Define Success Up Front

by Matthew on September 2, 2011

Here’s a lesson I’ve learned over the years and I’m still finding ways to apply it to different aspects of life: define success before you get started. Especially for discrete, easily quantified goals.

This principle might seem obvious, but I raise it often in corporate environments and I’m always shocked at how many people never thought of this. Plenty of people march headlong into losing projects because their version of “fast” or “easy to use” is most certainly different than the person who will evaluate the results. If you’ve ever done consulting work, you know how important defining completion is if you want to get paid. :)

“I want to get strong.” OK, how strong is “strong?”

“I want my website to run fast.” Great, but define fast. Things can always go faster.

You don’t necessarily know what will change in the long-term, but especially for shorter term goals, find a reasonable mile-marker for completion. That helps keep you grounded and recognizing achievements as you go along. If you wait for yourself to feel you’ve “arrived,” that day may never come. There’s always someone who can run faster, throw harder, etc.

I like to set a small achievable goal that can be accomplished in one or two weeks. Then, follow that goal and recognize your success.

This is what I did recently when I set the goal of finding and helping people with technical issues. My goal was basically to help at least a couple different people, or spend a couple hours helping someone per week. For at least two weeks. Two people or two hours for two weeks.

This is a good type of short-term goal because it’s not the kind of thing that will happen without direct effort. Also, it’s very doable and gives you something specific to work toward. If you really have a hard time with larger tasks, take a tiny one that still requires direct effort and formation of a new habit. Like do two pushups a day for a week at first, if that’s what it takes. Develop the habit, then push your progress.

But define success up front, then when you move to the execution phase, just do it. Measure your progress by reaching your set goals, rather than relying on your emotions to tell you when you’ve gotten there.

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Pretend You Have A Store

by Matthew on August 22, 2011

It’s interesting to see the different ways people use social media. I can’t say for certain, but it seems like people who had real, successful storefront businesses before learning and wholeheartedly embracing social media have a decisive edge. A certain successful wine icon comes to mind. :)

Technology Isn’t Enough

I love the way technology continues to destroy barriers for communication and interaction between people. These days you can send an electronic note to someone who lives around the world as easily and (just about) as quickly as someone right next door. Instant global communication is available to pretty much anyone reading this.

But that ability alone isn’t enough to allow your business to fully benefit from these communication improvements. Now that the communication costs are low, you have to leverage the ability to interact personally with folks and build relationships with them.

There’s a general theme floating around the online business folks these days that you have to build relationships with people to really use the power of social media and the Internet. I agree, but if you don’t know how to build relationships with people in general, the Internet is just going to make that more difficult.

Exhibit A: Morton’s

You must read this story from Peter Shankman last week about Morton’s Steakhouse.

Even before reading this story, Morton’s has had a special place in my own heart because of a memorable dinner when my wife and I were first dating. I remember it being a bittersweet dinner because I was leaving the next day after a full and busy visit, but the ambiance, food, wine, and service were absolutely outstanding.

Apparently, Morton’s service is outstanding even for their customers who aren’t currently seated at one of their locations.

(And yes, my personal view is that the publicity component of the Morton’s story was a good reason they did this, since Shankman has a lot of social media connections, but the “personal touch” is still working for businesses.)

Interact Like You Run A Store

Now, your entrepreneurial business is probably not as large as Morton’s Steakhouse. You definitely can provide personalized interaction with your customers, and there’s probably no good excuse not to.

I’m realizing more and more–shockingly–that it’s also a great differentiator. I’m surprised at how many small and even moderately-successful online folks who won’t even acknowledge an interaction with them. Emails go ignored, comments unrecognized, etc. If you owned a store and someone walked in and said something, anything at all, to you, and you said nothing in return, how many customers would you expect would come back?

Aforementioned wine blogger is always talking about how he at least tries to interact with everyone who reaches out to him. Something to think about. I’ve gotten the impression that he took principles of running an actual brick-and-mortar store and just continued that with the Internet so he could reach more people.

Be A Shopkeeper

Pretend that people who give you the opportunity to interact with them online are people who walked into your store. Every one represents a person interested in some way in what you do. Don’t let them leave forever without engaging them.

That’s one reason I say that I always reply to every single one of my communications. Contact me and see. :)

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The Power Of Doing

by Matthew on August 15, 2011

The Internet represents an unlimited amount of material to read, process, and form opinions about, if you’re so inclined. If you’re working on anything business related, that’s as true as ever.

