Be a Lateral Thinker

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When we are buried in the details of our work, it’s hard to look around and see connections to worlds outside ourselves. We can be talking to the same people within our crowd, read the same blogs, and look at the world through a myopic lens.

Some of the big ideas of today such as taking software platforms, connectivity, mobile and cars can produce inventions like Lyft.

A company like Stripe took their expertise in coding and made connections into financial tech and banking. It was daunting, but rewarding as they brought their lateral thinking to the problem of making online payments easier.

If you straddle different worlds, know the culture and nuances of different segments, you can powerfully introduce solutions that connect the dots that might escape a specialist’s trained mind. Lateral thinking is value add in this increasingly complex and polarized world. There’s extreme efficiency and speed occurring on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, there’s high complexity which requires creative, consultative solutions.

Bringing outside, fresh perspectives can change the way a problem is solved.  If you are a lateral thinker, you can open up the conversation to new possibilities.

You can notice and exercise a few approaches in your work and interactions:

  • Be sure to play in different worlds deeply rather than invest fully into one area of work day in and day out.
  • Meet new and interesting people that think about their fields intensely. Ask great questions and learn.
  • Keep great notes and think of how new perspectives create new solutions for your problems. Test them out and see what comes of trying different approaches. Then share them to help others.

If you can connect the dots you become valuable to others that are conventional in their practice. Your contribution increases.

Think about your domains you invest in. How can they merge or collide in a way to create even more value?

The world is getting more efficient on the whole. But, the creativity and lateral thinking opportunity is there to be applied to multiply those efficiencies.

Don’t Do Grand Openings

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I don’t do grand openings. If you have an idea, skills and the hard work to persist, simply get your first customers and start serving them.

This idea that we are anything special out in the marketplace of hundreds of thousands of options is absurd. You have to earn that over time from learning, iterating and contributing.

Whether you actually contribute is yet to be determined and a celebration before it happens is bad manners.

Instead, when you are ready to be useful, how about:

  1. Developing a path for your customer to be successful. Get buy-in.
  2. Executing towards the plan.
  3. Communicating when things happen or when things change.

Then do it again and refine as you go.

I think you’ll use your energy and everyone’s attention in a much more productive way.

Don’t Be Original

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The romantic idea of creating something innovative and new can get us sidetracked quickly in entrepreneurship. There are 28 million small businesses in the United States as of this writing. You are competing with all those businesses, minds and offerings. The likelihood of being original is difficult against such staggering numbers!

Think about how you buy. You likely buy the same groceries and try one here and there for kicks. You spend money at a lot of the same places – restaurants, gyms, haircuts, etc.

Heck, we largely have the same phones in our pockets. Could you invent a new phone the masses would buy?

Instead of seeking to be original, give people what they want. Be valuable. Be understood. Allow your message to be clear. Take what people want already and compete on being “cheap, fast or good.

You can build on viability and find where the innovations are while actually working hard to meet known expectations and needs.

There is definitely a place for inventors and pioneers. We need dreamers and challengers. But, you want to be around and be relevant. And that takes empathizing, observing and being industrious. Meeting people’s needs and building the conditions for doing business together are no small feat.

Giving people what they want places you in the game. Being good at giving people what they want is hard enough. Trying to invent or find people to want what you offer can be a relentless slog. Perhaps you can innovate, dream and be original in an art form. Do your business by meeting needs and being valuable in business. If you must act on your originality and dreaming, build a non-profit, perform art or give away your ideas in a whole other context. That might be the better mix for underwriting your ambitions.

Pick Two Types of Service

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The temptation for businesses, especially after they have success, is to overreach. You have the choice of price, quality and service as your focal points in the marketplace. But you can only have two. We are tempted to be all three. But we live in a world of natural trade-offs.

Part of being in business is knowing what you are committed to and will deliver to your customers. You can go broke fast when you muddy the water with perfectionism.

If you are good and fast, but not cheap, then expect to turn away prospective customers that are not a match. It’s not a fit for what you are about. You can wait patiently for the people that will come your way that want what you are offering.

If you are in the business of being fast and cheap, keep that habit, message and approach day in and day out. There are plenty of people that are looking for your offering and can live without good. It’s good enough.

I know restaurant owners that own two types of restaurants. One is fast and cheap. They have a steady flow of traffic. It’s a volume game.

The other restaurant looks nothing like the first. It is fast and good.

They don’t comingle the two concepts. They are different businesses with different patrons.

Perhaps you want to get bigger after you see successes. How about focusing on leaning in further to your success and be better instead. Deeper focus and commitment to the two service items that make you who you are will go a long way towards growing your business.

What two are you? How can you get clearer and more committed?

The Purpose of an Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs are heroes in our society. They fail for the rest of us. ~ Nassim Taleb

Yes, entrepreneurs are indeed heroes. Ultimately, entrepreneurs are about initiative and responsibility for risk.

