In my work as a fractional CMO, I am often helping small businesses navigate the transition from sales-driven revenue to marketing-driven revenue. This is no small feat, because of the time and investment it takes.
I just had lunch with the managing partner of a $5MM services firm. He was telling me how hard it was to ask his partners to spend money on marketing – and he was talking about $20K, which was a fraction of what they would need to really become a marketing-driven company. Why were his partners dubious? Because the ROI was not going to be fast or definite enough.
Compare that with a strategy meeting I was in last week for a $10MM services firm in which a partner – who was one of the biggest skeptics of marketing 2 years ago – said, “If we hadn’t invested in marketing over the last 2 years, I’m not sure we’d still be here today.” (To his credit, he was a skeptic, but an open-minded one.)
Let me tell you something that marketing agencies have a hard time telling you: the ROI of marketing almost assuredly looks terrible for the first 12 months you’re doing it. And may look terrible the second 12 months.
But if you’ve made the right investments in that time, you almost assuredly will be reaping the rewards of your marketing machine by your third year. And they are rewards that are beyond the scope of anything you could have generated with a sales-driven strategy. In other words, marketing can get your business to the next level – but it’s going to cost you.
It’s not easy for leaders to invest in something that is unproven and takes 12-24 months to start paying off – especially given the “black art” nature of marketing, which means that you can never really “arrive” at a marketing strategy that you can lock in and forget about. Each company’s marketing recipe is different. There are generalizations you can start from, but at least 1/3 of those generalizations will be wrong.
Why “waste” all that money marketing, then? Because building a marketing machine is like driving a car instead of pedaling a bike. If you’re happy biking and it takes you where you want to go…great. Stick with your sales-driven approach, and don’t bother building a marketing machine. But if your market is getting more competitive, or your customers are more price sensitive, or your buying cycle is getting longer…that bike probably isn’t going to be enough anymore.
What do I mean by prioritizing your priorities? Why is it important? Why is it hard?
It’s fairly easy for any business to come up with a dozen ideas for improvement – and most businesses wouldn’t stop there, generating dozens of possibilities. The challenge for any leadership team is to pick the right priorities to focus extra attention on among all those many options.
It’s easy to say, “You should have 3 big rocks that you focus on.” It’s muuuuch harder to say, “These are the 3 rocks that will give you the best outcome.” Why is it harder? Because there are many variables to consider in coming up with the answer. I’ll highlight 2 as examples:
- What’s the balance between financial outcomes and intangible outcomes? You could work your staff hard for two years, get your financial results up, and then sell your business for great personal gain. But many small companies have more connection to their employees, and so are willing to support work-life balance at the expense of financial performance. In that case, you can’t just decide on priorities based on financial ROI.
- What if short-term success and long-term gain are not aligned? Often they aren’t! Short-term, it almost never makes sense to upgrade your systems. But if you never upgrade systems, that will eventually undermine your results. How do you balance those competing interests? How do you decide whether long-term payoff is the right thing to aim for now?
So this is a hard task. Why not just avoid it?
Because focus is a key part of success. Spread yourself too thin, and you won’t have the energy to see your initiatives through to success. As we all know, juggling 6 balls is far harder than juggling 3 balls.
Although there are tools that can help you prioritize your priorities, this is not something that is driven by tools. A SWOT or Gap analysis will not solve this problem. A 1-page sheet that puts long-term vision, annual goals, and quarterly objectives…will not solve this problem.
The center of this solution is wisdom and judgment. It takes experience, insight, creativity, foresight, and thoughtfulness to prioritize your priorities. Whereas operating a business is more akin to an industrial “assembly line” process, guiding a business is a craft that has as much art as science. That’s why venture capital looks foremost at people when considering an investment.
One of the great things about working with Stage 2 companies is that there is usually a strong team operating the business, and any gaps they have in operations can usually be filled with a toolkit from EOS or e-Myth or Rockefeller Rules. Whether they are a strong team leading the business depends a lot on their ability to prioritize their priorities and pick the right things to choose on.
I’ll be posting a self-assessment soon for you to gauge how your team is at leading your business. So…well…this is just the placeholder until I get that! But if you’re reading this and are interested, send me an email – or give me a call and I’ll share what I have in draft form.
