Really not a football post

Manchester United vs Chelsea 1-1 (3-0 after pa...

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And I don’t mean a goal post. It is just that sometimes we can use sport to illustrate a point about business.

So to a cliched quote “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.” attributed to W L Bateman. This sentence is used everywhere to entreat business owners to change their practices whether it is their purchasing, their marketing or their office practices or whatever. Of course, if things aren’t being done well and the business is struggling, it is best to turn over a new leaf and get help.

Sometimes, though, using tried and tested methods and having continuity is what brings success, not just now and again but year after year.

No, this is not a football post

Which brings me to football, the variety known better in America as soccer. I will let you in on a secret. Manchester United is not my favourite club. Nevertheless I have to admire their achievements year on year, and their pragmatism in accepting that they cannot win everything every year. Just the same they have a pretty good average.

United have won the Premier League again in 2011. They reached the European Champions’ League final. It is a great achievement (he says grudgingly but admiringly). How have they done it and how do they do it? By sticking with the same manager year on year (yes, Sir Alex Ferguson for nearly a quarter of a century), a manager who is the best at what he does and is single-minded, and doesn’t care what people think of him. Success brings money, and whatever the financial antics of the owners, the football business is self-perpetuating in its success.

United have won the Premier League four out of the last five times. They won the Champions League in 2008 at Chelsea’s expense.

Really, it’s not about football

Oh yes, on the other hand, there is Chelsea. The club has loads of money at its disposal, or rather, the owner does. Chelsea have won the Premier League Title three times in the last six years which is also a great achievement. I have to declare an interest here. I have supported Chelsea since I was a lad, seen them relegated to the old Second Division twice, and then promoted back to the first. I followed them from one end of the country to the other.

Chelsea nearly went out of business in the eighties. They were saved by an astute character called Ken Bates, whose hobby is rescuing football clubs. He made Chelsea a top-rank successful club by most standards, had the vision to employ managers from overseas because they were the best for the job, and Chelsea won the FA Cup and played in Europe.

Mr Bates sold out to a very rich man whose apparent ambition is to own a football club that wins the Champions’ League. Chelsea have actually been a bit unlucky not to have reached the final on one occasion and not to win in the final on another, but that’s another story.

The owner is single-minded on winning the Champions’ League. He has sacked several managers because they didn’t quite make it after two or three years. He is so impatient. This season he sacked the manager’s well-respected assistant, Ray Wilkins, back in November. The club was top of the Premier League at the time.

The team stuttered for six or seven weeks and lost their place at the top. From January, though they had a great league record. I think if they hadn’t sacked Wilkins they would have won the league. The other top clubs including even United have not been at their best this last season.

I am not taking anything away from United. They got the points and Chelsea ultimately didn’t. Carlo Ancelotti, a great and successful football manager was then sacked at the end of the season because Chelsea hadn’t won the Champions League.

So, it’s not about football

This is a difficult post to write for me. Yet United demonstrate along with Sir Alex that if you have a tried and tested formula and you keep doing the right thing in business, whether football business or anything else, you WILL succeed. United didn’t win the Champions League in 2011, beaten by a better side. However, you wouldn’t say that because now Apple has a larger market capitalization than Microsoft that Bill Gates is a failure, would you?

If it is not working, change. If it really does work, don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong. Sir Alex wouldn’t. What do you think?

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Chasing the numbers or taking a gamble?

Having been networking on-line for quite a long time – eight years – I have quite a significant contact network out there. It is not the biggest network because I do not add people just to bolster my scores. I still have an issue with Dunbar’s number which is the village in my head, so I cannot “know” everyone.

I interact with quite a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook and some other on-line platforms, and also talk to bloggers through comments on their blogs and sometimes on mine. That means I think that somewhere down the end of the hall there is a revolving door where some people come into my mental village and some leave, whether they or I are aware of it or not.

The Virtual High Street and Main Drag

I am not against having a large number of contacts on Twitter or LinkedIn. Being out there with one’s “open for business” A-board on the virtual pavement outside the virtual shop means someone might see it, drop in and buy. You just never know. It’s not networking in the conventional sense though, because we have no idea who is passing by even if we have a connection which means they do pass by our shop.

The problem for people just concentrating on having a large number of contacts is that it is very hard to make sure that the right people are passing. Some sign up to follow through automated Twitter search platforms and they may be lucky in getting business for all I know, but it seems pretty aimless for the most part. Still, each to their own.

Focus

What worries me is that lots of people concentrate on actively pursuing the numbers in a completely unfocussed way thus wasting their time. It can be an addiction akin to gaming or even gambling, thinking that the next batch of contacts will really pay off. The biggest danger in business is wasting time on things that don’t work.

