17 Jan

Teaching reset: “How do you want to use technology in the classroom?”

Every so often I do a reset of my teaching habits in order to see if I am in synch with my MBA students. They are mature adults with years and sometimes even decades of international work experience behind them. I want to be sure I am current with their professional realities. It is time again for a reset, so I used the beginning of the new term to ask them how they wished to use technology during our class time together.

I love turning the tables on my students and inviting them to take ownership of their learning process. Many are delighted with the invitation and eagerly embrace the opportunity. Others are unsure, as their previous learning experiences have been largely out of their control. Empowerment takes a bit of getting used to, as a Japanese student reflected to me at the end of the class.

I had expected the discussion of technology in the classroom to take a maximum of 15 minutes. It would be simple, right?  Use smart phones or not? Easy. Laptops or not? Easy.

Not so.  Each of my three sections of students took over an hour, with one section going to 90 minutes. Clearly, the topic touched on real concerns they had about the use of technology in the classroom and the workplace.

Some fascinating insights emerged:

1.  Personal use of technology is now the accepted norm in the workplace.

The old world of separation between work and personal life is over.  Not only is it unenforceable, but it is simply impractical. Even just 10 years ago the assumption was that when you were at work you were working. Only emergency personal communication was expected by your employer. You should be focused on your work when at work.

Now? While some old-school dictatorial type managers can still be observed in the wilds of the workplace, they are an endangered species.  It is now the socially and professionally accepted norm that you will flow between work and personal smoothly and without significant concern.  Only when you are clearly not getting your work done or are disturbing others with your personal interactions will a concern be raised with you.

This is the world of work.  Students feel that the classroom should be the same as the workplace:  Technology for personal use should be just fine.

2. You are always connected and reachable.

Again, even just 10 years ago when someone in your personal sphere wanted to connect with you they would hesitate if it was during working hours: “Is this important enough for me to ask for your attention?” might go through their subconscious.

Now? Send a text message. Initiate an online chat. Or call. Anytime. You are expected to be reachable 24×7 to friends and family now. For any reason.

3. Everyone must develop their own discipline.

My students were most vocal about this. Do not restrict our use of technology in the classroom or workplace. Let us learn the hard way to discipline ourselves. When we fail in our studies or in meeting our goals in the workplace, we will learn when to put the phone into silent mode and close personal windows on our laptops so that we can focus on what we have to get done.

The Pavlovian urge to check text messages must be overcome by the individual. They need results oriented feedback before they will begin to discipline themselves.

Personally I question this, but mostly for self-preservation reasons as a professor.  When a student fails in their studies their first reaction is that it is not their fault. Blame is projected outward and the blame gun is pointed directly at the professor.  And in this era of “the student is a customer mindset” of institutions, the student must be placated, if only for institutional marketing reasons.

4. Our classrooms and workplaces are 100 years out of date.

This is my personal favourite. We have “Master” centric classrooms with mechanical layouts that encourage students and workers to think and act like robots being prepared for 19th century factories when they graduate. Desks all lined up in the classroom so the teacher is the authority. In the same way, cubicles in the workplace de-humanize employees in the workplace. Yikes.

We brainstormed what the 21st century classroom and workplace should look like.  Tables with wireless charging built into them.  Groupings of tables so that teams can work together face-to-face to solve problems and construct things.  Wireless projectors so that students can easily project what is on their smartphone to the whole class. Continual, natural, and individual-driven use of technology, all the time. Co-working, an emerging evolution of the workspace, is an example of how positive change is happening in the real world, where technology is fully integrated into the physical place people work.

Ahhh….I love the smell of empowerment in the classroom.

But then I asked them:  “May I use my smartphone during class?”

Their reply:  “No! Not you. We paid for you to be here and teach us.”

Clearly, there are still some limits on the use of technology in the classroom. Well, limits on my use, anyway.  And of course, they don’t see the irony:  “Teach us, but we won’t necessarily be listening, engaging, or learning from what you are doing. We might be busy focusing elsewhere with our phones and laptops.  But keep going.  We paid you to do this, so do it anyway. And make sure that we get good grades, too.  Oh, and thank you for doing all that. ”

They are polite.  I give them that.

31 Jan

Self-empowerment 101: I will make fewer decisions

Undoing mental patterns and habitual behaviors can be devilishly hard to do.  This is in direct contrast to how easily we create mental patterns and habitual behaviors.

