Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rules of Thumb

I often find that some of the most important information I need finds me after I need it.

Much of the work I do in these posts is to find information that I know to be credible and useful and pass it along with the hope that it reaches you before you need it.

Here is a must-read addition to that discussion: "Rules of Thumb" by Alan Webber. Mr. Webber was the cofounder of Fast Company Magazine.

First a note about Fast Company. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Fast Company Magazine 'Fast 50' award in 2004. It's one of the business honors I most cherish.

The Fast Company magazine that Mr. Webber cofounded was the coolest place on the planet to read about enterprise and entrepreneurship.

At the time, here is what they said about their Fast 50 winners: “The Fast 50 are the idea elite of business, individuals with the vision and personal commitment to propel their companies and industries into the future.”

What I will be forever proud of is that we won our Fast 50 award with a business of just 4 people. Highly dedicated friends, all of us passionate proponents of our cause. Dave, Mary, Dan and myself. From this core group we recycled many tens of millions of gallons of water and saved well over 10 million gallons of oil every year that used to be lost as wastewater. Dave and I were fortunate enough to be awarded 9 patents for our work. It was very heady, very fun times. However, we knew very little about promoting ourselves or telling the world about our work. Fast Company magazine found us. They understood what our little revolution was accomplishing and told the world about us.

Allen Webber's new book, "Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self" is a must-read for anyone approaching entrepreneurship or working in new and emerging enterprises. It will profoundly strengthen your will and resolve to persevere. It will shine a clear light on the pathways you need to navigate. Importantly, "Rules of Thumb" will bring you street-level wisdom about entrepreneurship that can only come from someone who has done it wisely themselves and learned the best and the worst from those of us who have worked in the field our entire lives.

"Rules of Thumb" is the best short course in entrepreneurship I have come across in decades of work as an entrepreneur.

I'll give you a few of the 'rules' in short form, then close out with one of my favorite quotes from the book.

- Learn to take "No" as a question.

- Failure isn't failing. Failure is failing to try.

- Simplicity is the new currency.

- Nothing happens until money changes hands.

- The difference between a crisis and an opportunity is when you learn about it.

All of these 'rules' and many more (52 in all) get discussed at length in "Rules of Thumb".

Among my favorite in the book is #38, 'If you want to think big, start small.' Mr. Webber is discussing Muhammad Yunus and the founding of the Grameen Bank, which has profoundly changed the world, and earned Mr. Yunus a Nobel Peace Prize along the way. Here's a quote from that section: "It started out, in other words, as a solution in a Petri dish, like so many other world-changing social projects. What it offers is an instructive model for crafting solutions that work, one that applies equally well to for-profit and not-for-profit entrepreneurs."

"Start small. Do what you can with something you care about so deeply that you simply can't not do it. Stay focused, close to the ground, rooted in everyday reality. Trust your instinct and your eyes: do what needs doing any way you can, whether the experts agree or not. Put practice ahead of theory, and results ahead of conventional wisdom."

"Start small. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn't work, change what you're doing until you find something that does work. Start small, start with whatever is close at hand, start with something you care deeply about. But as Muhammad Yunnis [tells listeners], start."

Do you need any more permission than that? Are you waiting for more inspiration?

Among the pieces, some of the most valuable relate to raising money (#37 - 'All money is not created equal'). For anyone raising startup capital this piece is critically important.

When I read a business book, I call it a great success if I can take away one solid idea or truth I can put to work. In "Rules of Thumb", there is not a single weak piece in the entire book. Just remarkable.

Allan Webber has distilled a career working in entrepreneurship into a magnificent collection of hope and how-to.

I rarely recommend anything this enthusiastically, but "Rules of Thumb" is one of those rare gems in the world of entrepreneurship that you just need to read.

Allan Webber bio

Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus

Sunday, April 19, 2009

You are not alone

I really love the work of the Kauffman Foundation, the foundation for entrepreneurship.

In my talks I quote one of my favorite Kauffman Foundation statistics. That stat has just been updated and I'd like to share it. I think it puts the discussion of entrepreneurship in a good perspective.

The Kauffman foundation has been keep a running tally of startups called their Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. I use one particular stat from this in most of my talks. The most recent full year data available is 2007.

In the United States in 2007 there were four hundred ninety-five thousand new startups. Every month. Month in and month out. And this rate of entrepreneurship, 0.30% (about 300 people out of every 100,000 adults) has held steady for more than a decade. My friends and I working in economic development see an uptick in the number of people engaging in 'forced entrepreneurship' due to the current economy so it's probably higher now.

Almost half a million new startups every month. Those are just official startups. The number of folks thinking about it or planning to open some kind of enterprise are probably 3 times that, filling the funnel with about a million startups per month at some stage of being birthed. You are not alone.

