Growthink Blog

Selling Services Overseas: A Happening Gold Mine for U.S. Small Businesses


Shrouded in the drumbeat of negativity that passes as international business reporting these days has been the bursting growth in U.S. Service Exports – increasingly from U.S. startups and small businesses.

Contrary to the image of imports and exports being only “stuff” flowing in and out of places like the Port of Long Beach, last month the Census Bureau noted that services accounted for 32%, or $60.3 billion of total U.S. exports in August.  And unlike our huge “hard goods” trade deficit, in the value of U.S. service exports is 47% greater than that of imports, and growing.

Business, professional, and technical services are now the fourth largest U.S. export category, and represent close to 15% of global commercial service exports, making America hands-down the world’s dominant service exporter.

Of many, let me flag three main drivers:

1.    Purchasing Power Parity. Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) posits that with free-flowing markets wages and prices worldwide approach parity.

Protectionist types interpret this to mean that “our wages will get pushed down to “their” levels – or more viscerally, “if this keeps up we’ll all soon be making $2 dollars per hour.”

Well, let’s leave for now the huge economic fallacy of this thinking and concentrate on the fact that the narrowing of the relative wealth differential between the U.S. and the rest of the world has allowed for phenomena like a Ukranian manufacturing company hiring U.S. advisors to help them define strategic growth opportunities in Poland and Eastern Europe

Why? Because on a dollar-for-dollar (or better yet, hrvnia-to-zloty) basis, it was a better value for them to import services like these from the U.S. then to purchase them locally.

2.    U.S. Services are Increasingly Exportable. The drumbeat always goes on how “we here in the U.S. don’t “make anything.” Well, beyond the fact, that as I note in my “Made In China” post that very few Americans dream that their children will grow-up and work in a factory, we here in America “make” the most important stuff that has ever existed and we do it better than any society has ever done so.

That stuff? Ideas and Innovations. Strategies. Or more prosaically, Brands. Websites. Entertainments in all their wondrous forms – Movies, Video Games, Social Networks.

Even our favorite whipping boy industry – financial services – continues to bring us world-bettering innovations like Venture Philanthropy (i.e. applying market principles to solve the world’s humanitarian challenges), Super Angel Funds (overcoming the “outlier” or “Black Swan” conundrum of startup investing) and Crowdfunding (democratizing fund-raising and investing in ways never before even dreamed possible.)

3.    We are all Transparent. Perhaps my favorite, namely that business best practices worldwide are visible and replicable to and for all.  And the corollary, the really screwed-up and ineffective ways of doing things are totally transparent too.

From lists like the “Most Business Friendly” countries to California now having a portal where parents can see teacher’s ratings to the U.S. Senate studying Chinese Technocrats to the simple reality that the Internet makes it crystal-clear to all who is winning and losing in the world (see North Korea, Iran, etc.), transparency breeds competition which breeds innovation which breeds the cream rising.

And who, when it comes down to doing business right, is the richest cream, the sweetest soup?

It is, of course, U.S. startups and smaller and emerging companies.

And as they, like the U.S. economy as a whole, continue to become increasingly services-focused, the best of them will continue to profit handsomely from the world of selling opportunities growing all around them.

A Tale of Two Businesses


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

There is no better imagery of what it is like to compete in modern business than this famous opening paragraph from Charles Dickens' The Tale of Two Cities.

On the one hand, it truly is the best of times - never has it been so easy to market to and service a global clientele, and to leverage Free and Open Source technologies, and intelligence to design and deliver best of class products and services and thereby level the playing field with far bigger competitors.

And it is the worst of times, as never have customers been as informed with and empowered by “Compare and Contrast” buying options to almost any offering we as business sellers might conjure up.

The result too often is a “Race to the Bottom” on pricing, and perhaps more discouragingly, an increasingly “transactional” business culture and a devaluing of long-term relationships.

For many types of businesses - electronics retailers, travel agencies, and book stores to name a few - these “Worst of Times” dynamics have proven too great to overcome, and the right economic choice has been to abandon these pursuits as they are highly unlikely to ever again yield positive ROI.

Most of us, however, in so many aspects of our strategies and tactics dance daily on this “Go/No Go” Edge of the Business Knife.

Marketing and sales strategies like Paid Search, Direct Mail, Telemarketing, operational strategies like Leasing Office Space, Hiring Employees, and customer service strategies like Live Support and Dedicated Account Managers just may no longer be feasible for our business case.

