How much time have you spent learning the ins & outs of online business?
Go ahead. Take a stab at it.
10 hours? 100 hours? 1,000 hours? More?
If you’re like most of the small business owner members I run into at CoCommercial, you’ve no doubt spent countless hours to learn marketing, service delivery, product development, customer service, operations, and management. There’s also a good chance you’ve spent thousands of dollars on this training, too.
And still, you have questions about how to grow, run, and manage your small business.
What I’ve learned over the last 10 years of watching small business owners learn and grow, is that the questions that persist are the ones that only you can answer.
The missing piece is rarely a “how to” but instead a conscious, intentional, strategic decision that only you can make.
Unfortunately, most small business owners–maybe you, too–are still missing information to make that decision. They’ve invested their time and money into how-tos instead of the boots-on-the-ground experience that makes choosing a path (and sticking to it) much easier.
Once I realized where so many small business owners were going wrong with their training and support, I set about trying to solve the problem. Instead of contributing to the deluge of how-tos and blueprints for success, my company started to build a platform where members could easily and affordably access that boots-on-the-ground experience so that they could answer their business questions for themselves.
Now that we have hundreds of small business owners utilizing that platform on a daily basis, I can see even more clearly where small business owners go wrong with the questions they seek answers too:
- They’re gathering how-tos and information to make the ultimate “to do” list for running their business. The more information they have, the more action they can take to make it work.
- They’re still seeking a formula, blueprint, or framework for success… even if they know that none exists. They’re–understandably–attracted to the idea that someone has already figured it out and they just need to recreate that success.
Either way, small business owners end up fixating on what doing the right thing instead of defining what the “right thing” is in the first place. Nilofer Merchant, a brilliant thinker on innovation and business strategy, put it this way:
“Perhaps people fixate on execution (‘doing what’s required’) instead of finishing up strategy (‘choosing the direction’) because it’s easier to see progress during execution than during strategy formation and development.”
Sound about right?
You keep going back for information because information tends to give you a relatively tidy to-do list. You ask questions that fill up your task list. You complete the tasks and that means you’re hopefully doing something right.
It is not nearly so neat and tidy to sit with big questions about the direction of your business, how you’ll achieve your goals, and how you’ll compete in the marketplace. Of course, taking the time to do just that is the difference between short-term success and long-term frustration… and long-term success and short-term frustration.
Below, you’ll find 5 of the business questions I see most often plus a different question to ask so that can get the information you need to make the best decision for your own business.
Which launch formula should I use to sell my product?
Every digital marketer has their own formula of emails, ads, webinars, and free content that add up to a sold-out campaign. The truth is that they all work–and it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the options.
Of course, while they all have the potential to work, none of them are right for your business if you don’t first know who you’re selling to, why they want to buy, and how your product solves their problem.
That’s why these launch formulas so often fail, even when they’re executed well. Any effective sales process starts by defining the most foundational elements of the buyer’s journey–not by laying out a magical mix of emails and video content.
Instead of asking Which, try asking How.
How do you want to connect with the right people?
Forget about learning specific tactics for a while and consider the type of relationship you want to have with your clients. Think about how you want them to feel. Factor in how you’re best able to help them get results.
Then write down a description of what that connection looks like.
Most small business owners actually want to develop very human, rich relationships with their customers or clients. They don’t want people to feel like cogs in a marketing machine. Even when they’re selling at scale, they want to maintain a sense of connection and personal caring.
Creating a sales campaign that captures this isn’t hard–and it doesn’t start with a formula. Plus, there are businesses marketing like this all around you! Watch how they’re nurturing relationships, crafting two-way conversations, and elevating their brands instead of following someone else’s formula–or better yet, ask them how they do it.
How do I build an online course?
Most small business gurus would like you to know that building an online course will solve all your problems. So the next logical step must be learning how to create one, right?
Sorry, building an online course is probably not the answer to your problems. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that creating a course is only going to cause you new problems.
Creating and marketing an online course can dramatically change the positioning of your brand, the market you’re trying to serve, and the relationship you have with the people who already trust you. Before you even think about an online course as a next step, there’s a much more important question you need to ask about what to sell…
How could my customers get the best results?
I like to say, “function before format.” You need to know how the product is going to work, what it’s going to do before you can determine the form for delivering that result.
