Category Archives: Growing a Business

Adam Osborne on Product Release Brinkmanship

Ah yes, software product release. When do you let that product go? When is it good enough? What if there are more problems? This is publishing at its best.

The joy of easy updates

I will say that what we do with software today is sheer joy compared to the stress of releasing a product in the middle 1990s. Back then we had to finish the software, test it, test it again, and then duplicate physical disks and assemble packages and send them out in pallets to the stores. Some undiscovered mistake could be a disaster. It could literally kill companies. The disks were out there, thousands of them.

Today, in contrast, we can change the masters of downloadable software whenever we want. We can post updates on the web. New versions happen as soon as we add features. We update LivePlan caref when we packaged them up and duplicated disks and sent them out to the world with the assumption that we wouldn’t discover problems soon after. Those disks had a life of their own. Nowadays we can update a web app constantly, let people download the software, change the latest version overnight.

Adequate is good enough? Maybe.

What I do want to write about is the late Adam Osborne, founder of Osborne Computers, writer, columnist, and inspiration to a generation of computer writers turned entrepreneurs.

I had the privilege of dealing with Adam Osborne a few times during the early Silicon Valley days. Two of his sayings come to mind:

  1. “Adequate is good enough,” he said, more than once. He was talking about product development and technology business. “Ship it.”
  2. He also espoused what he liked to call the Adam Osborne Trade Show Theory of Productivity, which was, in detail: “80% of the GDP is finished the night before the trade show opens.”

I have to admit, looking back, that I’m glad now that we have a different system.

What? Me do a Business Plan? But I’m Not a Start-up!

Are you a business owner? Do you have a business plan? Is your answer to that question: “Business plan? but I’m not a start-up. Why would I want a business plan?” business management

My answer is that you do want business planning. You want business planning as a way to set strategic focus, priorities, effective tactics, measurement, and task assignments. Make those clear and record them so you can revisit monthly. Then track progress and performance as you do a monthly review. Add in plan vs. actual accounting to compare projected sales and spending and use that process to kep a close eye on cash flow. Anticipate problems. Accommodate rapid change. Give yourself a process to optimize your management.

Maybe you don’t want a traditional business plan

The disconnect is the problem of what is a business plan. I agree that you don’t want a business plan if you think of that as a formal traditional business plan document. The traditional static document, that you do once and then forget, is not useful to real businesses.

The shame, though, is what gets lost in the shuffle. The real business planning process is such a great tool for growing a business, but so many people dismiss it as a one-time plan used only to start a company or raise financing. That myth of the business plan for start-ups only gets in the way far too often. If you own or run a company, you probably want to grow it.  And if you want to grow a company, then you want to plan that growth. And the planning is only the beginning; you want to use the full planning process to manage growth.

The real benefits of business planning

Think for just a minute about how many different reasons there are for an existing company to plan (and manage) it’s growth. There’s the need first of all to control your company’s destiny, to set long-term vision and objectives and calculate steps to take to achieve vision. Without planning the company is reacting to events, following reality as it emerges. With planning, there’s the chance to pro actively lead the company towards its future.

For an existing company that wants to grow, planning process is essential. Everybody wants to control their own destiny.  The planning process is the best way to review and refresh the market and marketing, to prioritize and channel growth into the optimal areas, to allocate resources, to set priorities and manage tasks. Bring a team of managers together and develop strategy that the team can implement. Work on dealing with reality, the possible instead of just the desirable, and make strategic choices. Then follow up with regular plan review that becomes, in the end, management.

This normally starts with a plan.  The plan, however, is just the beginning.  It takes the full cycle to make a plan into a planning process.

Restaurants, Bootstrapping, Good Stories, and Divine Intervention

This is a great look at one example of a successful restaurant business. Jonathan Fields calls it “bootstrapping with a bit of divine intervention.” That story is about four minutes in. The whole interview is interesting, and a good background look for anybody curious about the restaurant business, particularly one successful restaurant business, not stylized for cable TV.

If for any reason you don’t see the video, click here to get to the original on YouTube.

This is a really good interview, with a lot of good stories, about real life in the restaurant business.

And while I’m on the subject, this is part of a series Jonathan is doing called the “Good Life Project.” It’s a great collection. You can find that here on YouTube, on Jonathan’s Career Renegade channel.

Beware of One-Size-Fits-All Business Advice

Last Tuesday I had the privilege of taking 10 half-hour appointments with student entrepreneurs developing business plans. The idea was listening, talking, suggesting, and maybe helping with a thought or two. What a kick that is. No wonder I love what I do for a living.

I started each of these sessions with a warning about one-size-fits-all business advice:

would-be mentors and advice givers contradict each other all the time.  Half the time the advice you get today is directly opposite the advice you got last week. And last week’s contradicted what you were told the month before.

Everybody who’s been down a path to entrepreneurship thinks theirs was the right path to take. And everybody else should do it exactly like they did. Get angel investment, or don’t. Have passion, or a big market. Build a team, or lever up. Grow quickly in several markets at once, or focus on a beachhead. Do it like I did. That’s what we all say.

But you have to have the strength to do it your way, not my way. Listen to me, absorb, digest, take some of what I said into your plan, or not. But it’s still your plan. And your business.

Aside: My Tuesday last week was at the University of Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which is one of the best such programs around. The Gigot Center makes me proud to be a Notre Dame grad (bias alert!), even though my time there was studying literature, not business. What they’re doing at the Gigot Center is all about good business sense combined with a uniquely Notre Dame vision. It begins with fundamentally sound business, but opens up to social business and family business as well.

(Image credit: Jen Tik, Flickr CC)

Nice People Can be Bad Bosses. Way Too Often.

