Goals, Strategy, and Planning

Ever Have One Of Those Days … All Year Long?


The other day, I was having “one of those days.”  The dish towel got caught on the cabinet knob somehow and ripped.  Trying to put it back, it slipped off and fell in the food waste container.  I went to get some of my allergy pills, sneezed, and dumped them all on the floor.

The thing is, not long before that, I’d had another “one of those days” wherein two different people stole stuff (flowers in one case, and fruit in the other) from my yard, and not in the “feet still on the sidewalk” kind of distance, but fully trespassing first in order to take stuff from our garden.  There was the other-people’s-dogs leaving little gifts for us in the grass.  And the bed frame collapsing.  And the ants invading the living room.  And on and on.

In fact, “one of those days” seemed to stretch back in an almost unbroken series to nearly the beginning of the year.

All this happens in business, too, of course.

Clients cancel at the last minute.  The tax bill is higher than expected, just as everyone starts paying late, seemingly in coordination with one another.  You break your foot and need surgery just days before you’re due to be the speaker at a conference on the other side of the country.  People unexpectedly dispute charges on their bill.  The copier dies.  The shipment of materials for the next batch doesn’t arrive.  The next shipment does arrive, but it turns out to be an empty box or the wrong item.  The roof springs a leak.  Your site gets hacked.  Your email server goes down.  The Internet slows to a crawl just as you need to transfer a ton of data, or upload the new video, or download your presentation.  The tiny screen on the printer demands that you replace the magenta and yellow toner cartridges (which you’re out of and cost $100 each) before you can print the black-and-white documents you need for this afternoon’s event.

And yes, all of those have either happened to me or to a business owner I know, most in the last year.

Individually, each might be relatively minor.  But they stack.  I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several attack me at once.”

The lesson here is not to try and make these things not happen, because they will.  Sure, make sure you’ve got good procedures and policies in place to minimize the things that could be prevented, but there’s always something else.

What I try to do is build flexibility into my system.  I include contingencies in my procedures.  I work to have a cushion of both time and money for the unforeseen stretch of time (months?  really?) of downturn or rough times or the occasional emergency.  I figure the more my system can give and flex, and the bigger the cushion, the longer I can make it.

But I gotta say…2016 is getting a little ridiculous.  Is it just me, or has it been one of those days pretty much all year?

Image credit:  Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa”  At least I don’t know of anyone who practiced survival cannibalism this year so far…shipwrecks are a bit beyond “one of those days.”

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning

Stop Guessing! Find The Right Answer Instead

Catherine M. Rooney with her 6th grade class, 1943.

Previously on this blog, I’ve written about determining if you have an online marketing strategy and how focused it is, setting business goals as a part of that strategy, and being clear what key performance indicators would measure progress to those goals. I’ve even touched on doing experiments to increase effectiveness. All along, I’ve been saying this stuff is important and lead your small business to greater success online. What I’d like to do here is show how these things interconnect. In a nutshell: they help you stop guessing.

Why should I stop guessing about marketing?

The first question we should get out of the way is maybe, “What do you mean by ‘guessing’?”  Many entrepreneurs and small business owners that I’ve talked to over the roughly 15 years I’ve been coaching do this thing where, in areas they’re not highly skilled, they latch onto the first idea that occurs to them.  I sometimes tell the story of a client who decided to use Twitter to market her product.  When I asked why social media, and Twitter in particular, she explained that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed by writing 140 characters.  No mention of whether or not her target market was on Twitter, or if it was a good format for getting across her marketing message, or what business benefit she hoped to get out of it.

That’s what I call “guessing.”

She didn’t have any business-based reason for doing what she was doing.  She didn’t have information supporting the decision, and she wasn’t even going about collecting data to see if the decision made sense.  She just picked something and went with it.  Granted, she did have “reasons”—her own convenience, mainly—but that’s not what makes business success.

In contrast, I often say I love Google+ for marketing.  If someone asked me why, I’d say, “Because although it’s not my #1 source of website traffic or even my top source of traffic from social media, it is by far where the most likely buyers come from for my business.  It’s also where the most social media interaction happens (total and per-follower), as well as exposure-per-follower.”  And I could go into how important interaction and exposure are as it relates to reaching my target market, since small business owners and entrepreneurs are more likely to strike out on their own rather than clustering into groups like some markets.  See how that’s a different kind of answer to “why are you using that particular social media site”?