When you start with a preconceived notion of what the final product needs to look like, you miss out on opportunities to innovate, differentiate, and stand out. Plus, your customers miss out on their best bet for getting the results they’re really looking for.
Instead of following someone else’s business model playbook, talk to people in your field and find out what’s working for them. Talk to others in adjacent fields who deliver their products or services in unique ways. Talk to people whose businesses look nothing like yours but with whom you share customer bases.
Gather information on what gets the best results and create something original from there.
How do I hire a Virtual Assistant?
You’re overworked and out of energy… and everyone is touting the virtues of hiring a virtual assistant. It’s tempting to think that hiring a VA could help you win back time, money, and sanity.
And, it could. But it might be a much better move to hire team members who can contribute value to your business in much more specific ways.
I see plenty of small business owners hire a Virtual Assistant with high hopes, only to realize they don’t know what their new assistant is supposed to do. They haven’t thought about the help they need or how someone else could actually create value for their business.
These small business owners often end up paying top dollar for data entry because that’s the only thing they can think to delegate.
That’s why it’s much more effective to start with a different question:
How could others create value for my business & my customers?
Small business owners most often think about hiring help as a process of delegation. They hand off what could be done by someone else and hold on to the things that “only they” can do.
What happens in practice is that the notion that there is work that only the owner can do is reinforced. Instead of seizing the opportunity to create systems and scale, the same old bad habits persist. The short-term gain of getting some help is quickly overcome by the long-term hassle by having to manage someone who can only do the basics.
When you consider how others might contribute and create more value for your business, you’re really thinking long-term. These are the kind people and roles that can actually replace you in your business. They find new ways to support your customers, sell your products, and manage your operations.
Now, this might seem like a dream scenario–in other words, that it’s only possible in your dreams! That’s why it’s really important to talk through this question with people who have already accomplished this. You don’t know who you should hire first (or next) until you’ve seen how others have actually freed themselves from their business.
What tool should I use for my email list?
I love technology. I love how many digital tools we have to run our small businesses today.
Heck, most of us wouldn’t be entrepreneurs in the first place if it wasn’t for the copious amount of tools that make it possible!
That all said, deciding what tools to use can be overwhelming. At CoCommercial, we often see members asking for recommendations for software and apps.
Luckily, most people don’t just spit out their tool-of-choice in response. They dig a little deeper and ask questions that get to the answer of this question:
How can I use technology to create the best experience & results for the people I want to work with?
The reason this question works so well is that the answer is essentially a shopping guide for the technology that’s going to work best for you.
Let me give you an example: I was a devoted MailChimp user for years. All the years, really. I knew I had outgrown them but I didn’t leave because I loved them so much. (I still recommend them for many business owners, by the way.)
As my email list grew and grew, it became harder and harder to manage to send the right campaigns to the right people. The question, “How could I use technology to create the best experience for my readers?” became ever more important.
The answer to the question is that if I could use technology to better understand what my audience wanted to read, what problems they were facing, and what offers they might be most interested in, I could create an amazing experience for them.
So when Nathan Barry called me up to talk about ConvertKit and explained how he designed the software to do exactly that, I was hooked.
It took time to set up and I’m still getting the hang of creating those experiences. But, I love it!
Focus on how technology could improve experiences or results for your customers (and you too!). And then go looking for something that does specifically that. You don’t need to compare what everyone else is using—the best solution for you might be something you’ve never heard of.
How do I use my podcast/blog/YouTube channel to sell more?
Alright, last question. You want to know what to put in your blog posts, emails, podcasts, videos, and Facebook updates to get more attention and more sales.
Again, totally understandable. Content marketing is super important, right?
Unfortunately, there’s no prescription for content. There’s no formula to tell you exactly what to write or talk about that will get you more customers.
But you can learn how to anticipate what content will move more people toward buying if you consider how they buy and what insight they need to take action.
How is my customer already shopping and where can I meet them where they’re at with content?
If you haven’t stopped to consider how your customer actually goes about buying, you’re probably missing a big opportunity for your podcast, blog, or YouTube channel.
Most small business owners work hard to get customers to buy the way the business wants them to buy but fail to take into account how the customer is already shopping. Are your customers searching on Google? Are they asking for referrals? Are they signing up for demos?