And to the degree we stay with these strategies for too long - out of routine or just because we can't come up with anything new or better to do - we run the significant risk of trapping ourselves in high cost, inefficient structures that's sooner rather than later will inevitably meet their digital demise.

So how does the Effective Executive manage and decide in this environment?

To focus as the great Peter Drucker guides us on "Opportunities not Problems" yes, but to also not be Pollyanna nor delusional that we are in any way immune and protected from the severe competitive pressures of our Internet Business World?

Well, a good place to start is to take as our motto the the unofficial meaning of the acronym for the National Football League (NFL) when it comes to its players (average tenure 3.3 Years) and its coaches (average tenure 3.2 years).

Not For Long.

Yes, I think what the most successful, long term businesses of our digital age - Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook - demonstrate that no matter how big, influential, and currently profitable a company maybe today, essential to their strategic sense and cultural ethos must be Innovation and Re-Invention above all else.

Now, in these “nimbleness” dimensions smaller companies should have a decided advantage over these multi-tens of thousands of people, cumbersome and bureaucratic organizations.

But unfortunately, my experience from working with dozens of them has too often been the opposite.

Whether because of family business dynamics, lack of technological know-how, too much work expended working “In” versus “On” the business causing atrophied strategic sensibilities, when it comes to innovation, small and mid-sized businesses way too often are like the proverbial deer in the face of the oncoming digital train.

Stuck. Frozen. Petrified.

And about to be run over and killed.

It doesn't - and shouldn't - have to be this way, as building good innovation momentum really starts with just some small acts and decisions.

Like letting go of an “institutionalized” employee - one resistant to change and growth (And yes, even if they are a family member).

Or giving up on a once tried and true marketing strategy whose time has just passed (Like the aforementioned paid search, telemarketing, etc.).

Or being honest with ourselves and looking at our product and service offerings as our customers might see them: undifferentiated, middling in value, anachronistic.

And my favorite, accepting that our Business Guts aren't really built for the digital age, and that we need to trust them less and the numbers more when it comes to deciding the right strategies and tactics to pursue.

In some ways it doesn't matter what our innovation decisions and actions are only that we develop the muscle of making and taking them quickly and often.

And then measuring - not guessing - which are working, which are not, adjusting as appropriate, and rinsing and repeating.

Do this for just a month or two - or hire an advisor to help you - and watch that Winter of your  Business Despair turn magically to the Spring of its Hope.

In Modern Business, Authenticity Trumps All


Today, almost all businesses interact with and relate to their perspective and existing clients through multiple channels: in-person, on the phone, over e-mail and increasingly text, via social media and through Web Reputational Means of which we are usually only partially aware.

For many folks, even just reading the above paragraph arouses feelings of anxiety, frustration, and sometimes even disgust.

Golly they say - wasn't it an easier and better time when everything was just "analog" and “human” sized and paced?

And they go on, in the end doesn't all of this digital stuff cost more than it is really worth? In the day-to-day time, energy, and focus to pay attention to and consistently communicate on them all?

Well Too bad. Multiple Touch Point Business - digital and otherwise – is now the very air that we as modern executives breathe.

And we can choose to either have those breaths be deep, nurturing, and effective, or shallow, distracting, and ineffective.

It really just comes down to in all of our communication no matter its form whether or not we are one thing: Authentic.

Now for most of us this is most easily and naturally done in the traditional channels: Over the telephone and In-person.

So a great prism through which to manage and judge our digital efforts - Email, SEO, SEM, social media, etc. - is simply by how much they lead to high-quality telephone conversations and in-person interactions.

Car dealerships understand this better than anyone: that the over-riding purpose of their digital efforts is to make their phones ring and drive visitors to their lots.

Now, for those businesses in selling modalities (usually lower-priced products) where the telephone/in-person outcome is not desirable nor possible, then the guidance is to work to enrich the “virtual” experience so that it feels as real and natural as a telephone/in-person interaction.

Simple but powerful ways to do this include the use of photos in marketing efforts, along with stories and testimonials from successful and happy clients.

Online Photo Sharing, now so ubiquitous in the personal digital domain, is  utilized far less often and effectively in business contexts.

But given that social media stats show that for both business and personal purposes that photos are shared more than 5 times as much as written posts, incorporating imagery into one’s business communications is a simple and inexpensive way to emulate the power and emotional appeal of in-person marketing.

