Your business is a mess.
Or, to put it another way:
Your business is a series of interwoven systems, mechanisms, and information that impact and influence each other so that no one component can be singled out as a problem or a solution.
Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in both management science and systems thinking, said:
Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.
If you feel like you solve one problem only to discover another, this is why. If you feel like every time you make an incredible discovery about your business it changes everything, this is why. If you feel like everything you learn about growing your business seems to influence everything you’ve experienced running your business, this is why.
It’s a mess.
And that’s okay.
Your job is to manage this mess.
That means being willing to adapt, try new things, experiment, and — most importantly — accept that the work is never done.
Every change you make to your website has the potential to ripple through the rest of your business. Every adjustment you make to your pricing can set off a chain reaction. Every revision you make to your plan could create a counteraction later on down the line.
The more aware you are of the messy nature of your business, the more you can use the mess to your advantage.
You’re not planning for the mess.
When you plan for your business — whether it’s setting goals for the year or simply planning your actions for the week — you are most likely setting discrete goals or tasks. It’s a form of projection or forecasting that can feel downright silly when there’s a tiny voice in the back of your head that says either “Yeah, right,” or “Nice try but there’s no way you’re getting that all done.”
Ackoff has an answer for this too:
The future is better dealt with using assumptions than forecasts.
Assumptions — or as I’ve referred to them before, hypotheses — help you deal with the mess. In fact, they can help you use the mess to your advantage. You can expect the unexpected and anticipate a vast array of scenarios.
When you decide on an assumption or a hypothesis instead of a goal or task list, you’ll see it as flexible. The flexibility of your hypothesis means you’re more likely to adjust it instead of abandon it when you’re presented with challenges.
The more you adjust your hypothesis, the more you learn about your business, the mess, and how it works. The more you learn about your business, the better you’re able to manage the mess and anticipate how ripple effects or chain reactions will occur in the future.
Here’s how to get started:
Look at your goal or projects for this quarter.
Most likely, you’ve set those goals as definitive statements:
- Enroll 30 new customers
- Generate $25,000 in revenue
- Complete a new online course to sell
Nothing wrong with those… but those goals don’t reflect the mess that is your business, right?
To reflect your mess, you want to identify the individual, overlapping, and inter-influencing systems that make up the way you achieve each goal.
For instance, you could say:
If I write 12 new blog posts with a Call to Action over the next 12 weeks, then I’ll generate 1000 new leads. If I market my program to those 1000 new leads, then I’ll enroll 30 new customers into my program.
Now, you can see the mess!
Writing blog posts with a Call to Action that generates appropriate leads is (at least) one system. Nurturing new leads and marketing your program to them is another system. Enrolling new customers is yet another system.
Each is interdependent on the others. If your blog writing & lead generating system doesn’t quite gel, you won’t generate the leads you need. If you don’t generate the leads you need, you won’t have enough people to market to to close 30 sales. If you don’t know what you’re selling and how you’re selling it, you won’t be able to write effective blog posts and generate relevant leads.
When things work out, you don’t worry about how these systems work together. You also don’t learn much about what works for your business.
When things don’t work out, you can be so focused on the disappointing outcome that you miss the obvious opportunities to improve on your plan and get a different result.
When you have a hypothesis instead of a forecast, you won’t simply bemoan the fact that you didn’t reach your goal. Instead, you have an immediate plan of action for how to improve your work and do better next time. You could adapt the type of posts you write, the frequency with which you write them, the Call to Action, etc…
Once you recognize your mess, you can start to see planning, goal-setting, and taking action as a process and not something that’s set in stone once created.
You can adjust your plans instead of abandoning them.
“The real workout starts when you want to stop.”
That’s what Meghan Takacs, a personal trainer for Aaptiv, says in my ear several times a week while I’m working out in the morning.
When I started running earlier this year, the idea of sticking with it for more than 2 or 3 minutes at a time seemed impossible. But quickly, my level of fitness improved so that 2 or 3 minutes seemed easy. Four or 5 minutes seemed challenging but totally doable.
When I past 5 minutes, something else started to kick in: my brain. My brain told me that I was bored. My brain told me I was tired. My brain told me my heart rate was too high, my ankles were too sore, or my hips were too tight.
I would quit — not because I needed to, but because I wanted to.
“The real workout starts when you want to stop.”
As every runner will tell you, it’s not becoming more fit that’s hard. What’s hard is training your brain to shut up and let you run.
Over the last 9 months, I’ve surpassed running for 10 minutes straight, then 20 minutes straight, and — just this week — I hit 30 minutes straight. When the workout was finished, I still had more run left in me.
As I’ve progressed, I’ve learned that the 10 minute mark is my do or die moment. I’m good to go for the first 4 minutes. At that point, I start thinking, “I don’t have to make it the whole way. It’ll be okay if I take a break.” The mental chatter gets louder and louder until it peaks around 10 minutes.