There’s a good chance your customer is already well aware of their problem (on one level or another) and in the market for a solution. The sooner you can make your podcast, blog, or YouTube channel intersect with that search, the sooner you can make a sale.
The good news is that there is plenty of information to be had here. You can talk to other business owners in similar fields or with similar customer bases to find out how their customers learned about their offers and made a purchase. You can pay attention to your own buying habits and learn from your process. And, you can talk to your own past customers to see what process they used to decide to buy from you.
Find the right business questions.
Maybe I addressed a question that’s been on your mind in this post and maybe I didn’t. But hopefully, you see that for every question that is bound to add 67 to-dos to your task list, there’s a better question that streamlines your tasks and clarifies your strategy.
You won’t find the answers to these questions on Google. But you can find them in the space you make for strategic thinking and the conversations you have with other small business owners.
If you could use more space for strategic thinking and rich conversations with business owners who have been there, done that, check out CoCommercial. We’re making it easy for small business owners to work together to answer questions like these and to overcome daily challenges, solve big problems, and achieve even bigger goals. Click here to learn more about CoCommercial.
For as much as you love the idea of figuring out how to do business your way, you also want a clear-cut action plan. You sense that someone else has come along and figured out the best way to launch a program, turn a service into a product, or build a compelling brand, and you want to know the 1-2-3 step plan for making that happen.
But you’re also not naive. You know there’s no cookie cutter action plan that just works for everyone. So you try to create your own.
And you still come up short. You take action only to find yourself back in the weeds and confused about priorities.
Why does that happen?
I’ve been thinking about this problem quite a bit. I want to figure out why it is so easy for me to turn an idea into effective action and so difficult for so many other people.
Here’s my current hypothesis:
Your action plans fail because they assume your goals require linear action. You try to create a set of steps to follow instead of a strategic map that incorporates all areas of your business.
Once you’ve passed the startup stage of your business, all of your execution has to be integrated action instead of linear action.
Linear action is “first I do this, then I do that, then I’ll do the next thing.” Integrated action means knowing that when you act on one thing, it affects many other parts of your business. One simple action can create a chain reaction of necessary actions.
To get the most out of any plan, you need to account for how you’ll manage those chain reactions. Some, you’ll act on immediately. Those are the things that best support your strategy and help you create the most amount of leverage. Others, you’ll intentionally put on the back burner. You can’t do everything right away.
You also need to know your overall strategy for each area of your business so that once you realize a chain reaction is occurring in that area, you can act with intention in line with your strategy.
Here’s what that looks like in my business:
I’ve started a complete restructuring plan for 2016. It includes changing the format and scope of the foundational Quiet Power Strategy™ program, adding additional outcome-oriented programs, and building multiple channels for new members to join our community.
I started by planning out the first 6 months of the year on giant calendars. This was linear action planning. Now I can see when I will start promoting, launching, selling, and delivering our new programs.
However, if that’s all I would do, my plan would fail.
Now that I have a basic structure for my 2016 plan, I need to rework many other parts of my business. I’ve decided to rebrand our membership community and incorporate it into Quiet Power Strategy™; I’ve decided to move from Mailchimp (sad face, still love ‘em!) to ConvertKit; I’ve created a plan for identifying, segmenting, and nurturing new members based on their interests so that we can connect them to the right offers.
Each one of those things (and the many other decisions and systems involved) warrants its own linear action plan. But again, without integrating that into the overall plan, those action plans are worthless.
If you try to reduce your action plans to linear action, you’ll always (and I mean, always) come up short. A formula—even one of your own creation—is just never good enough. One step in that formula will always lead to another chain reaction of steps.
This is also why it feels like you’re regularly biting off more than you can chew. Once you get started on a good plan, it quickly spirals out of control because you realize just how much more there is to do.
One way I’ve found to effectively combat this problem is to pre-mortem my plans. A pre-mortem is essentially a way to reverse engineer your problem-solving and incorporate it into your action plan to begin with. When you do a pre-mortem, pretend your plan has utterly failed—the patient is dead on the table—then list any and all reasonable factors that could have contributed to its failure.
Once you have that list, countermeasures need to be integrated into your action plan. Now, you have an integrated action plan.
