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September 2, 2009

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The Leonardo da Vinci Guide to Business (Part 1: Be Curious!)

August 20, 2009
Leonardo da Vinci, world's greatest entrepreneur!

Leonardo da Vinci, the world's greatest entrepreneur!

We all know curiosity killed the cat, but when it comes to running a (successful) business, it pays big time to model yourself after a genius like Leonardo da Vinci (one of the most curious people…like, ever).

And okay — Leonardo is dead.  So he won’t be sharing his pearls of wisdom with you personally. But he’s been ranked the #1 genius of all time.  

And in my opinion, Leo was the ultimate entrepreneur: innovative, intelligent and passionate about the world around him.

So here’s my question: What if we all committed to running our businesses the way he lived? I’d bet good money that the planet would be thriving in ways we can’t even (yet) imagine!

Inspired by my own question, I offer up this first in a 10-part series on using Leonardo’s life as a guide to running a business.

Where to start?  How about with our products and/or services?  You know that stuff that business uses to make money?

We all have products (even our services are actually products).  And new stuff is a direct result of innovation.

But HOW do we innovate?  How did Leo innovate? By being insatiably curious.

How curious are you?  How many ways of looking at something do you have patience for? When someone makes an assertion, do you accept it as the final word? Or do you dig for additional opinions and facts?

In order to nurture your curious side, keep a small journal handy to record insights and questions throughout your day.

Leonardo carried a notebook with him at all times so he could jot down ideas, impressions, and observations as they happened.  And then he used those notes and scribbles (mostly questions) to create new inventions and explore even wilder and weirder things.

If you don’t know where to start, give yourself this assignment: Write down 100 questions that are important to you. It could be something like, “How can I create more revenue for my business?” or even “How can I have more fun with my customers?”  But do the entire list in one sitting.  Michael Gelb (author of “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”) says if you do it this way you’ll get some really meaty questions toward the end.

When you’re done, highlight the themes and significant questions that come up for you.  And then rank them in order of importance.

And then, (if you want to really give your brain something to work on) post the questions up in your office where you’ll see them over and over.  Your subconscious mind can’t help but try to find you an answer (or two or three!).

Next, continue the process by getting to better questions. And by that I mean off-the-wall, pie-in-the-sky, big-hairy and itty-bitty questions.

I know it’s been awhile since your day was filled with nothing but questions.  If you’ve ever been a parent, you know that little children (especially those who have just learned how to talk), are consumed with questions.  About how things work, why they are the way they are, where things come from (babies anyone?) and so on.

You need to get yourself back into this mode by practicing the Art of 20 Questions.  Remember that game?  Only this time, Play against yourself.

Go ahead think of something that’s been challenging you and your business right now.  I’ll wait.

Got it?  Now start asking questions about that thing.  Ask What? Who? When? Where? How? and Why?  What are the underlying issues?  Preconceptions? Prejudices? Paradigms?  What will happen if you ignore this thing? Love it? When did it start? When doesn’t it happen?

Get the picture?  And yes, this is going to take some time.  So figure out what part of your day you can set aside to practice this stuff.  At least for 3 weeks (until it becomes a habit).  Pretty soon, you’ll be doing it all day long.

Are you curious about the next installment of this blog series?  (Hint: It’s about answers).

For now, I’d really love to hear your questions…post one or two to share with the rest of us, would ‘ya?

The Golden Triangle of Coffee (a parable for the small business owner)

August 14, 2009

Locally-based businesses (as opposed to multi-national corporations) are the life blood of any community.  And people are beginning to understand the importance of nurturing local economies. But there are still a few hold outs.

While it is clearly to our collective benefit to support local businesses, many people still patronize national chains.  And the reasons don’t all have to do with pricing.

If you are a small, locally-owned business trying to compete with the big guys, you might want to consider the following parable.

The Golden Triangle of Coffee Joints

Once upon a time in a small coastal downtown village, there were three very cool coffee joints.  One was a neighborhood favorite and had been there forever.  The second was fairly new, but belonged to a multi-national corporation.  And the third was a brand new, locally-owned establishment that tried and failed to compete with the first two.

