The Top 10 Changes In My Business Thinking

I am sitting in a coffee shop this morning breathing a sigh of relief. After almost 5 years of blogging, I am done. This past year, my heart just hasn’t been into it, and I think that is reflected in the lackluster posting compared to previous years. I had a contract to fulfill with Creative Weblogging, and it ends today.

Over the next few days, you will see many many changes in this blog. A new design, some new writers, and an overall change in the attitude and approach of the site. Pick up the feed because it will be worth your while.

Five years ago I was 26 years old and I was working as a digital design engineer in Florida. Now I am 31, living in Louisville, KY, and have my first child on the way any day now. My work is probably best described as building a web platform for local media companies under the assumption that the web is going more local, and consulting part-time to pay the bills. Sometimes when I look back on the past 5 years, I am amazed at how much I’ve been through, and how much of it has been public – published right here. I have asked the new owner to give me a login to the new Businesspundit, so that I can come post here and there when I feel like I have something to say and want to get it out to a larger audience (as opposed to the 30 visitors a day I get at my new blog). The grind of writing every day has become boring, and I just want the chance to do more research and write less often, but with better insight and supporting evidence.

Five years ago, my views on business were very very different than they are today. So I thought for an appropriate last post, I would examine the top 10 things about business that I view differently than I did 5 years ago. I am not saying these are gospel, or even that they are correct. I think absolutism is a sign of closed mindedness and that any intelligent person should always be adjusting their views slightly in light of new evidence and changing times. Five years from now, I will probably read this post and think that I was wrong about some of these. Nonetheless, this is where my mind stands today.

10. Luck Matters
Five years ago, I would have said success was mostly skill and effort, but in the past five years I have met countless bright hard working entrepreneurs who didn’t get the right break. I have also met a few no talent hacks who got lucky. In general, I think a small percentage of highly successful people are just lucky and not talented. Most are both talented and lucky, and a few were just so super talented they didn’t need luck. Call it a bell curve. Talent and hard work will put you in a good position, but to get to the upper echelons of success, I think most of us need some good luck and timing.

9. Touchy Feely vs. Analytical
I used to be very “Fast Company” in my approach to business. I believed it was all about the soft stuff. The key to success was making employees happy and having some crazy Google-like workspace. There is still some truth to that, but now I lean heavily on the economics of an industry for success. It is soooo much easier to be successful in a business with good economics, even if you make some mistakes, than in an industry with lousy economics but a hip fun workplace. For entrepreneurs, I think the key approach should be to look for opportunities in markets where the economics are changing.

8. Beware of the Hype
I used to be in awe of people who got a lot of publicity. My first smack in the face came when a PR company called me for a business launch and had written a quote for me. They wanted me to approve the quote. So that’s how the game works eh? Since then, I have a love-hate relationship with PR. I realize it is important to stay “top of mind,” but at the same time, it is so contrived and artificial most of the time that I hate to be a part of it. The lesson here is that when you see someone sitting on a panel at a conference, when you see them get an article published in a magazine or newspaper, when you see them cited as an industry leader, that doesn’t really mean you should listen to them or that they have any idea what they are talking about. Do your own research and ask them tough questions. Don’t base your awe of them on their aphorisms.

7. It is Always Easy to See What You Want to See
It took me almost 2 years to find a financial partner for my first business. Then a few months into it, I realized the margins would never be what I wanted them to be. Dozens of people told me why it wouldn’t work (lousy industry economics, primarily) but I didn’t listen. It was sexy and cool, and I wanted to be sexy and cool to. I saw what I wanted to see. I didn’t listen.

The problem is that when you are doing new things, people are almost always critical. So how do you know when to listen to them and when to ignore them? I don’t have a good answer to that, but I know that every day I ask myself if there is evidence that my views are wrong on this or that.

For instance, I am convinced that top level aggregation of local information is the wrong approach to local web media, yet that is what almost everybody is doing. Instead, I believe you need to take the mass customization approach – a backend that aggregates, but a bunch of front-ends that are unique to each city. I don’t see any evidence that this is wrong, but it keeps me up some nights wondering why I am only aware of 2 companies that are taking my approach, and 200 that are taking the opposite approach.