As you turn your focus to the next phase of your business, pay special attention to the chain reactions that necessarily occur because of the decisions you make. Create plans that anticipate and incorporate these chain reactions so that you’re not left in a lurch with your action planning.
It doesn’t matter how much time, energy, blood, sweat, or tears you put into marketing and selling what you’ve already created if it isn’t designed to get you where you want to go.
The beauty of starting a business today is that it can be rough & tumble, fast as lightening, and fly by the seat of your pants. You don’t need to know what you’re doing and you don’t need to plan ahead. But I often see business owners stay stuck in this cycle of unintentional creation.
They keep creating products or programs. They keep creating marketing campaigns. They keep creating content.
But they don’t create a true system for growth.
They end up frustrated–sometimes at the edge of burnout–and tell me, “I’ve realized that what’s gotten me here won’t get me where I want to go.” Yes, exactly.
You can make money, change lives, and create great stuff without a plan. But if you want to take a break, realize a big goal, create a legacy, and level up your earnings in a big way, you need more.
When Adrianne Meldrum, founder of The Tutor House, came to Quiet Power Strategy, she was ready to make some changes and try things she hadn’t done before in the name of creating an intentional, cohesive strategic plan. Here’s her story:
Adrianne Meldrum, The Tutor House
324 hours lost. Hours I couldn’t get back no matter how much I wanted to. These hours were not lost watching television or browsing social media. They were not on account of making mistakes and fixing them. The hours were the victim of worry. Worry was starting to take the joy out of running a small business for me. At night when my entire home was quiet, I was awake worrying if I had made some serious mistakes in my business. It had to be something serious because I did a lot of things right in my business.
I had opt-ins, products, a podcast, a new app, and a tribe of dedicated followers. I often would feel hopeful that the launch of my newest idea would be the ticket that would finally set me on the path to profit. It just had to be some huge mistake that I was overlooking. It had to be! The question that always ended this barrage of thoughts was, “Why was I spending so much time working without much in profit? Is this really worth it?”
Just when I was ready to throw in the towel with my business so I could claim my life (and my sleep) back, I got an email from Tara inviting me to her free webinar about doing business your way. This caught my eye. I attended the webinar and then devoured her eBook. So much of what Tara was saying made sense to me. The way I was doing business is what other people were advising and in fact may not work at all for my own business. For the first time, I felt the weight of what Tara was saying. My unique talents were the key to my business success and she could show me how to harness them.
During my time in the Quiet Power Strategy program, I felt empowered after each lesson. I understood myself better as a person and why my tribe is attracted to what I have to offer. Tara taught us about personal archetypes, or how the world perceives you. When I saw my results, I couldn’t believe how well they fit me. I found a lot of value in understanding how to use this knowledge to make decisions in my business. It made writing sales copy easier and also allowed me to embrace some of my limitations so that I would look to add other team members that had different strengths than mine in the future.
Quiet Power Strategy taught me to start with the end in mind when creating a product first. This was a game changer for me! My flagship product resonates with my audience because I was able to make the benefits clear. Before I would slave away at the new product and then write my sales page when I was exhausted and just ready to be done. By swapping those actions, I was able to use some of those key phrases that connect my audience and I, directly into my product bringing it full circle.
Quiet Power Strategy has also completely changed my mindset. Tara taught us about valuing ourselves and our unique craft whatever it may be. During one of our group phone calls, she was able to help me bust through some assumptions I had about my audience and make a plan to succeed. I’ll be honest, there were tears when I realized that the pricing I chose was one of those big mistakes that I didn’t see and lost sleep over. Pricing based on value affects so many pieces of your business. Now I have the confidence to take my business and navigate it back onto the right path.
Tara and her team taught me how to re-work what was already working in my business for maximum impact right away. After completing Quiet Power Strategy, I have earned ⅔ of what I originally invested within three weeks of finishing and I am on track to earn the rest back within a month. This was some of the best money I’ve ever invested in myself.
I sleep really, really well these days because I know how to confidently move my business forward with tools like the Business Model Review, the Quiet Power Inventory, the Customer Perspective Process, and the Chief Initiative. With the help of QPS, I’ve had my first ever successful launch!
To echo other QPS-ers, “This process is freaking changing my life!” I am excited to work through the lessons again and uncover new insights. Thanks Tara and Team!
