Saturday, August 27, 2005

Building solutions

I really like guys that build race cars. I don't get to spend enough time with them.

What I like about them, in addition to all the damn laughter, is the biz model they often represent.

If you don't like cars and racing, close your eyes and picture yourself in this model doing something YOU enjoy. That's what I'm trying to get you to do anyway.

These folks start by living a life infused with their passion. They continue to want to get better at it. They do this by building their capacity to execute solutions they need. Soon they learn they can execute custom solutions quickly. One machine tool becomes several, then maybe a handful, then maybe a roomful, then who knows where this can lead.

With an emerging production capacity, they begin to use their knowledge and skills to build an outside market for their work. The best of them look for problems they can fix. They take in production work, paying for the machines, while running their own work as needed.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time hanging out in a great machine shop in Freeport, IL recently, Rogers Precision Machining. It's run by Jim and Larry Rogers. No BS, do-it-right guys. Couldn't be funnier or nicer. Their genetic roots are in racing, but they have developed a great regional business in production machining. They are among an honored subset of people I refer to as artists with machine tools.

What I think is most cool, and informative for everyone reading, is the next step Jim and Larry have taken, along Jim's brother Jon who runs his own forging operation nearby.

More machine tools? Cooler racing stuff?

Nope. Intellectual property. Patent applications. Good on you guys!

After emerging from their love of racing into a production maching enterprise, they saw, as happens in every enterprise and every industry and every market, the limits of mud wrestling with poor competitors on a job by job basis.

Don't get me wrong. They'll probably still do it when needed. I still do it, and you probably will too in your enterprise. However, mud wrestling with mopes, especially working on commodity type products, only gets you dirty and tired.

Rogers Machining looked at that route and decided to build their own solutions. They designed their own product. One that solved a key need in their own racing lives and those of their friends and customers. Suddenly, they controlled their jobs, at least these parts of it. They get to work with something they're passionate about. If they have problems, they are of their own making. They are not problems rooted up by mud wrestlers.

Jim, his brother Jon, and dad Larry Rogers have figured that out, as have many smart enterprises. Faced with a biz challenge, look to change the challenge to your advantage. Design your way out of it. You can do it. Almost nothing works the first time so don't get discouraged.

The Rogers' didn't. The result, a killer product for racers and a cool new market for their excellent machining shop.

Not just that, but the new product now has its own "Patent Pending" protection. Very cool. Very smart. Building your own intellectual property protection for your ideas is not hard. Don't know the route they took, but regular people do it themselves all the time. I'll post soon about do-it-yourself IP.

The Rogers would probably make some kind of humor out of their success, but it really needs to be respected. I think they represent a terrific model for where many of us can take our lives.

Starting your own enterprise or infusing your emerging enterprise with the right goals can help you build your job and build your life. It's time you got started.

Build on what you love. Build on all the opportunity everywhere around you. But always remember this my friend, your main job in this world of enterprise is to continuously build solutions.

Out-Pace Racing Products. Great job everyone! Jim, Larry, Jon and of course, mom Dorothy Rogers.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Important VS Urgent

In any kind of organization, especially start ups and emerging enterprises, the tectonic plates of what's possible shear up against one another all the time. If you assume a leader's role, a lot of this is going to end up on your desk.

Few things are all or nothing, and I'm surely in the gray area on this one, but I will highly recommend working hard on this angle of your enterprise life.

If you want to keep it sustainable, you'd better have a plan for coming out alive.

Many new enterprisers think the chaos of start ups looks romantic. You've seen it on TV commercials... the entrepreneur harriedly swashbuckling through barking vendors and worriesome computer printouts, replete with jarring close ups of a clock and adoring gazes from customers, followed by a celebratory glass of wine with an ocean view of the perfect sunset. That shtick is wildly over glorified. If you find your enterprise is continuously under siege, afloat in details and rooting under receivables for cash flow, there is nothing romantic about it. In fact, you’re in trouble and it's probably your own damn fault.

Don't wait for your growth phase to get smart. Never think volume will fix problems. Volume magnifies problems, it does not fix them, my friend.

You need to start early and start smart. I talked about it in an early post. You need to build in good bones from the start. Good structures to support the good stuff you can do with your organization: data control, accounting, insurance, legal, shipping.

You don't need to spend a fortune. You can start out cheap and easy, but you absolutely need to build your enterprise around good bones for it to be sustainable. Without executing these areas carefully and early in the process, you’ll forever be sprinting through your enterprise life, never quite catching up.

Seth Godin is a good biz writer. I liked this piece from an article Seth wrote for the April, 2004 issue of Fast Company:

"Urgent is not an excuse. In fact, urgent is often an indictment – a sure sign that you've been putting off the important stuff until it mushrooms out of control."

Seth goes on to compare sprinting for your plane VS doing the harder task of waking up a little earlier. Will you live in drama and chaos, or will you prevent the problem?

This is a nice metaphor for what you need to think about as you approach your start up or grow your emerging enterprise.