I recently began undoing my belief that I have to make decisions all the time.  I guess I made a decision to stop making so many decisions!  A most fascinating and empowering journey has followed.

I gained the belief early in life that we are in control of our lives and destinies.  This control is called free will, and I was taught in school and by the world that it is a precious thing that should be exercised daily.  This belief in my free will has been at the foundation of my philosophy of life.  In fact, I still have the belief that I have free will.

What has changed, however, is in how I choose to use my free will.  One choice I made was to undo the belief that I have to make decisions all the time.  I used to believe that if I am not making decisions all the time I am not actually exercising my free will.

I now have a different belief.  Free will is not about making decisions all the time.  It is about “freely using my will”.

If this is getting too theoretical, here is an example:

ballotElection day.  You are to elect a new government leader.  You are presented with a list of 4 candidates.  You must decide on one and choose him/her.

Full stop.

First, who said you have to choose one from a set of options you didn’t create?

Second, who said you must participate in this decision process called an election?

Why did you buy into these two beliefs?

“If you don’t vote, you are not fulfilling your legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities to this country. ”

Ahhh…there we go:  I was forced, encouraged, or guilted into participating in a decision making process called an election.  And I am a bad person if I do not participate.  Someone decided that participating in elections makes you a good person and not participating in elections makes you a bad person.

Wait a minute!

How many other beliefs and decision making processes have I been invited to ascribe to and participate in?  How many have I chosen to believe and participate in, quite willingly, because I thought it was the fulfillment of the reason I have free will?

Lots, and lots, and lots.

Let’s take a step further back to uncover more goodies:

In university I chose a business education, where I gained the belief that leaders and managers are decisive, take initiative as a part of their minute-by-minute workday.  You must “drive the agenda”.  And another saying goes:  “Decide, or someone else will decide for you.”

This is where it gets even more interesting:  “Decide, or someone else will decide for you”, is actually a fear-based belief!

I chose long ago not to live or act from a state of fear.

But I am still playing out the habits of my university training!

Decide. decide. decide.

“People who don’t decide are weak, spineless individuals. They are soft.  They don’t take initiative, but let life walk all over them. The meek may inherit the earth, as the saying goes, but I would never want to be meek! Why be a victim when you can be a victor!”

Again, full stop.

This is getting silly.

One last look at this:

How many times have I encouraged my children to make decisions, when they did not understand the need for the decision to be made, the choices available, or the consequences?  How traumatic was it for me to have to make “blind” decisions as a child, when I learned that decision making often resulted in outcomes that I didn’t understand and that hurt?  Ouch.

What I believe free will is not

Free will is not about becoming a “decision junkie”, thinking we have to make decisions all the time when we really don’t.  it is not about habitually making decisions out of fear, usually without understanding the real reasons for the decision needing to be made in the first place. It is not about accepting the choices we are being presented and assuming without thought that they are the only options and the most valid ones. Free will is also not about making decisions without understanding the importance of the consequences of the decisions.

And it is not about forcing others to make decisions when they don’t need to.

What I believe free will is

Free will is about exercising our ability to choose how we live our lives: What we believe, and how we act from those beliefs.

This year, I will use my free will to undo lots of beliefs and to make fewer decisions. And in doing so, I choose to empower myself to stay focused on the quality of my life itself and how I wish to live it.

I can hear the critics gleefully challenging this logic with “you just made a decision!”

Intellectualize all you want. I won’t play that game (another decision).

I am backing out of my addiction to the distracting activity called decision making.

And in doing so I am taking my power back to use my free will to focus on what will make me stronger and happier in my life.

08 Oct

What exactly do customers want to feel?

In Part 1 of this look at what customers want,  I made the case that they want to buy a future set of feelings.  To prove my point, I sent the willing reader to a grocery store to uncover for themselves how everyday products have deeper underlying meanings with emotional attachments.  The logical mind does not want to believe in the emotional reality of our purchasing habits because admitting so triggers feelings of vulnerability and ego responses.

In this Part 2, we answer a “how” question. If customers only want a future set of feelings when they are buying things, how can we figure out what those desired feelings are?

What do customers want to feel?