What happened?  Let’s take a look:

The original, long-standing local coffee joint (let’s call this one “P”) was situated just at the edge of the main drag and featured an outdoor area with tables and chairs, plus comfy couches inside.  It’s location wasn’t the best, and parking was hard to get, but it still had many, many loyal customers.

The newer, locally-owned guy (let’s call this one “J”) was situated in the middle of downtown and had plenty of convenient parking plus easy access to the freeway.  It also had great indoor and outdoor seating, and offered healthy and organic, fair trade alternatives that the other two did not.

The newer, national chain (we’ll call them “S”) was just across the street from “J” and offered minimal indoor and outdoor seating, but had great parking and easy freeway access.

But all things were not equal between these three, and eventually “J” couldn’t compete with “S” or “P” and had to close its doors.  Why?

Theories abound, but many folks who wanted to support this new alternative to “S” just plain didn’t.  And owners of nearby businesses complained that the community didn’t care about supporting the local economy.  But those who were paying attention saw a few possible reasons for “J’s” closure:

1. Long wait times and slow service. In comparison to getting coffee at “S” or “P” – it usually took “J” twice as long to fill an order.  If there was a line, well…you’d have to pull up a chair.

2. Spotty inventory. “J” offered its customers a menu of specialty juice drinks.  But many times, inventory on ingredients was so low that orders couldn’t be filled.  Even persistent customers would tire of going in, only to be told, “Sorry, we’re out of that.”  “S” and “P” never had that problem.

3. Nearly Non-existent Marketing Efforts. Even though “J” did attempt to occasionally market itself, it didn’t take advantage of several opportunities to partner, network or otherwise participate in a larger way with the greater community.  The owner was “too busy” and people weren’t encouraged to go out of their way to try something new.  “S” on the other hand was part of a huge marketing machine that included things like gift cards, a website, and sponsorship of local events.  “P” didn’t do much marketing, but relied instead on its long-standing reputation for great products and service, unique ambiance, and free wireless internet.

There might certainly be other reasons why “J” closed its doors, but these were the ones visible to those paying attention.  And the good intentions of “J”  (to offer organic, fair trade and healthy alternatives to “S” and “P”) failed simply because people weren’t feeling the love.

Moral of the Story: The over-riding reason people continue to buy from anyone is because they feel loved and taken care of.  They may come to you initially because of your unique offerings or expertise, but in the end, it’s all about the love.

If you have other tips for the small, locally-based business owner, please share them with us!

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Using your Values as a Sales Tool

August 7, 2009

valuesYesterday on Planet Good Radio, I interviewed Nadine Thompson and Angela Soper, the co-authors of Values Sell: Transforming Purpose Into Profit Through Creative Sales and Distribution Strategies (Social Venture Network).

While most of us understand that sales are the lifeblood of our businesses, it can sometimes be challenging to incorporate our values successfully into our day-to-day operations.  The cool thing is: it can be done.  And it can be profitable!

Nadine and Angela have put together an inspiring and practical guide drawn from real-world examples.  Companies like Tom’s of Maine, Seventh Generation, Honest Tea and a host of others that aren’t quite on everyone’s radar (yet).

These companies have all had to figure out how to compete against businesses who aren’t driven by values and are only concerned about maximizing profits. Sound familiar?

So how did they do it?  The simple answer is: Clarity. Creativity. Innovation. And authentic dedication to their passions!

Want more details?  Of course you do.  And there’s a whole slew of them in the book.

But since you came here looking for at least a few answers, let me give you a taste from the opening chapter: Establishing a Clear and Profitable Vision.  This is a topic that I repeatedly hammer home with my own clients. And here are some questions you should answer before you begin planning your sales strategies:

  • How does your product or service improve people’s lives?
  • What would the world look like if you fulfilled your mission 100%?
  • Is your vision aligned with the community’s interests? (i.e., your target market’s interests?)
  • Are you open to adjusting that vision as your organization grows?  Or will the fulfillment of your vision put you out of business? (and that might be a good thing)
  • Are your core values and business operations in total alignment?