Have you gone for big numbers? Has it worked? If so, well done and please share your experience. If it hasn’t worked, shouldn’t you be trying a more channeled and organized approach to your on-line strategy and your marketing in general?

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Hitting the spot and pulling the heartstrings

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We all need to give our clients and customers a compelling reason to buy from us. We have to be different from the rest and match exactly what our prospects think they need.

Match.com has a great advert which exactly expresses the need, and if I were in the market I would be at the head of the queue.

Why? Because:

  • If you are young and lonely, the ad is utterly romantic, every boy and girl’s dream of meeting the perfect partner.
  • If you are an oldie like me, it recalls what we once were. My crowd wanted to be like Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell. We went to music shops and messed around with acoustic guitars and bought sheet music of our favourite singers’ songs.

Emotion is what drove us and emotion is what drives sales.

This is the short UK version of the ad. I un-mute the TV when this one comes on. There are longer variations if you browse, but just enjoy…

Click for ad… Match.com

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If only I had…

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There are the chosen few who have never worked for anyone else, and then there are the rest of us who used to be employed but now run our own businesses.

When we were employed we did not have total control of our destiny. Perhaps we didn’t choose the right employer or we could have moved somewhere else and we didn’t, and later we wished we had.

You know the sort of thing?

  • If I had known when I started work that I should have began at an investment bank and then I would have been paid today’s equivalent of 250K per year even if I were still making the tea.
  • I should have made a fortune working for an insurance broker and would have known to get out at the right time.
  • I shouldn’t have worked for XYZ. They were dreadful employers and just used me.
  • I should have earned megabucks in the Far East when I had the chance.
  • I should have stayed with EFG because they had and still have the best pension scheme ever (but I left to preserve my own self-respect).

We might all have certain variations on those themes. All those situations depended either on how we were dealt with by others who had power over us, or would have been pure luck along the lines of “if we had known then what we know now”.

Luck is chance and we can’t do much about unforeseen incidents in our lives. However in being in business for ourselves, we make our own decisions. We shouldn’t be at the mercy of anyone as we might be if with a bad employer. Our future is in our hands. We need to make the right decisions of course, and we need courage sometimes. We will still come to forks in the road and must do our best to take the right one. If we make a mistake we can learn from it, and need not look over our shoulders at what might have been.

When I started work I would have been surprised to be told where I might be now, but as an independent person in business who enjoys his work, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Anyway, if I had started at the investment bank, I wouldn’t be talking to you now, though I might have been a fat cat taking the flak for the economic crisis.

So having regrets is pointless, and being in control of one’s own destiny in business is beyond value, isn’t it? And isn’t business fun?

 

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Come on, rabbit, don’t be shy!

Rabbit shape

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Quite often when I am taking my evening walk, I pass a man of about my age scurrying back from the rail station. No doubt he is a City worker. He does not meet my eye and scoots past like a frightened rabbit. Generally when I pass someone out walking, I say hello, especially if I quite often see the person. None of my attempts at greeting this guy have elicited any response, so I have given up.

The ant hill

To a degree I understand the man’s attitude. It is a sort of defence mechanism some adopt when they work in a big city, especially a capital city. There are just so many people. I know what it is like to find my way through an enormous number of people especially at a mainline rail station. One is reduced to ant status, almost climbing through and round the crowd to get where we want to.

This defence mechanism often extends to the workplace too, particularly if people are unhappy and just turn up, keep their heads down and work just because it pays the bills. I used to do that too. I stopped doing it because if you keep your head down people really do crawl all over you, and at the time it was a conscious decision. I realised I was not getting anywhere at the place I was working and that I was badly undervalued. I left and got a much better job with more responsibility, which was much more rewarding and which gained me a lot more pay.

The warren

Once we have our own business, we can’t be frightened rabbits. After all, rabbits are social animals really. We have to be seen and noticed. We have to network and build relationships in person and online. You know that already.

As an employee I DID make a conscious decision to go for better things.

When I set up my own business it was still pretty tough for a natural introvert like me. I had done a course on public speaking as an employee, mainly because I had to do a course and I had done all the others. It didn’t train me to present myself properly, because you only learn by doing it in practice. I have to thank BNI for that because it is where I cut my networking teeth. Getting business there was not all that successful because I could not get my ideal business category, but I benefited a great deal from the training.

To see me online you might not think I am a shy person, but by nature I am. We need to be ourselves when we network, but for many of us we still have to overcome our inhibitions and not hide away even when we would like to. I have got used to being “out there”, and that’s what we all have to do, but at the start it’s not easy, is it?

