Are You Making Hay While the Sun Shines on Your Business?

From the LookoffOn the weekend we took a drive down to the Valley – our local agricultural mecca, where farms stretch as far as the eye can see. Everywhere we turned there were busy folks from the city, wanting to relax from their busy work schedules and take in the pastoral landscape, kicking back, and dreaming of the country life. Imagine it…just living by the rhythm of the seasons.

It made us smile.

The fact is, there’s precious little downtime for farmers in any season. But certainly we could all take a lesson from them on work-life balance, especially if we’re salespeople, entrepreneurs, or anyone else whose living depends on building business. And it’s this: when there’s work to be done, they work. Hard.

Oh sure, they might complain from time to time. But by and large they understand all too well that whether it’s planting, weeding, watering, or harvesting, it needs to be done, and it won’t wait. Moreover, it doesn’t always arrive in easy, manageable increments. It’s the planting that leads to the harvest. It’s weeding that keeps profitable crops from being overtaken. And there’s a reason why they make hay while the sun shines. Because they must. So the next time we’re complaining because there’s too much to be done, we’re going to give a thought to the farmer. And when it’s the opposite, we’re going to

  1. Appreciate the downtime, and
  2. Use it to do everything we can prepare for the next harvest, which will come as surely as the summer sun.

Hard at work,

Megann and Steve

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An Invention is Not a Synonym of Innovation

Inventors are always coming up with ideas. One thing we’ve noticed in our work with entrepreneurs, is that they sometimes believe an invention is an innovation. But in our view, an innovation is a bit like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. If it doesn’t solve someone’s problem, it’s probably not really an innovation at all. Just an invention in search of a home.

Why does this matter? It matters because of the effort required to convince someone to buy it, or to use it. Convincing someone to buy a product or service they don’t want is push marketing. And push marketing is the hardest kind of marketing there is. It’s that telemarketer that calls you during dinner to convince you that you want to buy auto insurance, when you don’t even own a car. It’s trying to convince someone that they want something they haven’t even been looking for.

On the other hand, pull marketing is creating something that the buyer or user already wants. Something that solves a problem. Something that makes their life easier. Something that they’ve been wishing for, hoping for, or dreaming of. It’s an invention that answers the question, “If only I had a… [Enter Solution Here]”.

How can you know if your invention is really an innovation? Don’t ask your mom (she’ll either lavish you with unfounded praise, or tell you to ‘smarten up’.) Instead, validate with customers. Real ones. Not your friends. Do this before you build the thing. Target carefully, ask people who are your identified and intended audience, and see what they have to say. Accept their advice, and you’ll know whether you have an innovation on your hands, or just an invention.

This weekend we’ll be judging entrepreneurs’ pitches at Canada’s Business Model Competition – an event specifically built around separating inventions from innovations using Osterwalder & Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas. It’s a tool you can use, too. So before you call yourself an innovator, go out and validate, validate, validate – and make sure you’re not just an inventor. And if you need help asking hard questions, let us know. We can help.

Public judging of the finals takes place Saturday afternoon. Hope to see you there!

Megann and Steve

The Truth About Predictions? They’re Unpredictable…

Today’s predicted storm hasn’t turned out quite as expected. While early forecasts showed us buried in snow, it looks like we have more to fear from skating-rink-like conditions at the moment. Layers of snow interspersed with ice and freezing rain promise to make transportation a nightmare over the next couple of days, and high winds mean that power outages are still a definite possibility. But much of the city has taken its leave, and a good chunk of the workforce is comfortably ensconced on the couch. Outside of our region, clients continue with business as usual, and the requests keep coming.

What do you do when you prepare for a very likely disruption or course correction, and then it doesn’t happen? Or what if you are forced to take a break from your expected schedule? Treat it as a gift – the gift of time. Catch up on paperwork. Reschedule work you can do today to make room for emergencies (or at least, “urgencies”) that will surely follow tomorrow. And use at least some small piece of that gift to recharge, refuel, and plan for something that inspires you. Use some of these great Productivity Tips so when you do return to the office, you’re in top form. That will help you get through the backlog you’ll face when the interruption has come and gone. Live this day like it’s your own. It is.

There’s no day like a snow day,

Megann and Steve

Remember the 80’s? These Opportunities for Innovation Still Hold Up

DruckerMegann has been re-reading Peter Drucker’s classic, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It’s interesting to see the predictions (hmm…in the 80’s, innovation and entrepreneurship were the future that would save the economy – sound familiar?) What Drucker stressed was that innovation and entrepreneurship were not just about new technology, but about a revolution in thinking, in doing, and in performing. In short, innovative would be demanded of every organization. Fast-forward to today, and Drucker’s work really does look like a seminal work – with many of the same messages in “new” (dare we say “innovative”) treatises on innovation and entrepreneurship theory. So it seems worthwhile to revisit Drucker’s Seven Opportunities for Innovation. (For more inspiration, check out the Drucker Institute).

We help our clients explore opportunities to find out which are right for them and their organization. Which one resonates with you?

  1. The unexpected (What happened in your business that surprised you in 2014?)
  2. The incongruity (Is there a gap in your market or your business between the “on paper” reality – and the “real” reality?)
  3. Innovation based on process need (Have you found a new way of doing things that makes you say, “Wow, why didn’t we try this sooner?”)
  4. Changes in industry structure or market structure that catch everyone unawares (How could we have been ready for that tsunami?)
  5. Demographics – (Is your traditional buyer outgrowing your product? Or is someone unusual buying it all of a sudden?)
  6. Changes in Perception – (Do you have customers who are suddenly ready to buy, who weren’t before? Or just the opposite?)
  7. New Knowledge – (Has your team had an aha moment that makes them see a whole new way to offer your service or product?)