I just have to keep it together until then, one foot in front of the other. Once I’m past 10 minutes, the chatter quickly dies down, my muscles relax, and I start enjoying the run.
“The work starts when you want to stop.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about commitment and small business lately. My workout this morning reminded me of a common question I receive when I talk about “sticking with 1 thing” in your business:
How do I know when it’s actually time to quit?
The final time Meg said, “The workout starts when you want to stop,” this morning, I thought: I’m good for now — but what if I really should stop another time? How do I know?
Injury or illness could mean I need to stop pushing, stop telling my brain to take a chill pill, and stop putting one foot in front of the other in the future. So how do I know when to stop?
With our bodies, as with our businesses, short of a compound fracture or an empty bank account, there is no definitive time to stop. There are only degrees of risk you are able to tolerate and varying signals you are listening to.Ultimately, it’s an educated guess as to when it’s the right time to stop.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Nathan Barry, the founder of ConvertKit, about how he decided to stick with building his new software company — even when it seemed obvious that it was a failure. Hiten Shah told him that it was time to shut it down or decide to give it the time and attention it needed to succeed.
Nathan faced a crisis: stick with it or quit.
Ultimately, Nathan stuck with it and ConvertKit has grown into a darling of the bootstrapped SaaS industry. However, the method he used for getting to that point could help you decide if it is, indeed, time to quit.
He told me he asked himself 2 questions about his fledgling company:
Do I still want to be the CEO of a SaaS company as much as when I started down this path?
Have I given this company every possible chance to succeed?
Who you want to be matters as much (or more) as what you want to achieve.
Nathan’s first question might not, on the surface, seem relevant to your situation but the purpose of this question is to remind you that your actions transform you. Ideally, your actions transform you into the person you want to be.
Too often, business owners start down a path because of what they want to achieve (earning $100,000 per year, selling out their program, writing a book) and don’t consider how those actions will fundamentally change their identity. The problem with this is that you might realize, on the path to those goals, that you don’t want to become what those goals require of you.
I run because I want to be a powerful performer with endurance for miles — not simply to lose weight or win races. Those might be wonderful side effects — but my purpose is to become the person I want to be. I am in business to become an advocate for the New Economy and the independent workers who are creating it — not simply to make money or even build a great product. Again, wonderful side effects but not my core purpose.
If you’re considering quitting a project, giving up on a goal, or changing course in your business, consider whether you want to become the person that project, goal, or business requires you to become.
If you don’t want to be that person, quit now.
If you do, ask yourself what else you need to do to fully become that person?For instance, I realized that running wasn’t enough to become the powerful performer I wanted to be. I needed to add strength training, yoga, and climbing into my workout routines. Each of those actions make it easier to put one foot in front of the other when I am running.
You can quit when you’re truly out of options.
Assuming you do want to become the person you need to be to achieve your goals, the next step is to consider what other options are on the table.
At this point in our lives, we have a usual bag of tricks. We know what’s worked in the past and our first instinct is to go back to that over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But our usual bag of tricks will not solve every problem. It is not full of every option at our disposal.
With running, my usual bag of tricks only included stopping to walk for awhile. Eventually, I learned that interval training helped keep me interested in the workout. Finally, I added rhythmic breathing, targeted muscle relaxation, arm positioning, foot strike positioning, and more to my bag of tricks. Now when I’m sore, tired, or bored, I know exactly what to do to keep going.
Before you quit a project, goal, or direction for your business, you owe it to yourself and your mission to search out new options. Try something different (again and again and again). Talk to people with a completely different perspective, experience, background, and bag of tricks from yours.
The options you’re accustomed to using aren’t the only options available. New options might be uncomfortable but they just might get the job done.
Quitting is smart.
I’m the first to admit that knowing when to quit is one of the secrets of my own success. More often than not, I’ve realized that I don’t want what I thought I wanted — that achieving the goal means becoming someone I don’t want to become.
Quitting is a smart, acceptable course of action — but not until you’ve gotten very clear about why you’re quitting and what that means for your next steps. It takes work to figure that out and, when you do, you have more clarity about where you’re headed than you ever have before. Each time you quit is a chance to do the work of figuring out what’s next.
After all, the real work starts when you want to quit — even if you decide that’s the best thing to do.
The more you learn about copywriting (or sales and marketing in general) the more you realize that half of your job is using other people’s ideas.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating for copying other people’s work.
Is that clear?
Okay… what I mean is that…
Business is always a process of identifying what works and creating from that knowledge.
Copywriters do this by paying attention to what really grabs their attention, turning that into a formula, and then creating completely original content on top of that formula.
Now, copywriting is a particular passion of mine. I love learning about how it works and I love the way it trains me to think differently.
And when I think copywriting, I think Joanna Wiebe from Copy Hackers.
I had the chance to talk to Joanna about her approach to marketing a brand new project that Copy Hackers has been working on, Airstory.