I recently gave a webinar for the SPARK.grow program on high-potential employees – how companies can identify, foster, and be attractive to high-potential employees, and how high-potentials can identify, develop, and be attractive to high-potential roles. (The recording of the webinar is here.)
I described a “High-Potential Talent Stack.” That stack has 6 levels – the bottom 3 are the factors that enable someone to perform at any job, and the top 3 levels are the factors that enable someone to perform as a leader. I want to describe each level…
Performance – this is how well the person gets work done
Results Focus – this is the ability to not just put in the effort, but to figure out a way to go around roadblocks and keep at a task until you get the result that is needed
Learning – high-potentials are always expanding their toolkit of skills, and learning about the work they do
Investment Thinking – this is the ability to think in terms of Return on Investment
Maturity – high-potentials handle themselves well, in different situations and with different people
Leadership – this is the combination of skills that are needed to get a team to perform at a level and in a direction that they wouldn’t get to on their own
This stack is a powerful tool. It shows what a company can look for when hiring new staff, and what they can train and develop to improve their high-potentials – and shows high-potentials what skills to develop for further growth.
Each level of the stack has 3 more specific components. The target is to score a total of 12 or higher when each of those components is rated on a 1-5 scale. Scores of 4-4-4, 5-4-3, or 5-5-2 would all qualify; scores of 5-3-3, 4-4-3, 5-5-1 would not qualify. It’s a high hurdle – but the people that meet that standard are often the “10x-ers” – the ones who have 10x the impact on your business than your typical employee.
Almost universally, small businesses underinvest in their high potentials. There’s too much potential ROI for you to do that.
Most people recognize that markets don’t stand still. Customers, competitors, and technology are constantly changing.
Although most people recognize that, many don’t appreciate the imperative that that dynamic places on them as leaders. The simplest way I’ve learned to describe that imperative is this…
Your business model is a depreciating asset.
In other words, the way you do business – whether that’s how you find customers, how you produce what you offer, how you deliver what you sell – is losing value every day.
Like other depreciating assets you have – your house, car, refrigerator, computer – you have to maintain it simply for it to keep working the way it’s supposed to. And you have to more-fundamentally change or replace it on some kind of predictable cycle – 3-4 years for a computer, 5-10 for a refrigerator.
How quickly your business model depreciates is mostly a function of the degree of change in your market. And, since there’s more change in every market these days, we all need to put our leadership teams on notice that we’re going to have to reinvent our business model sooner than we’re used to. Rule of thumb: the cycle is probably half what it used to be. (So if the model used to last 10 years, it’s best to plan for it to last 5.)
If your leadership team is skeptical when you tell them this, offer the following true story. I know a smart, tech-savvy teenager who has a nose for online businesses. He found an opportunity last Fall that he liked. Here’s how that played out:
- Week 0 – discovered opportunity
- Week 1 – supply chain set up
- Week 2 – open for business
- Week 5 – profits to date: $200K
- Week 11 – profits to date $500K
- Week 13 – rejected offer to purchase business for $100K
- Week 16 – competitors raise cost of advertising to a level that the economics no longer work, business model no longer profitable, business closed
To summarize, that’s a business model that was able to net $500K in 4 months – I know $15MM businesses that aren’t generating that profit for the year – but whose value depreciated to $0 in that same 4 months.
If you talk about markets changing, it seems like something “out there” that may not impact you. If you talk about your business model depreciating around you week by week, it gets much clearer that you need to act with some urgency.
I was in a meeting this week with a client, and they were talking about the gigantic case they take to trade shows – which is called “The Coffin” and may have cost an employee a finger (the story wasn’t clear and I didn’t want to ask). The person who bought it, and still saw it’s utility, countered the jokes and jabs by saying, “Well, actually, it’s light if you have a forklift.” I’m not sure if it was a joke or a legitimate argument, but it got me thinking…
There are a number of pitfalls that will trip up people who don’t have a lot of experience with strategic planning. One of the more regular ones – especially in retreats where people are asked to free their thinking – is not taking into account limited resources.
All kinds of amazing things are possible to dream up if you assume you have unlimited time, effort, strength, brainpower, flexibility, etc.
