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It’s too raw to talk much about yet, but I nearly lost my business in 2013. The entire year was largely an epic fail and only now--with the situation in the rearview mirror--can I see it with any sort of perspective. I’ll write a blog post about it shortly (or maybe a book), but one of the threads weaving through those events is this notion of remaining relevant, and for a long time. On the drive to the cabin yesterday, where I am now, thoughts began to flow about just that. I wanted to formulate a perspective about being relevant over several decades, and I was thinking of myself and of you as this began to take shape.
- Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it presumes that you are relevant in the first place. A certain relevance accompanies anyone making a living and helping employees make a living. That’s noble and rewarding, and it’s how developed economies thrive. But I’m talking here about rising from your peers as a leader, and that requires that you see all the same things they do but that you observe different things than they merely see. You develop a perspective that other people--not just you--believe to be unique and they pay you money to help them observe, too.
- Maintaining relevance doesn’t necessarily mean that you are consistently relevant to the same people. As your strengths deepen and creep, you may need a different audience if you want to remain relevant to anybody. Your audience will change organically, in good ways, and you will even lose part of your audience in that process. Just be sure it’s because they can’t keep up and not because they quit learning from you. This is one of the larger tensions I have struggled to navigate.
- It is solidly a privilege to remain relevant for decades and most definitely not a right. Doing great work once means that you have just one more chance to do great work again, and so the cycle repeats itself. But the cycle can be broken for any reason at any point in time.
- While I think that luck plays an outsized role in being relevant in the first place, I don’t think luck has much of any role in being relevant for decades. That result comes from....
My Declaration for Your 2014: The Year of Your Own Oxygen Mask
This year I will jot down some clever ways to peg the amount of "care" my clients bring to the table, and I will willingly match that level, just because it's the right thing to do. But for my own sake, I will not exceed that level, just because it's also the right thing to do.
I will quit pretending to solve the potable water crisis in Africa and I will take a glass of cold, refreshing water to a randomnly chosen employee on occasion. I am tired of the hypocrisy of wanting to change that world while being a #@%!) shitty manager in this one.
Not inconsistent with this, I will finally boot that one employee out of the nest. Yes, they have done every job in the place and been with me as the organization has matured, but they no longer have the presence, objectivity, ability, or hunger that we need. If I hear them tell one more new employee that they've been here the longest, have done every job, and know how and when to present things to me, I may just make a decision on the spot.
I will be so, so grateful for whatever health and intelligence I've managed to retain through these years. [Pause and be grateful, please.] I won't view life as something that happens after I fix it, but something that happens while I fix it. The journey itself must be savored, along with the control and freedom and opportunities I have to NOT feed the machine.
If what I've just said still doesn't...Read More >
These are the things I've learned about paying humans, most of which I didn't absorb until some time after I was managing them.
The two groups of employees who are typically overpaid are those who have been with you a long time and those who know what other people make.
There are five issues more important to good employees than money, and when they talk about money is when some of those five things have eroded over time.
No employees in the world are mature enough to know what other people make and not read "intrinsic value" into that equation.
Real power comes from shaping how and what someone is paid. Unless a "manager" is that same person, all they are really doing is making suggestions about projects.
Small, frequent adjustments are better than...Read More >
I owned a pedestrian marketing firm for six years (this doesn't mean I sold pedestrians, but that it was very average). I had never worked at a firm, knew not a single soul in the industry, and had no role models to mimic. Average financial performance (I paid myself $60,000 in 1988), below average ability to manage people (with employees teaching me how I could do better), and above average effectiveness of the work. One thing for sure: I had no special methods or research that I could build into a twenty-year consulting firm known around the world. Shoot, for the first few years I was drinking water from a waterfall.
I started ReCourses through an odd and fortunate series of events where someone else suggested I do it, and gave me a platform with plenty of opportunity. It never would have happened otherwise, and I will always be grateful to Cam Foote.
I felt like I didn't have much to lose, really. At least I thought so, until the first firm...Read More >
A "client concentration" problem refers to having a single related source of work representing more than 25% of your gross profit (fees + markup income). That's usually the point at which the yellow light should blink on your financial dashboard. That same light should blink red if it moves to 35%, because my research shows that to be the median at which one-half of firms fail. In other words, one-half survive the loss of a client that represents ca. 35% and the other one-half fail. Maybe not immediately, but they can usually trace it back to that point if they were not prepared for it. This is meant to prepare you for it.
You either had, have, or will have a gorilla client. Don't be afraid of it, and don't say "no" to the work. A problem like this almost always comes from something great you've done and you deserve the accolades in the form of even more work. Don't get a huge head, though, because unusually high spikes in your top line revenue typically stem from a client concentration issue and not unusual and sudden strong new business skills.
