strengths are tough to find because it calls for introspection, business strengths can prove to be an even bigger challenge because of rhetoric. As I said in previous posts, no one wants to hear boring business speak, on how you put customers first or are innovative, especially if its not true. If you have to say it, then it means you most likely dont do it.

Understanding your business strengths is pretty similar the same way you find your personal strengths.

  1. Listen to your customers: If you receive emails or letter, what do they say? What do customers tell you or your staff in the store? Do an internet search – what are they saying on Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, or whatever website they’re on.
  2. Listen to your employees: Employees usually have more direct contact with customers than anyone in management. Even if its a small business and management deals with customers, odds are your employees still get more information from customers.
  3. Look at your competitors: What do you do significantly different from them? Why would customers choose you? Are your employees more knowledge – Do you carry a better range of products – Do you have more interesting products – Are you the cheapest – Are you the most expensive?

Know Your Traps

Now you have a list of what sets you apart from your competitors, and those are your strengths. Even for individuals you have competitors, and thats everyone else in the work force that is in your field. The trap you need to watch out for are Complacency and Cockiness.

It’s easy to become complacent when things are going well, but if you dont actively nurture your strengths, they begin to degrade. Use it or lose it. Ask me to read an EKG and I can only tell you the basics, a few years ago I was able to pick out a variety of dysrhythmias. It’s common sense, but as we all know – common sense isn’t really common.

The other pitfall is cockiness. Maybe 10 years ago you had amazing customer service, but just because you’re doing things the same way doesn’t mean that you’re still doing great. Technologies change and customers want or expect different things. This is similar to complacency, but with the added arrogance. If you’re in this phase, you better hope you realize it soon and get out of it!

Being an expert is about confidence and learning. It’s a way to showcase what makes you unique, and making what you do more enjoyable. You dont need to start a new company or get a new job to do this – work on it today. Start leveraging your strengths and make a difference.

Be An Expert – part 1

What I am about to say applies for both individuales and businesses … what are your strengths, what are the things that you do better than others? Take a moment to really think those questions over. This will take a lot of introspection, and looking at yourself from the outside as well, but there is nothing more powerful than knowing what your core is – and I’ll tell you why in a moment.

I first heard of Psychologist K Anders Ericcson’s study on what makes an expert back when I was training athletes in 2004. The study examined violinists from age 5 till 21, examining how much they practiced and what level of mastery they achieved. Here is a graph for it:

The premise of the graph is that around age 8, certain violinists practiced more, and those who by 21 were considered the best practiced a total of 10,000 hours. This brings about the rule of thumb that 10,000 hours of practice is the minimum you need to do to reach expert level in whatever you do – whether it is the violin, sports, or even academia. The study went on further to say that no prodigy effortlessly mastered the instrument, and no ‘normal’ child who worked harder than the others never made it to the top.

Our strengths are strengths for a reason – they are skills that we have spent more time nurturing because we enjoy using them. Whether your a business who has great customer service, or a person who is a hobbyist photographer, your skill level will be higher up than those who barely focus on those things.

Think about that for a second. If you enjoy doing something, who knows where you currently are on that graph. When I first heard of this study, it was described as training 3 hours a day, seven days a week, and within 10 years you will have your 10,000 hours and be at expert level. Most of us are at least 1/2 way there for most of our strengths, and even more will have already reached that level.

A word of caution though – just because you’re an expert, it doesn’t mean that you can stop learning. Ericcson and company have gone on to find that experience does not account for accuracy in blind tests, and that expertise declines with experience if you dont maintain training. That last part I dont fully agree with though because I believe you can become more of a niche expert instead of a well rounded expert. The example they gave is a physician having a hard time diagnosing unusual diseases – but I guarantee they can diagnose the things they see daily faster than those who can diagnose the unusual.

Part 2 will cover more in depth on why to be an expert, and traps to watch out for.

Exceeding Expectations

One saying that I come across often is “We strive to exceed customer expectations”. A lot of companies say it – and I find it to be a bit odd. What exactly are you trying to tell the customer about your product or service if your goal is to exceed expectations??

I know what to expect from an iPod when I buy it, or how I will be treated when I fly with JetBlue. If I dont know exactly what to expect from your product, then you need to work on getting your message across clearly. If your goal is lower expectations so customers will be wowed – then you’re doing your product a disservice since you aren’t playing on its strengths.

Most companies say ‘exceed expectations’ because that is what they believe people want to hear. Instead, it comes across as noise. In fact, I will say that your company is boring and will most likely end up disappointing me.

Dont be afraid to tell customers exactly what you do, how you’re going to do it, and what they should expect by choosing you. Be different. Stand out. Know exactly where you’re going. If you want to exceed expectations, show your customers that your company is built on solid foundations that you stick to and deliver.

Understanding How You Work

Everyone has different working styles, but the main three are what I call plodders, sprinters, and chaotics. Plodders are the type that when they get an assignment they can set out right away getting to work, drawing up multiple drafts and working diligently along. Sprinters have one goal, and that is to complete everything as quickly as they can at the beginning so that they have more time to relax and to tweak their work here or there if it needs it. The last group are the chaotics – they thrive on high pressure situations and absolute deadlines in order to find their inspiration, the chaos that comes from last minute situations.

These categories popped into my head after reading an article in the Harvard Business Review blog titled Managing Myself: Times Up , which discusses how to motivate yourself. The article is written from the perspective of a chaotic – someone who thrives on pressure and to get the creative juices flowing. Instead of waiting for that dire situation – what if you were to create that similar atmosphere? If deadlines too far advance are too abstract, what if you were to break it down to a mini deadline of one week, or even one day. If its the nervous energy that drives you, then find ways to create that energy now, like pacing every 15 minutes or listening to chaotic music.

There are a few different ways to get your started. One technique is mindmapping – I have a friend who plastered all the walls in her house with them. Others are better with Gantt Charts so that they can work towards goals. I use a variety of techniques depending on the situation – which can be anything from breaking my creative sessions to 30-60 min segments, to setting mini-deadlines. What works best for you?