The Escalator

I couldn’t get to the trade show floor until 10:00 am. That meant 15 or 20 minutes to kill. I looked around at the options and said to myself, “Why not stand at the bottom of the escalator? There’s no better place to see and meet people.”

In the sea of people there were two gentlemen standing near me with name tags that noted their business location; Nantucket, MA. I had just returned from a business trip to Boston the week prior, and then spent 4 days on Cape Cod. It wasn’t Nantucket, but it’s close enough. I started a conversation.

We talked about their work on the island, about the culture, what kind of support they needed, and how they managed logistics. They asked what I did. We shared business cards. I invited them to contact me anytime and they did the same. Then we both went on our way.

That was about 5 or 6 weeks ago. One of the guys, Lee, called me today. “Hi John, I don’t know if you remember me or not….” “Of course, I said. We met at the bottom of the escalator!” “Yep. That’s me.”

He said he needed some engineering support and asked about our availability at Wheaton Sprague. He asked what the next steps were. He said he’d email me the info. I said I’d assess it and get him a proposal. He said, great.

How do we “kill time” while waiting? Usually with our head in a phone or waiting in the wings. That particular day I chose to engage at the bottom of the escalator; to be where people were congregating. Who would have guessed? We never know when an interaction will lead to more. But most business is relational, whether B2B or B2C. How’s your engagement going?

Start with Zero

When my partner and I created the business, we started on day one with zero; zero dollars, two computers, some software, two clients and two projects; one project for him and one for me. We had zero revenue but we had purchase orders. That’s what we worked with. We built systems, tools, applications, and engineered work products that brought value to clients.

Fast forward to now; 25 years later. I’m getting back to this approach; to recommitting to creating new things, new services, practices, and applications, from zero. I mean, being an entrepreneur and business builder, that’s how I started; I took an idea, made it a reality, and built something that never existed prior. That’s what happens in all new businesses in some way; something comes from nothing; from simply an idea.

So we start with zero. We start with our time, our tools, and our existing infrastructure, which is way deeper than it was 25 years ago, and we build. If you want money, you’re going to have to really give me a good reason. How about selling the service and idea to the client first and coming to me with a purchase order? That’s the ultimate litmus test; the ultimate positive ROI.

Starting with zero doesn’t mean we don’t need money. It doesn’t mean we don’t get funding at some point if there’s good reason. But it does provide better accountability around creating new things and it puts everyone in the organization on a level field.

Start with zero and validate from that point forward.

New stuff

This morning I got an email informing me that I received my Texas Professional engineering license (PE.) It’s one of 9 or 10 states that I never really pursued or needed. Previously at our company we had another TX PE, but he moved on to another firm a few months ago. I decided it would be best to maintain it myself, and get another staff member registered as well.

The timing was great. We have a Texas client now with 3 new projects. It’s interesting to me how when we pursue certain activities, as a company and as a person, when we take action, expend energy, invest, and build, that stuff happens; stuff we expect and stuff we don’t. Activity produces more activity. It’s action-reaction. And there’s collateral benefit that happens as well. People talk, things happen, lives are touched and results are produced.

It’s good to act, to invest, and to see the results. How’s that going for you? Do something new today and await the results.

Workflow and Development

There are two basic forms of “workflow” or “new practice” development:

  • That which we create (innovation and new category.) This needs to bring value to clients and they become part “creative partner” with us (from a “what if” and testing scenario).
  • That which our clients require (get competent and optimize)
    • They define
    • We build/design to spec
    • We execute
  • The Truth moving into the future
    • We all need in our businesses to develop one or both of these.
    • It needs to be done while being connected to the market; with the user/client

The details, the building, the success of the service or product, is up to the builders and operators

The Entrepreneurial Dichotomy

Dichotomy; a contrast between two things

The Entrepreneurial Dichotomy is that our energy, ideas, our vision, are deeply needed, yet our businesses are worth much more without dependence on us; without us having to be present to do transactional things; to not have to handle the day-to-day. We are supposed to be building an enterprise rather than doing a specific job.

Being free to devote our attention to the places where we provide the most value to clients, and to our business, is what creates the best opportunity for everyone to benefit; being unencumbered by everything else to the fullest extent possible

This takes constant effort and intention.