Principle 1:  You must know yourself

We all have subconscious and unconscious beliefs, habits, fears, and dreams.  They drive most of our thinking and behavior.  As marketers, we see, hear, interpret, analyze, and assess through the lens of this “stuff” that is bubbling constantly under our mental surface.

Want to become excellent at figuring out what customers really want?

Get yourself out of the way.

In other words, by becoming conscious of the engine that is under your own mental hood, you quickly clear the lens of how you see and understand other people.

Is this something you can do in one day or one week?  No.  Self-inquiry is a process that you start and never end – it takes a lifetime.  That said, the fact that you choose to initiate a self-inquiry process instantly puts you into a mental position that you want to see and understand the world they way it is, not the way you think it is.  If you are successful at making self-inquiry a daily habit, you actually reap the benefits in the first day and the very first week.

And as times goes by, you become more and more astute with your observations and understandings of human motivations and behavior.

Principle 2:  You can’t ask people what they want to feel

Another survey a company wants me to complete. Uggghh…

Surveys don’t work if you are trying to get at what customers really want.  Nor does simply asking customers in any form.  Oh, asking customers their opinions is good for uncovering some feelings after they have interacted with your product or service.  A survey can give you a sense of customer satisfaction. But asking customers cannot actually uncover their true purchase motivations.

Why? Because customers don’t know what they want.  I mean this literally: They don’t know the real reasons they want something.   By “know” I mean be able to clearly and in detail articulate the emotional underpinnings to their desires.

They think they know why and will defend their position vehemently if you were to press them or challenge them. But they generally can’t and won’t be able to give you the underlying reasons – the real reasons.

To give you the real reasons would be worse for them than stripping physically naked in front of you: It would be stripping emotionally naked in front of you. Most people are afraid to be physically naked in private and look at themselves in a mirror.  How many people are strong enough to strip emotionally naked to you, a stranger, when stripping emotionally naked to themselves would be one of the most terrifying things they could do as a human being?

A ridiculous example to make my point:

Researcher:  “So, what are the emotional reasons you want to buy the new iPhone?”

Customer:  “I want an iPhone because I am afraid of being left behind. If I don’t get a new iPhone, my friends will think I am loser and no-one will like me anymore. Girls will think I am poor and I will end up lonely and worse: I won’t be part of the “normal” people at school.  I fear this will lead to me becoming irrelevant and lost in social and work settings, leading to a life living without money or hope for the future. Belonging is extremely important to me, and if I don’t belong to what Apple and the iPhone represent, I will engage in negative habits and behaviors such as addictions, anger, sadness, and ultimately, self-destruction – I will die on the street as a beggar.”

While this is silly example, can you see that almost no-one in this world would allow themselves to uncover true feelings to themselves, much less openly to someone doing marketing research?

Principle 3:  You must uncover true customer desires

So, if you can’t ask customers why they really want to buy something, how do you find out?

You have to uncover the deeper truths – the emotions customers desire to feel.

To uncover the truth, you need to use a lot more of yourself than just your logical, rational brain.  You need to use a whole host of aspects, skills, and abilities in yourself, including emotional intelligence and some that are innate – they can’t be “learned”, but they can be developed.

Here is a summary PowerPoint slide I use in my MBA marketing course:

How do you find out what people really want?

 

Uncovering the truth is a messy business.

It means observing and engaging with your customers and allowing yourself to see deeply into their lives, gaining insights from their lifestyle behaviors, purchasing habits, and thinking.

It takes time, effort, strength of will, and allowing your own vulnerabilities to be exposed.

It means creating a connection to your customer so they will open up to you.

Would you like to see a master at work, someone who isn’t afraid to delve into his own emotions as he figures out what people really want?

Mad Men:  Don Draper and the Kodak Slide Carousel:

How do I build the skills and abilities to be like Don Draper?

The best marketers, as exemplified by Don Draper in Mad Men, must learn and develop more of themselves than simply their intellect.

Want to become like Don Draper?  Start learning and developing the following:

1.  About yourself (as noted earlier)

2.  Emotional intelligence – how other people feel, and why.

3.  The ability to feel emotions in yourself without pushing them down or getting overwhelmed.

4.  The personal strength to interact openly with others so as to engage much more of yourself with them.

These are life skills, really.  And perhaps engaging in life is the best way, if not the only way,  to learn these.

An exercise

As in Part 1, here is an exercise that can get you started on the path to expanding your skills and abilities in uncovering the truth about what people and customers really want.