One of the biggest realizations Adrianne made was that she was actually underselling her products. By not connecting them to outcomes that her customers already knew they wanted, she was convinced they wouldn’t pay more than $10 or $20. We tied real, urgent results to what she was already selling, put it into a complete package, and raised the price by a factor of 10.
Now she’s selling more than she’s ever sold before.
If you’d like to learn more about Adrianne and her Tutor Business Framework program, click here.
This session of Quiet Power Strategy is half sold out. Join us for the Fall Session (we start September 28) and create your personalized strategic plan with our hands-on support. Click here to learn more.
In 2004, I started working for Borders Books & Music and quickly worked my way up to managing a store with an annual volume of $5 million. I witnessed a lot of ups and downs in my time before leaving in 2008 and the company going out of business in 2011. The biggest downs came from Borders’s complete lack of strategy.
They would choose a direction and then change it without giving it time to prove itself. They would give more autonomy to store managers and then they’d take it away, only to give it back a few months later. They would focus on ecommerce and then try to drive more traffic to physical stores. They’d focus on the quality of titles over discounting and then issue more coupons than people knew what to do with.
At any given time, Borders would be pursing multiple conflicting “strategies.” Their managers felt disempowered, their employees felt directionless, and even their customers would wonder aloud what was going on.
When bankruptcy came, no one was surprised.
Making any decision—from who to serve, to what color to use on your website, to what price to charge—about the direction of your business can be difficult.
A lot of business owners I see struggling are resisting the decisions in front of them. They’d rather play both sides, try something new, or continue to research and delay the inevitable need to commit.
When you’re not making firm decisions and taking the action those decisions inspire, your business will suffer. I’m sorry to say, but your business might even end up like Borders did.
Without strong strategic decisions, your customers will feel lost, your products or pitches will feel unfocused, and the purpose behind your business will be unclear.
Decision-making is what business strategy is all about. If there are no decisions, there is no strategy. If there’s no strategic decision-making, there is no success.
Your business won’t survive without a strategy.
When a strategy succeeds, it seems a little like magic, unknowable and unexplainable in advance but obvious in retrospect. It isn’t. Really, strategy is about making specific choices to win in the marketplace.
— Roger Martin, Playing to Win
Creating a business strategy that breaks through the noise is about declaring “yes” to some things and “no” to others. And, as you might guess, the yesses and noes aren’t about right and wrong.
Take a look at Toms. Now, Toms has sneakers, sandals, platform wedges, and all other manner of shoes. They also have a whole marketplace of goods by other companies. But in the beginning, Toms sold one style of shoe. They made a decision to go to market with one style and focus their marketing on the One for One campaign.
Toms decided to be a give-back-first company instead of a shoe company.
If they wanted to be a shoe business, they would have gone to market with more than one kind of shoe.
Toms decision wasn’t a question of right or wrong, good or bad. It was a question of values, preference, skill, strengths, and effectiveness.
Now, consider Amazon. Amazon has made the decision to be a logistics company, not a bookseller. They may have started by selling books but Jeff Bezos put the most investment into distribution logistics from the get go. Now, they can sell almost anything and ship it to you in 2 days.
Even the development of the Kindle fits this strategic decision. Want a book? You can start reading it immediately.
If Amazon wanted to be a bookselling company instead of a logistics company, they would have invested more initially in connecting readers or helping you find your next book.
Look at your own field. What do some people say “yes” to when you’re firmly a no? What do you see as the conventional way to do things and how would you prefer to do it differently? How have the decisions leaders in your field have made affect the way their businesses are perceived?
What can you decide to focus on that puts your business in a category of one like Amazon or Toms?
Making a decision to go a different direction, to make a choice other than the default, is a strategic decision.
It puts your business in a category of one. When based on your strengths and unique effectiveness, it makes your business more compelling. Making a strong and interconnected set of choices is the first step toward success.
Other strategic decisions are who you’re going to serve, how you’re going to connect with them, what price point you want to charge, how you’re going to package & deliver your offer, or what emotions you want evoke when people use your product.
The more intentional you are with the decisions you make, the stronger your strategy.
Now, not every strategy works—but to even have a chance at success, your strategy needs to be based on focused, intentional decision-making.
Every decision you make is an opportunity to put your product or business in the best possible position for success.
If you resist making decisions, you resist success. It’s as simple as that.