Not a Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a prince who traveled to the far reaches of the kingdom. He spied a young woman who was the most magnificent creature he had ever seen. The prince spoke to her and rather than being demure, she was witty and charming in her reply. They conversed for nearly an hour over a chalice of wine and the prince hurried back to the castle in a state of euphoria. He just knew that he was going to take this woman to be his wife. After telling his father and mother about his encounter, he set about making plans for the wedding. The royal florist was summoned as was the baker. The wedding was going to be an elaborate affair with only the finest of materials for the bride’s gown. Special jewelry was to be made for the soon-to-be-bride, and the prince had a long conversation with the priest about the ceremony. He also cast about to find the perfect location for a new home to be constructed inside the castle walls and met several times with the royal furniture and cabinet makers.

Everything was going to be perfect . . . or so thought the prince . . . except for one thing. The woman with whom the young prince was smitten was already married. In his eagerness to move forward with a wedding and a life with a new wife, the prince ignored the first step in developing a plan. He forgot to get the facts first.

It’s easy to fall into this trap whether we’re entrepreneurs or not. We become so enamored with an idea that we immediately want to plunge into developing a plan to make it a reality. Then we either pay lip service to the facts, or we just blow right on by this step. Fact Finding should always be Step One for any planning process.

Suppose we have an idea to scale our business. We’ve been sailing along making a reasonable profit, but believe that we could really make it big if we could only grow much larger and capture a wide range of efficiencies in our processes and cost structure. Our experience in the industry is extensive and we think we’re tuned in to the nuances of the market. We begin to look at all of the different options for expansion. The owner of a competitor is rumored to be retiring and perhaps we could acquire his company. There’s a sharp woman in another city that we’ve been recruiting for quite some time – she could open an operation for us in that city. Our production line has been running at full capacity for over a year. Maybe we could invest in a second production line that would allow us to ramp-up even further. Lots of ideas are swirling around and suddenly we’ve entered the Danger Zone. Why? Without some serious Fact Finding we could make a number of mistakes with our expansion – some of which could be fatal.

For starters, even though we think we know the market like the back of our hand, there may be subtle shifts that we haven’t noticed. When is the last time we calculated our market share and that of our competitors? What is the longer term outlook for our product? Maybe it’s going great guns right now, but in two years it will be obsolete because a better mousetrap is in the offing. Do we have more than anecdotal evidence that there’s demand for a second production line?

The Fact Finding step should take a “fresh eyes” approach to all aspects of our business and the market. It’s as though we are entering the business for the first time. No matter how much we think we know; no matter how experienced we think we are, looking at everything with a fresh and detailed perspective is critical to our success and maybe even our survival.

Great ideas need to be fleshed out in a careful and systematic fashion. While we don’t want to be frozen in analysis paralysis, performing adequate Fact Finding should always be the first step when creating an implementation plan.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 44.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Dead End or . . . ?

Have you ever found yourself pursuing an idea or an initiative only to discover you’ve reached a dead end? Often times people give up and move on to something else. Why waste any more time on something that’s not going to work, is the conventional thinking. But what if this is an entrepreneurial endeavor in which we’ve invested serious money as well as time and energy? Walking away isn’t so easy. In fact there may be a tendency to stubbornly throw good money (and time and energy) after bad.

There is a way to turn some dead-ends into cul-de-sacs. This is done through a process called pivoting. Very simply, a pivot is a change of direction. I remember playing high school basketball and having the ball thrown to me close to the basket. Usually there was a defender trying to stop me from scoring which required me to pivot or change direction to get a better unobstructed shot. Sometimes I was so hell-bent on bulling my way to the basket that my shot would be blocked or the ball would be stripped away. Frustrating? You bet. But it was my failure to finesse the situation and pivot that resulted in my failure to score.

While pivoting seems like an easy and obvious course of action, it’s not. We entrepreneurs tend to be a proud lot. We often think we have the best ideas since sliced bread. We also believe we can make anything work with discipline and perseverance along with our charm and good looks. We may not even realize we’re headed down a dead-end street. How can we become more objective on our journey? Setting milestones at the beginning of the process can be very helpful. This is accomplished by establishing measurable performance indicators that enable us to know if we’re progressing toward our end goal or not. By keeping track of our milestones it becomes easier for us to see when we need to make a course correction.

There are numerous examples of pivots in American business that resulted in extraordinary products and companies. The likes of Pay Pal, Groupon, Starbucks, Nokia, Flickr, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Instagram, Wrigley, Avon, Pinterest and Suzuki are all case studies. An article in Forbes Magazine dated October 8, 2014 by Jason Nazar and Rochelle Bailis chronicles one of the most famous pivots of the modern era – Twitter.

“The most legendary pivot in social media history is the transformation of Odeo into Twitter. Odeo began as a network where people could find and subscribe to podcasts, but the founders feared the company’s demise when iTunes began taking over the podcast niche. After giving the employees two weeks to come up with new ideas, the company decided to make a drastic change and run with the idea of a status-updating micro-blogging platform conceived by Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone.”