1. Go to a coffee shop by yourself. Starbucks is a good one to begin with.

2.  Order your drink and get a seat where you can observe the lineup and at the same time be near other people who are sitting and drinking and chatting.

3.  Shut off your cell phone, shut off your laptop, remove your earphones, put down anything you are holding, and sit comfortably with your hands on your lap.

4.  Feeling a bit naked and uncomfortable?  Good!  You are used to being with friends, holding something, and being “plugged in” to your electronics.  Now you are alone, with no safety blanket and unplugged. You are a bit naked, no?  Sit with this feeling for 5 minutes or so.  What happens?  Are people looking at you, pointing their fingers and whispering to each other?

No, of course not.

As you come to realize that you are OK just sitting there, you will also begin to notice that your discomfort levels rise and fall, depending on what thoughts flow through your mind.  You may also notice that your mind tries to escape by going into stories, fantasies, or memories.  Gently return your attention to the coffee shop when this happens.

5.  Do a conscious observation:  Watch how people enter the coffee shop and line up to buy their drinks.  Watch how they stand in line, chat with each other, and how they interact with staff when it is their turn to order.

How do they behave? Where do they look? Do they seem comfortable or nervous? What patterns do you start to see emerging?

6.  Do another conscious exercise:  Listen to a conversation that is taking place near you.  Of course you cannot watch the people as this would be socially unacceptable (staring), but you can listen in. Or can you? Do you feel uncomfortable doing this? Why?

As you listen, sit with any feelings that arise in you. Are they your feelings being triggered by what you hear, or are you simply picking up the feelings of the people who are conversing, just as you pick up the heat of the sun when it shines on your skin?

As you listen to the conversation, can you observe your mind picking up interesting patterns and insights?  Can you hear your mind comparing what you are hearing to your own experience of life?

After 20-30 minutes of holding yourself separate from your habits and simply observing, you may find yourself getting mentally tired, emotionally upset , and even stressed.  Or you may find yourself in a new and exciting state of being, similar to a meditative state.  There is no right or wrong here of what you experience.  Be gentle with yourself if you do find this hard.  It takes practice to be by yourself and feel safe, strong, and open to hearing and experiencing the realities around you.

Question: How many times in the 20-30 minutes did you pick up your drink?  Was it a habitual movement, a nervous reaction, or simply a desire for a drink?  Be honest with yourself!

At the end of this exercise, walk out of the coffee shop and observe any feelings you have as you walk out. Relief? Exhilaration? Or feeling nothing?

Walk off the experience to clear your mind and emotions and reflect on what you learned.

Congratulations! You have practiced several skills and abilities that the best marketers have!

Are you ready and willing to do it again in another coffee shop?

14 Aug

The paradox of teaching “entrepreneurship”

I watched a video on entrepreneurship yesterday.

Well, actually, I only watched the first 10 minutes of the video – it was an hour long.

During those first 10 minutes, the very well-intentioned university professor attempted to intellectually conceptualize entrepreneurship and say something meaningful.

I gave up after 10 minutes of watching him struggle to bridge the gap between what he wanted to do and what entrepreneurship is.   He wanted to make something active into something passive.

The paradox of teaching “entrepreneurship”

Entrepreneur:  “A person who organizes and manages…”   (Dictionary.com)

There are two verbs in this definition: “organize” and “manage”.

These are active.  You organize and manage.  You do these things.

And you get good at organizing and managing as an entrepreneur by practicing organizing and managing. By independently daring to do the organizing and managing.  No-one gives you permission.  You answer to no-one. You initiate and do them yourself.

Like riding a bike, you can’t really study entrepreneurship in a way that makes it passive.  Well you, can. And you can study how to ride a bike, can’t you?

But in the end, you learn to ride a bike by…riding a bike.

And you learn entrepreneurship by…organizing and managing a business.

Which leads to the paradox:  Can you teach entrepreneurship?

Lorne Fingarson figured out how to teach entrepreneurship.

Homage:  Thank you, Lorne Fingarson, for inviting me to develop “curriculum” and “teach” in the Business Incubator Program at BCIT – The British Columbia Institute of Technology – from 1991-1993.

Lorne figured it out.  He convinced BCIT to deliver a program where entrepreneurs would get the learning and support they needed to increase their chances of startup success. His stats showed that with incubator support, he could get the success rate of business startups from 10-20% up to 60-70%.