Video is another inexpensive and simple way to improve digital authenticity and effectiveness.

This can be of two forms - Recorded Video in the form of Explainer Videos, Thought Pieces, Case Studies, and Testimonials, and Live Video in the form of upgrading phone calls and presentation to video through free and inexpensive tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting.

Does this video need to be of high production quality?

It can't hurt, but a video strategy I find easily effective is to “Share the Webcam” and live video of myself at the start of a call, and then turn it off and conduct the call as normal.

This usually creates that lovely “Ah-Ha” moment when we first see the other person’s face that I am sure all of us have experienced on a Skype call or a Facetime chat without the awkwardness and work of “staying on camera” for an extended period of time.

The key caveat here is that if even for only a few moments in business contexts “staging” is important

So invest in a quality webcam, have well-lit and professional backdrop, and “Dress for Success” in whatever way that means for your business.

And finally, don't hide behind the lazy virtues of “Branding” and “Goodwill” but instead relentlessly and ruthlessly work to quantify the ROI of these multiple touch point efforts.

Yes, doing it all right requires a lot of hard work, but once in rhythm really just requires the simplest and most natural thing in the world: Giving and Sharing the Best of Ourselves.

Just remember to keep measuring and focusing on incremental improvement as we do so.

What Tom Brady can Teach Us about Competition and Winning


In a recent post, I talked about what businesspeople can learn from the world of sports as to leveraging data and metrics to improve decision-making and get a leg up on the competition.

The discussion that followed piqued that age-old question always asked by Sport-Crazy Businesspeople: How much from can we really learn and put to use in our businesses the various lessons and principles from sports and games?

Usually this question is answered at the “meta” level - with somewhat clichéd bromides like the importance of hard work, of practice making perfect, and of viewing all adversities as learning moments.

For sure, these are powerful and important lessons, but I think the question more interestingly can be tackled on a Sport-by-Sport basis, as in what are the best business lessons to be gleaned from the games of soccer, or from football, or golf or tennis?

And relatedly, how do these various sports teach us different lessons?

Let's start out with what I would bucket the "Win by any Means Necessary Sports."

Drawing from personal experience and great loves for these games I would put soccer, football, basketball, and baseball into this category.

In these sports, yes all of the inspirational principles of intensity, teamwork, dedication, and relentless practice certainly apply, but are also in them rarely is a second’s hesitation given to actions that in most other domains would be considered highly unethical.
Like pleading to the umpire that you are safe when you know that you are out. Or claiming to have caught a ball you have not. Or perhaps most disturbingly to the American sentiment, “Flopping” or faking a foul as is so commonly done in basketball and soccer.

Now so let's compare this mindset with that found in games like tennis and golf.

In tournament golf, the vast majority of players would never dream of bending the game’s rules to their advantage and in the rare circumstances where a player is found to have done so, their reputation is badly tarnished.

Similarly, in tennis, it is considered a matter of honor to give one’s opponent the benefit of the doubt on close line’s calls, and players that do not do so are branded unkindly.

The point is not to claim that golfers and tennis players are ethically “superior,” but rather to note that many things considered well within the spirit of the rules in some domains are viewed in others as dastardly to the extreme.

A great example of this is the Deflategate football controversy with the New England Patriots and their star quarterback Tom Brady.

For many non-Patriots fans, it is very easy to get up on one’s High Horse and virulently condemn the Patriots' admitted philosophy of pushing the competitive envelope as absolutely far as possible.

Yes, just as easily the Patriots’ win-by-any-means necessary can be defended within the general construct of the game of football, which is that anything and everything goes, unless and until the referee, umpire or official says otherwise.

And oh yes, many times in these sports it is considered excellent strategy to break the rules, like as in with holding a wide-open receiver or fouling a streaking striker because it is the highest Expected Value Choice to do so.

In contrast, for anyone who has played golf even somewhat competitively such a "practical” mindset to purposely break the rules would be anathema.

Again, this does not mean golfers are more fundamentally ethical, only that the nature and ethos of their respective game is just...different.

And this different nature and ethos reality ports very clearly to business decision-making and competition, as well.

Yes, depending the industry/market you compete in - Real Estate, Retail, Consumer Products, Professional Services, etc. - the ground rules and the boundaries of what is and is not considered acceptable, fair and my favorite, effective - is just different.