It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway just in case: just because you like doing something, or even do something well, doesn’t mean that’s automatically a ticket to success.

To answer the question in the header of this section, then, you should stop guessing about your online marketing because it’s not consistent or methodical; it’s a poor, haphazard way of making progress to the successes you’d like to achieve.

So take a moment and think about each of the marketing things you do and ask yourself why you chose those things.  Can you show measurable data to “prove” that you’re making the right choices?  Can you tie those choices to your business goals?  If you can’t approximate an answer like I gave for Google+ above, then you’re probably “guessing” about your marketing, and therefore probably doing things that aren’t as effective as they could be.

Is there any role for guessing?

Actually there is.  It’s at the very beginning of any of those parts mentioned earlier.  When you’re trying to figure out what your business goals are, you’ll be guessing.  When you’re setting up your first strategy document, you’ll be guessing.  But the most important and consistent place you’ll be guessing is at the beginning of any experiment.

Let’s say that you have your web designer make a site for you.  Every choice made by your designer is a guess.  They aren’t going to know what placements or color choices or photos are going to make your website a perfect engine of business.  Now, they’ll probably make something that looks pretty good, and that in itself will help retain visitors who are sensitive to that kind of thing.

But that’s just the beginning point.  From there you can begin running experiments to see if the red button, or the green button, or the blue button gets more clicks.  Or if the photo with the product by itself, or the one being held by a person, increases purchases for that product.

In other words, you start with a guess, then you refine and collect information until what you’re doing is no longer a guess, but a honed plan backed up by data.

Data is more crucial than you think.

I know it’s overwhelming or scary to a lot of new entrepreneurs, and you don’t need something else on your plate.  But I really want to urge you to look at the importance of data in what you do in your business, even if the business is just you…maybe even just you when you’re not at your day job.  Data is still crucial.

I recently saw an interview with Eileen Burbidge, business advisor to UK Prime Minister David Cameron and to the mayor of London.  Before she was in the UK, she worked at little businesses like Apple, Sun Microsystems, Skype, and Yahoo.  What struck me was this quote:

Lots of traditional industries started by doing digital as part of their customer engagement, advertising and brand, but now they are having to think about how it will transform their businesses, their core propositions. It’s like changing the engines on an airliner while it’s mid-air. It really is the second industrial revolution, it is on that scale.

Or think of it another way:  The term “digital native” refers to people who grew up with the Internet.  They’ve never known a time when they couldn’t get online.  The dividing line for this is often given as people who were born in 1980 or later.  In other words, as I write this at the end of 2015, anyone under the age of 35 is a digital native.  We’re in reach of two full generations that expect to be able to do things digitally.

Demographically speaking, the digital natives are very close to 50% of the US population.  (Worldwide, we’ve already passed 50%.)  Of course, every passing year just makes that number grow.

Therefore, using the Internet well is, as Eileen Burbidge put it, on the scale of the industrial revolution.  And the currency of the Internet is data.

Business used to be about making shrewd guesses and following hunches because it was just too cumbersome to collect and crunch the data needed to make well-informed decisions unless you were one of the big guys.

Those days are gone.

Even if you’re a part-time business owner, you have more access to more accurate data at your fingertips—much of it for free, no less—than any business but the giants ever did before.

There’s no excuse not to be using it.  In fact, if you’re not using it, you’re falling behind.  I really can’t think of a nicer way to say it.  So stop guessing.

Instead, start knowing.

Image source:  U.S. National Archives

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning

Does My Small Business Have A Marketing Strategy?

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I’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about what strategy is and why it’s important.  But I just realized I hadn’t put together a list of questions to help you figure out if you’ve got one for your business, and if so, how finely tuned or tight it is.  Does your small business have a marketing strategy, or are you in danger of running aground?

So here you go…be sure to count the number of “yes” answers you get.