Instead of just reading, thinking, and talking, I’ve made a goal to take specific, deliberate action. It takes a little more effort, but you can actually get things done. :)

As you already know if you’re a member of my email list (signup on the sidebar), several weeks ago I set a goal of helping a certain number of people per week with something online. It quickly became obvious that there’s a limited number of people you can help one-on-one that way. Plus, I found that quite a few people had the same or similar questions.

So, I decided to run a six-week webinar series on getting started online with a blog or Internet business. This series starts tomorrow (August 16, 2011) and email list subscribers were notified last week so they could register early. The series is free of charge and I have nothing to sell; it’s just the best way to help larger numbers of people efficiently. Plus, I’ll answer questions people ask through the series, so if you have anything specific you’d like to have covered, email away.

If you’re still interested, you can get the registration info. just by signing up for my email list (see the sidebar, or the blog webinar series page).

I’ll keep you updated on how the series goes, but this is my current deliberate action.

What are you doing to help people (either with or without monetary compensation)? Or are you just thinking about it?

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Start With A Customer, But Reuse Your Work

by Matthew on August 4, 2011

The last few weeks I’ve been going over various models promulgated by “experts” for starting and monetizing an “Internet business.” Given my personality, it’s not surprising that I instantly skip over or discard more than half of the advice. Success can be the worst teacher, so I have been trying to keep that in mind as I struggle not to just instantly toss piece after piece of online advice into the proverbial garbage. Just because my instant impressions have been right about the last 100 ideas thrown my way doesn’t mean my instant impressions are always correct.

On one side are the folks who are trying to build a blog along with a digital product they can sell. That’s mostly a numbers game and marketing exercise. New advice abounds, always challenging the old advice from a week ago. Since challenging common advice is itself a traffic attraction strategy, it’s an absolute zoo out there with people seemingly trying to one-up each other. I have no interest in this kind of business. This blog is not my business; it’s a way to share with you and help you escape the rat race as well. This blog’s main purpose isn’t to sell stuff.

On the other side are people who actually know genuine business and often have some brick-and-mortar experience. Advice from these people rings much more true, because they aren’t just trying to write persuasive copy. These are people to learn from. I’m always on the lookout for advice and the opportunity to connect with these folks.

To build a real business, you need at least one customer and a product that customer wants/needs. In my case, I want products that do not require me to be in a particular geographic location at all times.

Finding things people want is easy, so I have chosen my first “customer.” It’s actually my wife’s online business which is growing and needs some special technical efforts. I’m working on developing a product for her which will become my own significant product to launch. In this way, it’s almost like helping to build two businesses at once without getting pulled in different directions. My choice to focus in this way came partly from the advice to sell your by-products by 37signals.

If you’re developing something for one customer, keep in mind the opportunity to capture that effort and turn that work into a product with broad appeal that you could build a business around. Some other examples of this are building premium WordPress themes; build once, sell many times. That sure beats custom web design work for one customer at a time.

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Intrinsically Pathological

by Matthew on July 26, 2011

I tend to be able to rapidly spot corporate dysfunction as well as probable causes. Not long ago, I spoke with someone who was describing their day-to-day work (very positively) and I predicted some key personality attributes, beliefs, and management style of a particular executive I’d never met in a separate area of the organization. Attributes which frankly threaten the organization’s future. Not long afterwards, my predictions were confirmed to such a degree that even I was surprised.

I’m not bragging; you can probably do the same. Organizations are ultimately run by people, and some very basic psychology, sociology, and economics applied to your view of the organization can be eye-opening.

If you’ve decided to ditch the rat race, it’s probably because corporate structures themselves aren’t satisfying to you, not just because of one particular manager or organization you find unpalatable. Trouble is, organizations are inherently problematic.

One of my favorite articles on the subject is The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office” over on Ribbonfarm; it’s raw brilliance. I wish I had Venkat’s keen perceptions on things, but at least I can learn from reading his work. :) (book review on Tempo forthcoming) I’ve repeated the following axiom from the article countless times, written it down as a reminder, and repeated it to stressed colleagues because it helps to set your expectations:

[O]rganizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs.  Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological.

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Two Entrepreneurs

by Matthew on July 19, 2011

In the last 24 hours, I’ve talked to two cab drivers who were each obviously entrepreneurs at heart. The first guy explained to me the math he did to figure out his costs before deciding to buy a hybrid vehicle with all the bells and whistles (leather interior, navigation, etc. etc.). He rattled off the total monthly costs, the savings in gasoline, and quality of the ride for his passengers. He was quite proud of the great air conditioning his car provided to the back seat (it’s been ~100 degrees in Chicago, with heat indexes several degrees higher). When he dropped me off at my hotel, he gave me his card and phone number and asked me to consider him for my ride back to the airport.