So the firm advice for those executives that wish to maximize their chance of victory is to yes remember of course that Fundamental Values no matter the field of endeavor always apply, but…

…to also take into firm account the competitive ethos of one's particular industry and market condition and structure, and to yes then strive to win by Any Means Necessary within it. 

And as you do this maybe someday your organization will win Four Super Bowls, or a Closetful of Green Jackets, but highly unlikely will you do both.

Don't Ask. Act! Action will Delineate and Define You.


Last week, I wrote about how to fight through the natural slowdown of the pre-Labor Day period (compounded by the Recent Market Gyrations) and Get Business Done.

With Labor Day behind us, we should now all be in full flight in getting our most important projects and initiatives Fast-Tracked and on course to be completed by the end of the year.

These could include:

•    Starting a New Business.
•    Pursuing a New Business Initiative within an existing business.
•    Developing a Work Plan and Budget for that business initiative and getting that budget funded (either internally or by an outside investor).
•   Re-invigorating an existing business' Organization Chart and Design via the development of new job descriptions, reporting structures, new employees and contractors.
•    Deciding upon, green lighting, and “Spinning Up” new technologies and SaaS platforms that make our businesses run leaner, faster, and through and on Better Data and Intelligence.
•    Buying a competitive or complementary business.
•    Selling and exiting from your business (and if this is something you want to get done in 2015, it is time to get going now).

So what do the most Effective Executives do to shake off the summer rust and make more and better things happen than the competition?

They Decide, They Act, and They Course Correct.

They Decide. Now more than ever, the ability to make rapid business decisions and then execute on the project action items and to-dos that flow from them is a fundamental success factor for any modern executive.

Why? Because never before has the information to make great business decisions been as quickly and completely available as it is right now. And if you don't have fast and good enough access to the information you need to make these decisions, then find and invest in one of the amazing array of Business Intelligence Software platforms that will do it for you.

They Act. In Ken Burns' great PBS series "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," there is a segment on Teddy Roosevelt's (one of the great doers in American history) favorite expressions, "Get Action."

Roosevelt, who wrote more than 150,000 letters in his lifetime (do the math, that is more than 10 per day), was above all else a leader of great decisiveness and action, and it was this quality above all else that made him one of the greatest leaders in American history.

This Will to Act - to make that call, to put out that beta, to find the reasons to do the deal and fight through and fix the reasons not to - is a business muscle that all the greatest leaders and executives have and is one that can only be developed through consistent, vigorous and exhaustive application. Yes, in the great words of Thomas Jefferson if you want to know who you are “Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”

They Course Correct. Because of technology never has it been easier to decide, to act, and then rapidly course correct as needed. In this respect, the most effective executives I know have the healthy egos to decide and act, but also the discipline, detachment, and humility to rigorously measure which of their decisions and actions are not working…

...and then rapidly adjust and/or abandon them as the data dictates.

Decide. Act. Course Correct. Rinse and Repeat.

Follow this simple but powerful formula and 2015 can still be the best year of all of our business lives.

The Power of Negative Thinking (Squared)


For many businesses, in these pre-Labor Day workdays and the unofficial “End of Summer” things slow painfully down.

Projects and deals take twice as long and sometimes feel twice as hard.

This year, compounding the challenge has been the rollicking Market Gyrations of these past few weeks, amplified by "The Sky is Falling" financial and political media blaring forebodings of doom and demise.

So how does our ambitious and goal-oriented executive block out the negative noise and focus on the Mission Critical Business Tasks and Projects at hand?

How does he or she be cognizant of / sensitive to current events, while remaining ever undistracted and undeterred by them?

Well, the most Effective Executives I know do this: They reframe everything as an opportunity, and everything as a positive.

Markets going up?  These are boom times so let’s get on the bus and go for the ride.

Markets going down? What a buying opportunity! If I liked it at 50, I love it at 30!

Summer doldrums: As a buyer, a great time to press sellers for discounts. As a seller, with my competition loafing on the beach, I make hay.

Now, this can’t just be Hot Air / Pollyanna Self-Talk.

No, it has to be real and serious and buttressed by what famed Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight calls in his best-selling book The Power of Negative Thinking.

In it, Coach Knight makes the simple but powerful point that in any competitive pursuit, everyone wants to win, so just thinking positively about it rarely yields competitive advantage.

Far more relevant is the willingness to sacrifice to Prepare to Win: to learn how to stop making the mistakes that losers make in abundance and that winners have trained themselves through hard work to avoid.