But my “curriculum” and “teaching” in the program were anything but normal “university” lecturing.  Instead, at BCIT I supported entrepreneurs in learning the financial and marketing skills they needed for their businesses to be successful.  Not by lecturing, but by coaching them during their active “organizing” and “managing” of their businesses.

And that is the key difference:  The focus was on the entrepreneur and their business, not on me and my knowledge.

Student centered learning – the “flipped classroom”

When I first took a case-based business course during my undergrad, I was hooked.  Cases opened my mind to how the world works and gave me a chance to solve real problems. My MBA was entirely case-based.

And when we actually had to “do” a business in another undergrad course – actually make a business happen – I was ecstatic.

It is no wonder, then, that my teaching these last 23 years has been student centered.

In Dubai I led a team of faculty in creating something unique:  An entrepreneurship-based e-business bachelor degree program.  With the brilliant Tony Degazon in the co-pilot seat, we pushed and pushed to see how much we could get away with in a post-secondary institution.

Could we create an incubator-style program where students created online businesses?

We did!  And what an amazing Program!  From laying out their “classroom” (including painting the room and laying out the “office”) to choosing their own businesses that they actually started, our students were at the center of the learning.  This was the true student-centered, flipped classroom.

And it worked.

Back in Canada after 6-1/2 year in Dubai, I did two things:  Teach business part-time at a university and start my own businesses.

I wanted to organize and manage my own businesses for the sheer joy of being an entrepreneur and I wanted to share my passion for “doing entrepreneurship” in the higher-ed classroom.

The organizing and managing of my own businesses has been a wonderful journey, and often quite profitable.

The entrepreneurship “teaching”?

Kind of “hit and miss”.

Entrepreneurship and universities:  An awkward fit

Despite my best intentions, the fit was never a strong one between entrepreneurship – an active way of doing business – and the more passive study of business, as universities are set up to do.

Oh, I write lots of case studies for universities, colleges, and corporate trainers all over the world.

And in years past I got away with teaching an international marketing course primarily through my students creating real international businesses in their 14 weeks in the course. And again, amazing outcomes resulted.  One student team created such a successful business that they had to shut it down to finish their studies – it would take too much of their time.  In the end, the defacto team leader told me that she wanted to get her MBA because she wanted to work in a corporation, not run her own business.

A successful startup business...in an MBA Program marketing course

A successful startup business…in an MBA Program marketing course

 

(Oh the sometimes startling agony in being a teacher:  The most successful online venture from all the teams in all the running of the course and the business gets shut down because it was too successful and not what the student wanted to do!)

In the end, universities are set up to study things, not do things.  And no slight intended: The world needs things studied.  But so does entrepreneurship need a student-centred or “flipped classroom” approach to succeed. Perhaps not something that hundreds of years of history, process, and tradition, called the university model, is designed to support well.

We need more Lorne Fingarsons and more business incubators

Start-up weekends“, Lorne Fingarson,  business incubators, community support,  and $100 Startup’s Chris Guillebeau and his World Domination Summit entrepreneurial culture creation.

These are events, people, infrastructure, and cultures where entrepreneurship happens and where it can be “taught”.

We need more of these.

Bring it on!

A final note:

Lorne and his wife Pat keep on giving to BCIT.  Inspirational.

21 Feb

My 10 hard-learned principles for starting a business

I am an entrepreneur.

marbles - games of chance and skill

When I was 7 or 8 years old I was running my own gambling game and market stall at my public school.  With glass marbles, dozens of us would offer games of skill and chance. If you could hit the tiny ball bearing with a marble, you would get a larger ball bearing or a crystal boulder (a large marble). Sometimes you would amass a bag full of “misses” when people tried to hit your tiny ball bearing.  And there was a clear ranking as to the value of all sizes of marbles, boulders, and ball bearings, one that changed regularly, depending on supply and demand. Besides the games, there was a brisk market for trading various types of balls based on these values.  Ten marbles might get you a crystal boulder, for example. Or on a good day, you might negotiate a better deal, only to trade it for a higher value deal the next day.  Then there were bullies who tried to steal your collection.  The school yard was pretty well policed by teachers, but without overt permission for this marketplace to take place, the market was basically unregulated.  When the inevitable day came when the games and market were shut down by the powers-that-be, there was a true sense of loss for many of us.  But then we moved on to trading hockey cards. One entrepreneurial addiction to another…and just 8 years old.