That case is light (if a forklift is available where we’re going, and we have the money to pay for it)
That metal is flexible (if we have a sledgehammer and the strength to wield it)
That market is accessible (if we have the VP of Sales who knows the right people and can use their trust to benefit our product)
That new initiative is going to be easy for people to support (if we have a culture that is very adaptive and a leader who consistently pushes it)
Options that look good with unlimited resources often look terrible when limitations come into play. So it’s important to take resources – money, bandwidth, expertise, relationships – into account when choosing a strategy.
Overlooking resource constraints is just one form of a broader category that undermines strategy – the hidden assumption.
There’s no way to avoid hidden assumptions – we all have them lurking in our blindspots. But there are things you can do in your planning to reduce the likelihood that assumptions will lead you into a bad decision:
- Include people with different perspectives in your discussions – and listen to them all
- Ask, “Why is this a stupid idea?” or “Why would this fail?”
- Think of other decisions that ended badly and were driven by hidden assumptions, and assess if there are similarities
- Clarify the criteria that you use to evaluate your options
One of the things that separates good strategists from poor ones is the ability to see what’s missing and hidden. It’s a hard skill to develop – it takes knowledge and experience and inquisitiveness and discipline.
But it’s a really valuable skill. If you reflect on the worst decisions you’ve made, they are usually built on top of a hidden assumption that turned out to be way more off base, and way more important, than you’d have imagined…if you’d known to think about it.
Small businesses are often dealing with situations in which performance has not met expectations. It’s not really a failure, per se, but there has to be a change. A restart.
It might be the European division, or the HR department, or the implementation of the new CRM. When the gap between where the initiative is supposed to be, and where it actually is, is big enough, a restart is needed.
(Hmmm, you say, how will I tell if my situation is “big enough” to merit a restart? The answer is different for every situation, but basically, it comes down to whether the business can handle the underperformance for however long into the future you want to look. A failing overseas office in one company might continue to bump along if the rest of the business can prop it up, while a similar office in another company is a crisis because it’s sucking too much cash that other parts of the business also need.)
When I’m faced with this situation in one of my clients, I work along 4 paths to do the restart:
– A credible though possibly uncertain understanding of our value, and an informed belief that people want what we offer, and a vision for why it makes strategic sense to “play that game” as opposed to focusing on something else
– A leader or leaders who can inject the energy needed to change things and break new ground
– The funding needed for the plan…and the mistakes we’ll make as we learn the flaws with the plan
– A story that refocuses the team from the failure and the pain, to the vision and the hope
As a leader, you know what these kinds of situations are like. Not clear. Not simple. Not easy. But if you have those 4 pieces, you’re well on your way to a successful restart, even if the results don’t come right away. And if you don’t have those 4 pieces…then that’s the first thing you need to work on!
My daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan, and she has been smitten by the frenzy of the release of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child. So last week I found myself watching Harry Potter 7 Part 2 with her. And in it, Hermione was recommending that she, Ron & Harry be more careful and plan out their return to Hogwarts, since that journey was likely to lead to a conflict with the forces of You-Know-Who.
Ron, feeling some urgency, dismissed Hermione’s request, saying:
“Hermione, when did any of our plans work? We plan, we get there, and then all hell breaks loose.”
Fortunately Harry, who is an intuitive strategist like most of the Second Stage owners I know, comes up with a short-term plan….”We’ll figure it out when we get there and we see what we’re working with.”
Let’s highlight some of the lessons about strategic planning that are contained in that little scene:
– Planning doesn’t work on its own, because things won’t happen the way you expected them to
– A good plan starts with an assessment of the current situation – assets, needs, opportunities
– There are times when good execution is more important than good planning – specifically, when a lot is uncertain, or you don’t have a lot of resources that you can put toward a plan (this is why planning is less important in start-ups bootstrap start-ups)
There are also some undercurrents to Ron’s statement – the stuff we can read “between the lines”:
– Planning helps get you ready for the battle, even if the plan doesn’t work
– People who fight the battle can use that experience to develop better plans – and do them faster
– When you’ve gone into enough similar experiences, you can rely on your intuition more than needing a plan – it’s likely that the situation will mostly look like something you’ve dealt with in the past, and the stuff that is new will be minor enough that it won’t overwhelm you
You Second Stage muggles have your own version of wands and spells – the experience you have that enables you to solve problems as if you were waving a wand, the insight and service you give your customers that can (truly) be like a spell, all the assets and resources you have built up to solve some of the world’s problems in a way that (if you step back from it) can seem magical to someone new to it. And all of those things will be made better, and more powerful, with the right amount of planning.