First Step: Honesty
When I talk about this to clients, the first thing they always say is this: "Yes, but all this related work is coming from different departments, and even different contacts in the same department. In fact, they hate each other and we'd probably get more work if we lost one department!"
That's bullshit, if you'll pardon me, because it assumes....Read More >
I don't think I've ever posted a blog entry this long, but if you read it like I did, you'll forget about time and be so engaged that you read it all. It's from a friend (Schuyler Brown) who consults out of NYC. She graciously allowed me to publish this. More about her work at the end. Broadly, the subject of this is money and life, and based on the questions I've been getting recently, many of you are thinking about just that.
Like many Americans post-recession, I've been taking a close look at my relationship to money. To my surprise, what started simply as a responsible exercise turned into a deeply instructive philosophical journey.
I'd been ignoring the task of addressing my ideas about money for years, hiding behind an image of myself as Bohemian, an artist, a spiritual aspirant. Money seemed something too concrete to factor into my flights of fancy. Even as an entrepreneur I never stopped to think much about money. I worried when I wasn't making it and was jubilant when I was...it was a roller coaster.
It was my daughter's birth two years ago that unexpectedly initiated a shift in my approach to money, because she shifted my entire perspective on the future. Her presence forced me to imagine a future I'd been happy to leave to chance. One day, exiting the subway on my way home, I caught myself with a furrowed brow worrying once again about the numbers in our bank accounts...this time with no regard for my own needs, but for hers alone. I heard a steely voice of resolve somewhere deep inside say, "I never want her to suffer the burden of financial strain." At that moment, I felt my actual walk change. I became more directed.
But it wasn't until an incident this summer....Read More >
There are thousands of tools for social media, and only a few dozen that strike me as useful. One of those is Tweriod, which analyzes your Twitter account, including when followers are most likely to interact with you, and thus when you should post. Best of all, it will auto-populate your account at Buffer, building the schedule for each of your accounts accordingly.
Click to download a 9-page PDF of the data from my account to illustrate what you'll see.Read More >
I had trouble getting to sleep last night, and for some reason I started thinking about how managing client relationships has changed over the years. I'm not talking about my clients, but your clients. Do you know the really important things about how to do it right? I'm not sure i would have figured all these out, but I have paid attention to the hundreds of firms I've worked with and tried to cull out the best practices that have been proven in the field.
Just for fun, I started writing these down as they came to mind in a stream of consciousness style. Here are a few of them:
- The only power you have in a client relationship is to withhold your expertise.
- The degree to which you have power in a relationship is directly related to how long it takes to replace you.
- There are only two ways to have more opportunity than capacity, which represents your ability to say "no" to prospects and clients: create more opportunity or reduce your capacity.
- The most important criteria in evaluating a prospective client is whether or not they've used a firm like yours before. Never be the first.
- Your cheap ass clients are the ones spending their own money. You want to work for clients with budget authority over someone else's money.
- The clients who trust you say: "I have $140,000 for this project. What's the most we could do with that money?" The ones who don't trust you say, "Here's what I need. What will it cost?"....
A great client recently asked me to outline my definition of success for their firm. I really enjoyed doing that, and below is a version that you can adapt to your own situation, putting your own stamp on it:
- Partner compensation equals or exceeds industry benchmarks.
- After that is achieved, you still 20% net profit.
- The more entrepreneurial employees are satisfied that their contribution to your gain is recognized and accounted for.
- Partners and employees in key roles will have already tasted competence in the area of your focus, or they will experience it within nine months of joining the firm.
- There will be few or no young employees who value variety over expertise.
- When employees talk about your firm, while still employed, their private comments will be complimentary.
- When partners and employees head out the door to work for the day, they look forward to the challenges, the companionship, and their participation in the overall culture.
- As a firm you will not require extraordinary people....
I was recently working with a firm under our new "Come to Nashville" program for a day and we were doing long-term planning, mainly, but with an eye on how that might impact the short term. I came up with some questions that turned out to be very helpful as they took a break from the continuous crazy days we all have, and then answered them honestly and seriously.
- How do you feel about the current positioning of your firm? If you could waive a magic wand and change it (without regard to current employees or clients), what would your positioning be?
- What are your biggest fears in just pursuing that positioning, even if it means doing so alongside your current firm and maybe even doing it all alone without employees?
- If I watched you on a typical day, would it look like you are taking care of clients or would it look like you were taking care of employees (who would then take care of clients if you did your job well)?
- Who are the two weakest employee links who probably should be dismissed in the near future?