I was fortunate to hear a great keynote presentation given by Mr. Burt Chojnowski of Fairfield, Iowa this week. Anyone following these posts would love Burt (linked below). He is the only other person I've heard beyond me saying that it is scarier NOT to start a new enterprise than to start one, especially under the circumstances we're in now. Why would you trust all of your economic security to the vagaries of other people?

Burt also tracks these posts strongly in telling people that entrepreneurship is not a pathway toward quick money. He agrees that it's a matter of delivering well-crafted services and products that are executed at the highest levels. This doesn't require Silicon Valley type enterprises. It requires entrepreneurs doing what they love passionately and professionally, working in an environment designed to support them personally and professionally through their successes AND failures.

About a half million startups occur in the U.S. every month. Most are bootstrapped. Most are grown to solve problems the entrepreneurs are passionate about. If you count in partners, investors, employees, people planning a startup, what is that? One million people per month? Two million people or more per month wouldn't be a stretch.

You are not alone. You can do it. Reach out and look for help, mentors, tools, and advice. This stuff must come first. Money comes after this.

It will take longer than you think so start working at it now. Work cheap, act quickly, make as many inexpensive mistakes as possible, but most importantly, start to create action steps then take them.

Burt Chojnowski has run with some of the big dogs (Guy Kawasaki) and has a terrifically impressive entrepreneurship CV. I loved what he brought up during a discussion of planning for small scale startups. He said, (and I agree) "Entrepreneurs learn from on the job training." That is, get going, get in the game, and learn what you can as fast as you can and put that knowledge to work each new day.

Entrepreneurship is not an isolated activity undertaken by geniuses in labs. It’s a social movement with unbelievable depth and breath across all levels of our society. It is indeed the Renaissance age of entrepreneurship. And it's just beginning.

You can do it. There is plenty of help and plenty of peers available. Get going on your new enterprise, friend.

The time is right. You are not alone.

Read executive summary / Download full Kauffman Index to Entrepreneurship

Burt Chojnowski's Brainbelt Consulting

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Simple competence

Today marks the 4th anniversary of these posts. I see this activity as a mental health outlet. And it's clearly practice. I enjoy the subject of sustainable enterprise and sustainable work and want to write and talk more about it.

Remember, sustainable doesn't mean you save the whales first. Sustainable means keeping you and your enterprise going. You make real progress. You grow. You get more competent and independent. You keep excellent books. You capture data professionally. Your enterprise grows in value in every way. If you crash and burn, both you and the whales are toast. That is what I mean by sustainable.

To be sustainable, that is to grow and build value, requires competence. It does not require star quality entrepreneur mojo.

I read a great piece in the April 13 Business Week by Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford.

The article is titled, "In Praise of Simple Competence".

The basis of this is the Peter Principle, the idea that people are promoted until they run out of skills to accomplish the growing amount and complexity of tasks we ask of them. Then we all have to live with their incompetence.

As Mr. Sutton writes, "If Dr. Peter (The Peter Principle) were alive today, he'd find that a new lust for superhuman accomplishments has helped create an almost unprecedented level of incompetence. The message has been this: Perform extraordinary feats or consider yourself a loser. We are now struggling to stay afloat in a river of snake oil created by this way of thinking."

The thing I've learned to do that might be the most valuable contribution I can make to someone thinking about their own startup is to give them permission. You can do this. Surely you need competence, but that's all. You do not need to reach for the unattainable. You can build a successful, growing, sustainable enterprise. If you are realistic, your enterprise can be one that matches your needs and your timeline.

With small businesses and startups, remember to fail early and often. That's not permission. That's an order. I've said this forever, and I continue to prove it myself every day. You will fail. Do so cheaply, non-catastrophically, and learn from every one.

This is my bedrock foundation for approaching enterprise. You can do it. You will make mistakes and not get it right. It will likely take longer than you think. Go forward and scramble.

In support of this two great quotes: the first from my favorite business sage, Tom Peters, the second from Arthur Lefler, current CEO of Proctor and Gamble.

"Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast." - Tom Peters

"You learn more from failure than you do from success but the key is to fail early, fail cheaply, and don't make the same mistake twice." - Proctor and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley (story link below).

It's fun when really smart people back up what you know to be as true as anything that exists in the world of enterprise.

This is the solution. Simple competence. It is not the ability to avoid mistakes but to live with them, to keep their damage manageable and their lessons valuable.

I'd wanted to start writing about this stuff long ago but was always afraid I wouldn't be good enough or that it wouldn't instantly get to the New York Times' best seller list.

Then it hit me one night, sitting in a hotel room in Dubuque, Iowa. I couldn't do one more thing that day. I was dead tired and covered in oil and fatigue from the startup of one of our industrial fluid recyclers at the local John Deere plant.