Keeping an open mind; avoiding being married to an idea; setting and watching milestones; collaborating with others, and maintaining an environment for innovation is the perfect recipe for discovering when and how to pivot. Sometimes multiple pivots may occur before we nail it. Smart entrepreneurs are always on the lookout for pivots that will deliver the results they are seeking.

A pivot may actually bring about an even more exciting product or service (or company) than originally intended. The process of pivoting will also help to minimize or eliminate the incidences of dead-ends.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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Great Idea!

Entrepreneurs are brimming over with new ideas. Some are novel, some are revolutionary and some well, let’s just say there’s a lot of room for improvement. Regardless, we often find ourselves enthralled and passionate about our ideas. It’s our nature to share these ideas with others to attain validation and receive encouragement. And because most people are nice, we seldom hear rejection – especially from friends and family. Further, we may interpret tepid enthusiasm as an endorsement and plunge ahead to develop our ideas in the absence of a solid reality check.

How do we find out if our ideas are worthy? We start by treating our ideas as if they are a product or service – and they very well may be. Does our idea solve a problem? In the world of venture capital that funds ideas, a different question is asked. Is the idea a “vitamin pill” or a “painkiller?” People take vitamins because they desire better health. They take painkillers because they hurt. Which has the higher probability of being purchased on a consistent and ongoing basis? You got it – the painkiller. Consumers can put off purchases that make their lives better, but they won’t do so when they hurt. So, is your idea a “painkiller” that solves a real problem? If so, you may have a winner. But just because your idea might be a “vitamin pill” doesn’t mean it won’t work. However your case for someone to “purchase” may need to be more compelling.

Next, who is going to use your idea? In other words, who is your customer? Remember that we’re looking at our ideas as though they are products or services. To successfully implement an idea we must understand who our customer is as well as their various characteristics, traits and tendencies. For example, let’s say that we have an idea to launch a new process within our company. Who are the members of our team that will be utilizing this process? Could there be a “generation gap” with the way we plan to deploy our process? If we’re Baby Boomers, and Millennials will be using the process, we need to make certain that Millennials can relate to it.

In keeping with our ideas-are-products-or-services theme, we need to test our idea with our potential customers. Bouncing an idea off a spouse or friend isn’t the same as having an in-depth discussion with those who are going to use our idea. Before we completely perfect an idea, it’s best to work with a small focus group of eventual customers. We lay out our thesis and describe the problem we are attempting to solve. We explain the “vitamin pill” or “painkiller” notion of our idea. Then we share our solution and solicit feedback – just like we would do if we truly were launch a product or service in the marketplace. The responses we receive will be invaluable in refining our idea to be that much more appealing and useful to our “customers.”

Once we’ve completed these three steps we can evaluate whether or not our ideas are worthy of pursuit. In some cases we’ll get a thumbs-up signal, and in others we’ll either need a complete idea overhaul or throw it on the scrap heap. While sometimes challenging, being completely objective is the byword.

Evaluating ideas as a product or service reduces the chance for us to emotionally chase a fantasy. It allows us to allocate our time and energy pursuing viable opportunities that we envision.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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Sliced Bread

Question: I’ve been working for the past two years on bringing my dream idea to fruition. And it seems like it’s two steps forward and three steps backwards. When do I know it’s time to throw in the towel?

Answer: This question really resonates with me. Over the course of the past 40 years I can’t tell you how many dream ideas I’ve pushed, prodded, cajoled, coaxed and dragged, trying to get them across the finish line. Fortunately I’ve succeeded more often than I’ve failed, but there definitely have been a number that succumbed along the way.

Something I learned may surprise you. I’ve discovered that becoming emotionally invested in an idea can be dangerous. You may rightly ask, “How can we work to realize our dream without emotion and passion?” And here’s where the distinction comes for me. I am very passionate about the process of creating an idea and taking the steps necessary to implement it successfully. But I try and avoid becoming emotionally attached to the idea itself. By doing so, I can pursue an idea up to the point that it appears to be no longer viable and then discard it, moving on to the next idea.

Here’s what happens when we take a “this is my baby” approach to nurturing an idea. The process of birthing the idea takes on an emotional dimension that can blind us to things that we may not want to see. As a result we may not maintain our objectivity and might even miss some critical signals that would otherwise steer us in a different direction. We tend to have tunnel vision, believing that our idea is the best thing in the world since sliced bread. Yet others may not see what we think we see. So we start trying to sell people on our idea . . . rather than helping them buy it. When we don’t get the response we’re looking for we may begin to put pressure on ourselves to push the idea over the top. Then the frustration builds to the point that we’re ready to scream. By now our creative flow of energy has been blocked by our frustration and there is no way we’re going to succeed.

What works for me is to remove the emotion from the idea and replace it with a process. This process includes milestones and metrics that help me determine if I’m making progress in developing an idea. I’m also more receptive to pivots that may be necessary – that is, changes in direction that I need to take to ensure that the idea succeeds or is enhanced. More than anything, it’s liberating to know when an idea needs to be thrown on the scrap heap. I can now do this with ease, knowing that I did what was reasonable to make it work and recognized when it wasn’t meant to be.

Becoming emotionally invested in our dreams may actually hinder our success. Having passion for the process of realizing a dream will help us relax and maintain our creative flow.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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