  1.  Do you have a set of 3 – 10 specific actions that you take to build your business?  If you haven’t determined a list of the things that are “in” (as in, “my business does this to grow”) and the things that are “out” (likewise, “my business doesn’t do that”), then you don’t have a strategy.  Period.  As I’ve said in classes and other articles, strategy is selecting the best course and not wasting time on less-effective paths.  A random shotgun approach isn’t a strategy.
  2. Do you take these actions regularly?  I want to emphasize the word regularly because often business owners are so busy they aren’t doing their chosen things consistently, and that consistency is an important part of a marketing strategy.  However, “regularly” doesn’t have to be daily.  Maybe it’s a once-a-month industry networking event, or a blog post every other week.  But it has to be something that you will do at appropriate intervals.
  3. Did you choose those actions because you know they actually build your business?  The potential pitfall here is regularly doing actions you’ve heard work for some people, and/or choosing them because they’re “smart strategies.”  (Really, in this context, they’re tactics, not strategies.)  But effort put into a strategy that doesn’t produce results isn’t smart no matter how you cut it.  Can you point to leads, opportunities, or customers that you got because of each of your chosen actions?
  4. Can you quantify how effective they are?  There is certainly an element of serendipity in marketing.  You can’t always be sure where the next opportunity is going to come from, but you can certainly keep track of where the ones you get originated.  Do you have a way of measuring the effectiveness of each action?  Can you pull up a list of the leads you got from the networking event?  Or show what percentage of people who read your blog go on to purchase from your store or sign up for your list?  If you can’t say “Yes” to at least 80% of your listed actions, you have to take a “No” for this question.
  5. Have you experimented with other actions, using the measurements in the previous question to update your action list?  Here’s the gold standard for marketing strategy.  If you are regularly evaluating your list, using the metrics of effectiveness to prioritize what you’re doing (and more importantly, what you’re choosing not to do), then you get a “Yes” here.  But if you choose mainly based on what seems easiest, or makes you feel good, or have been doing exactly the same thing for more than a year without checking the numbers, you have to take a “No.”

If you got all five, congratulations!  You have  a focused, self-correcting business strategy!  However, if you got a “No” on any of them, it’s time to spend a little time on whatever the earliest question is where you ran off the road.  I put the questions in the order of strategic refinement.  Go back to your first “No” on the list and you’re looking at the question that is going to be the biggest bang for your buck.

Questions 1 and 2 can be addressed by most people with a little planning and time management.  Once we hit Question 3, knowing that your actions are actually building results for you, it sometimes takes some technical know-how.  Yes, with the right tools and setup, you can know if the Facebook ad campaign you ran sent you visitors, or how many blog readers you have.

Question 4 adds a little bit extra to what’s needed in #3, namely having some additional analysis (and sometimes a new data-collecting tool or the like).  So instead of just knowing of that ad campaign sent visitors, you can actually find out how many dollars of e-commerce revenue you got because of it, or the number of newsletter registrations came from your blog readers.  This level gets answers that are far more granular and specific.  (And if the thought of learning all this gives you chills of horror, contact me because I love doing this kind of thing.)

Finally, Question 5 brings us back around to a time-management thing you can probably do on your own, but with a twist: you need to be in a “big picture” mindset, not a “what do I need to get done?” or “what do I like to do?” mindset.  You’ll need to mentally step outside your business and look at it dispassionately from the outside.  And that’s really difficult for some people.  Often it helps to have a mentor (or, dare I say, a business coach) to help get you into that right mental space on occasion to reevaluate using the new information you have.

I hope this was helpful, but either way, please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!  Thank you!

Image Source.  Modified from the original by Michael J. Coffey

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning

5 Reasons You Need Clear Business Goals and 4 Elements To Setting One

You Need Clear Business Goals

You’ve heard it before: you need to set goals.  Not just personal ones, and not wishy-washy hope-filled ones, but clear business goals.  But do you actually do it?  Really?  Specific and measurable ones like they say lead to success?  I thought not.  So I put together a list of things you can’t actually do until you’ve addressed that omission.

Vader Finds Your Lack of Clear Business Goals Disturbing

Without Clear Business Goals…

1. You can’t be strategic. Strategy is the selection of the best tactics to get you where you want to go. If you don’t know where that is, there’s no way to determine the best path. To use an analogy, if you’re going to take a road trip, you can’t choose if you should start heading north, south, east, or west until you know what destination you’re aiming for.

2. You can’t measure success. I worked with an organization to put on an event once, and we set a goal of getting 3,000 people to it. We got more like 1,000. Some on the planning committee considered it a great success because the 1,000 people that came had a good time. But we failed to meet the goal of getting 3,000 and “having a good time” wasn’t one of the criteria we’d set…nor even one that we measured other than by “gut feeling.”