I decided to write down a couple of ideas that I'd learned that day about what I wanted to do with my life. It didn't have to be on the best seller list. It needed to be a competent presentation of what I know to be true about doing enterprise. Good enough. An action step.

That was four years ago today. Still practicing. Still touting the joys of simple competence and inviting you into the world of sustainable work.

C'mon along for the next four years. I see a LOT of interesting work on the horizon.

In Praise of Simple Competence. Business week article by Bob Sutton. April 13, 2009. Online version titled "the Peter Principle Still Lives.

How P&G Plans to Clean Up
Business Week April 13, 2009.

Tom Peters

First post and mission statement April 12, 2005

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Nice blog honor

I just recieved a nice note from the folks who run a web site that discusses and rates online Universities.

They were kind enough to include this Sustainable Work blog in a collection of 'The 100 Best Blogs for Those Who Want to Change the World'

I see Malcom Gladwell's blog (reading his excellent book "Outliers" right now). Seth Godin is there, as is Guy Kawasaki. I really love the writing these three put out. There are many others on the list I look forward to learning more about.

Thanks to the good folks at this web site for including us under the 'Business and Leadership' category of The 100 Best Blogs for Those Who Want to Change the World.

Next weekend is the 4 year anniversary of this blog. How time flies...

The 100 Best Blogs for Those Who Want to Change the World

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Following your bliss, rice farming, and showing up.

Anyone who works with me or reads these posts knows I insist you really love the work you're doing in your startup or small business.

As this awful economy grinds on many people are moving toward entrepreneurship as a viable option. I applaud that and welcome you to the practice.

What's getting me a bit nuts is the preponderance of media shouting out that you need to follow your bliss into entrepreneurship.

Yes, I agree. But then what? Do you follow your bliss over a cliff? At least you'd enjoy the plunge for a few short moments.

If you are going to endure and celebrate what makes small business, you have to have all the parts of your mind and body engaged.

I love the quote from Dr. Howard Thurman, the great religious leader and pioneering civil rights activist who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Did that mean Dr. Thurman spent his days navel gazing? Just the opposite. He wrote more than 20 books. He met Ghandi and, at Ghandi's request, brought back his message of non-violence to African Americans, then served as spiritual advisor and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King's family. He gave up a safe, honored, tenured faculty position to change the world.

He worked relentlessly, as though tomorrow really needed him. It did.

However, it's the DOING of the work that matters, not the thinking about it.

I'm reading Malcom Gladwell's great new book, "Outliers". He talks about needing proficiency to claim mastery. His thesis is that you need about 10,00 hours of practice to become a master of any trade, from musical composer to hockey star. Four hours per day. Seven days per week. That's about 10 years of practice.

Gladwell also talks about the potential efficiencies of applying that time and mastery to everyday life.

Until very recently as techniques and genetics have improved, the average wet rice farmer in China may have spent as many as 3,000 hours per year working, as opposed to European farmers that spent 1,000 hours per year working.

What was different?

"What redeemed the life of a rice farmer was the nature of the work. It was a lot like the garment work done by the Jewish immigrants to New York. It was meaningful."

Chinese rice farming is NOT the North American agricultural economy of the 21st century. It is however a startlingly apt metaphor for the rest of commerce in the global 21st century economy.

Yes, you REALLY do need to love what you do. Not because you'll be following your bliss. You need to love what you do because you'll be living with your work through times of miserable cash flow, angry customers, crushing time constraints, and working more time than you can imagine.

That doesn't sound like following your bliss. It's not. What really matters is working toward your bliss.

You mean it's hard? More than I could tell you. You mean it's going to take longer than you think? Yep.

Does that mean you shouldn't do it?

Just the opposite. You need to enter commerce; as have thousands of generations before us, and work hard and solve problems. Keep excellent notes and records, and then work harder to make it all happen again and again and again.

Among the most dog eared books in our house are our copies of "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfieild.

Mr. Pressfield's book focuses on resistance. How resistance will rise up at every turn and offer you easier ways to lead your life than what your quest demands.

Mr. Pressfield's gift is to remind us that our struggles are ages old and that we have the constitution and the guts to work our way to a better life. Success is based in large measure by how willing we are to show up and push through the daily grind of planting the rice and cultivating what you love through hard work and perseverance.

Here's a good example from "The War of Art":

"Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. 'I write only when inspiration strikes,' he replied. 'Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.'

That's a pro.

In terms of resistance Maugham was saying 'I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.'

Maugham reckoned another deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration…."

Doing what you love is critical. The key word is 'doing'. Not talking about it but acting in an efficient way, creating sustainable (reproducible) business models around what you love. Trying, failing, trying again, and above all else, showing up every day.

Then, and only then, will you be able to turn your bliss into a business.

I wish you the best.

Wikipedia Dr. Howard Thrumon

Malcom Gladwell's book "Outliers"

Steven Pressfield's wonderful book "The War of Art"