Sep 16

How do you ‘lean’ a business?

In these straightened times, its a great opportunity to review your business processes & establish the foundations for the future.

Never let a crisis go to waste. Rahm Emmanuel (via WSJ)

Lean means taking a fundamental look at your business & driving out waste. Some of these wastes will be obvious (work in progress, re-work, multiple sign off sheets, etc) some of the waste may be harder to identify. There are experts in “Lean” & 6 Sigma Black-Belts, these may work for you, but I would suggest that you begin with a strategic review of your purpose, then consider some systems process modelling that will show how well, or otherwise, you are working towards those strategic proposes. From there you can assign costs and added value to activities to help with cast flow forecasting.

Strategic Purpose

You need to have one.

I was lucky to spend some time with Michael Corbett (Product Box, @productbox) a couple of weeks ago using a fairly new method called the “Business Model Canvass“. We spent a couple of minutes talking about the canvass but it’s such a simple, visual method that we quickly started drawing ideas on the sheet and making connections. It was quite fun to be the ‘client’ and not to have to think too hard about the model but just concentrate on the process.

We looked at a business I was involved with and used the Canvass to work up a representation of the business model. The visual approach quickly distilled the Strategic Purpose (which I can waffle on about for ages) and encapsulated a clear  Value Proposition. The business was a good test of the canvass as it’s not a simple model of taking orders, fulfilling orders, rinse & repeat.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the stakeholders (or customer segments), activities and relationships. This actually identified a critical Value Proposition that I was completely unaware of. It had certainly not been articulated before.

We also worked out most of the rest of the business model, though without much detail. By lunch time we’d 75% of the business model captured, though not in a form that you could have presented to a third party. However, in a dozen or so post-it notes we’d encapsulated most of a traditional business plan and produced a couple of very clear value propositions that, together with the key partners & customer segments, represented a pretty good Strategic Purpose.

Fleshing out the sketch

Michael then pulled out his trump card – he’d set up a Google Site specifically designed to capture the output from our Business Canvas session. This contained all our notes, diagrams, together with a whole load of background info on the canvass, process, and associated references. Basically, all the information necessary to take the insights gained from the business canvas exercise and turn them into an action plan.

Michael explained that, given that it contains all this information in one place, and that it relates to a new product (or service) that he calls it a ProductBox™. Normally we’d have been working on the Canvass as team of business owners / founders / exec’s prior to launching a new product or service, and the ProductBox is designed to keep that team-work going on line. I just happened to be working with Michael on my own.

After our meeting I logged in to my new ProductBox and took a look at the draft diagrams & notes. Because we’d spent the time drafting the original using paper and pens, it was very easy to start using the on-line diagrams. The associated notes helped to expand the short notes with more detail.

After a couple more hours I’d got quite a detailed business model described. I’d also explored some of the panes in the canvas in more detail and put in some background information and explanatory notes on how things related to each other. One of the drawbacks with simple visual representations is that you often lose critical details, having the Product Box with all the notes kept all those notes together with the canvass. Although I was working on this alone (with Michael keeping an eye on me) the package is a wiki so naturally collaborative if you’re in company with others.

After a couple of sessions I had sufficient detail that I would naturally start using something like IDEF0 to detail the business processes needed to make the canvass work. One feature of IDEF that I really like is the concept of layering processes through parent-child relationships, while the Canvass doesn’t force on you, I can see it being a great complement to other approaches (and the wiki design of the ProductBox would help here also).

The end result (even after a couple of sessions) was sufficiently detailed that I could use the canvas as a map of the business model to describe to others. It’s also a live document that can continue to grow as more contributions are posted.

Michael and I discussed the use of the canvass. I think it’s strength is as a planning tool that very quickly and visually allows people to discuss their business model (without lots of MBA mumbo-jumbo). At first I was a little frustrated at the lack of detail, but I’ve come round to appreciate the simplicity of the presentation framework. There’s a lot more detail under the surface and the Product Box that Michael set up allows for almost infinite details if that’s what floats your boat.

Should you Canvass your business?

What I liked was the holistic view of the business model, and the expressed statement about Value Proposition. Anyone thinking of pitching their business should take a look at this approach, and have a chat with Michael.