 

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Why the personal touch is important in business

 

One of the patients

Small businesses have a huge advantage. They know their customers. Large businesses don’t. Small businesses which become large businesses forget their customers.

I wrote a while back about our extreme disappointment at our treatment by a veterinary practice.  Quite apart from the excessive charges levied in the face of my wife’s and my distress, there is another underlying problem with the practice and with many other veterinary practices in the UK. They have been acquired by large chains.

What is the effect for the customer of dealing with a large chain of vets? Well, we rarely get to see the same vet twice. There is often no continuity in the case of an ongoing treatment. The usually junior vets we get to see are still learning their profession but are not used to building relationships with the animals’ owners even if we do have any continuity in their dealing with a case.

Young vets have to learn their business. Our previous family veterinary surgeon, before he sold out to the chain, always had a young assistant vet. Most of them lasted two or three years before they naturally moved on in their career progression. That meant that they had a relationship with the owners of the pets brought in. Of course we had known the senior vet for a long time, so felt we could talk to him more easily than to a business-like trainee of the current vogue who probably has developed little in the way of people skills.

Small business owners can beat the big chains simply by being there, by talking to the clients and customers on a regular basis, by perhaps visiting their premises or homes and even inviting them to celebrations and networking events. We can make them feel they belong, which of course they do.

Customers who feel they have a relationship with a business owner or with the staff are less likely to move on and are more likely to value the service they get. They are more likely to be happy to pay more for the personal touch. Small businesses can compete very well with their larger competitors because although sometimes the big boys and girls will pile high and sell cheap, there is nothing like being able to pick up the phone and talk to your supplier as a person you know.

How often with large companies must we press the phone keys for multiple options just to get through to an offer of more multiple options? Hours of our lives can be wasted hanging on the telephone.

It will be no surprise to you that we have moved our cats’ healthcare issues to another veterinary practice where we can make an appointment with any one of several veterinary surgeons we know and like, and whom we can see are really caring. One in particular has given us great advice on dealing with a problem without even prescribing a medicine. There was huge value in the advice and it was well worth paying for.

Against big business, we generally have the upper hand if we have the facilities to provide the same basic service as they do, and then add to it our personal touches and ourselves. Remember we have the advantage, and make the most of it.

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Old style professionals and social media – do they get it?

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I have written in my tax diary that most accountants don’t get Twitter or other social media. Of course some do and are brilliant at using multiple platforms. I think most that do make a start don’t stay engaged long enough.

Do you think traditional professionals such as accountants and solicitors / lawyers do get social media and do you think that social media activities suit them? Are there other businesses that may find social media uncomfortable? I’d like to know.

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Should we worry about our purchasing ethics?

 

Marigot Bay, St. Lucia (pronounced Saint Loo-sha)

A year or so back my wife and I were lucky enough to visit St. Lucia. It is a beautiful island, and if you get the chance to go there, I do recommend it.  It is a place where we from the developed world can enjoy great luxury in the sun, buy cheap goods in the market, and generally have a good time.

 

And yet…

Yes, and yet… And yet the one thought that struck us as soon as we got out of town was the extreme poverty. We had seen appalling poverty before in South Africa, but that didn’t make it any easier in St. Lucia. How can we Westerners imagine living in a wooden shack with no washing or toilet facilities, and perhaps relying on a spring or a stand pipe outside or some hundreds of yards away? How can we imagine having inadequate protection from the weather? It may seem like paradise to us, but when it rains in St. Lucia it really rains, and the winds during the storms are tremendous.

In some ways it took a while for the full reality of life there to sink in. We might have felt condescending in the first place to those in the street who would create an animal out of a palm leaf for one US dollar. Our Western sensitivities were upset along the country roads by men who had captive boa constrictors they wanted to show us for money. “How cruel” was our first reaction!

Bananas

Yet, how are these people to get by? We learned that J Sainsbury, the UK supermarket bought most of the year round banana crops from the plantations, which at least shows that someone cares. Fresh local bananas are delicious. St. Lucia bananas are sold under the Fair Trade scheme in the UK, and since our visit to St. Lucia, my wife and I have always bought Fair Trade bananas. If they are from the Windward Islands we hope sometimes they are from St. Lucia. Of course they are often more expensive than other bananas but we allow ourselves to think we are doing our bit. Are we really, though?

We have been moved to buy other Fair Trade products such as tea, but how much responsibility should we take in our shopping, and do we always know whether we are doing the right thing?