- Who is the most talented person at your firm who is disruptive to the culture? Are they on the list, above, of people to dismiss?
- You likely started this firm to create an environment for yourself that allowed for more freedom, control, and money. Now that you have built it, to what degree are these three things true?...
I seldom give up my 17,000-person blog platform to guests. Keeping your attention is important and my primary marketing tool. But, I read a blog last week that Mark Busse wrote, and I thought it was brilliant. I'm sharing it here with his permission:
Rushing into starting your own design business can turn a dream into a nightmare.
Recently I heard from two former students of mine. As they entered the industry a few years ago we had some honest talks about their options, and against my advice they decided to skip internships or junior positions--which they felt were both beneath them--and went into partnership together with another classmate to form their own design studio. After some early success working for friends and family, their studio quickly fell into chaos, the partnership dissolved, and the company folded, leaving their clients in rough shape.
I'll spare you my story of how running my design business has still not brought the freedom, flexibility or financial reward I'd hoped for after 15 years--and I have a business degree--and how I often miss the days of just working for someone else. Instead, let's talk about how lazy, short-sighted and dangerous starting your own business can be.
You heard me: lazy, short-sighted and....Read More >
This is a question that has long intrigued me. It comes up more frequently, too, as individual workers find it harder to find work at all, much less work that they enjoy. But even in a difficult economy, employees regularly switch jobs to work in a more satisfying environment.
They are told repeatedly to "follow your heart…and the money will come." Even aspiring entrepreneurs are encouraged to take that path to fulfill a dream, chase their hopes, and attempt to "build it," hoping they will come.
But that's different than having a right to enjoy it. Not only do I strongly disagree with the sentiment, I think believing it has twisted our expectations and those of our employees. It's not all that different, in fact, from commenting on someone's gruesome death that "at least she died doing what she loved."
First, a lot of people who are "following their heart" are starving. It's just true. Even pseudo-entrepreneurs who follow a system via a franchise are failing in droves--in some, there's a 60% failure rate.
Second, just...Read More >
Forgive me for the ominous subject line of this email, but there are times when it's best to be objective and forthright. I've been talking with the executives of large associations and educational institutions in this field, hoping they'll drop the status quo and beginning offering real help to their members and graduates. So far I've made very little progress, so I'm just going to use my own platform (16,000+ of you).
Look around, think back through the last decade, and make a mental list of the firms you knew that are no longer around. Did any of them fail for lack of creativity? Even if you don't think they were that creative, the answer is a resounding "NO". Here is why those firms--and possibly yours, if you don't listen--will cease to exist, in descending order. I'm going to list seven reasons firms fail, and then seven things to keep a very close eye on.
What to Keep An Eye On
What kind of information are you giving people in a business setting, and how are you delivering it? I have a reputation for complete candor (deserved), deep and thought-provoking content (deserved), and a less-than-engaging conversation style of delivery (deserved). I speak 30-35x/year, and if the event happens to give audience members feedback forms to complete, on a scale of 1 to 5, I typically get a 4.9 on content and somewhere around 4.0 on delivery.
I only use PowerPoint or Keynote when the audience is too large logistically to provide handouts (200?). I much prefer handouts, because I hate last minute technical problems, I'd rather look people in the eyes the entire time, I want them to write, and I want them to take something home. For larger audience (200-3,000 typically), I just include a URL on the last slide so that a PDF can be downloaded for their later use. I tell them that in advance so that they can relax, listen, and not bother with too many notes.
I'm an intense introvert. I'm so far off the scale in that direction that I jokingly call it "unabomber land." That just means I like to be by myself to recharge. I can be with crowds, large and small, in little doses and no one would know I'm "acting the part." Oddly enough, speaking totally invigorates me, too, which may not fit in your mind with the idea of a deep introvert.
Do you know when I began to love speaking?...
I've had a hand in shaping four of the software products out there, including the two with the largest installed base. And for ten years I've been clamoring for more transparency, enabled primarily by allowing a client to log into your project management software (that's not BaseCamp, by the way) and seeing the status of things. For one thing, why make the AE do that? Every client is different, and this would let them interact with the data on their own terms, with selectable update options to boot.
Why hasn't this caught on? Two reasons:
- Firms say something will take three weeks of work but they don't even start it until four days before the deadline, and this way the client would know that.
- Firms are afraid of interferance in the creative process, where I think it should be more collaborative and with no "big reveals" as we call them.
Anyway, I was chatting about this with a client of mine, Greg Daake, who has a firm in Omaha. He has been thinking the same thing, and so I asked him to write some thoughts on this. Here's Greg...Read More >