Thanks to Michael for his comments on an earlier draft of this post and for introducing me to the Business Canvass and ProductBox.

Oct 11

Social Media – Recommend something

Uploaded on March 17, 2009 by gilderic

Uploaded on March 17, 2009 by gilderic

Recommend: to present as worthy of confidence, acceptance, use, etc.; commend; mention favorably

This is possibly the hardest stage and the one that most often introduces cognitive dissonance. You spend the time establishing rapport, building your understanding, demonstrating your understanding and expertise, at some point you need to recommend a solution. Obviously you want to recommend your solution, your most expensive solution (to push your ROI), or your cheapest solution (to hook them in)?

No, you want to recommend the best solution for whoever you’re talking to.

Of course if all you do is recommend others you’ll quickly go out of business, unless that is your business paid for by someone else. And here we get to a really interesting business proposition that’s been around for some time but is potentially seeing a resurgence in the business of social media business.

Commission based sales and affiliate marketing (where the sales channel takes a cut of the final transaction value) are nothing new. However, this is still a traditional sales pitch, even Google ads will present you the ad that’s paid the most for the keyword you’ve typed in even if you would actually be better off with another (cheaper) solution.

‘Proper’ social media allows you to recommend other people and yet still maintain a link with the customer for the next time, and through the joy of networks to all their connections. So when they tweet what a great consultant/business/product you’ve got, all their connections find out.

There still isn’t a decent mechanism for measuring social value. Tara Hunt‘s Wuffie Factor is an attempt but I’m not aware of it being used much in practice. LinkedIn recommendations are a bit too back-slappy and mutually appreciative which sort of devalues them.

The hardest reports I filled out were the ones where I’d been talking to a company and suggested they get in touch with another University for their £’00k research project. Of course it goes down better if that solution is from the company employing you, but its remarkable how many successful introductions to new clients came from people I’d recommended go elsewhere.

Uploaded on July 9, 2009 by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

Uploaded on July 9, 2009 by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

Close: to arrange the final details of; to complete or settle

If the recommendation is accepted, and it usually was, then closing is just the fine tuning of the agreement, sorting out purchase / invoice details, price, delivery, etc.

A word of warning though, just because you’ve build up this great rapport with a client, don’t begin work without a signed contract. If there is to be an exchange of money then you need at least something that sets out in writing the proposed transaction.

Having invested all this time and effort in securing a sale, keep it going, but don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that now they’ve finally made a purchase they’ll go away and leave you in peace, making monthly subscription installments; or that now they’ve bought your stuff you can pester them about every upgrade and option on the list.

I would recommend consistency above all. If you’ve provided a very light touch information stream and simple options leading up to the sale, don’t suddenly start sending bi-weekly email newsletters. Likewise, if you’ve been chatting on twitter, sending notifiers through your Facebook fan page, and so forth, don’t suddenly ignore them to chase the next client/customer.

So five posts ago I asked what was social media good for? It can be good for business, it can be good for your business, but like any tool of business, you need to spend a bit of time thinking through your strategy and implementing it to find new customers and establish rapport, lurk-a-lot (and talk with them a lot) to understand them and their needs, demonstrate you’ve been listening and really understanding, and then make some recommendations on their best course of action, eventually closing a deal with a new customer.

And if I’ve managed to build up some rapport with you, you think I might understand your needs, and have demonstrated that I understand social media, I’d recommend you drop me an email and we’ll take it from there! 🙂

Oct 11

Social Media – Demonstrate your skillz

Uploaded on October 2, 2006 by J. Star

Uploaded on October 2, 2006 by J. Star

Demonstrate: to make evident or establish by arguments or reasoning; to describe, explain, or illustrate by examples, specimens, experiments

Now is the time to join the conversation. Relate to your audience, demonstrate that you understand their world and needs. Demonstrate that you are an authentic person not just a marketing drone. This is where a little bit of human comment alongside the professional is more acceptable than in traditional marketing / communications strategies.

How much will depend on you, your product/service/company and your audience. Try a bit out, see what the response is, if you haven’t quite understood the social norms, apologise and tighten up a bit.

