Monday, June 29, 2009

Big Time

I have a friend who play bass in a Country & Western band Jeremy Johnson and the Lonesome Few that tours throughout Oklahoma and Texas. They often open for bands traveling through the area, and so he is able to meet other musicians from well known bands.

He remarked that the one thing he hated was when a famous musician would 'big time' him. Being 'big timed' is when you are talking to someone who constantly looks over your shoulder to see if someone more important or something more interesting is going on. Essentially it is a brush-off.

This struck me as a vivid example of a bad behavior we see in business as well. You might be at a trade show, or even working at your retail shop - a customer or employee comes in and while you are talking with them, your glance travels over their shoulder to whatever else is going on. It may even be unintentional, but they notice.

When I used to do quite a few trade shows, one of the skills you needed to learn was how to quickly qualify a lead (someone entering the booth), and disengage with that person and go on to another. Otherwise, you'd spend all your time with the first person and you'd miss ten others.

Interestingly, if you made a conscious effort to concentrate on the person at hand, then said thank you and moved on to the next person, it was faster and better than if you sort of paid attention to the first person while looking over at the second. People understand you are busy - what people want is to be treated respectfully.

As an entrepreneur, you are besieged by issues, people, and items to consider. If you cannot learn to quickly qualify the importance of a given issue or person's problem, you won't be able to get anything done, and/or you will be considered rude. It is easy to pay only partial attention to the issue at hand, but that is a mistake.

Next time you have three things going on, and someone - employee, customer, incubator manager - comes up to you asking about something, ask yourself, "am I big timing this person?"

If you can give the person your undivided attention, you may just hear something that may become a new feature, or another sale or resolve a customer issue.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Facebook and social media

I hate to say it, but I am skeptical of Facebook as a marketing tool for small businesses or entrepreneurs. I have read the articles proclaiming how this business is doing great because of it's Facebook page and web 2.0 social media marketing. I have seen and tasted the Kool-aid. But I am not sure - too push the analogy a bit too hard - of the nutrition of the drink.

Blogs - yes, especially if you have readers. :)

LinkedIn - yes, especially if you have a good network of people, and don't succumb to allowing Larry the annoying guy from marketing into your network so he can spam your friends.

I can even see how a tool like Twitter can keep people in communication with one another during the work day. I especially can understand its usefulness for people like developers of software to help find solutions to problems "Hey I need a foo to do bar - can anyone help?"

But pure social media sites should be left to your family, church members and the softball team. It is useful, but not for business. You would not want your boss to be a 'friend' on your Facebook page.

I suppose if I put on my Seth Godin hat (would that be a purple hat?) - I might argue against myself and say "Brad, you are building up your brand - who and what you stand for - and that brand is what will be valuable as you sell or run your business." If I am authentic, then that is what generates a group around me and the value of that group.

Here is the rub: authenticity has consequences both good and bad. If my authentic self is completely into tatoos, and my body is adorned with them, then that might keep me from a job. The world does not necessarily value authenticity. Are you sure you want to blur the public and private?

When I lived in Japan, I was often struck by the difference between my Japanese aquaitence's inner and outer personas. Outside, they were salary men, bland, faceless, group members. Inside, they each had great passions for a variety of interests. They found it strange that Americans often wear our inner passions outside (we strive to look different) yet internally, we are all the same.

My argument against social media is much the same: are we ready to put our inner selfs on display, and accept the consequences thereof? Blogs, LinkedIn and Twitter all allow us to use our outer personas in public, but leave our inner selves hidden. Social media is predicated on the opposite.

Friday, June 19, 2009



My wife and I were in Branson, MO last weekend for a family reunion. While there we passed a business that sold rides on Segway (Segways?). For $20 you received a 5 minute tutorial, and 20 minutes of riding around a small course along the side of a hill. The Segway were limited to 5mph so you really could not get yourself in trouble.

I have always wanted to ride a Segway, so we went in and tried it.Even though I am a lousy roller skater and skier, I turned out to have a great time riding around.