In the last week, I’ve had a couple of strategy meetings where the simple idea of going with the flow came up.
In the first, a decades-old company is finding that it’s not as easy as it used to be to get customers. They are facing the prospect of having to cannibalize their current customers to sell something that will have broader appeal – the plan being that the new sales will outweigh those lost from the cannibalization.
The go-with-the-flow idea? “Sell what they your market is buying.” After about 15 minutes talking to a salesperson, whose first reaction was to tell me all the reasons that customers aren’t buying the legacy product, he then said, “You know, there’s one big prospect on the East Coast who would be really interested in this new version we’re talking about.” And from there, we’re off…selling what the market is buying.
In the second meeting, we were debating which of several initiatives should get funding support. We were looking at 6 different programs, with varying degrees of success. Some were clearly “popping” and gaining traction; others were struggling though everyone thought they should have lots of potential.
The go-with-the-flow idea then? “Go in the direction of what works.” The path of least resistance was to double-down on the ones with traction. We didn’t abandon the others, but the question of where to put the discretionary budget we had available was answered pretty simply.
Sometimes business isn’t a struggle. Sometimes the market gives us the answer, and we just have to listen…and go with the flow.
There’s a cost to growth
Here’s a universal truth that doesn’t get enough airtime among business leaders – and that many leader teams, therefore, don’t fully appreciate:
Growth must be funded.
I started working with a company recently that developed a BHAG of doubling in size over the next 5 or so years. The first year went well – but last year was rough, and they’re now feeling pulled between the commitment they made to their BHAG, the desire they have to distribute profits at a level they’re accustomed to, and the need they have to correct some operational issues.
They have a newfound appreciation for the fact that the decision to grow often comes at the expense of the ability to harvest profits.
What does it mean that growth must be funded? Here are a few of the things that you’d need to invest in to grow – that you wouldn’t need (or wouldn’t need as much of) if you weren’t growing:
- Expanding your training and talent development efforts
- Developing new marketing programs
- Hiring more salespeople or programmers – and if they’re hard to find or need training, then you need to hire them before you have the revenue to support them
- Expanding into new facilities or adding equipment
There can be many more, but you get the idea.
On top of those tangible investments, you’d have two more hidden costs: the time that your team spends solving issues associated with the growth, and the inevitable inefficiencies you’ll have the first time you do things.
This isn’t to deny the wonderful benefits of growth, which include more people and customers to make your stuff better, more resources to solve problems and offer rewards, and more impact and influence on your markets and community.
But as you develop your BHAG, realize that you’ll also benefit from having a Big Heavy Accessible War Chest. And that’s why I often recommend that the first 2 years of a growth strategy focus on increasing your profitability and building your reserves. The path to your BHAG will be a lot more fun and manageable if you have the money to deal with the challenges you’ll face.
You don’t need to hire every position with the same approach. Sure, some companies have the same hiring process for everyone, and it often involves spending 6 months on each hire and only hiring A+ people. In theory, that’s what you should do, but in practice, there are some hires that deserve more effort and some that deserve less.
How do you tell when to invest more or less? I’ll be talking about that on my webinar this month – the 3 different approaches to hiring, and when each one is appropriate.
For this column, I want to focus in on the highest-investment approach.
When does a hire deserve a heavy investment? The primary drivers are (a) the impact the position can have on the organization, and (b) the experience your company has with hiring that specific type of position. In other words, you should invest more heavily in your recruiting process when you’re hiring:
- Executive or key manager positions – because the impact of that position will be a multiple of the costs of even an elaborate hiring process
- New positions – because you don’t know what you’re looking for, and because you need to train your organization on what the new position will do
What does it mean to invest heavily in a hiring process? You should spend more time…
- Planning the position before even starting the recruiting process
- Choreographing the hiring process – who to include when
- Building a bigger candidate pool
- Interviewing candidates
- Confirming your final choice
It’s OK not to go all-out on every hire. What’s important for growing companies is having the wisdom to know when a more extensive recruiting process is needed, and having the discipline to invest the time needed when it is required.
If you do that, you’ll avoid the costs of a bad hire, which can be dramatic – around 2-3x the person’s compensation for a manager, and 5-10x the person’s compensation for an executive.