However, at a fundamental level, entrepreneurs are problem solvers. They own the difficult problems others are reluctant to carry. There are a sea of ambiguous problems that entrepreneurs solve:

  • Raising money
  • Making payroll
  • Securing property deals
  • Making deals
  • Collecting
  • Creating
  • Driving awareness
  • Protecting assets
  • Managing difficult people
  • Upholding a reputation

When you decide to start or grow a business, the challenges will be endless. Your plans will meet adversity. People won’t play along. Things can get difficult quick.

Ultimately, your ability to solve problems is what creates progress in the midst of chaos.

Here’s what is important for the journey:

  1. Lead yourself first. Establish health routines. Take care of your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self. Every day without skipping. You need to be dialed in and ready for problems with creativity and stamina.
  2. Always be growing. You need a varied amount of skills that are largely dynamic, perhaps non-descript. Learn to be adept with people. Take care of details. Manage sales and projects.
  3. Be a master recruiter. A bad hire will send your business completely sideways. Hire slowly and fire quickly. Don’t rationalize.
  4. Always be clear. Your clarity matters more than everyone else’s. It also keeps you going towards a goal with perseverance and energy. This is a continuous process.
  5. Create systems. Systems keep your output consistent. They are not flippant or inconsistent. You need people systems, sales systems, personal systems and financial systems.

In the end, an entrepreneur knows they are in the business of problem solving. If you’re not welcoming or anticipating problems, then you won’t make it as an entrepreneur.

It’s a heroic, and many times, thankless journey. But the rewards are immense.

Trust, But Verify

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If you want to grow your business, you have to have good people to delegate functional work to. Otherwise, you become the bottleneck and risk making customers unhappy.

Many years ago, I remember learning the lesson of delegation early while working an engineering project. I had a designer working on new revisions for drawings of a machine assembly I was engineering. We talked about what changes needed to be made. I repeated and reviewed the specific changes with him.

Well, I thought by talking through those modifications that professionals get their job done because that is inherent. I had not learned to trust, but verify.

A few weeks later, after we went to prototype and fabricate of the parts, the assembly did not fit together. I was perplexed. I frantically measured all the components and to my dismay, I found that we produced parts from old drawings. There was a mix-up in what was communicated to the toolmaker.

I thought the designer had handled the updates, but that was an assumption. It was a very expensive retooling because the revisions were not communicated to our manufacturing partner.

We had many other revisions that were managed fine previously. This happened to be one of those that did not get communicated, though the work was done.

My business education benefitted though the project budget ballooned from my mistake. I learned a very hard lesson to trust, but verify. When you have teams or disinterested parties, the risk is high for a bad handoff or miscommunication.

Trust, but verify is risk management. We need it because, despite good intentions, humans are fallible. We are terrible at executing consistently. When there’s a handoff, I like to:

  1. Explain what I need
  2. Have the person let me know they understand by explaining back
  3. Documenting it with an email
  4. Reviewing if we met the spec/requirements of the handoff
  5. Provide praise and gratitude for a job well done

I think that last point of gratitude is important because it makes working together easier the next time based on trust. Also, I like letting people know what they did well. We all need encouragement and honesty as feedback.

You may have heard the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” Usually, people learn this lesson from pain. Hopefully, you can create your own approach that consistently makes handoffs and delegations a core, robust way you grow your business through delegation.

Eliminate Meaningless Work

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We can laugh at the paper shuffling reference as a bygone era, however, you would not be hard-pressed to see manual processes still being run today. Regardless of the efficiencies, cost-savings and better customer experience of digitization, old habits can die hard, especially in businesses.

Never mind if your livelihood depends on such inefficiencies. Innovating a workflow can easily eliminate the need for headcount.

It’s scary when efficiency keeps rolling back the tide and exposing waste. What may have been necessary or productive once is now either wasteful or meaningless work. This goes for digital processes as well.

There are cheaper, faster coders that can deliver an app from anywhere in the world.

You don’t have to manually enter data from one system to another. Using a tool like Zapier can automatically push data wherever you want. Or just make rules between your apps with IFTTT.

Bench is data mining, commoditizing and automating bookkeeping at scale.

Alibaba gets product entrepreneurs prototyping, testing and domesticating products.

Being a middleman these days can be quite wasteful, especially if you are in a production process. Better to figure out how to be more valuable and use the speed to get better results.

Meaningless work has a rapid half-life, especially when business owners and managers are squeezed to deliver better results and profits. Furthermore, you and I are consumers. We are part of the demand audience. We are snobs. We insist on food being delivered instantly, hotels being seamlessly booked and a car to pick us up when we push a button on our phone. Imagine some paper shuffler processing our requests and bottlenecking the exchange.

In your own work, take a look around and get rid of waste. You may have more time with automation. That’s a good thing. Now you can take the extra bandwidth and put the energy into the main thing that produces results for your customers.

Look across your business. It’s required that you eliminate waste. Consider Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno’s moral stance in growing your business, “It is not an exaggeration that in a low growth period, such waste is a crime against society more than a business loss. Eliminating waste must be a business’ first objective.”