Wake up early to the demands that you'll face as an emerging enterprise and a full participant in the global economy. It's not drama and blue sky. It's rights and privileges. Obligations and requirements. Don't grouse. Get smart.

You need to bulletproof your enterprise to the best of your ability as early as you can. Build in good bones. Accounting and insurance and legal and data control are boring as hell, done right.

Boring is good. I promise, you do NOT want to see excitement in any one of these areas of your biz life. Work hard, work early, keep it boring.

Many good people are waiting to help you, people supporting your effort from the vendor side and the customer side. Perhaps you'll involve angel investors or VCs. Out in the world, many people will want to buy your stuff. Many others will want to partner up and build you into their network, and you’ll do it vice versa. There has never been a better time to to create and grow new enterprises of all kinds.

Your ability to execute the details will define your effort.

It's your job to show everybody your enterprise is important. Not urgent.

Seth Godin’s article at Fast Company

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Shipping. We used to walk uphill in the snow.

Tom Peters talks about how the good folks at Fed Ex should wake up every day and be thankful they have such a great competitor in UPS. Ditto, UPS. Throw in DHL, USPS and others. These organizations have been having at each other for a good long piece now. Service is way up, as is ease of use. You, my enterprise friend, are in a lovely position to reap the benefits.

I'm a guy that builds biz models around shipping. It's just my own take on things, but I believe you can lead a much more sustainable life when you don't have to move your service or your product through your own 3D retail location. You can and should use the retail locations of other partners in your food chain, but I've always liked positioning ourselves far enough upriver that much of our production can just be shipped out.

Many people will love having their own retail exposure. It's just not been my gig. If you have a well executed retail presence in ANY market you will attract many great (and lousy) producers and vendors. Those of us without your value added access to your end users need your distribution and marketing skills. You make the place better by appropriately moving our stuff to those who need it.

However, not all of us want to be in 3D retail. For the rest, I'd suggest you focus on the amazing shipping grid the world has laid at our feet.

Physical shipping will add cost but what's a retail outlet going to cost? What are regional offices going to cost? What will staffing, insurance, rent, heating, cooling, and all the rest cost?

Think of the global shipping grid as a big slow motion internet. It's readily accessible without much training. You can get stuff to and from almost anywhere. Its utility for small enterprise has grown from almost negative value to ubiquitous through the economic evolution of the last few decades. You can and should take full advantage of it with relative ease. You can grow your own sustainable enterprise on the back of a knowledge and logistics grid the likes of which the planet has never seen. This tool, like the internet, is just laying out there essentially free, until you need it.

Back in the day, 20 - 25 years ago, trying to work the global shipping grid as a small enterprise was one gnarly ass task. It was set up for high volume shippers. Little guys got chewed up and spit out. Overnight and expedited shipping was proportionally much more expensive. Shipping out of the country was close to brain surgery. If something needed tracing, you'd spend hours on the phone. If something got lost, good luck.

Now the smallest enterprise can order a single pickup and delivery from their computer, know the cost in advance, predict accurate delivery dates, see and capture a record of who signed for it, what time they signed, and get instant traceability on a mess of other metrics. This is available to you from multiple vendors who are all killing themselves to make it easier to do business with them. The capabilities built into the shipping grid now are pretty amazing. And they keep getting better.

One of my favorite writers, John McPhee, wrote a great article about UPS in the New Yorker, April 18,2005. Get this... "Every night around the network UPS has something like thirteen airplanes and thirty-two crewmen ready but unassigned. They sit and wait for trouble to arise, like pilots in the Swiss Air Force, whose planes are hidden inside the Alps, always ready to emerge, in times of need, through camouflaged doors in the sides of the mountains. The UPS term for this is "hot spares". In Louisville or elsewhere, the light lights up, a siren goes off, and a loudspeaker says, "Activate the hot spare!" Hot-spare crews report to work each evening and go out to the ramp to pre-trip their plane. Then they wait. They arrive at seven and go home at three in the morning. If they are triggered by a call to "replace a mechanical" or "rescue that volume!", they have thirty minutes to get their plane off the ground. When the hot-spare light is red, mechanicals are the most common cause. In all its years of flying, UPS has never lost an airplane."

As you're reading this, this kind of evolution of the shipping grid is growing quietly all over the world. It's not costing you a single penny right now. You'll only need to pay when you use the tool, and then, you'll have a bunch of great providers working hard for your business.

Start ups and emerging enterprises don't typically get this treatment.

Take advantage of it.

John McPhee




USPS US Postal Service

Tom Peters

Friday, August 19, 2005

Be polite and blurt it out

When your enterprise is up and running, you'll get a question most biz trainers don't typically prepare people for.

All kinds of people will ask you what you do.

You need a short, sweet drive-by answer.

Potential customers, bankers, possible investors, community development folks, and neighbors will all ask at some time or another. That's just the start.

As a start up or emerging enterprise, you know damn well what you do is as varied as the weather and twice as unpredictable. My advice: don't use that for your answer.

What do you do? Your drive by answer needs to be about 5 to 10 really great words. The fewer the better.