This morning I hopped into a cab and was greeted by a cheerful cabbie. He asked how I was and when I asked him in return, he said “I’m excellent…I’m about to earn some of your money!” This guy also bragged about his car and the gas mileage it got. Early in the ride, he handed me a newspaper saying “this is part of my service to you.”

Cabbies are something of a crap shoot. I’ve gone entire weeks taking cabs every day and gotten nothing more than a grunt from any of them. These two guys definitely have the entrepreneurial spirit: delivering good service, knowing the financial aspects of their business, making a connection with their customers, and differentiating themselves from the (huge) crowd of competition.

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What’s Your Real Career Path?

by Matthew on July 18, 2011

A lot of folks feel that Dilbert isn’t what it used to be, but sometimes it really fires on all cylinders. I’ve had conversations almost exactly like this one:

Dilbert.com

If you’re counting the months away from ditching your current track (retiring, entrepreneurship, etc.) that’s fine. If not, two questions for you:

  1. Are you really going anywhere in your current position?
  2. Are you OK with that?

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The Authority To Make Bad Decisions

by Matthew on July 12, 2011

“I want the authority to make bad decisions.”

This was my response to a question posed by a manager years ago when he asked me what I was looking for in my career. I followed that up with a clarification: “I want the authority to make decisions that you think are bad.” I dare you to tell your boss this. :)

I’m not saying my manager was a problem (my comment probably wouldn’t have been wise if he was), but this is how I cut to the chase and explained things in a way easy to understand.

I wasn’t in some raw quest for power, I was getting at a common management problem which exists in a lot of environments today: a failure to demonstrate real trust in the abilities of people who work for you. When the rubber meets the road, lots of people just can’t help micromanaging. They want to personally vet every significant action taken by their direct reports and veto the ones they don’t like or understand. Sometimes things get vetoed because it might make the manager look incompetent. Classic Pointy-Haired Boss (Dilbert) stuff, but the jokes don’t seem to be changing things. These kinds of managers are convinced they’re helping the right things get done while they aggravate their best and brightest employees so much they eventually go away. They also pretty much ensure that no one smarter than they are will work for them for a long time.

If you’re like I am, sometimes you are convinced you actually do know better than your manager, perhaps because it’s your job to know certain things and you are better situations to make certain decisions.

You have two options if you want to avoid this situation. Either find a manager who realizes this (and isn’t micromanaged themselves) and empowers you, or you become an entrepreneur and you can make all the decisions you like and let your customers tell you whether they’re good or bad. :)

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Good Enough Is…Well…Good Enough

by Matthew on July 9, 2011

Two things came up relatively recently that reminded me of the “Principle Of Good Enough.” First was my recent purchase of a Kodak Zi8. That reminded me of a Wired article I read a couple years ago about digital cameras and digital video cameras. Second was a video interview at ThinkTraffic about three guys who build an online business. In that video, Daniel Himel mentioned the POGE and how it has influenced him.

When you are getting started with a new business or service offering, most times it’s just fine and probably even preferable to just strive initially for good enough. Find the core need that you satisfy, get your product or service to meet that need, and go for it. If you need to improve certain things, you’ll learn what they are as you go along. If you don’t need to improve things because there’s no market for your product, you haven’t wasted lots of time.

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The Entrepreneurial Nature

by Matthew on July 6, 2011

Over the last couple of weeks since getting the Square reader for smartphones, I’ve shown it to quite a few people. It’s evidence of the way things are becoming easier all the time to transact business at all levels with minimal overhead investment. Inexpensive overhead means that more people will be able to engage in these transactions, potentially starting more businesses etc.

Still, the response I got from two actually very technical individuals was: “and you have this why?” They were completely confused that I would show an interest in a little widget that:

  • does something pretty cool (swiping credit cards is pretty cool, you have to admit. Remember those old machines…”chunk…chunk?”),
  • will be shipped to you for free,
  • has no monthly bill for the user, and finally
  • lets you tell people “yes, I can accept a credit card right here and right now.

If they were confused, I was more so. 50% of my interest was the technology behind the little reader that plugs into the headphone jack. The other 50% was the huge potential this could have for small entrepreneurs including me.

The challenge for us technophiles is not stopping at the first step, interest in the technology. It’s only the application of technology that really makes a difference. If you find something cool, chances are you can dig deeper and find a real world use for the technology. Non-applied technology helps no one. Apply technology to solve a problem and you are on you way to entrepreneurship.

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