Business aspects

The same applies to business purchasing of course. There are some who boycott products from certain countries and I have done this in the past too, but someone somewhere may suffer from a boycott. Many workers in poor countries may be exploited dreadfully, but as Chris Brogan reminded me (see the comments) that may be the only job they can get to feed their families. It may be that someone has to do the job even if in much worse conditions than Chris’s thoroughly Western mayonnaise factory and unless we are really sure that boycotting or supposed ethical purchasing doesn’t hurt anyone, maybe we should avoid it.

That doesn’t get us off the hook of course. We need to press Governments and NGOs to encourage or persuade poorer nations to tackle exploitation. The main way will be through education and cracking down on criminals who may be involved in the effective slavery of men, women and tragically, children.

Where now?

My take is that Fair Trade is helpful, that we must think very carefully before boycotting products (probably mostly electronic and computer gear in business), that we should press Government and help charities working in the relevant areas.

My, what a thorny issue. What do you think?

In the market in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia

 

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Blogging originality and evolution of ideas

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A couple of my favorite bloggers have talked about the apparent decline in original thought. Danny Brown suggests that popularity can breed sameness in part because of pandering to the masses. Gini Dietrich talks about aggregation and automation which encourages laziness on the part of the bloggers or writers, and, I think, on the part of the readers as well.

Evolution of thought

It’s not all bad news though. More people read more stuff than when we relied on newspapers. We see the same ideas or the same advice being imparted. We can scan or gloss over this. What is exciting, though, is seeing people pick up and run with ideas, and develop them. There is a sort of osmosis where new thought filters through and blossoms. Of course we all have many of the same sources, such as Mashable, and I read many top bloggers though I cannot read everything without giving up work and sleep.

At the same time, many have different slants on the same subject. I think it interesting when I read a post one day and then someone blogs on a similar subject a day or a week later, perhaps having read the previous one. As long as original thinking takes place, I don’t think we always need to worry about the “sameness”. Ideas are there to be built on. “On the shoulders of Giants” and all that.

Plagiarism

That is not to say that it is OK for anyone to just copy an idea and spin someone else’s article as their own, or, even worse, just republish a post as though it were their own. That has happened to me and probably to you too. It is very annoying even if it is sometimes a rather back-handed compliment.

Being ourselves

I am not a top blogger, although of course I have ambitions. Don’t we all? However, I do believe that we can best develop by simply being ourselves. Pamela Wilson put it quite well writing for Copyblogger a while back. Marcus Sheridan, The Sales Lion demonstrates how being ourselves and saying what we believe in a business blog makes for originality and a unique brand. He also shows that we can write about anything we like within reason, which helps our individual personalities to come out.

Yes, in writing this I have dipped into other people’s material. I am being myself, of course. Even if you think I lack originality in thought, maybe I have found you a great blogger you had missed. But perhaps you are already way ahead of the game.

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Blowing ourselves Sky High in our business lives

Movie poster for 1920 film.

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A week or so back my wife and I were watching the Disney film Sky High with the nine-year old granddaughter. I rather enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun, and in a way it struck me it was an allegory and rang many bells for me.

The story is about a school for the children of superheroes. When the children first go to the school they are chosen on their own ability as potential superheroes and if they do not match up they are put in the side-kick class or stream. Maybe that is how poor Robin learned to be such an idiot.

In the movie, the sidekick children pretty much end up saving the day when an evil Arch Villain threatens to destroy the school and the superhero parents. When they are triumphant the sidekick kids find they have developed superhero powers after all and no doubt they will be a success in the evil world out there.

Sidekick

So at an early age there is a danger that we will all be classified according to our assumed abilities without a great deal of testing. I was certainly classified as a sidekick in my early days in secondary education even though that I had to be quite bright to get into the school in the first place.

Heroes

Very rough contemporaries of mine who became “superheroes” soon after leaving education were a famous disc jockey cum TV presenter, a popular comedian and comedy actor and an author of an extremely well-known series of comic science fiction novels. If you really press me I might put names to these people but I am not a name-dropper (well, OK, I might be). There was also a well-known politician but I am not sure if he is a superhero or an arch-villain. I guess it would depend on your politics.

Comparisons and success

It is easy for all of us to try to compare ourselves to contemporaries as we get older. Of course many have been more successful than I have in their calling or business. Perhaps others less so. However by hard work and dogged determination we can get there and earn our superhero’s cloak (maybe we don’t want those tight pants).

Success is not measured by fame and nor is it measured purely by money, but what we can achieve, and nearly always by how happy we are and how happy we are able to help other people to be.

For most success is not instant. Usually it involves a hard slog, and often success is in enjoying the game; what we do. Our super powers will come and while we may not be as famous as Wonder Woman or Superman, sheer application will get us there.

What do you think?

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