For athletes, this means practice, practice, practice to stop Missing Free Throws, or Three Foot Putts, or Second Serves, or The Cutoff Man.

For business people, this means the daily discipline to prepare for meetings, to start critical projects far before their due date, and consistently doing the Quantitative and Data Analysis to determine what is actually working in our business versus going by gut and feel.

Combine these two philosophies, the Power of Positive Thinking and of everyone and everything no matter what being good and an opportunity...

...With the Power of Negative Thinking and the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, on a career basis of making of the sacrifices and of taking the time to do things right.

Of such combined mindsets and disciplines are legends and fortunes made.

Politics, Business, Metrics, and Winning


Last week, I wrote about all of the amazing lessons of the world and science of Sports Metrics has to offer business.

Well, with the 2016 Presidential Campaign heating up, let's talk how just as in sports the use of metrics in politics has jumped a full generation ahead of business.

First, a little history and how perhaps the most famous use of metrics in politics is the one where the experts clearly got it wrong.

The 1948 Presidential Election was famous for many reasons - for being the last pre-television election, for being the last election contested between candidates born in the 19th century, for President Harry “give ‘em hell!” Truman's whistle-stop campaign against the “Do-Nothing” 80th Republican Congress, and…

…for the Chicago Tribune's famous headline proclaiming "Dewey Beats Truman" the morning after the election when in fact New York governor Thomas Dewey had handily lost the race.

The problem was that way back then poorer Americans – the heart of Truman’s constituency – didn’t have telephones, thus greatly skewing the polling data to predict an overwhelming Dewey win.
Obviously, since 1948, political polling has come a long way, highlighted by famed “Big Data Nerd” Nate Silver and his “FiveThirtyEight” mathematical model correctly calling 50 out of 50 states in the 2012 Presidential Election (after correctly predicting 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election!).

Because of the power of predictive models like these, politicians across the ideological spectrum now more than ever rely on polling to shape messaging while campaigning, and once elected governing priorities and principles.

Now I know many of you at that last sentence are saying “Wait a Second!

Isn't this the whole problem with politics?

How pols rely on polling to measure what voters think, want, and fear, and then either work (or pretend to!) to give them, both convictions and what is good for The Nation be darned?

Golly, they say, did Thomas Jefferson and John Adams take polls before they signed the Declaration of Independence?

To which I say, give it a rest. Please.

I have found that those that are usually crying loudest about “principles and convictions" in politics are those that when they or their chosen candidate run for office, just get right on doing that most Un-American thing of all.

They lose.

Sure, they give nice and flowery concession speeches where they drone on about virtue and about how they lost with “dignity ”and “honor” and ya-di-ya-di-ya.

A loss is a loss.

Now, the really nice thing about business when compared to politics is that there is general agreement on overall goals and values. Nicely, there isn't a “Left versus Right” divide with the majority of business people – i.e. most of us are striving for the same thing: More, more, and more.

More sales, more profits, more company value.

In business, these are the “elections” we seek to win, the “policies” to pass.

And just like in politics, we can strive to do so via standing high on our horses and saying silly things like “If the customer doesn't appreciate what a better product I to offer than my competitor, well shame on them."

Or as good, "If that great employee left my company to work someplace else, I don't need or want them anyway."

Sure, statements and testaments like these sound good and noble, but really when you reflect on it (and not wanting to be too harsh) is just Loser Talk.

No, the winners in business, like those in politics, are truly “In the Arena.”

And, in this Internet of Things, SaaS, and Big Data World of Ours, being “In the Business Arena” means above all else being elbow deep in the numbers and in the conversion metrics in all of their intricacy, subtlety, detail and glory.

And just like politicians win by measuring what the people really want and giving it to them, so do business people win by measuring what the market is really saying and what customers really want.

And figuring it out above all else through our data and through our metrics.

Yes, as Harry Truman would say, The Buck Does Stops Here, with and in the numbers.

Sports, Business, Metrics, and Winning


The lessons and inspirations of sports and the sporting life have always had a deep hold on the business psyche.

Some of my favorites here include the joy of competition, the virtues of teamwork, and of reaching Peak Performance through overcoming adversity and then sharing our “Best Stuff” with the world.

And these days the “Hot Lesson” that sports has to offer business is the power of measurement and data - driven decision making.

Some of this is obviously not new. Sports like running, swimming, and lifting has always been fundamentally defined and accomplished via tracking data - by how fast we go, how much weight we lift - and then from these data points developing specific training and improvement plans.