I’m troubled. The problem, in a nutshell, is that saying jerks and idiots are bad bosses is a bit too easy. It implies that not being a jerk or worse makes you a good boss. And that’s not always true. Nice people can be bad bosses.

I like Bob Sutton’s work a lot. He blogs at Bob Sutton Work Matters, he teaches at Stanford, and his books are good and good for you. I’ve quoted him often on this blog. His latest book, Good Boss Bad Boss, is brilliant. Every boss should read it.

Still, there’s this problem: By focusing so much attention on what not to do, and who not to be, we tend to undervalue the hard side of being in charge.  Being a good boss also means following up on unmet expectations and disappointing performance with leadership, advice, teaching, and demanding better.

I think I did this wrong myself. I think I let being a supposed nice guy interfere with my managing a company. You can’t be liked by all and also optimize performance. Sure, some people work best when left alone and encouraged, but – hard, ugly truth – others lose interest and grow entitled. Good bosses deliver both positive and negative feedback. Good bosses make the company better.  Whether they’re liked or not.

This is not Bob Sutton’s fault, not the fault of his work. But he tells great stories of jerks and idiots, and stories are powerful, so stories gather. So we unconsciously think being a boss is about being nice. We forget the hard part.

Don’t Underestimate Beachhead Strategy

I like beachhead strategies. The term comes from military strategy, meaning that as you invade enemy territory, you need to focus your strength and concentrate on winning a small border area (the beachhead) that becomes the stronghold from which you’ll advance into the rest of the territory.

imageThat’s what the allies did, successfully, in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. That military success was planned and led by Dwight D. Eisenhower, author of my favorite business planning quote (“The plan is useless, but planning is essential.”) It’s what you see in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. It’s also something I learned mostly by playing war strategy games (although not specifically the one shown here; that’s just a good illustration).

And it’s good business. In business, particularly startups, the beachhead strategy is about focusing your resources on one key area, usually a smaller market segment or product category, and winning that market first, even dominating that market, before moving into larger markets.

Beachhead strategies are often critical for bootstrapping new businesses. And franchisor businesses should think of the beachhead strategy as making sure the initial locations are strong and successful and good models for future locations.

Sadly, people don’t always communicate beachhead strategies well. As an angel investor, and judge of business plan contests, I often see what should be beachhead strategies looking instead like they are focusing too narrowly and missing the larger markets that the beachhead will lead to.

It’s ironic. In business pitches, for startups, the beachhead strategies tend to generate criticism from judges, experts, and other assorted experts for being too narrow, too focused. They want the big picture. But, on the other hand, the big picture, do-everything strategies will often be criticized for being unrealistically ambitious, and unrealistic.

The answer to this seeming paradox is: If you are doing a beachhead strategy, make sure that you include the follow-up idea of broadening your approach later on, after establishing yourself in that first core market.

(Image credit: hoping the game publishers don’t mind seeing their cover shot here; I got it from images.google.com)

— Late addition

My friend John Reddish added one of the comments, mentioning the pictures of Normandy he sent along to add to this post. Here they are belong. Image credit, John Reddish:


The 6 Most Expensive Words in Business

I saw this on Twitter yesterday, posted by Meghan Biro:

Remember that the six most expensive words in business are: “We’ve always done it that way.”–Catherine DeVrye

She makes a good point. In my 30+ years in business I’ve seen way too much of “we’ve always done it that way” and I’d like to think (maybe I’m kidding myself) I’ve hated that phrase since the very first time (in 1971) that I encountered it. In accounting and bookkeeping, marketing, product development, it’s widespread. That’s no reason to do anything.

And there’s also an important corollary: just because something didn’t work three years ago is no reason to not try it again.  

Always is almost always a suspect word. Things change.

Relationship Cluelessness Celebration Day

What's wrong with this picture? Or maybe I should ask how many different things are wrong with it?

I read about Spouse 2.0 day in the New York Times. No, it's not a joke. The Times says:

To celebrate, founders are asked to buy their significant others a gift, then post to their blogs or Twitter streams about it, using the “Spouse 2.0″ tag. The stories will be collected on the project’s Website.

And it gets even better … the piece quotes one of the founders saying:

… leaving the blackberry outside the bedroom is an option on Spouse 2.0 Day.

Is it just me, or is this hilarious? Show her you really love her by putting it into a 140-character text on Twitter. So does a blog post mean more love than a tweet on Twitter? And don't forget to tag your post with the Spouse 2.0 tag. And maybe even — just an option — turn off the BlackBerry. What a great idea!

And, of course, in this imaginary world of startup geeks, all spouses are wives (look at the font and color), and the wives run the "other" startup, which is presumably the real world, like home and children. No stereotypes here, right? No women running startups, nor husbands running homes and children of course, and no working couples sharing the work and the children. It boggles the mind.

And speaking of stereotypes, where does it say that all Web 2.0 startup people are clueless about everything else? I didn't get that email. It was probably spam.

I knew an emergency room doctor who told me he once treated a man injured on Valentine's Day by having been bashed over the head by his wife with the vacuum cleaner he'd given her as a present. And I once heard a supposed parenting expert advise parents to turn the television sound lower during family dinner. What those two anecdotes have in common with Spouse 2.0 day is called CDD: clue deficit disorder.

If you're tempted even for a split second to take Spouse 2.0 day seriously, then you're suffering from CDD. Wake up.

About Marketing Yourself

Marketing yourself requires an abandon that’s hard to get right. Have you ever read the one about "sing like nobody’s listening" or "dance like nobody is watching?" Do you get my point? When I lived in Mexico City, an ex-brother-in-law taught me that the secret to getting the Mexican grito — that’s that whooping shout that goes with certain Mexican songs — right was a total lack of self consciousness. That’s true for marketing yourself.

Oh, he also recommended a good dose of tequila too, but that’s just for that grito analogy, not for marketing yourself.