I recommend a “not to do list.” The list facilitates what we are supposed to be doing, and provides a reminder to delegate everything else.

Dynamic change should happen in perpetuity in order to keep this process advancing.

What’s on your not to do list? What’s your focus?

It’s a constant battle and effort to make it happen.

Systems

“That accounting system is great. It helps us track productivity and see “real time” revenue stream, project tracking, and utilization. This is going to really improve our operation.”

“That CRM system is awesome. It’s going to allow us to monitor sales and client activity, hit rates, incoming pipeline. We’ve got this really dialed in now.”

“Those spreadsheets for earned value tracking are so good for operations. All our problems are solved operationally, since we can now know exactly where projects stand at all times.”

Time out. Hold up. Reel it in. Yes, these systems are great. They are necessary for proper management at scale. They are part of best practices in professional services. BUT, they won’t change a thing if the mindset behind the people and the systems stays the same. They are just systems. The proper use and execution of systems from the right mindsets and applications are what helps to change things. The systems are tools, just like any other tools of a trade.

Buying a hammer doesn’t make us a Finish Carpenter. Buying a new stove doesn’t make us a good chef. Buying a tool or a system doesn’t guarantee compliance or results.

Good systems still need thought and sensible people behind them. In fact, in professional services, if given a choice, solid, experienced, smart people will trump a system or process every time. When both are applied together, it’s magic. Checking a box or using automation can make good better, but bad even worse.

SWOT Analysis – Threat to Opportunity

Threats that are defined in our SWOT analysis can actually be opportunities in disguise. Recently in a SWOT analysis review with one of our branch offices, the leader was reviewing a legitimate threat that influences our office’s ability in that market to procure work with certain clients.  I immediately noted that the threat was actually a veiled value proposition, an opportunity. If we could sell the clients on what we know about that space in the supply chain, we would actually do the supplier causing the threat a favor, and make more value for our clients as well. It’s just a different pricing paradigm on the front end in order to achieve a better bottom line for them in the future. It’s a win, win, win if discerned and communicated correctly. Now comes the hard work of communicating the value and overcoming entry barriers; getting referrals; designing a pricing structure and a delivery method.

Some threats are hidde opportunities. Like a “no” in sales and “risk” in innovation. We need to go beyond the surface and figure out if these things are worth pursuing.

Have you dug below the surface?

PRICE IS IRRELEVANT

If the first question a client or prospective client asks about is related to price, then we know that their values are centered around cost. Most attempts to sell them otherwise will not typically work. To this purchaser, value is based on low price, and the product or service is viewed as a commodity. If the client-buyer is interested in what we’ve got, and we aren’t the low price, they may ask us to justify ourselves. I got this question last week “Why are you double the other price? Can you explain why your price is so high?” (This is a downward spiral by the way. Don’t answer the question to try to validate.)

I provided a polite and professional response, but didn’t answer the question exactly. I indicated what value was being provided and how the fee compared to other service-company fees in our category. My response asked the opposite question back, “Why is their price half of ours. What are they so cheap? We are both looking at the same project, right?” Then I explained what was being provided and nothing more.

I didn’t hear back from that client yet. And there’s a good chance that I won’t. They will likely purchase the other provider’s services. Because what this client was really SAYING, not asking, was “Hey, you’re too expensive. I can get the same thing for 40% less.”

So why do I say that price is irrelevant? Because we buy based on our values. Price is the consequence, the manifestation. It’s not the issue. Price or cost-based buying says “any of these firms will do, just get me low price.” The problem with this is that the buyer is assuming that they are getting the identical service from any of the choices presented to them.

It’s never really about price. It’s about the buying mindset and values.

Cost-based buyers want low price. Cost leads the conversation.

Value-based buyers want what they perceive to be the best investment and value for the cost of the purchase. Value and investment leads the conversation, price falls out, sometimes negotiated, sometimes as stated.

Identity, connection, or brand-based buyers, want to identify with a particular person, enterprise, brand or genre. Being connected to the associated values leads the conversation. Price is what it is; “If you want to be connected with us, the fees associated with that are as defined.”

Price is important, but price is really irrelevant. People already know about what they are willing to pay based on their mindset.

What kind of buyer are we seeking to attract?

What values are we seeking to communicate?

How is that portrayed in our brand?

Are we delivering?