What is new is how data has come to permeate and dominate the world of team sports - baseball, basketball, soccer, et al. - and how now the most successful teams are managed not by pep talks and gut but by and through data and metrics.

Some examples:

FIFA. Germany's 2014 National Soccer Team found that one of the highest correlated data points with wins and losses was how much the players on the field ran and moved per minute of game time.

So they placed chips in all of the player’s shoes to measure and maximize this number. The German Team averaged so much more movement than any of their World Cup competitors that it ended up being equivalent to one half an extra player on the field. And to the country’s fourth World Cup.

The NBA. In professional basketball, the explosion of readily available digital video has allowed for detailed tracking of how every player in the league fares against every other player, on a play-by-play "Plus/Minus" basis.

Teams like the San Antonio Spurs that most effectively harvest and use this data are able to both identify under-valued players (critical in a Salary Cap league) and empower their coaching staffs with key insights as to the best game lineups and player substitution patterns.

Building on this long-term attention to detail and metrics, last year the Spurs became the winningest team in NBA history (to go along with their five league championships in 16 years).

Major League Baseball. Baseball, with its extended season and its fundamental “One-on-One Matchups” game structure has long been the most advanced team sport when it comes to metrics driving player values, roster composition, and in-game tactics and strategies.

While its most famous proponent - Billy Beane - is rightly lauded for making his Oakland A's team a consistent contender in spite of having a player’s salary budget sometimes only one quarter that of big market competitors like the Yankees and the Dodgers, in recent years “Sabermetrics” has leaped to a whole new level of intricacy and sophistication.

Key competitive innovations run from metrics like Fielding Shifts on a pitch-by-pitch basis, lineup changes based on time of day (and even time zone!), and the statistical value of "good outs."

Now, this is where some folks say "enough is enough" and that they long for baseball as it was played and managed in the good old days, by the Tommy Lasordas and Casey Stengels of the world.

Yes – a harkening back to a simple and more “human” time.

This is a noble, but naïve, sentiment.

Because being able to work with great people and on great teams and at great places, well all of that wonderful and simpler time stuff in this year 2015 of ours can only be had via leading and managing by data…

Because doing so gets us that one magical thing that in both sports and business makes everything else possible:


The Power of Advisors


A great best practice for all companies of ambition is to establish and hold regular meetings of a well-qualified and experienced Board of Strategic Advisors.

Let’s set aside for now some of the mechanisms of setting up a quality board (of which more can be read about here) and instead focus on some of the “Tough Love” feedback a board can offer executives on what they are doing right…

…and far more importantly what they are doing wrong and how to fix it.

1. That Often It is Better to Receive than to Give:  While advisory board members, unlike a formal board, do not have liability nor fiduciary responsibility, their time and energy requirements to participate are significant.

And for most smaller companies, the financial incentives it can offer advisory board members are relatively little compared to the value of a board members’ time.  

A good if imperfect analogy is that for many senior executives their involvement with a smaller company advisory board is almost a philanthropic endeavor - where they give of themselves without expectation of direct reward - financial or otherwise.  

Correspondingly, the owners and managers of the small company must approach the sage advice and good energy offered by their advisory board fully in “receiving” mode.

For businesspeople of the mindset of always trading value for value and reciprocal obligation, this is hard. But only by clearing this space can the board’s counsel be best received.

And somewhat counter-intuitively, often only by management fully accepting the “gifts” of its advisors will the board member’s experience be richest.

2. Begin with the End in Mind: For companies beyond the startup phase, its operating executives are naturally pulled to the shorter-term challenges and realities - this quarter’s revenue and profits, this month’s sales, the challenges and angst of a difficult employee decision, etc.

In contrast, an advisory board discussion, by both its nature and by the kinds of folks attracted to serve on it, naturally pulls to the long view, to the big questions that all businesses should be regularly asking themselves but rarely do.

Or, as they say, the “Why” and the “Which.”  

The Why questions are hopefully embodied in the Company’s mission and its values, and need the regular attention of strategic planning sessions like advisory board meetings to keep them from just existing in “hot air.”

The “Which” questions are in many ways the harder ones that an advisory board dynamic can help address.  

You see, ambitious entrepreneurs and executives are naturally drawn to expanding their sense of their market opportunity, and correspondingly their list of product and service offerings.

This can lead to a diffusion of focus, of trying to be all things to all people.  