6. Do Stuff
I used to plan and talk, plan and talk, plan and talk. I’m not criticizing planning or talking… they can be beneficial, but now I prefer to do something instead of talking. Your plans will probably be wrong on anything that is new, so you may as well just start doing. Doing stuff gives you a better “feel” for a business than all the planning in the world. Plus, once you get labeled as a doer, everybody wants to work with you because they have all been burned by planners and talkers. Of course, doing takes a lot more time. It’s also much harder. And once you adopt the doing mentality, you risk doing stuff just for the sake of doing stuff, but action for action’s sake is sometimes the wrong approach.

5. Failure Doesn’t Really Matter
It is embarrassing to fail. We all wish we could string together a bunch of wins. I used to be concerned about looking stupid, or dealing with the criticism that can come with failure, and while I won’t say I like it and embrace it, I will say that it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. One reason for that is many “failures” are only temporary setbacks, and if you don’t let them scare you and demoralize you, they can be turned into wins. The second reason is that failure is almost always a great learning experience, and you can charge valuable consulting fees by finding companies who want to get into a space and selling them the more efficient learning curve they can get by avoiding the mistakes you have already made.

4. Find Your People
Search is the key process you need to master. I used to think that I needed to be more persuasive. I thought the key to raising money, hiring good people, or selling a lot of whatever it is I was selling was to learn how to convince skeptics. No. Spend your time finding investors who are looking for ideas like yours instead of convincing investors who don’t care that they should listen to you. Spend time finding employees who believe in what you are doing instead of convincing potential hires that they should want to come work for you. Spend time searching for a customer who needs and wants what you have, instead of trying to convince someone who doesn’t that they should want it.

Don’t try to change other people. Try to find the people who are like you in the ways that are most important. Work on meeting and connecting with the people who matter.

3. Revenge is a Waste of Time and Energy
Business can lead to situations that make you angry and make you want to go crush an ex-employee, ex-customer, competitor, or whoever. While spite may be a good motivator, revenge is typically a lousy use of resources. Blow it off. Take the high road. If you get ripped off, don’t spend all your time trying to get back at the guy, just suck it up and move on. If your focus on revenge distracts you from the real focus of your business, then your nemesis has just won a second time by making you less successful.

2. Help Others Reach Their Goals
Five years ago, I would have said you should monopolize talent, force people to do what you wanted, not what they wanted, lock people in, and in general do whatever it takes to keep everything tilted in your favor (maybe that is why I favored the trimmings of a happy workplace mentioned above… because I didn’t believe work itself could be happy). Now I believe that everyone has dreams and if you can help them reach those dreams, most of them will go to the ends of the earth to help you out down the road. When skilled employees are ready to move on, don’t be mad, be happy for them. When customers have outgrown you and need a different type of provider, help them find what they need, don’t be angry at them. Don’t be one of those people who only takes and takes in a relationship. Be a giver, even if other people call you a sucker. In the long run, you will be better off.

1. Relationships, relationships, relationships
The single biggest thing that I have learned is that relationships matter. People like to work with people they trust. Five years ago, I thought I would be a successful entrepreneur some day because I would hole up in my house and read all kinds of technology and business books and play with lots of software and then have some breakthrough insight that would shake up the world on its own. Now I think if I am ever highly successful, it will be because a bunch of people helped me get there. My biggest regret at this point in my life is that I wasted my MBA years by not networking. I skipped almost every networking event we ever had because I thought it was a waste of time and I was better off studying or reading. I should have spent that time networking and getting to know my classmates.

In December, we decided to give up our search for funding and turn to services work to bring in revenue and keep our product development hopes alive. We went from $0 in revenue in November to an expected $40K in March, and we have enough potential business in the pipeline that if we close just part of it we will be over $100K in revenue a month by the fall. Almost all of that business came from relationships. Some of the relationships are relatively new, but still, my point is that no one contacted us through a web site and we haven’t done any advertising. We just started talking to friends about the stuff we are doing and our network of relationships started sending us business. It saved us from having to shut down our own hopes and dreams. If we end up successful, it will be because of other people. It will be because of the relationships we have.

I hope you can take something away from what I have learned. I also hope you will keep reading as this blog enters new ownership. I will still pop in on occasion to say hello and contribute some insight, and you can always follow me at my new blog. Thank you for helping me think through so many issues over the past 5 years, and as always, thanks for reading.