Running a business is an exercise in fear, excitement, fear, elation, fear, hard work, and fear. Did I mention fear? In the 11 years I’ve been running my firm, I’ve learned a few indispensable lessons that apply no only to entrepreneurs but to business folks in all walks of life.
Yesterday was our 11th birthday. 11. thoughtLEADERS, LLC turned 11 yesterday. I’m still in shock over the milestone.
“Why are you in shock, Mike? Don’t you believe in yourself and your business?”
Absofrickinlutely. That’s the only reason it’s survived 11 years. I believe in it more than you can imagine.
During that time, I’ve learned a great deal and I’ve grown as a businessman every single day. Every setback was a learning opportunity. Every success has pushed me closer to the next chasm to jump. What I’d like to do today is share 11 pieces of advice that can hopefully help you be more successful in your work (and life) as well. This guidance doesn’t only apply to entrepreneurs. It’s for business people in all walks of life. I hope you find them helpful.
1. Your business will change. Either you can change it or the market will change it for you. Change is the constant. It’s easy to get locked in on a model that works to the exclusion of other opportunities or ideas. For the longest time I railed against putting our content in video form. “You can’t learn our stuff from online videos.” It took me a while to come around and only once I met the amazing folks at lynda.com did I warm to the idea. My fear was putting our stuff on video would cannibalize our core in-person training. Instead, it’s reinforced that training and has given us broader visibility to new customers. So far I’ve put a bunch of our courses online and more will follow. I’m thrilled with the results. Be open to changing your business. When the market makes changes for you, it usually sucks.
2. A deal’s not a deal until it’s a deal. I’m an excitable guy. If I had a nickel for every deal I thought would go through that subsequently fell through for some reason, I’d be retired by now. Early on, I placed a lot of value in those “tentative but definitely coming through” deals and I planned for that. When they didn’t materialize, fear and panic ensued. Since then I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm. In my eyes, it’s not a deal until I’m stepping onto the podium. Be sure you balance your expectations with reality and have contingency plans for when things don’t go as expected.
3. The Price HAS TO BE Right. Get your pricing wrong on the low end and you’ll be working too hard for the money. Get your pricing wrong on the high end and you won’t be working. Invest a lot of thought into how you price your product or service. We’ve been very thoughtful about pricing. We’re not cheap. That has implications for how we sell, how we deliver our services, and who we target. It also means we walk away from work that doesn’t meet our hurdle. That’s hard to do. But over the years we’ve learned that we’re better off investing that time in selling work that’s aligned with our pricing model rather than doing cut rate work we’ll be unhappy delivering.
4. Guard Your Culture Vigilantly. Culture is tough to build. It’s easy to destroy. As soon as you see someone acting in a manner inconsistent with your culture, fix it. It sends a strong message to everyone. If you let standards slip even a teeny bit, you put the whole organization at risk. Sure it’s hard to take “corrective action” but it’s even harder to rebuild a rotten culture.
5. Stay Focused. There’s no shortage of cool opportunities to pursue in any business. Focus has kept us great at what we do and prevented us from chasing ideas that don’t build our firm. Saying no is hard. Practice saying it. The better you are at saying no and avoiding distractions, the better you’ll be at the things you say yes to because you’ll be focused.
6. Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. I often joke that my business has been two months away from going broke for eleven years. We run a training business. No one plans training further out than 2-4 months. If you look at our bookings at any point in time, we’re slammed for the next three months and then the calendar is (pretty much) blank after that. It’s a rolling calendar. Those blank dates strike fear in my heart. That fear motivates me to push forward and build the pipeline. If you’re not afraid of bad things happening to your business, you don’t care about it enough to drive it. An appropriate amount of fear is a good thing.
7. You Can’t Win if You’re Dead. Heart attacks suck. Trust me. I know. I’ve had two. The first was my fault – crappy diet, poor exercise, etc. The second wasn’t – I’ve been doing all the right things and I still “threw some plaque” and had an “event.” The lesson – take care of yourself. You can’t run your business if you’re dead. Invest the time in your body the same way you invest in your business.
8. ABC – Always Be Closing. If you’re not selling, you’re not eating. Don’t be obnoxious about it but always be aware of your environment. I’ve sold gigs on planes to my seatmate, at baseball games to another parent, in coffee shops with a random acquaintance, and on an Indian Guides camp-out. I do this because I know the unique problems we solve and I listen for people to articulate those issues. When they do, I offer to have a conversation with them at a more appropriate time. You never know where your next sale will come from. Do I close every deal? Not by a long shot. But I’m determined and I doggedly pursue my leads. Heck, there’s one deal I’ve been trying to close for years. It’s sort of my Moby Dick. And I *will* close it one day. No doubt. You’ve just gotta believe, be stubborn, and know what you want.
9. Celebrate. We have a blast on my team and my teammates kick ass. I love getting together with them every chance I get and when we do, I spring for a great meal and we enjoy each others’ company. Hit the pause button every once in a while and celebrate the victories no matter how small.
10. Think Big. Like STUPID big. People ask what I’m building. If I tell them “a leadership training firm” they’re likely to nod and say “cool” then be on their way. Instead I tell them “I’m building the McKinsey of training – a global firm that teaches managers around the world how to be great leaders.” Now THAT’S audacious. Will it happen in my lifetime? I dunno. I don’t care. I just know I’m building that sucker and it gets others excited to be a part of that. Thinking big has also unlocked amazing opportunities like working in Ireland, Hungary, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, and Germany. Go big or go home.
11. Help Everyone You Can. When people write me asking for assistance with something, I pretty much say yes. Sometimes it’s making an intro. Sometimes it’s time on the phone helping them solve an issue. Sometimes it’s a suggestion of a blog post to read. I almost always say yes. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. Funny thing is when I need help and ask people, they always seem eager to do so. Hmmm. Correlation maybe? Do it because it’s right but also understand there are benefits to doing so.
So there you go. 11 things I’ve learned in 11 years. Happy Birthday to us! I’d like to thank each and every one of you reading this for being part of our success. I appreciate the time, attention, and visibility you give our work. I hope you find these points helpful in building your business too.
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