A thoughtful advisory board will challenge management to more clearly define where they are aiming to be 1 year, 3 years hence and beyond, and from this vision where resources and attention should be focused today.

3. Speak Little, Listen Much: Managers and owners of emerging companies are often also the lead salespeople, the lead “evangelists” for their companies.

As a result, their default mode is to always be selling, always be pied-pipering their incredibly bright futures.  

But there is often more insight to be gained from Negative Thinking, from grappling with all the things that can go wrong and are difficult / well-nigh impossible to overcome.

Even if, especially if, so doing is buzz-killing and / or depressing.

Why?  Because it is often only in this low energy state that a certain kind of reflective creativity can flourish and completely new approaches to solving vexing problems can be discovered.

4. Brevity is Next to Godliness: Strategic planning sessions in a modern business context should be tightly scheduled to last not more than 2 hours.  After this length of time, diminishing returns starts setting in fast.  

A tight frame also requires all participants to come to the meeting prepared.  And, in turn, that the meeting organizers select the right meeting homework and then plan and moderate the agenda with the proper balance of structure and free-flowing dialogue.

Doing all of the above requires work – a good guide is that for every hour of strategic meeting time there should be 5 hours of planning time by the meeting organizer and at least 2 hours of preparation time by each participant.

Conclusion: Given that the only way to increase the value of a business is to either a) increase its bottom line financials and/or b) to improve its strategic positioning and growth probability, creative planning sessions like advisory board meetings should be a FIRST priority of any responsible manager.

They are classic Eisenhowerian, “Non-Urgent and Extremely Important” activities.  

Ignore them at your peril, and benefit from them in ways well beyond predictable expectation.

Getting the Right Things Done


Dave Allen, author of the great productivity best seller "Getting Things Done," has developed an almost cult-like following for his ideas, structures, and best practices around to-do list management, prioritization, and metrics and schematics that define what an effective and productive day should be.

Without question, there are great benefits to his methods, and I especially like his best practice of always ending a meeting, conversation, or work on an open-ended project with the simple question of "What is the Next Action?"

This discipline alone can greatly improve daily and meeting productivity, and perhaps more importantly reduce that sometimes suffocating sense of anxiety common to knowledge and entrepreneurial work that there is always way more that must be done than there are hours in the day.

But a focus on simple to do list management is far from sufficient.

You see, the dirty little secret that all of the self-help masters, all of the highly paid management consultants fail to tell you is that in our incredibly fast-moving, changing, competition from everywhere modern economy it is virtually impossible to design a plan or strategy that is in any way close to being assured of success.

The reason why is simple. Plans and strategies, by their nature, are speculative and assumptive.

They require the planner to survey the current market and competitive landscape along with assessing the current strengths and assets of their enterprise.

And then, from those assessments, forecast how a course of specific decisions or investments will be received by the market, by current or perspective customers, and responded to by the competition.

When stated this way, it becomes obvious that there is a very high likelihood that a plan as designed will not work.

It really doesn't matter if that plan is to introduce a new product or service offering, a new marketing or advertising campaign, a website re-launch, or an internal re-organization.

So, does this mean that planning is worthless? Of course not! 

But it does point to a pair of strategic best practices:

1.    Before commencing any planning process, first reflect deeply and document extensively what is working now.

These could be the practices and habits of a top sales person, a pay-per-click advertising campaign with positive ROI, an invoice collections best practice, a particularly profitable partner or affiliate.

Now to do more of these things that work, productivity and accountability best practices as outlined by the Dave Allens of the world are incredibly valuable and should be incorporated aggressively into the daily work habits and disciplines of the modern professional.

2.    But for everything else that falls outside of this realm, the right mindset is one of testing and exploration, of brainstorming, of speculation and possibility. Of open-ended questions.

AND it should be noted extremely well that it is usually in this mode that the big outlier, “black swan” ideas and strategies and relationships are usually discovered.

As for the question as to how much of #1, or playing more of the existing game better, we should do, versus #2, playing a new game…

…well that is a decision that the best managers, the best consultants and the most renowned self-help masters are paid a lot of money to answer.

My answer is - no surprise here if you've ever met me at a party - is to have my cake and eat it too!

Schedule time for to-dos and accountabilities to accomplish more of the stuff that you know works and leave plenty of open space to step out of the safe harbor and into the big sea and dream!

And when you balance doing and dreaming like this - and sprinkle in a little luck, you will very soon find yourself every day getting more of the Right Things Done.

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