“Values Sell” is a wonderful book, but it’s also part of a larger series put out by the Social Venture Network.  I’ve read about half of the books in that series, and am looking forward to the remaining few.  I encourage you to check them out, too.

In the meantime, take a listen to the interview with Angela and Nadine.  They each offer additional advice for budding social entrepreneurs — advice they wish they’d been given when they first launched.

And let us know what you think: have you found success or have you been frustrated by attempts at incorporating your values into your business? Please share!

p.s. – There’s more great podcasts available at Planet Good Radio.  You can subscribe and get weekly reminders so you don’t miss a one.

Small Biz Heroes Wanted: 5 Ways to Use Your Work to Change the World

July 30, 2009
Be a Small Business Hero!

Be a Small Business Hero!

If you are like many of the folks I know, you own a microenterprise — “a business with 1 to 5 employees and less than $250,000 in annual revenue.” And you’d be in GOOD company (my business, Social Good Consulting, also falls in this category).

But being small doesn’t mean you’re powerless.  Today there are more than 24,000,000 microenterprises in the United States alone (from the US Census).  And those numbers mean approximately 87% of all businesses in the U.S. are in that category.

That’s a lot of people — who, when you add them all up — can effect real change from a grassroots level.

So while you may not have the kind of power that a multi-national corporation like Wal-Mart has, you can still run your business in a way that creates positive change in your community — and ultimately, the world.  What you do makes a difference not just to you and your company, but it also sets an example for others to follow.

Here are 5 Tips to get you started:

  1. Be Mission Focused. Everyone stands for something.  What do you stand for? What causes or change would you like to see happen in this world? What would get you out of bed in the morning regardless of whether or not someone had a paycheck waiting for you?  Start there.  Incorporate that into the mission of your business.
  2. Be Green. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “Waste not, want not.”  It’s a proverb that was coined before our country was even a twinkle in the Founding Fathers’ eyes.  So it’s not a new idea.  Reduce.  Reuse. Recycle. Find as many ways as you can to do all three.  There are loads of books out there written on just this topic alone, so I won’t try to repeat the how of it here.  But if you’d like some suggestions, I do have a Sustainable Management Practices Checklist you can download.
  3. Give Generously. Set aside a percentage of your net profits for local and global causes you believe in.  And think about adding some in-kind resources like pro-bono hours or goods and services.  Set parameters and guidelines for how you will give and then post those on your website so people will know how to ask you.
  4. Understand Your Place in the Chain. We are all linked together and effect each other in ways too numerous to count.  If you buy products (and we all do), where and how are they manufactured?  If you are re-selling these products, it’s even more crucial to understand the supply chain.  How do your vendors treat their employees?  How do they treat the environment?  Every dollar you spend is a vote for these practices. And ignorance is no longer an option.  Are you aware of the consequences of your choices?
  5. Collaborate. In the past, we were told to keep our business practices a secret.  After all, we wouldn’t want our competitors to find out our trade secrets…they’d put us out of business!  You don’t have to operate that way.  And in fact, you probably shouldn’t.  Why?  Because the world is changing.  Rapidly. And thanks to technology, we can now find more ways to work together and leverage our respective talents and strengths.  Strategic partnerships and collaborations are win-wins that can no longer be ignored.  Who can you join forces with?

And here’s a bonus tip:

  • Stay Positive. Don’t come from a place of fear and don’t use fear to get your customers to take action.  There’s already enough of that energy circulating.

I’m sure there are more ways to use your small biz power to change the world…what did I miss?  Let me know.

Authentic Marketing! (or, why it’s important to walk your talk)

July 10, 2009
What are YOU promising to do?

What are YOU promising to do?

Marketing is tricky business.  And Authentic Marketing is even trickier.  Not in the sense that it’s hard to figure out.  But in the sense that it often takes guts and courage and attention to details and…well, you get the picture.

I was personally reminded this week to check the status of my own “marketing messages” in a real-life situation that on the surface might seem trivial to most.  It happened last night as my son and I were coming home from the grocery store.  He asked me about my Terra Pass.

Terra Pass is an organization that provides carbon offsets for things like travel and energy usage. I had purchased a Terra Pass early last year to balance my annual gasoline usage, but had let the pass lapse during the downturn in the economy.