It may be that your online shopping site is able to demonstrate that you understand my need by recommending other things I’d like. At the moment this is still more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’. And frankly my experience of Facebook’s targeted ads is pretty poor (but then perhaps I’m not sharing enough to allow them to understand my every whim).

Freeagent established an early rapport with me through a review of their products on a website (can’t remember which but it was around their launch date), they clearly understood the needs of small businesses in the UK and particularly recognised the need for LLP specific accounting support (we’re incorporated as an LLP). They continue to demonstrate that they understand my needs by staying out of my face and cranking out the updates.

By contrast Greenlight Search Engine Marketing blew it completely at this point. They’d begun well, establishing rapport with a polite email referencing this site and a specific post, and followed up with a couple of phone calls which was a nice touch. I should have realised that they didn’t understand me from the email and phone calls but decided to proceed anyway because of the great job that Vodafone had done with their ‘Live Guy‘ promotion and this was also for Vodafone.

Greenlight asked me to put some links to Vodafone’s store on my post, I thought this was kind of cool (it’s always nice when someone reads, or at least notices your stuff) and wanted to add a small post-script about Greenlight, SEO in web2.0 etc and then the links. Nope, they just wanted the links and to pay me £40. Against my better judgement, and after lots of thinking, I stuck the links on (with rel=”nofollow” tags) and emailed my invoice. A few weeks later, without settling their invoice, I got another email, from someone else in Greenlight, ‘updating’ the links (which I did in good faith). Several months later, still without settling their invoice, I’ve not heard anything further and have taken the links off.

Which brings me to an important aspect of social media (which applies to any business but is amplified with online). Do a great job and your happy customer might tell one or two people what a great job you did, upset them and you’ll have United Breaks Guitars (YouTube video)!

Assuming you’ve demonstrated that you understand your client/customer/community needs, it’s time to make a recommendation on what to do next.

Oct 10

Social Media – build Understanding

Uploaded on January 22, 2007 by gari.baldi

Uploaded on January 22, 2007 by gari.baldi

Understand: to perceive what is meant; to accept tolerantly or sympathetically

This is the sage advice about having two ears and only one mouth, listen to what is going on. Even if you already have a very strong market leading brand; before you wade in, listen and observe (lurk in the parlance). The social norm’s don’t always apply on line and some ‘normal’ behaviour is downright rude on line. Equally, what’s ‘normal’ on twitter isn’t the same as what’s normal on LinkedIn. Think of it like international trade and those HSBC ads about cultural differences.

Social media is great for lurking and the great thing about social media is that lurking is accepted, even encouraged. You can let the river of news from most social networks flow over you while you scope out the lie of the land.

Tools like Tweetdeck mean you can keep an eye on half a dozen topic groups (by using search & group functions), most sites allow you to ‘follow’ a discussion so you get all the updates without having to spend all week hitting reload.

Set up a few Google alerts, feed them into your RSS reader. Find the social media networks relevant to your business, there is one out there and Google probably knows where it is. See what’s popular, language used, topics of discussion, OT discussions (Off-Topic, not directly related to the forum/discussion/network but of interest to the group).

Take the time to figure this out, don’t just hire a 13 year old. Like any key aspect of your business, you should understand the basics so that you can plan and act accordingly. If nothing else, you need to know when you’re being spun B.S. by your 13 year old ‘social media guru’. 🙂

You don’t need to be developing any great theory of everything, you certainly shouldn’t aim to know everything about everything. That way lies analysis paralysis, but you can build up a picture of the industry, your client, their challenges and how you can help them address those challenges.

Most social media sites have great facilities for chat, discussion forums and similar where you can ask questions and monitor replies. However, remember the opening advice above and be aware than discussions can be very robust & opinionated. Whatever you do, I would advise against getting drawn into a flame war. As recent evidence as shown, no one is really anonymous on the internet (if they ever were).

Generally I don’t say a lot at networking events, at least until I’ve stopped ‘working’ and had a couple glasses of wine. I’ll usually ask questions like ‘what are you currently excited about…’ or ‘what cool stuff are you working on’. By taking the time to understand a business in the assisted living technologies markets (primarily for the hearing impaired) I was able to identify that the key challenge was more about growth & succession planning than product development & sales. I was able to demonstrate this by asking more about their business structure & strategy than about their technologies. Having establishing my understanding and credibility I was able to recommend that two projects were developed what were around £100k each.