Yes, you need a story, which I talked about in an earlier post. But you also need the movie trailer to your story. You need to explain your story and your enterprise like your enterprise depended on it. It just might.

What no one wants is an answer that provides the mission statement delivered with your self deprecating angst thrown in.

The ones who you really want to understand your answer are potential customers. Read the next sentence slowly, please. To interest most potential customers, you've got 3 or 4 seconds, probably only once. I recommend smart, fast, accurate.

Others will need to hear your short answer so they can ask more intelligent questions from their perspectives. These might be bankers, potential investors, and community development orgs. They don't want to hear your full story up front. They have their own stories they're busy working on. If you want their help, you'd better participate by keeping it short, using your drive-by answer to give them the tools to see how your enterprise fits in with theirs.

The last group, your neighbors and friends, are just being polite. They don't really want to know. Don't kill them with your rants. Give them your short answer. They really don't give a damn. Your short answer will give them something vaguely interesting to remember you by when they pass you on the sidewalk, at block parties, or wherever you bump into them.

So, what do you do? The reality is, my friend, everybody needs some part of that answer, and nobody really wants to know more than what's necessary.

Want a little sales tip? Keep your drive-by answer short and smart. Make it enthusiastic and accurate. Everyone in your food chain will be better for it.

Then, when someone asks what you do, be polite and blurt it out.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Keep it weird.
That means you.

Many people in the good city of Austin, TX promote a great phrase... "Keep Austin weird". Many other areas are also adopting the phrase.

The words are meant to promote trade with locally based enterprises as much as possible. The radical precept behind this is that it's nice to support your neighbor's enterprises whenever possible. Big boxes have their place but for goodness sake, we need to keep it a little weird, or we'll all be welcoming guests to Wal-Mart.

If you want to get involved in starting up an enterprise, exhale and look slowly and carefully at the ground you're entering.

If you are proposing a new economic entity to the world, you'll have to learn to deal with a reality of your new commercial life nobody talks about much.

You're position is that you have a solution to a problem no one has figured out before. You need people to pay you to execute that solution. With new stuff, both sides typically have very little to go on.

I'm sure you're a nice person but you're going to look, well, a little bit weird.

Good. Recognize you're running on a bit of a different track and be thankful we have society that enables you to be weird.

However, if you get the right to participate in free enterprise, I believe you also have the responsibility to support the weird environment in which you hope to live and thrive. You need to shop weird. You need to talk to new people who are talking about new stuff. Spend a little money with the better ones. Do your bit to keep the system afloat or there won't be much water for you to paddle in.

This is certainly important for consumer spending, but it's vital for business spending. If businesses do not get a good, continuous supply of new tools, we've got no future in business. Businesses need to support emerging enterprises as much as individuals do, maybe more so.

If you want to be a success as an independent enterprise you need to support the system of independent, start up, unusual restaurant, better mousetrap, healthier widget economies that are struggling to take hold all around you, largely unnoticed in the glare of big box logos.

Even if you're just thinking about your own enterprise, but not ready, go out there and participate. Drive past the big boxes. Think about what the people out there in those edgy or oddball or just plain lovely enterprises you've heard about and wanted to interact with. Do it. Go say hi. Support the ones where you can find some value. Ask them how they like being an entrepreneur. You'll learn a lot from the answers.

That wonderful radio icon Paul Harvey once said, 'You don't believe it unless you do it.'

Learn to look for what's weird. Learn to find the enterprises that are finding better solutions to problems. That's what you'll be peddling so get out there and help them out. Vote with your feet and get off the beaten path.

I think this enterprise stuff is getting to you.

You're looking a little weird.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Killer Innovations

I've wanted to recommend a great podcast specific to the subject of innovation. It's presented by Phil McKinney at a site called Killer Innovations (linked below). I like Phil's site very much. A no BS style from someone who's done it. Phil works for a global top tier tech firm but presents his approach in a way that start ups and early stagers can readily feel comfortable learning from.

In fact, Phil's job is so cool, we've all got to stay away from talking about it. You can get his bio in PDF as well as his Google links from the KI site. Go there. You'll learn something, I promise.

I was getting so many good ideas from Phil's podcasts I started to feel a bit like the person on their 5th trip through the buffet line, not that I have any experience...

I asked Phil why a guy in his position would be so free with his advice and wisdom.

Interesting. He didn't promote himself or any of his projects. He answered with a pretty cool perspective we're all capable of. "...we all have day jobs but at the same time, if each of us can give a little back - the world will be a better place."

Damn. Not more of that building up the commons stuff.

Phil's busy. But he's making time to give something back.

You're busy. But you can also give something back. You can innovate. You can change the way something gets done for the better.

You can start up your own enterprise. You can design it to support yourself and to give something back at the same time. There's nothing incompatible about that. You just need to plan it right.

Phil is a good teacher and an honest presenter. Go get smart about innovation from someone who has clearly been through it.

Visit Killer Innovations.

Don't forget to say thanks.