Then along comes my son with the message (I’m paraphrasing here): “Mom! You of all people should know better…”

It’s true.  I am someone who should know better.  But I stopped paying attention.  And I’m glad my son was there to remind me that even things as small as a bumpersticker are important marketing messages.  They say something about who you are.

People notice.  They notice what you do and what you say.  And if those two things aren’t in alignment, it will chip away at your credibility and erode people’s trust in what you have to offer.  So keep that in mind when you are making promises about quality, customer service, or how “green’ you are.

First thing I did this morning was renew my Terra Pass.  (Thank you, son.)

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Socially Strategic Enterprise: Doing Well While You Do Good

June 26, 2009

willworkformeaningDid you ever see the Academy Award-winning movie “A Beautiful Mind?”  It was based on real-life Nobel Laureate, John Nash — a mathematician and economist who proved that collaboration rather than competition creates the greatest benefit for each individual AND for all.  He proved greatest abundance is possible when we include everyone in our thinking.

Now, more than ever, this is extremely important to understand. The recent confluence of crises (e.g. environmental, financial, educational, healthcare, etc.) are highly indicative that the only way through is going to require us to work together.  No longer can we be concerned only with our own small piece of the world (and for purposes of this blog post, that means our own businesses).  We need to work together, and we need to work together now.

Those who are even slightly familiar with me and my consulting practice, know that I am all about promoting the social good.  I mean, hey – it’s the name of my company.  How could you miss that, right?

But what you might not know, is that I have a very strong conviction in the power of business and commerce to be a force for positive change in our world.  It is my belief (and I’m not alone in this) that capitalism in and of itself, is a neutral energy.  It is neither good nor bad.  It is actually the values and energies of those who use capitalism and its structures that determine the outcomes.

So what does this mean for you?  Have you thought about your own business in terms of how it affects your community, your employees, and the planet?  Just because you offer a mainstream product or service, doesn’t mean you can’t make your business the highest positive expression of your values and beliefs. You truly don’t have to sell something specifically green or socially conscious in order to make a difference.  You just need to think in terms of where your business is right now and ask:  Is this the best we can do?

Social Enterprise and social entrepreneurship are fast becoming the new model of business.  If you haven’t yet heard these terms, don’t worry — it’s never too late to explore a good idea.

A social enterprise is one that takes the best practices from the for-profit sector and the best intentions from the nonprofit sector and marries them into a commerce-driven force for good.  If that sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, read on.

There are many ways to take an existing business or nonprofit to the level of social enterprise.  Here are just a few:

  • Figure out what you stand for. If you don’t know what your passion(s) are, you can’t bring them into your work or business.  So first, understand who you are at a basic core level.  Why are you on this earth anyway?  What is your purpose in life?  What legacy do you want to leave for the rest of us?
  • Align your personal values and vision with what you sell or offer the world. You can not be two different people (one kind at home, and another kind at work) for very long without becoming ineffective, stressed out, and just plain fed up.  For example, if you are passionate about the environment, make sure that what you’re selling doesn’t negatively impact the environment.  And if you don’t know, find out.  Examine everything.
  • Communicate your values and vision to those around you. Your employees, customers, vendors and community need to know who you are too.  When you express your unique perspective, you make it easier for people to connect with you on a deeper level.  They understand why they want to stick around and help you (employees) or buy your stuff (customers) or support your efforts (community).
  • Understand your value to the world and charge accordingly. People will always buy what they value.  And if you are providing a valuable service or product that helps promote your vision of how the world could be, you can’t help but create positive change and do well financially.
  • Collaborate with like-minded organizations to solve a community problem. Once you know what you stand for and what matters most, it will be easier for you to find those who feel the same way and who are looking to work with a business like yours to solve the same issues.  Collaboration is powerful leverage that can be used to help all parties involved realize a vision quicker, easier and more economically.

Being “Socially Strategic” means your business focuses on more than just Profit.  It means you also promote the well-being of People and the Planet.   This triple bottom line is the new wave of business practice and is something that gives me great hope for our collective future.

Do you have additional advice on the topic?  Please share it with all of us!