Having worked on understanding your customer’s needs through social media, you can begin to demonstrate that understanding and establish your position as someone who can be trusted and respected.

Oct 06

Social Media – establishing Rapport

Uploaded on January 11, 2009 by daviza

Rapport: relation; connection, esp. harmonious or sympathetic relation

This is ostensibly the easy bit of social media; the ‘friending’ act is usually straight forward and simple and isn’t the whole point of “social media” to be, well social?

As is often the case the answer is “Yes, but…

I think that the difference is between permission and interruption. Seth Godin is probably the leading writer/thinker about this.

In the good old days you’d interrupt what people were doing to tell them about your great product or services. Because you’d interrupted them you had to move fast before they found something else to look at, hence the high-speed / high-pressure approach made (in)famous by car salesmen on US television.

If you were networking you’d open with your elevator pitch and close by handing a business card over and demanding one in return. When you got home you’d immediately send out a follow-up letter and offer to quote for business, you might even include a ‘special offer’ because you’d met them in person.

All of which has very little to do with rapport and everything to do with words like ‘conversion’, ‘pipeline’, and ‘sales order process’. Too many people are still using the social media tools as old-school interruption opportunities. Folks on twitter who constantly tweet their blog posts, special offers, etc, Facebook apps that aggressively try to go viral by demanding that you interrupt your friends with requests to join this club, or take this test.

The plethora of tools and sites now available mean that we can genuinely begin to build harmonious or sympathetic relations with customers/clients without getting all new-agey and transcendental.

The first task, as always, is to be clear why you’re using social media tools. Where they fit in your business plan (you do have a plan right?) and what you’re hoping to achieve. From here you can think about where to begin social networking, who you’re hoping to network with, what you would like out of it and what you’re offering. Remember that to be really successful you need others to give you permission to be social with them. Your content / offer / insight / etc has to be compelling enough for people to click “Accept new Friend” or whatever the equivalent is on the platform you’re using, and you should almost certainly be on several.

Then there’s the design of your social presence, which should be sympathetic to the audience. If you’re audience is corporate business then slightly serious blues, rounded boxes, and a ‘business like’ approach is probably better than wacky layout, pastel colours, cartoon fonts, etc. This harks back to a joint post I did with Chris in March about presenting your product (or yourself) to a customer.

Think also about your avatars, are they logos, photos cartoonified versions of your photo? Think about where you are (FacebookMySpaceBeboXingLinkedInEcademyetc) is this where your customers, partners, or audience are? More importantly, is it where they expect to see you?

Most of the companies that do business with Universities are medium sized or large companies, they’re typically not start-ups. So while start-up and new media parties are great fun (and they are), they weren’t that relevant for my role back in 2002-2005. What was relevant was industry networking events, and regional networking events where the middle and senior engineers and Directors would go to find out about research, funding, and opportunities for their company. Being sympathetic meant asking about their business processes, technical challenges and opportunities they weren’t able to capitalise on just yet.

These days I’d be checking out the LinkedIn groups from Aerospace & and major primes, I’d also be signed up to the forums from the West of England Aerospace Forum (our regional membership organisation for this sector). I’d also explore Ning and some of the other less well known social media platforms to find the niche networks.

That’s how I established a rapport with the MD of Messier-Dowty Services, at an event where the interesting companies were. Messier-Dowty Services had a huge opportunity in the coming need for through life capturing of service data on every component in an aircraft’s landing gear, and a huge challenge because a single landing gear can have thousands of components and hundreds of sub-systems; all of which are being moved between individual landing gear, different aircraft, and many operators throughout their serviceable life. With even my limited database architecture experience it wasn’t hard to sympathise with that opportunity/headache.

Having established some rapport I was able to arrange some follow up meetings to understand their needs, demonstrate that understanding by developing an outline project idea and then recommend a great academic and funding source, and closing a circa £100k project between them and the University.

Once you established some element of Rapport, you can begin to build your Understanding of the person’s needs.