Living in a town where alcohol was the preferred choice of entertainment, I would ride my bike up and down miles of roads looking for empty beer cans and bottles in ditches.  What a great gig for a 10 year old! As soon as the snow had melted in the spring it was bonanza time:  A whole winter of drinking and driving throwaways were mine for the taking. That is, if Lou, the retired Hawaiian guy who lived across the street, didn’t get them first.  He was a real competitor:  Arising at 5 am, Lou would head to the backstreets of the industrial area of town where guys in cars would drink themselves silly, throw away the cans and bottles, and then drive on.  I had a secret weapon, however:  Lou would walk his dog. I would ride my bike.  So I had vast areas to scout for my glass and tin loot that he couldn’t get to.  But he was a clever guy: He knew that Saturday and Sunday mornings were the best days, after workers got paid their weekly wages on Friday.  I listened to his proudly announced techniques and learned.  I loved to learn how to do things smarter and better.

A clean driveway...

A clean driveway…

When I was a bit older my brother and I would cut lawns in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow off people’s driveways in the winter. Newspaper routes were, of course, also thrown in there for good measure during those years.

As a teenager I tried buying and selling comic books, which was a real money pit. I learned that the commercial trader bought comics at a pittance for what they sold them to me for. And of course when I tried to sell my collection, I was offered only this pittance. Once rid of that business, I instead learned about the horse racing and horse trading business (literally) from another neighbour. Another summer I worked in his greenhouse business, seeing what an amazing cash cow bedding flowers were. As the teenage years rolled on, I wandered through a handful of businesses, learning how the world worked:  Window frames, house painting, furniture manufacturing, building supplies, a department store. Of course, the teenage years meant wanting to socialize with girls, so I often held down 2 or 3 jobs and businesses at the same time. From Burger King to babysitting. I did it all. Money and having an excuse to hang around girls. Perfect.

My adult years meant a dozen more businesses: From importing water filters with my college friend Reiaz to buying bicycles from police auctions, tuning them up, and reselling them at a tidy profit in the spring.  Online businesses, consulting businesses, writing,  training, buying and renovating properties, selling door lites, distributing infra-red heating panels, keynote speaking, … and the list goes on.  All great learning experiences and deepening of my understanding of how the world works.

From 40 years of business successes and failures come 10 principles I base my new business ventures on:

1.  Is there any money in it?

Want to help others?  Volunteer.  I do, and it feels great to give from the heart.

Want to make money?  Always be sure to leave your “do gooding” feelings at home.  Is there little chance for significant revenues and profits in the short or long run?  Immediately and firmly shut down any attention to that idea.  Only start businesses where you can clearly make a good profit with reasonable effort.

And context is important here:  What is the scale of profit you want to make?  Doubling your money on a $50 sale sounds wonderful. But you can’t live on the profits from a $50 sale if you only make one sale a month.  Is this a “fun” business or a “pay the bills” business?  Being clear on the context of this business opportunity helps to put into perspective your expectations and how those expectations compare to the scale of profitability of the business.

2.  Are there enough possible customers who would want your product or service?

No guessing here.  Yes, you can prove there are enough customers or no, you can’t.  Yes?  Take the next step. No?  Stop that business idea immediately.

3.  Can they actually pay for it? And will they?

“Never try to sell something to someone who can’t afford what you are offering.” This is a paradox, because often in life those in most need can’t afford to pay to have that need met.  Even more subtly, many people who can afford what you have to offer say they can’t afford it and want it for free. Then they turn around and spend 10 times the amount of money on some luxury they want.  So clearly, there must also be a strong desire for what you have to offer –  a desire that is not a nicety, but a “here is my cash: give it to me now” kind of desire.

4.  Can you get them to buy your product or service?

Most of my business failures resulted from me not having the confidence, tenacity, acumen, and willpower to promote my products and services properly.  I always felt that a great product – one that offered excellent value – would sell itself.  True, if you have something unique and differentiated. Or something that people know well and want more of:  A Subway franchise, for example.  But false if you are just a “me too” business. Another standard offering. Then you have to work hard at promotion.

Marketing has been the most complicated and stressful part of all my efforts.  And I know it is for many others.