Quick Waste Elimination Tips:

  • Write out the steps you do from attracting a customer all the way to putting money in your bank account. What steps can be removed or modified?
  • Write down all the software and apps you use. Get rid of 20% of them.
  • Find the 10% of best customers you have. Meet with them and do bigger deals.
  • Get rid of paper. Move information into systems.
  • Make it easier for a customer to buy from you or get support. Increase the speed and responsiveness.
  • Design a continuous recruiting process for talent.
  • Define who you like to work with. Only work with those people.

Troy Carter of Lady Gaga and Atom Factory Kept Learning and Unlearning

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I like spending the weekends thinking, learning and relaxing. The weeks are such a grind and intensive with deal making and doing business. Today, I was having some reflections on the NPR podcast, How I Build This: Lady Gaga & Atom Factory: Troy Carter. I embedded it above and you can find the transcript here.

Troy Carter managed hip-hop and pop superstars as well as built a venture fund. He is remarkably honest, humble and sober. I respect him as a businessman and how he kept integrating what he learned and unlearned. He kept parlaying his skills and exploring avenues to create opportunities from hip-hop to pop music to social media to investing in startups. Even with his heartaches and successes, as many an entrepreneur goes through, he self-actualized, as he shared,

And just to be honest with you, the thing was I just said I want to wake up every day and do cool [expletive]. That was the mantra for me personally.

I can relate. We have to keep true to our inner compass and find fresh, relevant ways that we fit, apply our value and create opportunities in this fast-changing world.

In sharing this podcast, my friend Joseph over at InDev Capital and I were having some takes on Troy Carter’s podcast. I like what he said based on his work with emerging market real estate and the inherent skill and push it takes in his business,

Most everyone goes through “The Dip” and that is where the learnings are.

Well stated, for sure. Entrepreneurs understand this too well. They do pay the price for everyone else. Those learnings become cash flow, empires and job creation.

If you get a chance, listen to the podcast while driving or hanging out. Share some of your insights in the comments below. I would enjoy hearing your take. Enjoy and keep growing.

Give Them What They Want

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If you spend most of your time trying to convince people of what they need, you may be in for a highly expensive and wasteful lesson from the marketplace. I get it. When you have an idea that you love, you think others should love it as well. But, we have to take heed of what William Faulkner said, “you must kill all your darlings.”

Your darlings may be the idea of special native plants in your ingredients or how you believe people should socialize. In your mind, this may be the most beautiful, reality-changing screenplay to yet become a part of our everyday lives. But going broke pursuing it is not smart business.

Giving people what they want takes observing, listening and detachment. You observe how people react to your offering and integrate the feedback to refine it further.

You listen when they tell you they like something or dislike something. You read the Google Reviews or Yelp. The painful ones have insight.

You detach from your own idea of what is good for everyone, and simply serve people where they are at.

Even if you are right, you may be creating psychic pain by insisting on something people don’t want or are not ready for.

I think people forget there are another 300M+ people in this country. We get in our own heads wanting to be special or stand out. That’s not likely with that many people and with the ridiculous amount of options. And guess what? We are all connected. A hit quickly gains a ripple effect.

There may be a few people brilliant enough to get people to understand something they did not know they needed and now want. But that stardom, though highly celebrated, is what movies are made of, not necessarily what entrepreneurship and business rewards.

It’s a jungle out there. One of your best senses to develop is paying close attention to what people’s emotions, feelings and expressions are saying about what they want and like. Your job is to give it to them in the easiest or most exquisite way.

Valuable Skills in the Automation Economy

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I have shared about the need to unlearn and reinvent continually because of market forces all around you and the pace of change. Once you see something that was once hard become convenient, commoditized and automated, you have to unlearn and relearn.

I think that the Harvard Business Review has it right with the kind of jobs that will thrive in the midst of automation:

“the only way to create value in a more differentiated and rapidly changing product world will be to redefine work at a fundamental level to focus on distinctly human capabilities like curiosity, imagination, creativity, and emotional and social intelligence.”

Being human stands out. Think about how you react to a simple email that is mass vs. personal. You can tell the difference, regardless of how crafted the mass email was designed. Spamming gets blocked. Personal and authentic creates engagement.

Thus, as HBR references, the creators, composers and coaches will make use of automation, routine tasks and efficiencies to create value.

Creators make highly customized products and services based on tastes and interests of people. They have to anticipate and connect the dots. Depth and personalized products are what they are dialing into.

Composers design experiences from the resources that are available. Themes, tours, and parties, for example, will be designed and guided for participants. It’s an imaginative type of area which can transform otherwise mundane offerings into visceral experiences.

Coaches help people achieve more with knowledge, insight and encouragement within chosen domains. They bring clarity, focus and a path for getting dreams and results.

It’s a practical and focused framework for thinking about where you might move towards. These are valuable professions making use of what is already available, abundant and efficient around you in systems, resources and products.

We already know how to make things in mass, sell it to millions and create sameness. That’s not much of a game. It’s a bygone era of value when we learned to be industrial and industrious. And the price keeps dropping towards the bottom.

Think about your industry or background and ask, “How do I create more value by connecting deeply with meaning for my clients and others?”

It’s a bit of repackaging to start moving in this direction, but more importantly, it’s getting in tune with the times where efficiency is becoming a given.