When I asked her how she was approaching the marketing for Airstory–which Joanna describes as what would happen if Google Docs & Evernote had a baby and let Trello raise it–she said she was really inspired by a marketing campaign that Blue Bottle Coffee had come up with.
They decided they wanted to use the idea too.
Blue Bottle had created a beautiful video “course” on Skillshare that explained the process of brewing exceptional coffee from start to finish. As Joanna told me, the result of watching it was that you couldn’t think about coffee the same way again.
In order for her to use the idea…
Joanna needed to reverse engineer it.
Her goal is to get people to rethink the way they’ve always done a frequent task: content marketing specifically and writing generally.
After all, that’s what Blue Bottle did. It’s not really about the videos, it’s not really about putting it on Skillshare. The really important part is to understand the mechanism that made that campaign go viral: rethinking the way you do a daily task.
Further, Joanna told me, the real idea is teaching people to be a better consumer of your product so that they’ll only want to choose your product in the future. It’ll be the only one that now meets their standards.
Once she knew that, she could approach marketing Airstory with the “how and what” of the Blue Bottle campaign but with her core goal being to create better writers instead of better coffee brewers.
The videos and distribution channel for the marketing campaign became what I call the “building blocks” of her marketing. But her own product, brand, and customer perspective become what the building blocks are made out of.
You can do the same thing with any successful marketing or sales assets.
What’s more: you should.
I teach our Quiet Power Strategy clients to start looking at every sales page that catches their eye or every email that moves them to click as an opportunity to create a template.
That template is inevitably made up of building blocks that you can use if you only sub in what’s particular to your product, brand, and customer perspective.
Take this blog post, for instance!
- The first building block (at the beginning) is a shocking or counterintuitive statement that seems to go against cultural norms.
- The second building block (the bulk of the email) is an explanation of this idea referencing a conversation, in this case, one I had with a successful business owner.
- The third building block (what you’re reading right now) is a call to action around how to apply this to work for you.
- The fourth building block (it’s coming, read on!) is a final call to action to check out the whole conversation.
So what are you waiting for?
Listen to Joanna explain this whole process–plus how she interviews prospects to come up with product ideas and how she’s built out two teams to support both the training side of the business and the software side of the business.
It’s tempting to think that “lucking” into explosive growth is all that’s standing between you and the lifestyle you dream of as a small business owner.
All you need is a tap on the shoulder from a big influencer, or a blog post that goes viral, or a product you create to appear on Oprah. But explosive growth is often uglier than it is exciting or lucrative.
On this episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit., my guest is Emily McDowell the founder of Emily McDowell Studio and the creator of the wildly popular greeting card collection Empathy Cards.
When Emily realized that the Valentine’s Day cards that were on the market didn’t really reflect the relationships many people found themselves in (ya know, dating–sorta–but only if that’s okay with you), she decided to try her hand at producing an alternative.
It said, “I know we’re not, like, together or anything but it just felt weird to just not say anything so I got you this card. It’s not a big deal. It doesn’t really mean anything. There isn’t even a heart on it. So basically it’s a card saying hi. Forget it.”
Etsy–kingmaker for independent designers and makers–put it on their Facebook page and Emily was inundated with orders. She received a whopping 1700 orders in 1 week and had to refuse to sell more.
What would YOU do if you received 1700 orders for your product overnight? Could you fulfill them? Do you have the customer support to keep everyone happy and informed?
It would be easy to say that Emily’s success was a fluke, a stroke of luck.
But Emily tapped into a key strategy for product design.
“I was really focusing on what I didn’t see versus what I was seeing and what I was seeing done successfully.”
Whenever you’re trying to “get creative” about what you’re going to bring to market, when you’re trying to innovate on something as ubiquitous as a greeting card (or an online course, a coaching package, a wedding photography package, or a t-shirt), you might think the best plan is to shut off the internet, go into a cave, and wait until lightening strikes.
Emily had the opposite approach.
As a former creative director, she knew the best way to create something new and remarkable was to really look at the market. By examining what else was available, she started to see the hole–the opportunity–where there was great need.
It wasn’t luck.
It was a process.
And because Emily had a process for tapping into the market with her products, explosive growth didn’t stop with that one card. Emily created a line of 40 cards she presented at the National Stationery Show and received an order from Urban Outfitters.
Each time she’s experienced that kind of explosive growth, she’s had to figure out how to make things work… even as what she knows might feel like it’s crumbling around her.
Now, her company’s mission is to identify universal emotional truths and observations on being human and turn them into products that help people feel understood.
Emily and I talk about the other side of explosive business growth. We talk about what went on behind the scenes when her very first greeting card design went viral and sold 1700 units in one week. We also discuss how things have evolved from landing a big order for Urban Outfitters at her first trade show to licensing the production of her gift line to another company.
Click here to listen on iTunes and, while you’re there, be sure to subscribe & leave us a 5-star review.
And, find Emily’s new book, There is No Good Card for This, on Amazon.