All of these opportunities are still valid. If you need a hand exploring them in your business, we’re ready.

Looking at all the angles,

Megann and Steve

Customer Discovery – Getting it Right

We spent the afternoon yesterday mentoring and working with students in the Starting Lean Initiative’s “Summ’erUp Program”. They’re putting in eight weeks of intensive work to move their startups to the next level. The theme? Customer Discovery – AKA the Great Barbecue Challenge.

Starting Lean BBQ Day

The objective was to work with the teams and help them find ways of doing customer discovery that were as innovative as the products and services they’re developing. We used some fun barbecue-themed prizes to help keep the conversation going, and we even made a couple of interesting discoveries ourselves:

1. The greatest pain experienced by the students raised in North American with respect to “barbecue” was running out of gas in the propane tank.
2. Students from India had a whole different frame of reference for barbecue – they shared that for them, true barbecue starts with a wood fire, cooked down to coals. (And we agree there is something to be said for not taking shortcuts when it comes to cooking!)

Most importantly, the teams shared what they had learned with one another. The collaborative nature of these bright young people is something we could all emulate. Here are some ideas for getting customer discover right in your business:

1. Make sure you’re trying to get answers from the right person.
2. Using your network to get you an introduction to the right person (or someone who knows the right person) can be like an endorsement to get you in the door.
3. …But don’t be afraid to ask everyone if they’ve experienced the pain you’re trying to solve – you might even find the right respondent in the dog park!
4. Ask the right question – remember the focus should be on the customer’s pain or problem, not your product.
5. Right timing will ensure the person is ready to listen, and to speak freely with you.
6. The right technique can help break down barriers and defenses – and ensure you’re asking, not selling.
7. Storytelling, metaphors, diagrams, and other methods (like Innovation Games(r)!) can help you get to the right answers and a richer understanding.

We love helping our clients understand their customers and build meaningful conversations. We’re excited to see that these young innovators are committed to that as well.

Always asking questions,

Megann and Steve

Sons (and Daughters) of the Pioneers

Last week at Canada’s Business Model Competition, Megann had an exciting side conversation with Deloitte Canada’s Louise Upton, and Mike Goldsby, from Ball State University. We were discussing what seems to be a common problem in many towns and cities, all over North America – the lack of desire to move or migrate when industries or resources collapse. Why, in the face of chronic unemployment, do people stay in their towns or cities, favouring locational loyalty to what seem to be better opportunities to provide for their families?

For many, it seems their identity is bound up in the place they’re from. Whether they are coal miners or cutters, lumberjacks, fishers, or farmers, there are generations of families who are tightly connected to the work they do and the land where it’s done. Even subsequent generations, who have left the farm, the mine, the woods or the sea to sell real estate, develop software, or make their money in investment banking, seem to have a part of themselves that can’t or won’t let go of “that place”, wherever it is. Yet for the vast majority of the North American population, we’ve originally come from somewhere else. Even if we’ve been here for five, six, or more generations like Megann’s family, at some point, we were pioneers. So when did we lose the courage to be pioneers? Or did we?

We’d like to think that the pioneer spirit is still “in there”. What makes one able to leave family and relations behind, sail across an ocean to what may be an unexplored, inhospitable land, and still put down roots? It’s qualities like self-reliance, inventiveness, courage, optimism, creativity, and hope that kept our forebears going. Pride in a job well done and the ability to surmount daunting odds gave them a sense of control, expertise, or even mastery. And the narrative of “we’re farmers” or “we’re fishers” or “we’re cutters” stitched the story together.

These same attributes exist in most entrepreneurs. So then the question becomes, can we re-ignite that pioneer spirit? Instead of moving our selves and our homes, can we tap into those dormant strengths and find new ways to use them? We’re betting we can – and that a new wave of pioneers is on the rise – inventing, building, and creating an independent, innovative future.

Forging ahead into our own unknown,

Megann and Steve

Stop Pushing your Customer Around!

Push marketing is such hard work. The problem is, many entrepreneurs start off as inventors. They want to create something, and they’re convinced that if they create the right something, the world will beat a path to their door. But more often than not, when we work with our clients to try out inventions that have been developed in a workshop or a lab, with little customer consultation, customers just aren’t interested.

“Explain it to them!” say the inventors. But in the wise words of a former colleague, sometimes, “Someone’s gotta tell them the baby’s ugly.” We’re very much in favour of inventors getting up close and personal with prospective customers from the very start of the process. Leading entrepreneurship thinkers like Steve Blank have shown repeatedly that this is the most reliable way to come up with a product or solution that is both needed, and wanted. So what’s our role? Shouldn’t the inventors just “get out of the building” (Blank’s words) and talk to these prospective customers?

The truth is, this works very well for some entrepreneurs or inventors. It’s the most direct, useful method for individuals or teams who are open to hearing both positive and negative feedback about their ideas. In our experience, there are two places where the process usually breaks down. The first is that the inventors need someone to help them hear the bad news because it is such a game-changer that it seems their idea won’t work at all. This is a tough yet defining moment. They can give up, or they can find another idea that is more creative or interesting. At this point, having a facilitator, thought-leader, or ideation mentor can help them come up with options that avoid the pitfalls of the original invention. The second break-point is that they receive the message about what part of their idea doesn’t work, but just can’t seem to figure out how to get there. In that case, taking a new approach from traditional brainstorming, such as using an Innovation Game to answer their question, can help them get back on track and re-energize their commitment to their invention. Because really, who doesn’t like to throw a little fun in with their work?

So stop pushing your customer around, and look for ways to give them what they want. It might not be easy, but it is most definitely easier than making them take something they never really wanted in the first place.

Creatively yours,

Megann and Steve