At the end of the 20 minutes I went up to return the Segway. I was then informed that since I had completed the beginner level, I could now return (or continue) and this time, ride the non-speed limited Segway (they will go up to 13mph), and for 25 minutes.

I did not realize this (and I can't remember even seeing it listed on the forms when we paid to ride).

I wonder: is this a good system (to wait to offer the second faster level riding)? On the one hand, I would think most people who come into the shop have never ridden a Segway, so you would want to do everything you could to make it simple to get them to try riding. Once they ride, they will probably want to ride again, and then you bring out the faster speed and longer ride time for the same price.

On the other hand, if I had known that I could ride for 20 minutes and if I liked it, ride on a faster one for 25 minutes more, I might have been more disposed to buy both sessions right off.

Or maybe you allow a beginner 10 minutes for $10: my wife never really liked riding the Segway, and would have quit after 10 minutes but wanted to ride out her time she'd paid for. After 10 minutes, I had gotten the hand of it and really wanted the faster Segway.

This seems like a situation where the owner could try various pricing systems - 90% of his customers are there on vacation and probably would only come once or twice anyway. So for a month or two he could try various pricing and times to see what made the most money.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Business Startup: act like you are on tour


When I was in college, I played bass in a rock band. My interest in bass has led me to follow for many years the blog of bassist Tony Levin.

Recently he posted about his latest tour in Europe. Remarking on packing for the tour, he says, "the main effort on small band tours like this is to keep your bags (2 at most) each under 50 pounds, to avoid airline overweight charges. We've all gotten pretty good at it, so there are a lot of 49 pound suitcases, and of course, they have no limit on weight of carryon bags, so maybe the compressor and a box of cd's will go into that --- I'll regret it on the long airport walks, but after 4 or 5 flights we'll have saved a lot of extra charges.

Being on tour teaches you to be careful and avoid those $50 bag charges.

Likewise as a startup, every dollar is precious - and if you are not careful - you too will be socked with the equivalent of overweight charges  - whether overnight shipping costs, fancy desks, or whatever.

Try to consider your business as if it is on tour: what are the essentials?

Note also that musicians don't fail to bring key equipment - compressors, pedals, whatever - that they must have to do their work. Even if that makes their bag heavy. They spend on the necessary, not on the desirable. There may be key tools or software you need for your business - get and use them.

Plus if you consider your startup as a band on tour, it might even have benefits for the team and comraderie.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Make Something People Want


In this month's Inc Magazine (June 2009), there is an article on Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator "The Soul of a New Startup Machine" [p. 60 - no hyperlink yet on Inc website].

Y Combinator gives startups a very small bit of capital to prospective software startups, then pushes them to release a product quickly - see if it catches on, then build from there. The Y Combinator mantra is "make something people want" - they even give you a tshirt that says that when you come on board. And if you sell your startup, you get another that says "I made something people want".

The claim to make something people want caught my eye as I during my reading of Paul Hawken's book, "Growing a Business", he remarks, "the American consumer is inherently dissatisfied".

Contrast this with the common marketing view that consumers don't know what they want. The example often used is a Sony Walkman - no one was sitting around saying they wanted a cassette player with headphones [What's a Walkman?]

The lesson from these three views is that people know what they don't like - or know that they have a point of pain about a product, service or situation. If we can create something that alleviates or meliorates that point of pain, people will be interested in our solution. Of course, you have to have the right price for the solution and the right type of answer, but at the most basic, you have to solve a problem people want solved.

Furthermore, you have to solve it in a way that they 'get it'? It has to be, if not elegant, than something the prospective user can understand, e.g., the way the iPod took mp3 players to another level, even though there had been others previous to it.

Too often prospective startups come in to discuss their business idea with me and it is all about their needs, their intentions, their desires. But when pressed as to what problem they are solving for the prospective customers - they almost always say either "Huh?" or "I will be cheaper than the rest". Neither is a good answer.

Whether software or service, product or restaurant - ask yourself: "am I making something people want?" and "is it something they can understand?"