But now, I have a simple and clear question to guide me: “Can I simply and easily get people to buy what I am selling?”  Yes? Proceed. No?  Shut down that idea right away.  I will not engage in a “me-too” business, unless I can offer significant differentiation or access to a customer group that makes marketing clear and simple.

5.  Understand and offer what your customers want to buy, not what you want to sell.

You want to sell lawn cutting services.  Your customers don’t want their neighbours thinking bad thoughts about them because of an unkempt lawn.

Two completely different products.  Your view is irrelevant.  Theirs is always right.  Learn how the world works:  You are almost never selling a functional product or service. You are always meeting emotional needs.  Learn to speak to customers in a way that means something to them, not you.

So, I ask:  “What emotional needs am I offering to meet? Will customers pay lots of money to get those emotional needs met? Can I correctly and fully meet those emotional needs so that I can get lots of money in return?”

6.  Deliver excellent value, above and beyond what your customers expect.

Giving them everything you can think of?  Then find a way to give them more.

7.   Fire your worst customers right away.

I hated the guy who demanded his driveway be shoveled right away after it snowed, and then got his expensive car stuck trying to push his way through the snow piles, because he couldn’t wait for us to finish our shoveling work.   Instead he had us push him out. And when we were done shoveling, he told us to come back another day for payment because he didn’t have any cash.

Never, never do business with bad customers.  Fire them immediately or better still, simply say “no” to selling them your product or service in the first place.

8.  Pareto Principle your efforts

80% of your sales and profits will come from 20% of your customers.  Give those 20% of your customers your best attention and service.

80% of your work will come from 20% of your customers who make you no profit and give you all the grief.  Find out who those 20% are and get rid of them.

9. Buy low and sell high.

If you can’t buy low and sell high right away, don’t start the business.  Low profit margins never get better. They just get lower as costs go up.

And the key here is real margins: Not 10%, 20% or even 30%.  Never touch a startup business idea without a 50%, 100% or even 200% profit margin.  This is not greed, it is simply logical:  No real profits and you don’t have a real business. You have a charity. Great, if you are rich. Not great if need money to live on.

10.  Start right away and stop right away.

Start up your business at minimal cost and right away while you have hungry customers.  Even if you don’t have it all planned and organized perfectly yet.  Just do it.

And shut down your business right away when the customers don’t need you any more.  The moment your sales look like they are going to drop significantly due to factors beyond your control, shut down that business right away.

I learned this early in my career  I pushed for the sale of our first house only 6 months after we bought it and I had done a bunch of renos on it by myself.  My wife and all our extended family were shocked at the idea of selling and discouraged the sale.  To them, it was a home, something that you didn’t treat as a saleable asset.   To me, it was a freshly renovated asset in a market that had just peaked. Further, the cash from the sale of the asset was needed for our Masters degrees, something my wife and I had both just started working on full-time.

One month after we sold, the market plummeted, eventually dropping the value our house 25%.

Business decisions will often be unpopular.  But if you know when to start a business and when to stop it, hold firm and make the decisions, despite naysayers. Even if you are occasionally wrong, you establish a pattern of thinking, listening to intuition, and trusting yourself.  This is a confidence that is very, very valuable to you in the long run.

11.  Fall, get back up, and do something differently.

A bonus principle:  Expect to fail.  And then learn why you failed.  The only real failure is to not learn why you failed. If you do learn, then it is not a real failure, but rather a great learning experience.

And when you do fall down, get up right away and do something differently.

Entrepreneurs are not those who get their businesses right the first time. They are the ones who make 10 mistakes, learn all they can, and then succeed spectacularly the 11th time they try.

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A week after I wrote this blog post another question came to mind:  “Where did I make the most money from all these ventures?”

Buying houses, renovating them, and reselling them.  Hands down the biggest payoff in absolute profit terms.

In relative terms, for the capital and effort involved?  Selling myself:  Teaching in Dubai on contract was the most spectacular payoff, in cash, personal growth, and the lifestyle “wow” factor.

The most satisfying?  Collecting bottles and cans as a kid.  Every one you find, pick up, and return feels like a gift.  Is there anything more satisfying in business than feeling grateful when you make money?

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Photo credit:  Marbles, Flickr User: “Rebecca Barray”. Creative Commons Licensed, accessed February 21, 2014.