Whatever we choose, we need to stick to it and dive deep. Pick a lane and stay in it. We can’t be all things to all people.

Post Project Meetings – Defining Experience

Post project review meetings are arguably the most important project and team meetings in an organization (and a required SOP now at my company) since it defines lessons learned; what we did well, what we did not, how we can improve. It helps identify “the experience” of the team and the client. It’s ALL about the client’s “experience.” The team’s experience is equally important  (client experience is only as good as the team experience and service to each other)

There’s many hotels, restaurants, auto dealers, contractors, engineering firms, professional services corps, ALL TOUTING the SAME THING.

Which one’s do you like to frequent and write checks to? Those with whom you have a positive experience or a negative experience ? Positive experience (gratitude, smiles, fair price, great value, delivering on what has been promised) means repeat business and growth.

Post project reviews are necessary for company and professional advancement.

All progress starts by telling the truth. These meetings are great truth revealers and tellers. We learn and grow through doing, celebrating wins, and fixing problems.

Hats

When we started our company in 1994 my partner and I were the employees, technicians, marketers, officers, and owners. We both wore all of the sales, marketing, administration, and operational “hats.” At one time I was a project engineer, engineer of record, marketing VP, building envelope engineering VP, and President. If we liken roles and job description to hats, I wore five different hats depending on the day or hour of the week.  I actually did this for quite some time. It’s necessary for most of us in business start-up, boot-strap, entrepreneurial mode. I can be exciting and fun for a short time, but the problem is that it’s unsustainable for the long-term. It works well only if we want to kill ourselves and go to an early grave, or as a minimum, become disenchanted with owning a business and not make it. The goal for all of us as business owners should be to wear only one hat, the one that fits the best according to our most unique ability, to shed the extra hats, and hire others to wear them.

Educated and trained as an engineer, in the early days, I was a classic micro-manager and control freak. This works well when everything is dependent on  me alone. However, I recognized quickly that we needed to write job descriptions, build and organizational chart, and structure the company so that others could wear the additional hats we had to take on and off daily. I remember writing job descriptions (defining hats) on planes, at my kid’s piano lessons, and during the work day between urgent project work. Slowly, each role and realm began to take shape.

As the business has grown to five offices, two divisions, and many times the initial number of employees, I’ve worked myself slowly out of wearing all but one or two hats, mostly. I wear one primary hat as the leader and President of the organization, and then put on specific operational, developmental or sales hats depending on a project need, a unique ability I can apply in a specific realm or issue, or to support my colleagues. I say emphatically that if you are a business owner and are growing a business, it a disservice to yourself and your colleagues to not work yourself out of multiple roles and to find other hat wearers as quickly as possible. Our role is to be the owner, leader, facilitator, supporter. People are counting on us. You and I have a primary unique ability or two that we do really well. So do others working for us. They wear many hats better than we do. Our businesses will benefit the most by applying our unique ability, while also letting others do what they do best around us. If we do anything less, we are eroding the future stability and sustainability of our organization. We’ve got to build strategically all the time while working on the urgent matters of the day and still moving forward. Otherwise things stay status quo and can remain that way for a long time. This is not of any value in building and growing a business.

Often times what we experience in a business and life is due to our own lack of awareness of these issues. The more I’ve learned and the more I’ve grown and gotten inputs, the more the business has improved. While it may be a big challenge as a small business owner to have a 100% sustainable business without our presence 100% of the time other than for financing, leading, and providing strategic direction, that should be the goal. The people who work for us, our staff, our colleagues, all the clients, constituents and collaborators that are attached to and support the business, will all benefit.

Do yourself a favor and build in this manner. Give colleagues, and all those in your charge, the confidence that we are charting a course to allow for long-term growth with as little necessary input as possible from us as an owners. The less an owner has to be involved in day-to-day decisions, the more valuable the business. The more and owner can stay out while having their staff executing the sales and operations of the business, the more valuable the business to the staff, the world, and future acquirers. It may look good on the outside that we are involved all the time and working mega-hours, but in the end it’s counter-productive. Visualize yourself not in the business and reverse-engineer it. Figure out how to put others in the right positions and build something of value. Build the business. Build up the people. Share hats. Give away hats. See how good others look in them. The picture will look much better and the future will be much brighter.