3. Choices become harder. This is a direct result of the first two. If you don’t have a strategy, and you don’t know what or how to measure success, there is almost no way for you to be smart about eliminating options. Everything possible is always on the table, and there are no criteria for you to narrow them down. That leads a lot of people to just choose things at random, or whatever seems comfortable and familiar…neither of which is likely to be the most effective thing to do.

4. Necessary skills remain undetermined. Again, following on the previous, choices made more or less at random mean you’ll be running into needed skills that you may or may not have. This issue also echoes back up the chain as well. You might be more likely to pick an approach that you think you can do, even if you’re not great at it. Or even if it’s not the most efficient way to get the job done. That can pull you away from success because you start thinking that you can measure this thing, that must be what determines your success, which is a path that pulls you away from any chance of a good strategy. It just entrenches the lack of strategy. But what if hiring an employee, or a contractor, to do something different is the best way forward? There’s no way of knowing without a goal.

5. Automation is impossible. With a goal, you can find things that increase the chances of success and turn that into a systematic practice, a procedure, company policy, or part of the organization’s culture. That kind of continuous improvement and refinement of your practices simply can’t be done because different practices may support different possible goals. The goal brings coherence to the practices you systematize and try to make automatic.

What makes a good goal? Within the context of a small business, “more sales” won’t do. It’s not enough. Sure, it’s easily measurable, but it’s a given. Every business in existence wants more sales. It’s not specific enough to help you be strategic, make choices more easily, and determine what skills you need to carry out a plan.

Consider These Elements When Setting Your Clear Business Goals

1. Who? Often people create goals that are entirely self-centered. “I want to make more sales” is one of those. But working in a specific group of people helps with all of the reasons for having a goal. Compare the selfish example with, “I want to increase the number of women-owned businesses I serve.” Suddenly, I can set aside any options that are unlikely to bring me into contact with women entrepreneurs. That makes me more strategic. I can measure a ratio of female vs. male owned companies. I could choose social media sites based on popularity among women rather than focus on other demographic traits like age or geography or income (unless those are important to the business goal as well).

2. Where’s the Leverage Point? In many (most?) situations, there is a leverage point that may be different than the ultimate goal. That can be the low-hanging fruit, or the bottleneck in a process. Thinking of where you might get the most leverage when setting a goal helps you to step back from “this is what I want” and instead seeing your business more objectively, from the outside. It’s what E-Myth Revisited author Michael Gerber calls working ON the business, not working IN it; or what Sam Carpenter calls the “outside and slightly elevated” perspective in Work the System. If you’re outside looking in, you can more easily see these choke points and set goals that have a higher potential payoff.

3. What Threshold? One of the problems with “more sales” as a goal is that it cannot ever be achieved. Having one or more threshold in your goal gets you off the treadmill of more, more, more. It can focus your mind and your efforts on getting to a new and better point, where you can reassess. I mentioned the event goal earlier of 3,000 attendees. That’s a single-threshold goal. You might also have a dual-threshold goal. That might be where you say, “To be considered a success and done again next season, this project needs to bring in 100 new customers. It will be considered a failure and immediately scrapped, no looking back, if it brings in fewer than 50. In between the two is acceptable, but needs to be reviewed for possible improvements.” Notice that the threshold here effectively pre-decides what will be done, and measures success, simultaneously.

4. What Values/Philosophy? The late Marshall Rosenberg liked to say that punishment appeared to be effective only if you asked what kind of behavior you wanted from others, but didn’t look so great if you also asked the question, “Why do you want them to act that way?” In other words, you want people to take action because they want to, not because fear or circumstance or some other external factor forces the choice on them. To apply this to business, sketchy marketing practices might increase your sales in the short term–because you’ve tricked people into buying a product they don’t really want (or think they’re getting something else)–but is that why you want them to buy?

Take Action!

Did I stutter?  Set some clear business goals!  You’ve got the tools–set some great goals that help you be more effective in the future.  If you run into problems, or have an insight or success, leave it in the comments below.

Pre-Meme Image By William Tung from USA (SWCA – Darth Vader!) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, modified and memeified by Ardea Coaching.

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  1 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning
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